REEXAMINING THE GREAT
SACRIFICE THAT SAVES US
The research on which it was based also provided the background for writing my novel about Jesus’ family, MY BROTHER’S KEEPER (shown at right).
As we approach Easter 2020 under the somewhat strained conditions of quarantine — which for many of us has been a kind of cross — I offer these thoughts once again for your consideration…
Why Was Jesus Crucified?
Despite its status as the holiest day on the Christian calendar, Easter has never had an impact on American life that comes close to the annual, all-pervasive social and economic supernova of Christmas. This is probably explainable by Easter’s limited potential for commercialization. Chocolate bunnies and died eggs can’t match the buying and gift-giving frenzy of Yuletide. Even shopping for that new spring outfit — to the extent people still dress up for Easter in our over-casual age — barely nudges the gross domestic product.
Easter just remains so stubbornly…religious. It’s also kind of demanding. Grasping the joy, or even the concept, of resurrection takes faith. What does it mean that Jesus rose again? For that matter, why did he have to die in the first place?
Now, there’s a question even believers often ask. To reply that Christ died for our sins is to express a theological insight arrived at after the fact (and one which folks who have trouble making the leap to a Christian point of view can find a little off-putting; “I didn’t ask him to die for my sins,” they’ll say).
But let’s go back 2,000-or-so years. What were the conditions at the time which prompted Jesus’ execution? Or to frame the question another way: Why would anybody want to kill someone who went around preaching love and offering a lot of uplifting homilies? And healing the sick to boot! What’s not to like about all that?
The preeminent fact of Jewish life in First-Century Palestine is that everything was religious. All questions — whether pertaining to personal conduct, communal obligations, relations between husbands and wives, duties of parents to children or children to parents, inheritance and disposition of property, business dealings, treatment of servants or slaves, and everything else — all were answered by the great rabbis, the learned men, the Doctors of the Law, most of whom had their own schools and disciples.
They provided scholarly interpretations of the Law (the Torah) in response to questions submitted by people who faced vexing problems or had some complaint. These rulings were somewhat like the fatwas issued today by Muslim muftis. In fact, traditional Islam offers a very good view of what things were like in Jesus’ time. There are many similarities.
Along with its pervasive religious character, Jewish national life was highly unstable. A key factor in that volatility was the ongoing influence of gentile beliefs and cultural practices. God may have given the Promised Land to the Jews, but the Bible recounts how the colorful deities and strange sacrifices of the conquered groups (which didn’t just get up and go away) exerted a continual pull on the Chosen People, often with catastrophic results. Add to that the recurring military pressure from aggressive neighbor states, and you get the picture of a society that felt its faith and values under siege.
Perhaps the most powerful and persistent cultural challenge came from the Greeks who had been a huge and constant presence since Alexander the Great added Jewish territory to his empire around 330 BCE. Even after gaining independence from Alexander’s successors, the Jews lived cheek by jowl with foreigners steeped in Hellenic culture. A good many of their own people became strongly Hellenized as well.
Greece was to the Jews what Hollywood is to us: a corrosive and relentless assault on morals and propriety. The dress of Greek women was considered immodest. Greek theater was seen as distraction and idleness: untrammeled leisure, in contrast with proper Sabbath rest that emphasized Torah study. And Greek sport was a scandal, each athlete running, jumping, wrestling, and javelin or discus throwing naked as the day he was born.
Then there were the internal power struggles that had been boiling up repeatedly ever since the Maccabees cleansed the Temple and invented Hanukah. After performing their national heroics, the sons of Judas Maccabeus turned into a fractious and power-hungry lot. It was a civil war between two of his descendants that brought the Romans in to settle things.
The Romans themselves had adopted and expanded on Greek culture, which intensified its influence on the Jews. Once into Palestine, they never left. And what was worse, they saddled the Children of Israel with the odious King Herod and his misbegotten offspring.
Romans, who cared little about the beliefs or moral qualms of Jews, cared a whole lot about the Jews’ capital. Jerusalem was not a dusty frontier outpost, which is the impression you can get from watching Bible movies. It was a boomtown, a great trading center bursting with goods from exotic eastern lands as far away as China. The prophet Isaiah’s famous line about how the “wealth of nations will flow to her” was more than a metaphor.
Caesar coveted that wealth, a goodly portion of which was confiscated through duties and tolls. He also laid heavy burdens on the people, using a network of contract agents, called publicans, who collected the Roman levies along with fat commissions for themselves. These were the hated “tax collectors” who brought Jesus so much criticism whenever he broke bread in their homes.
The one feature of Jewish religious life Rome did focus on was the Temple, which Herod had expanded to world-wonder proportions and was a magnet to pilgrims, especially during the many festivals and holy days. The amount of cash that flowed through the Temple in the form of corban, or sacrificial giving, was staggering. If Jerusalem was a boomtown, religious sacrifice was one of its main industries, sustaining the priestly class in considerable comfort.
The Temple was a cash cow, but it was also the place where Jewish religious enthusiasm reached its highest levels and could easily get out of hand. A serious riot occurred just before Herod’s death (a few years after Jesus was born) when the eagle standard of Rome was displayed over the Temple gate. This inspired outbursts and uprisings in other towns, including a major insurrection in Sepphoris, the largest city in Galilee. Some years later, there was a mass protest against display of Caesar’s image on a tower of the Antonia Fortress, headquarters of the Roman Jerusalem garrison, which overlooked the Temple courts. And there was blood in the streets once more when corban money was used to help fund an aqueduct built by the Romans to bring water to Jerusalem from high springs near Bethlehem.
