The four New Testament Gospels each tell how Jesus’ life led to his death on a Roman cross. Although the historicity of this event is supported by Christian, Jewish, and Roman sources, the New Testament and the Christian tradition have generally been more concerned with interpreting Jesus’ death than with proving that it took place.
The Gospel of Luke’s interpretation of Jesus’ suffering and death (together known as his “passion”) focuses on the political and theological implications of Jesus’ death. In particular, Luke zeroes in on Jesus’ nonviolent opposition to Roman rule, his practice of universal love (even of one’s enemy), and his promise of salvation. Luke’s narrative differs in several ways from the other Gospels’. For example, Luke emphasizes the political charges brought against Jesus (
Did you know…?
- According to Luke, Jesus was crucified as a potential threat to Rome.
- Luke portrays Jerusalem’s Jewish leadership as instrumental in Jesus’ execution.
- Luke does not name Pharisees as participants in the events leading to Jesus’ death.
- Luke’s Gospel says that Jesus anticipated and interpreted his violent death.
- Only in Luke does Jesus ask God to forgive those responsible for Jesus’ death.
- For Luke, Jesus’ death was integral to God’s plan to bring salvation to the world.
How was Jesus executed?
The Roman practice of crucifixion was barbaric, but not necessarily involving bloody brutality (as depicted, for example, in Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion of the Christ). Indeed, the Romans wanted to leave the victim alive on the cross as long as possible. The idea was to provide the general population with a striking display of the fate awaiting those found guilty of resisting Roman rule. The Roman orator Quintillion (circa 35-90s C.E.) observed that, “whenever we crucify the guilty, the most crowded roads are chosen, where most people can see and be moved by this fear. For penalties relate not so much to retribution as to their exemplary effect” (Declamationes 274). From a Roman perspective, the horror of crucifixion was the horror of social shame. Executed publicly, situated along well-trafficked routes, devoid of clothing, denied burial, and left to be eaten by birds and beasts, victims of crucifixion were subject to vicious ridicule.
Why was Jesus executed?
Rome did not expose its own citizens to this form of heinous punishment but reserved crucifixion especially for those who resisted imperial rule. Luke explains Jesus’ death in ways that show Jesus must have been regarded as an enemy of the state. First, a sign was placed above Jesus’ head, giving the reason for his execution: “This is the King of the Jews” (
This is hardly the whole story, however. Earlier in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus anticipated his death as a way of fulfilling God’s saving purpose (for example,
Why was Jesus executed? For Luke, the answer is a complex one that involves Roman interests, hostility toward Jesus from Jerusalem’s Jewish leaders, and God’s own plan to bring salvation.