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Why Was Jesus Killed?


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!

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.

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Disciples Who Doubt the Resurrection
Anti-Judaism in the Gospels



  1. Avatar
    dfandray  October 16, 2012

    Every time I think about these discussions of what Jesus really said and did, why he was crucified, and did he really raise himself from the grave, I start thinking about Ronald Reagan. Reagan’s presidency was only about 30 years ago and it was very well documented as it happened – in newspaper accounts, audio and video recordings, and in the words of the men and women who surrounded him. And most of this material is readily accessible to anyone who has a computer or does something as archaic as go to a brick and mortar library.

    Yet, every time I talk to somebody about Reagan, or listen to commentators on either side of the political divide talk about him, it’s like they’re all talking about a different man. He raised taxes; he didn’t raise taxes. He crushed the Soviet Union; he stood by clueless as the Soviets destroyed themselves. He was on the beaches at Normandy on D-Day; he was in Hollywood making training films. And so on. This despite the fact that we have access to a very real historical record. And even when we do agree on certain points, it’s pretty easy to argue that Reagan had core convictions, yes, but he was also a charismatic and telegenic frontman who lent his voice to policies developed by lieutenants like Ed Mees and George Schultz and Art Laffer and a host of emerging neocons.

    Couldn’t it have been much the same way with Jesus? He was perhaps the charismatic voice of a diverse group of people who were pushing a common, and sometimes conflicting, agenda. And when he died, the people who were part of the movement (or not part of it, for that matter) invested in this one man the sum of their hopes and dreams, and in this process the legend and the movement took on a life of its own.

    I mean, by the time we wake up tomorrow, how many of us will actually have the same take on what happens in tonight’s presidential debate?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 17, 2012

      On the debates, I (after all these years!) continually wake up the next morning amazed that everyone doesn’t agree with *me*!

      • Avatar
        ReasonableDoubt  August 3, 2016

        Don’t we all? Many an occasion I have written thoroughly researched, well referenced arguments and presented a detailed case for a given argument…only to find, to my consternation, that it was insufficient. Head…meet desk. Palm…meet face.

  2. Avatar
    Tnewby4444  October 16, 2012

    Knowing that Jesus was relatively unknown and had a small following, it makes no sense to me that someone of Pilate’s stature would be inconvenienced to preside over the proceedings or be consulted in any way. It would be akin to President Obama being called out of bed at 2:00 AM to preside over the fate of a just captured bank robber in Ohio.

    Isn’t it more likely Pilate was inserted into the story at a later date to give Jesus more gravitas? Had this story taken place in Rome, is there any doubt we would be told that Tiberius himself presided?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 17, 2012

      Yeah, it’s a good point. But Pilate was in town precisely to keep the peace during the incendiary time of Passover, and anyone who threatened to disrupt the peace may well have gotten placed on his docket. If the trial itself took only a minute, and he had only two others that morning, it would not have been a huge imposition on his time.

  3. Avatar
    timber84  October 16, 2012

    Was it common for the Romans to place a placard with an inscription of the charges against a criminal being crucified? Was this meant as a warning to anybody else who might think about opposing Roman authority? Since most people couldn’t read they would have had to ask somebody else present (assuming there was somebody present who could read) what the inscription said.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 17, 2012

      It’s usually *assumed* that it was a common practice, but offhand I don’t know what evidence there is for it.

      • Avatar
        Christian  October 18, 2012

        I heard a NT scholar mention that a slave of Caligula was caught stealing and had to carry a placard (titulus) stating “This one stole” before being punished.

  4. Avatar
    maxhirez  October 16, 2012

    In this scenario is there any deeper significance to the kiss or is it just a literary device?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 17, 2012

      Some have seen it as a fulfillment of Scripture (Prov. 21:6; or possibly 2 Sam 20:9-10). That of course makes it historically “suspect.”

