Misunderstanding Jesus’ Crucifixion: a Kernel of Truth
by Rev. Paul J. Bern
Over the centuries as Christianity has gradually been bent towards the interests of organized religion (or Religion Inc. as I call it), the story of Jesus’ final fateful week in Jerusalem was reshaped to minimize his overturning of the money tables at the Temple at Jerusalem, which was actually 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, which ‘Religion Incorporated’ celebrates as the entry of Jesus into the city of Jerusalem, is described in slightly different ways in various Biblical translations. In the King James as well as the Catholic versions of the Bible, it states in the Gospel of Luke chapter 19 (verses 28-40) that people broke branches off the palm trees that lined the road, laying them across the road as Jesus passed by on a donkey. But in the New International and New Living translations, the Bible says people removed their coats and laid them across the road before the Lord. (If the Catholic or KJV Bibles are to be taken literally, they sure must have killed a lot of palm trees that day!) Moreover, our modern calendar gets the date for Jesus’ resurrection all 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. The real 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. The only translations of the Bible that use the word ‘Easter’ are the King James and Catholic Bibles. Jesus rose on the morning of the traditional Jewish Sabbath, which would be a Saturday morning by today’s Western 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. So-called “Good Friday” is merely a man-made institution, nothing more!
That incident which is the missing piece to the week’s climactic events is Jesus’ overturning of the money tables at the temple in Jerusalem. Tradition says that the incident was a ceremonial cleansing of the Temple of its commercial enterprises because those in charge of it 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 the 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 some wimpy little guy who talked a lot and said nice things like ‘Religion Inc.’ portrays him. He was picking up those tables and chairs and 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, let’s put an emphasis on understanding this historical incident in context. First, let’s examine 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 and interpretation. Jesus and his followers had limited contact with Jerusalem’s social, political and religious leaders, mostly through the enforcers of Herod’s Roman rule who also represented the Jerusalem Temple. These enforcers 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 Sanhedrin, 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 Christianity. It almost always arises with devout believers who have escaped the burden of the “great tradition” and its demands 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 and only “small tradition” prophet in the New Testament. His harsh criticism of his 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 Roman Empire, and those who controlled the economic systems that starved and robbed the poor and that left orphans and widows 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 the overthrow and replacement of a corrupt system. He bluntly told the people’s oppressors their days were numbered. But He achieved the overthrow by sacrificing himself on the cross, hung between two thieves. One solitary life changed the history and direction of humankind forever.
Jesus took his apocalyptic message throughout what is modern Israel today, and ultimately to its capital, Jerusalem. However, to call His arrival a “triumphal entry” (as the Bible is translated) is, I think, a rather superficial explanation. Jesus 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, and with great effect. The “great tradition” that was accepted by Jerusalem’s ruling elite was being publicly debunked by the main 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. On the contrary, He came to disrupt and to make pronouncements about the judgment of God on all the religious leaders of that day. Jesus did not go to the Temple to bless it. He came to the Temple to announce the destruction of an entire paradigm. 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 in Luke chapter 19 that took Jesus from being an irritating but harmless country rebel from the rural north to a nuisance in the very 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 Resurrection of Jesus Christ remains forever indisputable. God came to earth in the form of a man because it was the only way our status as God’s creations could continue. Jesus Christ was none other than the Son of God. This is the very starting point for all Christian beliefs and values. As the Bible tells us in the Old Testament (mainly in Exodus, plus other places too numerous to mention), the only way that sin against God can be forgiven is by the shedding of blood. From the time of Abraham up until the time of Christ, this was the “great tradition”. But, Jesus changed all that when he sacrificed himself, which only had to be done once for everyone. Moreover, after resting in his grave for three days and nights, Jesus rose again and was seen by hundreds, maybe even thousands of people in the forty days after his resurrection that the Bible documents in all four gospels. In so doing, he gained everlasting life without end, as do all who place their unrestrained, unconditional faith in Him. Thanks to the supreme sacrifice of Christ, we all possess immortality!But there is still more. Jesus was, at the end of the day, not just a Savior, as if that weren’t enough (don’t worry, it is!). Jesus was also a revolutionary, a nonconformist who thought well outside the box nearly 2,000 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 – complete faith and trust in himself as the Son of God, both trumping and transcending traditional religious teaching.
How do we correctly apply this today in the 21st century? Jesus most definitely does stand up for the poor, the homeless, the mentally ill, the prisoner, the sick and infirm, the widow and the orphan. He stands 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 who casually murder millions for profit in the process, 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 while out-sourcing the jobs and careers of their children. Jesus opposes those who labor to chip away at people’s retirement pensions and liquidate our 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. But most of all, Jesus stands with those who endure persecution for the sake of their faith. 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 ourselves). Jesus ‘occupies’ the hearts and minds of everyone, so let’s all take this to heart and endeavor to follow His example. Have compassion and empathy. Practice being a good listener, being gentle and Christlike. Don’t judge people who you may view as too different, 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 deserves it. That’s how I endeavor to celebrate Resurrection Day and the other 364 days of the year. Because, when we embrace God we embrace all that he has made.