The purpose of this essay is to provide an overview of the many issues and questions surrounding the historicity of the trial(s) of Jesus Christ as presented in the Gospels.
We will focus here only on what is directly relevant to the arrest and trial of Jesus, beginning with (marginally) the intentions of the Jewish leaders and ending with the leading away to the Crucifixion. We will exclude, except where tangently related:
- The Last Supper;
- The motivations of Judas;
- The fate of Judas after the arrest;
- Events in the Garden of Gethsemane prior to the arrest of Jesus; and,
- Peter's denial of Christ.
The Gospels, of course, are our primary sources for the trials of Jesus. An immediate objection raised by Skeptics is a simple one - where did the evangelists get their information from?
The Apostles were an obvious source: John is noted to have accompanied Peter. But even so, that still leaves the question of sources open. Let's run down the possible answers and objections to them:
a) Jesus Himself filled the disciples in after the Resurrection.
We consider this to be the most likely answer. Jesus was with the disciples for 40 days after the Resurrection - plenty of time to relate the sundry details of what happened once the more theological stuff was out of the way. And certainly, Peter would want to know what his Lord had been put through as he was waiting anxiously in the courtyard.
More specifically, there is good reason to say that the events of the trial probably were told to the disciples by Jesus -- it would serve perfectly as a vehicle for His teaching. He was always describing what would happen to Him, and He could very easily have used the historical details as the "I told you so...", in a way analogous to the discussion with Cleopas et al on the Road to Emmaus.
Jesus was big on the fulfillment of prophecy -- cf. John 18.15 -- AS IT HAPPENED, before it happened, and after it happened. In point of fact, the accounts of the Passion, the earliest materials of the gospels probably recorded, contain much of this material. This pattern of narrative-interspersed-with-theological-explication was adopted by the evangelists as a METHOD, and hence could easily be seen as deriving from Jesus as paradigm-teacher.
If Jesus related His Passion in this way, it would certainly explain how the disciples picked up that practice. And the Passion story, as the earliest, is the closest to the mouth of Jesus, and thus the least susceptible to embellishment.
Also, remember that Jesus was consistently explaining His words and actions to the disciples in private afterwards -- so why would He not do it in this case? To simply dismiss the possibility of Jesus filling in His disciples on the trial afterwards as "fruits that naive faith can yield" [Fric.CMJ, 196] is presumptuous at best and circular reasoning at the worst. Certainly within the Christian paradigm, this cannot be dismissed as a possibility, if indeed as a likelihood.
However, even allowing that Jesus might not have given such an account to his disciples - which we would note as the best, and most parsimonious, explanation - other witnesses were possible, who might also have added to the mix:
b) An account of events could also have come from Sanhedrin delegates friendly to Jesus - at a minimum, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus.
There may also have been other members of the Sanhedrin who became well-disposed towards Christianity, but these two were really all that were needed. And for the trial before Pilate - well, if Joseph had the will to ask for Jesus' body, why not also the will to ask what happened from Pilate himself?
Skeptics say little against this possibility. Carmichael [Carm.DJ, 34; see also Carm.UCO, 87] can only offer in reply that:
...only a pious apologist could resort to this; it was never thought of by the Gospel writers themselves.
Fricke [Fric.CMJ, 106], only slightly more realistic in his viewpoint, admits to the "possibility" of using Joseph as a source, but objects that Joseph is:
...mentioned only in connection with Jesus' burial. He is never cited as a reporter on the trial (which would have been a key role) and has no significant part in the Gospels.
Carmichael's commentary against the "pious" aside, I hardly see any reason here to deny that Joseph or Nicodemus could have been sources of information. Ancient writers saw no obligation to reveal their sources; hence we would hardly expect Matthew or Luke to say, "I got this information from Joseph of Arimathea."
It would be a mistake to do as Carmichael and Fricke have done, and presume 20th-century standards of source citation upon first-century writers. I would maintain that Nicodemus provided a great deal of information for the Gospel of John.
Some may suggest that it is an argument from silence either way as to whether Joe and Nick were at the trial; but actually, since it is indicated by Luke that Joseph did not agree with the course of action taken by the Sanhedrin, it is likely either that he WAS present, or else had someone reporting things to him.
c) Minor sources.
We may suggest any number of people as sources for tidbits of information. Jeremias [Jerem.NTT, 267] suggests gossip from observers of the trials as a source. Brooks [Broo.Mk, 241] suggests servants or assistants of the Sanhedrin. Luke 8:3 notes that Joanna, wife of the manager of Herod's household, was in Jesus' group; she may well have had access to certain information. Other possibilities include guards and other prisoners (perhaps Barabbas himself?), attendants of Pilate, and priests who converted after the resurrection (Acts 6:7, 15:5).
