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Affluent Christian Investor | October 3, 2023

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How The Financial Panic Of 33 AD Helped Cause The Crucifixion

Why was Christ crucified? The Christian conversation about that has tended to default to the theological intent of the atonement. In other words, Christ was crucified to save us from our sins, to take our punishment, to save mankind. Those are matters of the telos, the purpose of the crucifixion, in the eyes of God.

But other actors (Scribes, Priests, Herodians, Romans) had different purposes (money, power, survival). The obvious historical facts about their narrow intents are not in conflict with the theological truths about God’s broad intent. In other words, the Gospels clearly indicate that the Sadducees at least partly wanted Jesus killed because He had become a threat to their economic interest. But this in no way contradicts what Jesus intended.

In other words, all of the little plans and their role in the death of Jesus do not need to be ignored in order for us to keep believing in traditional theology. If I say that Jesus died because crucifixion is fatal and tends to lead to either asphyxiation or heart failure, I’m not denying that Jesus died because his death was planned from before the foundation of the world. Those truths are on different levels. I mention this because when I talk to people about the historical background and economic dimensions of the Gospels, there is often a person or two who reacts negatively, because they think this level of explanation is intended to replace the doctrinal level of explanations. It would seem obvious to me that these are not in conflict. But for some reason a small number of people view political, historical, material, and economic analysis as though it is an attempt to replace theological doctrine.

But I would argue the contrary is true: that doctrines such as the incarnation (that God took on human nature) almost require us to see allelements of human nature operating in the death of Jesus. He put on human nature, not just a human body (the view that he only took on a human body but not a full human mind is the heresy known as Apollinarism). Both the Athanasian Creed and the Chalcedonian Creed teach that the Son took on both human body and mind. Here’s a quote from the latter:

“We, then, following the holy Fathers, all with one consent, teach men to confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man, of a reasonable (rational) soul and body; consubstantial (coessential) with the Father according to the Godhead, and consubstantial with us according to the Manhood; in all things like unto us, without sin…”

From The Creed of Chalcedon

Jesus took on a reasonable, that is rational (thinking) soul. He is ‘in all things like unto us’ except without sin. This means he takes on every non-sinful aspect of human life. He took on a body, he took on a mind, he took on a family, he took on a village, he took on a nation, he took on its history, he took on an empire, he took on a world. He took on all the social, economic, and political relationships that humans have. To assert this is not heresy, but to deny it may well be.

Let’s look at the crucifixion, through these eyes. The Gospels clearly teach that Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor of Judea who presided over the trial of Jesus, made several attempts to release Him.

“15 Now at the feast the governor was accustomed to release for the multitude any one prisoner whom they wanted.

16 And they were holding at that time a notorious prisoner, called Barabbas.

17 When therefore they were gathered together, Pilate said to them, “Whom do you want me to release for you? Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?”

18 For he knew that because of envy they had delivered Him up.

19 And while he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent to him, saying, “Have nothing to do with that righteous Man; for last night I suffered greatly in a dream because of Him.”

20 But the chief priests and the elders persuaded the multitudes to ask for Barabbas, and to put Jesus to death.

21 But the governor answered and said to them, “Which of the two do you want me to release for you?” And they said, “Barabbas.”

22 Pilate said to them, “Then what shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ?” They all said, “Let Him be crucified!”

23 And he said, “Why, what evil has He done?” But they kept shouting all the more, saying, “Let Him be crucified!”

24 And when Pilate saw that he was accomplishing nothing, but rather that a riot was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the multitude, saying, “I am innocent of this Man’s blood; see to that yourselves.”

