How Did Jesus Die?  Who Killed Him and Why?

Marko Marina Author Bart Ehrman

Written by Marko Marina, Ph.D.

Author |  Historian

Author |  Historian |  BE Contributor

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Date written: October 20th, 2023

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily match my own. - Dr. Bart D. Ehrman

In 2013, I was transfixed by the haunting scenes playing out before me on the screen. Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" had taken me on a visceral journey through the final hours of Jesus’ life.

The film's unflinching portrayal of Jesus on the cross was nothing short of mesmerizing. It left me both emotionally shaken and intellectually stirred.  It was a cinematic experience that would propel me to explore a question that has intrigued scholars and believers for centuries: How did Jesus die, and why?

In this post, we'll venture into the depths of the Gospel sources, seeking to unravel the mysteries surrounding the death of Jesus. We’ll explore why Jesus was crucified and who crucified him. It’s going to be an illuminating journey through the narrative that continues to captivate hearts and minds around the globe!

How Did Jesus Die - Who Killed Him and Why

Crucifixion in Antiquity: Ideology Behind the Brutal Practice

Romans were famous for their incredible roads that kept the huge Empire together. The most famous was the Appian Way which connected Rome to the southeast of Italy. 

If you found yourself walking along that road in 73 B.C.E., you would see a truly horrific picture. Around 6,000 people were suspended from crosses on each side of the road. The dead and dying were rebellious slaves from Spartacus’ revolt. 

Romans didn’t invent the crucifixion. It’s a practice of punishment that they, according to Livy, took over from Carthaginians. However, the true origin, as John G. Cook shows in Crucifixion in the Mediterranean World, goes back to the Assyrian Empire! 

Despite the antiquity of the practice, people today associate crucifixion mostly with Romans. This horrible mode of punishment was for Rome, first and foremost, a weapon of psychological warfare and a tool of propaganda. 

In other words, it was an instrument of terror designed to subject and control the population. It’s not a surprise that Romans left the dead on the Appian Way. It was a message to others: “If you dare to question our authority, you’ll end up here as well!

Feel the fear of crucifixion in the words of the famous Roman philosopher and poet Cicero: 

“Let the very word ‘cross’ be far removed from not only the bodies of Roman citizens, but even from their thoughts, their eyes, and their ears.”

Jesus on the Way to Cross

The Romans crucified tens of thousands of people. Maybe even more. But the most famous is the crucifixion of Jesus. Here I want to take you into the reasons why Jesus was crucified.

The answer lies in his public ministry. He had to do something to provoke his enemies. In other words, there must have been a connection between what Jesus preached and the reason for his death

Most historians believe that Jesus was a real person.  He was an apocalyptic prophet who urged people to repent because God would soon intervene in the course of history, defeat its enemies, and establish a new Kingdom on Earth. 

The assessment of Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet fits perfectly with his final destiny on the cross. If Jesus was, as John D. Crossan argued, a “peasant Jewish cynic” who emphasized the “kingdom now and within”, why would he have been sentenced to death?

The New Testament Gospels agree that at the end of his life (during the Passover week) he brought his apocalyptic message to Jerusalem. In Jesus Before the Gospels, dr. Ehrman has shown that account to be of a questionable origin.

According to our earliest Gospel, as Jesus entered Jerusalem gathered people publicly greeted him as a new king (Mk 11:1-11). However, based on everything we know about the political situation during Passover week, it’s highly unlikely that Mark is reporting only historical facts. 

Romans knew that the week before Passover was a tense and potentially dangerous time. The Roman governor would come to Jerusalem with troops to stop any possible uprisings. After all, the Passover was a festival dedicated to commemoration of Moses’ liberation of the Jews from Egypt.

If Jesus entered the city with crowds declaring him as the new ruler, he would be almost certainly arrested on the spot. I can’t imagine Pilate’s troops standing by while dozens or even hundreds of people celebrate the coming of a new king in Jerusalem.

Did You Know?

