Misunderstanding Jesus’s Execution

From the Archive: In Holy Week, many Christians celebrate what they regard as God’s sacrifice of his Son and the Resurrection. But some scholars see another narrative in which Jesus, a rural rebel, brings his critique of the Jewish-Roman power structure to Jerusalem and is killed for it, as Rev. Howard Bess wrote in 2011.

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.

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.

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.

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].

15 comments for “Misunderstanding Jesus’s Execution

  1. Brad Owen
    April 4, 2015 at 10:11

    Very interesting essay. I like the presentation of small tradition and great tradition. I’ve never lent much credence to theological meaning of Jesus’s execution. It probably was for the reasons as described in this essay. I’m a fan of the inner tradition and outer tradition, which kind of tracks along with Jesus’s 2 commandments; LOVE God (inner, Mystics’ tradition), and LOVE thy fellow man (outer tradition of Governance and Law-Making). For the sake of PEACE (lesson learned in The Thirty Years War), the outer tradition can be pursued by modern, secularized Republics. The Inner Tradition does not fall within the purview of worldly Governments (hence the secularization of the State, and its’ separation from any particular religious or meditational practices).

  2. Rick Rice
    April 3, 2015 at 16:10

    Interesting discussion, thanks for the general kindness of the exchange. Whether or not Jesus was historical or not (fictional composite figure), he is a very interesting player in that context and it doesn’t seem to me to matter much if he existed or not; if he lived and if the words attributed to him were anywhere near his own words OR if folks invented him and collectively put words in his mouth, it is the story and the words that matter to us. What is beyond doubt is that the Christian religion developed in a very messy process during which humans like us made choices based on their own proclivities and biases (as did Paul). Of course, there are many (as did my Grandfather, a Baptist minister) who believe that there is a God in heaven guiding this process. I don’t follow that tradition, but it seems that, as in the Muslim and Jewish tradition, where interpretation has superseded or augmented the received Word of God, so in Christian tradition there are bodies who have also added interpretation (such as the authority of the Pope) to our understanding of the Christian version of “God’s Word”. It seems “the search for the historical Jesus”, somewhat like the Reformation, attempts to strip away the accumulation of interpretation and to find a more faithful understanding of what was actually going on in Palestine 2000 years ago.

  3. Apneaman
    April 3, 2015 at 01:34

    Some scholars, like Richard Carrier, are making a strong case that the historical Jesus may never have existed. Baring new found evidence we will never know either way.

    Richard Carrier’s doctorate is in ancient history, with special emphasis on comparative mythologies. He’s also a Biblical scholar and a Jesus mythicist.


    • Stefan
      April 3, 2015 at 09:11

      There is more evidence that Jesus existed than there is for Alexander the Great and Sokrates, and many others “historical” individuals we put little doubt in their existence. But arguing based on the quantity of evidence alone is a fallacy. One must look at a complex fabric of events and evolutions in the field to be able to construct a solid case.

      I’d refer you to two great scholars on the field.

      1. Bart Ehrman
      2. Luke Timothy Johnson

      The former is an agnostic, the latter is Catholic I believe.

      They are both very good scholars, and they both lay out the case for the real historical Jesus of Nazareth.

      Overwhelmingly, most serious scholars on the field, come to the conclusion that Jesus was a real historical figure.

      If your standards allow you to accept very many historical figures as having walked the earth, then by the same standards, I can’t see why you would single out Jesus of Nazareth as being a fantasy figure.

      • historicvs
        April 3, 2015 at 09:39

        I think a flood of coins with his title and portrait on them demonstrates the existence of
        Alexander the Great rather more convincingly than a few lines in Josephus, which is alleged by some to be a non-Scriptural contemporary mention of Jesus, although the preponderance of evidence suggest otherwise to most scholars.

        Mythical composite figures abound in Jewish tradition, including Abraham, Moses, and Solomon to name the most prominent fabrications of later generations.

        • Stefan
          April 3, 2015 at 12:18

          “Alleged by some”. The general consensus by scholars is that Josephus’ Jewish Antiquities passage was more likely modified or improved upon, as opposed to a total forgery. This is also supported by Tacitus’ writings (which you omitted or forgot to add/mention).

          I believe that Alexander did exist, based much on numismatic evidence (after his death), despite the fact that he is presented as a God on the coinage(Karsten Dahmen).

          There is a large body of work and evidence for the historicity of Jesus, and rather than to cherry pick bits and pieces to make for the opposite case, I suggest you read the body of work on the topic. There is a near total consensus among serious scholars that the historical Jesus did exist.

          As far as proof (not evidence), there is as little and as much for either Alexander and Jesus, but that can be said of most ancient historical figures.

  4. April 2, 2015 at 20:20

    I am Jewish and not very familiar with Christianity’s history. My question is when was Christianity as a separate and distinct religion and not just a faction within Judaism been established ?
    I would appreciate historical references.

    • Zachary Smith
      April 2, 2015 at 22:42

      My question is when was Christianity as a separate and distinct religion and not just a faction within Judaism been established ?

      My answer would be the first Jewish Revolt of AD 66. Up till then the ‘Jesus faction’ was led by James, the brother of Jesus. According to the book of Acts this group didn’t tolerate heretics like Paul very well, and were constantly reining him in and putting him down. The Jerusalem Church was completely wiped out in the fighting with the Romans, leaving Paul a clear field to preach. And Paul’s version of events is what we call “Christianity” today.

