QUESTION 1: Are the accounts of the arrest, trial, and crucifixion of Jesus contained in the Bible history remembered or prophecy historicized? Put another way, do the accounts strive to accurately describe history or do they seek to use the life of Jesus to advance a religious movement?
ANSWER: The Biblical accounts of the arrest, trial, and crucifixion of Jesus are to some degree history remembered and to some degree prophecy historicized--the disagreement among historians concerns the percentage of the account that might be attributed to each. Writing in the New York Times in 1994, for example, John Crossan, author of Who Killed Jesus? compared his conclusion to that of Ray Brown, author of The Death of the Messiah: "Ray Brown is 80 percent in the direction of history remembered. I'm 80 percent in the opposite direction."
Some elements of the Biblical accounts seem to have been added to increase the persuasive power of the passion story. For example, four accounts (Mark, Matthew, Luke, and Peter) describe a three-hour period of darkness falling over the land beginning at noon on the day of crucifixion of Jesus. Luke refers specifically to a solar eclipse that lasted until three in the afternoon. It is possible to calculate backwards the dates and locations of solar eclipses, and it is clear that no eclipse occurred in Jerusalem at the time of the crucifixion. It is also clear from other sources that solar eclipses were, in the first-century, associated with human events of great significance. Josephus, Plutarch, and Pliny the Elder each report, for example, that midday darkness followed the assassination of Julius Caesar on March 15, 44 B.C.E.--although, again, it did not. Thus, a writer seeking to impress readers that the crucifixion of Jesus was the fulfillment of a historic prophesy would have been tempted to add the fictional element of a solar eclipse to his account.
On the other hand, there is confirmation from non-Christian sources (especially Josephus and Tacitus) of central elements of the passion story. These historians support the conclusion that Jesus was an important leader of a first-century religious movement, that he was sentenced to death by Pontius Pilate, and that the movement he began survived his death.
Determining which events described in the Bible really occurred--and which did not--is difficult. The best that can be said with respect to many events is either that most historians believe the event (such as Jesus participating in an incident at the Temple shortly before his arrest or Jesus appearing before the Sanhedrin after his arrest) to have occurred or that most historians believe the event (such Pilate's offering the crowd a choice as to which of two prisoners, Jesus or Barabbas, to spare) not to have occurred.
QUESTION 2: Why is Mark's account of the trial of Jesus given special attention by historians?
ANSWER: Mark's account is given the most attention by historians because it is widely believed that Mark was written, in the 60s C.E., before the other gospel accounts. (As with the other Gospels, Mark is not the account of a single eyewitness, but rather consists of a collection of narrative units handed down in the Church's early history. Nonetheless, the primary author or editor--possibly John Mark--intended his account to serve a clear theological purpose.) The other three passion narratives of the Bible are seen as being derived largely, though not exclusively, from Mark's. Matthew and Luke--together with Mark called the synoptic gospels--are seen as especially dependent upon Mark's account. John, writing two or three decades after Mark, is believed to have drawn more from a second--unknown, possibly Pharisaic--source.
Form critics argue that the passion narratives ought to be interpreted in consideration of the community for which each was written. For example, a narrative written in Rome for a Roman audience might be inclined to present the actions of Pilate more favorably than an account written for a different audience. Mark is believed to have written for an audience located outside the Jewish homeland, possibly Rome or Syria, that had recently suffered persecution. He seems concerned at various points in his passion narrative with criticizing certain viewpoints advocated within the Christian community of his audience.
Scholars generally agree that in addition to working with Mark's account, Matthew and Luke drew material from a now lost, early source (probably written in the 50s C.E.) that is often given the name "Q Gospel." The Q Gospel, probably composed in Galilee, is believed to have consisted largely of sayings of Jesus. It is not believed to have included a passion narrative or any stories concerning miracles. The Q Gospel is embedded in the Gospel of Thomas, remnants of which were found south of Cairo between 1897 and 1904. The Gospel of Thomas emphasized the authority of James, the brother of Jesus, who was stoned to death in 62 C.E.
Finally, some scholars have taken a special interest in the Gospel of Peter (as with Thomas, not found in the New Testament). Peter contains elements of the passion narrative not found in any of the four Biblical accounts, suggesting that Peter--the first references to which show up in the late 100s in western Syria--may have drawn from an original, independent source.
To trial scholars such as Raymond Brown and John Crossan, the keys to understanding what really happened in the trial of Jesus are Mark and Peter.