Wherever the data came from, however, what is more important is: Do the trial scenes reflect reality adequately, which would support the idea that eyewitnesses are in some measure responsible for the Gospel accounts? Here we get into even meatier issues, and we will enter upon the particulars shortly.
It is a habit of some critics to treat the Gospel accounts with an overly critical eye, and make an much over the fact that they do not reveal the information that they desire. Carmichael [Carm.DJ, 40; Carm.UCO, 92] objects to "the extreme barrenness of the information given" and the "lack of precision" in the trial accounts. It is not so barren, however, that he is unwilling to postulate a "Jesus as revolutionist" scenario based on some rather wild speculations.
Fricke [Fric.CMJ, 178] meanwhile, goes to the opposite extreme, saying of the many "errors" he finds in the trial accounts:
(The evangelists) expected their public to be unfamiliar with the Jewish law and thus be prepared to accept the misrepresentation unreservedly.
I find this highly ironic. Fricke is either saying here that a) the evangelists WERE familiar with Jewish law, but filed false reports of it nonetheless because they knew their audience was too stupid to know better; or, b) they were NOT familiar with Jewish law, and neither were their readers; and in either case, no one caught them at it.
For a), one wonders, if they were indeed familiar with Jewish law, why they did not give us reports that were "correct". As for b), Fricke is obviously unaware of the fact that Jerusalem/Judean and Diaspora Jews were among those whom the NT was addressed to - and at least some of those were certainly familiar with the subtler precepts of Jewish law, especially considering the emphasis placed in Judaism upon learning specifics of interpretation. They would be suspicious at once if they could not make sense out of even the bare-bones account of the Sanhedrin action.
But the question remains: Is it truly realistic and reasonable to expect the kind of certitude that Carmichael implicitly demands from the Gospel writers? Quite frankly, no. As part of our answer, it will be necessary to briefly recap some of the material we have used in an article relative to Gospel authorship - for understanding WHO wrote the trial accounts is a key to understanding WHY they were written as they were.
We presume, based on data presented in the just-linked article, that the following represents the authorship and purpose of each Gospel, other than as ancient biographies (bioi):
Matthew - by the Apostle and tax collector; formulated as a teaching gospel
Mark - by the secretary of Peter; based on Peter's preaching
Luke - by the companion of Paul; intended as a historical document
John - by the Apostle; a kerygmatic and missionary presentation
Now with these things in mind, it should be asked: Which of these accounts would be expect to be done best, according to the standards of historical reportage? Obviously, the answer is Luke: As he has been reckoned worthy as a historian, we expect the most accurate representation of chronology from him.
On the other hand, Matthew and Mark - one being a teaching aid, the other being a reporting of the teaching and preaching of Peter - we may well expect to take illustrative liberties with their information.
And this, note well, is not counter to the notion of inerrancy; for understanding the purposes of these writers is essential to understanding why what they report is NOT in error, where Skeptics presume them to be. Relative to the trial accounts, let's look at an example.
Many critics assume that Matthew and Mark report a nighttime meeting of the Sanhedrin and from there make certain deductions about the historicity of the report itself (see below). Let's look at an extended sample from Matthew to understand why:
Those who had arrested Jesus took him to Caiaphas, the high priest, where the teachers of the law and the elders had assembled. But Peter followed him at a distance, right up to the courtyard of the high priest. He entered and sat down with the guards to see the outcome. The chief priests and the whole Sanhedrin were looking for false evidence against Jesus so that they could put him to death. But they did not find any, though many false witnesses came forward. Finally two came forward and declared, "This fellow said, 'I am able to destroy the temple of God and rebuild it in three days.'" Then the high priest stood up and said to Jesus, "Are you not going to answer? What is this testimony that these men are bringing against you?" But Jesus remained silent. The high priest said to him, "I charge you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God." "Yes, it is as you say," Jesus replied. "But I say to all of you: In the future you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven." Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, "He has spoken blasphemy! Why do we need any more witnesses? Look, now you have heard the blasphemy. What do you think?" "He is worthy of death," they answered. Then they spit in his face and struck him with their fists. Others slapped him and said, "Prophesy to us, Christ. Who hit you?"
