Forgive Them | The Death and Life of Christ

“Even the excruciating pain could not silence his repeated entreaties: ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.’ The soldiers gambled for his clothes. Some women stood afar off. The crowd remained a while to watch. Jesus commended his mother to John’s care and John to hers. He spoke words of kingly assurance to the penitent criminal crucified at his side. Meanwhile, the rulers sneered at him, shouting: ‘He saved others, but he can’t save himself!’ Their words, spoken as an insult, were the literal truth. He could not save himself and others simultaneously. He chose to sacrifice himself in order to save the world.”

— John R.W. Stott, The Cross of Christ

Then Jesus came with them to a place called Gethsemane, and he told the disciples, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” Taking along Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, he began to be sorrowful and troubled. He said to them, “I am deeply grieved to the point of death. Remain here and stay awake with me.” Going a little farther, he fell facedown and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” Then he came to the disciples and found them sleeping. He asked Peter, “So, couldn’t you stay awake with me one hour? Stay awake and pray, so that you won’t enter into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”

Again, a second time, he went away and prayed, “My Father, if this cup cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.” And he came again and found them sleeping, because they could not keep their eyes open. After leaving them, he went away again and prayed a third time, saying the same thing once more. Then he came to the disciples and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and resting? See, the time is near. The Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Get up; let’s go. See, my betrayer is near.”

The World of Jesus

At the time of Jesus’s birth, the land which now comprises much of modern- day Israel was under Roman rule. For subjugated territories, one of the primary goals of Rome was to maintain stability. Peace is much cheaper than war, and the Romans wanted to discourage insurrection from their conquered provinces. To accomplish this in Israel, the Roman Senate put Jewish King Herod the Great on the throne to reign over the region as a vassal of the Empire. In addition, Rome granted the Jews religio licita, or permitted religion, which allowed Jews across the empire to practice their religious customs. This meant that Jewish ruling classes, the Pharisees and the Sadducees, still carried much clout throughout Jerusalem and surrounding regions.

It was in this culture that Jesus conducted his three-year ministry. From Rome’s standpoint, Jesus’s teaching was within the permitted religion that the Jews were free to exercise. However, from the perspective of the Jewish leaders, His teaching was a challenge to the power that they held.

An example of this is recorded in the Gospel of John, where Jesus is challenged by a group of Jewish leadership to speak plainly about His claim to be the Messiah. Jesus confirmed this, adding yet another layer of controversy when He said in chapter 10, verse 30, “I and the Father – God – are one.” The response from the group is recorded in the subsequent verses:

Again the Jews picked up rocks to stone him. Jesus replied, “I have shown you many good works from the Father. For which of these works are you stoning me?”

“We aren’t stoning you for a good work,” the Jews answered, “but for blasphemy, because you—being a man—make yourself God.”

Jesus answered them, “Isn’t it written in your law, ‘I said, you are gods’? If he called those to whom the word of God came—and the Scripture cannot be broken—do you say, ‘You are blaspheming’ to the one the Father set apart and sent into the world, because I said, ‘I am the Son of God’? If I am not doing my Father’s works, don’t believe me. But if I am doing them and you don’t believe me, believe the works. This way you will know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father.” Then they were trying again to seize him, but he eluded their grasp.

This, and many other contentions culminated in the arrest of Jesus by Jewish leadership in the Garden of Gethsemane before presenting Him to the High Priest, Caiaphas. After being questioned and assaulted, Jesus was taken to the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate for trial.

The Trial and Death of Jesus

Pontius Pilate governed the Province of Judea from 26-36 AD. He was appointed during the time of the Roman Emperor Tiberius. Jesus was brought to Pilate by members of the Sanhedrin in the early hours before the beginning of the Jewish Passover. The governor questioned both the Jewish leaders and Jesus himself about charges being levied against Jesus. According to the four Gospels and writings of the Jewish scholar and historian Josephus, these charges consisted of misleading a nation, refusing to pay taxes to Caesar, and claiming to be a King, which was framed as open treason against Rome. After hearing responses from both Jesus and the members of the Sanhedrin, Pilate protested saying, “I see no grounds for charging this man”. The Sanhedrin added to the charges, saying that Jesus was “stirring up the crowds” with his teaching and his claims to be a king.

Pilate still protested, sending him to Herod Antipas, the new governor of Galilee, after finding out that Jesus was a Galilean and that he fell under the King Herod’s jurisdiction. Herod questioned Jesus repeatedly, and it is recorded that Jesus gave no answer as his accusers continued to push charges against him. Frustrated, Herod sent Jesus back to Pilate.

Before we continue, I want to again remind you, our audience, the priority of Rome at this time. Pilate’s chief responsibility was to maintain order and peace through the province of Judea. Rome’s ability to maintain this stability within its subjugated nations was pivotal to maintaining the empire. From the governor’s perspective, the return of Jesus to his court for judgement further escalated the threat to such peace; as a result, he did whatever he could to appease the mob and deescalate the situation. He attempts this in two ways. First, he reiterated that he finds no fault in Jesus and therefore Jesus does not deserve death. Instead of death, he had Jesus scourged for whatever crimes he may have committed and then ordered his release. The mob protested this and demanded Jesus be put to death.

