Condemnation and Crucifixion of Jesus Christ

The Roman government crucified Jesus Christ as a threat to its hegemony over Israel. That act founded Christianity, whose adherents claim that it gained eternal salvation for them.

Summary of Event

The condemnation and crucifixion of Jesus Christ occurred about 30 c.e. Precision in dating is impossible because of the nature of the sources about Jesus. First, there are no reliable, extra-Christian sources on the subject. Second, while the New Testament Gospels are the basis for all Christian writing on the subject, they disagree in some details crucial to this date. They do agree that Jesus was crucified by order of Pontius Pilate, who was the governor over Jerusalem and its environs from 26 to 36 c.e., but they disagree about the date of the birth of Jesus. Jesus Christ
Pilate, Pontius

In the Bible, Luke (2:1-2) places the birth of Jesus during the reign of Emperor Augustus (r. 27 b.c.e.-14 c.e.) and while Quirinius was governor of Syria (6-7 c.e.). Luke (3:23) also says that Jesus was thirty years old when he began his ministry. That date would put the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in 36 or 37 c.e., during or after the last year of Pilate’s governorship, so Luke’s chronology seems not to fit. Many scholars adopt a date suggested by the Gospel of Matthew, another apostle, that Jesus was born during the reign of Herod the Great (37-4 b.c.e.). Since Matthew’s birth narrative relates the death of Herod fairly soon after the birth of Jesus, that date would fit with the ideas of Jesus’ beginning his ministry at age thirty (c. 26 c.e.) and flourishing for at least three years before his crucifixion, the minimum if Jesus observed three Passovers in Jerusalem during his ministry, as the Gospel of John the Apostle (2:23, 6:4, and 12:1) maintains. Thus, 30 c.e. is a plausible date for Jesus’ death within the more secure parameters of 26-36 c.e.

The four Gospels record a series of trials for Jesus. They agree that Jesus was questioned at night by Jewish authorities, particularly the high priest Caiaphas. Jewish scholars sometimes object that such a trial would have been illegal under Jewish law, so perhaps the event was simply a fact-finding hearing. The Gospels say that the supreme tribunal among Jews for local affairs heard Jesus the next day. The Gospels also record a final trial under Pilate, at the end of which Jesus was condemned to be crucified, though Luke (23:6-12) has Jesus shuffled from Pilate to Herod Antipas, ruler of Jesus’ home area of Galilee, and back to Herod, with neither man wishing to try Jesus. Luke implied thereby that neither Jewish nor Roman civil authorities saw grounds for condemning Jesus. Matthew (27:19) makes that same point by having Pilate’s wife communicate with her husband that she had had a dream about him convincing even her that Jesus was innocent.

The crucifixion of Jesus Christ.

(Library of Congress)

Instead of blaming the Romans for the death of Jesus, the Gospels blame the Jewish authorities. To be sure, the Jewish establishment had arrested and tried him, but for blasphemy, particularly for threatening (as they construed his preaching) to destroy the Temple of Jerusalem. All four Gospels record an incident in which Jesus drove officials from the temple. They also record strong language on Jesus’ part against some of the religious leaders. This representation suggests that at least some Jews viewed Jesus with suspicion and even hostility. It is also unclear whether the Romans would have cared if Jesus blasphemed the Jewish god, although the Romans were inclined to at least respect local deities and often incorporated them into their own pantheon. Jewish blasphemy per se might not have bothered the Romans, but causing religious unrest might well have been regarded by them as sedition.

The Gospels admitted that sedition was the real charge against Jesus, even as they attempted to show that it was groundless. John (19:19) notes that Pilate placed a sign on Jesus’ cross that read: “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” When the priests wanted him to alter the sign, he refused. John the Apostle portrayed that incident as another case of failure on the part of the Jewish leaders to see what was so obvious that even a pagan governor could see it. It also shows how firmly embedded in the tradition was the charge that Jesus gave signs of being a local rival to the power of Rome.

