In my last blog post, Jesus and Palm Sunday, I talked about how Jesus committed sedition by climbing on a donkey and riding down the Mount of Olives into Jerusalem.
Every Jew of his time knew the tradition of “Mashiach’s Donkey”—the oracle of the prophet Zechariah about a coming Mashiach (“Messiah” in English) who would someday enter Jerusalem riding on a donkey.
They knew many other traditions about Mashiach from oracles in Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Zechariah, Micah, and various other prophets:
- That he would restore the kingdom of his father David.
- That he would reunite the two tribes of the old southern kingdom, Judah and Benjamin, with the lost ten tribes of the northern kingdom.
- That he would establish peace on all the earth.
- That he would rule the 70 nations with a rod of iron.
- That he would appear 483 years after the order to rebuild the Temple, and that day was coming soon.
Large number of Jews of the first century were desperate for this Mashiach to appear.
They had plenty of applicants for the job. Numerous leaders and chieftains and prophets tried to take the mantle of Mashiach in the first century. We know their names (in most cases) from Josephus, the Jewish historian who was born about the year AD 37 or 38, and who fought as the general of the Jewish army in Galilee during the Jewish Revolt of AD 66-70. Josephus tells us explicitly that one motivation for this revolt was an “oracle” predicting that a man from Judea would rise up to rule the world. This “oracle” is almost certainly the prophecy in Daniel 9 of the 490 years.
So on Palm Sunday, expectations were running high for a warrior-king to rise up and lead his people to freedom.
When Jesus sat on the donkey, all those expectations seemed to be coming true.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the revolution…
No Insurrection on Palm Sunday
If you read the whole account of Palm Sunday in Mark 11:1-11, which is the earliest written account of the incident, you’ll see that it all ends anticlimactically.
There was no revolution. No insurrection. No crowning of Mashiach. Not even one Molotov cocktail. Nothing.
We saw part of the reason why in my last blog post. The short route into the Temple would have taken the crowd of shouting pilgrims right past the Antonia Fortress, manned by Roman soldiers whose whole job was to shut down insurrections—at any price.
If Jesus had taken that route, there would have been a bloody massacre. The Romans would have sliced through the procession like a light saber through butter. Hundreds of Jews would have been killed or wounded. Jesus and his disciples would all have been cut down. End of story.
But instead, Jesus took the southern route—half a mile south down the steep Kidron Valley, then into the city, and then …
There was a requirement before entering the Temple Mount. You had to immerse in a mikveh—a ritual immersion pool. This was not optional. No Jew of the first century would consider the possibility of not immersing. To do it right, you had to get completely naked and immerse fully.
Just inside the gate at the southwest corner of Jerusalem was a large pool, the famous Pool of Siloam. A small part of this pool has recently been excavated. It has steps leading down into the water.
Here’s a picture I took of the excavated part of this pool in the summer of 2015:
If you’re familiar at all with mikvehs from the first century, you’ll see right away that this pool was not for drinking water. It was for ritual immersion.
Jesus and the whole party stopped everything when they reached the Pool of Siloam. They set aside their packs and sandals. They marched down into the water, which was undoubtedly very murky. They pulled their wool tunics up over their heads. They immersed completely. They pulled their tunics back on. They came up out of the water, very soggy. They collected their things. And then they went on up to the Temple Mount, walking one or two abreast through the winding, narrow streets of the Ophel District of Jerusalem—a steep uphill climb for half a mile.
If you think a mass ritual immersion might have put a damper on the party, I have to agree with you. I suggest that any revolution that might have happened fizzled out there at the pool.
So in Mark 11:11, when it says Jesus went in the Temple and looked around and then went back to Bethany, that’s the explanation. There was no insurrection, because Jesus took the fizz out of the party by taking the southern route.
And yet he still got executed only five days later.
How’d that happen? A lot played out over those five days, and it’s easy to get sidetracked by the details. But if we want clarity, the quickest way to find it is to zip to the end of the story and see what the Romans thought. They were the ones, after all, who ran the execution.
What did the Romans think was the crime Jesus committed?
The Writing on the Cross
We don’t have to guess why the Romans executed Jesus. All four gospels give identical explanations in almost identical wording. Governor Pilate ordered the charge against Jesus to be posted on the cross. Read it yourself:
The charge was this: “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.”
Jesus was executed precisely because a large number of his countrymen thought he meant to be the Mashiach, the warrior-king, the man of blood who would crush the Romans (and the rest of the 70 nations) and set up the reunited kingdom of Israel and rule the nations on the throne of David with a rod of iron.
Let’s be clear that there is no compelling reason to think Jesus wanted that. It’s true that Jesus wanted a kingdom. The gospels are packed full of talk of the “kingdom of God.” And what did he mean by that? I think he meant the kind of kingdom where you love your enemies, and thereby turn them into your friends.
