Jesus as a Security Risk: Intelligence and Repression in the Roman Empire
Intelligence personnel tend to have a view of events that differs from historians, even other people in government, and certainly from the general public. They are often accused of being realpolitikers or just plain cynical. Although crude jokes are made about the lack of morality in the intel game (the world’s second oldest profession — with far fewer morals than the first, etc.), the fact is that these are men and women serving their country. Their goal is to keep their own country safe, or in a colonial situation, to keep control of their country’s possessions. Insurgencies are their worst nightmare. They have to provide intelligence to decision-makers in a timely manner in what may turn out to be life and death situations. Like historians they never have as much evidence as they would like, but unlike historians they don’t get to ruminate on issues for a long time with 20-20 hindsight.
The story of Passion Week is one Christians all think they know, but when looked at through the eyes of a fictional chief of station in Jerusalem, it takes on very different characteristics. The scene is Jerusalem in the first century of our era. Rome had taken over Judaea and turned it into a province under the direction of a procurator in 6 CE after a fierce nationalistic resistance led by Judas of Gamala. Rome put down the revolt, but Judaea remained an unhappy place. It contained many clandestine groups fighting Roman oppression including a group of assassins called sicarii who struck at Roman collaborators. The general Roman practice was to strike back at any Jewish terrorist activity, no matter how minor, with sharply oppressive military violence. In fact, they retaliated even against non-violent protestors.
Into this political maelstrom came a carpenter from Galilee. If you were Pontius Pilate’s intelligence chief, you would have started a file on Jesus immediately, and here’s why: Stories had started to arrive from Galilee in the north about a street preacher, a miracle worker and healer, named Jesus.
He drew large crowds, and the Romans did not like crowds because they could get out of hand and lead to civil disturbance. Had there been an agent in the crowd at the Sermon on the Mount he would have heard messages like “The meek shall inherit the earth” and “The first will come last and the last will come first,” which to Roman ears sounded highly subversive. He was called to his preaching by John the Baptist, another troublemaker who was later put to death by Herod Antipas, ruler of Galilee, who knew a little something about security. Jesus caused so much trouble in Galilee that Herod had him expelled from the province, and now he was heading for Jerusalem. Had there been GPS systems back then, there might be a flashing dot on a map moving south.
Jesus was not alone. The men who accompanied Jesus had names that suggested revolutionary leanings: Simon the Zealot, Judas the Sicarius, Simon the Freedom Fighter, James and John, the Sons of Thunder. And now they were heading towards Jerusalem at the most politically volatile time of year, Passover — a time when the Romans reinforced their garrison there lest the crowds become unruly. The governor himself came to Jerusalem, soldiers patrolled the roofs of the porticoes of the Temple so they could be on the look-out for troublemakers. Known agitators were watched.
Did Jesus walk into Jerusalem quietly as most pilgrims did? No, he made a public entrance, re-enacting a passage from the Old Testament, Zechariah 9:9, describing the Messiah who would ride in on a donkey with people shouting “Hosanna!” Palms leaves were thrown before him, and he was called “son of David” and “King.” The problem with this staged scenario was that the Romans did not recognize any king but their own emperor. To call yourself Messiah, (meshiach in Hebrew) meant you were claiming the title of the rightfully anointed King of the Jews. Publicly claiming this title was an act of sedition all by itself. If the crowd had been prepped ahead of time for his arrival, and if they were well aware of the symbolism, then this was a conscious political act, not a misinterpretation or sheer coincidence. There would most certainly be consequences.
With tens of thousands of pilgrims in the city for the holiday, any kind of demonstration could cause civil unrest and possibly a major riot in the city. Both Jewish and Roman authorities would now be watching Jesus’ movements. Did he lie low after his grand entrance? No, he did anything but. He went to the Temple, overturned the moneychangers’ tables sending coins flying and people running. He made statements about the destruction of the Temple. An attack on the Temple, be it verbal or physical, could not be ignored. He now had the attention of the Temple police and the nearby Roman garrison. Why they did not seize him immediately is unclear; perhaps he was spirited away by sympathizers.
Jesus went underground. He had to arrange for a place that he and his followers could have their Passover meal, but it had to be done at a safe house. Rather than tell all the disciples the place, he made special arrangements by himself and then told only two of his followers. The rest did not know until the very day, on a “need to know” basis. He gave two men very round-about directions on how to find the place. They were told to find a man carrying a pitcher of water — a rather unusual sight since carrying water was usually a woman’s job.
They were instructed to follow this man, and when he turned into a house they were to ask him “where the master’s room was reserved.” Then they were to tell the rest only later in the evening of the location of the meal. Jesus had to avoid arrest before holding his last supper. The meal was for men only. Perhaps he expected violence and did not want his mother or the other female followers to be put in harm’s way.
As we all know, there was a double agent in the room. Judas left the meal to betray Jesus to the Romans. Perhaps he was working for them all along. What he betrayed to the Romans was the route Jesus would take to leave the city after the meal, through the Garden of Gethsemane. And since Jesus was from Galilee and not well known in Jerusalem, the Romans would need someone to identify him by sight to the Roman authorities. Judas accomplished this by kissing Jesus to mark him as the one. Then the authorities put Jesus under arrest, but not without some violence. At least some of Jesus’ followers were armed, but in the end they fled and Jesus was led off to the elder judges, known as the Sanhedrin.
