The four New Testament Gospels each tell how Jesus’ life led to his death on a Roman cross. Although the historicity of this event is supported by Christian, Jewish, and Roman sources, the New Testament and the Christian tradition have generally been more concerned with interpreting Jesus’ death than with proving that it took place.
The Gospel of Luke’s interpretation of Jesus’ suffering and death (together known as his “passion”) focuses on the political and theological implications of Jesus’ death. In particular, Luke zeroes in on Jesus’ nonviolent opposition to Roman rule, his practice of universal love (even of one’s enemy), and his promise of salvation. Luke’s narrative differs in several ways from the other Gospels’. For example, Luke emphasizes the political charges brought against Jesus (Luke 23:1-5, Luke 23:14) and has Herod question Jesus (Luke 23:7-12) and Pilate declare him innocent three times (Luke 23:4, Luke 23:14-15, Luke 23:22). Only Luke writes of the women who mourn Jesus’ execution and his prophetic response to them (Luke 23:27-31). Luke depicts Jesus praying that God would forgive those responsible for his execution (Luke 23:34) and includes the words of those crucified alongside Jesus, including Jesus’ promise that one of them would join him in paradise (Luke 23:39-43)—showing how Jesus practiced his own message (Luke 6:27-28) and extended salvation in culturally surprising ways.
How was Jesus executed?
According to Luke 23, Jesus was tried by a Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, then crucified alongside two other criminals. In spite of the sometimes-vivid portraits of crucifixion in novels and movies, our knowledge of this form of execution is limited. Ancient literature provides no graphic representations of death on a cross. Luke simply writes: “they crucified Jesus” (Luke 23:33). Nevertheless, the picture Luke paints might be regarded as typical, since we know from limited archaeological and textual evidence that those sentenced to be crucified were often whipped and made to carry their own crossbeams to the place of execution, where they were bound or nailed to a cross with arms extended, raised up, and, perhaps, seated on a small wooden peg.
The Roman practice of crucifixion was barbaric, but not necessarily involving bloody brutality (as depicted, for example, in Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion of the Christ). Indeed, the Romans wanted to leave the victim alive on the cross as long as possible. The idea was to provide the general population with a striking display of the fate awaiting those found guilty of resisting Roman rule. The Roman orator Quintillion (circa 35-90s C.E.) observed that, “whenever we crucify the guilty, the most crowded roads are chosen, where most people can see and be moved by this fear. For penalties relate not so much to retribution as to their exemplary effect” (Declamationes 274). From a Roman perspective, the horror of crucifixion was the horror of social shame. Executed publicly, situated along well-trafficked routes, devoid of clothing, denied burial, and left to be eaten by birds and beasts, victims of crucifixion were subject to vicious ridicule.
Why was Jesus executed?
Rome did not expose its own citizens to this form of heinous punishment but reserved crucifixion especially for those who resisted imperial rule. Luke explains Jesus’ death in ways that show Jesus must have been regarded as an enemy of the state. First, a sign was placed above Jesus’ head, giving the reason for his execution: “This is the King of the Jews” (Luke 23:38). (See John 19:12: “Everyone who claims to be a king sets himself against the emperor.”) Second, Jesus is crucified alongside two criminals. Third, the indictment brought against Jesus reads, “We found this man perverting our nation, forbidding us to pay taxes to the emperor, and saying that he himself is the Messiah, a king…. He stirs up the people…” (Luke 23:1-5; see also Luke 23:14). This charge can be boiled down to a single claim, “perverting our nation” (Luke 23:2) or “perverting the people” (Luke 23:14), which was then elaborated with two supporting accusations: he forbade the payment of taxes to Caesar and he claimed to be a king. From within Israel’s story, “perverting the people” would label Jesus as a false prophet (see Deut 13). In Pilate’s hearing, “stirring up the people” would have signaled rebellion and civil unrest. In short, Jesus ran afoul of the interests of both Roman and Jewish leaders.
This is hardly the whole story, however. Earlier in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus anticipated his death as a way of fulfilling God’s saving purpose (for example, Luke 18:31-33). The way Luke narrates the story of Jesus’ trial and death repeatedly ties Jesus’ fate to Israel’s Scriptures, quoting from Isa 53 (Luke 22:37) and alluding to the Scriptures, including Ps 22 and Ps 69 (see, for example, Luke 23:34-36, Luke 23:46). Later in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus tells his followers that all the Scriptures anticipate his suffering as God’s Messiah (Luke 24:25-27, Luke 23:44).
Why was Jesus executed? For Luke, the answer is a complex one that involves Roman interests, hostility toward Jesus from Jerusalem’s Jewish leaders, and God’s own plan to bring salvation.
- Chapman, David W. Ancient Jewish and Christian Perceptions of Crucifixion. Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Academic, 2008.
- Brown, Raymond E. The Death of the Messiah. 2 vols. New York: Doubleday, 1994.
- Carroll, John T., and Joel B. Green. The Death of Jesus in Early Christianity. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2007.