In his 30th year, Jesus of Nazareth began propounding religious and social ideas that confounded and antagonized the Jewish religious elites of his time. He arrived on the scene during the reign of Caesar Augustus, and lived into the rule of Tiberius. Without an army or political party, his message brought more significant, lasting change than all the powerful Roman emperors combined. In the 33rd year of his life, the Jewish religious authorities succeeded in persuading Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, to crucify him. According to accounts by Biblical writers like the former tax collector Matthew, he was resurrected on the third day and spoke with his disciples. It is this death on a cross and miraculous resurrection that will be celebrated by Christians around the globe this Easter.
The Roman empire had been cobbled together by 2 ambitious but uneasy partners, Caesar Augustus and Mark Anthony. Throughout its existence, the empire was held together by a web of intrigue, assassinations, political marriages, betrayals, poisonings, and war. Women were valued primarily for forging alliances. In Rome there were numerous temples to various gods, and men of nobility, including emperors, wished to be identified as near gods. Conquered nations usually suffered under a huge burden of taxation. Disobedience was often dealt with by crucifixion, beheading, poisoning or drowning.
In this septic atmosphere of mistrust and scheming, the Jewish religious leaders had managed to acquire a measure of political power. Their authority was lodged in the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council. The council consisted primarily of 2 parties, the Sadducees, which at this time held the majority of seats, and the Pharisees. The Pharisees believed there would be a resurrection of the dead but the Sadducees did not. On other points of lesser importance they did agree and had developed an all encompassing system of religious rules which the people found virtually impossible to follow. The religious rulers could bar people from the temple if they didn’t comply. Since Jewish culture centered on religious traditions and especially on the temple, there was fear of being shut out.
It was not an auspicious time for the appearance of a man who claimed to be the Son of God. The Sadducees and Pharisees quickly became suspicious because he contradicted much of their teaching. They held to the “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” philosophy. “Love your neighbour,” they said, “and hate your enemy.” Jesus urged the people to “love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you.” The chief priests and teachers of the law deemed his teaching to be heretical and sent spies to question him and report to them.
Jesus warned against the corruptness and false piety of the religious leaders. “They like to walk around in flowing robes,” he said, “and be greeted in the market places and have the most important seats in the synagogues. For a show they make lengthy prayers.”
Equally galling were the miracles. When he healed a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath, they accused him of breaking the law and began plotting to kill him.
Evidently the people were desperate for greater substance than the rules and platitudes offered by the pious, corrupt religious leaders. Crowds gathered around him, sensing his authenticity
and liking his positive message of forgiveness and hope. This fervent adulation aroused fear and jealousy in the Sadducees and Pharisees. When he brought Lazarus back from the dead, a member of the Sanhedrin said, “if we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away our place and our nation.”
Late one night, Judas Iscariot, one of the 12 disciples betrayed Jesus with a kiss in the Garden of Gethsemane. At dawn the religious leaders brought him before Pontius Pilate, demanding he be crucified. Jesus had warned his disciples this would happen.
Reluctantly, Pilate sentenced him and he was crucified between 2 criminals. One joined the scoffing. The other said, “Lord remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus replied, “today you will be with me in paradise.”
Several writers in the Biblical New Testament report that Jesus died on the cross, was placed in a tomb, and was resurrected 3 days later. This Easter, Christians around the globe will again greet each other with “He is risen!”