Sabbatum Excerpt: Jesus’ Execution for being a Messianic Pretender by N.T. Wright

We have now uncovered plentiful evidence that Jesus, at the climax of his prophetic ministry engaged in a powerful and simplicity messianic act, in riding into Jerusalem and symbolically enacting the Temple’s destruction; and that he explained – if we can call it that – this action in a multiplicity of ways which, taken together, show that he was indeed working within a Temple-and Messiah frame of thought. He was the true king, who had authority over the Temple. As such, he would be vindicated when his prediction came true, and the Temple was finally destroyed.

On the other hand, we know that, when Jesus was finally executed, the charge against him was that he was a messianic claimant. The title on the cross, whose historicity used to be challenged from time to time, is now generally accepted as historical.[152] Even without it, the crucifixion itself points us to the charge that Jesus was a revolutionary, an insurgent, like the two lestai (‘brigands’) crucified with him. The mocking of Jesus fits exactly: the royal robe, the crown of thorns, the reed instead of the scepter speak symbolically of a messianic charge.[153] The explicit taunts of the crowd make sense within this picture, bringing together once more the Temple riddles and the messianic claim.[154] Merely threatening the Temple might not have been enough to have Jesus executed; the Essenes had been opposed to the Tempe for many years, and the strange prophet called Jesus son of Ananias who proclaimed woe against the city during the war was beaten, but not killed.[155] Only a charge of leading a messianic movement will explain the scenario which is the more remarkable when we remind ourselves that the earliest Christians did not follow the pattern of popular messianic movements, that is, they did not mount a military revolt against Rome. There can be no doubt, historically speaking, that Jesus was executed as a messianic pretender.


[152] Cf. recently Hengel 1995b, 47-54, against e.g. Conzelmann and Lindemann. Cf. Suetonius Caligula 32.2; Domitian 10.1; Cassius Dio 54.3.7; Eusebius Hist. 5.1.44.

[153] Mk. 15.16-20 par.

[154] Mk. 15.29-32 par.

[155] Jos. War 6.300-9, on which cf. Brown 1994, 539f.; Brown is wrong to say (547 n.46) that the Jerusalem authorities wanted this Jesus put to death. On violent opposition to the Essenes from the Jerusalem regime, cf. Brown 1994, 539, with refs. (e.g. 1QpHab. 9.9f.; 11.4-8; 4QpPs37 4.8f.).


Wright, N.T. Christian Origins and the Question of God. 1st North American ed. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 521-522. 1997.

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