Comparing the Historical Jesus: Crucifixion

This is part of our ongoing series comparing the perspectives of J. D. Crossan and N. T. Wright on the Historical Jesus.
The Crucifixion, by Cano Alonso
The Crucifixion, by Cano Alonso

This post considers Crossan and Wright’s perspectives on the crucifixion and death of Jesus of Nazareth. Crossan understands the reason for the crucifixion of the historical Jesus to rest with his preaching of radical egalitarianism, open commensality, and rhetoric against established Judaism. As a Mediterranean Jewish peasant, Jesus defied the acceptable social standards of behavior and resisted the established Jewish religious understanding of social practices.[1] Arguing for an understanding of the historical Jesus as what amounts to a first century Jewish cynic, Crossan believes that Jesus’ form of social resistance toed the line between the covert and overt rejection of authority; ultimately, such a position made Jesus and his movement a highly volatile mixture in the wake of the apocalypticism of John the Baptist.[2] Jesus’ position with the Jewish authorities did not fare well with his symbolic destruction of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem the week before Passover, the most politically and religiously charged freedom festival that the Jewish people celebrated.[3] Crossan further argues that the canonical accounts of the crucifixion cannot be accurate history, but are instead prophecy historicized that plays into the later understanding of the Christian church.[4] Thus, Crossan concludes that the historical Jesus was crucified as a result of his causing civil unrest in Jerusalem during the Passover period and his radically anti-establishment teachings and parables.

Citing the question “Why did Jesus have to die?” as one of the most commonly asked theological questions in our modern context, Wright seeks to understand the historical reasons for the crucifixion in terms of both Roman and Jewish charges, as well as Jesus’ own self-understanding.[5] Addressing skeptics and methodology on this point, Wright argues that “Either we know little or nothing about what actually happened, or we know that the ultimate explanation lies in the area of Jesus’ beliefs about the immanent climactic moment in Israel’s history.”[6] From the Roman perspective, crucifixion “told an implicit story, of the uselessness of rebel recalcitrance and ruthlessness of imperial power…. Crucifixion was a symbolic act with a clear and frightening meaning.”[7] Regarding Roman reasons for crucifying Jesus, Wright highlights several important factors. Pilate recognized that Jesus was a unique form of revolutionary, a Messianic figure, and that the Jewish leaders were using seditious claims to back their own personal dislike for Jesus.[8] Having attempted a refusal of their request, Pilate was then persuaded to execute a would-be rebel-king figure, thus demonstrating his willingness to put power and self-interest before justice, as the other historical records of Pilate seems to indicate would be normative.[9]

Model of the Second Jewish Temple
Model of the Second Jewish Temple

The Jewish position concerning reasons for crucifixion clearly argues that Jesus was “killed because of crimes punishable by death in Jewish law—specifically, Deuteronomy 13 and similar passages, and their later rabbinic interpretations.”[10] The specific acts that Wright understands to have formed the basis for these charges comes from both the Lucan and Johannine accounts before Pilate, namely that Jesus styled himself the Messiah and that the Jewish authorities were concerned that such behavior would lead to Rome cracking down on the whole Jewish people.[11] Thus the Romans crucified Jesus of Nazareth out of sheer power tactics, ostensibly to prevent a rebellion, and the Jews wanted him crucified because he threatened their religious life with his message. Wright understands Jesus’ death from his own perspective as a result of two factors. First, that the current system was highly corrupt, ready for judgment, and that Yahweh would act through his messianic action.[12] And second, that the true exodus will come about as a result of this action, that evil will ultimately be defeated, and sins ultimately forgiven.[13] Thus, Wright understands Jesus’ own understanding of the crucifixion as a means to a messianic end. “Jesus believed that he was the focal point of the Israel that would return, at last, from exile…. [And] that he believed he was to be the means, in his life and particularly his death, of the radical defeat of evil.”[14] Wright places great emphasis on the death of Christ within his construction of the historical Jesus, writing that, “If the Christian faith is true—if in other words, if Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead three days later to launch God’s new creation and, by his Spirit, to re-energize his followers to be its active agents—then the moment of Jesus’ death is… the central point of the world.”[15]


[1] John Dominic Crossan. Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1994. 102-122.

[2] Ibid., 108-122.

[3] Ibid., 128-133.

[4] Ibid., 136-158. It should be noted that in this section of his writings Crossan does an increasing amount of speculation and re-interpreting of historical sources, including Josephus’ later portrayal of that charming governor Pontius Pilate. As scholars such Martin Hengel in his work Crucifixion (SCM Press, 1977) have indicated , though archeological finds of recent years have increased our working understanding of the horror of crucifixion, there remains a great deal of research yet to be done. Of great importance for Crossan’s construction, the argument that crucified victims are not buried has been contracted by recent finds (and indeed, a general reading of Josephus), though it remains rare. Crossan clearly fails to take the role of the Jewish Passover into account when considering the likelihood that Jesus would have been buried following his crucifixion and death, and thus his perspective on the crucifixion has received a great deal of criticism from scholars.

[5] N.T. Wright. Jesus and the Victory of God. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996. 540; 540-611.

[6] Ibid., 540-1. Drawing upon his critique of the attempted split of Jesus of history and Christ of faith, Wright argues here that the two must become one if we are to know anything. The moment of crucifixion, it we can know anything about the historical Jesus, is the place where Jesus and Christ must collide.

[7] Ibid., 543.

[8] Ibid., 546.

[9] Ibid., 546-7.

[10] Ibid., 548.

[11] Ibid., 549-550.

[12] Ibid., 609.

[13] Ibid., 610.

[14] Ibid., 611.

[15] Tom Wright. Simply Jesus. New York: Harper Collins, 2011. 185. Wright continues on to say that even were the resurrection not true, that Jesus’ death and its resulting effects would constitute the most important event in the history of the world regardless (Simply Jesus, 185-6).


Published by Jacob J. Prahlow

Husband of Hayley. Dad of Bree and Judah. Lead pastor at Arise Church. MATS from Saint Louis University, MA from Wake Forest University, BA from Valparaiso University. Theologian and writer here and at Conciliar Post. Find me on social at @pastorjakestl

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