      In fact, after both revolts it was imperative for the early Christians to distance themselves from the Jewish religion as much as possible. Jews were much hated in Rome on account of the trouble their religious counterparts had caused in Judea, and if identified as a Jewish sect Christians were in danger as well. So the first 4 New Testament books turned Jews into total devils – the KILLERS of the peaceful and totally innocent Jesus – a man who had no problem at all with the Roman Occupation. Ask virtually any modern American Christian who killed Jesus, and if they’re not on their guard they’ll invariably say it was the Jews. That slander got woven into the very fabric of the Christian religion, and has caused great death and misery among Jewish people – even to this very day.

    • ex-PFC Chuck
      April 2, 2015 at 23:51

      I was raised in the Lutheran tradition and studied in a seminary of that denomination for one year a half a century ago, before deciding that a life in the cloth wasn’t for me. Since then I’ve tried to keep somewhat abreast of the scholarship in that area but am by no means an expert. From this occasional reading it is my impression that the consensus is that Jesus saw himself as an observant Jew of his time, and perhaps as a possible messiah in the Old Testament connotation of the term. That is, as a political person under whose leadership the Jewish people would regain their independence. Obviously that didn’t work out, as the New Testament and Rev. Bess describe.*

      As I understand it, after his death Jesus’s immediate followers coalesced under the leadership of his brother James to carry forward his mission. This group too saw themselves as observant Jews although other Jews may have been skeptical given the fact that the inspiration for their work was an apparently failed messiah. Almost immediately, however, other groups emerged around people who had also been touched by his ministry, either directly or indirectly, but who had different ideas regarding the significance, and even the facts, of his life and death. One of these was Paul of Tarsus who claimed to have received, while traveling to Damascus, direct revelations from Jesus years after his crucifixion.

      Over time, Paul’s understanding of the significance of Jesus of Nazareth became the mainstream theology of Christianity. The full specifics of how this happened may never be known, but it seems to me several factors were involved. First Paul, having been raised in the Greek-speaking gentile world, took as his mission the conversion of gentiles, and there were a lot more potential gentile converts than there were Jews, who were the conversion targets of James and the disciples. Paul also was obviously very good at getting his message across. Another factor is that James’s Jerusalem-based organization was at a minimum dispersed, and perhaps wiped out, during the Roman sack of that city in 70 CE. Although it is believed that Paul had died several years before this event, the congregations he had founded and nurtured throughout in the Mediterranean basin were now humming along under the guidance of his protégés. Finally, in the early 4th century the emperor Constantine made Christianity the official state religion of Rome. It has been alleged that when he confronted the squabbling of the various Christian sects, he encouraged the bishops of the leading, Pauline sect to suppress the others. Thus some of the recent persecutees became persecutors of “heresy.”**

      Here are some links and references.***

      The Jesus Seminar is a collaboration of 150 scholars interested in coming to an understanding of the historical Jesus:

      I highly recommend the work of Bart Ehrman, Professor of Religion and History at the University of North Carolina, who has written numerous books about the early decades and centuries of Christianity. Among his many titles are:
      Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew
      Lost Scriptures: Books that Did Not Make It into the New Testament

      Two books that might be of special interest to Jewish people:
      The Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity, by Hyam Maccoby
      Christ’s Ventriloquists: The Event that Created Christianity, by Eric Zuesse

      * I have read an assertion (I don’t recall where) that the fact that he was executed by crucifixion is an indication that his crimes were offenses against the Roman political system and not the Jewish faith. If the latter had been the case he would have been stoned.

      ** As they say, “History is written by the winners,” and the Pauline New Testament is no exception.

      *** In case the embedded links don’t survive the paste, all books can be found on Amazon or presumably other online book stores.

    • April 4, 2015 at 00:51

      Study up on it on your own. Are you lame?

      • April 7, 2015 at 22:11

        Your nasty reply was uncalled for. The person you responded to asked an honest question, as far as I can tell.

  5. Zachary Smith
    April 2, 2015 at 18:29

    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.

    Quite so. The commercial aspects of the Temple were not only legitimate, but absolutely necessary. Jews from all over came in with their secular money which had to be converted into suitable Temple money. Considering how there was no competition, the exchange rates were doubtless close to fraud. Armed with proper money, the worshipers then had to buy animals to sacrifice. Once again, the animals would have been purchased at low cost and in quantity, and sold individually for full retail – or worse! The whole business was extraordinarily profitable for the Quisling High Priest and his buddies.

    Because the Temple Authorities were in full collaboration with the Romans, an attack on them would be seen by the Romans as an attack upon the power and authority of Rome. Raising any kind of hell just wasn’t permitted in Judea in general, and Jerusalem in particular.


    Sort of off-topic but still about the Temple in Jerusalem – recently I ran into an extraordinary new viewpoint about the original location of that Temple.

    For ages just about everybody believed it was beneath the present-day Dome of the Rock – a Muslim temple. Turns out that’s almost certainly untrue.


    I located many more of Buchanan’s writings and ended up convinced he’s right. So why are the Israeli authorities still pretending the Wailing Wall represents the old Temple foundations? IMO it’s more about Palestinian Removal than historical accuracy.

    • April 4, 2015 at 00:49

      Not true. He went there to fulfill his agenda from God. The Jews and the government(not as much), were aginst him. The Jews instigated his death but Jesus was foreordained and had to die, but the Jews didn’t know the real part they were playing. They deny Jesus to this day.

      • April 7, 2015 at 23:26

        So you have God’s agenda all figured out, and you feel very superior to the Jews who, in your view, were (and are) clueless pawns in God’s plan.

    • Joseph Mitchell
      April 4, 2015 at 14:14

      I perceive the Temple at the time of Jesus to be something of a giant Walmart that sucked up the economy of the area. Rabbis such as Jesus, not linked to the Temple would have been effectively not been able to make a living as a religious leader.

      The economic stranglehold the Temple held coupled with the police power of Rome would have fired a restive population to rally around a charismatic leader who would spark a revolt.

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