Who is responsible for Christ's execution?

Sometime between 30 and 32 CE, Jesus Christ was put to death by crucifixion on Golgotha, outside Jerusalem. The men who carried out the execution were members of the occupying Roman legion, a body of men not without experience in this field. Crucifixion was a punishment reserved for rebels, insurgents, slaves and traitors.

'Let his blood be on us and on our children!'

According to Gospel, the execution was ordered by Pontius Pilate, Governer of the area. Historically, Christians have blamed the Jews for Jesus' death. Pilate, they say, did not want to have Jesus executed - but he was influenced by the local Jewish leaders and a mob of Jews which assembled to persuade him. The above quote is supposedly what the mob said when Pilate said he would refuse to have the blood of Jesus on his hands.

The concept of Bibilical inerrancy (which states that the authors of the Bible were inspired directly by God, and therefore incapable of error in their writings) meant that up until relatively modern times, all Christian groups believed the Jews were to blame for the death of Christ. To make it even worse, as well as blaming the Jewish contemporaries of Jesus for the death, they blamed all present-day Jews as well because the Jews at the time had wished Jesus' blood on their children (which meant all of their descendents). The Jews were seen as a people abandoned by God, and scripture was used to justify all sorts of abuses against their people.

More liberal theologians have an altogether different view. They believe the Bible was written by human and therefore falliable individuals, and that the story of Jesus' execution was a very smart piece of propaganda written by Christians as part of friction between the religions. It is noted that there are many historical inaccuracies in the Gospels with regard to Jewish practice. Furthermore, not only did the Gospel writers ascribe blame to the Jews, they removed it from the Romans (Pilate): a good trick to improve relations.

Today, no-one blames the Jews for Jesus' death but a few Christian radical groups. However, the damage has already been done: centuries of persecution of the Jews, culminating in the Holocaust. Although it is unlikely the Holocaust could have taken place without the centuries of anti-semitic precedent beforehand, it is fallacious to ascribe blame for the Holocaust to Christianity, and certainly to present-day Christians. Sons cannot by any moral standard be required to atone for the sins of their fathers, and it is the belief that they can which caused this trouble in the first place.

Blame for Jesus' execution must ultimately be placed with the Roman authorities of the day. Jesus' actions could easily have marked him as a rebel (for instance, the moneylenders in the temple incident), and his manner of execution corresponds to this.

There are many common misconceptions about the crucifixion of Jesus among secular communities. Most modern Christians endeavor to use critical methods in studying the New Testament, but the purpose is not to attempt to write a life of Jesus in the contemporary sense of a psychological study; the objective is to reconstruct the barest outline of his career and to give some account of his teachings and message. Most reasonable thinking people would agree that to blame all Jews for the crucifixion of Christ makes about as much sense as holding all Italians responsible because Pontius Pilate was Roman, that kind of discourse is nothing more than the lowest form of bigotry.

Numerous Christologies give emphasis to the divine initiative in the execution of Christ understanding it as a previous custom, as a sacrifice, like that of the Day of Atonement or that of the Passover lamb (1 Corinthians 5:7). Succeeding references to “blood” in connection with the death of Christ repeat both these traditions. Blood denotes not a material substance but the event of Christ’s death in its saving significance.

Approaches to Biblical authority have been many and wide-ranging. The Bible speaks of inspiration or divine breath as the source of vitality and power. Genesis 2:7 asserts that the Lord God “breathed into his nostrils, the breath of life, and man became a living being.” Ezekiel 37:10 says the lifeless bones that “the breath came into them, and they lived and stood on their feet.” So Paul can say, “Our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in the Holy Spirit.” (1 Thessalonians 1: 5. The implication is that, just as divine inspiration had made the prophetic message a living one, so the words of scripture are signposts to something that goes beyond words.

