Friday, April 20, 2007

How Did Jesus Get Himself Crucified?

How did Jesus get himself crucified?

I pose this question, aware that many might find it odd if not offensive. After all, conventional church talk has it that Jesus was an innocent victim, executed by cruel people in a miscarriage of justice. In this view, one wonders, "Why did people kill Jesus?"

To ask how Jesus got himself killed is to turn the question around entirely. I am assuming that Jesus was not "innocent" in the sense that his execution makes no sense. On the contrary, Jesus performed actions and uttered pronouncements that made his execution entirely predictable. Jesus died because of the things he did and said. He was executed by the authorities of his day for acts he actually committed.

One could dodge the question altogether by saying Jesus died due to divine necessity. In this view God planned Jesus' crucifixion all along as a means of bringing salvation to humankind. I do not subscribe to that view, as I think it makes for horrid theology, but I won't argue that case here. Instead, I'll focus on something else. To say that God caused Jesus' death is to make a theological claim -- not an historical one. Historically, the question remains, what did Jesus do that provoked people to kill him?

When we read the Gospels carefully, we see that they portray Jesus' death in two ways. The more familiar way involves the corruption of the temple authorities and of Pontius Pilate. Jesus is arrested out of jealousy and fear, for the crowds are responding positively to his ministry. The authorities trump up false charges, and present Jesus before Pilate. Pilate smells something fishy, so he avoids passing judgment on Jesus. However, the temple authorities rouse the crowds, pressuring Pilate into the fatal verdict. This view represents a composite of the Gospel narratives, which vary in some particulars. Nevertheless, it represents one side of the Gospel portraits.

But there's another side, one just as true to how the Gospels portray Jesus. If one takes the stories seriously, they describe several provocative acts on Jesus' part that would have grabbed the authorities' attention and led to his death. I am not suggesting that the Gospels relate a straightforward and historically accurate chronicle of Jesus' last days. But their overall picture sketches a plausible scenario.
  • Context: Jesus arrives in Jerusalem during Passover week, when the city is exceedingly overcrowded, political tensions are particularly high, and the Roman authorities are on "Level Orange" alert.
  • Procession: What we call Jesus' "triumphal entry" amounts to a royal procession into the city. The crowd's acclamation interprets this action as a messianic moment. Outside observers would regard it as dangerous at best, openly seditious at worst.
  • Temple Action: The Gospels likely exaggerate Jesus' rampage through the temple. Nevertheless, more and more interpreters recognize this action as a condemnation of the temple and the authorities who run it. An action like this during Passover time is extremely dangerous.
  • Anti-Temple Speech. Jesus delivers several speeches against the temple during his last week. Many are familiar with the apocalyptic discourse in Mark 13 (and parallels). But also the cursing of the fig tree, the saying about prayer to cast a mountain into the sea, and the story of the widow's mite all function as condemnations of the temple authorities, and probably the temple itself.
  • Rejection of Tribute to Rome. Pressed by his enemies as to whether it is legal to pay tribute to Caesar, Jesus' reply indicates that when one calculates what "belongs to God," nothing is left over for Caesar.
Both sides, the innocent victim and the condemned troublemaker, carry truth. Jesus does not seem to be plotting a military revolt against either the temple or the empire. In that sense his crucifixion may be traced to the violent suppression of dissent on the part of the local and Roman authorities. At the same time, those authorities had every reason to regard Jesus as a threat to public order. In that sense, in arresting and then executing Jesus, they were simply doing their job.

I develop these ideas more fully in the Sinners volume. At the same time, all of the ideas presented here have been articulated in some form or another by multiple scholars.

What's at stake in asking how Jesus got himself crucified? Beyond the matters of biblical interpretation, historical reconstruction, and dogmatic theology, there lies the realm of discipleship. If being "innocent" means never confronting authority, never violating the law in performing acts of compassion and justice, never causing trouble for others, then maybe followers of Jesus should rank "faithfulness" above "innocence."