Before we examine the story about the crucifixion of Jesus, we need to recognize and acknowledge the Romans did not conquer most of the known world and build their empire by being kind or benevolent. They did so by being ruthless and cruel. No quarter given, none asked. So, I decided to examine this story from an historical perspective rather than a biblical one.
The head of the Roman Empire was an Emperor who wielded absolute power. It was the Emperor who appointed people to administrative (Prefect/Governor) positions throughout the provinces of the Roman Empire. Those selected were Romans with proven loyalty and service to the Emperor and were expected to govern their areas of responsibility with ruthless efficiency.
This policy was meant to discourage local inhabitants from engaging in rebellious activities against Roman rule. Let’s face it, Roman Law in the provinces of their empire was not about justice, it was about subjugation and control.
The usual term of office for a Prefect was about three years. But if an incumbent did not perform to the standard expected by the Emperor, he would be removed from office, exiled from Rome and probably assassinated. This policy ensured that yesterday’s ally did not become tomorrow’s enemy.
One form of capital punishment favored by the Romans was crucifixion. This practice was the most cruel, sadistic and gruesome means of putting a human being to death slowly, while at the same time, inflicting as much pain as possible.
It is against this background, that I examined the story of the crucifixion of Jesus. This crucifixion has been a source of controversy for nearly 2000 years and, because it occurred so long ago (AD 36?) we may never know what actually took place.
There are so many variations to the story of Jesus’ crucifixion, it is difficult to separate truth from myth and religious embellishments. I state this because it seems the only disciple present at the crucifixion appears to be John. This means some versions of the crucifixion may be based on hearsay.
What follows is my view of how this historic event may have unfolded and is based on how the Romans dealt with offenders who were considered a threat to public order in the provinces and a threat to Roman rule. However, I have to acknowledge that my view of what may have took place has been formed from information obtained from many different written sources. So, it may be no more accurate than the versions written in the New Testament Gospels.
At the time of Jesus’ arrest, Pontius Pilate was Prefect of the Roman Provinces of Judea, Samaria and Idumaea. Pilate held this post from AD 26 to AD 36, which was much longer than the normal tenure for such a position. Why Pilate was retained in this position for so long is not known.
Was it because Pilate did such a good job of governing those troublesome provinces? Or was it because the Emperor Tiberius (AD 14 to AD 37) was an absentee emperor who left affairs of state to his Delegate in Rome and it was he who decided to retain Pilate in that position for so long? Or perhaps the Emperor or his Delegate had political reasons to keep Pilate away from Rome?
Whatever the reason may have been, I believe if Pilate did not perform his job effectively, he would have been removed from his position, exiled from Rome and probably would have died from an ‘assisted suicide.’ So, whichever way one looks at this, Pilate was obviously a very experienced and capable Prefect and nothing in his biography suggests otherwise.
For this reason, I do not understand why the Gospels portray Pilate as being indecisive when dealing with the arrest and death sentence of Jesus.
At that time, Pilate’s main concern was maintaining public order during the Passover period when crowds of people were coming into Jerusalem. Pilate would have been aware of the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem and of his popularity with the people. So, it is reasonable to state that Pilate would have sent his intelligence gatherers to find out as much information as possible about Jesus. Pilate would also have ordered his soldiers to keep a close eye on the activities of Jesus and report back directly to him.
Pilate would have been informed that Jesus had come to Jerusalem from Galilee where people believed Jesus had unearthly (supernatural) powers. These powers enabled Jesus to perform acts (miracles) that were impossible for a mortal man to perform.
So, when Jesus was brought before him, Pilate would have a good knowledge of the activities of this man called Jesus.
Pilate was advised that Jesus had been arrested on the orders of the Temple of Jerusalem’s High Priest (Caiaphas), tried and found guilty of offences against the Temple. Under Jewish Law, one of these offences was punishable by death. Because only the Roman Prefect had the authority to confirm and order a death sentence to be carried out, Caiaphas had sent Jesus to Pilate.
