When it comes to the matter of Jesus' death, Christians typically insist upon his innocence. Since many Christians believe in Jesus' sinlessness, it stands to reason that Jesus committed no acts worthy of his execution. Moreover, Christian theology has expended enormous energy, and rightly so, in explaining how a tragedy so grave as Jesus' crucifixion could participate in God's saving action for the world.
The theological question many ask, then, is "Why did Jesus die?" I am asking a different question: How did Jesus get himself killed? This question has theological implications, but it is not simply theological. This is a literary and historical question concerning how human actions led to Jesus' death.
The Gospels do more than simply describe a sinless Jesus. They describe Jesus' death in two ways. First, corrupt religious and civic authorities see to Jesus' arrest, humiliation, and crucifixion. They drum up false charges, incite the crowds, and see to the verdict.
That's one level of the Gospel narratives, but the second is just as important. As I point out in "Sinners: Jesus and His Earliest Followers," Jesus was executed for acts that he actually committed. Indeed, Jesus' course of action directly precipitated his arrest and crucifixion -- any external observer would have seen it coming. So while the Gospels portray an innocent Jesus, they also relate how Jesus' provocative actions directly incited the authorities to rub him out. The Gospel of Mark will represent our test case for this view.
Mark's account of Jesus' death begins with his visit to Jerusalem for the Passover festival. Mark assumes that its audience knows what Passover means: Passover commemorates God's deliverance of Israel from bondage to Egypt. In other words, the Passover festival blends religious devotion with political aspiration. Passover is a freedom festival.
But Israel was not free. In Jesus' day Roman authorities grew especially wary during the major Jewish festivals. Enormous crowds flocked to Jerusalem, multiplying its population by a factor of three, four, or more. Not only was the city overcrowded, occasional outbreaks of sedition occurred during the festival, all of which the Romans snuffed out with extreme prejudice. Moreover, the Jewish authorities responsible for operating the Temple also stood on alert. Any disruption could provoke the Romans to act violently, threatening not only the Jewish people but also the priests and other functionaries who kept Jerusalem running.
So what does Jesus do, according to Mark? He stages Occupy Jerusalem. Mark 11:1-11 narrates how Jesus organizes a march into the city. He rides in on a colt, echoing Zechariah's proclamation of Israel's new king: "Lo, your king is coming to you. He is victorious, triumphant, yet humble, riding on an ass, on a donkey foaled by a she-ass" (Zechariah 9:9; Jewish Publication Society). The crowd catches the not so subtle hint, exclaiming: "Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest realms!" (Mark 11:9-10, my translation).
If that doesn't alert the authorities to a grave threat, Jesus follows up on the next day. He marches into the Temple, overturns the tables where money was exchanged and the kiosks devoted to the sale of pigeons, and prevents commerce from flowing through the precincts (11:15-19). Now, the Temple was an enormous edifice, and it is difficult to imagine that Jesus' disruption stopped all commerce from proceeding, but Mark reminds us that the authorities are highly displeased (11:18). And well they should be: visitors to Jerusalem needed to exchange their coins for sacred currency, and they expected to purchase sacrificial animals. (Who wants to travel with pigeons?) But Jesus has disrupted everything, threatening public order.
Occupy Jerusalem continues. Each day Jesus teaches in and around the Temple, gathering crowds and arousing controversy. His teachings directly undermine Roman authority and condemn the Temple executives. Jesus is an equal opportunity offender.
Two passages particularly reflect the offense of Jesus' teachings. Christians have so domesticated these passages as to render them sentimental and harmless, but they originally carried deadly significance.
First, Jesus' opponents attempt to entrap him, asking, "Is it lawful to render taxes to Caesar?" (12:13-17). It's a great question. Should Jesus say no, he commits treason against Rome. But an affirmative answer suggests that Jesus is soft on imperialism, a position that would cost him his popular following.
Many Christians interpret Jesus' final answer, "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's," as endorsing the compatibility of good citizenship with faithful discipleship. That interpretation evades the offense of Jesus' response, for Jesus' world does not know the modern distinction between church and state. Caesar claimed that everything belonged to him. In fact, Caesar claimed to be God. How can one honor Caesar's demands and God's at the same time?
What belongs to Caesar? Everything. So what belongs to God?
Or, what belongs to God? You tell me. Then what is left over for Caesar?
When Jesus' opponents produce a Roman coin, they demonstrate their complicity: the coin bears Caesar's image, and Israel's law bans graven images of any sort. Without committing treason explicitly, Jesus demonstrates how accommodation to Roman imperialism amounts to idolatry.
The second domesticated passage involves the widow who gives "her whole living" to the Temple treasury (12:41-44). One readily imagines slimy televangelists evoking the widow's example as they plead for greater donations. But the widow, however virtuous, is not an example of generosity for Mark. Instead, she is an object lesson in exploitation. Immediately before we encounter the widow, Jesus condemns the Temple authorities "who devour widows' houses" (12:40). Her example demonstrates the rapacity of exploitative religion.
So let's review. It's Passover season, when crowds pour into the city, political hope is high and the authorities are on guard. Jesus stages Occupy Jerusalem. He processes into the city, crowds acclaiming the arrival of Israel's king. He occupies the Temple, disrupting its legitimate business. He characterizes accommodation to Rome as idolatry, and he accuses the Temple authorities of exploiting the poor. All the while, the crowds are watching. So are the authorities. In what sense, exactly, is Jesus an innocent victim?
For Christians it's essential to confess Jesus' righteousness. But it's also important to consider how Jesus got himself killed. Following Jesus requires not pious passivity but passionate pursuit of justice. His path opens the way not simply to innocent devotion but also to insistent testimony.