Mark D. Roberts

Jewish Leaders Respond to Offenses Against the Temple

In my last post, I suggested that one of the major causes of Jesus’ death was his “cleansing” of the temple. By interrupting the sacrificial system and by quoting Jeremiah’s own condemnation of the temple, Jesus was threatening the very core of Judaism in his day. In the perspective of the Jewish leaders, this would have been blasphemy – speaking against God himself.

For those whose experience and viewpoint is far removed from that of the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem, it may seem that their intended punishment simply doesn’t fit the crime. But, if we look for historical parallels, we find two incidents in which other leaders acted much as did Caiaphas and his associates when dealing with Jesus.

Rembrandt van Rijn, "Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalam," 1630

The first example comes from the ministry of Jeremiah, some 600 years before Jesus. The Lord told Jeremiah to stand in the Jerusalem temple and speak the following:

“If you will not listen to me, to walk in my law that I have set before you, and to heed the words of my servants the prophets whom I send to you urgently – though you have not heeded – then I will make this house like Shiloh, and I will make this city a curse for all the nations of the earth” (Jeremiah 26:4-6).

What response did this prophecy spark in the Jewish leaders and others? Sorrow? Repentance? Hardly! In fact, here’s what happened:

And when Jeremiah had finished speaking all that the LORD had commanded him to speak to all the people, then the priests and the prophets and all the people laid hold of him, saying, “You shall die!” (Jeremiah 26:8)

There it is, the same pattern we see in the last days of Jesus: Speak judgment on the temple and the leaders will believe that you need to die. In the case of Jeremiah, however, he insisted that he was only passing on God’s own message, so the people spared his life (Jer 26:12-16).

Now jump forward in history more than six centuries, to an incident that occurred about thirty years after the death of Jesus. Curiously enough, this incident involved another man named Jesus, son of Ananus (Hananiah), who came to Jerusalem during a feast an began to cry out “against Jerusalem and the holy house.” According to the Jewish historian Josephus, Jesus’ persistent proclamation of judgment on the temple and city offended “certain of the most eminent among the populace,” which is to say, the leaders of Jerusalem. So, at first they beat Jesus severely. But when this didn’t shut him up, they brought Jesus to the Roman procurator “where he was whipped [flogged] till his bones were laid bare.” When even this didn’t silence Jesus, the procurator dismissed this Jesus as a madman and a nuisance. (The story of this Jesus can be found in Josephus’s Jewish War, 6.5.3.)

In this case of Jesus ben Hananiah, the Jewish leaders seem not to have pressed for his crucifixion. Of course, this Jesus didn’t pose the same threat as Jesus of Nazareth once did, nor did he do anything resembling the cleansing of the temple. Yet, merely by proclaiming God’s judgment on the temple, Jesus son of Ananus earned several beatings, including what must have been an almost fatal Roman flogging. And, like Jesus of Nazareth, the Jewish leaders dealt with him, first on their own and then by handing him over to the Roman governor.

The experiences of Jeremiah and Jesus ben Hananiah, though different in detail and time period, nevertheless illustrate how Jewish leaders were apt to deal with those who spoke against the temple. They were worthy of severe punishment, if not death. And when the Jewish leaders no longer had the authority to execute someone, they would turn him over to the Roman governor. Thus the actions of Caiaphas and his associates in response to the problem of Jesus of Nazareth reflect the same commitments and tendencies of similar leaders in similar positions. This greatly increases the likelihood that the historical scenario I have been proposing with respect to Jesus of Nazareth is, in fact, accurate.

In my next post I’ll sum up what we have learned about “one” Jewish perspective on the necessity of Jesus’ death.

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