257 Two Dangerous Actions

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This page is part of the Jesus Database project: 257 Entry into Jerusalem


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

As already mentioned, any subversive action was especially dangerous at Passover, when an ancient tradition of liberation from imperial slavery combined with large crowds in the same confined space of sanctuary and city. There are two major actions from Jesus' last week in Jerusalem either of which could have brought down on him the combined wrath of high priest and prefect, of Caiaphas and Pilate. The incidents are usually entitled the Entry into Jerusalem and the Cleansing of the Temple. Both events are completely in keeping with Jesus' Galilean activity as seen earlier. With regard to violent injustice, they emphasize, respectively, those ele�ments of nonviolent resistance from Chapter 4 and of nonviolent resistance from Chapter 3. There are also striking similarities and significant differences between them.

Both incidents are recorded in all four gospels. That, however, may mean no more than that Mark narrated them and the others copied from him. That is relatively certain for Matthew and Luke, but also entirely possible for John as well. But is it equally possible for both units?

Both incidents combine deed and word, action and interpretation, incident and scriptural citation. In the Entry, however, that scriptural fulfillment appears only in the written context and then only in Matthew and Luke. In the Cleansing, it comes from Jesus himself.

Both incidents, therefore, are certainly in the first level of the third layer, that is, in Mark. But are they from earlier layers? Does either go back to the historical Jesus? There are good arguments that both stories came to Mark as traditional narratives, because you can glimpse his changes upon that received basis. In the Entry, Mark avoids any scriptural allusions to Zechariah 9:9 10: "Rejoice greatly, 0 daughter Zion! Shout aloud, 0 daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River [Euphrates?] to the ends of the earth." Instead, Mark uses the story as one more negation of Jesus as Son of David. First, in a passage preceding the Entry, 10:46 52, Mark describes a blind man who hails Jesus as "Son of David" and who must be healed before he can "follow him on the way." Next, in a succeeding passage, 12:35 37, Mark argues that he who is David's Lord cannot at the same time be David's son. Finally, it is the Kingdom of God that Mark usually connects with Jesus and not the Kingdom of David. From all of that we judge that the proclamation in Mark 11:10, "Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David," is intended in context to be quite wrong. The crowd erroneously prefers the coming Kingdom of David (triumphant and/or militant messiahship?) to the present Kingdom of God. In such a negative usage, any explicit or even implicit allusion to Zechariah 9:9 10 must be muted entirely.

It is possible, in other words, to locate the Entry in a pre Markan layer, one earlier than the third or evangelical layer's first level. But is it the first and original layer of the historical Jesus? On the one hand, if it was a historical incident enacted by Jesus, it would probably have been enough to entail very serious consequences. It was almost a lampoon, a satirical antitriumphal entry into Jerusalem. A general entered his conquered city in a war chariot or on a ceremonial steed, using the symbols of violent power, but Jesus entered on a donkey. In the tightened security of a Passover celebration, the authorities would not have found that amusing. That public action would have been enough for public crucifixion. On the other hand, if it was not a historical incident, but a parabolic story, although it would not explain what happened, as a narrative in character, it would tell us how Jesus' kingship was understood by his early companions or later followers as nonviolent antikingship.


The "Cleansing" of the Temple

See 049 Two Dangerous Actions for comments specific to the Temple incident.