It’s strange, but I don’t think I ever actually knew why Jesus was executed! Sanders puts forward his view in chapter 16 of “The Historical Figure of Jesus”.
Jesus and his followers went to Jerusalem for Passover and Unleavened Bread (two feasts, one long event) – all Jewish males were required to go, it was like a pilgrimage. They would sacrifice a lamb at the Temple and eat it at the Passover meal. Jesus did more teaching during that week, but he also did 3 symbolic acts: the triumphal entry on a donkey, which fulfilled scriptural prophecies; the turning over of the money-changers’ tables at the Temple; and the last supper with his disciples.
1. He made a triumphal entry on a donkey in which people greeted him as “king”. Probably not huge numbers of people, as he would have been arrested there and then if that were the case: “Passover was a prime time for trouble-makers to incite the crowd, and both the high priest and the Roman prefect were alert to the danger.” By the way, the high priest Caiaphas was sort of the governer of Jerusalem; he answered to the Roman prefect, Pilate, who was not normally involved in local governance but made a point of coming during the pilgrimage incase there was trouble to deal with.
2. He turned over the tables of the money-changers and the seats of the pigeon-sellers. This was a symbolic act but is difficult to interpret. Sanders is sceptical of the sciptural quotations Jesus is supposed to have made at the time of this act, which are often interpreted as meaning that he wanted reform of the system; Sanders instead links the act with a prediction Jesus made that the Temple would be destroyed. This predictive statement is likely to be authentic as it does not describe exactly what happened later (the Temple wall actually still stands). “…we can say that Jesus did not otherwise (as far as we can tell) spend his time … attacking the commerce that was necessary to the functioning of the Temple. He did, however, have quite a lot to say about a looming dramatic change to be wrought by God. This inclines me to think that the actions of overturning symbolized destruction rather than cleansing as an act of moral reform.”
Further, at his trial, Jesus was accused of threatening to destroy the Temple; this accusation also appears during his crucifixion, and mention of the threat even resurfaces in Acts. Sanders says about this: “The authors of the gospels are at pains to assure us that Jesus did not really threaten to destroy the Temple. … They protest too much. It is probable that he made some kind of threat. … It is more likely that Jesus said and did something that onlookers believed to be a threat and that genuinely alarmed them. They reported it to the authorities. But when they were examined in court, they – like other eyewitnesses – gave slightly different accounts. We cannot know precisely what Jesus said. I shall assume that he threateningly predicted the destruction of the Temple; that is, he predicted destruction in such a way as to make some people think that he was threatening it.”
He probably believed God would destroy and rebuild it as a newer, better Temple.
It was this act of turning over tables, along with whatever he said about the destruction of the Temple, that Sanders believes earned Jesus his execution. “If the high priest Caiaphas and his advisers knew that Jesus had been hailed as ‘king’ when he entered Jerusalem, they would have already worried about him. The Temple action sealed his fate.” It wasn’t that they thought Jesus could physically destroy the Temple, or that they thought he had amassed a secret army; it was simply that they feared he could incite the large crowds at the pilgrimage and cause unrest. Sanders cites other similar cases recorded by Josephus, a first-century documenter of history, that show it would be fairly normal to execute someone who did what Jesus did.
3. The last supper is very well-attested and was symbolic of what things would be like in the new kingdom. Sanders makes little commentary on the statements about the wine being Jesus’ blood and the bread being his body, but says it is very likely Jesus knew he was “a marked man” at this point. He didn’t run away, though. “He hoped that he would not die, but he resigned himself to the will of God.”
It is this resignation to the will of God that I can’t decide whether I think is impressive, or horrifying. This attitude continued through his arrest and his trial: “Conceivably he could have talked his way out of execution had he promised to take his disciples, return to Galilee and keep his mouth shut. He seems not to have tried.” I guess he was so committed to his truth that he was prepared to die for it. He wasn’t going to take back anything he said, or be dishonest, just to save his life.
A couple more interesting points:
The bit where the high priest, Caiaphas, tears his clothes in response to Jesus’ supposed blasphemy (verse 63 here) – if it really happened – was an exaggerated overreaction designed to get the advisers on board with the execution. Blasphemy was not the reason for execution.
Interestingly Pilate (the Roman prefect) is made to look sympathetic in the gospels, so as not to offend the Roman authorities who would read them! In reality Pilate would just have OK’d the high priest’s recommendation to execute Jesus – he “probably regarded him as a religious fanatic whose fanaticism had become so extreme that it posed a threat to law and order.”
Finally, chapter 17 briefly deals with the resurrection accounts. Sanders rules out that the accounts are all fabricated, since people were willing to die over their convictions that they had seen the risen Jesus. He believes at least some followers had “resurrection experiences”, but the accounts differ so much that we can’t even know who had the experiences, or how they experienced Jesus to be like. “The reader who thinks that it is all perfectly clear – the physical, historical Jesus got up and walked around – should study Luke and Paul more carefully. The disciples could not recognize him; he was not ‘flesh and blood’ but a ‘spiritual body’. He was not a ghost, or a resusciated corpse, or a badly wounded man limping around for a few more hours: so said Luke and Paul, and John (20.14f.) agrees.”
“That Jesus’ followers (and later Paul) had resurrection experiences is, in my judgement, a fact. What the reality was that gave rise to the experiences I do not know.”