Why was Jesus killed?
April 24, 2011 10:27 AM   Subscribe

Why was Jesus of Nazarath (also called Jesus Christ) killed? What was going on in Roman occupied Jerusalem that lead up to his death?

I know non-biblical historical sources are few and far between, but are there any other writings that dig into the history around this part of the bible stories?
posted by garlic to Religion & Philosophy (13 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite

Best answer: What you want is the quest for the Historical Jesus. (As a professor once described it to me, if a Catholic, an atheist, and a historian all got together in a room, the information they could all reasonably agree upon is what we consider "the Historical Jesus".) Excerpt from the wikipedia:
...Later, he traveled to Jerusalem where he caused a disturbance at the Temple. It was the time of Passover, when political and religious tensions were high in Jerusalem. The Gospels say that the temple guards (believed to be Sadducees) arrested him and turned him over to the Roman governor Pontius Pilate for execution.
From what I've heard, causing a disturbance in the Temple at a feast time was the main reason for his arrest. There's more on wikipedia about the possible reasons for his crucifixion.
posted by Zephyrial at 10:44 AM on April 24, 2011 [3 favorites]

The two biggest research projects surrounding the historical Jesus are the Jesus Seminar (which is faith based) and the Jesus Project (which is explicitly more about the historical Jesus).

Jesus and Crucifixion, a Historical View (NPR interview w/ Jesus Seminar scholar)

The Famous Trials website has a section on the Trial of Jesus (which refers to the gospels as well as semi-contemporaneous accounts by Tacitus and Flavius Josephus, although both are brief).
posted by dhartung at 10:56 AM on April 24, 2011

Best answer: I'm finishing writing my final paper on the crucifixion of Jesus today, so I feel vaguely qualified to answer this question. You can find most of this stuff on Wikipedia (the Historical Jesus article linked above is pretty good), but here's a basic outline.

The Synoptic Gospels make it fairly clear that the Temple Incident was a major reason for Jesus' arrest. It seems that Jesus might have also prophesied about the destruction of the Temple, although this tradition seems to be less grounded in historical fact, according to most of the Historical Jesus scholars I read. The Apostle Paul is our earliest witness to the truth of some of the key elements of the Passion narratives, which of course weren't written until decades after Jesus' death. The Gospel of John has an entirely different chronology for Jesus' death, and places the Temple Incident towards the very beginning of the Gospel. This presents a big problem if we're going to get the chronology right. Some scholars, such as Paula Fredericksen, argue that Historical Jesus scholarship shouldn't rely so heavily on the Synoptics to the exclusion of John, especially since John appears to be an independent source which the Synoptics are all related to each other in various ways.

John Dominic Crossan (part of the Jesus Seminar) and E.P. Sanders are two good scholars if you want to do some more research on this subject. Sanders' Jesus and Judaism is surprisingly readable, and places a great deal of emphasis on Jesus' historical context as a first-century Jew.

The basic argument for the Temple Incident leading to Jesus' arrest and crucifixion by the Romans is that Passover was a politically tense time in Jerusalem, and Jesus making a public demonstration against the Temple was sufficient to cause the Romans and Jewish leaders to worry about a riot. However, it looks like Jesus was the only one of his group killed at that time, so his followers must not have presented enough of a political liability for all of them to die. Basically what we're left with at the end is that Jesus was crucified as "King of the Jews" to send a message and quiet his followers, but they weren't so worried about a riot that more people were killed.

The canonical gospels tend to be polemical against the Jewish leaders, while much more reluctant to blame the Romans for their part in Jesus' death, so it's good to take the story with a grain of salt. Historical Jesus research tries to develop a historical reconstruction of Jesus, and the Gospels were written with such a theological slant that sometimes it's hard to know which parts of the tradition to accept as accurate and which to accept as theologically heavy and less historical.
posted by pecknpah at 11:34 AM on April 24, 2011 [13 favorites]

The way I was taught in Sunday School, the movement surrounding Jesus was considered a political threat by Herod, the King of the Hebrews. The events now commemorated by Christians as "Palm Sunday", the triumphal arrival of Jesus to Jerusalem to much acclaim and huge crowds of supporters, particularly scared Herod. He wanted it stopped, so he had Jesus arrested and tried for heresy.