Jesus’ spectacles and acts of obvious provocation certainly spelled trouble for the Jewish authorities. The Sanhedrin were responsible for handing over any troublemakers to the Roman authorities. As collaborators with the Romans, they were in a precarious position. They did not like betraying Jews to the occupiers, but on the other hand, if they did nothing and left the Romans to take action, the army might strike back against the entire population of the city. There was no religious charge against Jesus; claiming to be Messiah was not heresy. Had there been a charge of heresy, the Sanhedrin could have had Jesus stoned, but that body had no jurisdiction in criminal cases. Only the Romans, as military occupiers, had the authority to execute. So whether or not there was an actual “trial” before the Sanhedrin, the Jewish leaders immediately turned Jesus over to the Roman authorities to avoid trouble.
The trial on the charge of sedition was short and pretty much followed the standard form for Roman provincial trials. It was held in the morning, the prisoner was softened up with a beating, he appeared before the governor, Pontius Pilate, and was found guilty. He was sentenced to death — the same punishment given to all insurgents. He was crucified with a sign on top of the cross saying “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” as a warning to anyone else with similar aspirations. The message would have been clear to any passerby: recognize the Roman emperor as the only king, or die trying to replace him with someone else.
The Roman reaction to these situations was typical, swift and decisive. Josephus mentions 40 different men who claimed to be the Jewish messiah around the time of Jesus. Every single one of them was killed either in a military action or by crucifixion. Writers have been trying ever since to “soften” our view of Pilate and his actions, but this is a man who was fired from his position 10 years later for excessive cruelty. One must ask how cruel you have to be to get this distinction from the Roman administration! If Pilate’s superiors found any fault in his administration of Judaea, it was not weakness or lack of patriotism. If anything, he may have played a much more aggressive role in the trial of Jesus than the Gospels suggest.
So was there an insurrection? Care was taken in the writing of the Gospels to edit out any suggestion that Jesus was a revolutionary, or that there was an insurrection going on, but there are hints. In Mark 15:7, it is revealed that a man named Barabbas had been guilty of a murder in “the uprising” as had the other two men crucified on either side of Jesus. Perhaps Jesus was taken in during the same sweep of “the usual suspects.” Some scholars have pushed the evidence to an extreme. They see Jesus as a political opponent to the Roman regime, who used armed force to raise an abortive insurrection. To them, the Gospels are nothing other than a huge cover-up of a perfectly simple story. The feeding of the 5,000 becomes an abortive insurrection. Jesus’ counsel to “render unto Caesar” was a disguised call not to pay tribute. The Cleansing of the Temple was, in reality, a violent occupation by Jesus and his men, perhaps the very civil discord for which Barabbas had been arrested. Fortunately, we need not stretch the evidence this far to justify the Roman reaction in our version of the story.
Roman intelligence had done its job correctly. They had detected a public figure stirring up the people; they had watched him create public disturbances and preach things contrary to Rome’s interests. He was rounded up and eliminated. They did not wait to see how things would play out if they left him on the streets. Scholars will continue to argue on the precise nature and meaning of the Triumphal Entry, the Cleansing of the Temple, the disciple’s swords and the arrest of Jesus, the Barabbas episode, and the trial or trials. No consensus is ever likely to be reached based on the available evidence. But the attitude of Jesus to the Temple, as well as his sayings concerning social injustice would have had to bring him, sooner or later, into conflict with the authorities whose task it was to maintain order and to whom every national movement appeared suspicious. Witnesses may have included individuals willing to sell information to the Romans. In a poverty stricken province like Judaea, it would not have been hard to find what local sources called “a mouth willing to talk.” Reports from various agents may have been confused or contradicting as happens with all such reports. Agents may have exaggerated the accounts to make themselves seem more important. Some of the intelligence may have been useful, some not. Whether or not Jesus actually claimed to be king, intelligence may have reported only that people were saying he did. What matters in this case is not the literal truth, but rather how the situation appeared to the Roman administration based on the intelligence it had at hand at the time.
From the point of view of Rome’s immediate security needs, Pilate had Jesus crucified for a justifiable reason: He was a security risk. Pilate was acting in Rome’s self-interest. In the context of the first century occupation of Palestine, this meant nipping any revolutionary action in the bud. Like many decision-makers, Pilate made a judgment on the basis of the intelligence he had, even if that intelligence was fragmentary. Whether the threat to Roman security was real or imagined is, in some ways, irrelevant. There may have been an ongoing intelligence operation gathering information on a planned revolt (by Barabbas?) running concurrent with Jesus’ actions, and Jesus simply got caught in the net. The governor of Judaea made a political and military decision for the protection of his province. Like many modern decision-makers, Pilate has since become the victim of Monday morning quarterbacks who second guess his judgment. He was not in an enviable position becoming known as the administrator who had crucified the man who would become the mythologized center of a new world religion. Neither Pilate, not any other Roman administrator, even with the best intelligence, could have known that their decision would have such worldwide repercussions, starting with the Roman Empire.
Col. Rose Mary Sheldon holds the Henry King Burgwyn, Jr. Chair in Military History at the Virginia Military Institute. Her special field of study is ancient intelligence history. She has written more than three dozen articles on aspects of ancient intelligence and is the author of several books, most recently Ambush: Surprise Attack in Ancient Greek Warfare (Frontline Books, 2012). For more detail and sourcing on this subject, please refer to her 1998 article in Small Wars & Insurgences, “Jesus as a security risk.”