Now Peter was sitting out in the courtyard, and a servant girl came to him. "You also were with Jesus of Galilee," she said. But he denied it before them all. "I don't know what you're talking about," he said. Then he went out to the gateway, where another girl saw him and said to the people there, "This fellow was with Jesus of Nazareth." He denied it again, with an oath: "I don't know the man!" After a little while, those standing there went up to Peter and said, "Surely you are one of them, for your accent gives you away." Then he began to call down curses on himself and he swore to them, "I don't know the man!" Immediately a rooster crowed. Then Peter remembered the word Jesus had spoken: "Before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times." And he went outside and wept bitterly.
Early in the morning, all the chief priests and the elders of the people came to the decision to put Jesus to death.
The presumption is that Matthew (and Mark) reads events as follows:
- Jesus was taken to Caiaphas.
- The whole Sanhedrin was assembled, and tried Jesus, finding him guilty.
- Peter, standing outside, denied Jesus three times.
- In the morning, the Sanhedrin met again, deciding on a sentence.
From this many deductions are made - but I daresay that they are the result of misunderstanding the purposes of Matthew and Mark. We will explain that in a moment; first, let's look at the relevant selection from Luke:
Then seizing him, they led him away and took him into the house of the high priest. Peter followed at a distance. But when they had kindled a fire in the middle of the courtyard and had sat down together, Peter sat down with them. A servant girl saw him seated there in the firelight. She looked closely at him and said, "This man was with him." But he denied it. "Woman, I don't know him," he said. A little later someone else saw him and said, "You also are one of them." "Man, I am not!" Peter replied. About an hour later another asserted, "Certainly this fellow was with him, for he is a Galilean." Peter replied, "Man, I don't know what you're talking about!" Just as he was speaking, the rooster crowed. The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word the Lord had spoken to him: "Before the rooster crows today, you will disown me three times." And he went outside and wept bitterly...
The men who were guarding Jesus began mocking and beating him. They blindfolded him and demanded, "Prophesy! Who hit you?" And they said many other insulting things...
This looks to be a different order of events from Matthew and Mark - is there a contradiction here? No, not really: We must realize that Matthew and Mark, because their purpose is to TEACH converts to the Gospel, have purposely juxtaposed the events of Peter's denial in order to act as a comparison to the "good confession" made by Christ.
Historical order, then, was of secondary importance to theology [Bamm.TJ, 55-6] - which, we stress, is NOT to say that history was invented for the purpose, which is another assertion entirely. Mark in particular uses what is called a "sandwich" technique in which pericopes are arranged with the purpose of filling spaces of time - and this is exactly what was done with Peter's denial in the trial narrative. He may also have arranged the material in that manner for a doubly ironic effect: In Mark 14:65, Jesus is mocked as a prophet because of a prediction He made [re the Son of Man coming on the clouds] in 14:62; but then, 14:66-72 demonstrates the fulfillment of His prediction of Peter's denial in 14:30. This establishes an irony: At the same time that Jesus is being mocked as a prophet, one of His prophecies is coming to pass - see Sloy.JT, 47; Juel.MTm, 71.)
Finally, let us understand a further limitation: Despite Fricke's implications, we may not assume that the Gospel writers in question - not even Luke - was by any means intimately familiar with the detailed procedures of Jewish or Roman justice, or if they were, that they had a need or an interest in making sure that their accounts were technically correct. Just as today, the average person would hardly know the technical difference between an evidentiary hearing and a full-fledged trial, so it is that the Gospel writers could hardly be expected to have and/or report an intimate familiarity with the legal technicalities of the prosecution of Jesus. They reported what they saw and heard, or perhaps what they thought their readers would understand.
Hence, it is no surprise that we, also lacking understanding and knowledge, may receive incorrect impressions from their reports - as for example Winter does [Wint.TJ, 26] , when he says of the writer of Mark's Gospel:
...it was the purpose of the writer of Mark 14:64b to assert that a formal sentence of death had been passed by the entire Jewish Senate.
However, we will find that it is the reliable historian Luke, along with John, who present us with the most accurate technical picture, as we shall see below - and this is recognized by Catchpole: "...it is in the Luke-John tradition of the trial of Jesus that material of high historical value may be found..." [Bamm.TJ, 65; see also Sloy.JT, 73] . This is not to say that Mark and Matt are ahistorical; they should simply be understood in purpose/context and within the limitations of the writers, and it should not be assumed that they are asserting something which they do not state directly and precisely. Mark and Matt may well have perceived of some formal action taking place; but barring a technical legal description, we have no right to interpret the proceedings under the standard of being technically, "correctly" reported in a way that would satisfy a legal expert.
The admonition of Wilson [Wils.ExJ, 114] is quite relevant here:
We attempt the impossible when we try to transform these first Christians into modern-day court reporters who can satisfy our curiosity on every legal point.
