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3.5 The Final Days

Six days before the Passover Jesus was invited to Lazarus’ house for a supper served by Martha (John 12:12). Mary of Bethany entered the room and anointed Jesus’ bare feet with expensive ointment. Judas said that the ointment should have been sold, and the money given to the poor. Judas was the disciples’ treasurer and it was well known that he was stealing money from the purse. Jesus defended Mary (John 12:5,7-8). Judas did not like to be contradicted in public and it is thought that it is then that he made up his mind to betray Jesus and get some money for it. On Sunday morning, the first day of the Jewish week, Jesus made his triumphal entry in Jerusalem on a donkey’s back. He and his disciples were greeted by a big crowd. This fulfilled another Old Testament’s prophecy (Matt.21:5). Some people waved palms, others spread their clothes on the road. Jesus was also hailed as the son of David and the Messiah (Matt.21.9; Mark 11:9,10; John 12:13). Jesus walked in the white marble Temple built by King Herod as an imitation of the first temple constructed by King Solomon. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the dove sellers, saying that the house of God had to be only a place to pray (Mark 12:17). Jesus remained in the Temple until night, then he left the city while the chief priests were plotting against him. Although he did not say he was the Messiah, the religious leaders thought that it was time to act, if not it would be to late. Two days later, on Tuesday, they challenged his authority as he was teaching. They did not dare to arrest him as he was so popular so they asked him a difficult question: was it proper to pay taxes to the Romans (Matt.22:16,17)? A negative answer would anger the Romans so he answered in a very devious way after noting that Caesar’s picture was on the coin used then: “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s!” (Mark 12:17)

At the end of the day he told his disciples that he would be crucified before Passover that was to begin in two days (Matt.26:2). In fact the chief priests were consulting Caiaphas on the best way to have him killed without creating riots. They too concluded that he had to be killed before Passover. That night Jesus was the guest of Simon the leper in Bethphage and Judas Iscariot negotiated with the chief priests the reward of his betrayal (Matt.26:15). They agreed on thirty pieces of silver to deliver Jesus when he would be apart of the people. (30)

On Thursday Jesus told his disciples that when they will arrive in Jerusalem a man carrying a pitcher of water would tell them where the Passover meal would take place. All they had that evening was bread, a cup and some wine. He told them that this would be his last meal. Jesus took the traditional cup of Passover wine and shared it with his disciples. He also shared the bread and said: “This is my body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:15 to 19). He also announced that one of his disciples for three years and a half would betray him and, to a specific question, he indicated that it would be Judas Iscariot (John 13:21, 25, 27). At that point Judas left the room and went to talk to the religious leaders and to the guards. After supper Jesus went to the garden of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives with eleven disciples. He gave the final instructions to his three closest disciples, Peter, James and John, and prayed his father (Matt.26:38,39,44). His disciples were asleep as Judas came back with a Roman cohort of 600 men and some officers of the chief priests and Pharisees. Judas kissed Jesus’s cheek (Matt.26:49) to indicate Jesus who was then seized by the officers and taken back to Jerusalem as a prisoner in front of his disciples fully awake by now. (30)

Jesus was taken to Annas, the former high priest, to be interrogated. Jesus explained that he did not hide to preach and, hearing that, one of the soldiers hit him (John 18:20,21,23). Jesus was then sent in chains to the present high priest, Caiaphas, Annas’ son-in-law, who resumed the interrogation late on Thursday night. The news of Jesus’ capture had become known and the Scribes and the Elders gathered together, first in the high priest’s home, then in the council chamber (Matt.26-58; Mark 14:53; John 18:15; Luke 22:6). Peter had escaped with the other disciples but he came back to Caiaphas’ home and, before day time, he had denied three times knowing Jesus. Many witnesses accused Jesus of various crimes but they did not agree between themselves on any specific one and Jesus did not answer. It is not clear who was present at this trial but it seems that Joseph of Arimathea was absent, or that he abstained from the voting. On the other hand he did not do anything to help Jesus, and this is also true for Nicodemus. Two witnesses accused Jesus of having said that he could destroy the Temple and built it again in three days. Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus knew that it was not true but they also knew that the decision to condemn Jesus to death was already taken. Caiaphas also knew that Jesus had said to his disciples that he would be killed by the Jews and that he would rise again three days later (Mark 9-31). He wanted Jesus to incriminate himself but he remained silent, or confirmed his previous statements that he was Chris and that he would rise (Matt.26:63,64). This was taken as blasphemy by Caiaphas: the mob spat in his face, beat him with their fists, slapped him and condemned him to death (Matt.26:65,66,68). When morning came the chief priests and the Elders defined their plan to put Jesus to death. Their meeting was illegal, as well as the condemnation, and they needed the Roman Governor’s decision to have Jesus killed. Pontius Pilate would never condemn anybody to death for a religious question. They had to find a civil or military motivation to have him condemn Jesus. Roman soldiers took charge and led him to Pilate in the praetorium (headquarters, or official residence, even if Pilate usually lived in Caesarea on the Mediterranean shores) while the religious leaders waited outside. If they had entered in it they would have been unclean for the Passover meal. Pilate went to talk to the religious leaders who accused Jesus of forbidding his people to pay Roman taxes and that he pretended to be Christ, a King (John 18:29,30,31; Luke 23:2). This Pilate could not refuse to hear; he already had trouble with rebellious Jews before and he had to give in. He did not want another uprising as this was unacceptable to Rome. Pilate went back to the Praetorium and faced Jesus who was suffering from the blows he had received. He asked him if he was the King of the Jews (Luke 22:3). The conversation went on with Jesus who said, among other things, “My Kingdom is not of this World”, before admitting that he was a King (John 18:34 to 38). Pilate then told the Jewish leaders that he found no guilt in Jesus but they insisted, pretending that he was creating trouble (Luke 23:4-5). Having been told that Jesus was a Galilean, Pilate sent him to Herod Antipas who had jurisdiction over Galilee. Herod was glad to see Jesus and started questioning him, but Jesus did not answer, making Herod angry.