Jesus was convicted, and sentenced to death. Under the Roman occupation, such sentences had to be approved by the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, but that was also pretty routine. And it was also the norm that such executions were carried out by Roman legionaries.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 11:37 AM on April 24, 2011

The gospel accounts don't blame Herod for Jesus' arrest and death. The chief priests and Pharisees were the ones who tried him, and Caiaphas is named as chief priest. Pilate, the Roman prefecture at the time, was the one who ordered the crucifixion. There must have been a political reason for why Jesus was crucified. Some scholars focus on the charges of blasphemy in the Gospels (although there are major problems with the historicity of the trial stories), but others, like Sanders, argue that the Temple incident provides the only event that could have convinced the Romans that he was a threat.
posted by pecknpah at 11:50 AM on April 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

Although, I guess the picture is more complicated. Luke (who copied from Mark, at the very least, and might have copied from Matthew, and/or a source called Q, as well) says that Pilate sent him to Herod Antipas, who, after mocking Jesus, sent him back to Pontius Pilate. I didn't see that many scholars agreeing that Herod Antipas did in fact have a role in Jesus' death though, and the primary actors still seem to be the chief priests and Pontius Pilate.
posted by pecknpah at 12:00 PM on April 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

The Romans wanted to repress dissent and appease the Jews at the same time. Killing a radical preacher who is trying to undermine Roman authority and a status-quo Jewish establishment is a pretty solid move.
posted by spaltavian at 12:07 PM on April 24, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: This is sort of a left-field answer, but I'm going to suggest a novel in addition to the historical works others have mentioned: Much of Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master And Margarita is about Jesus-the-person and the political circumstances surrounding his death. It is a work of fiction (duh), but you asked for "...any other writings...", and that's the first one that came to mind. It is also a cracking good read.
posted by AkzidenzGrotesk at 3:09 PM on April 24, 2011 [3 favorites]

Mod note: OP is not anonymous - if you want to question the premise MeMail is probably the best way.
posted by restless_nomad (staff) at 4:41 PM on April 24, 2011

The Pharisees were the ones who wanted Him dead. First, in their view, He was committing major blasphemy in His claim of being God's Son. Second, and probably just as importantly to them, they were afraid that His actions would bring Rome down on all their heads (hence Caiaphas's interesting comment that it was better for one man to die for the nation than for the nation to die. Yup, he said that.) However, being an occupied country the Pharisees were not permitted to exercise the death penalty for themselves. Hence, going to Pilate.

As for Pilate, he was very much inclined to release Jesus but the Pharisees basically let him know that if he did they would see to it that he got in trouble with Rome (Pilate was on a bit of shaky ground with his superiors at the time as it was.) So Pilate went thru with it to save his own neck. It would have been Pilate's preference to let the Pharisees handle things but, again, the death penalty could only be exercised by the occupying Romans.

Finally, according to Christian doctrine, the reason for Jesus being here in the first place was to give His life for our sins, hence, the crucifixion was in God's plan all along. As Jesus pointed out to Pilate, he only had power over Him because it was given to him from Heaven.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 8:34 PM on April 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: St. Alia's explanation lines up really well with the narratives in the New Testament, which is great if that's what you were going for. If you were looking more for historical context and scholarship, the Quest for the Historical Jesus will probably be more understandable. In particular, the assertion that the moral responsibility for Jesus' death lies primarily with the chief priests and Pharisees, while Pilate both literally and metaphorically washes his hands of it, has been challenged by various scholars.

The anti-Jewish slant in the canonical Gospels led of course to a lot of the terrible behavior of the Christians towards the Jews historically, and recent scholarship has, especially in light of the Holocaust, worked hard to try to correct the traditional understanding of the relationship between Christianity and Judaism. The Temple incident probably didn't happen out of a desire to "cleanse" the Temple, for example, and the malicious behavior exhibited by the chief priests towards Jesus should probably be taken with a grain of salt.
posted by pecknpah at 8:55 PM on April 24, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Many of the links above are based on the idea of Jesus as an historical character. However, in considering why he died, I think you also need to look at how the explanation would change if the whole story was made up.

If that were the case then the answer to "Why did Jesus die?" becomes "for narrative purposes": the gospel of Mark (upon which the others appear to be based) was written as an allegorical tale about a fictional figure who fulfilled that composite set of characteristics which were required for him to be seen as the, much prophesied, messiah of old testament lore. To be seen as a good match for the prophecies Jesus had to die in a particular way. The character of Jesus died at a period several decades before the time at which the story was written. By the time we arrive at the bible as we now understand it we have several more books which elaborate on the story for various reasons of contemporary religious politics.

That, at least, is a broad summary of what you can read in "The Jesus Myth: The Case Against Historical Christ" the site provides many more details and citations.
Personally I find the idea of a completely fabricated Jesus Christ more fascinating than the idea of a historical figure who maybe had some of his exploits exaggerated a bit in the telling. YMMV.
posted by rongorongo at 2:39 PM on April 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

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