This is the sixth and final part of an in-depth series I’ve been doing on the trial of Jesus, focusing on what the gospels say about Pontius Pilate’s role in Jesus’ crucifixion. If you want to review the posts leading up to this, here are the links. However, I don’t think you necessarily have to read them before this post. I’ll give you my conclusions here. The links are here if you want more information on how I reached my conclusions. To put it simply, you can look at them if you want to, or you can skip them and go to the article below. It’s up to you.
Now if you’re ready, we can begin to draw to a conclusion.
In Monty Python and the Holy Grail, there’s a scene where King Arthur is “riding” among a group of peasants going about their daily activities. He wants to know who lives in the castle. They are not very helpful. Finally, someone tells him no one lives there. They have no lord. They are an “anarchosyndicalist commune.” As one man explains how executive power is shared among them, Arthur grows impatient, tells him to be quiet, and grabs him.
Man: Aha! Now we see the violence inherent in the system!
Arthur: SHUT UP!
Man: (yelling to all the other workers) Come and see the violence inherent in the system! Help, help, I’m being repressed!
Arthur: (letting go and walking away) Bloody peasant!
Man: Oh, what a giveaway! Did’j’hear that, did’j’hear that, eh? That’s what I’m all about! Did you see ‘im repressing me? You saw it, didn’t you?!
I love how the peasant drops radical twentieth-century egalitarianism on a medieval king who is claiming rule by Divine Right. That phrase “the violence inherent in the system,” though, perfectly describes the crucifixion of Jesus.
If you are Christian, or even if you know only the most basic ideas of Christianity, you’ve heard that Jesus died for our sins. What does that mean? When we hear about “sins,” we tend to think of personal sins, and so we think Jesus died for our personal sins. But if you read about Jesus’ trial without the centuries of tradition and doctrine that have been layered on top of it, this is obviously a story of an innocent man killed by systemic, not personal, sins. To put it simply, Jesus was killed by “the violence inherent in the system.”
What system? There were actually two systems involved: The political system, represented by Pontius Pilate, and the religious system, represented by the Sanhedrin. They existed in a specific historical context, and yet for 2,000 years, oppressed people all over the world in all kinds of historical contexts have recognized Pilate and the Sanhedrin in their own authorities. They’ve recognized Judas in those who betray them to the authorities. What were the systemic sins that killed Jesus?
The political system, of course, begins with Rome. They ruled the area around the Mediterranean, including Judea and Galilee – the primary Jewish territories. Rome at times was extremely brutal in forcing their domination over the world. Crucifixion was, after all, a Roman punishment. But they were not just brutal. They knew how to use the stick but also the carrot. They had a system of rewards for individuals and entire communities who served them well. Of course they also had a system of punishments for those who did not toe the line.
The Jews chafed under Roman rule. In some ways, this probably perplexed the Romans. The historian Josephus tells us Herod the Great had been one of the best friends of the previous emperor, Augustus. Through this friendship, Herod was able to secure a number of benefits for the Jews, not just in his kingdom but throughout the Empire. They were free to practice their religion for the most part, including keeping holidays and the Sabbath. So while the Romans were brutal to anyone who refused to pay taxes or challenged the authority of the Emperor, the Jews were spared the worst of it – except when they openly rebelled(1).
As Governor, Pilate represented the Emperor. It was his job to keep the Pax Romana in his territory. The Gospels, I think, present a convincing case that Pilate thought Jesus was innocent. If so, why would he execute him? In previous posts in this series I have examined Pilate’s motives. I believe there was more than one reason, but I think the overriding motivation was definitely to keep the peace and keep Caesar happy.
His options were:
A. Protect Jesus from the mob, even if he has to use force(2).
B. Sacrifice him as a scapegoat to pacify the mob(3).
He chose B, and any Roman governor would have understood.
The violence inherent in the system, Point 1: Kill anyone if it will keep the peace.
The Religious System
The religious system is represented in the Sanhedrin, a sort of council of elders responsible for decisions regarding Jewish religious life, particularly with regard to the Temple in Jerusalem. The council consisted mainly of Sadducees (Temple priests) and Pharisees (local rabbis). The Sadducees, for the most part, benefited from Roman rule. The appointment of the high priest had to be approved by Rome. The order and stability Rome provided, the ease of travel through Roman roads and shipping lanes, and the active trade throughout the Empire created economic opportunity and wealth for the area’s residents, of which the Jews were commanded to pay a tenth to the Temple.
Rumors of Jesus being the Messiah were stirring up hopes among revolutionaries that he would be the one to shatter the yoke of Roman rule and restore the kingdom of David, which would bring the Roman legions to crush them. You can’t have much of an economy when your cities are reduced to rubble.
The violence inherent in the system, Point 2: Kill anyone who messes with the money.
The charge that finally sealed Jesus’ fate to the Sanhedrin was when someone heard him say he would destroy the Temple and rebuild it in three days. Talk of destroying the Temple was not going to sit well in this council that was led by the high priest. It was in response to this charge that the high priest ordered him to answer whether he was “the Messiah, the Son of God” (Mat 26:63). When Jesus says yes, that brings about the charge of blasphemy, which under their law can only be punished with death. There is just one problem. They don’t have the authority to order the death penalty.
They have to convince Pilate that Jesus is guilty of something that would compel a Roman governor to crucify him. So they try to trump up charges against him: He is challenging Caesar’s authority. He claims to be the king of the Jews. He tells people not to pay taxes. He claims to be the Messiah (and Pilate knows that claims of messiahship have always led to rebellion). He is gathering followers around him, i.e., an army. All because they thought he was threatening the Temple.
The violence inherent in the system, point 3: Kill anyone who challenges the religious institution.