  5. Avatar
    Christian  October 16, 2012

    When reading the Gospels in chronological order of writing, Jesus seems to be more and more exalted, more and more divine. But Mark has Jesus calm the stormy waters of the sea, which reminds me of Genesis. Also, Paul, who writes even before Mark, has a very exalted view of Jesus, who was “born of a woman”, but also divine (hence the initial vision). But how (much?) divine exactly? Was Jesus the Son of God in a transcendantal sense for Paul, or was he adopted?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 17, 2012

      YEs, you can’t draw a straight chronological development of christology. (Even today some people have high Christologies and others have low — but they live at the same time). And Paul’s is very hard to figure out. Would that he had sat down and written it all out for us!

  6. Avatar
    Jim  October 17, 2012

    Thank you for your detailed post on this topic. I would like to poke holes in your reconstruction but it is historically quite sound so I might need to hire an apologist.

    In the 2011 NIV update, those crucified on each side of Jesus were more accurately identified as (political) “rebels” (lēstai) rather than “thieves” so probably that’s the rap he was also up for; consistent with your synopsis above.

    I don’t know if the following could pass any historicity tests, but could it be that the rumor on the streets was the source for the “King of the Jews” title for Jesus that caught the attention of the Roman authorities? I think that there were a reasonable number of working class who were hyped for a Messiah at the time. During a Roman interrogation there was probably not much that Jesus could say in his defense (tough charge to get out of, language barrier etc.). Also maybe what he said to the twelve in private was allegorical. After all if Jesus had good prophetic skills, he should have said 11 of you will be sitting on 12 thrones (so don’t worry if you gain a bit of weight). Elsewhere Jesus mentions the concept of servant leadership versus hard core rulers (i.e. no room for throne-sitting in his kingdom).

    I would guess that the crucifixion left behind some pretty confused followers that led to some pretty screwed up oral traditions, unless of course they operated an infallible, inerrant grapevine. Just my opinion and no references to back it up

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 17, 2012

      Sure, it could be. But by calling him King of the Jews, it would have simply been another way of saying “messiah.”

  7. Avatar
    SJB  October 17, 2012

    How do you interpret the “incident” in the Temple then? Did that precipitate his actual arrest? Or was it his betrayal?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 17, 2012

      Yes, I think it happened and it’s what got the Jewish authorities ticked off and made them decide he had to be dealt with, as he was preaching against them. But the charge against him brought to Pilate and that convinced Pilate was not that he overturned tables in the Temple, but that he saw himself as a future king. He overturned the tables, etc., in my opinion (borrowing from E. P. Sanders) as an object lesson, a kind of parable of what was going to happen when the Son of Man (soon) appeared in judgment. Even the temple adn the priests in charge of it would be destroyed. No wonder they didn’t like him….

  8. Avatar
    Jerry  October 17, 2012

    To have Jesus and the Son of man be two separate persons quite a lot for an evangelical to get his head around. I have read this in your intro to the NT textbook. Is this the majority opinion of scholars? And this does help me understand why Jesus was betrayed easier.


    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 17, 2012

      I’m not sure what hte majority opinion is about the Son of Man. It’s a VERY complicated set of issues. What’s clear is that Jesus did use the phrase, and that later Christians thought he was talking bout himself….

      • Avatar
        BarrieS  October 19, 2012

        Great comments above, Prof Ehrman. I think your ability to stand outside the gospels and look in without a bias gives you the ability to see more truth than most scholars. I agree with what you said about Jesus above and why he was put to death, this is the most sensible synopsis I have ever read on this.

        The “son of man” is mentioned in Daniel 7:13-14, and is speaking of the moshiach hamelech/King messiah, who will come to rule upon the theocratic throne of King David. This is the last messiah, in a long list of biblical messiahs, found in the Tanakh. The son of man spoken of in Dan 7:13-14 speaks of a son of David who will have a kingdom that shall have no end, and of course this would be an earthly kingdom.