The first Christian Emperor Constantine abolished the punishment of crucifixion in the early 4th century? Constantine “regarded the cross with peculiar reverence," one later author informs us, so he "took away by law the crucifixion customary among the Romans from the usage of the courts." 

Jesus did enter the capital with many other Jews who came for Passover. But the amount of fanfare visible in Mark’s account should be tossed away as a theological makeover. Not a historical truth.

Jesus and the Temple: A Scholarly Look

Regardless of the exact circumstances of his entry into Jerusalem, Jesus brought his apocalyptic message to the very center: the Jerusalem Temple. The Temple was the one place where Jews from around the world could sacrifice animals to God. These animals would be typically purchased on the spot. 

In the Synoptics and the Gospel of John Jesus created a disturbance in the Temple. He drove out those engaged in the sale of animals and overturned the tables of the money changers. 

However, there are layers of myth here as well. Mark, for instance, claims that Jesus brought the Temple's activities to a complete halt (Mark 11:16).

But that’s highly unlikely. In "Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millenium" Dr. Ehrman explains that the Temple complex was immense, encompassing an area roughly 500 yards by 325 yards—large enough to accommodate twenty-five (American) football fields! How can one person shut down such a building?

Moreover, if Jesus had created a huge scene in the Temple, why wasn’t he immediately arrested? Before he could stir up the crowds. Mark’s account, therefore, represents a theological exaggeration of Jesus’ actions. Nevertheless, Jesus did do something that caused a disturbance. What was it? 

A great scholar E. P. Sanders recognized that Jesus’ actions in the Temple represented a symbolic expression of his proclamation. His Temple actions, therefore, should be understood as a prophetic gesture. 

An “enacted parable”, to use Sander’s words, in which Jesus demonstrated on a small scale what will soon happen on the Judgment Day. In other words, the Temple will be destroyed. The religious center and the place where the Jewish religious elite delve. It’s going to be torn down. 

His pointed critique of the Temple didn’t go unnoticed by the individuals in authority, specifically the chief priests who held sway over the local governance in Jerusalem. These chief priests, primarily belonging to the Sadducee sect, also served as intermediaries in their dealings with the Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate.

Jesus spent his last week in Jerusalem arguing against Jewish religious authorities. His apocalyptic message became stronger and he started to attract more attention. Again, it is important to understand the context! 

The festival of Passover was near and the political tensions were high. Many Jews, as Dr. Ehrman explains in Jesus Before the Gospels, anticipated that God would again, just as he did in Moses’ time, liberate his people from the tyranny of a foreign power. These sensibilities grew stronger during the Passover week.

Sadducees, therefore, became concerned about an uprising. Being political pragmatists and knowing that the Jews stood no chance against the powerful Rome, they decided to get rid of Jesus. But first, they had to arrest him!

The Arrest and Trial of Jesus

The crucial part in Jesus’ arrest was played by one of his closest disciples: Judas’ Iscariot. Most historians agree that the betrayal happened. The event is multiply attested (Mk 14:10-11; Jn 18:2-3; Acts 1:16) and it’s not something that later Christians would make up. 

However, what exactly did Judas betray isn’t clear. In the accounts of Jesus’ trial, he is charged with calling himself the Messiah and the King of the Jews (Mk 14:61; Jn 18:33, 19:19). 

But in his public ministry, Jesus never identified himself as such. In the Gospel of Mark, he even hushes people who call him the Messiah (Mk 8:30).

Perhaps Judas informed the Jewish authorities that Jesus called himself the Messiah who would rule over the Kingdom of God. This is a mere hypothesis, but it’s based on reading sources “between the lines”. In other words, it’s a guess but an educated one!

Judas, forever synonymous with betrayal, a name sometimes forbidden in modern Spain, resides in the deepest, ninth circle of Dante's Inferno. He is depicted there with two other infamous traitors. Can you guess their names? I might owe you dinner if you do! 