Liberal denigration of the Bible in the 19th century seemed to many to chip away at the authority that had been attached to scripture. Many have linked the notion of verbal inspiration with inerrancy and infallibility, but its significance, that while Martin Luther can speak of the Bible as “the Holy Spirit’s very own book” with “God…. In every syllable,” he can also affirm that mistakes and inconsistencies do not affect the heart of the gospel. “The Holy Spirit,” he affirms, “has an eye only to the substance and is not bound by words.” Many Christians agree that inspiration is no guarantee against human fallibility, nor does it affirm uniformity in quality and authority. There are levels in scripture: the kernel is encased in a shell; the baby lies in a manger.

To hear the Bible merely as a compendium of ancient literature and to limit oneself to critical, historical study of its contents would be a denial of the believer’s experience that in the Bible they have found the word of God addressing them with “transforming and liberating power” as Thomas Merton put it. If Christianity is a religion of the spirit rather than the letter (2 Corinthians 3:6), we should expect a range of diversity in interpretation. There must also be a subjective element in interpretation just as there was in the writing. The more one brings of human experience, spiritual sensitivity, and common sense to the Bible the more one will get from it. Hence, to recognize the authority of the Bible is to respond to the imperatives made by the God of the Bible. For in due course what is looked for is an encounter not with words but with a person.

To address the main topic of this node one first has to take a look back at what crucifixion was. The Oxford Companion To The Bible defines it as:

    The act of nailing or binding a person to a cross or tree, whether for executing or for exposing the corpse.
Considered a brutal and most appalling form of capital punishment many ancient historians by the likes of Herodotus and Diodorus Siculus wrote about the assorted types used by the Assyrians, Scythians, Phoenicians and Persians (Ezra 6:11). The institution of crucifixion was incorporated by Alexander the Great and his descendants, and in particular by the Romans, who reserved if for slaves in cases of robbery and rebellion. There was only one reason in Roman law whereby a citizen of Rome could be crucified and that was for the crime of treason. Josephus noted mass crucifixions in Judea under a number of Roman prefects, most particularly Titus during the siege of Jerusalem; the same also happened in the Jewish quarter of Alexandria, according to Philo. Before the execution the victim was scourged (Mark 5: 15), required to bear the transverse beam (patibulum) to the place of execution (John 19: 17), was then nailed to it through the hands and feet to the cross (Luke 24:39); John 20:25), from which a wooden peg protruded to support the body; some of these literary details are established by archeological findings of the bones of crucifixion victims.

Jewish law doesn’t elaborate as to whether or not crucifixion was a practice of capital punishment. There may be a suggestion that crucifixions occured within the Jewish community in Deuteronomy 21: 22-23, which calls for persons to be put to death saying they 'must be hung on a tree and buried on the same day.' The Temple Scroll of Qumran also spells out penalties that amount to crucifixion for the crime of high treason, for example, if an Israelite curses his people or delivers it to a foreign nation. In rabbinic writings “ crucifixion is the death penalty for “robbers” (bandits {t. Sanh. 9:7 Qoh Rab. 7:26 (190b}) and for martyrs (Gen. Rab. 65 {141a}; Mek. 68b). Isaac, carrying the wood for his sacrifice, was compared to a man bearing the cross on his shoulders (Gen Rab. 56 {118b}). Similarly, a disciple of Jesus must take up his cross and follow him (Mark 8:34 par.; Matt. 10:38 ).”

Jesus arrived from Galilee to continue his ministry in Jerusalem preaching and teaching. His adversaries became engaged in conflicts with him, but these conflicts, Mark indicates, were of a different manner from previous ones in Galilee. By now Jesus is a marked man and his enemies’ anger him on explicit issues, looking to ensnare him into self-incrimination. John also depicts Jesus as infuriated with theological clashes among religious authorities in the city.

Jesus’ challenge reaches its pinnacle with his entry to Jerusalem and the “cleansing” of the Temple. Among the Synoptic writers; John shifts the “cleansing” for theological reasons to the beginning of the ministry and it’s not precisely clear what the issues were that led the Sanhedrin's to plot Jesus’ execution. (For the plot read Mark 14:1-2; 10-11; John 11 :45-54). The Synoptic credits the conspiracy against Jesus to the Sanhedrin’s response to the temple cleansing (Mark 11: 18) While John makes a less persuasive case for conspiracy based upon Jesus’ raising of Lazarus even though it’s John’s report about the Sanhedrin meeting (John 11:47-53) that appears to bear additional support on reliable tradition: the Sanhedrin decided to get rid of Jesus out of fear that disturbance of the peace would give way to Roman interference destroying the fragile balance between Jewish and Roman power.