25 And all the people answered and said, “His blood be on us and on our children!”

26 Then he released Barabbas for them; but after having Jesus scourged, he delivered Him to be crucified.”

(Matt. 27:15-26 NAS)

Pilate’s final decision to hand Jesus over to death was made after a fairly lengthy process of negotiation with the mob. Pilate found Jesus to be innocent and the passages in question portray him as reluctant to have Jesus crucified. But Pilate had a far greater incentive than justice to want to release the innocent Jesus: the choice before the people was not simply whether to release Jesus or not – it was to release Jesus or Barabbas. But Barabbas was a brigand, a revolutionary thief/murderer. The NAS rightly labels him an ‘insurrectionist’ who participated in the ‘insurrection’.

“6 Now at the feast he used to release for them any one prisoner whom they requested.

7 And the man named Barabbas had been imprisoned with the insurrectionists who had committed murder in the insurrection.”

(Mk. 15:6-7 NAS)

The Greek words are derivations of the word ‘stasis’ from which we get the word ‘state’. Barabbas was a member of a movement that wanted to overturn one state (the one led by Pilate) and replace it with another. Furthermore, according to Matthew, he was ‘notorious’.

In modern parlance, Barabbas was a famous terrorist. He was an enemy of Roman order, which means he was Pilate’s enemy and Pilate was his. Pilate had very strong incentives to crucify Barabbas rather than Jesus. Yet he spared the former and killed the latter.  If Pilate did not want to kill Jesus, why did he end up doing just that?

It is not likely that Pilate did this out of respect for the sensibilities of Jewish leadership. Pilate was not of the kinder, gentler school of occupation. Pilate had a reputation for anti-Semitism: Philo of Alexandria believed that he and his political sponsor, Sejanus, had actually planned the elimination of the Jewish race.

“160 for he knew immediately after his death that the accusations which had been brought against the Jews who were dwelling in Rome were false calumnies, inventions of Sejanus, who was desirous to destroy our nation, which he knew alone, or above all others, was likely to oppose his unholy counsels and actions in defense of the emperor, who was in great danger of being attacked, in violation of all treaties and of all honesty.”

(Legat. 1:160 PHE)

Pilate had a thorough reputation for being hard on the Jews:

“299 XXXVIII. “Moreover, I have it in my power to relate one act of ambition on his part, though I suffered an infinite number of evils when he was alive; but nevertheless the truth is considered dear, and much to be honored by you.  Pilate was one of the emperor’s lieutenants, having been appointed governor of Judaea.  He, not more with the object of doing honor to Tiberius than with that of vexing the multitude, dedicated some gilt shields in the palace of Herod, in the holy city; which had no form nor any other forbidden thing represented on them except some necessary inscription, which mentioned these two facts, the name of the person who had placed them there, and the person in whose honor they were so placed there.

300 But when the multitude heard what had been done, and when the circumstance became notorious, then the people, putting forward the four sons of the king, who were in no respect inferior to the kings themselves, in fortune or in rank, and his other descendants, and those magistrates who were among them at the time, entreated him to alter and to rectify the innovation which he had committed in respect of the shields; and not to make any alteration in their national customs, which had hitherto been preserved without any interruption, without being in the least degree changed by any king or emperor.”

(Legat. 1:299-300 PHE)

According to Eusebius (italics mine):

“…Sejanus, who was then in great favor with Tiberius, had made every effort to destroy the whole nation of the Jews from the foundation, and that in Pontius Pilate under whom the crimes were committed against our Savior, having attempted everything contrary to what was lawful among the Jews respecting the Temple at Jerusalem, which was then yet standing, excited them to the greatest tumults.”


The ancient sources agree that Pilate was a hard-liner, hostile to Jewish interests, and the protégé of a known anti-semite, he capitulated to political pressure from a group of people for whom he had no respect and whom he previously had intentionally submitted to acts of unnecessary humiliation. Why did he capitulate that time? The answer is found in the details of Pilate’s dialogue with the mob:

“…Pilate made efforts to release Him [Jesus, ed.] , but the Jews cried out, saying, “If you release this Man, you are no friend of Caesar; everyone who makes himself out to be a king opposes Caesar.”

13 When Pilate therefore heard these words, he brought Jesus out, and sat down on the judgment seat at a place called The Pavement, but in Hebrew, Gabbatha.

