What Was the Alleged “Crime” that Jesus Was Crucified For?
Soon another Holy Week will be upon us, beginning with Palm Sunday and culminating with Easter Sunday. It was “the week that changed the world.”
The week began in a humble, triumphant sort of way. That may seem like an oxymoron. Jesus was hailed as a king, but rode in on a donkey—a humble way to begin His public entry into Jerusalem. Of course, He was fulfilling what Zechariah the prophet had foretold about 700 years before.
Dr. Paul L. Maier is a professor of ancient history emeritus from Western Michigan University. He is a terrific scholar on all things related to Jesus and the Gospels.
In his 1997 book, In the Fullness of Time, Maier writes of Jesus’ entry into the Holy City on the eve of the Passover on that very first Palm Sunday: the donkey “was the common beast of burden of the time, in contrast to the superior horse of gilded chariot used in Roman triumphs.”
The city was bustling and filled with people. Dr. D. James Kennedy notes this: “Josephus tells us that there were over three million pilgrims that visited the city on this occasion. 256,000 lambs were slain for the Passover.”
Of course, the climax of Jesus’ entry was His death (on Passover) and resurrection.
Why was Jesus crucified? What crime did He allegedly commit?
Crucifixion was a horrible way to die. It was so bad that no Roman citizen could be crucified. It was an execution reserved for slaves and bandits. How amazing then that the Son of God become man would allow Himself to be so degraded by people whom He Himself had created.
Crucifixion was invented in the Near East and perfected by the Romans. It was not uncommon for a crucified victim to suffer for days. Pontius Pilate was surprised Jesus had died in only a few hours—however, He had been scourged so horribly that He could have bled to death, had He been released after the whipping.
The crucified victim had the crime he committed posted above his head. Crucifixion was like a living billboard—do what this fellow did and you too could end up like this.
In the case of Jesus, we’ve all seen the crucifixes with INRI above His head. This stands for Iesus Nazarenvs Rex Ivdaeorvm, Latin for Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews, as recorded in John’s Gospel.
His “crime” was claiming to be a king, a treasonous act in ancient Rome.
In a television interview I once conducted with Dr. Paul Maier, he noted that there were three phases of Roman history, beginning with the Monarchy from 753 to 509 B.C. The next stage was the Republic from 509 to 30 B.C. And then there was the Roman Empire from 30 B.C. to 476.
Commenting on that first phase, Maier told me, “The first seven kings of Rome ended in a real tyrant. His name was Tarquin the Proud, and they didn’t want another king throughout their history.”
Thus, after 509 B.C., the Romans eschewed the title “king” [rex] thereafter, despite having emperors who were far more powerful than any earthly king.
Thus, Jesus’ claim to be the King of the Jews was His death sentence. Maier adds: “[Rex] was a term of opprobrium. It was somebody who was trying to subvert the masses…. And that is the charge that the prosecution made, which really turned the case as far as Pontius Pilate was concerned.”
It’s a tragic fact that in 2000 years of Christian history, there have been anti-Semitic professing Christians who blamed the Jews for the crucifixion of Jesus.
But the fact is that Jesus laid down His life as fully God and fully man, who alone fulfilled the Ten Commandments, on behalf of sinners—so that those who believe in Him might be saved. As Jesus Himself said, “I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again” (John 10:17-18). If there were any “crime” committed for which Jesus was dying, it was the crime committed by sinful people against our holy Creator.
Christians believe that Jesus is the King, whose kingdom was foretold by Daniel the prophet about 500 years before He came, who said that in the “days of those kings”—which kings? The Roman kings—the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will smite the Roman Empire.
It begins as a small stone but that stone goes on to become a mountain that fills the whole earth. Christianity began very small, but has grown to where about one-third of humanity claims to be Christian.
And so during this Holy Week, Christians celebrate the coming 2000 years ago of the King, who came the first time in humility, who will one day ride a white horse as the conquering King of kings and Lord of lords.