The Rap Sheet on Jesus
The synoptic gospels list 3 charges that were laid against Jesus by the Jerusalem authorities. The first two are true but he was actually executed on the third, false, charge. In this tale, which cut short the life of a dynamic and inspiring crusader for social justice in his prime, we see the hand of both the Roman rulers and the local elite. The Jerusalem authorities collaborated with their Roman overlords to execute a troublesome prophet from Nazareth because it was in their political self-interest to do so. They maintained the internal order to please their colonial masters and like any urban elite they had no time for an agrarian disturber of the people. Their Jewishness was not a factor.
1/ Jesus blocked payment of tribute to Caesar
(Lk 23:2ab; Mt 17:24-27;) The half-shekel tribute to the temple was a custom started by Pompey in 63 B.C.E. The payment was a non-obligatory poll tax, nominally going to Yahweh but in practice going into the pockets of the quisling high-priest ruling class. Yahweh was a kingly God and the people paid up because they thought he demanded it. To Jesus on the other hand Yahweh was “Abba” or Father, and his sons and daughters were free (v.26b). Neither he nor his 12 disciples were bound to pay. It was supposed to be part of a reciprocal arrangement whereby the temple promised certain benefits in return, such as rain for the crops. It was a false theology, and the tribute was a focal point for everyday peasant resistance. As the coin carried a “graven image” of the emperor, it infringed the second commandment. Giving it back to Rome was not an act of collaboration to Jesus but an act of subversion: it was ridding the land of an idolatrous and blasphemous symbol of subjection to Roman rule. Naturally Jesus had to watch how he phrased things: they were trying to catch him out. By using coded ambiguous language, Jesus escaped their entrapment: “Those that have ears to hear, let them hear!” His peasant hearers knew exactly what he meant.
The charge was true.
2/ Jesus threatened to destroy the temple
(Mk 14:58; Mt 26:60; Mk 15;29; Mt 27:40) This charge includes a charge of blasphemy. He claimed his authority came from God, like his mentor John the Baptist. Both of them claimed that their act of baptism brought forgiveness of sins. This was a serious claim for which the high priests and scribes had not given them authority. His teachings seriously undermined the authority and prestige of the temple. “Cleansing” the temple of money changers was a way of symbolically destroying it. It was to be replaced by the reign or kingdom of God, whose arrival was imminent. Jesus was definitely undermining the temple’s monopoly and hegemony.
They were right to press charges; Jesus was indeed a threat.
3/ Jesus claimed to be the messiah, the king
(Lk 23:2c) When Herod the Great died, several rebel leaders tried to overthrow Roman rule in Palestine with a view to assuming the throne themselves. In spite of their military and leadership skills all of them were eventually caught and executed by the Romans. Coming in this tradition of popular kingship we see the crowds acclaim Jesus as king and messiah more than once.(Jn 6:15; Mk 11:9-10;). By riding a donkey into Jerusalem instead of a war horse, Jesus seems to lampoon their expectations. The strewing of palm branches recalls the entry of Simon Maccabeus into Jerusalem. Rather obscurely, Herzog (my source) says “The need eventually to interpret Jesus retrospectively is seen on the titulus. This shorthand biography of the deviant says INRI (‘Jesus of Nazareth King of the Jews’).” He has been crucified as a warning to others, as a deterrent to future trouble makers.
He was not guilty of this charge but he was executed for it anyway.
Herzog, William R. “Jesus, Justice and the Reign of God. A ministry of liberation.” John Knox Press (2000)