After Herod’s kingdom was divided and Rome took over direct administration of Judea, Caesar’s governors assumed the authority to appoint the Jews’ High Priest. They also adopted the practice of taking away his vestments and symbols of office between ceremonies. But no matter how tightly they tried to regulate religious life, the risk of violence remained great.
In the background of all this was a simmering guerilla war carried on irregularly, but with sometime dramatic effect, by anti-Roman bands known as Zealots. Attacks on legion outposts and supply trains, along with occasional assassinations of tax collectors and other locals in the service of Rome kept people’s nerves on edge. By the time Jesus appeared with his growing band of followers and spreading reputation for working miracles, Palestine was a land very near the tipping point. So it’s no mystery why this charismatic young preacher from Nazareth was viewed with suspicion by the Roman occupiers and, even more so, by Jewish religious leaders.
Jesus’ rather loose approach to the particulars of the Law — Sabbath observance, dietary rules, mixing with gentiles, and the rest — raised eyebrows among the Temple elite. He didn’t soften any feelings when he leveled harsh criticisms at the “scribes and Pharisees.” Rather, this alienated an intellectual circle that might have been inclined to defend him against the priests, most of whom were of the rival Sadducee party and opposed to Pharisaical teaching (especially on the subject of the afterlife, which Sadducees rejected outright).
One wonders why he was so hard on the Pharisees, especially in light of the fact that his own teaching was very close to that of the greatest Pharisee rabbi of them all, Hillel, who ran the foremost rabbinical school in Jerusalem (and for whom today Jewish student centers are named on university campuses all over the world). Jesus’ “Golden Rule” was a virtual paraphrase of Hillel’s famous dictim, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.” Likewise, Hillel, who had known poverty as a young man, was a model advocate of exactly the sort of care Jesus demonstrated for the poor.
Jesus’ inclination to act on his convictions in visible and dramatic ways also stoked opposition because it stirred passion in the people, which always raised the possibility of Roman intervention. A man as bold as Jesus — and who could amass as large and devoted a following as he did — was bound to make the authorities wary. The incident of the adulteress about to be stoned (“Let he who is without sin cast the first stone”) illustrates how Jesus didn’t hesitate to go up against a crowd. And his attack on the moneychangers in the Temple certainly showed he didn’t shy away from righteous indignation.
So there was a distinct air of danger around Jesus, and it increased along with his fame. That may account for at least part of the hesitation which the Gospels indicate some people felt about being identified with his movement. The Roman legions were not known for subtlety of action or for making fine distinctions between perpetrators and bystanders when unrest loomed. Anyone could unexpectedly find himself at the business end of a spear or Roman short sword.
But it wasn’t just worry that Jesus might cause trouble which put him in the crosshairs. He presented some formidable challenges, both spiritual and financial. His forgiving of sins was a galvanizing issue among the opposition, and not only because he was claiming a prerogative of God. If people could get their sins forgiven by an itinerant preacher, why bother to make sacrifice? This raised the very real prospect of a threat to Temple contributions as well as to the incomes of the bankers, who exchanged pagan currency for ritually pure coinage, and the vendors of sacrificial animals. There was real money at stake here.
But the most important challenge Jesus presented was entirely — profoundly — religious. While he insisted that he didn’t wish to change a “jot or tittle of the Law,” to many people his preaching and behavior suggested that he was questioning the very nature of Judaism and the practices by which the Jews had maintained their identity as a people through centuries of war, oppression, exile, and now occupation by Rome. Jesus was only one of many who had started movements, gained followers, and raised hopes that Messiah had finally come. But he was unique in his emphasis on himself as the very means of salvation (“I am the way, the truth, and the life”).
This was a significant departure from Judaism which had always seen membership in the Jewish community, living the Jewish way of life, as the path to holiness. By what authority did Jesus set forth this proposition that everything depended upon him? And if people chose to follow the course he laid out for them, if they fastened themselves onto him, if living as Jews became less important than living by his words and his example and his promises…would they still be Jews?
Today, it’s easy to get a shallow, Sunday-school impression that the people of Jesus’ time were a bunch of thin-skinned spoilsports, confused about what was really important. But there were reasons his movement was seen as so provocative. And while it’s clear from Scripture that Jesus was railroaded by a kangaroo court and that the crowd shouting to Pontius Pilate demanding crucifixion was probably a bunch of paid agitators — derelicts rounded up off the streets, most likely — what happened was all quite logical, given the religious expectations of the time along with the economic incentives and vested interests of everyone involved.
It’s also clear that the Jews, as a people, were not responsible for Jesus’ death. This had nothing to do with “narrow-mindedness” or “obstinacy,” as has been charged down through the ages and so often used to justify anti-Semitism. On the contrary, Jesus’ movement was huge. He touched thousands of hearts. If that wasn’t the case, the situation wouldn’t have seemed so menacing to the Jewish and Roman authorities.
Neither can it be said that some people just didn’t “get” what Jesus was saying — which is a common dodge of those who wish to criticize Jewish “intransigence” without sounding judgmental. People “got” his message well enough. It’s just that some were frightened by it. And in the end, it all came down to the question of whether one believed that Jesus was Messiah (or even God), which is the question people still debate today.
So when you listen to the passion story this year, reflect on the great and poignant drama that unfolded two millennia ago. It may help to make Jesus’ predicament more vivid to you, and the joy of resurrection more complete.
Then go dye some eggs, eat your chocolate bunnies, and have a happy Easter.
And at this time I would add: STAY SAFE!
For information about MY BROTHER’S KEEPER, winner of the Catholic Arts and Letters Award for best adult fiction, given by the Catholic Writers Guild, click here…
Just to show that even pandemics don’t dampen the Christian sense of humor, here’s a theory about the inspiration for a famous Easter icon…
Have a blessed Easter.