Why Was Jesus Crucified?
A historical perspective.
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A central statement in traditional Christian creeds is that Jesus was crucified "under Pontius Pilate." But the majority of Christians have only the vaguest sense what the phrase represents, and most non-Christians probably can't imagine why it's such an integral part of Christian faith. "Crucified under Pontius Pilate" provides the Jesus story with its most obvious link to larger human history. Pilate was a historical figure, the Roman procurator of Judea; he was referred to in other sources of the time and even mentioned in an inscription found at the site of ancient Caesarea in Israel. Linking Jesus' death with Pilate represents the insistence that Jesus was a real person, not merely a figure of myth or legend. More than this, the phrase also communicates concisely some pretty important specifics of that historical event.
For one thing, the statement asserts that Jesus didn't simply die; he was killed. This was a young man's death in pain and public humiliation, not a peaceful end to a long life. Also, this wasn't a mob action. Jesus is said to have been executed, not lynched, and by the duly appointed governmental authority of Roman Judea. There was a hearing of some sort, and the official responsible for civil order and Roman peace and justice condemned Jesus. This means that Pilate found something so serious as to warrant the death penalty.
But this was also a particular kind of death penalty. The Romans had an assortment of means by which to carry out a judicial execution; some, such as beheading, were quicker and less painful than crucifixion. Death by crucifixion was reserved for particular crimes and particular classes. Those with proper Roman citizenship were supposed to be immune from crucifixion, although they might be executed by other means. Crucifixion was commonly regarded as not only frighteningly painful but also the most shameful of deaths. Essentially, it was reserved for those who were perceived as raising their hands against Roman rule or those who in some other way seemed to challenge the social order—for example, slaves who attacked their masters, and insurrectionists, such as the many Jews crucified by Roman Gen. Vespasian in the Jewish rebellion of 66-72.
So the most likely crime for which Jesus was crucified is reflected in the Gospels' account of the charge attached to Jesus' cross: "King of the Jews." That is, either Jesus himself claimed to be the Jewish royal messiah, or his followers put out this claim. That would do to get yourself crucified by the Romans.
Indeed, one criterion that ought to be applied more rigorously in modern scholarly proposals about the "historical Jesus" is what we might call the condition of "crucifiability": You ought to produce a picture of Jesus that accounts for him being crucified. Urging people to be kind to one another, or advocating a more flexible interpretation of Jewish law, or even condemning the Temple and its leadership—none of these crimes is likely to have led to crucifixion. For example, first-century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus tells of a man who prophesied against the Temple. Instead of condemning him, the governor decided that he was harmless, although somewhat deranged and annoying to the Temple priests. So, after being flogged, he was released.
The royal-messiah claim would also help explain why Jesus was executed but his followers were not. This wasn't a cell of plotters. Jesus himself was the issue. Furthermore, Pilate took some serious flak for being a bit too violent in his response to Jews and Samaritans who simply demonstrated vigorously against his policies. Pilate probably decided that publicly executing Jesus would snuff out the messianic enthusiasm of his followers without racking up more Jewish bodies than necessary.
Larry W. Hurtado is head of the School of Divinity, University of Edinburgh. His recent books are The Earliest Christian Artifacts: Manuscripts and Christian Origins, How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God? and Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity.
Image of Christ's Crucifixion, by Diego Velázquez, is public domain.