Following the more plausible account of John, on the eve of Passover, Jesus celebrated a farewell meal with his disciples During the meal he interpreted his impending death as the climax of his life of self-giving service. (Luke 22:24 –27; cf. John 12:1-11; Mark 10:42 –45a may have initially belonged in this framework). The literal words that Jesus spoke over the bread and cup are impossible to recover due to an assortment of accounts of the institution that have been colored by liturgical developments in the post-Easter community. However, all agree that Jesus coupled the bread with his body or his person and the wine with his blood as the significance for the giving of his life in death. In addition it is the unilaterally agreed among all Christians that his death was an inauguration of a new covenant, assuring his disciples that beyond his death lay the coming of the kingdom of God. (Mark 14:25; Luke 22: 15-18).

The disciples and Jesus went out to the garden of Gethsemane after their supper (Mark 14:32: John 18:1) where the Temple police arrested him, and as well if John is correct, by Roman soldiers proof that indicates the priestly party and the Roman prefect were in close collusion over the affair. A preliminary investigation was held before the Jewish authorities (Mark 14:53-64; John 18: 12-14, 19-24 is thought to be more accurate) Less of a formal trial, it was similar to a grand jury proceeding. They found with their inquiries to their satisfaction that there was enough support to justify an indictment of high treason before Pilate’s court (Mark 15:1-15).

By bringing Jesus before Pilate (Mark 15: 1) the members of the Sanhedrin could anticipate a sentence of “death by crucifixion,” under the assertion that claiming to be the Messiah was an act of rebellion against Rome. It’s for this reason that Jesus was compared to the revolutionary Barabbas (Mark 15: 7-27) After the people asked for Barabbas release Pilate had no other option that to crucify Jesus, who was scourged, mocked by the legionaries and crucified together with two “robbers. ”

The mockery in which Jesus’ guilt is repeated may have been meant to make him understand his error and lead him to a confession of sins. Even so his first words from the cross were, "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do."(Luke 23:34); his was a willing sacrifice for others. While he was put on the cross by Roman soldiers the burial in the evening of that day was done by a Jew in accordance to Deuteronomy 21:23. (Mark 12: 42-46 ; John 19: 31) Deuteronomy 21: 22-23 is also related to the crucifixion by Paul in Galatians 3: 13, since a person hanging on a tree is cursed by God, the cross of Jesus became a stumbling block for Jews.

According to Matthew 20: 19 and 26 Jesus said that once delivered to the gentiles he would suffer crucifixion. The predictions of suffering by Jesus were not necessarily prophecies after the fact. The inscription on the cross told all who were witness to his death that Jesus was crucified as “King of the Jews” (Mark 15: 26) In his trial before the high priest (Mark 14: 62) and before Pilate (Mark 15: 2), Jesus had admitted to being the Messiah of Israel and the Son of God. It was the members of the Sanhedrin who proclaimed Jesus deserved the death penalty because he had uttered blasphemy (Mark 14: 61-64); they must have taken to mean Deuteronomy 21: 22-23 in a like manner of the Temple Scroll (cf. John 19: 7,15) A false messiah could deliver the people of Israel and the Temple to the gentiles (John 11: 48-50). The Babylonian Talmud affirms this judgment based on Deuteronomy 13: 1-11 that Jesus was executed because he had led Israel astray.

Jesus was condemned to death as a messianic pretender, taken out to Golgotha and crucified alongside two criminals guilty of sedition. (Mark 15: 20-32: John 19: 16-19). Jesus died later that day and was buried according to gospel tradition, by sympathizers (Mark 15: 42-47: John 19: 38-42). This marked the end of his earthly career.

