By Bart D. Ehrman, The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
The crucifixion is the best attested event from the entire life of Jesus of Nazareth. And, as odd as this may seem, unlike the account of the Triumphal Entry, Jesus’s crucifixion is not a story that his earliest followers would have later invented for themselves, even though they ended up basing the religion on it.
Jesus, the Messiah
It’s a well-known fact that sometimes authors will change an account or invent an account in light of what they already think. When it comes to the story of Jesus of Nazareth, we know that, about a week after arriving in Jerusalem, he was arrested, put on trial, and executed for crimes against the state. There can be no doubt about this.
Why can there be no doubt about that? It is so as the earliest followers of Jesus would not have made up the idea that Jesus was crucified precisely because that idea runs counter to their belief that Jesus was the messiah.
An Insignificant War Criminal
The earliest followers of Jesus were Jews. They thought Jesus was the messiah. If that’s so, then they would have thought that he was the coming ruler, the king, who would destroy the enemy and set up a kingdom in Israel. That’s what the messiah was supposed to be.
And yet, in the story of the crucifixion, Jesus does not destroy the enemy with a show of force, he’s crushed by the enemy, as an insignificant war criminal.
That, therefore, means that Jesus’s followers would not have invented the story of the crucifixion, as it shows him to be the opposite of what Jews expected their messiah to be.
This article comes directly from content in the video series The Triumph of Christianity. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Arrest and Crucifixion
These very charges that he professed to be the king of the future Israel, led to his arrest and crucifixion. The question that comes up is why? Why did it happen? Why was Jesus executed for calling himself the king?
If Jesus thought he was the future king, it’s important to know what he must have meant by that. It’s important to remember that Jesus himself did not promote a military coup.
Jewish Apocalyptic Thought
Jesus was an apocalypticiyst who thought God was going to intervene in history, to overthrow the Roman overlords, in a cosmic show of force. And so, Jesus did not raise an army to oppose the Romans. But he did think he would be the future king. How could that work? The answer makes sense in the context of Jewish apocalyptic thought.
Jesus thought that when the Kingdom of God arrived from heaven, he was the one who would be enthroned as the king. This was an apocalyptic understanding of the messiah, not the normal political understanding; God would make him king, not an uprising.
And so, the most plausible explanation for Jesus’s death, is that somehow word got out that he was saying that when God destroyed the forces of evil and brought in the kingdom, he would be the next king.
When the Roman authorities learned of it, they had Jesus arrested as it was a direct challenge to their rule. He was turned over to the Romans and put on trial, and when the governor asked him if it was true that he was the future king. Jesus had to admit it.
Jesus’s Apocalyptic Message
It is worth noting that the Romans were not interested in the theological nuances of Jesus’s apocalyptic message. Whether he had an apocalyptic view or a political view of the messiah, they heard that Jesus declared himself to be the future king, and they unceremoniously killed him for it. They would have done the same to anyone who dare put a claim over the land they ruled.
That the Romans did so is absolutely certain. But how would they have heard that Jesus was saying this about himself?
The record is clear that one of Jesus’s own disciples, Judas Iscariot, turned him over to the authorities. Judas revealed to Jesus’s enemies that he had been proclaiming to be the future Jewish king. This also underlines the fact that Jesus’s followers themselves thought that Jesus believed himself to be the messiah.
And yet, why should we conclude that Romans did not directly hear Jesus saying this?
The Inner Circle
To begin with, there is nothing to suggest that Jesus publicly declared himself to be the king of the Jews. He does not call himself the future king during his public ministry.
This then begets the inference that if he wasn’t saying it publicly, he was perhaps saying it privately, just to the disciples. There is compelling evidence for thinking that this is indeed what Jesus taught his inner circle.
In one key passage of the gospels, we find a saying of Jesus, which no Christian writing later would have made up. It must be something that Jesus himself said. In Matthew, verse 19:28, Jesus is telling his disciples, that when the cosmic judge of the earth arrives to bring the kingdom, “You twelve will be seated on twelve thrones ruling the kingdom.”
He clearly refers to them as “You twelve”, talking directly to the disciples.
Rulers of the Kingdom
No later Christian would make that up after Jesus’s death because by then, everyone knew that one of the twelve had betrayed Jesus. Hence, no one would think that Judas, one of the 12, was going to be a future ruler of the kingdom.
Thus, in conclusion, one can reasonably assume that Jesus taught his disciples that they would be the rulers of the kingdom, and he, over them. Jesus chose them, those who adhere to his teachings would be the ones who entered into the kingdom. Thus, by inference, Jesus appears to have taught his disciples that he himself would be the future messiah.
Common Questions about the Crucifixion of Jesus
Jews believed that the coming ruler, the king, would destroy the enemy and set up a kingdom in Israel. That’s what the messiah was supposed to be.
Jesus was an apocalypticiyst who thought God was going to intervene in history, to overthrow the Roman overlords, in a cosmic show of force.
The record is clear that one of Jesus’s own disciples, Judas Iscariot, turned him over to the authorities.