(Please Note: This contains some theological arguments. While I try to stick to a strictly historical context, due to the nature of this topic, some theological points come into play. This does not mean that these are literal religious standpoints that I endorse, but merely an analysis of what is said in the Christian narrative. To sum it up, I am analyzing the Bible as a source document, not endorsing actual religious views…)
For Christians everywhere, the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ is the central event in Christianity. Many believe that this led to the salvation of humanity, and the forgiveness of their sins. There are two main perspectives, the Substitutionary Atonement view, in which Jesus’ death was of primary importance, and the Moral Influence Theory, which the death is viewed more as a martyrdom.The latter is the most common view. Many Christians feel angered at Jesus’ death, saying it was unjust. In accordance, many blame the Romans and sometimes Jews for executing Jesus. In popular opinion, many feel Jesus was executed due to his teachings and stating he was “King of the Jews”. Many of these sentiments carry over anti-Roman/anti-pagan undertones. This casts the Romans as the bad guys in a lot of ways, in the light that they were intolerant towards Jesus’ beliefs and teachings. Naturally, one is inclined to feel more sympathetic towards the victim, especially one of such a horrific punishment, but how much of a “victim” was Jesus?
To understand the why’s of the Crucifixion, one must understand some of the historical and cultural context of Jesus’ world. The Romans conquered ancient Judea and the surrounding regions by the time Jesus was supposedly around (History Is Interesting’s First Anniversary!: Reflecting On The First Post Ever). The Jews in the region and the Romans did have some clashes, they had resentments over being under Roman rule and Romans did not take kindly to insurrections, but Rome was more relaxed on matters of religion. Ancient Rome and pagan religions in general, take a more relaxed view on other belief systems. Unlike Christianity and Islam, pagan religions are not exclusivist in that they do not assert that only one religious doctrine is true, thus are more tolerant of other belief systems. Many pagans have even integrated foreign deities into their own pantheon including the Christian god! Jesus’ teachings were not seen as a threat to Rome, in a world where there were dozens of other mystery cults too! The only thing that would get the Romans’ attention would be a threat to the state. The whole “King of the Jews” thing was considered blasphemy by the Jewish courts, and Blasphemy was not a Roman crime. The Romans often let the local courts preside over such matters that do not interfere with Rome. Also, the punishment for Blasphemy under Jewish law was stoning, not crucifixion. During the alleged events, Pontius Pilate, the prefect of Judea, asked the people whether or not he should spare Jesus or another condemned man. In reality, if Jesus was thought to be a threat against Rome, Pilate would not have let the people choose to release him, as it would only fuel any revolt. Many of the events proceeding up to Jesus’ death and resurrection parallel many much more ancient narratives. Syncretism was not a problem in pagan religions, and even earliest Christianity! There is even a name for the phenomenon, Dying and Rising Gods. The events in Jesus’ death and resurrection are part of an ancient literary tradition in many other cultures. In essence, the facts as presented in the narrative have a more dubious standing in light of the historical background of the time.
In addition to many historical inconsistencies, claiming Jesus as a victim in popular opinion does not have a sound theological basis. In Christian doctrine, the salvation of humanity through Jesus’ death and resurrection was part of a wider divine plan by God. Jesus was aware of the plan beforehand!
From then onwards Jesus began to make it clear to his disciples that he was destined to go to Jerusalem and suffer grievously at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes and to be put to death and to be raised up on the third day. Then, taking him aside, Peter started to rebuke him. ‘Heaven preserve you, Lord,’ he said, ‘this must not happen to you.’ But he turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle in my path, because you are thinking not as God thinks but as human beings do. Matthew 16:21-23
Another passage states: “If God is for us, who can be against us? Since he did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for the sake of all of us, then can we not expect that with him he will freely give us all his gifts.” Romans 8:31-3 Both passages state explicitly that God planned and ordered the whole thing. And to add to the confusion, if one believes in the trinitarian nature of God, then Jesus is also God, so God planned to crucify himself! To blame the Romans and make them out to be the bad guys does not make sense if a divine being was in control of his own fate the entire time! I honestly feel bad for the other two men beside Jesus, as they didn’t have the privilege to come back to life after their executions. What if the people said to spare him? While many would have liked that, what would the divine consequences be? I assume God would need a plan “B”; stoning perhaps? How much control do mere mortals have over any divine plan?…
Overall, the whole issue is more appropriate for the theologians, and not the historians to argue. However, history provides some evidence and insight into the matter. If you go back to my older posts, the stance is that the existence of a historical Jesus is also dubious, due to the lack of secular sources on him. Despite that, the crucifixion of Jesus colors perceptions of other ancient people, so I have come to their defense.