Noungs write up cites the scripture as one that has been used frequently to support a historical foundation for Anti- Semitism:

    “All the people answered, “Let his blood be on us and on our children!”
    (Matthew 27: 25.
This cry for Jesus' blood has caused untold pain and Christians have used it to justify oppression of Jews. By the time Jesus was nailed to the cross, practically everyone had denied, rejected and vilified him. The spirit and meaning in Matthew’s words displays how all had deserted Jesus. The guilt is common and great; responsibility is universal.

Sources:

The Bible. Revised Standard Version.

Metzger, Bruce M., and Coogan, Michael D. The Oxford Companion To The Bible. Oxford University Press, New York, 1993.p. 66-67. p 141- 142. p 359-360.

The Jewish Elite and the Romans had a shared problem.

The way in which armies took over other nations was appallingly simple in its initial execution, and the pattern wasn't merely Roman. Invade, conquer militarily, kill the existing leader publicly, and then install your own government.

Things were pretty uneasy in Judea, however. The Jewish people not only smarted under Roman occupation in the way that other nations had - never mind the taxes - for example, a Roman centurion could compel anyone to carry his personal burdens for a mile - but they had a lot of serious religious and cultural objections to the way things were done.

To make an incredibly long story short, what transpired in the end was a very uneasy balancing act in which the Jews had a king (Herod) but also an Emperor. They had the coin of the realm, but also a private temple currency (and therefore, a thriving business in money-changing). Though there were occasional spats and insurrections, and the region was a powder keg, things were for the moment under some sort of control.

The people were groaning under a dual burden, as a result. The practical upshot was that they had obligations to two uneasily balanced factions: they had religious legal obligations and Roman legal obligations - they had taxes to pay to Caesar (marked up by tax collectors) and obligations to pay to the religious authorities, which now came with the double insult of a "tax" on top of these obligations by virtue of the profit margin of the money changers.

With all due respect to my Jewish brethren and not wishing to offend, on the other side of things, (from a Christian perspective) there were differing camps of Pharisees and Sadducees and some of them were trying to codify Jewish obligations in a way that had you, for example - counting the steps you took on the Sabbath to avoid taking too many. Advanced Dungeons And Dragons, second edition rules seemed simple and straightforward by comparison.

In the midst of this came a laborer from a backwater whose audience kept increasing. And he was interfering with this finely tuned balance of power. In direct defiance of the religious leaders of the day, he had his followers ignore various rules they imposed. He field-stripped down the expectations of anyone listening to him to "be good to other people, even your enemies". When referring to God he used a child's term- the Aramaic version of "Daddy" - describing a personal, reachable God that needed no religious intercessor.

Of course, it isn't as if he wasn't causing ructions with the Roman power, either. He taught his followers that if a Centurion compelled you to take a burden a mile, to carry it for another mile. This meant that a Centurion ran the risk of being seen to have someone carry a burden beyond the limit imposed by law. "But he carried it another mile even though I told him not to" might or might not be believed. It was nonviolent resistance at its core.

The Jewish elite formulated a plan to get rid of him. 

He was seized in a Garden, while praying, late at night. Far from the crowds that followed him by day - the only people with him at the time were his closest compatriots, and they were sleeping. Having paid a member of his inner circle thirty pieces of silver to point him out to the armed multitude (a mob?) who would seize him - they brought him in dead of night to the palace of the high priest, Caiaphas. After a trial punctuated by false witnesses (Jesus once said if you destroyed the Temple, he would rebuild it in three days. This was restated in the "court" that he was the one able to destroy the Temple, a threat), they cut to the chase and directly asked if he was the Son of God. His answer seemed proof of their charge - the charge was blasphemy, and the penalty was death.

There was only one minor problem.

They weren't actually able to carry out such a sentence.

When they delivered Jesus to the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, the charge was sedition. If Jesus had aspirations to be King of the Jews, this would be in direct defiance of the rule of the Roman Emperor. The Gospel of Luke carries it further, having them accuse Jesus of telling the Jews not to pay tribute to Caesar, even though his answer on that question is even today a colloquial expression - "render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's."

