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 perhaps its central event, his overturning of the money tables at the temple, a challenge to the merging of 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.

A 14th Century depiction of Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem by Pietro Lorenzetti

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].

16 comments for “Misunderstanding Jesus’s Execution

  1. barry b
    April 5, 2012 at 07:45

    In Seth Speaks by Jane Roberts, Seth says that Jesus was not crucified on the cross. I would think a scholar would pursue all literature and ideas about an event. Otherwise, scholarship evaporates into gossip, innuendo and nonsense. Eh?

    • April 5, 2012 at 21:37

      I think Barry refers to my deleted post giving a link to the Seth take. Seth also claimed the fig tree curser was not the same individual as the Sermon on the Mt-giver.

      And, also FWIW, the Koran claims Jesus was not crucified.

  2. April 3, 2012 at 22:14

    >The incident that gives sense to the week’s climactic events is Jesus’s overturning of the money tables at the temple.

    Tho the Jesus Seminar feels there was a temple incident that got Jesus into trouble, they note that it really is uncertain as to exactly what he did as the temple area was quite vast and overturning tables would likely have gotten him arrested on the spot.

  3. April 2, 2012 at 16:44

    One observation seems to be consistent in my observations of the believers and non-believers of this world.

    It is far easier to ask and receive an opened mind from an atheist than from a theist.

    Therein lies my biggest beef against all dogmatic, and especially missionary, religions.

  4. ACT I
    April 2, 2012 at 15:55

    What’s important in the Bible is principles for living. Focusing on what’s true or not true factually in the Bible simply diverts attention from what’s important–and provides cash flow to those who write books about the supposed nature of Jesus’s ministry. If the money that is spent on Jesus books were spent feeding the poor, etc. (Matthew 25), just think of all the good that could be done!

  5. fosforos
    April 2, 2012 at 14:17

    Rev. Bess is completely wrong when he writes: “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.”

    He doesn’t even understand what that “apocalyptic” message, adumbrated by John (who had been planned to do the formal proclaiming until the John/Jesus movement was set back by Herod’s execution of John) was: the status of Jesus as the eagerly expected Messiah, the Davidic King who, thanks to divine intervention, would put Israel’s enemies to rout and inaugurate a new era in which Israel and its God would shine over the whole world.
    The prophecy of Zekariah (9:9) was explicit as to how the arrival of the Messiah would be recognized: “Look, your king comes to you triumphant and victorious, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
    And Mark (11:9-10) leaves no doubt that the Jewish masses saw the entry of Jesus riding on a donkey in exactly that way: “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!”

    What Jesus intended to be his self-proclamation as Messiah is reduced by Rev. Bess to a silly stunt mocking “the ruler’s horse” (by the way, the ruler at the time was Tiberius whose riding days were long over. The only famous ruler’s horse of the period would later belong to the mad Caligula, who made the Senate accept his horse as Consul).

  6. Morton Kurzweil
    April 2, 2012 at 13:41

    The earliest interpreters of the actions of Jesus, seventy years or more after the events, produced many tracts in conflict with the books of the New Testament and the history of Josephus. It took another three hundred years before Constantine used the leadership of Christians to decide on the identity of Jesus and the establishment of an autocratic
    political-religious authority not much different from the Temple government of priests subservient to military authority.
    Modern scholarship intended to clarify old beliefs and identify right and wrong, are projections of belief values. Belief, faith, is not a source of knowledge, no matter what the Society of Jesus says.
    The results of investigating beliefs is to find certainty. Science, relying on unbiased observation seeks truth or fallacy. Proof is constantly tested through predictability and repetition of experimental results. Degrees of uncertainty are al that is expected. Religion can’t live on that.

  7. rosemerry
    April 2, 2012 at 02:24

    Interesting for believers. One point, relevant to today’s Israel is the comment “Herod was of mixed racial background and claimed some Jewish blood.” Even then, and certainly not now, Jews are not a “race”.

    • Konrad Hauer
      April 2, 2012 at 06:56

      The old discussion – Christian’s , muslim’s and other Faith’s are not races.
      Many made the ‘Jews” into a race for ease of persecution, etc. the 3rd Reich,
      Spiritualy speaking,they consider themselves unique and a “race” by the practice of their rituals, mandated by the mosaic laws. The contemporary western world does not understand a life of faith – follow words and act accordingly.The Jewish blood is a colorful mix of global genetics,ethnic groups and cultures. There is only one human race.

      • April 6, 2012 at 09:27

        Well said, Konrad!

  8. bluepilgrim
    April 1, 2012 at 21:32

    The Jesus story may be legend, or may have some basis in fact, however confused. But that is no more important than if Oliver Twist existed, or if Picasso’s Guernica contained any literal truth: it is the story and it’s meaning which matters. It is not a ‘true story’ but a ‘truth story’, and a powerful artistic, psychological, and social expression. ‘Something’ happened in a large city at about that time, but it’s meaning is not in the literal details. This is the nature of myth, and myth is more powerful and meaningful than literal history — if people would only understand what it is really about and not get hung up on mere ‘facts’.

  9. Hillary
    April 1, 2012 at 17:09

    The Jesus story is just an urban legend.

    Jesus myths and legends are believed by the gullible,embellished and passed on.

    In comparison to the vast size of the Universes, our planet is less than a grain of sand.

    But the Super Human Ego loves to believe that the human race holds some special place in eternity?

    The whole universe is alive, each galaxy, each star, each planet, each animal, each human –and each one lives a life cycle –and eventually each dies.

    Religion is what stops gullible “God people” from understanding the “language” of the other living beings in our many universes?

    Jesus the hippie Rabi who was/is “God” of all the Universes — please ?

    • Tom
      April 2, 2012 at 13:53

      My the humility of psychologized, post-modernist, diversity-trained minds. Pretty comfortable aren’t you?

      • April 2, 2012 at 16:41

        There’s plenty arrogance to go around, believers and otherwise.

        People need to sit down and really listen to each other. Both sides of the argument would be amazed at just how easily they have missed the point of their own traditions.

        How simple it would be to bring the apparently diametrically opposed into agreement with one another if both sides had open minds.

  10. Marty Heyman
    April 1, 2012 at 11:24

    I thank Mr. Bess for an interesting thought. It resonates with Joseph P Farrell’s **Babylon’s Banksters** which I also found useful.

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