Similarly, speaking only of Mark's Gospel - though we would say this of ALL the Gospels to varying degrees - Sanders[Sand.HistF, 265] warns that it cannot be read "in a very precise way, as if it were a court-recorders' transcript."
Bottom line: The Gospel writers may well not have understood the significance of every word and every action in the proceedings as they received them, just as we may not understand the importance of every word or deed in a courtroom today. (Witness the extensive coverage of the cataloging of evidence in the first O. J. Simpson trial. Obviously some television and radio producers thought it would be exciting.) So, we should not place any unreasonable demands upon the Gospel accounts by any means, and then draw outrageous conclusions from our own faulty presuppositions.
One of the most difficult issues to approach in this area is the historic anti-Semitism that has been unjustly derived from the Gospel accounts. Needless to say, the Christian church has a great deal historically to answer for in this regard. Crossan [Cross.WKJ, ix] , for example, makes note of a Passiontide ceremony of the 9th through 11th century, "in which a Jew was brought into the cathedral of Toulouse to be given a symbolic blow by the count - an honor!" (On the other hand, Crossan, rather strangely, observes: "No Roman, one notices, was accorded a like honor." May we ask where 9th-11th century Europeans would find an ancient Roman?) And Fricke [Fric.CMJ, viii]:
Whenever 'Christians' gave vent to their hatred of Jews, they cited the Gospels - those of Matthew and John in particular - in support of their actions.
Fricke has rightly put the word "Christians" in quotes - for no true believer could derive anti-Semitism from what are, after all, the most Jewish of the Gospels.
So we come down to this: Is the anti-Semitic view grounded in a correct reading of the NT, or is it merely the invention of those who wish to justify their own previously-held anti-Semitism?
Evidence indicates strongly that it is the latter. Glenn Miller has performed an analysis of this question which we will draw upon, though we shall not delve too deeply into the issue - which would require writing another essay entirely. The net of the data is: 1) Both the content of Scripture, and its cultural context, demonstrate that justification for anti-Semitism is no more found in the NT generally or the trial accounts specifically, than is justification for racism or any other sin of your choice; 2) Responsibility for the death of Jesus is placed upon, in order - a) the Jewish leadership; b) Jerusalemite Jews, in particular, the crowd before Pilate; c) Pilate and Herod.
Who Killed Jesus?
Let's go straight to the horse's mouth. Who does the NT say killed Jesus? Miller cites the following verses as evidence:
•Matt 27.1 - "all the chief priests and the elders of the people came to the decision to put Jesus to death". (Matthew)
•Lk 23.13-20 - "the chief priests, the rulers and the people," (Luke)--obviously not ALL the people; just the 'crowd'
•Acts 2.36(w 14) - "Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem," (the apostle Peter)
•Acts 10.39 - "We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a tree (Peter)
•I Thess 2.14 - You suffered from your own countrymen the same things those churches suffered from the Jews, 15 who killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets and also drove us out. (Paul)
•Acts 13.27 - The people of Jerusalem and their rulers did not recognize Jesus, yet in condemning him they fulfilled the words of the prophets that are read every Sabbath. 28 Though they found no proper ground for a death sentence, they asked Pilate to have him executed. (Paul) Notice 'people' is restricted to those in Jerusalem who asked for the execution--the 'crowd' again.
•Mt 26.3 - Then the chief priests and the elders of the people assembled in the palace of the high priest, whose name was Caiaphas, 4 and they plotted to arrest Jesus in some sly way and kill him. (Matthew)
•Mt 27.1,20 - But the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus executed. (Matthew)
•Acts 5.27 - Having brought the apostles, they made them appear before the Sanhedrin to be questioned by the high priest. 28 "We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name," he said. "Yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and are determined to make us guilty of this man's blood." 29 Peter and the other apostles replied: "We must obey God rather than men! 30 The God of our fathers raised Jesus from the dead -- whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. (Peter, accusing the Sanhedrin--a mixed priestly and lay aristocratic ruling body)
To these we may also add:
Luke 13:33-4 In any case, I must keep going today and tomorrow and the next day--for surely no prophet can die outside Jerusalem! "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!
Weatherly [Weath.JwLKA, 55] observes here that Jerusalem "is named not only as the site of the deaths of the prophets but is personified as the agent of those deaths." In line with a standard practice of depiction of opponents, a city is named in its entirety as the foe - even though not every person, indeed not necessarily a majority, was the actor in the case.
