Articles Comments

4.6 The Final Days


The fourth Gospel tells us that Jesus was travelling all the time between Galilee and Jerusalem, and that his conflict with the Jews and the Pharisees had already reached a high level a few months before the final confrontation. The confrontation between Jesus and the Jewish priests about ritual purification and the observance of the Sabbath happened in Galilee where the Scribes and the Pharisees also wanted to put him to death.

The last journey to Jerusalem of Christ and his followers took place towards the end of March in the year 30 AD, in time to be present at the feast of the Passover. He arrived in Jerusalem from Galilee with his disciples the Sunday preceding the Passover 30 AD. Mark implies that Jesus knew something that his followers did not know. He presents Jesus as a Galilean who did not know the city although, through his description of the Triumphal Entry in Jerusalem and the Last Supper, we know that Jesus had arranged the program in advance. Jesus stayed in Bethlehem, three miles out of Jerusalem. He instructed his followers to go and get a donkey from his owner living in the village, with whom he had made arrangements, unknown to his disciples. For the first time we learn that Jesus will ride a donkey as foreseen by Zechariah in the Scriptures. In this way the King was coming to Zion on a mission of peace. The Messianic Kingship of Jesus was about to be revealed to the people. It looks as if Jesus was not making sense anymore. At the Feeding of the Five Thousands, in the desert, he had urged the people of Israel to forget their differences, to abandon political terrorism, and to submit to God. When the people tried to make him a King he refused, arguing that His Kingdom was not on earth but in Heaven. And here He is behaving as a King, pulling the attention of the authorities on himself as never before. The exact role of the Twelve in all this is not clear. At the last Supper Jesus made a remark to Judas that was not understood by the others, as if he knew that he would soon be arrested. Matthew tells us that Judas went to the High Priests offering to betray Jesus for a sum of money. All this confusion tends to show that Jesus’ followers did not know what was going on in the last days of his life and that, even afterwards, they were not able to make sense of his actions. Obviously Jesus was in contact with people in Jerusalem with whom he was planning something unknown to the twelve. He was involved in some actions that would lead inevitably to his death.

Jesus prophesied his death many times in the Gospels (Mark 14:21; 8:31; 10:45): “The Son of Man will die for his people as a ransom, and rise again”. Luke let it known that he told his disciples: “it cannot be that a prophet perishes out of Jerusalem” (Luke 13:33). He probably even wished to die seing now himself as a “King”, a man who could unify Israel and inaugurate the new “Kingdom of the Saints”. This does not prove that he considered himself to be the Messiah, but only that he would bring the New Age, and this was enough to make the high priests afraid. After his death he would rise again and, with him, the redeemed Israel, and he decided to ride a donkey into Jerusalem knowing what was going to succeed.

Jesus was known to the religious and civil authorities in Jerusalem who feared an uprising during Passover. Even if Jesus was not mixed in this insurrection, some of his followers were known to be involved, and the presence of thousands of pilgrims increased the fear of the Jewish authorities as the Romans would exact reprisals. It was necessary to isolate Jesus, and to stop him causing more troubles, and this explains the haste to try and execute Him before the feast.

We do not know if Jesus knew what was going to happen but, if he did, he was certainly going to use it to demonstrate the power of God to start the Messianic Age. The Zealots and the other rebels were preparing more riots and, for them, Jesus was the best leader to unit Jewry against the Romans. On the other hand the upper-class priestly Sadducees would try to stop the creation of another heretic sect (Jesus admitted the sinners in his Kingdom) and, what is more, led by a Galilean. The Romans, always afraid of the Jews, were also ready to stamp out any riot. His closer disciples, the Twelve, thought they knew what was going on but only a few knew (Judas?). Most were left in the dark.

Jesus was imitating Simon Maccabeus who also rode into Jerusalem on a donkey in the second century BC. The large crowd, cheering and following him, must have known in advance of Jesus’ entry. The faithful were supposed to walk into Jerusalem at Passover and, by choosing to ride a donkey, Jesus made himself stand out. Mark tells us that on the first day Jesus entered the city, went to the Temple, looked around and showed himself to the public because, if he was popular in Galilee, here in Jerusalem he was practically unknown. Later that day, after his “triumphal entry”, he went back to his friends in Bethany where he lived the last week of his life.

