The Death of Jesus

When Jesus was thirty-three he went with his disciples to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover. As Jesus came to Jerusalem for the Passover festival, the fears of the Jewish leaders—priests, scribes, and elders—were realized. Palms were strewn on the road as he entered in triumph accompanied by shouts of joy and acclamation (Mk 11.9-10): "Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Blessed is the kingdom of our father David that is coming! Hosanna in the highest!" Once in the city, he denounced the chief priests and scribes who were looking for a way to stop his rising popularity. Not only did they fear the social unrest and the possibility of an insurgency as a result of this religious fervor, but they also feared the reprisal of Rome. In Jn 11.48, the convened priests worry that if they do nothing about the crowds following Jesus, the fanaticism will escalate to such a point that the Romans will come and take away both their land and their nation. Caiaphas, the high priest, argued that Jesus had to die for the good of Israel, to save the nation of Jews from the wrath of Rome. While the Jewish leaders were considering how to control his restive crowd of zealots, Jesus dramatically chased the moneychangers out of the Temple. This was an open challenge to the priests who called him before them and asked by what authority he did these things. Hostility escalated and the authority of the Jewish leaders was pit against the messianic expectations popularized by the new teaching of Jesus.

The night before he died, Jesus celebrated the Passover supper with his disciples. After the supper, Jesus went with some of his disciples to the Garden of Gethsemane. There he prayed that either he might not have to suffer the death that seemed inevitable or that he would find the strength to acquiesce in God's will. Led by Judas Iscariot, Roman soldiers found Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane and brought him before the high priest Caiaphas, who asked him whether he was the Messiah. When Jesus answered that he was the Son of Man, the assembled council was outraged at the blasphemy and he was taken immediately before the Roman governor Pontius Pilate. Before Pilate, he was accused of preaching that he was the Son of God and King of the Jews. According to the account in Mt 27.1-26, Pilate attempted to persuade the priests and other accusers that he had not done anything to merit punishment, but the crowd only became more agitated.

Herod Antipas was also in Jerusalem for the Feast of the Passover during the trial. Since he was the ruler of Galilee, Pilate thought it prudent to defer to him on the matter of the Galilean Jesus. He sent him as a prisoner to Antipas so that he could pass judgment on the charges. In Lk 23.6-11, we read that Antipas was eager to meet Jesus because he wanted to see him perform one of the miracles he had heard so much about; but when Jesus refused to perform, Antipas was content to mock him by dressing him in royal clothing before sending him back to Pilate. Finally, Pilate dramatically washed his hands of the affair and offered the customary Passover liberation of a criminal of their choice. The crowd chose the notorious criminal Barabbas and called for Jesus to be crucified.

Under Roman rule, divinity was an honor accorded only to the Roman emperor and there could be no king but Caesar. Therefore, Jesus' claim that he was the Messiah, the Son of God and King of the Jews (Lk 22.6623.5) was considered an act of treason against the Roman state. Pilate, as the Roman ruler of Judea, had no choice but to order Jesus to be killed for claiming to be divine. He was crucified under a wooden sign that read King of the Jews in Hebrew, Latin, and Greek (Jn 19.20). The first letter of each of those words in Latin (Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudeorum, "Jesus the Nazarene King of the Jews") is the source of the well-known "INRI" Christian symbol.

Jesus' trial and death are passed over in silence among the writers of the first century C.E. and receive little more than a note in passing in the works of Josephus (see Primary Document 2.6). This single brief reference to the defining event in the early Christian movement in Jerusalem reminds us that from the prospective of the Jews and the Romans, Christianity was only one of many small religious groups with a messianic vision in the tense multiethnic areas around Jerusalem in the first century C.E. Nonetheless, though hardly more than a footnote, within three years of his death the incipient church of Jesus had spread well beyond the borders of Jerusalem.

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