Rediscovering the Crucifixion
Biblical interpretation is a much more contested space than many seem to think. Often we’re led to believe that there is unanimity between scholars when in fact there simply isn’t. That most biblical interpretation is done in hierarchical, and often times government funded, institutions should make it no surprise that some of the interpretations we’ve come to take as set in stone fail to recognize key details that those in power might not want us to see. Take the story of Jesus arrival in Jerusalem and his journey to the cross as an example.
I only found out most of this stuff a few weeks ago, but it certainly was an interesting feeling being confronted with it. I realised that I’d so totally taken for granted some of the stuff I’d been taught since I was a kid, and yet it made nowhere near as much sense in the bigger picture of Jesus as the newer interpretations. What scared me a little was the obviousness that, without detracting from the overall story, the hierarchical church had found a way of covering over some key class-based and subversive stuff, making it a more safe gospel to share.
My childhood image of Jerusalem is of a walled city with only fields of sheep on the outside of the wall. Such is the way our understanding of the bible is passed to us that the poorest districts of Jerusalem, those which crammed along the roads leading to the city gates, are all but forgotten.
As Jesus mounted the donkey which would carry him into the city, the crowd that gathered would have been drawn from the poorer villages that Jesus had passed through and from the poor neighborhoods of Jerusalem. This was not a party of the rich, but instead a march of the poor. Arriving at the gates, those inside the city feared for their lives; they depended on a complex relationship with the Romans to maintain their own position within the Jewish population of Jerusalem, much like the British colonial support for local rulers who helped them maintain order.
In Sunday School, and many times since, I remember being told about how the people of Jerusalem celebrated Jesus arrival and then called for his death. However, a closer look at the places where these things happened, i.e. coming in through the outskirts of the city and then being tried inside the walls, long after the gates were shut, in the various palaces to which the poor only had access as servants, its clearly not the same crowd.
The poor shout for joy, while the rich, the comfortable, those with some semblance of power and wealth, able to afford to live within the safety of Jerusalem’s walls and closer to the temple, are faced with the stark choice: support a man they know has told others to disown their wealth and risk the wrath of Rome, or simply get rid of him and go back to the comfortable, if Roman ruled life which they thought had them closer to God. These are clearly two separate crowds. I think I know where we in the West are more likely to fit in. The same applies to pretty much any church leader who’s done nicely for themselves out of the offering plate. Roman Catholics in Latin America may identify with the poor at the edge, but those in the Vatican may have reason to fear the true division within this story.
Where we get the word ‘outskirts’, a somewhat female term referring to the outlying bits of our cities, in the days of Jesus, the imagery was of a mother and her daughters; the walled city the ‘mother’, the edge of that being her ‘daughters’. When Jesus talks about the daughters of Jerusalem, its true that to some extent he’s referring to the women who have supported him along the way, but in practice he is consoling the neighborhoods which stood to gain so much from his message of liberation, and which have been denied it, at least for the moment.
As Jesus is led away to the rubbish tip where he is to be crucified, he is very much in the slums, and it is the people of the slums who he encounters along the way. It is these people to whom he speaks, not to the rich (Luke 23:28).
But something else is worth noting. The Romans reserved crucifixion as the method of death for just one group of people: those who’s actions posed a threat to their empire. Sure, there were executions for other reasons, but they were done with a sword, and over in seconds. Robbers would have had their hands cut off, or perhaps been lashed and detained. So who are Barabbas and the two being crucified with Jesus?
The man we know as Barabbas (technically Jesus Barabbas) was not simply the man we so often see him as being; Matthew calls him a “notorious prisoner” (27: 16), and I’ve heard many suggestions as to what he had done that make him out to be the equivalent of the Yorkshire Ripper. Mark has something different to say: “A man called Barabbas was in prison with the insurrectionists who had committed murder in the uprising.” We can’t be sure what this uprising was, mostly because they were quite common at the time. This was not Jesus being despised more than a murderer, this was Jesus dying in the place of someone who had sought to free Israel, and would probably continue to do so.
The ‘robbers’ who are crucified with Jesus are also interesting. Their crime wasn’t robbery, it was opposition to the Roman empire. They were a kind of extremist Pharisee who wanted to have nothing to do with the economy of Rome and so lived by shoplifting. They would have known their Hebrew Bibles, all the stuff about the Messiah. That one of them, having been condemned to death to safeguard the rule of Rome, realizes that beside him is a man who can fulfill his demands beyond death, is quite astounding.
There’s plenty to be written about the types of revolution being sought by these three characters, but to simply dismiss them as common criminals is neither historically accurate, nor does it lend itself to a radical understanding of the Gospels, one that goes against the empire-safe versions the western church has so unquestioningly received.