The fourth Gospel tells us that, while he was still in Judaea, Jesus was told that his friend Lazarus, died. Against the advice of his disciples who were afraid for his safety, Jesus decided to go and wake him up. When they arrived in Bethany Lazarus had been dead for four days. Jesus wept and asked that the stone closing the tomb be removed. Lazarus’ sister, Martha, objected, but Jesus insisted and ordered Lazarus to “Come forth”, and this he did in his burial clothes. This miracle convinced the Pharisees that Jesus was trying to take their position of authority with the Romans.

Mark tells us that Jesus visited the Temple several times during his last week. On one occasion he overthrew the money-changers’ tables and reminded them that the temple was built as a house of prayers for all nations “but you have made it a den of robbers”. This was a good enough reason for the chief priests to destroy him. He also argued with the religious authorities about the status of John-the-Baptist.

The Feast of the Unleavened Bread was near and Jesus, his disciples, thousand of pilgrims, as well as the 25 to 30.000 inhabitants of Jerusalem, were getting ready for the Passover. The Paschal Lambs had to be eaten within the limits of the city and, as it was forbidden to eat it outside, hundred of thousand of people came in the city for their meal. Although it could be very cold in Jerusalem at that time of the year many pilgrims had to eat outside, near their tents, on rooftops, or in the Temple Courts near the spot where the lambs were sacrificed. Mark tells us that the Jewish authorities were already plotting Jesus’ death but there is no proof that this was the case.

Mark wrote that the disciples asked Jesus where they would eat their Passover meal on the Unleavened Bread feast first day (7 April 30 AD). They were afraid that they would have to eat it outside with the poorer pilgrims. Jesus, who was staying in Bethany outside the city limits, told them to go to Jerusalem, to look for a man carrying a pitcher of water, to follow him until he went into a house, and then to ask him “where is the Master’s guest-chamber, where he shall eat the Passover with his disciples?”. They would then be shown a large upper room furnished and ready. We do not know who the man carrying the water was, who paid for the meal, although it is a fact that Judas was managing Jesus’ money. That day everybody ate the same meal, prepared as described in the Scriptures to remind them of the faithful Jews that had been freed from slavery in Egypt. Mark tells us that Jesus announced to his disciples that week that his end would happen during this Passover. The Twelve gathered in the upper room in a state of great suspense. Jesus removed his clothes and draped himself in a towel, then, like a slave, he washed the feet of his guests. Simon Peter objected to this reversal of hierarchies, forgetting that Jesus had said that in the New Kingdom “the first should be the last, and the least the greatest”. Jesus fell alone that night as the disciples failed to understand him. He knew that he would be arrested soon and that one of the disciples would betray him. The meal began with no women present as he thought that the evening would finish in violence, and he did not want his mother and the other female followers to be present. Wine was served as required for that feast (it is known that Jesus liked to drink some wine, Matthew 11:1). At the end of the meal Jesus sent Judas Iscariot out, the disciples did not know why, but he was on his way to betray the Master to the authorities. There are many explanations for Judas’ actions: he was bribed by the high priests, according to some, or he had political disagreements with Jesus on the participation in the revolt against the Romans. It is also difficult to understand why identification by Judas was required if He was so notorious. However it was a dark night and Jesus’ head would have been covered. The authorities knew that a revolt was planned before Passover and Judas’ participation in it. As they needed the help of somebody who knew Jesus’ whereabouts to recognise him in the narrow and crowded streets of Jerusalem, they arrested Judas, who chose to betray his Master rather that the rebels. Jesus was thought to be the head of the rebellion and the authorities decided to arrest him at night when the pilgrims were still eating their sacred meal, rather that during the day, when he was preaching or walking in the Temple Courts as this could have led to a public outcry.