However, I think the heart of the religious resistance was this. The religious establishment of the time – especially the Pharisees – represented a system based on purity, nationalism, and exclusion. Jesus preached a message of compassion and inclusion. The Pharisees thought God wanted them to keep out everything foreign – especially Gentiles, Samaritans, immigrants, and Jews who were not “pure enough,” religiously or racially. Jesus focused his ministry on reaching out to those who were excluded: Gentiles, pagans, Samaritans, foreigners, lepers, tax collectors (yes, tax collectors!), women, the sick, the blind, the lame, the poor, children. And in true prophetic fashion, he spoke out against the unjust religious leaders who “devoured widows’ homes and for pretense made long prayers” (Mar 12:40; Mat 23:14; Luk 20:47).
They were offended by the way he called out their injustice masked with piety. They were offended by who he associated with. They were offended by his willingness to welcome anyone of any background who sought God in spirit and in truth. And they were offended enough to want him dead.
I don’t say this as a blanket indictment of the Jewish people. Remember, Jesus was a Jew. His parents were Jews. All twelve original disciples were Jews. But any religious organization can become corrupted when it sees itself as privileged. The Jewish leaders of that time saw themselves as the people of God – exclusively. They taught other Jews to see themselves that way as well. In this way, they were blind leaders of the blind (Mat 15:14). Jesus came along and told them their days of privilege were over. God is the God of all people, Jew and Gentile, equally.
The violence inherent in the system, point 4: Kill anyone who challenges your privilege and superior status.
You can’t talk about the system without mentioning the mob. It seems obvious the Sanhedrin was at work through the night, gathering others who also wanted to kill Jesus to put more pressure on Pilate. Were they motivated by religion, politics, or a mixture of both? I believe it was not just one political or religious faction. Probably several factions who normally hated each other were mixed in together, united by one common enemy(4).
Some wanted Jesus dead because they were afraid he would be another messianic pretender who would bring down the wrath of Rome. Some were nationalists, disappointed that he was refusing to lead the people against Rome. Some wanted him dead because they heard he had blasphemed by calling himself the Son of God. Some wanted him dead because he spoke against the Temple. Some wanted him dead because he loved the very people “God hated.” All of these varied reasons were enough to have them all shout together, “Crucify! Crucify! Crucify!”
And what about Barabbas, the man they asked to be spared? In some texts of Matthew, he is called Jesus Barabbas, which allows Pilate to say, “Whom do you want me to release for you, Jesus Barabbas or Jesus who is called the Messiah?” (27:17 NRS).
By the way, Barabbas means “son of the father.” And who is really the “Son of the Father”? Uh-huh! So the choice Pilate unknowingly presents is Jesus who is called the “son of the Father,” or Jesus who is really the “Son of the Father.” Perfect irony. Maybe a little too perfect, which is probably why “Jesus Barabbas” is not recorded in all the manuscripts.
Would a mob really choose a thief, murderer, and/or insurrectionist over Jesus who is called the Messiah? I can see that. One person’s insurrectionist/murderer is another person’s patriot. Look at some of the political rallies of this campaign season. We have all seen what happens when a crowd gets stirred up against one person who does not toe the line. A mob is like a Zombie horde, mindless and seeking only destruction and death. They will accept and even cheer any violence against the outsider. I have no problem believing that part of the story.
The violence inherent in the system, point 5: Kill anyone who loves the people we hate.
Walter Rauschenbusch identified six systemic sins (he calls them “social sins,” which is an equally proper term) Jesus bore on the Cross:
- Religious bigotry
- The combination of graft and political power
- The corruption of justice
- The mob spirit
- Class contempt(5).
And I am going to add one more to the list: 7. Nationalism.
In examining all the players of this gross miscarriage of justice, you can probably see how each of these sins played out in nailing Jesus to the cross. Where do you find yourself among them? Don’t kid yourself. We are all guilty. I could easily see myself making the same decision Pilate did under those circumstances. In the past, I have used religious dogma to justify my “superiority” to non-whites, foreigners, gays, lesbians, and women, ergo I could have been one of the Pharisees or the mob.
A Final Word
In saying Jesus died for our sins, let’s not forget the social sins that killed Jesus. We have all participated in the violence inherent in the system, even if only by our inaction. As one of my former pastors said, “We would rather crucify Jesus than be transformed by his love.” We would rather cling to our purity and bigotry than welcome the stranger with compassion.
Rauschenbusch goes on to say,
“…every student of history will recognize that these sum up constitutional forces in the Kingdom of Evil. Jesus bore these sins in no legal or artificial sense, but in their impact on his own body and soul. He had not contributed to them, as we have, and yet they were laid on him. They were not only the sins of Caiaphas, Pilate, or Judas, but the social sin of all [hu]mankind, to which all who ever lived have contributed, and under which all who ever lived have suffered”(6).
(1) A few examples are given in Acts 5:35-39.
(2) In a similar situation, a mob in Jerusalem tried to kill Paul. The Roman tribune brought in his soldiers to protect him (Acts 23:10). Pilate could have done the same thing. However, unlike Jesus, Paul was a Roman citizen, which meant the tribune had a legal obligation to protect him from the mob.
(3) One ancient source says during Pilate’s tenure, the emperor Tiberius came to see the Jews as his friends. It would require at least another blog post to explain how that came about. The point here is Pilate had more reason than usual to fear the mob, because Tiberius had warned him not to offend the Jews.
(4) Unlikely alliances between factions started forming early in Jesus’ ministry, such as when Pharisees plotted with Herodians to kill him (Mar 3:6).
P.S. What’s that? You found my analysis so brilliant you want to go back and read the other posts in this series? Aw, shucks! You’re making me blush!
Okay, maybe I’m delusional. But I want to be as helpful as I can. Just in case you are interested, I’ll save you from having to scroll up to find the links.
Grace and peace to you.