Misunderstanding Jesus’s Execution

From the Archive: Over the centuries as Christianity bent to the interests of the rich and powerful, the story of Jesus’s fateful week in Jerusalem was reshaped to minimize its pivotal event, overturning the Temple’s money tables, a challenge to religious and political power, says Rev. Howard Bess.

By the Rev. Howard Bess (Originally published April 23, 2011)

Christians have special celebrations for the key events of Holy Week, but they often overlook one of the most important.

Palm Sunday celebrates the entry of Jesus into the city of Jerusalem. Maunday Thursday is a solemn replay of his last meal with his disciples. Good Friday takes us through his mock trial and his death of horror on a Roman Cross. Easter is the Christians’ triumphant celebration of Jesus’s resurrection from the dead.

Jesus, driving the money-changers from the Temple, in a painting by El Greco.

Jesus, driving the money-changers from the Temple, in a painting by El Greco.

But there is a missing piece. The incident that gives sense to the week’s climactic events is Jesus’s overturning of the money tables at the temple.

Tradition says that the incident was a ceremonial cleansing of the temple of its commercial enterprises because those in charge of the temple had turned a house of worship into a commercial enterprise. Jesus disrupted the commercial operation by upsetting the tables where the temple lackeys sold required animals for sacrifice.

However, modern scholarship is putting an emphasis on understanding this historical incident in context. The first piece of the puzzle is the temple itself.

For nearly half a century, including the time of Jesus’s birth, Herod the Great had ruled Palestine as an ambitious king appointed by Rome’s Caesar. Herod was of mixed racial background and claimed some Jewish blood. He wanted to be known as King of the Jews, but acceptance by the Jews was difficult to attain.

Herod the Great also was a builder. Under his reign, he built civic buildings and ports, but his greatest building project was the rebuilding, expansion and refurbishing of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem. It was known as Herod’s temple or is sometimes referenced as the Third Temple.

Because of that history, the reign of Herod and the operation of the temple were linked and locked. It was the near inseparable joining of government and religion. To offend one was to offend both.

Herod the Great died in 4 CE, when Jesus was still a child. During the years of Jesus’s teaching ministry, Herod’s son, Herod Antipas, was the ruler. The joining of kingdom and temple continued.

Jesus grew up and taught in a rural area 70 miles north of Jerusalem. His faith was shaped, not by Jerusalem and the temple, but by weekly gatherings of the community elders as they read Torah (Jewish law) and discussed its meaning.

Jesus and his followers had limited contact with Jerusalem’s social, political and religious leaders, mostly through the retainers (enforcers) of Herod’s Roman rule who also represented the Jerusalem temple. Retainers made regular trips into the rural north to collect tithes and taxes.

To understand Jesus, one must realize the depth of his contempt for both the rule of Herod and the religious rulers of the temple. To further understand Jesus and the last week of his life, the student needs to realize that the Old Testament contains not one religious tradition, but two. One is called the great tradition; the other is called the small (or lesser) tradition.

The great tradition is the definition of society laid down by those who rule and enforced by their retainers. The great tradition is centered in cities in which the controlling institutions are located. For Jesus, that place was Jerusalem. There is no evidence that Jesus ever visited Jerusalem as an adult before the last week of his life.

The small tradition is a critiquing and competing interpretation of life. It almost always arises with devout believers who have escaped the burden of the great tradition and its demand for conformity.

Northern Palestine, 70 miles removed from Jerusalem, was a hotbed for the small tradition. The leaders of the small tradition found heroes in Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, Micah and other Old Testament prophets. Almost every one of the Old Testament prophets was a critic of those who controlled the temple in Jerusalem.

John the Baptizer was the first of the little tradition prophets presented in the Gospel narratives. His harsh criticism of rulers led to his death. Jesus took up the mantle.

As modern New Testament scholars have reconstructed the context in which Jesus lived and taught, they have realized that Jesus was not simply a religious figure. He was a severe critic of those who controlled the temple, those who controlled the empire, and those who controlled the economic systems that starved and robbed the poor and left the orphan and the widow to fend for themselves.

To Jesus, these issues were all tied together.

