Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews

25 comments April 2nd, 2010 Jeffrey Fisher

Images of the Crucifixion









(Thanks to Jeffrey Fisher [jeffreyfisher at me.com] for the guest post.)

On Good Friday every year,* Christians around the world commemorate the death by crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth, rabbi, prophet, Son of God, Son of Man, messiah, and all-around trouble-maker.

The truth is that very little is known of Jesus’ life and teachings from verifiable accounts, but this has not stopped generation after generation of Christians from telling his story, beginning with Jesus’ semi-official biographers, the evangelists of the New Testament. Almost everything we know about the life and teachings of the physical human being Jesus are in those writings, which do not portray him always in compatible ways, and which are almost entirely unconfirmed by any external source. The Roman historian Tacitus mentions (with disdain if not disgust) Jesus’ cult following, as does the Jewish historian and philosopher Josephus, but neither gives us anything to work with as historians (or, for that matter, as theologians). For the record, Suetonius and Pliny also talk about Christians, but these piecemeal sources tell us much more about Roman perceptions of Christians than about Christ and his teachings, or even necessarily Christian beliefs and practices.

What, then, can we reasonably say about Jesus?

It is almost impossible to find universal agreement around anything more than a few basics, including most importantly Jesus’ crucifixion. The Gospels narrate it; Paul the Apostle (who never met Jesus in the flesh, as it were) hangs his theology on it, together with the equally important resurrection; and no contemporary sources (Christian or otherwise) dispute it.

But it’s when we ask why Jesus was crucified that things start to get interesting.

What did he do? The two men he is traditionally said to have been crucified with are commonly understood to be “robbers,” but that they were common criminals is highly unlikely. Crucifixion is a horrible death designed to make a very public statement about the crucified, the sort of thing you use on gladiator-slave rebels like Spartacus, not on pickpockets and roustabouts. The Greek term used for these two men (lestai) is consistent with the description of the released Barabbas as one who had participated in rebellious activities, whose “criminality” was related to his revolutionary business. Moreover, the name “Barabbas” means literally “son of the father,” a purely symbolic and surely entirely fictional name, and that the people choose to have him released indicates their affinity for him as a thorn in the side of the Romans. He is thus contrasted with Jesus, the other son of the father, the peaceful (apocalyptic) revolutionary.

So Jesus would have been crucified as a political criminal, a rebel. This would make sense of accounts of his having been identified by the Romans as “Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum”: “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” Anyone claiming to be king (and “son of God” was a Jewish way of talking about the king of Israel recorded clearly in Psalm 2), would, if taken seriously, be understood as challenging Roman authority.

Insofar as Jesus seems to have been deliberately poking the Romans’ local running dogs, the Sadducees and the Temple priests, his seizure and termination were surely inevitable. If his teaching is as opposed to violence and unconcerned with “politics” as it seems to have been, it’s hard to believe the Romans would have noticed him without some prodding, this coming not from the “crowd,” but from the leadership (who in Mark and Matthew incite the crowd). Indeed, the priests and scribes look for ways to arrest him when the crowds are not around, because they fear a riot.

If we take the Gospel of Mark at all seriously, Jesus was preaching a new kingdom of God, an apocalyptic redemption of the people of the earth by God’s direct intervention (and with Jesus as the sacrificial pesach lamb). If we take the Gospel of Luke seriously, Jesus spoke in a classic prophetic mode, calling people — Jew and Gentile both — to care for the oppressed of the earth, the poor and the hungry and the helpless. Both Jesuses called for people to be better to each other, to love each other, and indeed to love each other when love was, according to common sense, the foolish thing.

Why would this get you executed?

Well, in itself, it wouldn’t. But the Gospel of Mark tells us of Jesus speaking with a man who realizes that all the animal sacrifices in the world don’t amount to a hill of beans (in that crazy world). When love counts more than sacrifice, we are undermining the Temple. When we go into the Temple, start knocking things over, and say it’s become about robbing the poor and not about loving God and one’s neighbor, we are undermining the Temple. And to undermine the Temple’s authority is also to undermine Rome’s authority, and Rome’s cash flow.

Jesus, like the Essenes he may or may not have associated with, was a purist.

The Temple was full of collaborators and exploiters, the kind seen before in the history of Israel (and berated by prophets like Isaiah and Amos), the kind hated also by the Dead Sea community of apocalyptic purists awaiting a final showdown between God and evil (i.e., the Roman Empire and their local potentates, the Temple authorities).

Jesus, like other Jewish prophets before him, thought that Judaism was about something. That it was somehow about justice and not just about following rules or waiting around for things to get better: that it was about our making the world a better place, and not just making our own lives better.

Start talking that way and get people on your side, and you’re fairly likely to get killed, even twenty centuries later.