14 Now it was the day of preparation for the Passover; it was about the sixth hour. And he said to the Jews, “Behold, your King!”

15 They therefore cried out, “Away with Him, away with Him, crucify Him!” Pilate said to them, “Shall I crucify your King?” The chief priests answered, “We have no king but Caesar.””

16 So he then delivered Him to them to be crucified.”

(Jn. 19:12-16 NAS)

The key to what is going on is in the phrase “friend of Caesar”. Amicus Caesaris is technical language for loyal members of the administration, such as knights, counselors, Senators, et cetera. (Source)

The mob was clearly making a threat against Pilate. They are threatening to label him as disloyal to the Emperor. However, the locals had complained to the Emperor about Pilate before:

“301 But when he steadfastly refused this petition (for he was a man of a very inflexible disposition, and very merciless as well as very obstinate), they cried out: ‘Do not cause a sedition; do not make war upon us; do not destroy the peace which exists.  The honor of the emperor is not identical with dishonor to the ancient laws; let it not be to you a pretense for heaping insult on our nation.  Tiberius is not desirous that any of our laws or customs shall be destroyed.  And if you yourself say that he is, show us either some command from him, or some letter, or something of the kind, that we, who have been sent to you as ambassadors, may cease to trouble you, and may address our supplications to your master.’

“302 But this last sentence exasperated him in the greatest possible degree, as he feared lest they might in reality go on an embassy to the emperor, and might impeach him with respect to other particulars of his government, in respect of his corruption, and his acts of insolence, and his rapine, and his habit of insulting people, and his cruelty, and his continual murders of people untried and uncondemned, and his never ending, and gratuitous, and most grievous inhumanity.”

(Legat. 1:301-302 PHE)

But Pilate continued to act as a brutal dictator, unmoved by the entreaties or threats of the people, though Pilate did remove the offending Pagan emblems, (Philo and Josephus disagree as to why, the former pointing to a command of the Emperor and the latter pointing to the persuasion of the people)  Pilate remained oppressive towards his subject people:

“59 But they threw themselves upon the ground, and laid their necks bare, and said they would take their death very willingly, rather than the wisdom of their laws should be transgressed; upon which Pilate was deeply affected with their firm resolution to keep their laws inviolable, and presently commanded the images to be carried back from Jerusalem to Caesarea.

60 But Pilate undertook to bring an aqueduct Jerusalem, and did it with the sacred money, and took the water of the stream from the distance of twenty-five miles. However, the Jews {a} were not pleased with what had been done about this water; and many ten thousands of the people got together, and made a clamour against him, and insisted that he should stop that design. Some of them, also, used reproaches, and abused the man, as crowds of such people usually do.

61 So he outfitted a great number of his soldiers in their clothes, who carried daggers under their garments, and sent them to a place where they might surround them. So he bade the Jews himself go away; but they boldly casting reproaches upon him, he gave the soldiers that signal which had been beforehand agreed on;

62 who laid upon them much greater blows than Pilate had commanded them, and equally punished those who were tumultuous, and those who were not, nor did they spare them in the least; and since the people were unarmed, and were caught by men prepared for what they were about to do, there were a great number of them slain by this means, and others of them ran away wounded; and thus an end was put to this sedition.”

(Ant. 18:59-62 JOE)

So for whatever reason, the earlier threats of the people to play the ‘amicus Caesaris‘ card did not change Pilate’s attitude. So why did he respond to that threat now?

[The argument I’m about to make depends on using the traditional date for the crucifixion of Jesus, which I do accept. If Jesus was, as conservative scholars have tended to hold historically, in 33 AD, then a financial crisis which began in 32 AD and crested in 33, could (and I will show, likely did) influence it. If however, the crucifixion occurred in 31 AD (the other year in which the date of the Passover is consistent with the Gospel accounts), then the connection would need to be reinterpreted, as the crisis would have come the year after the crucifixion.]