Jesus was a largely unknown and harmless critic as long as he remained in his northern rural setting. He was clearly an apocalyptic preacher. He advocated overthrow of a corrupt system. He believed the days of the oppressors were numbered. But he believed the overthrow could be accomplished by love, mercy and kindness.

Jesus took his apocalyptic message to Jerusalem. However, to call his arrival a triumphal entry is to miss the point completely. He chose to enter Jerusalem riding on a donkey as mockery of the ruler’s horse. It was an ancient form of street theatre that Jesus and his followers used to make their point. The great tradition that was accepted by Jerusalem’s masses was being publicly taunted by a figure of the small tradition.

But the critical point of Jesus’s visit to Jerusalem came when he visited the temple. In no sense had he come to worship and make sacrifice. He came to disrupt and to make pronouncements about the judgment of God on the whole operation.

Jesus did not go to the temple to cleanse. He came to the temple to announce the destruction of a whole way of life. Those who operated the temple had no power to silence Jesus and put him to death. Those powers were held by the Roman retainers.

The charges that were leveled against him can be summed up as insurrection. There were three specific charges: encouraging non-payment of taxes, threatening to destroy property (the temple), and claiming to be a king. It was the temple incident that took Jesus from being an irritating, but harmless country rebel from the rural north to a nuisance in a city that controlled the great tradition. Rome’s retainers killed him on a cross.

The theological meaning of the series of events remains in our own hands. However, the key to understanding the week of Jesus’s crucifixion is the incident at the temple.

The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister, who lives in Palmer, Alaska. His e-mail address is [email protected].

28 comments for “Misunderstanding Jesus’s Execution

  1. Don
    April 24, 2014 at 06:05

    The four canonized gospels (picked by holy prelates from a dozen available) tell you that Christ could disappear in thin air and reappear at will, pass through closed doors and changed frequently his appearance beyond recognition – this is why Judas had to identify Him with the Judas’ kiss; and then… Then according to the Gospel of Barnabas it was Judas who was taken to be Jesus and crucified regardless of his desperate protestations – that he is NOT Jesus. The only thing that this discussion proves, is that the meaning of God’s incarnation is above human rationality.

  2. April 15, 2014 at 16:17

    This writer has got some of his facts wrong. Jesus regularly attended Jewish feasts in Jerusalem. The first one I see in scripture is found in John 2:13 at the beginning of His ministry. Right after this is the great conversation between Him and Nicodemus (Jn 3:1-21) and since Nicodemus was amember of the ruling council, it also occured in Jerusalem.

    Jesus was killed for the simple reason that the Jewish leaders didn’t want to lose power.

    This article lacks scholarly substance.

  3. Lutz
    April 15, 2014 at 06:27

    2014 CE & still this fantasy occupies intelligent minds. get real. there are some important issues globally to solve. religions are in the way and often the cause

    • bobzz
      April 15, 2014 at 10:05

      Lutz, Gandhi once said the West does not know Christ. He was right. But just a couple of things: if millions of Christians truly followed Jesus who said a man’s worth is not determined by what he has, it would undercut the consumerism that drives rapacious capitalism. If millions of Christians followed Jesus as non-combatants, as they did in the centuries prior to Constantine, it would make a huge impact on the militarism that serves Wall Street and the corporations’ interests in raping the planet for its resources. Hitler would not have had enough men to form an army. When you write, “religions are in the way and often the cause [of global problems]”, I strongly agree. I am not blind to 17 centuries of fellowship with the state. When I defend Christianity, I am defending original Christianity, not what passes for it today.

  4. 0jr
    April 14, 2014 at 19:05

    Then why did they take him before the jews as a pretrial and later even pilot asked the crowd to chose death or life.He was no threat to rome but to the rabbis aka jews status quo which is why the jews wanted him dead.They feared he would take over judism and the rabbis would be out of a scam collecting taxes for religious services eg entry into the temple every saturday

  5. Shane Mage
    April 14, 2014 at 18:06

    It is downright false to say that: “Jesus took his apocalyptic message to Jerusalem. However, to call his arrival a triumphal entry is to miss the point completely. He chose to enter Jerusalem riding on a donkey as mockery of the ruler’s horse.” The Messianic prophecy of Zechariah foretold the entry of the Anointed King (messiah) into Jerusalem on
    “an ass, the foal of an ass.” It was a quite explicit proclamation of Jesus’s stature as the “son of David,” the foretold king arriving to claim his throne. As such it was all the evidence needed for Pilate to convict Jesus of claiming to be “Messiah, a King.”

