Misunderstanding Jesus’ Crucifixion: a Kernel of Truth
Over the centuries as Christianity bent to the interests of the rich and powerful, the story of Jesus’ fateful week in Jerusalem was reshaped to minimize his overturning of the money tables at the temple, a challenge to the merging of religious and political power. It was this very event that took place the day after he arrived that set the stage for his arrest and crucifixion.
Palm Sunday celebrates the entry of Jesus into the city of Jerusalem, even though our modern calendar gets the date wrong. Remember that Jesus walked the earth as a Jewish man, and since the Jewish Sabbath extends from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday, by the western calendar he would have had to enter Jerusalem on a Friday during daylight hours. Good Friday, which in historical context actually took place on a Wednesday by our modern calendar, takes us through his mock trial and his death of horror on a Roman Cross. Easter is the Christians’ triumphant celebration of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. Except, of course, that Jesus didn’t rise from the dead on Easter Sunday. He rose on the morning of the traditional Jewish Sabbath, which would be a Saturday morning by today’s calendar. Since he was in the grave for three days and nights, and he rose on a Saturday, that’s how we know that Jesus was actually crucified on a Wednesday. Good Friday is a man-made institution, nothing more.
But there is a missing piece to the puzzle. The incident that is the missing piece to the week’s climactic events is Jesus’ 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, just like the modern-day “prosperity gospel” and those “ministers” who demand 10% of everyone’s income because the Old Testament says so. Jesus disrupted the commercial operation by upsetting the tables where the temple lackeys sold required animals for sacrifice. Actually it was far more intense than that. The tables and chairs that he overturned weren’t from Wal Mart. These were hand made objects of solid wood and so they weighed a good bit. Those solid wooden tables likely weighed in excess of a hundred pounds, maybe even more. Even the chairs would have weighed as much as 40-50 pounds, so Jesus was nowhere near being a wimpy little guy who talked a lot and said nice things. He was picking up those tables and chairs, throwing them around like match sticks, and I have no doubt whatsoever that he personally removed the money changers as well, not just the furniture. 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’ 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’ 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 the Torah (Jewish law of Moses) 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 collaborators. The great tradition is centered in cities in which the controlling institutions are located. For Jesus, that place was Jerusalem. On the other hand, 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, Daniel, Joel 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 Baptist 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 far, far more than 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 theater 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 real starting point of Jesus’ visit to Jerusalem came when he visited the temple, not so much his triumphal entry into the city. In no sense had he come to worship and make sacrifice. Om the contrary, 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 rulers.
The charges that were leveled against him can be summed up as insurrection or even outright sedition. 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 rulers killed him on a cross, only to see Him risen from the grave on the morning of the third day after his crucifixion, conquering death itself.
The theological meaning of the series of events remains in our own hands. Jesus Christ was a revolutionary, a nonconformist who thought outside the box well over 1,900 years before the term was ever coined, as well as being a social and political critic who stood against oppression and inequality in all its forms. So, if anyone finds themselves going through the same old, tired ritual of Sunday morning church – regardless of faith or denomination – just because it’s the “right” thing to do, Jesus has the remedy for that. How do we apply this today in the early 21st century? Jesus would have, and indeed does, stand up for the poor, the homeless, the mentally ill, the prisoner, the sick and infirm, the widow and the orphan. He stood for the most vulnerable and defenseless people at the bottom of the pecking order of so-called society. He stands against those who wage war and the murder of millions for sport, he stands in favor of those who endure persecution for the sake of their faith, he stands against those who incarcerate people for profit, and he stands especially against those in the top 1% who hoard the retirement savings of the masses, who labor to take away our pensions and liquidate our retirement savings, and against the legalized looters who have established fortresses for themselves on Wall street and in the halls of power in Washington, DC. He stands with “the 99%”, and his Spirit is with those who dare to “occupy” as I do. Sure, he’s the Son of God who is seated at his Father’s right hand, never forget that and never stop believing no matter what. But he was and is the advocate of the working class, the poor, the hungry, the homeless and the lost. Like an attorney who shows up in court on our behalf at the last minute, winning what would have been a losing legal fight, Jesus is our advocate, and the world can’t touch him or any of his followers like myself and the numerous others who will no doubt read this by this time tomorrow. Jesus is everyman, so let’s all take this to heart and endeavor to follow His example. Have compassion and empathy. Practice being a good listener and being gentle and Christlike. Don’t judge people who you may view as not kosher, or as being unwanted, untrustworthy or undesirable. Embrace other people, cultures, races and nations, knowing that the same God who made you in His image and likeness made them too. Practice tolerance, kindness, and being merciful even if you don’t think the other person or party deserves it. That’s how I celebrate Easter and the other 364 days of the year, because when we embrace God we embrace all that he has made just the same.