We’ve shown that under normal circumstances, Pontius Pilate would be very unlikely to submit to the demands of the mob and kill Jesus rather than Barabbas. And yet Pilate did capitulate to the crowds. Why?

The answer lies in a sudden and dangerous shift in the political landscape. Pilate was likely appointed by and served under his political ally, the Roman consul, Sejanus. In 31 AD it was discovered that he was plotting an act of treason and as a result was executed. After this Sejanus’ family and then friends were then persecuted, including his allies in the financial community. This triggered an empire-wide financial crisis that seems to have originated in the region of Israel, in Tyre, where Jewish coinage was minted.

Economic historian, Otto Lightner, author of A History of Business Depressions, summarizes the ancient sources, Tacitus and Suetonius:

“The year 33 A. D. was full of events in the ancient
world. It marked two disturbances as the outgrowth of
the mob spirit. The first was in the remote province of
Judea, where one Christus was tried before Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, dead and buried. The other event was the
great Roman panic which shook the empire from end to
end. The consternation accompanying the latter died
down and it was soon forgotten, but the murmurings of the
former swept down the centuries until, bursting into flames,
it enveloped the world.

A description of the panic reads like one of our own
times : The important firm of Seuthes & Son, of Alexandria,
was facing difficulties because of the loss of three richly
laden spice ships in a Red Sea storm, followed by a fall in
the value of ostrich feathers and ivory. About the same
time the great house of Malchus & Co., of Tyre, with
branches at Antioch and Ephesus, suddenly became bank-
rupt as a result of a strike among their Phoenician work-
men and the embezzlements of a freedman manager…

The Via Sacra was the Wall Street of Rome, and this thoroughfare was teeming with excited merchants. These two firms looked to
other bankers for aid, the same as is done in modern days,
but unfortunately at this time an outbreak had occurred
among the semi-civilized people of North Gaul, where
a great deal of Roman capital had been invested, and a
moratorium had been declared by the government on ac-
count of the disturbed conditions. Other bankers, fearing
the suspended conditions, refused to aid the first two houses
and this augmented the crisis.

Money was tight for another reason: agriculture had
been on a decline for some years and Tiberius had pro-
claimed that one-third of every senator’s fortune must be
invested in lands within the province of Italy in order to
recoup their agricultural production…”


Why did Tiberius suddenly impose such onerous local real estate mandates (an interesting combination of two all-too-modern economic errors – real estate subsidies and protectionism) on investors? He did it to punish the political allies of the traitor, Sejanus. Sejanus had risen to the office of Consul, essentially a proxy for Emperor Tiberias in Rome while Tiberias languished in debauchery and semi-retirement on the island of Capri. Tiberias learned that Sejanus was plotting a coup and had Sejanus executed. Tiberius’ loyalists began a campaign of retribution against those allied with Sejanus. The financial community was allied with the disgraced and decapitated former Consul and they were subjected to these onerous government mandates. This triggered a financial collapse (in ways similar to the ways in which onerous politically-motivated government mandates triggered our own financial crisis of 2008). The empire was driven into panic.

“The panic was fast spreading throughout all the prov-
ince of Rome and the civilized world. News came of the
failure of the great Corinthian bank, Leucippus’ Sons, fol-
lowed within a few days by a strong banking house in Car-
thage. By this time all the surviving banks on the Via
Sacra had suspended payment to the depositors. Two banks
in Lyons next were obliged to suspend; likewise, another in
Byzantium. From all provincial towns creditors ran to
bankers and debtors with cries of keen distress only to be
met with an answer of failure or bankruptcy.

The legal rate of interest in Rome was then 12 per cent
and this rose beyond bounds. The praetor’s court was filled
with creditors demanding the auctioning of the debtors’
property and slaves; valuable villas were sold for trifles, and

many men who were reputed to be rich and of large fortune
were reduced to pauperism. This condition existed not
only in Rome, but throughout the empire.

