According to the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), sometime in his third year of healing and teaching in Galilee, after building the core of his movement, Jesus set his sights on the city of Jerusalem in Judea. The gospel writers each devoted one-quarter to one-third of their tales to the final week in the life of Jesus.
Jesus decided to go to Jerusalem to confront the Sadducees—the rich elites and powerful rulers of the people—at their symbolic seat of power. Jesus intended to interrupt the operations of the Jerusalem Temple with a vehement demonstration for economic justice, calling out the Sadducees for their complicity with the loss of peasant land and the downward spiral of poverty.
The Sadducees were a small group of affluent aristocratic families that formed the ruling upper class in Judea. They were enormously wealthy and lived in great luxury and splendor. Included in their ranks were the high priests of the Jerusalem Temple and a few families of great political influence. The chief priests lived off a Temple tax and the tithes collected from the peasants. By the first century, the lay nobility in Jerusalem had gained ownership of much of the arable land in Judea and other regions—the key to wealth in that agrarian economy. Together with the chief priests, they were in charge of the Temple treasury—essentially the national bank. Thus, they controlled the entire economy. Members of the elite Sadducee party also formed the Sanhedrin (san-HEE-drin), the high court and legislative body of the Jewish people.
The Sadducees were given a free hand to rule the local population as long as they were loyal to Rome, maintained order, and collected the tribute due to the emperor. They cooperated closely with the Roman procurator and kept a tight lid on any potential liberation movements in the country that might threaten the status quo and their own privileged positions. There is no question that the Temple was an instrument of the state as was the case in any other ancient temple-state where priest and king are allied.
On a Sunday morning—likely in the last week of March in 33 CE—Jesus descended the Mount of Olives and entered the city of Jerusalem in a noisy nonviolent demonstration that attracted much attention among the thousands of pilgrims who had gathered there for Passover.
Coming down the mountain ridge, Jesus rode a donkey as a contrast to the image of a conquering king riding on a charger. The crowds clearly recalled a passage from the prophet Zechariah:
Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim
and the warhorse from Jerusalem;
and the battle-bow shall be cut off,
and he shall command peace to the nations.
Jesus had timed his entry for the festival of Passover, a celebration that was rich in imagery of freedom from slavery, of resistance to empire and armies. To nervous Roman and Sadducee authorities, it was difficult to tell if Jesus was a peaceful prophet or a potential rebel leader. Passover was often the occasion of protests against Rome that could lead to potential violent revolution. The Festival of Unleavened Bread could be a tinderbox and authorities were watching events closely.
As Jesus entered the city from the east, the procurator of Judea—Pontius Pilate—entered the city from the west mounted on a warhorse at the head of imperial troops. Coming from his seat of power in Caesarea Maritima on the Mediterranean coast, Pilate was bringing additional reinforcements to the Antonio Fortress that rose high over the walls of the expansive Temple complex.
According to Mark’s gospel, Jesus was hailed by the crowd as a messianic king using leafy branches cut from date palm trees and strewn in his path.
Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna!”
Hosanna was originally a Hebrew cry for help meaning “save us now!” As an exclamation of adoration it became more of an expression of thanks—“our salvation has arrived!”
According to Luke, the disciples reinforced the kingly image by loudly singing a refrain based on Psalm 118:
Blessed is the king
who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven,
and glory in the highest heaven!
Jesus spent the day walking the Temple grounds and then retreated to the Mount of Olives until the following morning.
On Monday morning, Jesus re-entered Jerusalem and headed straight for the Temple, creating a public disturbance in the outermost Court of the Gentiles in full view of the Sadducees and the Roman garrison in the Antonia Fortress. Mark’s gospel recounts the episode this way:
And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold doves; and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. He was teaching and saying, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.”
On the surface, Jesus seems angered about commerce in the Temple precincts. Some interpreters think that Jesus disapproved of the Temple’s use of animal sacrifice. Still others believe that his demonstration was against the Temple as a symbol of the Jewish religion itself, as if Jesus was rejecting the religion he was raised in and was replacing it with a new one based on himself as the center of devotion. But most likely, this demonstration at the Temple was a demonstration against the people who managed it and benefited from it—the Sadducees,
In his inaugural statement in Nazareth, Jesus had quoted the prophet Isaiah who proclaimed a call for Jubilee—the forgiveness of peasant debt, release of indentured debt-prisoners, and the restoration of land that had been lost by peasant debtors during the past 50 years. Peasant indebtedness was the tool by which the wealthy acquired land for their large estates. Small farmers needed money, not crops, to pay the taxes collected by both temple and state. During times of drought or poor harvests, they were often forced to borrow from the wealthy elites who loaned money to them at interest, which in itself was a clear violation of the traditional Hebraic laws. Their patrimonial land was often given as collateral on these loans. When the farmers could not pay their debts, their property was taken from them. The debt records for all of these transactions were kept by the elites in the Jerusalem Temple, providing us with a clue to Jesus’ angry criticism of those who controlled the temple precincts when he entered it.
All of the objects of Jesus’ anger in his demonstration were legitimate operations in the huge Court of the Gentiles that surrounded the inner areas reserved for Israelite women, men, and priests alone. The Temple required bird and animal sellers on site so that pilgrims would be able to offer sacrifices that were ritually acceptable. Money changers were required to change foreign currencies into the approved coinage for payment of the temple tax. Jesus upset these operations by driving out those who were selling and buying and not allowing “anyone to carry anything through the temple.” But the real objects of his protest were not low level functionaries.