After Judas had left, Jesus talked at long to his disciples and prayed to the Father. For the fourth Evangelist, the Supper was not the Passover meal but a preparation meal. For him, Jesus is the true Pascha Lamb who dies on the cross one day earlier that the Synoptic Jesus, that is at the same time the lambs were sacrificed in the Temple. John did not mention the Eucharist, although it is known that even the first Christians met to break bread and bless the wine, and this was not an ordinary meal. Twenty-five years after Jesus’ death, St Paul was writing to his converts in Corinth to remind them the ritual of breaking bread and drinking wine that our Lord initiated at the Last Supper: “This is my body which is for you… this cup is the new covenant in my blood… Do this in remembrance of Me …”. However we do not know what came first, the cult that survived until now, or the story that explains the origin of the cult. The present day Christians still believe that Christ lives in the holy bread that they share, as it is to be expected from one who founded a new religion that was to spread beyond the confines of Jewry to the entire Gentile world. But as we know that Jesus did not intend to launch a Church that would spread to the Gentile world, then the origins of the Eucharist seem more doubtful. By not mentioning that Jesus blessed the bread and wine and told his disciples to do this in memory of Him, John implies that this did not take place at Last Supper, even if they ate together. All the New Testament writers present Jesus in his last days as fulfilling the stories and prophesies of the Old Testament. He becomes the Pascha-lamb, and the blessing of the bread and wine becomes a sacrifice, the offering of this Lamb. The imaginative and emotional power of the rite, as well as the fact that it is still the focus of the religious life of so many people to-day, blinds us to the fact that Jesus most probably did not institute the Eucharist also known as the first mass. It would only make sense if he had founded a Church for the Gentiles, with its present organisation of cardinals, bishops, priests and sacraments. If Jesus was coming back to-day he would not understand what was going on in any Christian Church as there is a big difference between his teaching and modern Christianity. On the other hand, the teaching of St Paul about the Eucharist is still the credo of the Church now, and Jesus could not anticipate it.

After he finished talking, his disciples sang a hymn, and Jesus went to Gethsemane (John 18:1), the Mount of Olives, a place where Jesus liked to go, and known to Judas. This garden and the olive trees still exist to-day. Did Jesus know that he was going to die, nobody knows. If he knew then we must assume that he did something that was forbidden, some capital offences that we do not know, but that would lead to his condemnation. But he knew that his last day had come and he was filled with fear and sorrow. We must not forget that Jesus was not a theologian, or a philosopher, but a visionary, and so he knew. He also foretold the later destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple that came in 70 AD. We do not know why he sent Judas out of the Upper Room, and if he was betrayed by him. He could have been sent to ask some people -the Zealots?- to come to Gethsemane to talk perhaps about the planned uprising (to cancel it or to organise it, and he could have been caught by the high priests and obliged to lead them to Jesus). Or even he could have sent him to the Jewish authorities to try to find a way to cancel the rebellion. We will never know the truth. The agony in the garden of Gethsemane is the most poignant moment of the passion. Now Jesus is alone with Peter, James and John, the same disciples who witnessed the Transfiguration. They fell asleep having drank too much wine; Jesus was on his own with nobody to witness His suffering and the confrontation with His Heavenly Father that led to his sweat becoming great drops of blood. A young man wearing a shroud appeared to Jesus in the park. Whether he was dressed like this to be baptised, or because he had heard that the End of Time was coming, we do not know.

Many theories have been put forward about what happened within the last twelve hours of Jesus, also known as his Passion. The truth is that we know little. At the supper all his disciples have sworn loyalty to him, although he said that one of them would betray him. Peter protested that he would stand by his Master but Jesus replied that “before the night was out and the cock had crowed twice, Peter would have denied him trice”. Then as Jesus was waiting alone, light of torches could be seen approaching with the typical noise of armed men advancing on him. According to the Evangelists these armed men had been sent by the chief priests to put Jesus under arrest. The Synoptic Gospels tell us that Judas kissed Jesus to identify him to the soldiers. According to Luke, Jesus said: “Judas, would you betray the Son of Man with a kiss”? It is difficult to see how the disciples knew that Judas betrayed Jesus. As we have been told, those close to him were asleep. It could very well be that Judas was first arrested and forced to identify his Master. Simon Peter drew his sword and hit on the ear the high priest’ servant, Malchus, who supervised the arrest. Mark said that the ear was cut off and Luke adds that Jesus stuck in back on. It has been suggested that Malchus and Paul were the same person. Peter ran away in the darkness with all the other disciples and followers. The soldiers took hold of Jesus and a young man in a shroud who, however, was able to escape naked, and Jesus was left alone with his captors.