An example of this is found in a source we have seen elsewhere: the Mara Bar-Serapion letter. Mara pins the consequences of Socrates' death on ALL of Athens, without qualification; the consequences of Pythagoras' death on ALL of Samos, again without qualification; and the death of Jesus on ALL Jews - again without qualification, and going much farther than the NT writers did in that regard.
Now although some of these verses are very precise in where the blame is to be fixed, time and again, here and elsewhere, we see this phrase "the Jews" pop up - this is a key to our understanding, so it should be looked at further, for it has the appearance, to our eyes, of a blanket condemnation of all Jews.
Who Are "The Jews"?
From the data, Miller concludes that responsibility for the death of Jesus is pinned upon the leadership--both civil and religious-- of Jerusalem. But wait! some may cry. What about those many reference to "the Jews" in the Gospel of John and elsewhere, saying, the Jews did this or that, and were eventually responsible for what happened to Jesus? Does that not indicate a broad brush of the entire Jewish people? Or as Fricke [Fric.CMJ, 124] cries, citing John 8:44 -
To John not only is Judas a devil, but all Jews are the devil's offspring.
Actually, Fricke is badly misreading the text here; Jesus is clearly speaking to rather a small group of people! They are indeed referred to as "the Jews" - but what does this phrase mean? The evidence indicates that "the Jews" does mean all of the Jewish people - and does not, depending on the context! Again, we start with Miller's data:
The term "Jews" can refer to either the leadership (strictly) OR to the people (more generally)
1.The data indicates that 'Jews' referred to something broader than the simple 'corrupt temple hierarchy':
•in John 1.19,24 - the Jews 'sent' the religious leaders to discover what was going on
•a comparison of John 18.14 with 11.49 indicates that Jews referred to the Sanhedrin (generally considered to be a group composed of the priestly aristocracy and lay nobility)--see ZPEB, "Sanhedrin".
•Luke 23.13 ("Pilate called together the chief priests, the rulers and the people") and Mt 26.47 ("sent from the chief priests and the elders of the people")show that the 'rulers' involved with distinct from the 'priests'.
•Conclusion: "Jews" in a leadership sense, was broad enough to include the lay aristocracy.
2.Many of the "Jews" became believers--Jn 11:45 and 12.11 3.There are numerous passages that indicate that the "Jews" were DISTINCT FROM the common people (many of whom accepted Christ as their messiah):
•John 7. 13 (But no one would say anything publicly about him for fear of the Jews.)--the common folk were afraid of the "Jews" (=> NOT THE SAME)
•John 9.22 (His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews, for already the Jews had decided that anyone who acknowledged that Jesus was the Christ would be put out of the synagogue.)
•John 12.12 -- the Triumphal Entry -- the crowd accepted him!
•Mt 23.37 ("O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.) - the difference between the leadership ("you") and the people ("your children").
•John 2.23 - (Now while he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many people saw the miraculous signs he was doing and believed in his name.)
•John 7.25 - (At that point some of the people of Jerusalem began to ask, "Isn't this the man they are trying to kill? 26 Here he is, speaking publicly, and they are not saying a word to him. Have the authorities really concluded that he is the Christ?)--Note the difference between the 'people of Jerusalem' and the 'authorities'.
3.The data is VERY strong that when the term "Jews" is used of the PEOPLE, it is a good (or at least, neutral) term--indicating that it is not a 'racial/ethnic' slur, but a term used for specific identification (in context) of that ruling community that violently rejected their King.
•John 4.22 - Jesus affirms: "You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews."
•John 12.9-11 - ( Meanwhile a large crowd of Jews found out that Jesus was there and came, not only because of him but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 10 So the chief priests made plans to kill Lazarus as well, 11 for on account of him many of the Jews were going over to Jesus and putting their faith in him.)
•Mt 27.11 - ( Meanwhile Jesus stood before the governor, and the governor asked him, "Are you the king of the Jews?" "Yes, it is as you say," Jesus replied.)
•Acts 2.5, 14 - (Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven.) and (Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd: "Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem,)
•Acts 14.1 - (At Iconium Paul and Barnabas went as usual into the Jewish synagogue. There they spoke so effectively that a great number of Jews and Gentiles believed. 2 But the Jews who refused to believe stirred up the Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brothers.) - NOTE: BOTH usages (hostile leadership, believing people) present in the SAME passage.
•Acts 21.20 - (Then they said to Paul: "You see, brother, how many thousands of Jews have believed, and all of them are zealous for the law.) .So, how did the term 'JEWS' get expanded from solely a reference to the people (a la Ezra, Neh) to pick up a SECOND meaning of 'hostile leadership'?