We are told that Jesus addressed the crowds in the Temple with these words:
Don’t the scriptures say, “My house is to be regarded as a house of prayer for all peoples”? But you have turned it into a hideout for crooks.
Jesus was not condemning the Temple as a place of robbery, but as a hideout or refuge for the thieves. A den of robbers is not where the robbers rob, it is the place where they count their ill-gotten gains. It was not a few money-changers or dove-sellers who were the target of Jesus anger, but the thieves, robbers, and brigands at the top levels of society who perpetuated a system of economic injustice, who robbed people of their land, their wealth, and their livelihoods. The governing Sadducees understood his message clearly.
The Sadducees had decided that they needed to shut Jesus up before he instigated a rebellion, either violent or nonviolent.
So the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the council, and said, “What are we to do? This man is performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.” But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all! You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.” . . . So from that day on they planned to put him to death.
Tuesday and Wednesday
On the following days, Jesus continued to teach in the Temple, probably in the shade of the extensive porticos that surrounded the complex. The Sadducees approached him on several occasions, first trying to catch him on a charge of sedition over the payment of taxes to Caesar, and then challenging him on the Pharisaic idea of the resurrection which the Sadducees disputed.
Jesus then commented on the scribes who worked in the Temple and throughout the villages of Judea and Galilee. Scribes had knowledge of the law and could draft legal documents—contracts for marriage, divorce, inheritance, mortgages, loans, the sale of land, and the like. Within earshot of the people, Jesus said to the disciples:
Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and love to be greeted with respect in the market-places, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets. They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.
According to Luke’s gospel, as Passover approached, Jesus gathered with his disciples in an upstairs room in Jerusalem.
When the hour came, he took his place at the table, and the apostles with him. He said to them, ‘I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I tell you, I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.’ Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he said, ‘Take this and divide it among yourselves; for I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.’ Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’
The dinner now followed. After dinner, a cup of wine is shared.
And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying, ‘This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.
After the dinner, Jesus and the disciples left Jerusalem and returned to the Mount of Olives.
Late Thursday night, Jesus was arrested in darkness and was brought to the house of the high priest. The gospels generally agree that Peter followed from a distance and waited to see what would happen. He sat down with people who had started a campfire outside of the chief priest’s residence. Accused of being a follower of Jesus, Peter denied it on three occasions.
When Jesus was brought before the chief priest on Friday morning, the Sadducees sought evidence for a capital crime. He was severely beaten, and summarily tried. The chief priest asked Jesus if he was the messiah—a long-foretold peasant warrior who would challenge imperial rule, foment a violent revolution, overthrow the established order, and proclaim a new kingdom. When brought before Pilate, Jesus was asked if he claimed to be king of the Jews. In both cases, Jesus turned the accusations back on the accusers and never answered directly. He was charged by the Sadducees with blasphemy, but Rome executed him for sedition. On the cross was a sign that listed his anti-government crime—king of the Jews. He was quickly taken to a place of execution.
It wasn’t the “Jews” who killed Jesus (although John’s gospel would lead you to believe this). He was murdered by a repressive government of religious and political conservatives backed by the most powerful military force in the world. The wealthy and powerful Sadducees knew that his teachings and his movement were a direct threat to their privileged way of life. So they eliminated him.
Jesus was crucified as a peasant insurrectionist alongside two violent revolutionaries. The cruelty of his execution—a slow asphyxiation—revealed what imperial authorities do to one who attempts to subvert the domination system. For those who witnessed this event, the cross was not a symbol of divine sacrifice or the taking on of unmerited suffering—it was the price of resistance to the social and economic devastation of empire.
The male disciples had deserted Jesus in fear that they might suffer a similar fate, and hid behind closed doors. Only a few women remained near the cross to witness his death. Six agonizing hours after his crucifixion began, on a spring afternoon in the year 33 CE, Jesus died. His heart stopped beating and his brainwave activity ceased. The spirit of life that had animated his body at birth, departed.
The biblical tradition says that the body was then removed from the cross and placed in a tomb, sealed with a large stone. But, the Roman practice of crucifixion did not usually allow for burial. The corpses of lower class criminals or revolutionaries were not buried. Instead, the naked bodies of crucified victims were left hanging on the cross, to rot as they were exposed to the elements, and be eaten by carrion—a meal for crows and hungry dogs. In any event—whether he was left on the cross or buried in a tomb—we simply do not know what eventually became of Jesus’ corpse.
 Luke 10:1–9
 Luke 14:25–33
 Nolan, Jesus Before Christianity, 27. Also, Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus, 147–232.
 Zechariah 9:9–10
 Mark 11:9
 Mark 11:15–17
 Exodus 22:25, Leviticus 25:37, Deuteronomy 23:19–20
 Mark 11:17 (Scholars Version)
 John 11:47–53
 Luke 20: 46–47
 The gospels disagree about what happened this evening. Only in Luke’s gospel is the Passover meal mentioned. John’s gospel focuses on Jesus washing the feet of his disciples instead.
 Luke 22: 14–20
 Jordan and Lee, The Substance of Faith, 29.