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The death of Jesus for the nation

So the chief priests and Pharisees convened the Sanhedrin and said, ‘What are we to do, for this person does many signs? 48 If we permit him thus, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away from us both the place and the nation.’ 49 But a certain one of them, Caiaphas, being high priest of that year, said to them: ‘You do not know anything, 50 nor do you reckon that it is better for you that one person should die for the sake of the people and not the whole nation perish.’ 51 He did not say this from himself, but being high priest of that year he prophesied that Jesus was about to die for the sake of the nation, 52 and not for the nation only but in order also that the scattered children of God might be gathered into one. 53 From that day, therefore, they made plans to put him to death.

The Pharisees and chief priests warn the Sanhedrin that if the Jesus’ movement gets out of control, ‘the Romans will come and take away both our place (arousin hēmōn… ton topon) and our nation’ – in Caiaphas’ words, the nation will ‘perish’ (Jn. 11:48, 50). There is at least a hint here of Daniel’s account of the military leader who will ‘take away their place (exērthē ho topos autōn) and sacrifice’, leaving the sanctuary desolated, which is part of the outworking of the ‘wrath against the sons of your people’ (Dan. 8:11, 18 LXX). This is not incompatible with the view that the Sanhedrin is primarily afraid that the Romans will take the temple and the nation out of their control (Beasley-Murray, John, 196). For ‘place’ meaning ‘temple’ see also 2 Macc. 5:19; Acts 6:13.

Caiaphas argues, presumably from a position of quite pragmatic nationalism, that it is better to have Jesus killed than risk a popular uprising that would bring the wrath of Rome down upon their heads (cf. 11:48).

John no doubt understood the cynicism of the argument, but attributes the ambiguous premonition to the Holy Spirit: Jesus would die not only in order that the nation would not perish but also to gather in as one the scattered children of God. I think we have here at least an approximation to the historical kernel of the New Testament’s understanding of Jesus’ death: by having Jesus put to death, the Jewish authorities believed that they were saving the nation from itself.

This is ironic, of course: in the end the nation was destroyed, and it was those who trusted in Jesus who were saved. But it remains a ‘nationalistic’ argument. Given the context the ‘scattered children of God’ should probably be taken as a reference to Jews of the diaspora - previously scattered among the nations by God as punishment for Israel’s trespasses (cf. Jer. 9:16; Ezek. 20:34; 28:25; Dan. 9:7; Zech. 1:21). But even if we suppose that John has in mind the Gentiles who will be joined to Israel (cf. Jn. 1:12-13?), their gathering is a consequence of Jesus’ death, but the death is for the nation - for the sake of the continuing existence of the people.