The place was a powder keg. In the back of their mind was the events of 4 BC following the execution of some Jews removing a Roman Eagle temple decoration - resulting in the crucifixion of two thousand people after a city wide riot. Luke mentions the death of some Galileans beaten to death for amassing and starting an insurrection over the use of sacred treasury funds to redirect a waterway. There are two conflicting sides to this: though the Romans don't want to start a riot by killing someone a week before was greeted with adoration and palm fronds, they also don't want a baying mob requiring the redirection of a Legion, again. A typical politician, Pilate tries to extricate himself from a sticky decision.

Though Pilate clearly sees no problem or fault in Jesus, the story diverges, here - in Matthew's gospel, Pilate tries to extricate himself of the affair and sets up a choice for the people - to release either Jesus or a notorious murderer by the name of Barabbas. In that version of the story they choose Barabbas, which Christians since see as a metaphor and allegory for Jesus accepting the punishment as an innocent man for the sins of others, granting them freedom from the punishment which they are due. In Luke's Gospel, on finding out that Jesus is Galilean, decides that it's Herod's jurisdiction and not his. Herod is excited, hoping for a personal audience and a miracle or two, but Jesus answers neither man. In Luke's gospel Jesus is flogged in lieu of crucifixion to appease the baying mob (in an attempt to save his life) - in Matthew's Jesus is scourged simply as a prelude to the rest of the execution.

The "scourge" in question, (Greek: μαστιξ) as it's commonly understood was made of leather and tipped or embedded with metal and bone, designed to shred tissue as opposed to simply cutting it. One of the few benefits of watching the Mel Gibson torture porn film The Passion of the Christ is the instructive moment in which a lictor strikes a wooden object with the whip to intimidate Jesus, and it sticks to it - requiring him to pull the weapon back out, ripping it free. Another piece of trivia is that the actor playing Jesus in this scene was actually struck twice with said weapon (by accident), and the second blow served as the model for the phenomenal makeup job showing the result of the use of a scourge. 

Cicero says of this sort of thing "pro mortuo sublatus brevi postea mortuus" (taken away for a dead man, shortly after he was dead.) The following morning, as Jesus is led away to carry his cross (most certainly the crossbeam or "patibulum") he is so damaged and in hypovolemic shock that he drops it multiple times. According to three of our (the synoptic) Gospels, the centurion in charge of the execution, fearing that his prisoner wouldn't make it to the sentence being carried out, orders another (Simon of Cyrene) to carry it for him.

The standard movie image of a relatively healthy man struggling under the weight of an entire cross is unrealistic. Regardless of the better strength and stamina of a laborer in a time before cars, healthy and unmolested actors portraying Jesus, as well as experiements run with volunteers tracing the actual via dolorosa with a model of the classic Stations of the Cross portrayal show it to be near impossible. It could certainly be unrealistic to expect someone dealing with the aftermath of scourging to even make it part way. Nevertheless, it's been used as a metaphor for Jesus taking on the weight of the sin of the world, and has been seen as a reason why John does not include Simon of Cyrene in his narrative, wishing to emphasize Jesus taking this weight on his own shoulders. 

We have no idea what shape the cross took, whether it was the shape seen in most churches, a Tau cross, or what have you. Or how many nails were used or even where they were inserted. The Bible is unclear, because it's irrelevant. Whether the nails were put through the palms of the hands or the wrists, or there was one nail through both feet or a nail through each ankle, is also unclear, and irrelevant. 

He was most certainly naked at the time. The Last Tempation of Christ got that right. Part of the penalty was the humiliation of being affixed and displayed naked, having to defecate and urinate in open view as you died. (The reason why the classical depiction of the crucifixion had Jesus in a loincloth was not modesty, but that in order to do it realistically one would have to show that he'd been circumcised, and that would have opened a can of worms in terms of medieval relationships with the Jewish people.)

What is known is that, living tree or tau cross, Jesus was affixed to it with nails and left to die, with the inscription above "Iesus Nazarenus, Rex Iudaeorum" (Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Jews). And at this point the uneasy balance of earthly powers clashed. The Jewish leaders demanded this to be changed to read "he SAID he was the King of the Jews". Pilate ignores this. He might have carried out this unfair sentence to calm a baying mob, but there's limits to how much he will be dictated to. The charge is not blasphemy or some internal Jewish squabble, but sedition. However, it's not "seditio" - it's there for a reason. The inscription sends a message to everyone concerned. Don't mess with Rome. Message sent, message received. The elite don't push it and retreat angrily.