  6. bobzz
    April 14, 2014 at 17:36

    “The rest of the story is the stuff of vivid imagination, told and retold over centuries.” Another assertion without evidence. Why would anyone or group make up the rest of the story? Motive please. According to the real story, Pilate was reluctant to crucify Jesus. He knew he was not a militaristic revolutionary. There was nothing about Jesus or his followers that suggested a threat to Rome. The threat to Pilate was a riot, which would not have pleased Rome. It came from the Jews, not Jesus or his followers. There is not a smidgeon of borrowing from pagan gods. Christianity grew out of Judaism, not Hellenism. Nothing in Hellenism, given their dualism, suggests they would make up a resurrection of the flesh. They found that idea ridiculous. My guess is that modern atheism takes its cue from the philosophy of scientists. Contrary to conventional wisdom, they have not sounded the death knell of God or miracles. I do not ask them for scientific proof or even evidence of God’s non-existence. If he does not exist in their minds, it is unfair to ask them to prove a negative. That said the origin of the universe and life are scientific issues. And until those are solved, and they will never solve those problems, the question of God remains open on historical grounds. This is not god-of-the-gaps. And yes, I accept scientists’ views of evolution and old earth. I have no problem with science qua science. Intelligent Design is a distraction. But their atheism is philosophically, not scientifically based. I shall stick with the Luke/Acts until someone comes up with an equally compelling narrative for the rise of Christianity apart from the resurrection. Hugh Schoenfeld’s, The Passover Plot, did not make it, but it is the best try I have read so far. I need more than non-evidentiary assertions.

    April 14, 2014 at 15:06

    In the ancient world, great temples functioned as state central banks, where the nation’s wealth was stored under the protection of the gods, and in the case of the Jerusalem temple, by a 2,000 man Jewish police force and a full cohort of the Roman Third legion, whose barracks, the fortress Antonia, were built into the temple wall. When Titus took the temple a scant forty years later its treasure was enough to build the Flavian Amphitheater at Rome (otherwise known as the Coliseum) and to provide large cash donatives to thousands of Roman civilians.

    Jesus’ attack on the temple was a symbolic assault on the very core of national power and prestige. The most striking fact of the narrative of Jesus’ unhappy experience that fateful Passover is that the Romans executed only him and harmed none of his followers. Pilate was known for his contempt for his impossible to please Jewish subjects and would have butchered hundreds if not thousands if there was an actual Jesus movement that represented even the smallest possibility of a real threat to imperial authority.

    A more likely scenario is that this charismatic rural faith healer was known as a lone madman who journeyed to urban Jerusalem every year warning of the arrival of the End Times, but on his last visit his final personal break with reality came when he was encouraged by his mock-salutation as Messiah and the crowds imploring him in jest to “save us!” His fate was sealed by his actions at the temple – the humorless Roman overlords cruelly murdered the poor deluded man for his fanaticism.

    The rest of the story is the stuff of vivid imagination, told and retold over centuries. Divine paternity, virgin birth, the sojourn in the Underworld and rebirth as a Savior- these are classical pagan archetypes, utterly alien to the Jewish tradition the real Jesus knew.

    • Gregory Kruse
      April 14, 2014 at 18:41

      There are lots of “more likely” scenarios.

      • bobzz
        April 14, 2014 at 23:37

        Gregrory, I don’t know whether this was for me or not, but I am open to hearing those ‘more likely’ scenarios—with evidence, of course.

  8. bobzz
    April 14, 2014 at 10:51

    Interesting: the myth surrounding Jesus was created by rabbis and the Church to demonize each other and that its all part of a concocted Fairy Story, but they remain assertions without evidence.

