The reasons for Jesus' crucifixion

Wright’s explanation of the Roman and Jewish charges against Jesus can be summarized conveniently. As far as the Roman authorities were concerned, Jesus was executed as a rebel against Rome, but matters were complicated by the political situation:

First, Pilate recognized that Jesus was not the ordinary sort of revolutionary leader, a lestes or brigand. If he was a would-be Messiah, he was a highly unusual one. Part of this recognition came, we may suppose, through the prisoner’s own equivocation: ‘the words are yours’, as all four accounts have it. Second, Pilate therefore realized that the Jewish leaders had their own reasons for wanting Jesus executed, and were using the charge of sedition as a convenient excuse. Third, this gave him the opening to do what he would normally expect to do, which was to refuse their request; he tried this, but failed. He failed, fourth, because it was pointed out to him in no uncertain terms that if he did not execute a would-be rebel king he would stand accused, himself, of disloyalty to Caesar. (546-547)

The Jewish authorities condemned Jesus as a false-prophet and would-be Messiah who had committed the further outrage of claiming that he would eventually be vindicated and rule at the right hand of God. He was sent to the Roman governor, therefore, on a capital charge:

i) because many (not least many Pharisees, but also, probably, the chief priests) saw him as ‘a false prophet, leading Israel astray’;

ii) because, as one aspect of this, they saw his Temple-action as a blow against the central symbol not only of national life but also of YHWH‘spresence with his people;

iii) because, though he was clearly not leading a real or organized military revolt, he saw himself as in some sense Messiah, and could thus become a focus of serious revolutionary activity;

iv) because, as the pragmatic focus of these three points, they saw him as a dangerous political nuisance, whose actions might well call down the wrath of Rome upon Temple and nation alike;

v) because, at the crucial moment in the hearing, he not only (as far as they were concerned) pleaded guilty to the above charges, but also did so in such a way as to place himself, blasphemously, alongside the god of Israel.

The intention of Jesus (1): the key symbol

The Last Supper is understood as a ‘deliberate double drama’, which told both the story of divine deliverance from tyranny and the story of Jesus’ life and death (554). Jesus’ actions with the bread and the cup are to be regarded as prophetic symbolism. The relation of the meal to the temple-action strongly suggests that he intended a contrast to be perceived ‘between the Temple-system and Jesus himself, specifically, his own approaching death’ (558, emphasis removed). The meal, however, is also interpreted by Jesus’ words: i) the bread is identified with his body; ii) the cup is made a sign of the forgiveness of Israel’s sins, the renewal of the covenant, the great return from exile; iii) Jesus insists that this will be the last meal with his disciples before the coming of the kingdom; and iv) the disciples are commanded to repeat the meal ‘as a way of remembering Jesus himself’.

The intention of Jesus (2): the sayings and the symbol

If Jesus was announcing that the kingdom of God was in the process of happening, we must ask the question: what did he think would happen next? Two clues emerge from the preceding investigation: i) the expectation of a battle not against the pagan occupying force but against satan; and ii) the ‘revolutionary way of being revolutionary’ that he had taught his followers: ‘At the heart of that subversive wisdom was the call to his followers to take up the cross and follow him, to become his companions in the kingdom-story he was enacting’ (564). Wright argues that Jesus took this story with the utmost seriousness: ‘He would defeat evil by letting it do its worst to him.’ But this can only be grasped if we do not extract Jesus from the world of Jewish apocalyptic eschatology.

Wright next examines the ‘various riddles which circle around Jesus’ awareness of where his work was leading him’: the parable of the tenants, in which the murder of the son precipitates judgment on the tenants; the great commandment saying, with its hint that the sacrificial system would be replaced; the story of the prophetic anointing of Jesus for burial; and the sayings about the green wood and the dry (Luke 23:27-31), the hen and her chicks, and the cup that Jesus must drink and the baptism with which he must be baptized (565-574).

Finally, there are Jesus’ predictions of the passion to be considered, which must be understood in relation to the distinctive vocation that emerges from the ‘riddles’ about his death: ‘The “son of man” – the representative of the people of the saints of the most high – would find the beasts waging war upon him; but he would be vindicated’ (576). In order to pursue this idea further, it is necessary to ask: ‘what resources were available to Jesus for reflecting on how the kingdom might come through the suffering and death of Israel’s representative?’

The intention of Jesus (3): eschatological redemption in Judaism

The controlling story is the now familiar one about exile and restoration, but a particular emphasis is placed on the exodus motif as the ‘clsasic Jewish metanarrative’ that made sense of the hope of restoration. Within this story are two subplots. First, there is the belief that ‘the kingdom would finally come through a time of intense suffering’ – the messianic woes. Secondly, there is the expectation of ‘specific or individual suffering’, found in the tradition of the suffering prophet, in the Qumranic belief that the community would suffer because of their faith in the Teacher of Righteousness, and in the stories of the Maccabean martyrs. ‘According to this tradition, the suffering and perhaps the death of certain Jews could function within YHWH’s plan to redeem his people from pagan oppression: to win for them, in other words, rescue from wrath, forgiveness of sins, and covenant renewal’ (583).

