We are between Palm Sunday and Good Friday. A few days ago Jesus rode into Jerusalem to excited cries of “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Mk. 11:9). The acclamation comes from Psalm 118:25-26: “Save us (hoshiʿ naʾ), we pray, O LORD! O LORD, we pray, give us success! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD!” In the psalm the words come directly on the tail of the saying about the stone rejected by the builders, which Jesus will shortly direct at the chief priests, scribes, and elders of the people at the end of his story about a mismanaged vineyard (Mk. 12:10; cf. Ps. 118:22). The crowds may be fickle, but the leadership of Israel is convinced that Jesus is trouble, a threat to the security of the nation.
Perhaps twenty years later, a Galilean, making his way to Jerusalem for the feast of tabernacles, is killed by Samaritans. This provokes great anger among the Jews, and a mob sets off from Jerusalem to avenge the man’s death, led by a belligerent fellow called Eleazar. The authorities in Jerusalem—perhaps even some of the same chief priests, scribes, and elders—run out after them in a panic, fearing Roman reprisals, and succeed in persuading many to turn back. But a hard core of militants goes on the rampage, engaging in robbery, and “rapines and insurrections of the bolder sort” (Jos. War 2.238).
Eventually Rome gets a grip on the situation. The procurator Felix, known to us from the book of Acts, brings Eleazar’s insurgency to an end. Eleazar, the “arch-robber” (archilēstēn), is dispatched to Rome, where no doubt he came to a sticky end. But a great number of the “robbers” (lēstōn) who followed him were crucified (Jos. War 2.253). Thousands of Jews would meet the same fate over the next twenty years.
The crucifixion of Jesus was an early straw in the violent winds—the collective madness—that would bring rebellion, war, and destruction on Judea and Jerusalem.
At the instigation of the chief priests, the crowd calls for Jesus to be executed in place of a man called Barabbas, one of a number of rebels who had “committed murder in the insurrection” (Mk. 15:7). Jesus suffered the punishment, therefore, that would otherwise have been inflicted on a man who was implicated in Israel’s violent resistance to Rome. That is what penal substitutionary atonement means in the context of the Synoptic Gospels. Whatever we make of the notion theologically, it is profoundly historical.
It is also more or less what Paul was getting at when he said that even while the Jews were enemies with God, they were reconciled to him and saved from the coming wrath against Israel “by the death of his Son” (Rom. 5:9-10). He was “delivered up for our trespasses,” Paul says, just as Isaiah’s servant was pierced for the transgressions of Israel, crushed for the iniquities of Israel (Is. 53:5).
The whole battalion of Roman soldiers is summoned to attend the mock coronation. Jesus is clothed in the purple cloak of a Hellenistic vassal king and crowned with thorns (cf. 1 Macc. 10:18; 11:58). The soldiers hail him as “King of the Jews,” strike him and spit on him, and kneel in homage to him—the pitiful fake king of a pitiful subject nation.
He is crucified between two “robbers” (lēstas), who both revile him, according to Mark. He is numbered with the transgressors (cf. Is. 53:12). This is presumably the popular verdict. He deserves to be punished.
He is derided as a false Messiah, a deluded pretender to the throne of Israel, not the first, not the last. The chief priests and scribes play the part of the corrupt, self-serving powerful elites who, according to Wisdom of Solomon, persecute the righteous Jew and seek to dispose of him:
He calls the last end of the righteous happy and boasts that God is his father. Let us see if his words are true, and let us test what will happen at the end of his life; for if the righteous man is a son of God, he will help him and will rescue him from the hand of those who oppose him. (Wis. 2:16–18)
The centurion who stood facing Jesus would have seen many Jews die in this way. Most would have been executed deservedly, but every now and then he would have seen a righteous man die the death of the wicked. He understood enough of the Jewish mindset—and of the cynicism of those in power—to know that this guiltless man was “a son of God.”
The whole story is under-voiced with a pulsating recitation of Psalm 22. Israel’s king asks why his God has forsaken him. The fathers always trusted in YHWH and he delivered them. But the king is “a worm and not a man, scorned by mankind and despised by the people.” He is mocked for his trust in the Lord in the face of extremity. His strength is gone. He is surrounded by evildoers, who have pierced his hands and feet. They divide his garments among themselves, and cast lots for his clothing.
So the king prays that he will be delivered from a violent death. He will praise the name of YHWH in the temple because he has “not despised or abhorred the affliction of the afflicted, and he has not hidden his face from him, but has heard, when he cried to him.” It is just this sort of act of salvation that will cause the nations to turn to YHWH and worship him. “For kingship belongs to the Lord, and he rules over the nations.” Paul’s gospel in a nutshell.
Finally, I think that it is this whole story of repudiation and disgrace in the eyes of the Jews that lies behind Paul’s statement that God sent his own Son “in the likeness of sinful flesh” (Rom. 8:3). This is not an attempt to define an incarnational ontology. It is Paul—the once zealous Pharisee, deeply affronted by the absurd claims made by the followers of Jesus—encapsulating the official Jewish view of Jesus. In the eyes of mainstream, anxious, Torah-observant Israel Jesus had always walked a dangerous and Law-less path and in the end was justly crucified as a sinner.
Again, Jesus is one of those described in Wisdom of Solomon, who in the sight of most people was punished for wrongdoing, who died, so to speak, “in the likeness of sinful flesh”; but “their hope is full of immortality, and having been disciplined a little, they will be greatly benefited, because God tested them and found them worthy of himself…. (Wis. 3:4–5; cf. Heb. 5:7-8).