Why did Jesus die? Part I – the historical reasons

Over the next 3 posts in the run up to Good Friday and Easter, I want to look at Jesus’ death on a cross, and specifically the question – why did Jesus die?

There are many ways of answering this question, on different levels. This time I’d like to look at the simply historical or human level – the reasons why Jesus became perceived to be enough of a problem or a threat to end up tried by a Jewish court and executed on a Roman cross. I’ll be drawing on NT Wright fairly freely throughout, as for my money he’s our best and most interesting contemporary theologian on the subject of Jesus.

Four misguided agendas

First we probably need to understand something of the social and religious milieu in which Jesus lived and died. There were, we’re told, four main groups within 1st-century (or ‘second-temple’) Judaism. All four had a basic common goal of ‘bringing the Kingdom’, which essentially meant re-establishing Israel as an independent nation under God, focused around the potent national symbols of the Temple and Torah. But each group had widely differing different agendas and programmes for achieving this goal.

So there were the puritan Pharisees, who sought to establish a holy Israel set apart by strict practice of Jewish religious customs and rituals. There were the compromisers (Herodians and arguably Sadducees), who sought to make the best of Rome’s rule and hope that God would somehow bless it. There were the monastic Essenes, who isolated themselves entirely from what they saw as corrupt society, establishing their own private and separate holy ‘kingdom’. And there were the revolutionary Zealots, who sought to overthrow Rome and re-establish the nation of Israel by force.

Jesus didn’t fit with the agenda of any of these groups. Indeed he challenged them all head-on, calling them to surrender their misguided and self-defeating agendas (to ‘repent’), and instead to join his entirely different way of ushering in the Kingdom. (Well, so says NT Wright in The Challenge of Jesus, at any rate.) And this direct opposition to all available contemporary agendas is itself enough to explain why Jesus ended up top of the nation’s Most Wanted list.

So he alienated the Pharisees by undermining and overturning their cherished customs, symbols of their ‘pure’ Judaism, such as Sabbath-keeping rules and food laws. He was far too engaged with the ‘corrupt’ culture to be of any interest to the Essenes. He threatened the security and stability of the compromisers, whose comfortable way of life depended on the boat not being rocked. And he disappointed the Zealots by not being revolutionary enough.

Indeed this lack of violent zeal could ironically be the direct reason why Jesus ended up under arrest. We can only speculate about Judas’ motivations in handing over his friend, guide and mentor of 3 years. Was it mere greed for money, the 30 silver pieces? That seems unlikely. Was it fear of the authorities and a decision to side with them rather than get crushed by them? Perhaps. Or might it actually have been revolutionary zeal, an attempt to provoke Jesus into starting an armed uprising against Rome to liberate Israel, in accordance with prevailing contemporary views of the Messiah? That certainly seems plausible; and indeed it nearly happened – Peter certainly seems to have been about to embark on armed struggle in the Garden, had Jesus not quelled him.

Blasphemer and rebel king

So why was Jesus executed? The standard view of course is that he’d become too troublesome to the authorities (particularly the religious authorities). In a variety of ways he challenged their power, undermined their status and threatened their security – or at least that’s how they perceived it. His message and his way of life made him a serious thorn in the flesh of the establishment.

So those with a vested interest in the status quo couldn’t afford to let this young miracle-working prophet-preacher simply up-end it as he had the moneylenders’ tables. He had to go, or he would ruin their own ways of re-establishing Israel which they’d worked so hard to achieve. NT Wright also suggests that the religious authorities saw Jesus as a ‘false prophet’, one who was leading Israel astray and was perhaps even a sorcerer, and who therefore (according to Torah) had to die.

Technically Jesus died because of ‘blasphemy’, of claiming to be God or at least equal with God. This was apparently the only charge the chief priests could make stick against him, as it effectively came from his own lips in their hearing.

He was also accused of threatening to destroy the Temple, based on his riddle about tearing down the temple and rebuilding it in three days – and of course based on his recent violent action in the temple courts. It may indeed have been this action which led directly to his arrest as a potential troublemaker, a serious threat to Jewish national and religious identity.

