Sunday, April 26, 2009

Why Did the Jews Want Jesus Killed?

Recently, a Hindu friend of mine who is interested in Christianity saw the movie the Passion of the Christ. She asked a very excellent question. Why did the Jews want to kill Jesus?

Of the four Gospels, only the Gospel of John specifically says that the Jews were the ones who wanted to kill Christ. I don't know if this is a problem in translation from the original Aramaic, or if John carelessly identified the ruling judicial body of Jerusalem, as "the Jews". This identification in the Gospel of John has caused unimaginable misery among the Jewish people trying to live with their Christian neighbors for the last 2000 years.

Let's remember first and foremost that Christ himself was a Jew. Let us also remember that just a week before the crucifixion, Christ was received into Jerusalem by crowds of people lining the streets waving palm branches and shouting hosannas and calling him the Christ. The movie the Passion of The Christ alluded to this as Pilate asked if this is the same man that the crowds that turned out for the week before.

The Gospels tell us that Christ was an intensely popular figure throughout Judea and Galilee. We're told in the story of the sermon on the Mount that he preached to 5000 men that day. In common Jewish literary form, women and children are not counted in population estimates. A conservative estimate of those who heard the sermon on the Mount could easily be 7500 people, possibly as high as 12,000 people. This was not a unique event. Jesus regularly drew crowds whenever he approached a village.

The Jews under Roman occupied Palestine were not the same people that we usually think of when we read the Old Testament. The Jewish nation throughout much of the Old Testament consisted of the 12 tribes of Israel. However, shortly before the Babylonian exile, Assyrians had invaded Israel from the North and carried off 10 of the 12 tribes into bondage. These tribes were never heard from again. The tribes of Judah and Benjamin were defeated by the Babylonians and carried off to exile for approximately 50 years. When the Persians defeated the Babylonians, Cyrus the Great granted the Jews permission to return to Israel and as a part of reparations offered to rebuild the Temple. The original Temple had been intended to be the resting place of the ark of the covenant, which contained the tablets of the 10 Commandments, written by God and given to Moses. The ark disappeared from history when the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem and destroyed the city. The new Temple, even though it was more majestic than the old temple, was largely symbolic since it didn't contain the ark.

The temple was an incredible source of wealth for Jerusalem. Observant Jews for hundreds of miles around frequently made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem during the holy days of Passover in spring. They would make offerings
of money and sacrificial animals at the Temple. Temple merchants capitalized on this by providing animals to be sacrificed for sale during the pilgrimage weeks. The primary beneficiaries of all of this were the Temple priests, and the aristocratic classes of Pharisees and Sadducees. They directly received monetary contributions that were given to the Temple and indirectly received remuneration from the numerous Temple merchants, who operated with the permission of the priests. The priests became the ultimate authority on judicial dealings in the Jewish community. The priesthood was a hereditary position. This made the priests arbiters of all things legal, the spokesmen of God himself, with no responsibilities to the people or answerability to society. They became wealthy due to the sacrifices of those who were productive in society. Naturally, this made them an aristocratic class, set apart from day-to-day Jewish society. Senior priests formed the inner circle of the Jewish Sanhedrin, led by a high priest whose office rotated among the senior priests. The full Sanhedrin consisted of 71 members from wealthy and influential families in Jewish society. As is the case of any ruling body which does not answer to the people, the primary use of the Sanhedrin's authority was to ensure that the Sanhedrin stayed in authority.

Such authority was not sanctioned or approved of by God. The serious scholar of the early New Testament knows that God disdained the idea of a temporal government for the Jews from the start. It's instructive to read the commentary that God gave to Samuel, when the people told Samuel that they wanted a king. God explicitly warned about the abuses that a king would lay on the people.

Then Jesus arrived on the scene. His 12 close disciples were themselves commissioned with 71 followers in a hierarchy that deliberately mimicked the Jewish Sanhedrin. The popularity of Jesus’ ministry gave him an undeniable authority that had nothing to do with heredity, position or power. Jesus, in effect, set up a shadow government that was intended in one way to mock the Sanhedrin, but also to challenge it. The Sanhedrin had used its religious authority for secular gain. Jesus demonstrated by example how such a body should be used to serve the people, not to enslave the people. The people responded with wild adulation. This did not go unnoticed by the priests.

The priests had sought to discredit Jesus every chance they had. They devised riddles or logical traps from which no answer would be appropriate. Jesus adroitly avoided these traps. They sought to drive a wedge between Jesus and his followers by claiming that he did not follow their strict interpretation of Jewish law. He made them look foolish by teaching them that the spirit of the law that came from God was logical. He taught them that the law should be applied with common sense; that only a fool would apply the law without regard to consequences.

In Roman occupied Palestine, news traveled by word of mouth at the speed of a walking man. There were no experts to compile statistics and take polls and analyze trends. A person's perception was shaped by those with whom he spoke. The Temple priests knew that Jesus had a following, but they were sufficiently disconnected with the population that they didn't appreciate how large that following was. On the first day of the week before Passover, Jesus entered Jerusalem to be greeted by huge crowds in the streets exuberantly celebrating his presence. This was a wake-up call for the priests. They suddenly realized that Jesus wasn't just an annoying cult leader, but the wildly popular leader of what was shaping up to be a massive political movement.