Jesus' followers watched in horror and dismay. It wasn't supposed to end like this. They were looking for a messiah. They were looking to see the promises fulfilled. They were looking for Olam Ba Ha: an end to war, Judaism as the only religion, no murder or robbery, the end of all struggle, united in military victory. An Israeli government that unites the entire world. Seeing somebody in agony, a close personal friend and mentor - was horrifying on one level, but even more in the sense that it shattered a dream.

The fact that Jesus said this would happen, that the victory would come in a way they wouldn't expect, was lost on them. That he rode in on a donkey, not a horse - the horse was reserved for war and he did not ride in on one - also lost. He alluded to Moses raising the serpent in the desert, so that those who would see it would have the venom in their veins negated by viewing it - the death on the cross would give them a path to removing their own taints and sins.

Even so, there were those who expected him to rally back, like Hulk Hogan suddenly shrugging off the attacks of his opponent, or the cliche of the action hero stirring to his feet after a near-death beatdown. There was hope in some people saying, "come down off that cross and save yourself." Others simply mocked. There were expectations of a messiah and he didn't fulfil them, so his was the death of a troublemaker. "Rebuild the temple now, if you can."

He died between two men. Depending on the way you translate the term, they were either thieves, or they were insurgents. Either way one taunted him saying "save yourself, and save us as well". The other, either believing that Jesus was Lord or simply offering comfort and sympathy at such a time, told the first man to shut up, that they deserved their penalty and should accept and take the blame for their own faults, instead of being angry at the blameless. In this, Christianity expresses two attitudes to our relationship with God - contrasting the one that makes demands of God and demands things done his way, and the other, who asks for repentance.

A combination of the cramping of the chest (causing asphyxiation), hypovolemic shock, and other factors result in Jesus dying, near delirious and asking for water. After final words (either "It is accomplished" or "why have you abandoned me?") he dies, not needing his legs broken to hasten his death before sundown and the Sabbath. A centurion pierces his side to see if he's dead for sure, and verifies the death with this blow.

But the most important part of the story occurs afterwards. The biggest imperial power the world has ever seen, combined with the top echelons of the religious elites, have conspired to do just about the worst one can do to a human being. Separated from his friends who are too scared to show their faces (one of whom actually denies knowing him), tortured mercilessly with open handed slaps, a crown of thorns, flagellation and being nailed naked to a stake - he died in agony. Shamed, disgraced - and for all intents and purposes suppressed forever. 

And yet, strangely enough, three days later he was walking around, eventually eating fish with his friends and telling them it was now their turn to carry on the ministry. Restored in body, restored in soul, with the faith of his friends renewed. The net result is that everything they tried to achieve with the execution simply failed. Failed catastrophically in every single way. Wounds? Healed. Death? Shrugged off as a nuisance. His message? Available in every bookstore today. It represents the complete unimportance of the physical world compared to the spiritual, and the absolute and eventual failure of worldly power.

A theme carried on by Shelley, later:

"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

The roads that carried the centurions and oppressors of Roman power would soon be used to carry a Gospel. The language they imposed on others would be a lingua franca which would transmit ideas across time. The instrument of torture and destruction, instead of an object of shame and humiliation, would come to be used as a motif representing hope, and new life. Regardless of the religious meanings of the event, and out of respect for the differing belief systems here - even from a secular perspective it represents the triumph of his ministry.

Speaking of secular triumphs - as for the empire the Jews were groaning under? Finished. When we think of Rome we think of aging ruins and pontiffs, not the Eagle. But even before the barbarians beat down the gate, Christianity ate at it from within so that it was no longer the same conquering power it was when it arrived in Judaea. The religious elites? Scattered to the four winds.

Neither power that Jesus opposed remains. 

In the end, he won.

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