We have been told that Judas received thirty pieces of silver for his help. Later on he threw them back to the priests and the money was used to buy a piece of land called “Potter’s field”.

Pontius Pilate, the Prefect of Judea from 26 to 36 AD, lived normally in the sea-port of Caesarea. When there was any sign of possible disturbances he used to go to Jerusalem with many soldiers. There he would stay in the castle built by Herod the Great on the western hill of Jerusalem. The knowledge that somebody had been proclaimed King of Galilee, even if it was outside his jurisdiction, and the huge gathering in the desert, must have alarmed him. Now he was told that this man was in Jerusalem. He was told of the demonstration of his Kingship when he rode into the city on a donkey, of the disturbances at the Temple when he turned over the money-changers’ tables. He was also told that Jesus had quarrelled with the scribes and the Pharisees about ritual observance, but this was no news for him as the Jews always disagree between them. He knew too that Jesus attracted large crowd as a miracle-worker, a healer and an exorcist; this he must not have liked as large crowd meant troubles. He was also aware that among his followers there were Zealots and “sicari”. For all these reasons it could be possible that it was he who had Judas arrested with other Jewish patriots already condemned to be crucified next day. To avoid rebellion he would not have hesitated to crucify Jesus too.

The details of Jesus’ arrest and of his so-called trial are not known with accuracy as the only possible witnesses, his disciples, fled into hiding when they saw the soldiers coming, even if one or two followed him at a safe distance. His family was not present either during the trial and we have no trace that they spoke to him before he was crucified. The Gospels’ authors must then have invented the trial scenes, and the only proved historical fact is his crucifixion after being condemned by the Romans. The early Christians tried to hide this out of fear of the Romans and they tried to blame the Jews, who would have condemned him for blasphemy or for plotting to destroy the Temple. In the Gospels, Pontius Pilate is described as unwilling to condemn Jesus but urged to do it by the chief priests and the Sadducees. This explains, in part, the 2000 year old Christian anti-Semitism.

The Gospels must be treated with circumspection but it does not mean that we must dismiss them. However we must admit that the versions of the last hours of Jesus are different in John, Luke and in Matthew and Mark. We do not know anything from the moment Peter denied Jesus in front of the high priest to the moment when Jesus was shown to the crowd, dressed like a parody of a King, and after being tortured. As Peter, James and John were not arrested by the Romans that means that they were not involved in the plot or the armed insurrection. That also means, as the Gospels suggest, that Jesus had some contacts in Jerusalem that his disciples did not know. They did not know many things such as: the man who supplied the donkey for the triumphal entry in Jerusalem, the man who put the large upper room at their disposal for the Last Supper, on what charge Jesus was sent to Pilate or the reasons why he was condemned to death. All the Gospels agree that after his arrest by Roman soldiers and Sanhedrin police, Jesus was taken to the house of the High Priest. Three terrorists had already been arrested during the disturbances that took place before Jesus was arrested; probably Jesus was involved, or believed to be involved, in them. We only know the name of one terrorist, Jesus Barabas.

A large crowd had assembled in the courtyard of the house of the High Priest who was interrogating Jesus. Peter stood among them and a servant-girl (or was it the servant of the High Priest that was present at Jesus’ arrest and believed to be Paul) recognised him, but he denied knowing Jesus before and the cock crew. The servant, and the people present, insisted that Peter was a member of Jesus’ group but he denied again and the cock crew a second time. Peter recalled what Jesus had said about denying him and he wept.

