Tony Jones offered a challenge way back at the beginning of Lent to answer the question “Why a Crucifixion?” That is to say, “Why was Jesus of Nazareth crucified?” and “What meaning does this event have?”. This turns out to be awfully difficult to discuss because people get pretty entrenched in their interpretations. Some people have a favorite gospel that heavily influences the way they see things. Some think one or more of the gospel accounts is a precise newspaper-like historical record of events. Others claim that the historicity of the event is irrelevant. Interpretations of what Jesus being crucified means can sometimes differentiate one denomination from another, so claiming a particular interpretation can be the same as saying “I’m a Southern Baptist/Reformed Church in America member/etc.”
To me the answer to the question Why was Jesus crucified? is so obvious it can be hard for me to remember that this is in dispute. Jesus was crucified because he was a revolutionary leader who mounted a significant challenge to the Roman Empire. Jesus asserted, either personally or at least by his followers, that he was king. There could only be one Jewish king and he was Herod who had been appointed by Rome. Jesus was called Savior of the World and Son of God both of which are titles given to Caesar. Jesus rode into Jerusalem in the way of a king victorious after battle thus claiming power that is only given to the leader of the Jewish people. Finally, during Passover, the festival where the Jewish people celebrated their defeat of an empire that oppressed them, Jesus effectively stopped worship in the Temple by preventing people from purchasing animals to sacrifice and forced the Jewish people to reconsider the accommodations they had made to Roman occupation.
All of these things made Jesus guilty of an insurrection against the Roman Empire. The fact that he led a revolutionary group rather than doing all of this on his own made him more of a significant threat. The Romans dealt with Jesus as they did so many others who attempted to overthrow Roman occupation. They crucified him. The final act that precipitated his crucifixion was likely one of the more public ones in Jerusalem, such as disrupting worship at the Temple during a festival when tensions between the Jews and Romans were already high. If Jesus had been perceived as leading a violent revolutionary group then the Romans would have had them all executed at the same time. Instead, they seem to have seen his group as nonviolent revolutionaries and we know this because they only killed Jesus, at least initially.
The question “What meaning does Jesus’ death have?” is far more difficult. Like so many more recent leaders who have been killed, Jesus was killed for standing up for his beliefs and being seen as a significant threat to those in power. Jesus could have turned back from his message and recanted his challenge, but then who would remember him today. Jesus could have chosen violent methods to achieve his goals, but, again, his message would have been lost. Jesus could have challenged the Romans in more indirect ways, but would he have been able to make the same impact?
The one thing truly clear about Jesus’ death is that it was not the end. The movement Jesus started continued. Jesus’ followers continued to work to make a difference in the world. Rome eventually fell, but Jesus’ message is still heard to this day.