        • Avatar
          BarrieS  October 19, 2012

          It is interesting that this “son of man” of Daniel 7:13-14 is taken to heaven on the clouds and is brought before the God of Israel Who gives this person authority, glory, and an everlasting kingdom. So, I think it fits Jesus perfectly, who was said to be taken to heaven on the clouds.
          In this prophecy, this son of man does not return to earth to set up this kingdom until the very end of time.
          This is the only Tanakh prophecy I am aware of that uses the phrase “son of man”. All others say “branch of Jesse” or “David My servant” or something along those lines.
          Thank you for your site here, it is very interesting.

  9. Robertus
    Robertus  October 17, 2012

    Why do you think the messianic fates were so different for Jesus and Simon bar Kokhba? Were the Romans merely complacent after 70 CE? It is hard to imagine them making the same messianic claims. Was Simon bar Kokhba not as apocalyptic as Jesus perhaps?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 17, 2012

      I”m not really sure. But Simon didn’t come to such a cheery end either….

      • Avatar
        donmax  October 18, 2012

        No, but he did start a real war as an “official messiah” with real soldiers fighting bloody battles. Jesus, by contrast, was relying on God and armies of angels.

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  October 18, 2012

          Yes, I do not think that Simon bar Cochba was the same kind of apocalypticist as Jesus.

          • TWood
            TWood  October 10, 2016

            I know you think “my kingdom is not of this world” is not something Jesus actually said (because Jesus believed his kingdom would be in this world not long after he announced it was at hand), but in light of this comment… is it accurate to say that Jesus didn’t believe his kingdom was of this world *in the sense* that he didn’t believe an earthly army will initiate it (unlike Simon bar Cochba)?

          • Bart
            Bart  October 10, 2016

            In that sense, yes. But for him God would bring it — in this world (not in the world above)

          • TWood
            TWood  October 10, 2016

            So the idea of this earth passing away and a new earth replacing it (I think first found in Isaiah but repeated in the synoptics, 2 Peter and Revelation) is purely metaphorical in the biblical passages?

          • Bart
            Bart  October 12, 2016

            No, I think they meant it.

          • TWood
            TWood  October 12, 2016

            That’s interesting. So they weren’t technically looking for a kingdom on *this* earth then, they were looking for kingdom on a new planet that’d literally replace this one? Is that right?

          • Bart
            Bart  October 13, 2016

            No, it was to be on this planet, a new earth to replace the old one.

          • TWood
            TWood  October 13, 2016

            So they defined “earth” as separate from the planet. Did they define earth as something like “the land and system on this planet?”

          • Bart
            Bart  October 15, 2016

            I don’t think they worked out definitions.

      • Robertus
        Robertus  October 18, 2012

        Not a cheery end, to be sure, but a very different messianic carrerr prior to the end. It took over 6 legions to crush the bar Kokhba revolt. We don’t have any indication that Jesus’ messianic claims were anything like this.

  10. Avatar
    ERHershman  October 17, 2012

    Isn’t it also at least possible that there is no connection per se between the public ministry and the arrest/execution? I’ve been reading E.P. Sanders lately for a paper, and he seems to be arguing (if I understand correctly) that although there are thematic links between Jesus’s ministry in Galilee and his action in Jerusalem (esp. the “temple tantrum”), that it was the latter action only that got Jesus killed. I think there is strong evidence for this, given that Jesus faces different antagonists in Galilee (scribes and Pharisees) than he does in Jerusalem (temple authorities and high priests).

    (It was the issue of “why was Jesus killed?” that persuaded me that the apocalyptic-Jesus thesis was essentially correct… I have ended up agreeing with Sanders that there is no way to link the teachings of Jesus with his death, because nothing he says in Galilee in the Gospels could have been reason for the Romans to kill him.)

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 17, 2012

      Yes, I agree with Ed that hte Temple event is what set the ball in motion leading to his death (I explain in a response to another query in this thread); but that event was indeed closely tied to his proclamation: he was demonstrating what he had been saying, that judgment was coming, the son of man was soon to arrive, and he would destroy all opposed to God — even the Temple and its leaders. I give a fuller explanation in my book, Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium.