* Though the actual date (even the year) of the execution marked by the movable feast of Good Friday is fundamentally unknowable, there are some present-day astronomer types who’d like to sell you April 3, 33 A.D.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: Activists,Ancient,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Crucifixion,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Executions Survived,Famous,Famous Last Words,God,Gruesome Methods,Guest Writers,History,Israel,Jews,Language,Martyrs,Myths,Notable Participants,Occupation and Colonialism,Other Voices,Popular Culture,Power,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Religious Figures,Revolutionaries,Roman Empire,Separatists,The Supernatural,Torture,Treason,Uncertain Dates

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

1556: Thomas Cranmer, architect of Anglicanism

7 comments March 21st, 2008 Headsman

[audio:John_Merbecke_Creed.mp3]
(Part of John Merbecke‘s plainsong rendition of the Book of Common Prayer, as performed by the Virginia Theological Seminary motet choir. Via.)

Good Friday falls early this year, and gives pause to recollect the burning this date of Thomas Cranmer, Henry VIII’s Archbishop of Canterbury, author of this gentle prayer for Holy Week:

Almighty and everliving God, who, of thy tender love towards mankind, hast sent thy Son our Savior Jesus Christ to take upon him our flesh, and to suffer death upon the cross, that all mankind should follow the example of his great humility: Mercifully grant that we may both follow the example of his patience, and also be make partakers of his resurrection; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God,for ever and ever. Amen.

Thomas Cranmer was an obscure middle-aged priest when happenstance acquainted him with the circle then endeavoring to engineer Anne Boleyn‘s elevation from Henry VIII‘s enamored to Queen of England.

Cranmer enthusiastically supported Henry’s position that his first marriage to Catherine of Aragon should be annulled, and the perspicacity of the doctrinal case he developed to that effect saw him admitted into the inner circle of royal theologians.

The papal case foundered because Catherine’s kinsman Charles V happened, in the course of politics on the Italian peninsula, to be holding the pope a virtual hostage in Rome. On such accidents of history do faiths arise — and the faithful burn.

The Break With Rome

The 16th century, yeasty with religious disputation widely circulated by the printing press, is thick with folk who are one sect’s martyrs and the other sect’s villains.

Cranmer is just such a character.

One could charge him — and Catholic partisans have, many times — with blowing with the wind, granting theological license to the whims of his sovereign. Henry pressed through Cranmer’s appointment as Archbishop of Canterbury in 1533, just in time for Cranmer to annul Henry’s marriage to Catherine and validate the secret vows he had taken with Anne, earning both bishop and king excommunication.

That Cranmer rose with Anne but was ready to hold against her when she fell from favor, that he authorized the king’s famous pattern of discarding his past wives, that he signed off on the crown’s seizure of monasteries — that, in the end, he navigated Henry’s bloody reign with his position intact and even enhanced puts the whiff of opportunism about him. As Cranmer expert Ashley Null says (the link is a .pdf):

Like his first royal master, Cranmer did not make himself easy to love. In an era noted for the fervent courage of many martyrs for faith, Cranmer’s very survival under a king as unprincipled, or at least unpredictable, as Henry VIII has made him suspect. His late vacillation under Mary has only seemed to confirm the image of a man ruled more by the grip of fear than the assurance of the faith.

Whatever kernel of truth one might discern in such a charge, the fact remains that the church Cranmer built has by the test of centuries proven itself far more spiritually significant than mere opportunism could have admitted.

The Archbishop truly came into his own after Henry’s death.

For six years during the regency of Henry’s sickly, doomed son Edward VI, Cranmer hammered together the Anglican liturgy, wrote prolifically and beautifully, and assembled the Book of Common Prayer, a text which still guides Anglican services to this day.

His words still retain their power, and in some cases, their recognizability:

One can read Cranmer, especially in this mature stage, through many prisms — the competing threads of Catholicism, Lutheranism and Calvinism in his developing thought; the attempt to steer his institutional church towards his vision of the Reformation; and certainly as an inconstant individual — for his recantation when the Catholic Mary Tudor took the throne shows us a man as prone as any to folly and weakness.*

It is not the headsman’s purpose, and certainly not on this day, to render judgment on Cranmer’s soul; still less to unpack his theology. If we find him a man of flaws to compensate his genius, we must do him the justice of remembering also his firmness at the last hour, dramatically abjuring the recantation that had been forced upon him and thrusting the offending right hand that had signed it first into the flames.

* Cranmer had endorsed Mary’s rival Lady Jane Grey in the contentious succession that followed Edward VI; for this, he was convicted of treason in a trial managed by his old friend and fellow-survivor Thomas Howard. (Source) The Queen spared him execution on this charge in order to have him up on heresy instead, and it was this that Cranmer attempted to avoid by submission to the pope.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Arts and Literature,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Famous,Famous Last Words,God,Heresy,History,Martyrs,Power,Public Executions,Religious Figures

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,


Calendar

September 2019
M T W T F S S
« Aug    
 1
2345678
9101112131415
16171819202122
23242526272829
30  

Archives

Categories

Execution Playing Cards

Exclusively available on this site: our one-of-a-kind custom playing card deck.

Every card features a historical execution from England, France, Germany, or Russia!