Special from Jerusalem
A tumultuous week in the Judean city of Jerusalem came to an end today when Jesus of Nazareth, a Jewish religious leader who many Jews claimed to be the Messiah but who Sanhedrin and some Roman officials saw as a threat to Pax Romana, was crucified on grounds of treason against the Empire.
Tensions mounted on Sunday when Jesus and his disciples marched into the capital and blocked the entryway to the Jewish Temple where thousands of pilgrims came to celebrate the Jewish Passover Festival. This was the second time in three years Jesus’ protest actions put a temporary stop to Temple transactions. On Sunday it was reported he disrupted religious ritual by turning over the tables of the Temple Court money changers and chasing those selling sacrificial animals out of the courtyard. Later Jesus purportedly threatened to take his protests even further. Witnesses say he threatened to destroy the Temple altogether and to then raise it up after three days.
Jesus’ actions jeopardized an already tenuous truce existing between Jewish religious and political authorities and Roman peacekeeping forces during the Passover Festival. As Passover is a holiday celebrating the ancient Hebrews escape from slavery in Egypt, it has in recent years been a week fraught with clashes between Roman soldiers and pro-liberation extremists. The actions of Jesus and other zealot-minded Jews necessitated Pontius Pilate, prefect of Judea, to move the bulk of his force from the Judean capital of Caesarea Maritima to Jerusalem for the festival to ensure order. There was speculation Pilate might even go so far as to decide to shut the city down altogether if peace could not be assured.
But Jerusalem religious officials moved quickly Monday to keep crowds in order during the festival. “The Feast of Passover is a religious event – not a political one. The great masses of Jews are peace-loving people who are glad for the peace and prosperity Rome has brought to the region,” Zacharias of Bethany, a member of the Sanhedrin said in a public statement endorsed by the body. The statement went on to denounce Jesus. “We reject the kind of opportunism exhibited in people like Jesus of Nazareth. He is an extremist, an outside agitator whom the prefect is justified in apprehending.”
Rival separatist leaders were quick to release their own statement in turn. “The so-called peace Rome has brought is no peace at all,” the separatist statement said. God’s promise for our people and our land is a promise for freedom. It is a promise given to our Father Abraham and verified in the blood of the Passover lamb. Moses did not lead our people across the Red Sea only to in turn now be slaves in our own land.”
It was notable, however, that the separatist statement did not mention Jesus by name. Jewish political observers suggest a leader like Jesus is unlikely to garner the support of pro-liberation Jews because of his apparent openness toward Gentiles, including a highly publicized meeting between Jesus and a Roman centurion in the Galilean town of Capernaum. As one religious expert put it: “Jesus may wear Moses’ sandals, but he does not carry his staff.”
But it wasn’t Moses who came to mind when Jesus made his way into town Sunday. Instead it was David, the greatest of Israel’s past kings. As Jesus entered the city, sitting proudly astride a small colt – a gesture intended to reenact an ancient Jewish royal tradition – crowds lined the path shouting, “Hosanna,” – a Hebrew word meaning “save” – “to the Son of David.” The crowd’s message was clear. They wanted their king – and they did not mean the Emperor Tiberius.
By Friday, however, it was evident to all in Jerusalem that Jesus was not the king they were looking for. Late Thursday night he was arrested by Temple police and found guilty by the Sanhedrin in a hastily organized emergency trial. Early Friday morning the Sanhedrin turned Jesus over to Pilate requesting the execution of the man known as “the Nazorean” on grounds of treason. By 3pm that afternoon Jesus’ body hung bloody and lifeless from a tree atop a high ridge just outside of the city. At Pilate’s order a sign was placed over his body written in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin: “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews”.
The pointedness of the sign was characteristic of Pilate’s strong-armed reputation as prefect, but conflicted with what sources close to Pilate say actually happened inside the governor’s courtyard. Those sources reveal the case against Jesus was not as cut and dry as Jesus’ accusers, and later the sign, suggested. The sources said Pilate saw the conflict over Jesus as primarily a struggle for control among the ranks of Jewish leaders; as such, Pilate was inclined to have Jesus simply flogged and released. In the end, however, political expedience won out, sources say, as Pilate became convinced that Jesus’ execution was in the best interest of the Sanhedrin and the region as a whole. “It is better that one man should die than the whole nation perish,” said a Sanhedrin member speaking on condition of anonymity.
Whether that man was innocent or guilty was apparently beside the point for Pilate. This is Judea – one of the most lawless places in the Roman Empire and insiders within Praetorium say law and order will only be regained if the Jewish people learn not only to avoid treason but also even the appearance of treason.
On Friday afternoon a dark cloud settled over the city as the Nazorean struggled in his final hours of crucifixion. It was a short time as these things go, but agonizing for those who kept watch. A commiserate spirit among the onlookers accompanied the man’s last gasps. A woman was heard gently weeping in the distance. “We had hoped he would be the one to redeem Israel,” she said through her tears. “We had hoped.” That was when Jesus, “King of the Jews” hung his head and died.
Pilate ordered the body be pulled down from the cross and given to some of Jesus’ followers. As the soldiers lowered the cross to its parallel position those around could see the body more clearly in its gruesome and mangled state. One of the soldiers, who stood guard throughout the execution, looked up from the body and toward Jesus’ followers and then spoke. The language was Aramaic, but the words were spoken with the tongue of someone who grew up in perhaps the Palermo region. “This,” he said, “was a son of God.”
It was not altogether obvious what the soldier meant.