One of the main reasons I think Jesus called himself the future messiah is that this best explains the best attested event of his entire life: his crucifixion by the Romans.
There are a few things we can say with virtual certainty about Jesus. For example: he was a Jewish preacher from rural Galilee who made a fateful trip to Jerusalem and was crucified by the Roman governor Pontius Pilate. There are, of course, lots of other things that we can say, without quite so much certainty (see my book Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium). But that much is certain. So why did the Romans crucify him?
Romans had to have a reason to crucify a person. There had to be a criminal charge. There could be lots of charges – runaway slaves, brigands, insurrectionists, all could be crucified. So why was Jesus crucified? The Gospels tell us, and in this particular case, there are very good reasons for thinking what they say is right. Jesus was crucified for calling himself King of the Jews.
There are several points to make that, taken altogether, suggest this is historically what actually happened. First, all the Gospels agree that at Jesus’ trial this is what Pontius Pilate accused Jesus of, based on what the governor had learned from the Jewish authorities. Second, this is the charge that is written against Jesus on the placard over his head on the cross – again, in all our accounts.
So those two points are suggestive, but not in themselves convincing. Two other points show why the Gospels are historically correct about this. The first is that there is nothing up to this point in the Gospels that would lead either anyone in the narrative itself or anyone reading the narrative to expect that this will be the charge leveled against Jesus. Nowhere in the Gospels does Jesus preach he is the present or future king of the Jews. He does not enrage his enemies by calling himself the king of the Jews. He never so much as mentions to anyone that he is the king of the Jews. The charge at the trial comes almost completely out of the blue. It is the one thing Pilate asks Jesus, and there is nothing that ever happens in the Gospel prior to that point that would make you think that it *will* be the charge. And so it is not a charge made up by the Gospel writers to conform the account of the trial to the rest of their narrative.
A final point is even more interesting and compelling. The title “King of the Jews” is not a title Christians used, so far as we can tell, for Jesus. That really matters for this question. Here is why.
Christians were frequently making up stories about Jesus in order to have him say and do what Christians wanted him to say and do. No one really doubts this, even conservative Bible believing Christians, because we have Gospels from outside the New Testament that are chock full of stories about Jesus that no one on the planet thinks are historically accurate but that portray Jesus in ways that people wanted to portray him.
And so we have later Gospels like the Infancy Gospel of Thomas that shows Jesus with amazing miraculous powers as a five-year-old Son of God. Yes, he seems a bit mischievous, but the point is he was astoundingly powerful, something Christians would want to emphasize. We have Gospels like the Gospel of Peter that narrate the fantastic account of Jesus emerging from his tomb on the morning of the resurrection tall as a mountain, with a walking talking cross behind him. We have gnostic Gospels where Jesus delivers mysterious secretive teachings that lo and behold sound very much like what Gnostics themselves believed. And so on. Someone is making these things up.
When Christians made up stories about what Jesus said and did, it was in order to show that Jesus was who Christians were saying he was. It is a striking fact that so far as we can know, Christians were not going around proclaiming Jesus by using the title “King of the Jews.” They used a lot of other titles for him – Lord, Savior, Son of Man, Son of God, God, and so on – so when these titles are used of him in the Gospels, you’re never really sure: is this something that’s historical or is this something that has been read back into Jesus’ life by later followers who wanted to portray him in certain ways?
But Christians – at least in our surviving texts (for example, the Gospels, Acts, Paul’s letters, and the other writings of the New Testament) – do not speak of him as the King of the Jews. Then why do all the accounts of his trial indicate he was condemned for saying just that? Probably because really was put on trial for saying that.
If that was the charge against Jesus, why didn’t he simply deny the charge and get off the hook? Well, he couldn’t get off the hook if in fact he did call himself the king of the Jews. So maybe he did.
But if he did, how did Pilate find out about it? Jesus does not call himself this publicly in the Gospels. So if he was calling himself that privately, how would Pilate know?
Someone must have spilled the beans. Someone must have betrayed his private teachings. That would have been an insider. Guess who.
I’ll follow up on that thought in the next post.
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