This tradition is then traced back to the scriptures. Daniel is an ‘obvious source for first-century reflection on the way in which the fate of nation and martyr hange together’. Behind this we find the Levitical sacrificial code, the Psalms (especially the Psalms of lament), the story of judgment and restoration in Zechariah, Ezekiel’s symbolic experience of the punishment of Israel (Ezek.4:1-6), and above all Isaiah 40-55. Four points are made in relation to this last text; i) the servant passages must be read in the context of the whole story about restoration; ii) the text was an important in the Maccabean period as a way of making sense of the suffering of the righteous; iii) there is evidence that Isaiah’s servant figure was interpreted messianically; and iv) this does not mean that ‘pre-Christian Judaism… embraced a doctrine of a suffering Messiah, still less a dying one’ (590).

What follows from this in terms of the world within which Jesus read the Jewish scriptures, and came to an understanding of his own vocation? There was no such thing as a straightforward pre-Christian Jewish belief in an Isaianic ‘servant of YHWH’ who, perhaps as Messiah, would suffer and die to make atonement for Israel or for the world. But there was something else, which literally dozens of texts attest: a large-scale and widespread belief, to which Isaiah 40-55 made a substantial contribution, that Israel’s present state of suffering was somehow held within the ongoing divine purpose; that in due time this period of woe would come to an end, with divine wrath fall­ing instead on the pagan nations that had oppressed Israel (and perhaps on renegades within Israel herself); that the explanation for the present state of affairs had to do with Israel’s own sin, for which either she, or in some cases her righteous representatives, was or were being punished; and that this suf­fering and punishment would therefore, somehow, hasten the moment when Israel’s tribulation would be complete, when she would finally have been purified from her sin so that her exile could be undone at last. There was, in other words, a belief, hammered out not in abstract debate but in and through poverty, exile, torture and martyrdom, that Israel’s sufferings might be, not merely a state from which she would, in YHWH’s good time, be redeemed, but paradoxically, under certain circumstances and in certain senses, part of the means by which that redemption would be effected. (591)

The intention of Jesus (4): the strange victory

Wright next asks the question: ‘How can we understand his predictions of his own sufferings, within his thoroughly Jewish pre-Easter context?’ Some useful summary statements head this discussion:

I propose… that we can credibly reconstruct a mindset in which a first-century Jew could come to believe that YHWH would act through the suffering of a particular individual in whom Israel’s sufferings were focused; that this suffering would carry redemptive significance; and that this individ­ual would be himself. And I propose that we can plausibly suggest that this was the mindset of Jesus himself. (593)

The hypothesis I now wish to advance draws these three together into one. I propose that Jesus, consistent with the inner logic of his entire kingdom-praxis, -story and -symbolism, told the second-Temple story of the suffering and exile of the people of yhwh in a new form, and proceeded to act it out, finding himself called, like Ezekiel, symbolically to undergo the fate he had announced, in symbol and word, for Jerusalem as a whole. (594)

He took upon himself the totally and comprehensibly Jewish vocation not only of critique from within; not only of opposition from within; but of suffering the consequences of critique and opposition from within. And, with that, he believed – of course! – that YHWH would vindicate him. That too was comprehensibly Jewish. (595)

In two respects, however, Jesus differed from his predecessors: i) his aim was not nationalistic victory over the pagans but to make Israel what she was called to be – the light of the world; and ii) Jesus took upon himself the ‘wrath’ of God (‘which, as usual in Jewish thought, refers to hostile military action’) not simply because Israel had compromised with paganism but more importantly because ‘she had refused his way of peace’.

Jesus’ sense of vocation arose from his reading of four main sections of scripture: Daniel, Zechariah, the Psalms, and Isaiah 40-55. Wright demonstrates how each of these texts contributed to the expectation ‘that he would have to suffer, and that that suffering would somehow be redemptive’ (599-604).

Jesus believed that his death would accomplish the two crucial messianic tasks: the restoration or rebuilding of the temple and the defeat of Israel’s enemies. The parallelism between the temple-action and the last supper suggests that he ‘saw his own approaching death in terms of the sacrificial cult’, and specifically in terms of the Passover: ‘the one-off moment of freedom in Israel’s past, now to be translated intot he one-off moment which would inaugurate Israel’s future’ (605). The battle against the forces of darkness (the real enemy behind his visible opponents) was to be fought on two fronts: the confrontation with his ‘accuser’ Caiaphas and the confrontation with the might of Rome.

Jesus therefore took up his own cross. He had come to see it… in deeply symbolic terms: symbolic, now, not merely of Roman oppression, but of the way of love and peace which he had commended so vigorously, the way of defeat which he had announced as the way of victory. Unlike his actions in the Temple and the upper room, the cross was a symbol not of praxis but of passivity, not of action but of passion. It was to become the symbol of victory, but not of the victory of Caesar, nor of those who would oppose Caesar with Caesar’s methods. It was to become the symbol, because it would be the means, of the victory of God. (610)