Why was Jesus Crucified? All the questions I get from members of the blog are good and interesting and deserve lengthy posts. Every now and then I get one that is absolutely fundamental to understanding Jesus, the New Testament, and the history of early Christianity. Here is one of them, from many years ago, with an issue that everyone interested in these topics really needs to have a reasoned view about. Here’s the question, and my view
Why Was Jesus Crucified?
I don’t see the rationale for the Romans to crucify Jesus. It doesn’t appear that he verbalized any anti-Roman propaganda nor was anything anti-Roman alluded to in Josephus’s couple of lines on Jesus. Pilate probably didn’t even know who Jesus was (possibly the bouncing back and forth between Herod was legend).
Yes, it’s a great question and completely central to the story of Jesus: why was he crucified? First off, I agree the Herod story is almost certainly not historical. It’s found only in Luke and is part of Luke’s attempt to show that Pilate was innocent and wanted nothing to do with Jesus’ execution (he tried to fob him off on the ruler of Galilee). Herod too finds him innocent. So if the ruling authorities aren’t to blame, who is? It’s those blasted Jews!
Why Christ was crucified: Bart Ehrman Crucifixion Thoughts
It would take an entire book to answer your question adequately, but I do want to say a couple of things about it. The crucifixion of Jesus by the Romans is one of the most secure facts we have about his life.
Whenever anyone writes a book about the historical Jesus, it is really (really, really) important to see if what they say about his public ministry can make sense of his death. If not, then you have a problem. For example, if Jesus is best understood principally as a great rabbi who taught his followers they should love one another, and even love their enemies – why would the Romans execute him?
Oh no! We can’t have you *loving* us! To the cross with you! Or if Jesus were a Jewish cynic philosopher who taught his followers not to be invested in the material things of this world but to share what they have and be concerned only with spiritual things – what would make that a capital offense? How many cynics were crucified?
Or if Jesus were principally interested in equality for women, or in having his followers adopt proto-Marxist principles or .. whatever – why was he killed?
If a scholar tries to explain Jesus’ life in a way that really doesn’t make much sense of his death, then that should be the first clue that something is amiss.
What is clear is that Jesus was killed on political charges and nothing else.
Many people seem to think that Jesus ran afoul of the authorities because he committed blasphemy or offended the religious sensitivities of the Jewish leaders of his day (Pharisees, e.g.; the Sadducees of the Sanhedrin; etc.). But in fact, the Romans didn’t care a TWIT about Jewish blasphemy or about internal Jewish disputes about doctrine and/or practice.
Moreover, the record is crystal clear of what the charges against Jesus were. They were political in nature. He had been calling himself the King of the Jews.
Why Was Jesus Executed? Because He Called Himself the King of the Jews
He didn’t mean it in a spiritual sense and the Romans didn’t interpret it in a spiritual sense. Being King meant being the political leader of the people of Israel. And only the Roman governor or someone the Romans appointed (like Herod) could be king. Anyone else who *claimed* to be king was usurping Roman prerogatives and was seen as a threat, or if not a threat, at least a public nuisance. Romans had ways of dealing with lower-class peasants who were trouble makers and public nuisances.
They crucified them
There are lots of reasons for thinking that this really was the charge against Jesus. It is completely credible contextually since the Romans did not execute people for no reason at all or for offending the religious sensitivities of other Jews. Moreover and even more important, the charge is multiply attested in our various sources (Mark, John, at both trial and crucifixion scenes). More than that, it is not a charge Christians would have invented and inserted into these stories (i.e., it passes the criterion of dissimilarity).
The reason is clear. “King of the Jews” is not a term Jesus ever uses of himself in the Gospels and it is not a term ever used *of* him by any Christian author of the first century. So why is it the charge against him at the trial and the charge written on the placard at the crucifixion? Because it really was the charge.
But then there’s an even bigger question.