In any case, following Judas’ information, the Jewish authorities arrested Jesus. This shouldn’t surprise us because Romans allowed the Jewish high priests to control their internal affairs. The head of the group in Jesus’ time was a man named Caiaphas. He was in charge of a ruling “council” called Sanhedrin

Regrettably, we lack a dependable account of the events that unfolded when Jesus stood before Caiaphas. According to the Gospel narratives, the only individuals present during this crucial moment were Jesus and the Jewish priests. In other words, none of his disciples were there.

Another problem is that the charge of blasphemy leveled against Jesus can’t be explained by anything he is claimed to have said (Mk 14:61-62):

  • It wasn’t blasphemous to call oneself the Messiah.
  • Nor was it blasphemous to say that the Son of Man will soon arrive. It would mean that Jesus agrees with the prediction of the Book of Daniel (7:13-14).

Perhaps Jesus identified himself as the Son of Man before the Jewish council. That would mean he was claiming divine status and that would justify the charges. The other option is that they misinterpreted Jesus’ words during the trial. 

Or maybe they decided in advance to punish Jesus no matter what and made up an excuse. Finally, the charge of blasphemy could be the post-Eastern theological insertions by evangelists who believed that Jesus was divine.

Again, we are dealing with hypotheses, not secure historical facts!

Rucifixion of Jesus

Jesus Before the Pilate: Sentence and Death on the Cross

Who killed Jesus? One of the most common misconceptions about his life is the idea that the Jews killed him. That couldn’t be further from the truth. The New Testament Gospels all agree that Jewish high priests handed Jesus over to Pilate

As a Roman governor, Pilate’s only concern was political issues that could jeopardize Roman rule in Palestine. Independent sources attest that the ground for executions was that Jesus called himself the King of the Jews (Mk 15:26; Jn 19:19).

As soon as he heard that the person standing before him was accused of claiming to be the new king, Pilate had enough. Jesus was a potential troublemaker who could start a revolt against Rome. It’s equivalent to someone trying to revolt against the president of the USA. Without thinking too much, Pilate sentenced him to death. 

How did Jesus die? Jesus died on the cross not by loss of blood, but by suffocation, as the long cavity distended and he couldn’t longer breathe. Victims could suffer for days before the end came. And how many days Jesus was on the cross? His death, in fact, came quickly because he had been whipped to a pulp before the crucifixion.

When Jesus was crucified? The New Testament Gospels place his crucifixion on Friday. In Synoptics, the Friday is the day after the Passover meal was eaten (Mk 14:12). But John claims that the Friday was a day before the Passover meal (Jn 19:14). 

According to the Gospels, Jesus’ body was taken from the cross and put into the tomb by a wealthy follower Joseph of Arimathea (Mk 15:42; Jn 19:38). Some scholars doubt this tradition. Others, however, accept it. 

If you want to find out more about the arguments from both sides of the debate, read an excellent discussion between Craig A. Evans and Bart D. Ehrman in a series of blog posts here! 

Jesus was, therefore, crucified because his apocalyptic message against the Temple and the Jewish religious authorities came in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Summing up Conclusion

We've delved into the annals of history to unravel the mysteries surrounding Jesus' death, exploring the brutal practice of crucifixion and the intricate web of political and religious forces that led to Jesus on the cross. 

As we conclude this journey, I hope this article has shed light on how Jesus died and who crucified him. May it inspire further exploration, discussion, and reflection. Just as my initial viewing of "The Passion of the Christ" a decade ago sparked this inquiry, I encourage you to continue your exploration of Christian origins.

And what better way to do that than to take a captivating course “Jesus the Secret Messiah” by Dr. Bart D. Ehrman? As a renowned scholar of early Christianity, dr. Ehrman will guide you through the fascinating scholarly exploration of the earliest Gospel! Click the link below.

Marko Marina

About the author

Marko Marina is a historian with a Ph.D. in ancient history from the University of Zagreb (Croatia). He is the author of dozens of articles about early Christianity's history. He works as a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Zagreb where he teaches courses on the history of Christianity and the Roman Empire. In his free time, he enjoys playing basketball and spending quality time with his family and friends.

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