Jewish tradition knew of such a rival, a royal figure with the title messiah (anointed one). King David of the tiny Israelite state was said to have put together a small empire in the Levant between Mesopotamia and Egypt. David’s successors ruled in Jerusalem from his death c. 962 b.c.e. until the Babylonians, under King Nebuchadnezzar, ended David’s dynasty in 587 or 586 b.c.e. Even after that catastrophe, however, some members of the Jewish community continued to hope for a new Davidic king. The postexilic prophet Haggai (2:23) even thought a repatriated Davidite named Zerubbabel would renew the dynasty. The Jewish hope for a new David lasted into the time of Jesus and beyond. Some thought that descendant would expel the Romans and rule Israel from Jerusalem (Acts 1:6). The accounts of Palm Sunday depict Jesus entering Jerusalem on a donkey, in fulfillment of a prediction about a peaceful entry of the Messiah that appeared in Zechariah 9:9-10.

Other first century Jews, called Zealots, were less choosy about the lineage of the one who led them and would have followed any revolutionary leader against Rome. Noted for carrying concealed swords, they sometimes took deadly action when the opportunity presented itself. At least one of Jesus’ disciples, Simon the Zealot (Luke 6:15), may well have belonged to this group. In addition to Zealots, a number of Jews probably hoped quietly for the overthrow of the Romans by whatever means, human or divine.

At least as the Gospels present Jesus, he had no political ambitions. Rather, he seems to have been an itinerant, apocalyptic prophet. How, then, could he have been understood as a messianic opponent of Rome? Those who preached apocalypse looked forward to a new day, a new kingdom, when the old order of things would be overturned and new order substituted for it. Although they usually depended on God to make the changes, their rhetoric could inflame action and would probably make authorities nervous. Pilate was notoriously cruel, and Jesus was by no means the only messianic pretender executed by the Romans in the first century c.e. For instance, the famous Jewish revolutionary Bar Kokhba was killed by the Romans in 135 c.e.

Crucifixion was a particularly brutal form of capital punishment, in which prisoners were tied or nailed to a cross and left to die of exposure and thirst. People from India to Britain had practiced it for centuries before its adoption by the Romans. The Romans often used an X-shaped cross but sometimes used the T-shaped cross (with a transverse bar near the top) that Christians typically have depicted. A cross might have a seat on it, but it was less for the comfort of the prisoner than for the benefit of the soldiers, who did not want to do the job again if the prisoner’s hands and feet tore through the nails. Often the bodies were left on crosses to decompose.

Jesus’ crucifixion bore similarities to many others. He was stripped naked, scourged, forced to carry the transverse beam of his own cross, mocked, and draped with a placard stating the reason for his execution. His execution was public, on a hill outside Jerusalem, along with other criminals. Unlike most, he seems to have died quickly and was buried before sunset.


Jesus’ disciples proclaimed that he had risen from the dead, or that God had raised him as a sign of vindication of Jesus’ mission and message. The result was that the crucifixion came to be understood by Christians as the means God used to offer salvation to any who would accept it, Jew or Gentile. The assimilationist character of the Christian movement would lead, over the next three centuries, to its appropriation of political power in the eastern Roman Empire and eventually to its role as a dominant force shaping Western civilization.

Further Reading

  • Brandon, S. G. F. Jesus and the Zealots. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1967. A treatment of Jesus as a zealot, opposed to the Roman government.
  • Brown, R. E. The Death of Jesus the Messiah. 2 vols. New York: Anchor-Doubleday, 1994. A thorough study of the biblical accounts of the arrest, trial, and crucifixion of Jesus.
  • Crossan, John Dominic. The Historical Jesus. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991. A treatment of Jesus as a wisdom teacher, not an apocalypticist.
  • Ehrman, Bart D. Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1999. A treatment of Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet.
  • Horsley, Richard A. Jesus and the Spiral of Violence. Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress, 1993. Treatment of Jesus as an advocate of nonviolent social revolution against Rome.
  • Wrede, William. The Messianic Secret. Translated by J. C. G. Greig. 1901. Reprint. Cambridge, England: James Clark, 1971. This volume argues that the church claimed Jesus as the Messiah after his lifetime and invented the view that Jesus had secretly revealed his Messiahship before his death.

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: Ancient World</i><br />

David; Jesus; John the Apostle; Saint John the Baptist; Mary; Moses; Saint Paul; Saint Peter; Pontius Pilate.