The high priest found that Jesus was guilty of blasphemy, believing two false witness testimonies. The first one swore that he wanted to destroy the Temple and rebuilt it in three days, and the other, that he identified himself as the “Son of Man”. These ideas are, of course, Christian ones. Under Jewish law it was not blasphemous for somebody to believe to be the Messiah, even if he was not recognised by the religious authorities. There are many examples of such people not condemned by the Sanhedrin. It is even probable that this trial did not take place as it is difficult to see how many Sanhedrins could have been assembled in the middle of the night for a “show trial”. It is then difficult to believe that he was judged for blasphemy. If Jesus had been accused of a serious offence against the religion, the trial would have been well prepared and not rushed in the middle of the night. He was most probably examined by the high priest and handled to Pilate.

According to Josephus, the chief priests mediated between the Romans and the Jewish crowd. If “King Jesus” was going to start a rebellion the Romans would hold the high priests accountable for not informing them, not arresting the leader and not handing him to the proper Roman authority. At first the chief priests said that the leaders of the rebellion could not be identified. The Romans replied by killing some Jews in the Market place and arresting some others to crucify them. The chief priests asked the crowd to refrain from any provocation.

Jesus’ trial took place in this environment. The Christian tradition says that, after his arrest, Jesus had to walk among the screaming Jews who did not know him. Later on the Christians blamed them for His death that brought salvation to the world. It did not really matter if he was guilty of plotting against the Romans, what really mattered was that a crowd had proclaimed him King, that he had ridden into Jerusalem on a donkey to pull the crowd’s attention, and that he was responsible for some disturbances in the Temple. This was enough to arrest him and to give him to the Romans as a scapegoat. It is obvious that the Jewish authorities regarded him as guilty of a capital offence. That they arrived to this conclusion before or after his interrogation is not known. As the Jews had no power to execute him under the Roman law, they handed him to the Romans. As a result he was brought before the Supreme Governor as required by the law.

It is at this point that Matthew tells us about Judas Iscariot’ suicide. It is really a legend as none of the disciples knew why Judas left the Supper, or was present when he received the bribe, or when he came back later on to throw back the thirty pieces of silver to the High Priest. The story had been written in this way to follow Zechariah’s prophecy. Matthew goes on to say that the High Priests used this money to buy the potter’s field, that is known at the present time as the Field of Blood. Afterwards Judas committed suicide but if this was due to remorse, or to avoid torture and crucifixion, is not known.

The trial of Jesus before Pilate took place in the Practorium next morning. The priests told Pilate that Jesus was a criminal and that he deserved to be killed. Pilate first tried to avoid taking a decision by saying that it was a religious crime for which the Jews had jurisdiction; when he was told that Jesus was a Galilean he wanted to hand him to Herod. Obviously Pilate did not understand this Jewish problem and was afraid that if he had a popular “King of the Jews” killed, the probability of an uprising was increasing. He asked Jesus “Are you the King of the Jews?” His answer “My Kingdom is not of this world” meant that he was not interested to be the secular King of the Jews, that his Kingdom was unknown to Pilate, and that in the end his Kingdom would be the stronger.

The New testament tells us that at Passover the Romans had the habit to amnesty one prisoner. If the choice between Jesus Barabbas and Christ was left to the crowd, or if it was decided by the priests and Pilate, is of no importance. It is a fact that Jesus Barabbas, a terrorist accused of murder, was released to appease the people and Jesus Christ was condemned to death, scourged in Herod’s Palace, and tortured by the Roman soldiers. He was then shown to the crowd with a crown of thorns on his head, Pilate asked the Jews if they wanted him to crucify their King, and the priests answered that their only King was Caesar. This, probably, was done to save as many Jewish lifes as possible since, after Pilate was asked to intervene, the problem was between the Romans on one side, and the Jews, including Jesus, on the other. It was expedient that one man should die to save the others from reprisal, and Jesus was the ideal scapegoat, the “Saviour” of his race or, in other words, their representative. We do not know if other Jews where arrested that night, nor why Jesus was chosen as an example. It seems that no disciple of Jesus was arrested. This proves that Jesus and his followers were not involved in a plot because, if they had been, all of them would have been arrested and crucified.