QUESTION 3: What criteria do scholars use to decide what portions of the gospel passion accounts describe real historical events and what portions of the accounts have been put in to add to the gospel's persuasive power?
ANSWER: Three criteria have gained popularity among scholars. The first criterion is called "ecclesiastical embarrassment." Scholars argue that gospel writers would not manufacture any report that would have proven embarrassing to first-century Christians. A second criterion is "multiple attestation": reports that turn up is several separate strands of early Christian traditions (written for distinct Christian communities) are more likely to be true than those found only in a single strand. The third criterion is "dissimilarity": reports that diverge from normal customs, practices, and teachings of the day are unlikely to have been made up, and can therefore be attributed to the distinctive personality and teachings of Jesus. (This third criterion is especially contentious, because it runs the risk of giving less weight to Jesus's teachings that conform to his Jewish background.)
In addition to these three criteria, scholars rely (when available) on independent reports from non-Christian writers, including Roman and Jewish historians. Confirmation of Biblical reports by these independent sources is usually considered the most powerful evidence of authenticity.
QUESTION 4: Who was Jesus?
ANSWER: It depends upon who you ask.
To a Christian fundamentalist, or anyone who believes that the Bible was not only divinely inspired but literally true, the answer is clear: the Jesus of the Bible is the Christ of Faith. Jesus was the Son of God who walked on water, multiplied loaves of bread, cured the ill, and showed through his teachings and death on the cross the path to salvation.
Most scholars, however, believe aspects of the life of Jesus were either incorrectly remembered or fictionalized by gospel writers. The Jesus of history these scholars find varies with their degree of skepticism about gospel accuracy and their own understanding of first-century political and religious life.
Some scholars have linked Jesus to the Zealot movement--a Jewish nationalist movement--that arose in Galilee during Jesus' childhood. These scholars note that Simon (nicknamed "the Terrorist"), one of the twelve disciples of Jesus, was a member of this armed resistance movement aimed at overthrowing Roman control in Palestine. Some scholars have even suggested that Jesus may have been executed for participating in an armed revolt in Jerusalem during Passover Week.
John Crossan, one of the most careful of the Jesus scholars--and a Christian himself--, rejects the association of Jesus with any armed resistance movement. Crossan understands Jesus as "a peasant revolutionary, but a radically social rather than an aggressively military one, with both a vision and program for a Kingdom of God." Crossan sees Jesus as the proponent, in a land of privilege and systemic injustice, of an alternative lifestyle--one that emphasized fundamental egalitarianism.
Bart Ehrman, another well-known Jesus scholar and author of Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millenium, places Jesus in a line of prophets predicting the imminent end of time that appeared in Palestine in response to the discrimination and cruelty of the terrible first-century.
QUESTION 5: Why was Jesus arrested?
ANSWER: It is quite clear Jesus was arrested for something he did at the Temple in Jerusalem during the Passover festival. Scholars' guesses as to the something Jesus did at the Temple have included participating in an armed rebellion, engaging in a symbolic protest of commercialism, predicting the end of the Temple, teaching revolutionary ideas, and proclaiming himself to be the Messiah.
The gospel accounts of the Bible describe Jesus attacking money-changers and pigeon-sellers on the Temple grounds in an apparent protest of the commercialism that had come to surround Temple worship. Matthew reports Jesus complaining, "My house shall be called a house of prayer, but you are making it a den of robbers." Scholars have raised questions about this account. Bart Ehrman, for example, points out that Jesus never criticized the institution's sacrificial practices and that animal-selling and money-changing would be necessary to support the practices. Jews often made very long trips--from Egypt and elsewhere--to the Temple and could hardly be expected to "load a lamb on his shoulders and start walking, especially since the sacrificial animals had to be completely free from injury and blemish." Animals clearly needed to be provided in the vicinity of the Temple. Moreover, the money-changing was to allow the conversion of coins bearing images of the emperor into Tyrian silver coins, the only form of coin acceptable for donations. Jesus, contends Ehrman, would surely find this "all to the good." Also, any large-scale disturbance of the sort reported in the gospel accounts would almost certainly have brought an immediate response from--and probable arrest by--armed Temple police.
