Did Jesus Have to Die?
Even though the account of Jesus entering Jerusalem has
been greatly distorted, we can be fairly certain that he did enter the
city in a high-profile way around the time of a Passover Feast. Matthew
(21.1) and Luke (19.28) use Mark's version (11.1) as their template. They
make various changes to get their theological points across. John's
version (12.12) is much abbreviated and the context changed.
All our good historical evidence indicates that Jesus
was probably a well-known public figure, at least locally in Galilee but
possibly further afield as well. The Gospel writers exaggerate the
attention he received. They speak of huge crowds following him around and
"the entire city" of Jerusalem being alerted to his arrival. The truth was
probably far short of that. But, as many New Testament scholars have
pointed out, his entry into Jerusalem and subsequent actions in the
Temple, were almost certainly enough for the authorities to notice him.
If, as seems likely, Jesus' entry was at the time of a
major Jewish feast, probably the Passover, he may well have been watched
even more carefully than usual. At such times the civil authorities would
have been on guard for any signs of disturbance. There is good evidence
that large crowds of pilgrims swarmed through the city at such times -
much as Muslims today do in Mecca for the Hajj
in the month of Dhu al-Hijja. Be that as it may, the upshot was
that Jesus was arrested, summarily questioned, and quickly and quietly
dispatched as a precaution.
There is good evidence that the Jewish priesthood was
accountable to the Roman authorities for public order - amongst other
responsibilities. So, for example, the High Priest and his Council had to
collect the city's tribute to Rome and ensure that it was delivered to the
correct person. In return, top Jewish priests had access to civic
privileges. Some were enriched by franchises attached to Temple worship.
It was in their interests to ensure that religious fervour or fanaticism
did not disturb the status quo.
Jerusalem was policed by the Temple guards, a not
inconsiderable body of men. Josephus tells us that during the Jewish
revolt of 66-74, some 8500 guards died protecting the High Priest. He
probably exaggerated the numbers considerably - but a force even a
fraction of that size would have had significant power.
Joseph Caiaphas, High Priest at the time of Jesus entry
into Jerusalem (he served for 17 years, longer than any other under Roman
rule), was merely doing what would have been regarded as his civic duty to
protect the civilians of Jerusalem when he had Jesus arrested. E P Sanders
 thinks that Caiaphas made a decision
to arrest Jesus and to recommend his execution primarily because of
the Roman expectations that he preserve the peace and prevent riots at any
cost. In short, Caiaphas and his advisors would have hesitated only
briefly, if at all, before passing Jesus over to the Roman authorities to
be dealt with.
In the West today we expect an accused person to get a
fair trial. Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor of the region at the time
of Jesus' arrest, would have had no such scruples. He was a particularly
cruel and ruthless man. Later in his career, the rulers in Rome thought
that he overstepped the mark in the severity with which he handled local
populations. There can be little doubt that he would have had few scruples
in ordering a crucifixion. Jesus would have been a minor irritant in the
bigger scheme of things.
Once Jesus had been handed over to the Roman authorities
(there was probably no trial as indicated in the Gospels) his end would
have been painful and swift. As we know from many other accounts of Roman
methods, his whipping and crucifixion would have been routine. The
extended suffering caused by the method of execution was intended as an
example to other troublemakers.
In summary, then, once Jesus had been noticed by the
authorities he was a marked man. And once it had been shown that he [a]
wasn't mad (like some other rabble-rousers recorded by Josephus), and
[b] that he had a significant number of followers, his end was inevitable.
His high-profile entrance into Jerusalem and his equally high-profile
"cleansing" of the Temple were, in effect, his death warrant.
Another important reason why Jesus had to die presents
itself in relation to his friends and followers. One of the solid bits of
history which survives even the most ruthless cull of non-historical
material is the fact that Jesus' followers ran away. Given the nature of
the Gospel accounts, we can't be absolutely certain that they deserted him
at the moment of his arrest. But that they fled the threat of death is
almost certainly "what actually happened".
In these circumstances, and putting together all that we
know of the events leading up to his arrest, Jesus is highly likely to
have had the welfare of his friends and followers close at heart. He
appears to have been able to attract the attention and even adulation of
ordinary people. But I don't think even the most critical historian would
assert that Jesus showed any ambition to power. Everything we know
of him indicates just the opposite - that he lived out the role of healer,
teacher, sage and prophet. That he would have been willing to sacrifice
others for his own purposes goes against the grain of all the evidence.
It seems to me legitimate to suppose, given the clear
aversion of Jesus to power, and his deep commitment to the good of others,
that he had to die because to have resisted the Jewish and Roman
authorities would have meant the almost certain death of his friends.
Resistance would have been perceived as insurrection, however minor and
unlikely to succeed. For Jesus to have run for it, given the ruthless
methods of the Romans, would have precipitated a manhunt in which his
family and perhaps many others might well have perished along with him.
We mustn't suppose that because these events happened 2
000 years ago, those in power would not have had the means to hunt down
any and all threats to the established order. Rome lasted as well as it
did at least in part because what we today regard as its totalitarian
methods were highly effective.
To sum up:
- The entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, praised and
acknowledged by a significant crowd of supporters and onlookers, is a
highly probable fact of history.
- So also is Jesus' sally into the Temple environs -
though the scale and impact of his actions is probably exaggerated by
- Given that these events occurred during a major
Jewish feast when Jerusalem was crowded and volatile would have
instantly marked Jesus as a risk to public order.
- From there it was a short step to summary arrest in
the dead of night, quick examination (probably in secret), and hasty
dispatch by crucifixion.
- For Jesus to have resisted or tried to escape would
have meant the probable death of others besides himself.
The entry into Jerusalem, heavily "theologised" by the
Gospel authors, is a turning point in the life of Jesus. After that, Jesus
had to die because he was a marked man and because to have resisted would
have risked the lives of many others.
 The Historical Figure of Jesus (1993)