Why was Jesus crucified?

Religion, spirituality, and sacrilege.
April 9 2009 6:31 AM

Why Was Jesus Crucified?

A historical perspective.

Also in Slate: Patton Dodd looks at gory Passion plays, and  Michael Sean Winters givesa behind-the-scenes look at the work that goes into Holy Weekat a Catholic cathedral.

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Of course, the Gospels also implicate Jewish religious authorities—specifically, the priestly leaders who managed the Jerusalem Temple under franchise from the Roman government. Many scholars, including E.P. Sanders in Jesus and Judaism, conclude that the Temple leaders were likely involved in Jesus coming to the attention of Pilate. After all, the high priest and his retinue held their posts by demonstrating continuing loyalty to Rome. If they judged that Jesus represented some threat to Roman rule, they were obliged to denounce him. Also, it is not so difficult to grant a certain likelihood to the Gospels' claim that the Temple authorities were at least partly motivated by a resentment of Jesus' criticism of their administration of the Temple, as may be reflected in the account of Jesus overturning the tables of the money-changers who operated in the premises under license from the high priest. But Jewish leaders didn't crucify Jesus. "Crucified under Pontius Pilate" points to where that responsibility lies, with the Roman administration.

It's rather clear what St. Paul meant by saying that "the preaching of the cross is foolishness" to most people of his day. As Martin Hengel showed in Crucifixion in the Ancient World and the Folly of the Message of the Cross,Roman-era writers deemed crucifixion the worst imaginable fate, a punishment of unspeakable shamefulness. Celsus, a Roman critic of Christianity, ridiculed Christians for treating as divine someone who had been crucified. A second-century anti-Christian graffito from Rome, well-known among historians who study the time period, depicts a crudely drawn crucified man with a donkey's head; under it stands a human figure, and beneath this is a derisive scrawl: "Alexamenos worships his god."

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There was, in short, little to be gained in proclaiming a crucified saviour in that setting in which crucifixion was a grisly reality. Some early Christians tried to avoid reference to Jesus' crucifixion, while others preferred one or another alternate scenario. In one version, in a Christian apocryphal text, the soldiers confuse a bystander with Jesus, crucifying him instead, while Jesus is pictured as laughing at their folly. This idea is likely also reflected later in the Muslim tradition that a person from the crowd was mistakenly crucified as Jesus escaped. Many devout Muslims believe that Jesus was a true prophet, so it is simply inconceivable that God would have allowed him to die such a shameful death. Clearly, at least some early Christians felt the same way.

In fact, Jesus' crucifixion posed a whole clutch of potential problems for early Christians. It meant that at the origin and heart of their faith was a state execution and that their revered savior had been tried and found guilty by the representative of Roman imperial authority. This likely made a good many people wonder if the Christians weren't some seriously subversive movement. It was, at least, not the sort of group that readily appealed to those who cared about their social standing.

Jesus' crucifixion represented a collision between Jesus and Roman governmental authority, an obvious liability to early Christian efforts to promote their faith. Yet, remarkably, they somehow succeeded. Centuries of subsequent Christian tradition have made the image of the crucified Jesus so familiar that the offensiveness of the event that it portrays has been almost completely lost.