As we observe Passion Week, we take a deeper look at the various nuances surrounding our understanding of Jesus’s times. This article delves into the grimmer aspects of the ground realities prevalent during those times and traces the corresponding socio-historical processes that circumscribed these events, thereby showing how the confluence of these factors came to define epic moments in world history. We also take a closer look at how Jesus was crucified because He was viewed as a threat to the existing power structure, because He questioned and challenged norms of society and exposed these as superfluous, corrupt, immoral and vile.
Was Jesus’ Time Any Different From Ours?
“The History of all Hitherto Existing Society is the History of Class Struggles.” says Karl Marx, the Social Philosopher, Economist, Sociologist, Journalist and Revolutionary socialist. In the earlier epochs of history, we find almost everywhere a complicated arrangement of society into various orders, a manifold gradation of social rank. In ancient Rome we have patricians, knights, plebeians, slaves; in the Middle Ages, feudal lords, vassals, guild-masters, journeymen, apprentices, serfs; in almost all of these classes, again, subordinate gradations. There has been a constant struggle among the various social sections of the society for that “Power Struggle.” In common parlance, the statement “Power Struggle” is attributed to a situation where two or more people or organizations compete for influence. The question that looms in the mind of Liberal Christians and free thinking citizens is, Was Jesus’ time any different?
Why was Jesus put to death in the first place? And why was He awarded the most severe punishment ever invented by the Great Roman Empire? What was His crime? What did He do to deserve the kind of punishment awarded only to the most dreaded and notorious criminals?
The answer to the questions posed is simple enough. Jesus was not crucified because He taught love and forgiveness or because He set about debating legal points with the scribes of His day. Jesus was crucified because He was seen as a threat to the Powers-That-Be. His brand of non-violent resistance, His manner of stirring the people and empowering the poor, were correctly judged to be challenging the political power structures of His day. Contrary to the popular belief, there are Christian apologetics and writers who are of the view that Jesus was big into politics. The very fact that Jesus was directly challenging the political and religious powers of His day; those powers were the wealthy ruling classes of Judea; the Sadducees and Pharisees.Jesus as seen in the Holy Bible is seen openly rebuking the Pharisees and the Sadducees for their hypocrisy, corruption and twisted interpretations of Hebraic law. (Matthew 23: 27, 28) These Pharisees and Sadducees were not just religious leaders. They also were the political leaders of Israel during Jesus’ time. Judea was ruled by the Romans and was an occupied territory. However, the Romans did not run everything in Judea; not even close. As long as the Jews paid their taxes and didn’t revolt, Rome had little interest in their internal affairs. In the words of Julian Spriggs, Lecturer and Speaker with Youth with a Mission (YWAM), “It was the normal Roman practice to leave most of the running of the government to local leaders. In Judea, this was the Sanhedrin, dominated by the Sadducees, and ruled by the High Priest. In return for their support for Roman rule, the Sadducees kept their wealth and privileged position secure.”
History recounts the Jewish Leaders of Jesus’ day being unusually powerful because of weak Roman Governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate. At various times in his career he had been outwitted and humiliated by the Jewish leaders. In fact, the Roman Emperor, Tiberius Julius Caesar is believed to have rebuked Pilate and threatened to remove him due to complaints from the Jewish leaders in Judea. The very reason that Jesus was brought before Pilate lies in the fact that the Jewish Leaders were not allowed to impose Death Penalty.
Corruption, very much like today was rampant during Jesus’ time, and the religious leaders were unabashedly “Commercialising God.” It is hardly surprising in a world where corruption was the main ingredient in churning out the economy, the Leaders provided Free Market Monopoly to sell God, the rights reserved exclusively for the Pharisees and Sadducees. This claim is not substantiated without evidence. For instance, the infamous Annas got the Roman governor to appoint him High Priest of Judea (the most powerful Jewish position in the land) and later got five of his sons and one son-in-law appointed to the same position. The High Priest of Judea was also the Chairman of the powerful Sanhedrin.
It is a custom and tradition that when a Jew comes to pray at the temple and offer a sacrifice (as all males were required to do during Passover) they had to exchange Roman coins (with image of Caesar) for Jewish ones so they could buy “approved” animals to sacrifice. All this happened in the temple courtyards or in the area surrounding it. The High Priest, and his cronies, controlled everything and profited handsomely from the exorbitant fees they charged to exchange the money and sell the animals. No wonder, Jesus directly challenged the corrupt system when He physically and violently (the only time Jesus ever resorted to physical violence), cleansed the temple of those who had made it a “den of thieves” (Matthew 21:13).
Another social problem during Jesus’ time was that, the Jews under the Roman Empire were finding it hard to bear the yoke of their Ruler. It’s no surprise that Jesus was welcomed into Jerusalem with glory and honour, for the Jews perceived that Jesus would liberate them from the Roman; however the people failed to see the bigger picture and the same people who were praising Him were quick enough to curse and condemn Him to death.
Society since time immemorial has been evolving rapidly, however the social gradation or stratification has remained unchanged. The continuous struggles for power in every stream of society is almost inevitable – Politics, Religion, Economics, Social etc. No wonder, Marx rightly observed and was of the opinion that Man is by nature a ‘Conflict-Prone Animal.’ The society during Jesus’ time and today is no different. However, in spite of all the wrongs in the society in the form of power struggles and gradation and injustice, these various interpretations of Jesus’ death witness to the struggle to make meaning out of the act of evil that brought Jesus’ earthly life and mission to such an abrupt and cruel end. When we make sense of this human tragedy, it is imperative that we do see it first and foremost as a tragedy. Then, of course, we may well recognise that God can and does overturn evil and convert it into good. This is what came to be called in the Christian tradition as the ‘law of the cross’. Nonetheless, God does not condone evil, let alone require it in order to fulfill the divine plan of salvation. The suffering and death of Jesus, along with all other instances of violence and murder, are ultimately outside the powers of rational explanation. The most we can do is to acknowledge in faith that the mystery of God’s love is finally more powerful than evil and death. Jesus’ death, too, needs to be recognised in this light.
“Degree of Thought is a weekly community column initiated by Tetso College in partnership with The Morung Express. Degree of Thought will delve into the social, cultural, political and educational issues around us. The views expressed here do not reflect the opinion of the institution. Tetso College is a NAAC Accredited UGC recognised Commerce and Arts College. The current editors are Dr. Hewasa Lorin, Anjan Behera, Nivibo Yiki, Yanbeni Yanthan and Kvulo Lorin. For feedback or comments please email: firstname.lastname@example.org”.