1965: John Harris, white anti-apartheid martyr 1689: John Chiesly, for alimony

Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews

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: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

27 thoughts on “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews”

  1. Mortimer says:

    Sad that nobody has debunked Kevin M. Sullivan’s nonsense in the last nine years. The gospels were all written several decades after the historical period that they are set in. All four documents were written by anonymous, educated writers and contradict each other on a number of events, perhaps none more ridiculously so than the discovery of the empty tomb. There is currently no contemporary corroboration for any of the miraculous claims made in the gospels. Joshua McDowell is nothing more than a grifter.


  2. Jon Smithers says:

    So if he ever existed an itinerant carpenter is the founder of a spin off religion that believes in an invisible being who stalks everyone to make sure they do not sin. This religion is founded on very suspicious evidence.

  3. Cat says:

    The link to the Paula F. PDF file listed higher in the comments is dead. I’d like to read this. Very interesting article, Mr. Fisher. Thank you.

  4. Kevin M. Sullivan says:

    Dear Mr. Fisher,

    When putting thoughts to print, it might be wise (in the future) that you understand your material a bit better. I am far too busy to point out each and every glaring mistake, but I will touch upon several as examples:

    First, your statement: ” The truth is that very little is known of Jesus’ life and teachings from verifiable accounts” is totally untrue, and it is untrue from a historical perspective. One does not have to believe in the spiritual truths of the New Testament to have an understanding how the New Testament came into being; the validity and number of the documents we have which make up the New testament; and the dates of the writings themselves. To understand this, one would never make the statement that you made above. And for those who want an academic study as to how the New testament came into existence, I would recommend : Evidence That Demands A Verdict, by Josh McDowell. It details the entire story of how the New Testament became what it is today.

    Without this fundamental understanding of how this came down to us, one will be bouncing all over the place without any definitive answers. Studying this will give you and all who dare to learn these truths, a good foundation as to the historical accuracy of the New Testament. And this is a first step, as it were.

    Secondly, the New Testament is a book that is spiritually discerned. You can understand the historical aspect of it, for sure. But the actual truths of the New Testament can only really be known by those who have been Born Again, as Jesus told Nicodemus. Without the revelation of the Spirit, it will remain a closed book. To those of us who have had the experience spoken of by Jesus, we have found what the Greek refers to as “experimental knowledge”. In other words, our “faith” is not some belief system we hold onto, desperately hoping it’s true. No, we have experimental knowledge of these truths and rest in them. We also have experimental knowledge of the risen Christ, and this is always a by-product of the new Birth. And without this, the New Testament will remain a closed book.

    Lastly, while the teachings of Jesus are wonderful, and the healing and miracles he performed (He still does these things today!) are precious gifts, Jesus made it abundantly clear that the real reason He came to earth was to die and to take the sins of the world upon Him!

    And that, Jeffery, is the truth of the Gospel.

    BTW: I am an ordained minister (30 years now) and I still function in this role today.

  5. Scott Hendrix says:

    Very well done piece Jeff. I’ve talked to students about the reason for Christ’s execution and pointed out that those slated to die next to him couldn’t really be “robbers,” or they wouldn’t have been sentenced to crucifixion. I learned quite a lot from this piece, and will incorporate it into my teaching. Thanks!

  6. Jeffrey Fisher says:


    I think the picture I present is contested from a couple of different directions. But in my own humble opinion, trying to read between the lines of the gospels is so speculative as to be almost pointless, it being so easy for one to find what one wants to find. Maybe your point would be that I myself want to find a non-violent activist rather than a violent revolutionary, and so of course this is what I find. But I would make two points.

    First, you likely think me more ideologically pre-disposed to non-violence than I am.

    But second, and more important, there is much more to find in the stories about Jesus and the teaching attributed to him that supports the idea of his non-violence, than that supports the idea of his organizing violent revolution. Now there is no doubt at all that all of the gospels are crafted to make nice to the Romans, and I would be perfectly on board to assign Jesus a hefty helping of hostility to the Romans, a hostility masked in the gospels. But honestly, that’s about as far as I feel prepared to go based on the sources. Trying to discern in the gospels some hidden story of Judas being retroactively painted a traitor as a way of reworking the actual events in light of Jesus’ death seems honestly kind of dishonest to me. I’ve thought about this long and hard with respect to the secrecy question so central to Mark. But I just don’t find it persuasive that the trope is meant to explain why no one thought about Jesus the way the Markan traditions did, i.e., as a prophetic-eschatological-messianic figure. Maybe Jesus has simply been done a great disservice by the community that obviously grew up around him after his death. Well, this is almost certainly the case however you look at it.

    For my own money, the most persuasive reading is pretty close to that presented by Paula Fredriksen (PDF file). Even she stretches some things, which she acknowledges. But it’s about the most plausible thing I’ve seen, and she is in my view asking the right questions.

  7. Shane Mage says:

    David HW wrote:

    “The stories you’re referring to (e.g., disciples coming armed, the entire Gethsemane narrative) are later additions by the anonymous writers of the Gospels. They do not represent what modern scholars and casual readers of, say, the newspaper would call “historical fact”
    The accounts we have, drawn certainly from oral accounts (many of which were circulating) are the accounts we have. If you regard them as inventions there is nothing left to the story–and no reason for there to be oral accounts in the first place. Opinions of establishment scholars to the contrary are just that–opinions shaped by the prevailing climate of opinion.

    So if we want to reconstruct what happened (like anti-establishment scholars like Graves, Schonfeld, Maccoby, Tabor) we have to take the factual elements (description of *events*) of the gospels as the basis.
    The questions I asked need answers
    other than the obvious ones to dispel the characterization of Jesus as a revolutionary, claiming Davidic descent, seeking to establish himself with divine sanction as anointed King (Messiah) of the Jews through a mass uprising against Roman rule.

  8. David HW says:

    Hi Shane.

    The stories you’re referring to (e.g., disciples coming armed, the entire Gethsemane narrative) are later additions by the anonymous writers of the Gospels. They do not represent what modern scholars and casual readers of, say, the newspaper would call “historical fact”. Only approximately 15-25% of the material contained in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) is considered to “have happened” in the way we mean “something happened”. Nearly nothing in the Gospel of John is considered historically “true” by mainstream biblical scholars.

    The accounts of Jesus in the garden and the entire Judas/betrayal narrative reflect later embellishments with specific theological motives by the writers of the Gospels. The essay above nearly maxes out the available information we have on the historical Jesus as it is. Quite frankly, we don’t know that much about Jesus since the Gospels are NOT biographies in the sense of the word contemporary individuals understand it.

    Hope that helps.

  9. Shane Mage says:

    Jesus was “nonviolent?” Then why did the disciples come *armed* to Gethsemane–where Judas had been deputized by Jesus to lead the Temple police force charged with arresting him?
    Were a lot of the Temple cops secret followers of Jesus ready to join with the disciples when they drew swords and then go with them to set off a general anti-Roman uprising in Jerusalem? Was the long, agonized waiting at Gethsemane because the Temple police should have arrived much earlier? And did Jesus tell his disciples “put up your swords” becfause Judas whispered to him that a Roman cohort was backing up the Temple cops, so that starting a fight would have meant being massacred then and there? And what reason is there to think there were *two* “Jesus
    son of the father”s?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *




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!