These questions look at the issues which surround the death of Jesus: why did it happen, who was to blame, and what does it all mean?
First there were the Roman occupying forces in Judea. They wanted the population to keep quiet and pay its taxes. Not only were new religious movements likely to cause political disturbances, but most were nationalistic and violently opposed to the rule of pagans. The coming Messiah was expected (by Jews) to cast out the Romans and make the nation great and glorious again. Naturally Rome would come down hard on any such goings on.
Then there was the Jewish royal government. They were puppets appointed by Rome, and so opposed anyone whom Rome opposed.
The Jewish religious establishment was in the hands of a group called the Sadducees, who had a great deal of power and wealth, and therefore their interest was in maintaining the status quo.
It is not surprising that all these interests opposed what they thought Jesus stood for – and it’s also not surprising that Jesus had little respect for or interest in them.
More surprising is that Jesus clashed with the Pharisees, because, like them, Jesus was interested in the working people. The Pharisees led an extremely popular and influential movement among ordinary Jews, their focus being on strict observance of the religious law. Many of them were also inclined to military risings against Rome.
Where Jesus agreed with them was in their passion for living God’s way in everyday life, and their commitment to the masses. He disagreed with the political agenda of some of them, but much more profoundly with their approach to religious purity. Jesus brought a message of acceptance and forgiveness to those whom others considered untouchable, and he spend a lot of time with them. The Pharisees were appalled at this, as they were at his generally lax attitude to religious rules. He in turn repeatedly berated them in public for being legalistic and hypocritical, and for getting their priorities wrong.
We don’t know. The Gospels say that Judas went to the religious leaders and offered to hand Jesus over, and that they paid him 30 silver coins (about four months’ wages for a labourer).
Maybe it was purely the money. But then choosing to be a follower of Jesus involved great financial sacrifices. Why would someone so cynically materialistic ever have become one of his closest disciples?
One theory has it that Judas was frustrated by Jesus, and thought that by handing him over to the authorities he would force Jesus’ hand, and bring events to a crisis.
Another explanation is that Judas was disillusioned with Jesus. Jesus was generally expected to lead a glorious military and political campaign (as well as religious), liberating Palestine from Roman occupation. Many people were attracted to Jesus for this reason.
In fact, Jesus’s intention was to die at the hands of the Romans – a very different plan. You can imagine why some of his followers might feel bitterly betrayed when they realised this.
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It’s easiest to see this by looking at the story backwards. Jesus was executed by order of Pontius Pilate, the Roman prefect, who governed Judea as part of the Roman Empire. Judea was essentially an occupied country, and the Roman army was in charge.
Pilate’s first question to Jesus was, “Are you the king of the Jews?” and this was the charge for which Jesus was eventually crucified. In other words, Jesus was tried by Pilate for conspiracy to overthrow the puppet king set up by the Roman occupation.
But Jesus was originally arrested, the four Gospels tell us, by the Jewish religious authorities. They tried him themselves before they sent him to Pilate, and found him guilty of blasphemy. The religious authorities wanted to be rid of Jesus partly because his teachings undermined their power, and also because his popularity with the people threatened them.
But as their power depended on the Romans, they and the Romans had essentially the same problem with Jesus: he had been welcomed by the crowds into Jerusalem as the Messiah, a king from God. He looked like a revolutionary who would cause trouble, and they wanted him stopped.
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If Jesus was God, and he was meant to know everything, why didn’t he avoid being crucified?
According to the Gospels, Jesus predicted his arrest and crucifixion in Jerusalem. “The Son of Man will be handed over to his enemies and nailed to a cross,” he once said (Matthew 26:2). If anything, Jesus seems almost to have deliberately provoked his arrest by his riotous behaviour in the temple, rather than avoiding it.
Why? Jesus was evidently convinced that his death was an essential part of God’s plan. He talked about his “blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many” (Mark 14;24), and about coming “to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). He seems to have recognised that his death was a necessary part of what he had come to do, not something to be avoided.
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We may think of crucifixion as a Roman punishment today, but it was also practised by the ancient Persians, Indians, Assyrians, Carthaginians and Greeks.
Crucifixion usually involved flogging, carrying the cross-beam (the horizontal bar) to a public place of execution, and being tied or nailed to the cross. It was an exceptionally painful and shameful way to die, often lasting for days. It was normal for passersby to verbally abuse the person being crucified.
It was considered too bad a punishment for Roman citizens, but the Romans crucified many thousands of slaves and foreigners. It had special a stigma for Jewish people, because of a verse in the Bible which says: “Anyone who is hung on a tree is cursed by God”.
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For Muslims, Jesus is a major prophet, and the Qu’ran says he was not crucified, because God would never let his messenger be treated in that way. “They did not kill him, or crucify him,” it says, “but that is how it was made to appear to them” (Qu’ran 4:157-59).