The Jewish leaders accused again Jesus of many crimes but this made Herod even more angry and he sent Jesus back to Pilate (Luke 23:11) who repeated that he, as Herod, could not find any guilt in the accused and was ready to free him (Luke 23:14 to 16). The shouts of the Jews made Pilate afraid that this would start a riot. He offered to free Jesus as a gesture of goodwill for Passover but the Crowd asked for Barabbas, a robber, murderer and insurrectionist, to be let free instead (John 18:39-40) and they required that Jesus be crucified (Matt.27:22-23). Normally the Jews never crucified people and the request astonished Pilate. Moreover the Romans only crucified slaves and insurrectionists since this was considered the lowest form of death. Pilate at that point had no choice if he wanted to avoid a riot. He washed symbolically his hands in a bucket of water saying “I am innocent of this man’s blood! See to it yourself!” (Matt.27:24). Barabbas was released and Jesus condemned to be scourged and crucified. On this Friday morning, on a spring day in Jerusalem, the Jewish leaders had won. (30)

Jesus was to be executed by the Roman soldiers who were not new to this kind of punishment. They could also be very cruel, especially with the Jews. They striped the beaten Jesus of his robe, dressed him in a purple dress, put a crown of thorns on his head and, mockingly, called him “Hail, King of the Jews!” (Mark 15:17; John 19:2; Matt.27:30). They spat on him, scourged him as requested by Pilate, and then they led him through the streets of Jerusalem to be crucified together with two criminals known as Dismas (or Dysmas) and Gestas. The three men had to carry the “patibulum” or crossbeam that weighted about 80 pounds. Jesus was weakened by the blows received as well as by the scourging and he fell three times under the weight. A Cyrenean called Simon, probably a black man or a Jew from that country, who had come to Jerusalem for the Passover, was told to carry Jesus’ cross (Matt.27:32; Mark 15:21; Luke 23:26). The crucifying place situated on a hill outside the city was called Golgotha in Hebrew (John 19:17) or Calvary in Latin. Many people followed Jesus, among them many women mourning and lamenting, to whom he talked, asking them not to weep (Luke 23:27-31). After they reached the Calvary Jesus was crucified with one criminal on each side (Luke 22:33). The victims had to lie down on their back, they were stripped of their loincloths and their shoulders stretched on the crossbeams. Nails about five inches long were them hammered through the wrists, or the base of the palms, and then one single spike was pushed through both feet put on top of each other. They were then lifted on the crosses after the upright posts had been secured in the ground. Under the weight of the body the arms would pull down to an angle of about 65 degrees. Respiration would become soon very difficult and asphyxiation would set in. The soldiers offered Jesus the traditional drugged wine. It did not completely cut the pain but it helped. Afterwards they threw dices to decide who would get the garments of the so-called King of the Jews. Pilate, who was still angry with the way the religious leaders obliged him to crucify Jesus, had a sign written in three languages -Hebrew, Greek and Latin- nailed above Jesus’ head. It said “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews” John 19:19). Being Jews they could not be left to die over seven days, the Sabbath being sacred. The criminal called Gestas asked Jesus to save himself and them, but the other, Dismas, reproved him to speak badly to Christ and asked Jesus to take him to the Kingdom. Jesus answered that to-night they would all be in Paradise (Luke 23:39-43). The people and the priests mocked Christ and urged him to save himself if he could. A soldier with a mallet was ready to break the victims’ legs. Death would come more quickly by asphyxiation this way. After Jesus had been nearly three hours on the cross he saw among the crowd his mother, his aunt Mary Magdalene and some others. Jesus looked mainly at his mother and to his disciple, John, who stood near her and talked to them (John 19:26-27). John, the son of Zebedee, understood that he had to take Mary into his household. Suddenly, about noon, the sky turned black although there was no storm. We do not know if it was an eclipse or some clouds but we know that the darkness lasted three hours (Mark 15:33). Jesus was thirsty and asked for some water. A soldier plunged a sponge in sour wine and gave it to him. Jesus said “It is finished!” (John 19:30). At three o’clock he cried loudly “My God, my God! Why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34). His last words were “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” (Luke 24:46), he sagged on the cross, and died. At that instant an earthquake struck the area. The centurions were much afraid and one of them even said “Truly this was the Son of God!” (Matt.27:54) and, also, “Certainly this man was innocent!” (Luke 23:47). Many people in the crowd beat their breasts in sign of lamentation and went back to Jerusalem. If he was to be buried, this had to be done before sunset, beginning of the Sabbath and the Passover. However, usually, the bodies of criminals crucified by the Romans were not buried. Their corpses were left to rot on the cross or thrown in a common grave, unless someone ransomed it. Only a person with courage and authority could do it with Jesus’ body; Joseph of Arimathea felt that he should do it and rushed to ask an audience from Pontius Pilate. (30)