As is well known, the death of Jesus was a problem. How do you explain that your elevated hero ended up dead on a Roman cross? Or, as Paul famously put it, “we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to gentiles.”
Trying to reconstruct in any detail the historical realities which may (or may not) have generated the story of the Passion is extremely difficult. Even if we side-stepped the problem of how the information about a trial or trials might have been acquired, the death of Jesus was to undergo relentless interpretation and reinterpretation. It might be possible to argue that Jesus did something in the Temple that worried certain people at a potentially tense festival of Passover (celebrating, of course, the escape from imperial bondage). This, it might be argued, led to his execution for — what the authorities at least claimed — sedition. Perhaps, but even these things are difficult to establish with any degree of certainty.
But at the same time we might embrace the role of relentless interpretation and reinterpretation in historical reconstruction, even when ostensibly discussing the historical Jesus. For instance, once the potentially controversial idea of the death of the elevated figure was known then how was this to be interpreted? One way (and one that the earliest followers obviously chose) was the idea that, borrowing from long-established ideas of martyrdom (e.g. the celebrated Maccabean martyrs), Jesus’ death had some sort of redemptive function. Much, of course, has been written on this.
Other interpretations were happening too. Part of the problem was that Jesus’ death involved questions of masculinity, as Coleen Conway has shown in detail. Jesus could, after all, be understood as another emasculated, passive victim at the hands of the Empire. There are indications of this sort of understanding in Mark’s Gospel. Others were less prepared to present Jesus so emasculated; Paul, for instance, constructs Jesus in more manly and heroic terms. And we should not necessarily succumb to the old temptation of layering these interpretations, as if the emasculated construction came first, followed later by the masculinizing of Jesus’ death. This theoretically could have happened, and indeed may have happened for all we know. Nevertheless, different, perhaps contradictory constructions could have co-existed from the moment that Jesus’s crucifixion became clear. This sort of scenario has to be taken as a serious possibility given that so much interpretation of Jesus’ death was happening so soon and among different audiences.
Indeed, writers could hold seemingly contradictory ideas together without it being much of a problem. Mark’s Gospel, after all, can simultaneously present Jesus in more heroic and domineering language. The problems of gender construction and controlling problematic gender allegations would have been a problem in Galilee from around the time Jesus was understood to be active. The building and rebuilding of Tiberias and Sepphoris would have changed perceptions of traditional patterns of households and led to displacement, as Josephus indicates in the case of Tiberias. Halvor Moxnes argues that this would have led to challenges to traditional understandings of masculinity in Galilee. For instance, it might be thought that a son should be heading a household rather than wandering around Galilee. Did this happen in the case of the historical Jesus? Again, it is possible but we would be on firmer ground by thinking more in terms of this as a social history of ideas or tradition rather than trying to prove whether such ideas do or do not go back to Jesus.
Problematic as all such gender chaos may have been for the Jesus movement, it could not escape the ideologies associated with imperialism, whether they related to gender or class. The tradition in Jesus’ name may have presented him in terms of an alternative family but it could not escape the language of traditional family, with, if anything, the most domineering father figure imaginable. Jesus may have been understood as a victim of Roman imperial violence but it was likewise understood that a new imperial order would soon be established on earth, which would wipe out Rome’s dominance and in which Jesus would play a domineering role and the right people would benefit. Certainly there were promises of peace and prosperity but all dictatorships make such promises, do they not?