The offences Jesus had been convicted of were that he (Jesus) rampaged through the grounds of the Temple of Jerusalem with a whip disrupting the traders and dealers who were engaged in their lawful business activities. The Passover period was the most lucrative time of the year for the Temple, for Jerusalem and for the Roman tax collectors. This disruptive action of Jesus caused the Temple and Rome to lose a lot of this revenue.
Jesus also threatened to destroy the Temple. In today’s language this would be seen as a terrorist threat which would be a crime against Roman rule as well as the Temple authorities.
Pilate would have also been informed that Jesus claimed he was the son of God and those who did not believe in him would not go to his Father’s Kingdom of Heaven. In other words, those who did not believe in Jesus, would not have a life hereafter (eternal life) following death. The Temple authorities saw this claim as sacrilege which, under Jewish Law, was punishable by death.
Although Jesus never claimed he had been sent by God to free Judea from Roman rule and would become King when this had been achieved, some of his followers believed he was the ‘Messiah.’ While the Roman Emperor was a God like figure, he was not a God nor was he the son of a God. This means that Jesus had been placed in a more exalted position than the Roman Emperor. Pilate would not have been impressed with that.
For these reasons Pilate would have enough evidence to deem Jesus to be an enemy of Rome and justify confirming the death sentence. Also, let us not forget, that Jesus actually wanted to die so he could fulfill his destiny to save the world from sin. This raises the possibility that Jesus deliberately behaved in such an anti-social and destructive manner to ensure he would be arrested and crucified.
Pilate would have known Caiaphas in an official capacity and socially as well so he would have no reason to doubt Caiaphas’ judgement and integrity. Therefore, it is reasonable to suggest that Pilate would have co-operated with the Jewish Temple authorities to ensure public order was maintained. So, the most logical thing for Pilate to have done was to confirm the death sentence and order the crucifixion of Jesus to be carried out. End of story.
Why did this not happen? Why was Pilate reluctant to confirm the death sentence of Jesus?
The palaver that embroiled the story from that point onward is simply beyond belief.
First of all, why would Pilate risk his own position and life to save the life of a Jewish preacher who may be a threat to Roman rule in Judea? It was also quite clear that the presence of Jesus in Jerusalem was a threat to public order so the sooner he was dealt with the better. So, what was Pilate’s problem?
It is written that, because Jesus was from Galilee, Pilate sent him to be dealt with by Herod Antipas, the Tetrarch of Galilee and Perea (4 BC to AD 39) who was in Jerusalem for the Passover period. This does not make any sense. Herod’s jurisdiction of Galilee was over a hundred miles north of Jerusalem so he would have no authority in Jerusalem where Jesus committed the offences.
There are at least two versions of this part of the story. In one version it is written that Herod and his men mocked Jesus and sent him back to Pilate. In another version, it is written that Herod was pleased to meet Jesus because he hoped he would perform a sign or a miracle of some sort. It is also written that after his meeting with Jesus, Herod and Pilate became friends.
Therefore, one or both of these incidents must be a fabrication or an embellishment of some sort and may not reflect the truth. This means we may never know if Pilate really did send Jesus to Herod. But if he did so, Pilate would have compromised his authority as representative of the Roman Emperor.
In the next part of the story, it is written that after Herod returned Jesus to Pilate, Caiaphas turned up at Pilate’s residence early next morning with a ‘rent a crowd’ baying for the blood of Jesus.
As the representative of the Roman Emperor and an experienced Prefect, Pilate would not have accepted such a demonstration against his administration. Nor would he have allowed himself to be bullied.
Therefore, I believe it is reasonable to state that the first thing Pilate would have done is to order armed soldiers to surround the crowd and arrest Caiaphas. He would then have informed the crowd that they are an illegal assembly which is contrary to public order. Pilate would then have ordered the crowd to disperse or face the full force of Roman Law. This would have brought the confrontation to an end: that is, if there ever was such a confrontation.
It is difficult to believe that Pilate would allow such a situation to develop. Nor would he have compromised his authority by offering the crowd a choice between Jesus and Barabbas. For these reasons I doubt if such a demonstration/confrontation ever took place.
