Despite his popularity with the populace, certain other people took a much dimmer view of Jesus and his teachings. I’m referring to the Sanhedrin, the Jewish High Council, and the Pharisees, a sect of … well, the modern equivalent are Baptists: very strict beliefs and they go out of their way to make sure everyone knows that they are righteous, whether they actually are, or not. I don’t know why the Pharisees had it in for Jesus, but it’s clear they did: every time Jesus showed up in a city, some Pharisees would appear and try and trip him up with cunning questions and logic traps designed to show him for the blasphemer they were sure that he was. (This is probably why he spent so much time preaching outside the towns – it seems the Pharisees couldn’t be bothered to get out in the country much.) It made them nuts that he refused to be tripped-up. More so that he kept making them look like jerks – which, in all fairness, wasn’t really that hard, since they were.
As for Jesus, the heart of his teachings – the revolutionary doctrine for which he must be put to death – amounted to “love God, and be nice to each other”.
Worse, he wasn’t just saying these things, he was actually living his life like he believed them!!!
“Look,” the pharisees explained, “You can’t just tell people to be nice – there’s all these laws they have to obey, and that’s what’s important to God!”
Jesus replied that he wasn’t telling people not to follow the laws – they could follow all those laws and still be nice – it wouldn’t hurt them a bit.
And so it went. Eventually, after 3 years of being dogged by the Pharisees, and constantly picked at by them, Jesus began to be a little … critical … of them. He is known to have lost his temper only twice in his entire ministry: once at the money-changers infesting the Temple, and once at the Pharisees. Don’t take my word for it, look it up: Luke 11 – the really good stuff starts at verse 13 … pretty much the same speeches appear in Mathew, chapter 28:
“Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, Hypocrites! You shut up the kingdom of Heaven – you neither go in yourselves, nor suffer others to do so!” Jesus shouted.
He goes on for quite some time, the major point being that the Pharisees were hypocritical holier-than-thou jerks, who would almost assuredly need air conditioning in the afterlife if they didn’t get their stuff together. It’s actually a masterpiece of invective – he never engages in foul language, while still calling the Pharisees some very nasty things, making his point with awesome eloquence!
“Ye are whited sepulchers,” he raged, “all clean and fair without, but, within, full of dead men’s bones and all corruption!”
That one’s my favorite. Anyway, my point is: regardless of who started it, he had now publicly insulted the Pharisees – and they were out for blood. (Nota Bene, if it’s your intention to start a society-changing, grass-roots movement toward either spiritual or political purity, it will almost certainly not work out for you if you tell powerful hypocritical ass-holes that they are hypocritical ass-holes. Trust me on this one.)
The problem, from the Pharisee’s point of view, was that they couldn’t just try and execute Jesus themselves: Rome’s rules allowed them considerable freedom in enforcing their religion’s laws – but they weren’t allowed to put anyone to death, without the permission of the Roman governor. It seemed highly unlikely to them that the governor would let them execute a man for calling them hypocrites and saying everyone ought to be nice to each other.
On the other hand, people were calling him the messiah – and the common folk had welcomed him to Jerusalem with palm branches and cries of Hosanna, just as they would have welcomed a King! That was something they could take to the Romans – who took a very dim view of anyone they hadn’t appointed to the job calling himself a king. Still, however much it might upset the Romans, it wasn’t actually against Jewish law for a man to claim to be a king, and it was deeply important to the Pharisees to find something they could charge him with under Jewish Law: Jesus had, after all, called them hypocrites, and it wasn’t enough to just punish him, they needed to destroy his religious credibility … what they needed was a Jewish capital offense that they could execute him for. Sadly, whatever else might be said about Jewish law, there just weren’t that many Capital Offenses left.
“Wait a second,” one of them probably commented, at about this point, “Hasn’t he been implying he’s God’s son? I mean, that would be blasphemy, right?”
“Well, sure – unless it’s true,” another probably replied, “and how likely is that?”
Blasphemy wasn’t just a capital offense, it was the capital offense! The big one: any wandering preacher convicted of blasphemy, was finished (even before being dead, which would almost certainly be next.)
So now they had the charge to trump up, and the pretext to offer the Romans – all they needed was proof! This, however, proved problematic, as Jesus never actually used those words … they were able to dig up plenty of witnesses who’d heard him call himself “Son of Man”, but that wasn’t blasphemous, since everyone else who mattered was a son of man (women didn’t count). They found some others who’d heard his disciples call him “Son of God”, but they couldn’t execute one guy, because someone else said he was divine!
Since they couldn’t actually find proof, they opted to buy some, instead. They rounded up some guys who’d say what they were told to say, for some coin. There was, however, one final problem: it was Passover, and the city of Jerusalem was simply packed with Jews … no one knew where he could be found, and, if the Temple guards just wandered around looking for him, he’d get wind of it and vanish. Fortunately, they did know where to find one of his disciples – and the guy was starting to have doubts. They offered him 30 silver talents (possibly shekels, or maybe denarii) to lead them to Jesus.
“Don’t worry,” they explained, “we just want to talk to him!” and the poor schmuck bought it.
They arrested Jesus, and tried him before the Sanhedrin – where their purchased witnesses proved to be less credible than they’d hoped. Finally, Caiphas, the High Priest, demanded of Jesus whether he was the messiah – something that wasn’t at all illegal to call himself.
