DON CUPITT

 

Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)


DENNIS NINEHAM

 

... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)


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The Historical Jesus
Did Jesus Have to Die?

Even though the account of Jesus entering Jerusalem has been greatly distorted, we can be fairly certain that he did enter the city in a high-profile way around the time of a Passover Feast. Matthew (21.1) and Luke (19.28) use Mark's version (11.1) as their template. They make various changes to get their theological points across. John's version (12.12) is much abbreviated and the context changed.

All our good historical evidence indicates that Jesus was probably a well-known public figure, at least locally in Galilee but possibly further afield as well. The Gospel writers exaggerate the attention he received. They speak of huge crowds following him around and "the entire city" of Jerusalem being alerted to his arrival. The truth was probably far short of that. But, as many New Testament scholars have pointed out, his entry into Jerusalem and subsequent actions in the Temple, were almost certainly enough for the authorities to notice him.

If, as seems likely, Jesus' entry was at the time of a major Jewish feast, probably the Passover, he may well have been watched even more carefully than usual. At such times the civil authorities would have been on guard for any signs of disturbance. There is good evidence that large crowds of pilgrims swarmed through the city at such times - much as Muslims today do in Mecca for the Hajj in the month of Dhu al-Hijja. Be that as it may, the upshot was that Jesus was arrested, summarily questioned, and quickly and quietly dispatched as a precaution. 

There is good evidence that the Jewish priesthood was accountable to the Roman authorities for public order - amongst other responsibilities. So, for example, the High Priest and his Council had to collect the city's tribute to Rome and ensure that it was delivered to the correct person. In return, top Jewish priests had access to civic privileges. Some were enriched by franchises attached to Temple worship. It was in their interests to ensure that religious fervour or fanaticism did not disturb the status quo.

Jerusalem was policed by the Temple guards, a not inconsiderable body of men. Josephus tells us that during the Jewish revolt of 66-74, some 8500 guards died protecting the High Priest. He  probably exaggerated the numbers considerably - but a force even a fraction of that size would have had significant power.

Joseph Caiaphas, High Priest at the time of Jesus entry into Jerusalem (he served for 17 years, longer than any other under Roman rule), was merely doing what would have been regarded as his civic duty to protect the civilians of Jerusalem when he had Jesus arrested. E P Sanders [1] thinks that Caiaphas made a decision to arrest Jesus and to recommend his execution primarily because of the Roman expectations that he preserve the peace and prevent riots at any cost. In short, Caiaphas and his advisors would have hesitated only briefly, if at all, before passing Jesus over to the Roman authorities to be dealt with.

In the West today we expect an accused person to get a fair trial. Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor of the region at the time of Jesus' arrest, would have had no such scruples. He was a particularly cruel and ruthless man. Later in his career, the rulers in Rome thought that he overstepped the mark in the severity with which he handled local populations. There can be little doubt that he would have had few scruples in ordering a crucifixion. Jesus would have been a minor irritant in the bigger scheme of things.

Once Jesus had been handed over to the Roman authorities (there was probably no trial as indicated in the Gospels) his end would have been painful and swift. As we know from many other accounts of Roman methods, his whipping and crucifixion would have been routine. The extended suffering caused by the method of execution was intended as an example to other troublemakers. 

In summary, then, once Jesus had been noticed by the authorities he was a marked man. And once it had been shown that he [a] wasn't mad (like some other rabble-rousers recorded by Josephus), and 
[b] that he had a significant number of followers, his end was inevitable. His high-profile entrance into Jerusalem and his equally high-profile "cleansing" of the Temple were, in effect, his death warrant.

Another important reason why Jesus had to die presents itself in relation to his friends and followers. One of the solid bits of history which survives even the most ruthless cull of non-historical material is the fact that Jesus' followers ran away. Given the nature of the Gospel accounts, we can't be absolutely certain that they deserted him at the moment of his arrest. But that they fled the threat of death is almost certainly "what actually happened".

In these circumstances, and putting together all that we know of the events leading up to his arrest, Jesus is highly likely to have had the welfare of his friends and followers close at heart. He appears to have been able to attract the attention and even adulation of ordinary people. But I don't think even the most critical historian would assert that Jesus showed any ambition to power.  Everything we know of him indicates just the opposite - that he lived out the role of healer, teacher, sage and prophet. That he would have been willing to sacrifice others for his own purposes goes against the grain of all the evidence.

It seems to me legitimate to suppose, given the clear aversion of Jesus to power, and his deep commitment to the good of others, that he had to die because to have resisted the Jewish and Roman authorities would have meant the almost certain death of his friends. Resistance would have been perceived as insurrection, however minor and unlikely to succeed. For Jesus to have run for it, given the ruthless methods of the Romans, would have precipitated a manhunt in which his family and perhaps many others might well have perished along with him. 

We mustn't suppose that because these events happened 2 000 years ago, those in power would not have had the means to hunt down any and all threats to the established order. Rome lasted as well as it did at least in part because what we today regard as its totalitarian methods were highly effective.

To sum up:

  • The entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, praised and acknowledged by a significant crowd of supporters and onlookers, is a highly probable fact of history.
  • So also is Jesus' sally into the Temple environs - though the scale and impact of his actions is probably exaggerated by the Gospels.
  • Given that these events occurred during a major Jewish feast when Jerusalem was crowded and volatile would have instantly marked Jesus as a risk to public order.
  • From there it was a short step to summary arrest in the dead of night, quick examination (probably in secret), and hasty dispatch by crucifixion.
  • For Jesus to have resisted or tried to escape would have meant the probable death of others besides himself.

The entry into Jerusalem, heavily "theologised" by the Gospel authors, is a turning point in the life of Jesus. After that, Jesus had to die because he was a marked man and because to have resisted would have risked the lives of many others.
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[1] The Historical Figure of Jesus (1993)

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