  11. Avatar
    hwl  October 17, 2012

    How about a post on why Judas spilled the beans against his master?
    And one on why you think Jesus did not see himself as Son of Man, and the implication this has for understanding the historical Jesus?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 17, 2012

      Good ideas!

      • Avatar
        Xeronimo74  October 18, 2012

        Regarding Judas: any ideas why Paul doesn’t mention him? Paul also seems to have believed that Jesus actually was rather delivered, by God, to Death in order to destroy it, instead of being betrayed by one of his own disciples? Maybe Judas was simply helping God and did was necessary in order for Jesus to succeed his mission?

  12. Avatar
    Adam  October 17, 2012

    Do you think the “Son of Man” and “messiah” refers to two different people?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 17, 2012

      Yes, for Jesus they were. The Son of man was the cosmic judge of the earth anticipated in Dan. 7:13-14; and the future messiah would be a human, Jesus himself.

      • Avatar
        BarrieS  October 19, 2012

        Jewish tradition holds that the “son of man” of Daniel 7:13-14 is indeed King messiah. There is no other person in all of the Tanakh who will receive the honor of having a kingdom that shall have no end, other than King messiah. This human is a son of David, as David is the one who received the prophecies regarding one of his sons sitting on his throne forever. (2 Samuel 7:12-16)

      • TWood
        TWood  October 10, 2016

        It’s a fascinating concept you have that Jesus didn’t identify himself with *The* Son of Man (I think you say he does use the term of himself in a more ordinary sense)… within the early church (heretic or proto-orth) does anyone make this distinction between Jesus and the Son of Man? I’m guessing not many (if any) since Paul doesn’t make it… but I’m sure you know more about this than anyone… thoughts?

        • Bart
          Bart  October 10, 2016

          Yes, it’s one of the standard scholarly views, though probably not the majority view.

          • TWood
            TWood  October 10, 2016

            Thanks, but my question was *within the early church* (heretic or proto-orth) does anyone make this distinction between Jesus and the Son of Man?

            I think your answer deals with the current scholarly view, which is good to know also, but I was wondering about patristics because I’ve studied that and can’t remember this view being there…

          • Bart
            Bart  October 12, 2016


  13. Avatar
    donmax  October 17, 2012

    YES! Again, and absolutely, YES!!

    Your analysis is spot on, well said and done without pulling any punches. Of course, there’s more to it than that — the fact that the Romans executed Jesus (and so many others for political reasons — but N.T. writers wanted and needed a different narrative, one that not only kissed up to Rome, but appealed to Gentiles at the expense of Jews!

    From these “stories” and Paul’s “letters” came the anti-Semitism of early and late Christianity.

    Would that it had been otherwise, and that Christians could call themselves to account for all the senseless cruelty inflicted over the centuries in the name of their all-to-human God.


  14. Avatar
    lbehrendt  October 17, 2012

    Bart, isn’t it possible that Jesus was killed simply because of his breach of the peace (the pax romana) during the “Temple cleansing” incident? Wouldn’t it have been a capital offense to overturn the tables of the money-changers and the dove-sellers, in the heart of an important cultic center, at a time just a few days before the Passover celebration) that the Romans knew to be a time of potential widespread social unrest? Yes, I know that the details of the “Temple cleansing” incident are disputed by modern historians. But if Jesus even spoke publicly about the destruction of the Temple … might not this alone have resulted in his execution? (Yes, I admit that my comment here follows my understanding of E.P. Sanders’ take on this subject.)

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 17, 2012

      As I say in reply to a couple of other posts, I do think the Temple incident led to Jesus’ arrest and eventual death; but it was not a capital offense to overturn tables in the Temple. It is why the Jewish authorities were eager to have him removed (in part because his apocalyptic preaching was directed agains them, and in part because such preaching at such an incendiary time could well lead to serious unrest.) I’m with Sanders on this.

  15. Avatar
    Adam  October 17, 2012

    It is fascinating to think about HOW Jesus’ death by crucifixion by the Romans due to his apocalyptic message regarding the kingdom was very quickly interpreted by Christians as a sacrifice for sin…and the view that Jesus himself considered his mission from the onset to die as a sacrifice for sin.