However, in order to get Jesus actually put to death officially (rather than by lynch mob), the religious authorities needed to involve Rome. Hence it seems they tried to persuade Pilate to see Jesus as a political threat, a dangerous rebel ‘king’, a rival claimant to Caesar. Pilate for his part doesn’t seem to have been convinced by their argument. In the end, the gospels suggest that Jesus died largely because Pilate wanted to avoid an embarrassing Passover riot.

You could argue that Jesus died simply because the powers that be (and indeed almost everyone) failed to recognise him for what and who he was. They heard his claim to be equal with God and saw him as a blasphemer. They saw his kingly actions, and perceived him to be a rebel ‘king’ threatening Caesar’s authority. They heard his clear prophetic message and deemed him a dangerous false prophet. They saw his priestly actions and saw him as a usurper of priestly authority. For these things he had to die.

And yet, if Christians have understood him right at all, Jesus was in some sense all of these things, was in some way both true God and true King, as well as true prophet and high priest. Of course, not all will agree with this estimation. But if there’s any truth in it, it’s a supreme irony that he should be killed precisely for claiming to be what and who he actually was, and for acting accordingly.

Jesus’ choice

Ultimately we can also say that Jesus died because he chose to. He directly and purposefully pursued the path that would lead to his execution in Jerusalem (apparently on the way avoiding several other attempts on his life because ‘his time had not yet come’). Time after time he had the chance to take another route to Messiahship, as represented by Peter in Matt 16:22 (‘this shall never happen to you!’); but it seems that from pretty much the outset his face was set towards Jerusalem and the cross.

He had a final chance in the Garden of Gethsemane to avoid death, and clearly struggled with it terribly, but stood firm. If we’re to believe his reported words at his arrest, he could even then have avoided capture – could have called down legions of angels to fight for him. But at each point he resolutely chose the way leading to Golgotha.

Why then was Jesus so determined to die, to be crucified as a shamed outcast and criminal? I think we can rule out the idea that he was suicidal. It seems that he saw his execution as part of his Messianic vocation, indeed as the very culmination of that vocation. He believed it to be the will of his Father; to be God’s way of overcoming evil, establishing the Kingdom and bringing salvation – not only to Israel but to the whole world.

Exactly how and why he thought his death would achieve this is the subject of the next post…


About TheEvangelicalLiberal

Aka Harvey Edser. I'm a web editor, worship leader, wannabe writer, very amateur composer and highly unqualified armchair theologian. My heroes include C.S. Lewis and Homer Simpson.
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2 Responses to Why did Jesus die? Part I – the historical reasons

  1. dsholland says:

    “… should be killed precisely for claiming to be what and who he actually was, and for acting accordingly.”

    In keeping with your post on meaning (patterns), the clear ring of truth in this grips my soul, breaks my heart and makes me weep. It is what we humans consistently do when presented with truth, especially truth we don’t particularly want to hear. The well known joke that we are usually able to pick ourselves up and ignore it when we stumble over the truth witnesses against us.

    I have become convinced that Christ is never rejected because we don’t understand, He is rejected because we understand all too well.

    I also believe (again in keeping with your previous post) that Love, not reason, is the only escape from that murderous response because the ugliness of our position is inevitably more than we can bear.


    • Thanks David, good to hear from you!

      I take a slightly more optimistic view of human nature – I don’t think we always wilfully blind ourselves to the truth, though we certainly do quite often. I tend to go with Irenaeus, viewing humanity as essentially immature and childish, rather than Augustine, viewing humanity as essentially depraved. But yes, as a species we are pretty good at failing to recognise reality, whether deliberately or ignorantly.

      It seems to me Jesus encountered both kinds of reaction. To the Pharisees he said something like ‘if you were blind you would not be guilty, but as you claim to see your guilt remains’ – which strikes me as an illustration of what you’re saying. But of course he also famously prayed for his executioners ‘Father forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing’ – in other words, they acted from ignorance rather than deliberate self-deception.


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