Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Trial of Jesus Christ and The Last Supper

The Religious Context

Jesus was a religious leader in an era in which religion was inseparable from governance and daily life.   Jesus clearly posed threats to power and wealth that were very real, and the principal motivations for getting rid of him. However, highly complicated issues of religious beliefs, customs, and observances were also at the heart of the matter.

The teachings of Jesus raised some fundamental issues with the Jews, keepers of the old religion.   First, Jesus forgave sins.  According to the priests of the Temple, only God could forgive sins.  Hence, either Jesus was usurping the prerogative of God, or, in effect, he was claiming to be God.  Astoundingly (to the Jews) Jesus taught that sinners would be admitted to Heaven, often before the righteous.  Second, Jesus taught that the Kingdom of Heaven was at hand, and that he had been sent by God to announce this fact.  This presented the priests with difficulty.   Strict observance of Jewish law was of paramount importance, and the anticipation of the coming of a new kingdom was a serious threat to their control.  It was the control of behavior in the here and now that was essential to the priests.  There had been countless prophets who proclaimed what was to come, and they were either embraced for a time, or dismissed.  The more bold declaration of Jesus, in which he described himself not only as a prophet, but also as an especially designated messenger from God proclaiming that the Kingdom of God was at hand, was a very unwelcome event to the priests.

There appears to be some confusion over the use of the titles Son of Man and Son of God.   Contrary to what modern Christians have come to believe, in Jesus time, both titles were relatively common, and essentially described all men.  When Jesus was asked if he was the Son of God, he replied in the affirmative, but he was really not declaring anything particularly unusual.  It was his refusal to directly answer the question, Are you the King of the Jews? that troubled both the priests of the Temple and Pilate.

Finally, the political and the religious came together with the testimony that Jesus said that he could destroy the Temple and rebuild it in three days.  If he said it, it is most likely that he was referring to himself, and the Gospel writers were using a metaphor for Jesus own destruction and, three days later, his resurrection.  According to some, the witnesses to this were false witnesses. Many believe that Jesus never said it, or if he said it, he did not refer to the actual destruction of the Temple, but his own fate.

The issue of the destruction of the Temple reinforced the agitation of the priests over Jesus chasing the moneychangers out of the Temple.   After all, the Temple was the base of operations both politically and economically for the High Priest and his colleagues.  This was an unacceptable disruption of commerce, and a threat to the authority of the Council of Priests. In the view of the priests, the business of destroying the Temple was tantamount to destroying them and their authority.

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