The only event we can be sure of is, of course, the crucifixion of Jesus. But once again, I believe the story has been embellished to some extent.
What follows is my view of what could or may have took place on the day of the crucifixion of Jesus and the two other offenders who were crucified with him.
Here was an opportunity for Pilate to assert his authority as Prefect and reinforce Roman rule in Judea by crucifying all three offenders at the same time. Such a spectacle and act of resolve would show leadership. It would also show the citizens of Jerusalem and visitors to the city for the Passover period who was in charge and what happens to people who mess with Rome. Also, the Romans were efficient and experienced killers so it would be logical to deal with all three offenders at the same time and in the same way.
That is to say the three offenders would have been stripped naked in public view and scourged with whips. The cross beam of the crucifix was then placed across the back of their necks and shoulders like a yoke with arms outstretched and then tied in place. Or could they have actually been yokes of some sort, not the cross beams as written? This made sure the offenders could not cover their nakedness and would suffer the humiliation of being taunted and jeered as they walked past the crowds of onlookers on their way to meet their death.
It is also written that a crown of thorns was fashioned for Jesus and placed on his head causing him further injuries. Was such a crown really made for Jesus? Or is this just another embellishment to the story? I ask this because it seems to be ‘rather convenient’ that a Jerusalem Brier Bush would be growing in or around Pilate’s residence.
It is also written that Jesus wore his own clothes during the walk to the place of crucifixion. I really don’t believe Pilate would have allowed this or treated Jesus any differently to the other two offenders.
On arrival, all three were nailed to their crucifixes with metal spikes.
All three, already traumatized from the scourging, would then have gone into shock and be almost unconscious.
Victims of crucifixions were nailed to the cross in such a way the torso would hang down and away from the upright of the crucifix. This placed a great deal of stress on the shoulder joints, chest and diaphragm causing the victim excruciating pain. In this position, it made it almost impossible for the victims to breathe and had to gasp desperately for each breath.
The poor souls would try to use the leg muscles to push themselves upward to try and make breathing easier but doing so only prolonged the agony. So, in my view, it would have been almost impossible for them to talk or say anything coherent as they waited to die.
And yet, it is written that Jesus was engaged in conversations with the other two offenders, the people who attended his crucifixion and talking to God as well. I cannot see how this was possible!
It was also common practice for the soldiers to shatter the victims lower leg bones with a club to stop them using their leg muscles to help them breath and prolong life.
But they did not do this to Jesus, they speared him with an upward thrust into the groin. It is written that it was done to spare his mother Mary the agony of seeing Jesus legs being shattered in such a barbaric manner. But was thrusting a spear into his groin any less barbaric? Or was it because Jesus needed his legs to walk out of the tomb when he was resurrected from the dead?
Following the death of Jesus at about midday, it is written that the sun stopped shining for about three hours and darkness descended over the whole world. Obviously, it was not an eclipse and whoever wrote that obviously did not know the world was round and when it was daylight on one half of the planet, it was dark on the other. So, what happened?
There would have been widespread panic and fear as the part of the world that should have been in daylight was suddenly completely dark. Are there any written accounts of this phenomenal occurrence recorded in any of the counties West of Judea? If so, what is written?
It is also written that there was an earthquake and the curtain in the sanctuary of the Temple was torn apart, tombs opened and the bodies of saints resurrected back to life. All this would have been quite a spectacle if it is the ‘Gospel Truth.’ But, once again, we may never know what really happened that day.
Following the death of Jesus, Pilate gave permission for a man called Joseph from Arimathea to claim the body and prepare it for burial. The body of Jesus was then placed in an unoccupied tomb. Who owned the tomb? Did it belong to Joseph? I suppose it didn’t really matter because Jesus only needed it for three days.
Once Jesus was entombed, the tomb was sealed and temple guards placed outside? This was done on the orders of the Temple authorities to prevent anyone removing the body of Jesus and claiming he had been resurrected from the dead.