But all the evidence shows that a very large number of Jesus’s fellow Jews wanted him to be a warrior-king, and they were willing to follow him into battle.
Which was something that terrified the Romans.
And also the chief priests, who ran the Temple.
What Scared the Chief Priests
The Temple at that time was run by a very small oligarchy, made up of chief priests from five aristocratic families. We know the names of these five families from Josephus and four of them from the Lament of Abba Saul in the Babylonian Talmud. The five families were:
- The House of Boetus
- The House of Hanan
- The House of Qathros
- The House of Ishmael ben Phiabi
- The House of Hananyah
All the high priests in the first century were appointed from one of these five families, and all of the other high-ranking priests in the Temple hierarchy came from these families also.
Of the Five Families, the most ruthless was the House of Hanan, whose senior member was Hanan ben Set. In English, his name is usually transliterated as Annas (or sometimes as Ananus). His son-in-law was a man named Yoseph Qayaph. In English, his name is spelled Joseph Caiaphas. This man Caiaphas was high priest when Jesus came to Jerusalem.
In the Roman empire, the Romans managed unruly provinces by appointing local aristocrats to collaborate with Rome to keep the peace. In case there was an insurrection, the aristocrats in charge had to help put it down, or their heads would roll.
The governor of Judea was Pontius Pilate, and he relied heavily on the local chief priests to maintain order.
Which is why the chief priests arrested Jesus and handed him over to Pilate.
It’s instructive to read the gospel accounts of the preliminary hearings the chief priests held with Jesus before they took him to Pilate. It’s easy to read these accounts as some sort of theological trial.
But that’s a mistake. These are accounts of a political trial. (With the caveat that of course all politics had some theological undertones in those days.)
The Son of God and the King of Israel
All four gospels give an account of some sort of trial. Take a look at the account in Mark, which is the earliest written story of the proceedings. It’s in Mark 14:53-72.
According to Mark, the high priest presided over the trial. A few chief priests and various other local aristocrats sat in attendance. Mark says things began with some scattered testimony that went nowhere.
Then the high priest asked Jesus point blank: “Are you the Mashiach, the son of the Blessed One?”
This may appear to be a theological question, in two parts. It’s not. It’s one political question, asked twice.
The Mashiach was simply the anointed king of Israel, who would be son of David and establish the new kingdom of Israel. That’s a political job. The only theological implication here is that of course this would be a theocracy, and so naturally God would be backing the Mashiach. So this part is very clearly political.
But isn’t the question about “the son of the Blessed One” a theological question? It may seem like it must be, to a Christian in the twenty-first century, who knows that Jesus was “very God of very God,” as the fourth-century Nicene Creed puts it.
But no Jew of the first century thought in those terms. If a Jew of the first century asked, “Are you the son of God?” they were asking quite simply, “Are you the king of Israel?”
In ancient Israel, it was standard to talk about the king of Israel as the “son of God.” The coronation psalm in Psalm 2 makes this explicit. Nobody in ancient Israel thought that King David or King Ahab was literally the biological son of God. They thought that King David and King Ahab stood as the visible agents on earth of the true King of Kings, the invisible God who ruled in heaven. King David and King Ahab were “the son of God” precisely because they were “the king of Israel.”
So in Mark’s account of the trial, when Caiaphas asked Jesus if he was the “son of the Blessed One,” he was not asking whether Jesus thought he was God. Thoughts of the Nicene Creed never entered Caiaphas’s head. Caiaphas was simply asking a political question—“Are you the king of Israel?”
Jesus said he was, and he warned Caiaphas that he would see the “Son of Man” coming in power. Every Jew of the first century knew that the “coming of the Son of Man” was a symbol of the coming apocalypse in which the wrath of God would fall on earth and the old order would be swept away. And that included the Temple which Caiaphas presided over. For Caiaphas, that was blasphemy.
In Mark’s account, that seals the deal. Caiaphas is convinced that Jesus is an insurrectionist, because Caiaphas thinks Jesus thinks he’s the king of Israel, the Mashiach. There is nothing else but to hand Jesus off to the Romans.
What Caiaphas and the Romans Didn’t Know
Anyone these days knows there was a lot more going on with Jesus than just another wannabe insurrectionist.
We know the next couple of thousand years of history, in which Jesus has ruled as king (of a sort) over billions of people on the planet. Not in the way Caiaphas or Pilate could ever have imagined, but in a kingdom “not of this world.”
For believers, Jesus was and still is the prince of peace. The king of kings. The son of God (again, in a very different sense than Caiaphas or Pilate ever dreamed of.)
The revolution came. It was not the revolution anyone was looking for.
It was a different sort of revolution. Led by a different sort of king. Leading to a different sort of kingdom.
Which is why that terrible Friday can be rightly called Good Friday.