I am contemplating the crucifixion of Jesus this Holy Week by reading David Seccombe’s The King of God’s Kingdom.
The synoptic gospels all say that others faced death by crucifixion with Jesus that day.
Mark says this:
Those who were crucified with him also spoke abusively to him (15:32).
Matthew adds that those crucified with him were criminals (27:44).
They both say that those crucified with him were hostile to him.
John also says that he was crucified with two others (19:18).
Luke, however, turns it into a little drama (23:39 ff). Only Luke tells us that there were two others, but only one of them mocked him, as Mark and Matthew say. The other one spoke up for Jesus’ innocence and asked Jesus to remember him when he came into his kingdom.
Seccombe says there is nothing intrinsically improbable about Luke’s version. The other condemned men would have been actual anti-Roman instigators of violence. One of them might have recognized that Jesus was different and, having come to the end of his political hope, grasped Jesus’ version of the kingdom.
There are undertones in this story. One remembers that Jesus, even in Mark, had told James and John that to sit on his right or his left when his kingdom came was not his to give. Those places were for those for whom it had been prepared (Mark 10:40). Was this an ironic anticipation that Jesus would be crucified between two criminals?
The synoptic gospels tell us that when Jesus appeared before Pilate, the crowd cried out for the release of Barabbas (the name means the son of the father). There is obviously a theological theme here, that Jesus took the place of all of us sons of the Father. But we learn that Barabbas got arrested for provoking or participating in an “insurrection” and committing murder (Luke 23:19).
We have no account of this insurrection in the gospels. But Seccombe suggests that the others crucified with Jesus took part in a recent violent, revolutionary outburst in Jerusalem.
Earlier in his book, Seccombe argued that Jesus’ ministry in Galilee was not colored by an atmosphere of acute social distress. Revolutionary episodes were pretty widely spaced. But, if there had been a recent disturbance in Jerusalem, that would explain why the atmosphere was so highly charged at that particular Passover.
I watched The Dovekeepers on CBS last night. This is a dramatization of the last stand of Jewish revolutionaries at Masada loosely based on the account of Josephus. (Josephus appears as a character in the story.) The rise of the Sicari (dagger men), a very violent version of the Zealots, was clearly portrayed in the show.
Were the criminals crucified with Jesus forerunners of the Sicari terrorists who became much more prominent later in the 1st century?
These accounts in the gospels invite some doubt. I know of no evidence that there really was a custom for the governor to release a prisoner over Passover. If there had been a violent attack on the Romans or their interests, it is hard to see Pilate releasing one of the instigators so readily. And there certainly seems to be a conflict between what Mark and Matthew say about the demeanor of the criminals toward Jesus and what Luke says.
Historically, I would see these stories as pointing to the reality that there were political revolutionaries (Social Justice Warriors who were actually warriors) in Jesus’ day and that the best historical case is that Jesus was not one of them or one of their supporters.