According to the gospels, the main charge against Jesus was that he claimed to be the king of the Jews. The Roman soldiers were mocking this idea when they dressed him in a purple robe and pressed a crown of thorns onto his head. This was also the charge written on the sign at the top of the cross.
But the charge was false. The enemies of Jesus had concocted it by twisting the meaning of the old Jewish prophesies about the coming of the Messiah.
According to those prophesies, the Messiah was a great future leader who would appear during a period of extreme desperation and crisis known as the End Times (or Last Days). Assisted by God, he would overthrow all evil oppressors and set up a perfect kingdom on earth, where all the righteous people could live forever in peace and joy.
During the years when Jesus was growing up, many people believed that the End Times had already arrived, and that the Messiah would soon appear. This belief was especially strong in Galilee, the region of Palestine where Jesus lived. And the belief grew even stronger when John the Baptist began proclaiming that all the prophesies about the Messiah would soon be fulfilled.
But those prophesies could be interpreted in different ways. Some scriptures, such as Isaiah 53, depict the Messiah as a devout non-violent person who will prepare the way for the new kingdom by sacrificing himself to pay for humankind's sins. Other scriptures describe him as a future descendent of King David, and depict the new kingdom as a purified version of David's original kingdom. These references to King David caused many common people to envision the Messiah mainly as a military leader, whose first action would be to organize a revolt against the hated Romans and drive them out of the country.
The Romans were fully aware of the discontent in the country and the hope for a liberator. More riots and uprisings took place in Palestine than in any other part of their empire. Because of the continual unrest, they were always on the lookout for potential rebel leaders.
When Jesus began his ministry, he didn't publicly call himself the Messiah. He probably realized that it would be dangerous to do so, because even though he clearly didn't plan any type of military action, the authorities could have misunderstood his intentions and arrested him anyway. An example of his cautiousness can be found at Matthew 16:20, which says that "he warned his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Christ." (The word Christ is the English equivalent of the Aramaic word for Messiah.)
But despite his public silence about his plans, his teachings and miraculous cures soon began to attract large crowds, and within a short time many people in Galilee were thinking that he might be the Messiah. As a result, when he and his disciples set out for Jerusalem to attend the annual Passover festival, they were accompanied on the trip by a large group of followers. It isn't clear how big this procession eventually became, because other groups of festival-goers may have joined it along the way. But by the time it reached Jericho it was apparently large enough to attract considerable attention, for many people in the city heard that it was coming and gathered along the road to watch Jesus go by.
According to Luke 19:11, during the last stage of the trip many of the travelers were expecting the new perfect Kingdom of God to be created at any moment. This is an indication of the high level of excitement within the group at this time. This excitement was sustained all the way to the end of the trip, so that when Jesus reached Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, a large exuberant crowd celebrated his entry into the city.
Shortly after he arrived, he got so angry at the dishonest merchants in the temple courtyard that he launched a physical attack against them. A few biblical scholars, looking for hidden meanings, have argued that he was actually trying to trigger an uprising in the city. Others have suggested that he expected God to step in and create the new kingdom by divine intervention. But the gospels indicate that his main concern during this period was to prepare his disciples for his coming departure.
Christians often blame the Jews for his death. But this blame should probably be limited to the Jewish religious leaders, who had managed to keep some of their power by cooperating with the Romans. These leaders saw the crowds that gathered around Jesus, and they knew that many people were calling him the Messiah. Mark 11:18 says "they feared him, because the whole crowd was amazed at his teaching." But their ultimate fear probably went deeper, because if growing numbers of people believed that Jesus was the Messiah, he could eventually become a serious threat to their authority.
Mark 12:12 says that these religious leaders initially hesitated to arrest Jesus because "they were afraid of the crowd." But at some point they decided that they had to get rid of him. With Judas Iscariot's help, they were able to seize him late at night when there was no crowd to defend him. After interrogating him until early morning, they turned him over to the Romans and accused him of claiming to be a king.
Under Roman law, anyone who claimed to be a king was guilty of rebellion against the emperor. The normal punishment was crucifixion.
But the crucifixion couldn't take place until the Roman governor Pontius Pilate gave the final order for it, and the gospels indicate that he was reluctant to do so. Apparently he realized that Jesus was innocent. Actually, he had the power to release Jesus if he really wanted to. But in his role as governor he often needed the collaboration of the Jewish leaders. And in the end, he was more concerned with placating them than with saving Jesus.
Thus the gospels put nearly all of the blame for the crucifixion on the Jewish leaders. But some scholars think that just as much blame, or even more, should be placed on the Romans. In fact John 18:3 says that Roman soldiers took part in the initial arrest of Jesus, suggesting that the Romans were involved in the matter almost from the beginning. Their military commanders always kept a close watch on the city, especially during festivals. They could have easily mistaken Jesus for a political agitator, or even a potential rebel leader. And they were usually quick to react to even a minor threat.
When the Jewish leaders wanted to kill someone, they usually sent their henchmen to gather a mob and stone the victim to death. Crucifixion was a Roman method of punishment, and it is a basic fact that Roman soldiers, not Jews, put Jesus on the cross.
For these reasons, some scholars think that the Romans were the real culprits, but that the gospel writers tried to cover this up and blame the Jewish leaders instead. The gospels were written during a period when Christians were trying to avoid trouble with the Romans, and putting the blame on them could have created friction. It would have been much safer to blame the Jews.
But other scholars, while they agree that the Romans were partly responsible, still think that the Jewish leaders should get most of the blame. These leaders probably had a much greater fear of Jesus than the Romans did. But they wouldn't have wanted the common people to blame them for his death. To try to avoid this, they could have coaxed the Romans into believing that Jesus was a trouble-maker, and let them get rid of him.
A compromise view is that both groups, Jewish leaders and Romans, played major roles. But unless new evidence is uncovered, there will probably always be disagreement about who should get the most blame.
In any case, the crucifixion can be explained as a natural result of the prevailing political circumstances in Palestine. However, many Christians believe that it was actually pre-ordained beforehand, as part of a divine plan in which Jesus had to suffer and die as a sacrifice to pay for everyone's sins.
Note: For more information about the crucifixion, go to this article about Why Jesus Was Crucified