There is one explanation for the crucifixion of Jesus that seems to be almost taken for granted in much of the literature I read on the origins of Christianity, and that is that Pilate had Jesus crucified as a political rebel. The gospel accounts deny this, of course, but that is explained by their authors wanting to present their crucified leader in the best possible light. So they depict Pilate as pressured against his own better judgement to allow the crucifixion of an innocent man. Since the gospels were written long after the events they narrate, let’s leave them aside for a moment and ask again how the Christian movement could ever have started if Jesus really had been crucified as a suspicious crowd attractor who was seen by some as a potential King.
Firstly, here are some of the more obvious reasons for the argument that Jesus was executed by Rome for a political crime.
- The crime was written above the cross, except that in the Gospel’s case what was written was not, “He claimed to be King of the Jews”, but that he was the King of the Jews.
- Pilate asked Jesus at his trial if he were the King of the Jews, and not, oddly, whether he claimed to be their king. Furthermore, the rest of the hearing before Pilate simply ignores this charge and goes on to dramatize Pilate becoming mesmerized by Jesus over his silence in the face of a host of other charges, the nature of which we are left ignorant.
- Jesus is said in the gospels to have attracted crowds of thousands and spoken about a kingdom of God, and in one gospel it is even said that the crowds hoped to make him their king on the spot. But Jesus fled.
- Josephus informs us of a few other messianic type leaders who attracted large followings, and how the Romans came in and liquidated them without bothering with questions or formal proceedings of any kind.
Scholarly reconstructions generally paint the following steps as taking place to get Christianity up and running
- Close followers of Jesus had been so deeply impressed by him that after his shocking death many came to still sense that Jesus was still a present force with them.
- They came to think of him as still alive — within them.
- They could not help but continue to preach about Jesus and to convert others over time to their faith.
- A few fundamentalist tract authors who are accepted as part of the scholarly guild even insist their hundreds of pages of publications prove Jesus really did miraculously rise from the dead and appear to his disciples, as per a mix of the gospel accounts.
One feature in common with all scenarios presented is that the Jewish politico-religious establishment wanted Jesus dead, or at least out of the way. It is generally accepted that they knew they were bringing a false accusation against Jesus when they accused him before Pilate of political treason. This was the one charge they calculated would stick and trouble the Roman governor.
So now we come to where this all leaves us concerning the question of how Christianity ever got off the ground.
When those disciples started preaching to others about Jesus, and explaining how they believed he was still alive, and how they were continuing to dedicate their lives to him and his work, then what was to stop the Jewish leaders from sending a quick missive off to Pilate or the new Roman governor charging his followers with attempting to stir up a renewed following of one crucified as an enemy of Caesar?
Or when/if they had their own Temple police arrest the disciples, as we are told they did in Acts, then why not simply march them off to the Roman judge and ask him to finish off phase 2 of the job? He’d crucified the head, now it was necessary to crucify the limbs. No problems.
And when Paul faced Jewish persecutors at every turn, why did not a single one of those persecutors seem to think to bring the one charge that could have put a very abrupt end to Paul’s influence: Paul was attempting to build up a following for an enemy of Caesar!
We know why that never enters the New Testament narrative, of course. The authors were writing a certain plot and were controlling the actions and dialogues of the characters they were bringing to life through pen and ink.
The author of Acts ensured that the disciples themselves maintained the initiative in all the debates with the Jewish authorities. The latter were so overwhelmed by the power of these renewed lives and all the miracles from God that attended them, that they were, let’s see, simply too dumbstruck to think of the more logical and practical responses that would normally have happened in any historical real-life circumstance. — that is, repeat the charges that had led to their first victory, and the second time around maybe have them all crucified upside down for good measure for daring to have such stubbornness.
I seem to recall I read Paula Fredriksen’s book about the crucifixion of Jesus — and addressing the question of why the disciples were ignored — some years back, and recall pencilling in remarks on nearly every page since I found the book as shoddy a piece of scholarship as some of the worst of Bauckham and N.T. Wright’s. I hope to get access to that book again in a month or two and will have to see if she adds anything that I should recall in the above argument.
Till then, the scholarly view that Jesus was crucified as a political rebel only serves to explain how Christianity could never possibly have got a leg up in the first place.
But I suppose that’s why miracles and divine intervention are such handy narrative tools.
So we are left with options. Either take the NT as it is, more or less; accept an historical analysis that raises more questions than it answers; . . . . or or or . . . .
My Zemanta [now defunct] tried to find me a picture of twelve crucifixions and this was the closest it could retrieve. A 12 (string) Passion — quite clever for a machine, I thought 🙂
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6 thoughts on “How the Jewish leaders could have wiped out Christianity the day it started”
How could a crowd of 500+ followers of a crucified Messianic candidate gather without attracting the attentions of the Romans?
There is always Acts 17 to factor in here
But when they did not find them, they dragged Jason and some other brothers before the city officials, shouting: “These men who have caused trouble all over the world have now come here, and Jason has welcomed them into his house. They are all defying Caesar’s decrees, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus.” When they heard this, the crowd and the city officials were thrown into turmoil. Then they made Jason and the others post bond and let them go.
I like Luke’s take in that Jason episode, and how he has turned the charges of the responsible authorities and some sort of “due process” in the case of Jesus into a hypocritical and ignorant mob rampage in Acts. The Romans are never called in, but the image created leaves a reader smugly assured that it would be the rabble that the authorities would seek to control.
But to step outside the narrative rhetoric and back into reality, why was Jason and the rest of Paul’s converts not formally charged with political subversion? And when those persecutors caught up with Paul again at Berea, why did they not go straight to the authorities to bring their charges?
Was the reason that it makes for much more dramatic (and to some extent anti-semitic) adventure if they can be seen brewing up strife in the synagogues instead? Besides, the plot had to be sustained through another eleven chapters, and the outcome had to mean the success, not snuffing out, of the church.
Watts wants people to explain away how a dead criminal was worshipped.
Well, he wasn’t. Anybody who worshipped a dead criminal would have been stoned to death before you can say ‘historical anachronism’
How can we explain away Paul claiming that Jews could not be expected to believe in Jesus ,as they had not heard of Jesus until preachers had been sent to preach about him?
I love these little altar calls that, without their authors realizing it, are actually calling for people to have faith in stories of Paul and Steven and anyone else but Jesus dying for their faith and thereby starting the new religion. They are saying, “Okay so you don’t believe the Jesus story, well that’s okay – you should still become a Christian because you still have to believe the Paul or Steven (or other unsupported martyr) story.”
Maybe this is what Paul was speaking about when he complained that some Corinthians said they were of Peter, others of Christ, etc. Maybe I can become a Christian by saying that Nope, I don’t believe in Jesus but I sure do believe that Paul believed in him and died for him!