Ehrman offers the interesting theory that Jesus "as a country fellow from rural Galilee who preached against wealth and power" may have found the opulence of the Temple** so upsetting that "the place made his blood boil on principle." The peasant revolutionary may have responded with some sort of a small-scale symbolic protest and a prediction amount the ultimate downfall of the Temple. If anyone were to speak out--especially in the Temple during the Passover festival-- against the corruption and opulence of the Temple, and begin to draw a crowd of supporters, it certainly would have caught the attention of religious authorities. Caiaphas, the high priest of the Temple, might well have been expected to respond with an order to Temple police to track down and arrest the troublemaker.
**The Temple was one of the grandest buildings of its time. It covered an area the size twenty-five football fields, was as high as a ten-story building. According to one source, it took 200 men just to close the Temple's immense gates each evening. The Temple was constructed of the best materials available. Major portions of it were overlaid with gold. The Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E.
QUESTION 6: Did Jesus face trial before the Sanhedrin?
ANSWER: The synoptic gospel accounts (Mark, Matthew, and Luke) report that Jesus was brought first to face charges before Jewish authorities. Whether the proceeding--probably before the Sanhedrin, functioning as a court--is better described as a trial or as a preliminary investigation is a matter of debate among scholars. The fact that Jewish leaders played at least some role in the execution of Jesus is confirmed by Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, who wrote in the first-century: "Pilate sentenced him to die on the cross, having been urged to do so by the noblest of our citizens."
Mark indicates that Jesus faced the charge of blasphemy, but nothing in Mark indicates that Jesus said anything that would actually constitute blasphemy under Jewish law. Moreover, Mark's account is questionable in that had a trial before the Sanhedrin taken place as he described, it most likely would have been illegal under Jewish law. Unless Jewish law of the time differed from what we know of it a century later, the trial could not have taken place at night and would have required two separate hearings.
The most likely scenario seems to be that Jesus faced some initial questioning by Caiaphas and other Jewish leaders, probably concerning his actions and statements at the Temple, and that he was then handed over to Pontius Pilate for punishment.
QUESTION 7: Did Pilate want Jesus executed?
ANSWER: What happened at the trial of Jesus before Pilate--if there even was anything that could be called a trial--is largely a mystery. No followers of Jesus were believed to have been present at any such trial, so the dialogues recorded in gospel accounts (which range from the few words in Mark to a more extensive dialogue between Pilate and Jesus in John's version) are almost certainly fictitious.
Nonetheless, the accounts reveal a determined effort to portray Pilate in at least an ambiguous--if not sympathetic--light. For example, in Mark, after Pilate asks Jesus about "the many charges [the chief priests] bring against you," Jesus makes "no further answer" and "Pilate wondered." Obviously, Mark had no way of getting into Pilate's head and knowing whether he "wondered" or not--but the wording serves his purpose of suggesting that Pilate had serious doubts about the guilt of Jesus. Later, Mark reinforces that suggestion when he writes, "For he perceived that it was out of envy that the chief priests had delivered him up." How would Mark know that? Finally, Mark makes Pilates doubts explicit by having him almost beg the crowd to release Jesus over the (almost certainly invented) prisoner Barabbas. Pilate asks the crowd to explain their thirst for the blood of Jesus: "Why, what evil has he done?" Pilate allows the crucifixion of Jesus, in the gospel accounts, not out of a conviction that Jesus did anything wrong, but only to "satisfy the crowd." If there were still any doubt about Pilate's doubt, the gospels report that after authorizing his execution, he "washes his hands." The accounts so transparently attempt to present the chief priests--and not Pilate--as blameworthy that there is little doubt that Mark was attempting to present a story that would minimize the risk of condemnation by Roman authorities and maximize his prospects for winning converts to Christianity from among the Romans in his audience.
Pilate was a powerful figure. If he had reservations about killing Jesus, he certainly could have taken him back to Caesaria for trial or referred his case back to the Sanhedrin for possible punishment under Jewish, not Roman, law. The fact that he did not suggests that Pilate was pleased to accede to the urgings of Jewish leaders and crucify Jesus.
The fact of crucifixion establishes that Jesus was executed as an offender of Roman law. Had his punishment been for violation of Jewish law--for example, blasphemy--Jesus would have been stoned, the punishment prescribed under Jewish law.
