Welcome to all our dear parishioners who are joining us online. We are streaming to both Facebook and the website at the moment. I hope they are both working well for you all. I am going back to reading today, as I think it does provide better audio. Although, I may alternate from time to time.
Over the last two Sundays of Lent I attempted to give you a deeper theological and cultural reflection on this particular moment of pandemic. On Holy Thursday, I tried a more spiritual and prayerful approach. I thought today I would try an historical approach to the Passion of the Lord. In particular, I want to focus on his trial. The condemnation of the innocent seems to be a timely topic at the moment, and so perhaps a few words about the historical and thus theological importance of history’s most infamous injustice will shed some light on recent events and our own Christian lives.
The history of the unjust trial of Jesus begins in 63 B.C. when the Roman general Pompey captured Jerusalem, and in so doing put an end both to the independent Jewish state of Palestine and eight decades of rule by the Hasmonean dynasty of high priests. Rome began appointing the high priests that served the Temple in Jerusalem. High priests from then on juggled the religious interests of Jews and the political interests of Rome, at whose pleasure they served. The state appointing religious leaders is not new a new phenomenon. It is still a disastrous one however.
Seven decades after Rome assumed control of Palestine, in 6 AD, growing Jewish opposition to Roman laws relating to the census, taxation, and heathen traditions boiled over. Especially despised was the Roman imposition of a census of property for tax purposes. Ancestral land held an exalted position in Jewish culture. Many Jews feared that the new laws would lead to its appropriation by Rome. Jewish uprisings in protest of the laws led to the crucifixion of over 2,000 Jewish insurgents and the selling into slavery of perhaps 20,000 more. The most intense opposition to Rome came from an area of Palestine called Galilee, which was the centre of an armed resistance movement called the Zealots.
The riots of 6 AD. and recurring outbreaks that followed caused Roman officials to see Jewish nationalism and religious fervour as threatening to law and order. When Herod Antipas, the Roman ruler of Galilee, constructed a new capital city, Tiberius, on the western shore of Galilee in 19 AD, he might have expected trouble from the Jewish population forced to meet heavier tax burdens to pay for it. In any event, trouble came, as two significant Jewish religious movements were born in the next decade in the region of northern Palestine under his rule.
To understand the crime that led to the arrest of Jesus, it is first necessary to understand the role of the Temple in first-century Jewish life. The Temple in Jerusalem served dual purposes. It was both the revered centre of religious life–a place for prayers and sacrifices–and a central bank, a place for taxes and tithes.
Nothing provoked greater anger among observant Jews than acts perceived to be defilements of the Temple, as other dramatic incidents in the two decades following the death of Jesus make clear. In 41 AD for example, Emperor Caligula ordered Petronius, the new Syrian governor, to install statues in the Temple depicting himself as Zeus incarnate. Thousands of unarmed Jews responded by lying prostrate and offering themselves to Roman soldiers for a mass slaughter. Other Jews threatened an agricultural strike. Petronius backed down and Caligula’s timely assassination ended the matter.
Roman leaders paid close attention to Temple activity. Any threat to Roman power over the Temple–even a symbolic threat–was dealt with harshly, as seen by the response to an incident around 5 B.C. Jesus’ arrest, trial and execution occurred around April, 30 AD during the Jewish Day of Passover leading into the week of the Unleavened Bread. The Festival brought huge numbers of Jews into the city to celebrate the Exodus, the leaving of Egyptian oppression and the arrival in the Promised Land. Romans had to understand the special risks presented by such a commemoration: large concentrations of Jews celebrating their former freedom in a time of new oppression–this time by Rome, not Egypt.
The four gospels place the time and scene of the arrest of Jesus as night in the garden of Gethsemane, an olive grove just west of Jerusalem on the Mount of Olives. The arresting party most likely consisted of Temple police dispatched by Caiaphas, the high priest. The party also included, as John reports, a Roman cohort under its commanding officer.
The Gospels provide three very nunaced accounts of the trial of Jesus. Peter, possibly writing as early as the 40s AD, describes a single trial scene involving Jewish, Roman, and Herodian officials. Mark, possibly writing in the 60s, describes two separate proceedings, one involving Jewish leaders and one in which the Roman prefect for Judea, Pontius Pilate, plays the key role. Matthew and John’s account generally support Mark’s two-trial version. Finally, Luke–alone among the gospels–adds a third proceeding, having Pilate pass the buck for jurisdictional reasons and sending Jesus to Herod Antipas.
The Gospels point to different sources of initial concern among the Jewish authorities- highlighting the confusion amongst the authorities occasioned by their rush to verdict. Mark suggests that the Jewish authorities were concerned primarily with the confrontation Jesus had with traders in the Temple, while Luke’s account identifies their primary concern as his teachings in the Temple. John, meanwhile, points to a fear among Jewish authorities that Jesus’ rising popularity could lead to an uprising that would provoke a violent response from Rome. Any excuse for an indictment will do.