After the horrible parade in front of the crowd Jesus was obliged to drag his cross to the place of execution, Golgotha. A man called Simon helped him. Eusebius, the fourth century historian, was present when the Holy Sepulchre and Golgotha were “discovered in 336 AD beneath a Venus temple erected by the Romans after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. A tomb, or sacred cave, was found beneath the temple and the Empress Helena and her fellow Christian soon “found” the True Cross, the Crown of Thorns and the spear with which the side of Jesus was pierced. However we do not know if this was the true site where Jesus died. All we know is that it was outside the city walls as the present Church of the holy Sepulchre, former temple of Aphrodite, would have been outside the city walls at the time of Jesus.

The chief priests complained because Pilate gave order to nail the following inscription in three languages -Latin, Greek and Hebrew- on Jesus’ cross: “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews”. It is obvious that he wanted to humiliate them. All the Gospels mention that the Roman soldiers cast lots for Jesus’ clothes after he had been nailed on the cross. From what we know they were expensive clothes. If we also take into consideration the results of the excavations of the house where he lived in Capernaum we must conclude that Jesus was far from being poor, even if he died as a rebellious slave.

Christian devotion to the figure of Jesus on the cross began a thousand years after the crucifixion when Anselm, the Archbishop of Canterbury from 1093 to 1109 introduced the rite. The adoration of a dying man on the cross has then a medieval origin whereas the Byzantine way of representing the Calvary depicted Christ in triumph, robed and crowned on the cross like a high priest. The scene of his death must have been horrible for the witnesses, even if the Romans used frequently this punishment. One of the two criminals crucified alongside Jesus recognised his power and prayed him “Lord, remember me when you reach your Kingdom”. Other witnesses include his mother, Mary, his brothers, Mary of Magdala, Jose, Salome and John, the author of the fourth Gospel. As we notice, his family reappeared after being absent during all his ministry and a kind of reconciliation is taking place. John also tells us that Jesus was thirsty, and how a Roman soldier put vinegar on a sponge and held it to his lips at the end of a long pole. He also tells us that Jesus talked to his mother and entrusted her to the protection of his “Beloved Disciple”, John. After drinking the vinegar, Jesus prayed and finally died after saying his famous words: “my God, my God why have you forsaken me?” One can say that Jesus in his passivity defied not only Pilate and the chief priests but, also, God himself. He came to the world and told the Jews that God was the Heavenly Father who loved his children as Jesus loved children whom he held in his arms and blessed in many occasions. He healed them and even raised them from the dead. He also healed the blind, the lame, the deaf and the mad. He had foretold the coming of a Kingdom of Love and that Israel would find peace and unity. The life and death of Jesus can only be seen as the ultimate declaration of monotheistic faith, that God not only created the world, but that he sustains and loves it. Jesus had put his trust in God and was certain that the day of the Lord would come and, with it, justice to the poor and healing to the innocent sufferers. He also put himself in the position of the poorest of all, a slave to all. His reward had been arrest, torture, public humiliation, death on the cross and the Kingdom he prayed for did not materialise. Jesus was alive on the cross until the ninth hour, that is until 3.00 PM. During the preceding three hours, darkness had fallen on Jerusalem. As he was already near collapse and exhaustion due to the torture, it is thought that he died within three hours after being nailed on the cross.

He was made the figurehead of a popular movement in Galilee and, as he did not want it, he went to Jerusalem. But there too the same thing happened, and his entrance in the city on a donkey was triumphal. Probably he did not sleep much his last week and in Gethsemane he sweated blood. After his arrest he was interrogated for a whole night and tortured. There have been cases of crucifixion lasting three days, but most victims died before by asphyxiation. In the late afternoon the soldiers came to break his legs to speed his death and allow his family to bury him before sundown as prescribed by Jewish law. But Jesus was already dead and instead of breaking his legs the soldiers pierced his side with a spear and blood and water rushed out. (18)

Bookmark and Share