049 Two Dangerous Actions

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This page is part of the Jesus Database project: 049 Two Dangerous Actions


John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan L. Reed
Excavating Jesus: Beneath the Stones, Behind the Texts.
HarperSanFrancisco, 2001 (Pages 217-222)


Jesus was not executed by the Jewish tetrarch Antipas in Galilee, but by the Roman prefect Pilate in Judea. Why not and why? Jesus opposed Antipas's Romanization and urbanization in Lower Galilee, challenged his building of a commercial kingdom there by both word and deed, by both vision and program. He grounded that opposition in the covenantal Kingdom of God. He incarnated it in the lifestyles of alternative share-communities. That Kingdom movement of Jesus was at least as subversive as the Baptist movement of John. But Antipas ruled for over forty years, and he must have acted if not correctly, then at least carefully to have lasted so long. He had, however, executed John, and one popular prophet per decade may have been all Antipas judged to be prudent. Jesus was probably saved by John's martyrdom. But that was in Galilee. Judea was different. Galilee had only the Herodian Antipas. Judea had both the Sadducean Caiaphas and the Roman Pilate. Double jeopardy there.

Jesus may have gone up to Jerusalem only once, as in Mark's parabolic scenario. He may have gone up more than once, as in John's equally parabolic but opposite scenario. In any case, we can be quite sure that he went there at least once. And never returned. The Roman historian Tacitus says that Jesus "had undergone the death penalty in the reign of Tiberius, by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilate." Josephus writes that "Pilate, upon hearing him accused of men of the highest standing amongst us, condemned him to be crucified." Both writers locate that condemnation within a sequence of movement execution continuation expansion. The execution, one gathers, was to finish off a movement, but that movement not only continued despite it, but expanded after it. Neither author mentions any specific and immediate cause for that supreme penalty.

Some warnings before continuing. Even if we can never know for sure what immediate cause resulted in crucifixion, Jesus' incarnated enactment of the Kingdom of God as a program of resistance (whether it was covenantally and/or eschatologically and/or apocalyptically derived) must eventually have resulted in a fatal collision with official authority. It was only a matter of at what time and in what place. It was only a matter of whether his general attitude or some specific incident would lead finally to that inevitable martyrdom. Further, it is not necessary to make monsters out of either Caiaphas or Pilate to understand their collaborative action against him. If you announce a Kingdom of God, it could easily be taken as claiming that you yourself are its king and, although neither Jewish nor Roman authorities saw Jesus as a military danger, since they did not round up his followers, they clearly saw him as a social one, since they did not execute him privately. Finally, in this section more than anywhere else, the problems of exegetical strata and textual layers become well nigh intractable. What, for example, is from the first layer of the historical Jesus around the year 30 and what is from later layers in or even before the first level of that third layer in the historical Mark around the year 70?

The Entry into Jerusalem

See 257 Two Dangerous Actions for comments specific to the entry into Jerusalem


The "Cleansing" of the Temple

In the Cleansing a similar editorial adaptation of a pre Markan unit seems evident. Jesus performs not so much a ritual cleansing as a symbolic destruction of the Temple. The scriptural citation from Jeremiah 7:11 ("You have made it a den of robbers") fits perfectly with that action (more on this below). But the preceding one from Isaiah 56:7 ("My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations") interrupts that close unity and is, in first century historical context, unfairly inaccurate. Jerusalem's Temple was, in fact, a house of prayer for all the world. Its huge Court of the Gentiles was not just ornamental, but indicates how many pagans made pilgrimages and/or tours to visit Herod's monumental reconstruction, one that would have justified calling it the Third Temple.

A comment on that Cleansing title. It was certainly possible, completely within Judaism, to criticize the Temple because of dynastic illegitimacy or imperial collaboration on the part of the high priestly families. It was even possible, absolutely within Judaism, to withdraw in protest from any participation in its calendar or cult. If, for example, the Qumran Essenes had ever taken over control of Jerusalem and its Temple, they would probably have "cleansed" it first from ritual impurity. Granted all of that, there has often been a subtle anti Jewish or even anti Semitic taint to describing Jesus' action as "cleansing" the Temple, especially as it focused almost exclusively on "overturning the tables of the money changers." Herein, therefore, always read it with quotation marks indicating its inaccuracy.

In any case, Mark 11:15 17 does not describe a symbolic cleansing, but a symbolic destroying of the Temple. That is clear, first, from its fig tree frames, when that tree is cursed beforehand at 11:12 14 and found withered afterward at 11:20. For Mark, destroyed tree means destroyed Temple. It is clear, next, from the fact that Jesus does not simply attack those who changed foreign currencies into the acceptable coinage for Temple taxes and donations. He stops all the fiscal, sacrificial, and logistical operations of the Temple. "Destroys" or "stops" are, of course, prophetic and symbolic rather than actual and factual (like a minister pouring red paint on draft office files in the American 1960s), It is clear, finally, from the appended saying of Jesus about a "den of thieves."

Think, for a moment, about that phrase. A "den" (hideaway or safe house) is not where thieves do their thieving, but where they flee for safety after having done it elsewhere. That is both the commonsense meaning for "den of thieves" and the precise meaning it has in that scriptural quotation from Jeremiah 7:11. The context there is part of an ongoing tradition of prophetic warnings against presuming that divine worship in the Temple can be separated from divine justice for the earth. How can they "oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow," against the law of God, and think to escape by fleeing back to the Temple of God? How can you come here to "this house, which is called by my name, and say, 'We are safe!'�only to go on doing all these abominations? Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of thieves in your sight?" (Jer. 7:6, 10 11). How dare you turn my Temple into a safe house for injustice?

Against that prophetic background and with that scriptural citation, Jesus' action consummates God's warning about the Temple's destruction in Jeremiah 7:14. If you continue to separate divine Temple sacrificial worship from divine distributive justice, "I will do to the house that is called by my name, in which you trust, and to the place that I gave to you and to your ancestors, just what I did to [the ancient sanctuary at] Shiloh."

Of those two dangerous incidents, the Entry and the Cleansing, the latter is more likely to be historical event rather than parabolic story. Why? One reason is that there is a better possibility that John 2:13 17 has an independent version in this case rather than simply a very creative rephrasing, reinterpretation, and relocation of it. Another is that there is an independent version in the Gospel of Thomas 71: "Jesus said, 'I will destroy [this] house, and no one will be able to build it [... ]."If, therefore, there was one specific event that led to Jesus' crucifixion, we think this the most likely recoverable incident. In summary, if either of those stories (let alone both) is historical, it would have led to public execution as an immediate Passover warning. If neither of them is historical, we can no longer determine the specific event in Jerusalem that led to Jesus' execution. But, then, as noted above, his vision and program, his life in and enactment of the Kingdom of God, placed him on a deliberate collision course with the Kingdom of Rome, whether in Galilee under Antipas or in Jerusalem under Caiaphas and Pilate. But that discussion, however decided, introduces the far wider question of historicity of the trials of Jesus.