So he affirmed that he was.
Blasphemy is a curious crime: if you work at it, you can make even the most innocent statements seem blasphemous – including statements like “I am the Anointed One”, which was the literal meaning of Messiah – the truth or falsehood of which could not be known by the Priests, but would only be revealed by God, in his own good time. Sadly, it is the central attribute of holier-than-thou types that they believe that they, alone, know what’s on God’s mind, and anyone else who makes such a claim is a blasphemer. In this case, the Sanhedrin decided that “messiah” and “son of God” were identical, so Jesus’ admission was good enough for them. Now they just had to get the Romans to Rubber-stamp his execution order.
The Roman Governor, Pontius Pilate, heard the charges somewhat incredulously.
“Isn’t this the guy who’s been saying everyone should be nice to each other?” he demanded, and the Pharisees had to admit that he was.
“I don’t see anything wrong with that.” He shrugged.
“But he claims to be a king!” the Pharisees whined.
Pilate frowned at Jesus. “Do you claim to be a king?” he asked.
Jesus replied that his kingdom was not of this world.
That sounded pretty freaking nuts to Pilate – but being nuts wasn’t a capital offense in Rome, as several Caesars would later make clear (google Tiberias, Caligula, and Nero, if you want to know just how extremely nuts Romans could get). Pilate didn’t want to piss off the Priests – not with the city so full of potential rioters – but he also didn’t want to kill Jesus just for being a little bit nuts. About then, someone mentioned to him that Jesus was from up north in Galilee – out of Pilate’s jurisdiction.
Pilate exclaimed, “Take this guy to Herod!”
Herod Antipater was a younger, more weasily, version of the King who was supposed to have killed all the kids. He’d had John the Baptist arrested for calling him an adulterer – because, damn it, he was an adulterer, and we can’t have people yelling ugly truths to anyone who’ll listen! His Wife/Sister-in-law, and her daughter, eventually connived to have the Baptist executed, and that fact haunted Herod a bit – not enough to make him stop boinking her, but it did give him a bit of pause when they dragged yet another holy man in front of him. He tried to get him to do a miracle, just for entertainment’s sake, but Jesus was silent throughout the interview. Herod decided it would be enough to make fun of him – and then ordered him taken back to Pilate, since whatever the hell Jesus had done, had been done in Jerusalem, and was, therefore, Pilate’s problem.
“Look,” Pilate said to the Priests, “I don’t see that he’s done any wrong – so how about I have him scourged and you guys call it a day?”
Without waiting for a reply, Pilate ordered Jesus scourged – which is horrifically worse than whipping, as it was done with a cat-of-nine-tails: 12 lashes is guaranteed to make hamburger out of a man’s back, and there’s reason to think it was actually 24 lashes. While they were at it, the guards dressed him up in a horse blanket, and gave him a reed scepter and a crown of thorns, so when they dragged him back before Pilate, he was not only horribly bloody, but made a ridiculous caricature of a king.
“Behold the Man!” Pilate snapped at the Pharisees – but they didn’t back down, and continued demanding his execution, and it began to be clear to Pilate that they’d whip the crowd into a freaking frenzy if they didn’t get what they wanted. He was already in trouble with Caesar for harshness in his treatment of the Jews, and if there was a riot it would have to be put down with Roman steel – and it was sort of doubtful that there was enough Roman steel to handle the immense crowd of Jews in town from all over the country. A riot just wasn’t gonna be good for anyone. At all. Except maybe the priests. And the Anti-Roman fanatics.
Pilate had one final card to play: it was customary at passover to free a condemned prisoner – he’d let the crowd decide whether it would be Jesus, or the only other prisoner they had, Barabbas, a murderer. This plan might have worked, had the crowd been made up of the ordinary people of Jerusalem. Sadly, a lot of the people in the crowd had been bought off. It is a known fact that fanatics and the men they’d bought off yell far louder than ordinary types who withhold judgement. The crowd demanded the execution of Jesus.
Pilate called for a bowl of water, and washed his hands of the business, declaring that the blood of Jesus would be upon the Jews, and not himself. Nevertheless, the fact that he gave them permission to shed the man’s blood splattered him pretty effectively with it, as well. It wasn’t that Pilate was a cruel man, or an evil one – but allowing the execution of Jesus, when he was the one person who could have stopped it, has indelibly stained his reputation with moral cowardice.
Jesus was executed by the typically gruesome Roman method of Crucifixion.
Shortly after he died, it became dark as night, though it was still mid-afternoon, there was a huge thunderstorm, tons of hail, and an earthquake. The curtain of the Holy of Holies – the chamber deep within the temple where priests were supposed to commune with their God – was rent from top to bottom, effectively proclaiming to the world that Elvis had left the building!
The Pharisees began to be a little nervous.
Three days later, despite guards posted to prevent anyone from swiping the body – his body disappeared from his tomb, and people began to claim he was walking around and talking, and he wasn’t a ghost, as he demonstrated by eating a fish, and reportedly was later taken up into heaven. The important thing was, whether he was dead, or translated, his message was very much alive, and his followers were reinvigorated, and soon split up to make their way to every part of the Roman Empire, preaching love of God, Christ resurrected, and, of course, that people should be nice to each other.
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