This threatened the priests in two ways. A direct challenge was placed to their religious authority, the authority that they derived from their position in the Temple. Indirectly, but perhaps more serious, a popular figure like Jesus could be viewed by the people as the new David, the new leader to lead Israel to another golden age. One must remember that Palestine was governed as a protectorate of the Roman Empire. At this time, such a popular movement would quickly seek to throw off what most Jews believed to be their Roman oppressors. Rome had a long history of putting down such rebellion with brutal, even genocidal force. The high priests had a better appreciation of the power of Rome than most. From their point of view if they joined Jesus, Rome would crush Israel and their way of life would be ended. If they opposed Jesus, his numerous followers threatened to overthrow them and replace them with Jesus' shadow government. Again their way of life would be ended.

It's very important to remember that the priests were frightened of Jesus and the power he wielded because of his popularity with the crowds. The day Jesus was crucified, Jerusalem was a ticking time bomb. The city was filled to overflowing with pilgrims there for the Passover. The Romans had recently made the mistake of placing a Roman banner bearing a head of Caesar in public display. Images such as this are very offensive to Jewish people. A group of Galileans had torn down the banner and incited a riot. The Romans had met this with their usual brutal efficiency and crucified the Galileans. Passions were running high in the crowded city because of this. Both the priests and the Romans were terrified of an uprising.

The Temple guards apprehended Jesus after midnight in the Garden of Gethsemane. He was brought to the house of the high priest placed on trial before the Sanhedrin. Several Jewish laws were broken in the process. The full Sanhedrin was not present. Jewish law required a quorum of the Sanhedrin to be present to try a capital case. The case was tried in the dark hours of the night. Jewish law required that cases be tried in daylight. Witnesses were required to convict in a capital case. The witnesses presented were contradictory and dismissed by the Council. Jesus was convicted and sentenced to death on the same night. Under Jewish law a sentence of death could only be handed down after one day and one night had passed since the conviction. The problem that the priests faced was that they had to carry out the sentence before Jesus’ followers could be rallied to his defense.

When questioned directly as to whether he was the Messiah, Jesus responded "I am". This is a direct allusion to the name God had given Moses on Mount Sinai. The priests convicted Jesus of blasphemy on the basis of this testimony. The penalty for blasphemy is death by stoning. Instead of performing the execution themselves, the priests sent Jesus to the Roman procurator, Pontius Pilate. They claimed that they could not put Jesus to death. This is categorically false. Jews routinely stoned people to death and the Romans took no notice. This was a political maneuver, because they knew that if they ordered Jesus to be stoned that their blood would run in the streets from Jesus’ followers.

Pontius Pilate was a political animal, who knew the lay of the political landscape in Judea. On one hand, he knew that condemning Jesus to death could easily spark a riot among Jesus’ followers and Roman blood would run in the streets. On the other hand, he knew well the power of the priests and knew that they could incite a riot themselves. If he didn't do what they wanted again Roman blood could easily run the streets. Caesar had grown weary of the volatile situation in Judea and had warned Pontius Pilate to keep the peace or suffer the consequences.

Pilate did everything he could to avoid putting Jesus to death. He first tried to avoid it by saying wasn't his problem. Jesus was from Galilee so he sent him to Herod, who was the King of Galilee under Roman jurisdiction. Herod, unlike his father Herod the Great, had no great love for the Romans. He sensed the dilemma that Pontius Pilate was in regarding Jesus, and enjoyed a certain amount of satisfaction from Pilate’s discomfort. He chose not to give Pilate an out and returned Jesus.

Under Jewish law a prisoner could not be tortured to death. Pilate knew this and ordered Jesus to be scourged, and hoped that this would preempt the high priests’ call for execution. By this time Pontius Pilate, and the high priests were playing a high-stakes game of chicken. The priests called Pilate’s bluff and raised the stakes. They brought Roman politics into it by saying that Jesus had fashioned himself as a king, and therefore was a threat to Caesar. This made Pilate's choice clear. He would either do what the high priests wanted him to do or be declared an enemy of Rome. Pilate symbolically washed his hands of the blood of Jesus, demonstrating that he did not want Jesus to die, and then ordered his execution.

It seems incredible to us today that crowds formed to mock Jesus as he carried his cross to Golgotha. Once again we have to remember to judge by the times and not by the standards that we’re used to in the 21st century. Although Jesus had a large following, by the numbers of people in Jerusalem that day relatively few had actually seen him up close in person. Add to this that after the beatings and the whippings, Jesus was probably hardly recognizable as the same person. It was quite common for crowds to mock prisoners on their way to execution. Remember that Jesus wasn't the only person being executed that day, two other people were crucified with him. Some say they were revolutionaries, others say they were thieves. The same mob mentality that caused people to turn out and celebrate Jesus entry into Jerusalem a week before brought people to mock the prisoners on their way to execution. In both cases, many people probably didn't even know who they were celebrating or mocking. Remember also that there was no mass media. Most of the events that took place that day were done in relative secrecy. Jerusalem was a very busy, very crowded city that day, as pilgrims from all over the countryside prepared for the upcoming Passover feast. Most of the people in Jerusalem who actually followed Jesus probably didn't even know about the crucifixion until after the fact.

The lesson to be learned here is something that one should be aware of when reading any part of the Bible. Bible stories are part history, part moral lesson, part article of faith. In many cases the authors of the Bible weren't historians and didn't appreciate the scholarship which would be required of future readers of the Bible who were from different times and cultures. The authors assumed that the readers would have a common frame of reference, and consequently didn't take the time to explain things that seemed matter of fact to them, but seem unusual or mysterious to us now. This leads to a story of characters and actions that sometimes is missing a necessary backdrop from the scenery, and therefore they seem to behave strangely, because we’re missing a crucial assumption in the story. In order to properly appreciate biblical stories, the reader must immerse oneself in the place and time that the story takes place in order to appreciate the historical perspective.

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