All four Biblical accounts agree, however, that Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin ultimately condemned Jesus for blasphemy. The gospels record that when Caiaphas asked Jesus whether he claimed to be the Messiah, he replied, “I am” (Mark 14:62) (or “You have said so” (Matthew 26:64) or “If I tell you, you will not believe” (Luke 22:67-8) or “You say that I am” (John 19:7)).
After his condemnation by Jewish authorities, Jesus was brought, except in Peter’s account, to the Roman prefect of Judea, Pontius Pilate. The reason, according to John, was that the death penalty was not an available option for the Sanhedrin under Roman law. The Gospels portray Pilate as initially unpersuaded of Jesus’ guilt. For example, in Mark, after Pilate asks Jesus about “the many charges [the chief priests] bring against you,” Jesus makes “no further answer” and “Pilate wondered.” Later, Mark reinforces his suggestion of a reluctant executioner when he writes, “For [Pilate] perceived that it was out of envy that the chief priests had delivered him up.” However, Pilate is a fainthearted champion of justice and thus allows the crucifixion of Jesus, in the gospel accounts, not out of a conviction that Jesus did anything wrong, but only to “satisfy the crowd.” If there were still any uncertainty about Pilate’s doubt, the gospels report that after authorizing his execution, he “washes his hands.”
The Gospel accounts of Jesus’s punishment are consistent with what would be expected under first-century Roman law. Most obviously, the form of execution used–crucifixion–was a common one at the time when the convicted criminal was a slave, Jew, or other foreigner. (Romans were exempt from crucifixion, which was thought to be the most painful and humiliating of all punishments.) Crucifixion also establishes conclusively that Jesus was condemned as a violator of Roman, not Jewish, law. A capital sentence under Jewish law would have meant stoning.
Other aspects of the Biblical accounts of the execution that match common Roman practice include the flogging Jesus received at the hand of Roman soldiers before his execution, his carrying of the cross to the place of execution, and the guarding of the execution site by a unit of four Roman soldiers.
Unfortunately, the horrific details of the crucifixion account, such as the nailing of the hands and feet of Jesus to the cross, are true. In 1968, a nail-pierced heel bone of a first-century crucifixion victim was found near Jerusalem providing fresh evidence of Roman cruelty. The stripping of prisoners seems also to have been standard Roman practice, with the clothes and other small possessions of execution victims divided among the executioners. The humiliation of being hanged nude in a prominent place added to the punishment’s intended deterrent value.
The Gospel of John reports that “the Jews did not want the bodies left on the cross during the Sabbath…so they asked Pilate to have the legs of the crucified men broken.” This reference, obscure to most modern readers, is to what was considered a merciful act. Crucifixion is normally a painful and long death, with victims sometimes remaining alive on the cross for days. Leg breaking speeds the process by causing a rapid onset of asphyxiation or fatal shock. John’s Gospel states that Jesus was already dead when the soldiers arrived to break his legs.
Many details in the Gospel accounts show the passion story as a fulfillment of Old Testament prophesies concerning the coming of Messiah. For example, four accounts (Mark, Matthew, Luke, and Peter) describe a three-hour period of darkness falling over the land beginning at noon on the day of crucifixion of Jesus. Luke refers specifically to a solar eclipse that lasted until three in the afternoon.
Several early sources indicate that crucifixion victims were typically left on their crosses, their bodies to be eaten by vultures and dogs. Friends of Jesus preferred a kinder fate for him, and some of his supporters, or Jewish religious authorities believing “enough is enough,” succeeded in obtaining permission to remove Jesus from his cross
Within six years of the crucifixion of Jesus, Syrian governor Vitellius removed from power both of the men–Joseph Caiaphas and Pontius Pilate–most responsible for his execution. Pilate’s repeated difficulties with his Jewish subjects was the apparent cause for Vitellius’ decision to remove him. Rome ordered Pilate home to face complaints of excessive cruelty, which eventually led to his exile in Vienne, France. In 62 AD, James was stoned to death. Eight years later, Rome captured and destroyed Jerusalem marking the end of the four-year First Jewish War.
As we contemplate the historical truths of the crucifixion, we are reminded of one fact that seems a certainty- Christianity should not have survived. It should not have outlived the death of its founder, it should not have survived the death of the Apostles. And it should not have survived the Roman persecution. Yet, two thousand years later- here we are. The history of the crucifixion is the history of an unfathomable mystery. One of the enduring truths of the Passion that should give comfort to you and to me this Easter, is that Christianity will survive injustice. It will outlive the decisions of corrupt civil authorities and self-interested religious ones. It will overcome backward thinking and cowardly administration. Our Easter does not feel like Easter- it does however feel like Good Friday. Fear not- the feeling of Friday is to be short lived. And soon there will be a resurrection.