  9. Hillary
    April 14, 2014 at 07:00

    “However, modern scholarship is putting an emphasis on understanding this historical incident in context”.
    No – Its all part of a concocted Fairy Story.

    “Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful.”

    – Seneca the Younger

  10. Joihn Cameron
    April 13, 2014 at 19:54

    I started reading this article and then came to where the author chooses to use the date designation CE (common era). This designation was created by the spiritual and intellectual descendants of the very same Pharisees’ who demanded Christ’s crucifixion. In our day the main group pushing for the adoption of the of the term CE has been The Anti Defamation League which is probably the greatest enemy present day Christianity has.

    Why not throw off your chains of political correctness and timidly and go back to using the traditional term AD.

    • April 14, 2014 at 20:03

      What you call “chains of political correctness” and “timidity” are actually a small example of being sensitive and considerate of those of us who happen not to adhere to Christianity in this culturally and religiously diverse society. An example of the Golden Rule in practice, as was advocated by a certain man named Jesus.

      I think the real intellectual and spiritual descendents of the Pharisees are those in the political and religious right, who happen to be mostly Christians here in the USA.

      Many of the enemies of Jews throughout history have been Christians, many of whom have regarded Jews as being Christ-killers, even if they personally have had absolutely nothing to do with crucifying Christ. Many of the Germans who went along with Hitler and helped to carry out the final solution were “good” and devout Christians.

      Granted, the Anti Defamation League has been uncritically and pretty much unconditionally pro-Israel, along with many fundamentalist and evangelical Christians. They regard Israel as being incapable of doing anything wrong.

      Here is a link to a video which characterizes many people who oppose “political correctness”.


      • bobzz
        April 14, 2014 at 23:34

        Agree, Mike H.

        • April 16, 2014 at 14:40

          Thanks, bobzz.

      • lumpentroll
        April 15, 2014 at 17:06

        Political correctness is thought control.

        It was pioneered by Jewish scholars at the so-called Frankfurt School. Look it up.

        Ruling elites have always had the objective of controlling their subject populations. They found Jewish skills and predispositions (literacy, numeracy, seperateness) to be very useful in this regard.

        When Jewish fear of the other (Goyim) was married to Aristocratic hatred of the masses the phenomenom of Exterminationism, aka Nazism was born.

        You do not even bother trying to hide your contempt for a Christian viewpoint because you are overconfident (or ignorant) and look forward to the extermination of lesser beings (the un-Chosen) just as you’ve done in Palestine.

        Sew the wind and you shall reap the whirlwind — and good Germans everywhere will stand aside once more.

        • April 15, 2014 at 23:30

          So you make up that I am “overconfident (or ignorant) and look forward to the extermination of lesser beings (the un-Chosen)”, just because you don’t like what I said in my post.

          You just simply made that up.

          The point of my reference to the ADL and Israel is that I think that the ADL is wrong for unconditionally supporting Israel, given its mistreatment of Palestinians.

          If you are a Christian, you should be aware that there is something against bearing false witness.

      • lumpentroll
        April 15, 2014 at 19:06

        The Astounding Conspiracy Theories of Wall Street Genius Mark Gorton


        • April 15, 2014 at 20:05

          Was this in response to me? What does this have to do with what I posted?

    • toby
      April 16, 2014 at 07:03

      Wow…this article is political pandering by a religious propagandist.

      King James version says clearly that the “chief priests and scribes” (that were Jewish) went to Pilate and demanded Jesus be put to death. Pilate said no at first then agreed, making it clear it was their idea and not his.

      Leaving this out is pandering to the distortion of the bible that has driven so many from “the church”. Today’s religious leaders that leave out this important fact are little different than Judas, the betrayer.
      They are followers of Christ (so they claim)… who would today put a sword into his back. This author telling half of the truth is no better that telling NONE of the truth.

      Jews tortured killed Jesus for his only known physically violent act (overthrowing the money changers in the temple). Even today they consider all goy to be fair game for lying and cheating (even from within the temples).

      No wonder Christianity is in decline in the USA and world…religious leaders pander and omit, for money or political correctness, like the prostitute performs for a pimp.