  16. Avatar
    donmax  October 18, 2012

    Just a word of caution. I think most people, even secular scholars, have a tendency to speak of Jesus and what may or may not have happened to him as though they are debating actual events, when in point of fact the basis of their discussions comes to us from religious literature (i.e., the New Testament), not history. It’s all after-the-fact creative writing.

  17. Avatar
    Zainab  October 22, 2012

    Hi Mr Ehrman, I am studying the prophecies for Jesus’ death & resurrection according to the Bible and one prophecy that is of interest is the Sign that Jesus gives the ‘evil & adulterous generation’. The Sign of Jonah.
    “For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.”(Matt 12:40).
    I have been asking different Christians of their opinion as to the state of Prophet Jonah in the belly of the fish. Every response is different. So per your expert opinion, what do you understand from this ‘prophecy’, and from the ‘original’ story of Jonah from the OT, as to what was the state of Prophet Jonah in the belly of the fish?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 22, 2012

      I don’t know what you mean by his “state.” Could you explain a bit further what you’re wondeirng about?

  18. Avatar
    lfasel  October 23, 2012

    In his pain staking work,”The Trial and Death of Jesus” Haim Cohn shows just how many “Jewish laws” in place at that time would of had to be broken in order to get Jesus crucified as the NT claims. He dissects the NT narrative book by book & verse by verse to show that a whole nation, especially the religious leaders totally disregarded the Passover and all that it entails even missing their own Passovers in their homes to convict Jesus.

  19. Avatar
    FrankofBoulder  February 28, 2014

    How would anyone know that the notice on the cross said “King of the Jews”? Jesus’ disciples deserted him and didn’t come to the cross. Besides, they were illiterate and couldn’t have read the notice. As usual, the gospel story doesn’t quite add up.

    His followers, even if they could read, would probably have been afraid to get close enough to read such a notice. Jesus’ female followers supposedly watched from a distance, presumably too far away to read anything. So, who saw the words “King of the Jews” on the cross? Where did this information come from? It seems to be another fictional tidbit.

  20. Avatar
    aflashman  February 11, 2016

    I having a debate with a friend about this. My argument is the Romans probably killed Jesus for their own reason (rather than the Jews), and that this hypothesis is likely because the Romans used crucifixion as a punishment whereas the Jews had other preferred methods of execution. My friend says I am committing a logical fallacy called “Affirming the consequent”. Is he right? I don’t quite understand how this argument commits this fallacy.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 13, 2016

      I’m afraid I don’t know what he’s saying. If only American can vote for the president of the US, and someone votes for the president, that person is probably an American.

      • Avatar
        aflashman  February 14, 2016

        Thanks very much for answering my question. For those historians studying the historicity of Christ is the method of execution (crucifixion) the main reason for thinking that Jesus was probably killed for insurrection against the Romans rather than blasphemy?

        I think this form of reasoning is called abduction (inference to the best of explanation). Is there another example in history (about a less controversial topic) where similar reasoning is employed that you can think of? I would like to be able to return to my debate with an example of similar reasoning just to show that this method is not unreasonable.

        A common claim is that Romans were simply doing the bidding of the Jewish leaders. I have heard it claimed that Jews were not allowed to carry out their own executions. Thus in order to keep the peace the Romans did the job for them. On the face of it, it just strikes me as unlikely that the Romans should concern themselves with Jewish religious law (it seems to me to odd, but not completely inconceivable). But then I don’t know whether or not there are examples of the Romans doing anything similar elsewhere. Are you aware of any examples of the Romans involving themselves in a similar way (that is executing someone for breaking the laws of the local ethnic group but not breaking Roman laws). Or would this be unprecedented?

        • Bart
          Bart  February 15, 2016

          That’s right. He was executed for calling himself the King of the Jews. The Romans didn’t care if someone broke the Jewish law. They themselves did, all the time!

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