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Throughout the crucifixion, it’s Jesus who remains in charge

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Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do – St Luke 23:34

WHO are they for whom Jesus pleads forgiveness as he is nailed to the Cross? They are first of all the Roman soldiers, the execution squad. A regular troop of the occupying force, they would have been cheesed off and angry about being detailed for punishment duties in an unruly outlying province of the empire – and on the eve of the Passover, a local holiday when the natives get very stroppy. Jerusalem would have been full of devout pilgrims, but there would have been tourist parties out for a good time. Plenty of noise and binge drinking with more than enough aggro to make the Temple police nervous.

The soldiers really don’t know what they’re doing – not much about it, anyhow. What they do know is that crucifixion is the standard Roman punishment for sedition and rebellion. Galilee and the area around Jerusalem swarmed with rebels, uppity nationalists, political and religious zealots who wanted the occupying Roman power to leave. It was the Troops Out movement of the day. The soldiers would regard them as terrorists. Very likely at least one of the soldiers nailing Jesus to the Cross would have seen one of his mates killed by a rebel sniper. So he wouldn’t have much sympathy for Jesus.

Crucifixions were a regular punishment, but they were not meted out ad lib. For any crucifixion to go ahead, the centurion had to obtain a death warrant from the Governor – in this case Pontius Pilate, who was in charge of Judea from AD 26 to 36.

Father, forgive them – it is likely that Jesus spoke those words in the local language, Aramaic. It’s doubtful whether the soldiers even understood what he was saying.

On the hill with the shape of a skull in the dull noontide above the restless city, with smoke pouring forth relentlessly from the foul rubbish tip, called in Hebrew Gehenna.

The gospels tell us that it was the Scribes, Pharisees and Sadducees, leaders of the Jews, who conspired to have Jesus put to death because they envied him. Caiaphas was the Greek version of the name of the High Priest, called in Hebrew Yosef Bar Kayafa – Joseph, the son of Kayafa. He was appointed by the Roman Procurator Valerius Gratus sometime between AD 17 and AD 37, handpicked to do the Romans’ bidding. Because Caiaphas was hand-in-glove with the occupying power, many of the local Jews hated him.

As High Priest, Caiaphas was president of the religious court called the Sanhedrin. This was the court which convicted Jesus of blasphemy. Caiaphas knew that the Romans were not interested in the Jewish blasphemy laws so, in order to have Jesus crucified, they went to Pilate and told him that Jesus styled himself Messiah – a king – and was therefore a rebel against Rome. They said, This man is no friend of Caesar’s. Then, sycophantically, We have no king but Caesar.

Incidentally, Caiaphas’s term in office was recorded by the first-century Jewish historian Josephus. In 1990, two miles south of Jerusalem, twelve ossuaries (boxes containing bones) were discovered in the family tomb of a Caiaphas. One ossuary was inscribed with the full name in Aramaic of ‘Joseph, son of Caiaphas’, and a second with simply the family name of ‘Caiaphas’. After examination, the bones were declared likely to be the genuine remains of Caiaphas and they were interred on the Mount of Olives.

The whole story is teeming with terrible ironies. Jesus the Son of God is convicted of blasphemy. This occurs in the court of the High Priest who alone is permitted to enter the Holy of Holies in the Temple once a year on the feast of Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement. Whereas, Christ himself is the true High Priest who, by his death, enters the Holy of Holies to bring us salvation.

No wonder he said, They know not what they do.

Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. The them are us, because we fail to see that Christ has to die for our sins. What we didn’t know is that it requires the death of God to bring about the life of man. So, the sin of crucifying Christ is part of what the Fathers of the early church called Felix culpa – the happy fault – the fault on our part which, through God’s activity, saves us.

Here is the extreme revelation of Our Lord’s character: even as he was being nailed to the Cross, he thought not about himself, but of us. And here is the first glimpse of something remarkable: the whole gospel record of the crucifixion – the torture, mutilation and death of Jesus – but throughout it is Jesus who retains the initiative.

The Author of Life is commanding even in his death.

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Peter Mullen
Peter Mullen is a Church of England clergyman, writer and broadcaster

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