      • April 16, 2014 at 12:55

        Yeah right. So people are leaving the church because religious leaders get some obscure point wrong about the role of the Romans vs. the role of the Jews in the crucifixion of Jesus, and don’t confirm the prejudices that some bigoted people have toward all Jews

        If anybody believes that is a real reason for people leaving the church, I have a bridge in Brooklyn to sell.

      • April 16, 2014 at 14:27

        I am one who has left the church. I used to be a Christian, and no longer am.

        I have my reasons for this, some of them personal (not all).

        As one who has left the church (and Christianity), you certainly do not speak for me as far as the reason you give for anybody leaving the church.

        And if you (or John Cameron who posted above, or lumpentroll) are a Christian, I for one am very happy not to be one.

      • April 24, 2014 at 15:55

        And toby, for YOU, of all people, to say that anybody is “pandering” is a case of the pot calling the kettle black.

        To put it plainly, you are mad simply because the author of this article, and other religious writers and preachers, do not pander to YOUR anti-Jewish bigotry and prejudice.

    • April 16, 2014 at 17:20

      John, if it is really that important to you that AD rather than CE is used, and you have a very good reason that you think AD should be used, you could have said so in a more respectful and much less judgmental manner than you did.

      Your referring to the use of CE as an example of “timidity”, and being bound to the “chains of political correctness” is an arbitrary and unfair judgment. You really do not know his motives in using CE. Your statement was unfairly judgmental, uncharitable, and really uncalled for. I think Jesus said something about not judging.

      And I really don’t think it is at all important who really started the use of CE. I think it is a good thing, and respectful to those of us in this culturally and religiously pluralistic society who do not happen to be Christians.

    • April 25, 2014 at 00:36

      Oh, and in regard to any supposed enemy or enemies of present day Christianity or Christians, it is absurd and ridiculous to think that Christians in the present day are under any serious threat, or are in any way being seriously persecuted or even put upon, certainly at least here in the United States.

  11. lumpentroll
    April 13, 2014 at 17:45

    Very interesting.

    I have recently been thinking about the conflict pitting the world’s mostly rural, productive and sedentary masses against the nomadic, predatory and parasitic minority of traders and middle men who dominate the globalist system. I believe the story of Jesus’ overturning of the money tables at the temple is a perfect analogue.

    The neoliberal system subjugates productive activities like farming or manufacturing while empowering the activities of people who take a percentage. Think of the disparity between what is paid to a banker, politician or CEO as compared to the lot of people who grow our food, build our roads or make our shoes.

    The societal rot that we are confronted with today is precisely the consequence of emphasizing values favoured by parasitical money changers as they impoverish the people who make everything we depend upon.

    In non economic terms, an identical conflict exists between the more conservative social values of rural communities versus the identity politics favoured by urban dwellers.

    Liberals often insist that their values are universal without recognizing that those values specifically favour members of their own class. Think of the conflict over gay or womens rights. Rural conservatives insist on seeing these issues in terms of how they affect their families and communities. Urban dwellers tend to think of these issues in terms of how they affect them as individuals.

    This is by no means to suggest that tolerance, as an example, has no value. Obviously it does. The important thing to remember is that abstract power in a mass society (especially money power) is multiplied many times over. Unless the productive majority can reassert itself and its values this tendency will first degrade and then eventually destroy everything we depend upon.

    Class is back as the issue of our day — although not as Marx would have envisioned. We need to seize back the reigns of power from the nomadic banker parasites and insist that they not dominate our understanding of everything.

    The only thing that grows forever in nature is cancer. If we build an economic system that is premised upon the need for ever increasing levels of exploitation without consideration to the effect it has on people or our environment then we are the social equivalent of cancer and the inevitable result will be self destruction.

    I should hasten to add that the nomadic class with its various skills and predispositions does indeed have a multiplier effect on total wealth and the quality of our lives in too many ways to count. We need both sets of values to be properly balanced so that all of us have an opportunity to enjoy better lives.

  12. bobzz
    April 13, 2014 at 14:53

    I am not altogether certain about some of Bess’es thoughts, but I will say this: Jesus’ wall of separation between empire and church makes Jefferson’s wall look like tissue paper.

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