Gracchus, the praetor, who saw the calamity threatening
the very foundation of all the commerce and industry of the
empire, dispatched a message to the emperor, Tiberius, in
his villa at Capri. The merchants waited breathlessly for
four days until the courier returned. The Senate assem-
bled quickly while a vast throng, slaves and millionaires,
elbow to elbow, waited in the forum outside for tidings of
the emperor’s action.”

If ordinary Romans were panicked, the financial class was terrified. This is the same financial class which was allied to Sejanus. They were part of a power bloc to which Pontius Pilate was allied. Pilate had lost his political patron who was executed on the charge of treason. Sejanus was revealed to be no friend of Caesar, non amicus Caesaris. Pilate’s political network was politically ostracized and quite literally bankrupted. That faction was left with no financial capital and therefore no political capital. In a political and economic environment such as that, the threat from the Jewish leaders took on a potency that it had never had before. This time, if local leaders sent a message to Tiberias complaining that Pilate was disloyal, it could come to a Caesar who had just executed Pilate’s ally in Rome. Those complaints would be about a Pilate whose friends had just been reduced from oligarchs to supplicants. Further, the threat came at a time of universal financial anxiety. Remember how things felt in 2008-2009? Was the economy going to collapse? How low could it go? Was this the end?

In such an environment, the usually resolute Pilate was much more easily cajoled into participating in the scapegoating of Jesus of Nazareth. People act differently during financial panics. Wars are more likely to start, so are persecutions against minorities.  Historical research indicates a correlation between currency crises and witch burnings, for example. Economic boom and bust cycles have powerful social effects which economists are often blind to. The Augustan building boom, financed through the public treasure, gave way to Tiberian ‘austerity’, and then to a deflationary bust, which increased social anxiety and raised the political risk perception of elites, including Pontius Pilate.

It’s easy to understand how the powers of the region would collectively decide to scapegoat a popular grass-roots leader with legitimate claims to the throne. Remember: Jesus was (reasonably) seen as posing a threat to the corrupt special interests at the heart of the Judean economy, such as tax farmers and money changers. Political elites had a good thing going (for them at least) in which they could live off of forcible extraction of taxes and tithes (which, through the addition of force of law had become just another kind of tax) and Jesus had exposed the nature of that system.

The fact is that financial anxiety is an extremely powerful force. It may seem strange to us that financial anxiety was a serious factor in leading to the crucifixion, but it would not seem strange to Jesus at all, who had already warned in repeated parables and economic statements about the evil nature of the worship of money and power.

In response to the financial crisis which spread from the Middle East and across the world, and which helped trigger the crucifixion of Jesus, Rome embraced a bail-out strategy:

“Tiberius was a wise ruler and solved the problem with his
usual good sense. He suspended temporarily the processes
of debt and distributed 100,000,000 sesterces from the im-
perial treasury to the solvent bankers to be loaned to needy
debtors without interest for three years. Following this
action the panic in Alexandria, Carthage and Corinth

And so, under conditions very similar to those existing in
the Twentieth Century, business of the Roman Empire re-
sumed its normal aspect and the Via Sacra went its normal
way, the same as Wall Street has done on many an occasion
after a storm has passed. How similar was the business
of the world in that year of the crucifixion of Christ to
that of the present time !”

According to one commentator, this bailout was done through the establishment of Rome’s first central bank. Archeological data show that not long after this currency began a series of debasements.

Click here to view the chart.

Neither the scapegoating of Jesus, nor the infusion of vast sums of easy money purchased permanent civil peace. Within a generation, Jerusalem would lay in ruins, and Rome would undergo perhaps the worst crisis in its history other than the one which ended it. Both the destruction of Jerusalem and the near destruction of Rome occurred because political elites failed to heed the teachings of Jesus. Instead they both in their different ways decided to kick the can down the road and ignore the long-term consequences of their policies on the eventual end game… Topics for future treatments in this space.


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