•The NT shows the development of the term to parallel Paul's experiences with hostile Jewish leadership OUTSIDE Jerusalem! (And these experiences were such that the hostile leadership had much more 'control' over the general Jewish populations--due to the smaller numbers). The "Jews" (hostile leadership) swayed the "Jews" (the people at large)--as well as the Gentiles (see Acts 14 above!)-- against Paul's message. But the culpable ones were the former.
•There is absolutely NO evidence within the NT to suggest that the term was IN ANY WAY related to a general anti-Semitism of the Roman empire! (It is serious conjecture to 'read in' some Roman anti-Semitism in NT passages).
>•And, even as Paul experienced the hostility of the dispersed leadership, even then many 'Jews' believed (Act 17:12 - Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true. 12 Many of the Jews believed, as did also a number of prominent Greek women and many Greek men.)
•This general motif of the "Jews" (hostile aristocratic leadership) constraining the "Jews" (the general Jewish populace) from their experience of God's goodness is a surprisingly dominant theme in the teachings of Jesus:
•Mt 23: 37 - ("O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing. 38 Look, your house is left to you desolate.")
•Mt 23: 15 - ("Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are.)
•Mt 23: 13 - ("Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men's faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.) is worth noting that John's gospel is deliberately evangelistic, and the general trend of scholarship today is to view his intended audience as not just Jews, but SPECIFICALLY the Jews of the Diaspora--the ones Paul used the terms "JEWS" on so strongly!
As Carson notes in his Intro to the New Testament, p 171.:
The constant allusions to the Old Testament show that John's intended readership is biblically literate; his translation of Semitic expressions (e.g., 1:38, 42; 4:25; 19:13, 17) shows he is writing to those whose linguistic competence is in Greek. His strong denunciation of the "the Jews" cannot be taken as a mark against this thesis: John may well have an interest in driving a wedge between ordinary Jews and (at least) some of their leaders. The fourth gospel is not as anti-Jewish as some people thin anyway: salvation is still said to be "from the Jews" (4.22), and often the referent of "the Jews" is "the Jews in Judea" or "the Jewish leaders" or the like. "Anti-Semitic" is simply the wrong category to apply to the fourth gospel: whatever hostilities are present turn on theological issues related to the acceptance or rejection of revelation, not on race. How could it be otherwise, when all of the first Christians were Jews and when, on this reading, both the fourth evangelist and his primary readers were Jews and Jewish proselytes?
1.When "Jews" is used of the hostile aristocratic leadership, it is appropriate and truthful to ascribe the primary responsibility (see John 19:11 for the relative roles of Pilate and the High Priest - "Jesus answered, "You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above. Therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.") for His execution to them.
2.When "Jews" is used of the general populace, it is used in a VERY POSITIVE sense (and in some passages, in a neutral sense), but is NEVER used in an 'anti-Semitic' slur.
3.THEREFORE--to assert that John (and the wider Christian community) attributed the death of Jesus to the GENERAL POPULACE known as "Jews" is FUNDAMENTALLY MISTAKEN; and that to accuse certain first-century Jews of being 'anti-Semitic' because of some general Roman cultural trend is entirely without foundation.
To this we may add the following observation:
4. This usage is NOT limited to the writers of the NT. Josephus regularly uses the phrase, "the Jews" - and he uses it in much the same way: "absolutely or with modifiers which suggest a general reference in context, where the reference is clearly to specific groups of Jews." [Weath.JwLKA, 110 - see pages following for a catalogue of examples.]
In addition, Malcolm Lowe, in his article "Who Were the Juduaio?" (NovT XVIII, 101ff) shows that the term "the Jews" was used primarily to refer to persons who were inhabitants of the region of Judaea, so that "the Jews" is no more of a slur than "the Bostonians" or "the Creatans". The phrase was only used secondarily as a religious reference, but then only in opposition to Gentiles.
Lowe finds only a small number of places in the NT where "the Jews" is such a religious reference; one, Luke 7:3, is so because Luke has elsewhere used "elders of Israel" to refer to the Sanhedrin.
The Scriptures, then, place no blame on Jews as a people for the execution of Jesus. And even then, history shows that the actions of the Jewish leadership can be blamed indirectly on the Romans. Rivkin [Rivk.WCJ, 118] points out that the high priest was appointed not as a descendant of Aaron, as the law required, but by the Romans. The institutions of government at the time of Jesus, in that place, were in direct opposition to the requirements of the Law.
Thus, Rivkin: The political climate created revolutionaries; and "...it emerges with great clarity, both from Josephus and the Gospels, that the culprit is not the Jews, but the Roman imperial system." [ibid., 117] Concerns in this area should focus not on the Gospel writings, but on their misinterpretations which continue to this day - with some racist and anti-Semitic groups going as far as turning Jesus into an Irish monk or into the perfect Aryan.
