Why did they execute Jesus?

Christ Driving the Money Changers out of the Temple Valentin de Boulogne (via Wikimedia Commons)

Last week I asked my students to explain why Jesus was executed. I had them read Matthew 21.12-17 (cf. Mark 11.15-19; Luke 19.45-48) as well as John 11.17-45. The first reference, and it’s parallels across the Synoptics, is what’s been called the ‘cleansing’ or ‘purification’ of the Temple (or my personal favorite: Jesus’ ‘Temple-Tantrum’). The second reference is the narrative where Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. These two stories function as the gateway in both narratives to Jesus’ eventual demise. I wanted my students to read the excerpts from Matthew and John, summarize them for me, and then explain how each one tells us why Jesus was executed.

They understood how both of these stories functioned. Regarding the Temple-Tantrum, they observed that Jesus’ actions would’ve been threatening to the priesthood and the Temple-system. Notably though, I haven’t seen anyone comment on how Rome’s shadow may have contributed to the urgency to get rid of Jesus.

For historians, the Synoptic rationale is easy to understand and even embrace as a plausible historical explanation for why Jesus was executed. The raising of Lazarus from the dead evokes a supernatural explanation which historians using a traditional methodology tend to avoid. Literarily though, the answer has been clear for most of my students: anyone who can do that is dangerous.

Of course, the irony of the Fourth Gospel is that if Jesus can overcome death—if he is the Resurrection and the Life—then how does killing him stop him? The Evangelist winks at us. Silly enemies of Jesus, thinking death is a weapon.

The Raising of Lazarus, by Duccio (via Wikimedia Commons)

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