The exact nature of the charge against Jesus is not known. Had he been charged with sedition and asked about his movement, his silence would be easy to understand: he would be reluctant to reveal details and expose others to prosecution. Some historians have argued that Jesus was a Jewish nationalist who might have supported an armed insurrection against Rome. Others--citing the pacifism of his teachings--find that suggestion implausible and argue that his messianic claims, coupled with the subversive act against the Temple that led to his arrest, would have been more than enough reason for Pilate to support his crucifixion--Pilate being anxious to preserve his relations with Caiaphas and other Jewish leaders. John Crossan, in Who Killed Jesus?, even questions whether any trial at all took place. Crossan argues that for "a peasant nobody like Jesus" there might have been "standing agreements and orders" concerning subversive action during the Passover that "would beget instant punishment with immediate crucifixion as public warning and deterrent."
QUESTION 8: Did Pilate really give the crowd a chance to spare the life of Jesus?
ANSWER: Historians generally agree that the story of Pilate offering the crowd a choice of releasing Barabbas or Jesus (see Mark 15:6-15) is fiction. What we know about Pilate tells us that he was a master of "brutal crowd-control." It is hard to reconcile history's description of Pilate as a tough, no-nonsense administrator with the picture presented in the Gospels of Pilate meekly giving in--against his better judgment--to a noisy crowd.
Moreover, there is no non-Christian reference to the bizarre practice of giving complete amnesty to a prisoner--any prisoner chosen by a crowd--on festival days. Such a practice (Luke suggests that it is an express law; John describes it as a custom) would run counter to administrative wisdom. Alan Watson, author of The Trial of Jesus, notes also that the "inherently improbable" practice "is not evidenced for any other province or, within Judea, for any other procurator." Haim Cohn, author of The Trial and Death of Jesus, concludes that "the incongruities of this story are so many that no historicity can be attributed to it."
According to John Crossan, author of Who Killed Jesus?, Mark most likely invented Barabbas to emphasize two points he wanted to make. He sought to compare the passive, egalitarian revolutionism of Jesus with the militant revolutionism of the Zealots. Through the story of Pilate freeing Barabbas, Mark suggests that "Jewish authorities chose the (religiously) wrong person to release" and that "Roman authorities chose the (politically) wrong person to crucify."
QUESTION 9: What earlier writings might have influenced the Gospel writers' passion accounts?
ANSWER: Numerous scholars have pointed out that many of the events described in the canonical accounts of the arrest, trial, and execution of Jesus have parallels in earlier Jewish writings, including several of the books now included in the Old Testament. In particular, passages in the Old Testament that speak to signs that might attend the coming of the Messiah seem to have influenced gospel writers.
John Crossan describes Psalm 22, for example, as "a prophetic quarry" for gospel writers. Psalm 22:16 describes "a company of evil-doers that surround me." This, Crossan contends, led Mark in his account of the crucifixion to position two criminals on crosses, one to Jesus' left and one to his right. Accounts in Mark and Matthew of passers-by "shaking their heads" and "taunting" Jesus are also seen as having their source in Psalm 22:6-7: "I am...not human; scorned by others, and despised by the people. All who see me mock at me; they make mouths at me, they shake their heads." Mark and Luke's descriptions of the Roman soldiers "casting lots" and "dividing his clothes among them" might have come from Psalm 22:18, which says: "They divide my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots." Dozens of other such examples could be given.
QUESTION 10: When did the transformation of the Jesus of history into the Christ of faith begin?
ANSWER: Paul, writing about two decades after the death of Jesus, is the earliest author known to have discussed Jesus' resurrection. His writings make clear that among the first persons to understand that Jesus had been raised from the dead by God were some of his closest followers. These followers were mostly "apocalyptically minded Jews" who would have interpreted such an ascension as heralding the imminent coming of God and the destruction of earthly evil. Stories about Jesus quickly spread throughout small communities of the eastern Mediterranean.
No one played a greater role in the transformation of the Jesus of history into the Christ of faith than the apostle Paul. Although Paul never met Jesus during his life (he claimed to have seen Jesus after his crucifixion)--and knew relatively little about him, Paul's interpretations of Jesus' teachings greatly influenced later Christian writers. Paul is seen by some scholars to have "substituted for the historical Jesus a heavenly redeemer on the model of similar figures in the religions of the Greco-Roman world."
Paul headed the Gentile branch of Christianity, while Jesus' brother, James, led the Jewish branch of Christianity. With the destruction of the Temple and the Jerusalem branch by Roman forces in 70 C.E., the Jewish Christianity was effectively extinguished, leaving Paul's Gentile branch to flourish and spread. The rest, as they say, is history.