Pilate was trapped between a desire for justice and his duty to maintain order. Second, Pilate told the mob that because of the Passover he would release one prisoner and gave them the choice between Jesus and the murderer Barabbas. The mob demanded Pilate release Barabbas and crucify Jesus. Pilate had no choice but to consent.

Crucifixion is widely considered one of the most horrific ways to be put to death. Rome reserved this death for those guilty of treason, murder, and other heinous crimes against the empire. Criminals would sometimes be required to carry the crossbeam of the cross to the place where they would be put to death.

When they arrived, nails the size of modern-day railroad spikes would be driven into the wrists and feet of the subject between two bones to sustain the body weight of that individual. Once the subject was secured to the frame, the cross was lifted and anchored. The subject would then be forced to breathe in by pushing up from their pierced feet and wrists, slowly tearing the flesh and tendons. After many, many hours of torturous pain, Roman guards would walk up the line and break the legs of the subjects who were still alive so that they could no longer breathe, causing the victims to die of suffocation in the open air.

Prior to his crucifixion, Jesus was scourged by a flagrum, a barbarous tool that had bits of sharp bone and rock attached to the ends of each strand. When the strands met flesh, the sharp barbs would sink into the skin and tear out pieces every time the wielder would pull it back for the next strike. After this, Jesus was mocked. His clothes were torn, his beard was ripped from his face, and a crown wrought from long, sharp thorns was forced onto his head. He was beaten and dressed in a kingly robe by the Roman guards before being stripped naked, and his possessions were divvied up among them. When all that ended, he was forced to carry the crossbeam of his cross up the hill to a place called the Golgotha, “The Place of the Skull”. There, he was nailed to the cross and lifted next to two criminals. According to the Gospels and Josephus, Jesus died before the Romans broke his legs. To confirm His death, a Roman solider stabbed him in the side. Water and blood came out, showing that the plasma had separated due to the lack of blood flow.

During this ordeal, most of the men who were known as Jesus’s disciples had either scattered or denied that they ever knew Him. Even as the body of Jesus was taken down from the cross, wrapped in cloth and dressed with perfume before being placed in a tomb, those who had learned from Him during His three years of ministry either wept in solitude or stayed out of sight. A Roman guard was put in front of the tomb. Pilate rested knowing he had maintained the peace, and the mob, now satisfied, dispersed to participate in the Passover.

The Birth and Spread of Christianity

Jesus’ horrific death is overshadowed by another event that according to Christians, occurred three days later. As recorded in the Gospels, Jesus was resurrected. The stone was rolled away, the Roman guard dispersed. In Christianity, the belief in the resurrection is a cornerstone. The recorded appearance of Jesus and his teaching to the disciples after his resurrection spurred them to stop hiding, to be bold in the presentation of their faith, and to bring the message of Jesus to the world.

Roman records and the writings of Josephus confirm the man Jesus existed, and that Christianity – then called The Way – was a growing fast enough for the empire to notice and later try to suppress it. From the great fire in Rome in 64 AD to the Edict of Milan in 313 AD, persecution of Christians grew from intermittent ad hoc punishments by local authorities to empire-wide crackdowns under Nero and Diocletian.

But why did these emperors fear Christianity? First, it went from being an annoying extension of Judaism to a superstition. This label of “superstition" was important because unlike religion became threats to the aforementioned peace and stability that Rome tried to maintain. Second, “the sovereignty of Christ clashed with Cesar’s claims to his own exclusive sovereignty.” Romans believed their emperors were appointed by the gods, and therefore had no equal. Finally, as hinted at in past podcasts on 15-Minute History, some of the Roman Emperors were out of their minds. They saw persecution against a growing superstition as a way to gain favor with the people. Despite these hardships, the Christian religion continued to grow and spread until finally being made lawful by Constantine, when he converted and signed the Edict of Milan. Now, two millennia later, there are over 2.4 billion people who claim the faith of Christianity.

The Unexpected Turning Point

The fundamental fact that the life and death of a Nazarene carpenter was a turning point in history is remarkable because it should not have been. After all, as one historian put it, “peasants don’t normally leave an archaeological trail”. Instead of being shelved into the annuals of history, the life and death of such a man created and caused the spread of a faith that went on to influence the intentions – both good and bad – of nations throughout history, and across the world.

We’ve delved into the topics of theology and doctrine more than usual in this episode. It was important to do this to pose the question as to how a carpenter would have such a profound impact on history and the many societies that came after His own. Whether or not one is a Christian or shares in a similar belief system, it is important to see how faith shapes the history of our world and its many turning points. We here at 15-Minute History present these facts of history and hope that you will draw your own conclusions, about the past, present and future, not just of our world, but of your own life as well.