Judea vs. Rome
Two related questions that come up are: Aren't the Gospels, and particularly the trial accounts, a polemic against Judaism, and therefore anti-Semitic? And why is there not a polemic against Rome, since it was the Romans who crucified Jesus; indeed, why is Rome cast in such a positive light, since Rome too persecuted Christians?
The Gospels are, indeed, in some ways a polemic against the claims of Judaism against Christianity; but this does not equate with anti-Semitism. But let's answer the second question first, drawing again upon groundwork laid by Miller.
1. For the earliest Christians, Rome was NOT a specific antagonist. Rome was the antagonist of ALL the Jews--Christians included, esp. in Palestine. The Christian 'sect' in Judaism wasn't isolated from Judaism until the temple prayers were changed at the end of the 1st century (the 12th of the 18 benedictions, cursing "Nazarenes").
2. Christians were not singled out for persecution in Rome until the Neronian times (64 ad.), LONG AFTER the oral traditions of the Synoptics would have included the Pilate-passages.
Let me add here: The lack of polemic against Rome can be taken as evidence that the Gospels were composed relatively early. (See link above.)
3. The accounts of Pilate's wavering, capitulating to the crowd, and ultimately releasing a known insurgent (i.e. Barabbas) could hardly be construed as a favorable account for Rome!
We hold a slightly different view of what Pilate did here (see below). Even so, it is not much more complimentary to Rome.
4. The next generation of early Christians, who experienced many of the persecutions, had NO QUALMS about pointing the finger at Rome. For example, Clement of Rome and Ignatius were VERY EXPLICIT in the details of the Roman persecution of believers.. All the later data we have about Roman officials and actions in the Book of Acts certainly doesn't support this whitewashing argument. Felix and Festus are certainly not presented in the best of light, and the treatment of Paul at the hands of Roman officials (Act 16:22,37) is hardly complimentary!
I'll add here that the story of the conversion of the centurion Cornelius would probably serve to make the Romans angry also, even if it is regarded as fictional. How presumptuous that would seem!
And, in all candor, the average 'pagan neighbor' of the day did NOT identify that much with Roman authorities ANYWAY. They generally could have cared less about 'who killed Jesus'...the issue for all of them was their personal situation and need.
But then, what of the Gospels as an "anti-Jewish" polemic? The reason for this is actually quite simple: It is because one of the major stumbling blocks for early Christianity was the problem of a Jewish Messiah that very few Jews believed in. Christianity in its early days HAD to focus on those who provided the main objections to the faith, both implicitly AND explicitly.
The implicit rejection of the supposed Jewish Messiah, and the explicit arguments made by Jewish citizens and leaders against Christianity, must surely have been cause for consideration among potential Gentile converts. The evangelists were doing nothing more than addressing the arguments that would inevitably be addressed to them.
We have thus shown that there is no cause for anti-Semitism found in the Gospels. However, our age of political correctness has brought about some peculiar permutations, thanks to the idea that the Gospel accounts generally, and the trial accounts particularly, are anti-Semitic. Cohn [Cohn.TDJ, 89, 114, 134], for example, adopts the outlandish premise that the Jewish leadership LOVED Jesus (!) and was trying to save Him from the Roman death penalty. To that end, the Jewish police asked for and received permission to accompany the Roman arresting party (which would run counter to everything we know about the Roman praxis) and took Jesus into custody in order to see if He could be saved.
But their efforts failed when Jesus would not shut up about His messianic claims, and so Caiaphas rent his garments in despiar over not being able to save Jesus from His execution. Such historical revisionism is as outrageous as that used by anti-Semites to justify their own perversions.
On the other hand, it also seems that anti-Semitism is not a necessary base for entering into historical revisionism. Crossan [Cross.WKJ, 84] rejects nearly all semblance of historicity in the trial accounts, and asserts that "the trial of Jesus was first created by historicization of Psalm 2." In other words, the Christians simply searched the Scriptures for relevant stuff and tailor-made history to what they read. We are obliged to wonder, given Crossan's questionable methodologies and assumptions and the fact that he rarely deigns to address matters of historical realism, whether it is not HE who is "creating history" by inventing, without a shred of evidence, Scripture-searching Christians who engaged in historical revisionism of their own.