Some Muslim traditions say that Judas died in his place. Most Muslims accept this, because they accept the Qu’ran as the revelation of God.
However, from a historical point of view, the crucifixion is easily the most reliable piece of information we have about Jesus. Not only do all the first-century reports agree, but it is hard to imagine Jesus’ followers inventing such a humiliating end for him. So on historical grounds, it is a near certainty that Jesus was put to death as reported.
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The decision to execute Jesus was made by Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, although Jesus was arrested and handed over to him by the Jewish religious authorities, and he was betrayed to them in turn by Judas.
The Gospels depict Pilate as being very reluctant to kill Jesus, although some modern writers question this portrayal. From other sources, Pilate seems to have been a bloodthirsty man even for a Roman governor, and Rome was never slow to execute suspected insurgents. Some experts argue that the early church was keen to prove that it was not anti-Rome, and so the Gospels stressed the idea that Jesus was condemned by his own people, more than by the Romans.
Throughout Christian history, it has been very common to blame “the Jews” for killing Christ, and to treat Jewish people centuries after the event as scapegoats. Some verses in the Gospels of Matthew and John contributed to this anti-Semitism – for example, in Matthew chapter 27, the Jewish crowd says to Pilate, “Let his blood be on us and on our children!”
The facts of the matter seem to be that the Roman occupiers, the Jewish authorities and Judas all collaborated in having Jesus killed.
Looking at it another way, many of the New Testament writers imply that none of the above groups or people was ultimately responsible, because the death of Jesus was God’s plan from the start. One letter tells its readers that they have been redeemed “with the precious blood of Christ. He was chosen before the creation of the world…” (1 Peter 1:19-20).
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The four Gospels agree that Jesus was betrayed to the Jewish authorities by Judas, one of the twelve disciples of Jesus, for thirty pieces of silver. Matthew’s Gospel reveals that after Jesus had been arrested, Judas committed suicide.
Throughout history, Judas has been roundly condemned for his actions. One of the earliest explanations of his actions was that “Satan entered into him” (John 13:27). In recent times, though, some experts have speculated that rather than simply betraying Jesus, Judas may have been trying to force his hand, to get him to raise an army against the authorities.
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No. The Messiah whom the Jewish people of Jesus’ time were expecting was to be a godly king and military hero who would drive the Romans out of the land, purify it and make it glorious again. He would certainly not be killed by the Romans, least of all by crucifixion, which would imply he was cursed by God. None of the heroes of the Hebrew scriptures had met an untimely death, with the exception of Samson.
Because of the political and military expectations that surrounded the word “Messiah”, Jesus was cautious about accepting the title. Instead, he often said that he would go to Jerusalem and suffer and die there. It seems that the disciples couldn’t grasp what he was saying, or found it so outrageous or unlikely that they blanked it out.
Quite a number of people claimed to be the Messiah around the time of Jesus. For example, some 15 years after the death of Jesus, a would-be Messiah called Theudas arose in Judea, preaching and prophesying, and 400 people followed him. He marched towards Jerusalem, promising that the River Jordan would part to let them through. In fact, he was ambushed by the Romans and beheaded. Those of his followers who survived dispersed.
Almost all the “Messiahs” around the time of Jesus met grisly ends, and in each case their followers then gave up, because an executed Messiah must surely be a false Messiah.
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Christians believe that the death of Jesus changes everything – the whole state of humanity and our relationship with God. But if you ask exactly how it does this, there are many different ideas. Here are just some of them…
Sacrifice – the Jews up until the time of Jesus sacrificed animals, believing that the shedding of blood somehow dealt with their sins and put them right with God. The New Testament says that in the same way, Jesus’ death is the sacrifice for our sins that restores our relationship with God…
Substitute – the Bible portrays God as a perfect judge, who has to punish us for our sin. The only alternative was to allow Jesus to be punished in our place. Jesus never sinned and deserved no punishment. Because he took on himself the suffering he didn’t deserve, God no longer has give us what we do deserve…
Act of love – Jesus wanted to show us an example of the kind of self-giving love we need to live by if we are to be his followers. The greatest act of love is to lay down your life, so he did this as the perfect example of love. Now we know what true love is, and gratitude to him fills our hearts with the same love. In the words of Jesus, just before his death…
Act of power – Jesus was truly God, so when he let his immortal life be killed and his holy blood spilled, though it looked like weakness, there was a great mystical power in it. When Jesus died, and rose from the dead, he somehow overcame the power of death and broke it. This brings everlasting life to those who follow him.
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Is there reliable evidence that Jesus ever lived? Was he a great religious teacher… or an alien? Read our Jesus FAQs pages here. If you have a question about the life or teaching of Jesus, check here first to see what’s been posted about it.
Written by Steve Tomkins
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