James Still does not cite anti-Semitism, but he does engage in some radical revisions and interpretations to maintain that Jesus was the Hebrew equivalent of Timothy McVeigh. He concludes in his essay on this topic:
We can safely conclude at this point that Jesus was indeed supportive of the Zealot movement if not in deed, then certainly in principle. If Jesus were seeking the throne as the evidence suggests, he would have enlisted the aid of the militant Zealots. Also his actions as a claimant to the throne of Israel--which surely would have involved a rEBellion of some sort for the Romans were not likely to cede authority quietly--made him guilty of sedition against Rome. Jesus was a patriot for the restoration of Israel. His motives were political and the context of his actions as we find in the more credible portions of the Gospels supports this conclusion.
Here, what "the more credible portions of the Gospels" are is not delineated, but seems to indicate, "those that agree with the point of view of James Still" - and indeed, those who hold to this absurdly outdated theory of Jesus-as-Zealot must inevitably resort to parsing the NT at will in order to maintain their viewpoint. It will not be our purpose here to take a complete look at these theories; rather, we recommend that the reader consult Hengel's magisterial work on the subject [Heng.Z], and an earlier, much smaller work [Heng.JRev], which will make it quite clear that there could have been no significant correspondence between Jesus and the Zealot movement. (See especially pp. 297-8 of the former, where Hengel notes seven major divergences between Jesus and the Zealot movement.)
For now, let's look at a few of these interpretations, from a variety of sources, with Still as the primary voice:>
1.Several of Jesus' disciples were known Zealots, e.g., Simon the Zealot (Lk. 6:15); Simon Peter who was known as "Bar-jona" (Mt. 16:17) a derivation of "baryona" Aramaic for "outlaw" which was a common name applied to Zealots; James and John shared the nickname "Boanerges" or in Hebrew "benei ra'ash" which is to say "sons of thunder" another common Zealot reference; and the most famous Zealot was Judas Iscariot, "Iscariot" a corruption of the Latin "sicarius" or "knife-man" which was a common Roman reference to Zealots.
Some comments here:
a) Re Simon - as is well known, the "bar-" prefix means "son of" in a Judean context. We must suppose, then, that anyone who had a father named Jonah/Jonas had to withstand this sort of punning indignity - rather than attempt to bolster our theory by supposing that it was a deliberate fabrication of the name of Peter's father, simply to establish some sort of Zealot connection.
At any rate, there is no guarantee that "barjona" means exclusively "outlaw" -- in some Talmudic contexts, it "means simply bad, undisciplined people" [Heng.Z, 54n], and Peter as "Simon son of John" is a far better attested reading (cf. John 1:42, 21:15) than "son of Jonah," meaning that the latter is probably the result of a scribal miscue. Hengel [ibid., 56] adds that it is:
...very uncertain as to whether the Jewish rebels of the period preceding 70 AD were ever called (barjone) in the sense of 'outlaws' by their compatriots. With few exceptions, the term was used at a relatively late period and it is too slight a point of departure on which to base wider conclusions, particularly where the Gospels are concerned.
And later Hengel adds [ibid., 74] that the term "may perhaps point to (the barjone) outward way of life in the mountains and the desert" - not necessarily to their profession.
b) Re "sons of thunder" - most commentators take this to refer to their temperament - not some sort of military/political themed connection. And if it does refer to hot-headedness, is it any surprise that it was applied widely among the hot-headed Zealots? It is far more likely that the general appellation PRECEDED the Zealot appellation.
c) Re "sicarius" - Well, this does not help much, since Judas was the bad guy. If he betrayed Jesus, then that would suggest (if Judas truly WAS a "knife-man") that Jesus was not living up to his expectations - which leads to the idea that Jesus Himself was NOT a Zealot.
Even so, it has never been satisfactorily resolved whether "Iscariot" derives from "sicarius" or from "man of Kerioth" - the debate remains alive to this day, and the former suggestion suffers in that [Heng.Z, 46-8]:
1) The term itself is found only in Josephus, who "reports the appearance of a 'new kind of robber in Jerusalem' " during the reign of Felix - quite some time AFTER Judas killed himself.
2) There is no evidence for any earlier occurrence of the term;
3) The term itself, as Still admits, has Latin origins, which suggests that it originated with the Romans - not with the Jews. Thus it is not something that Judas, his family. or his Jewish social circle would have been likely to apply to him as a name.
d) re Simon the Zealot: This is the one place where Still might have a point, but Hengel asserts that it "must be left open" whether the appellation means "of the Zealot party" or "a zealous guy all around" - and even with the former, the textual evidence has only the same weight as that which could be used to say that Jesus' association with Matthew and other tax collectors makes Him a friend of the Romans. Incidentally, to true Zealots, ANY association with tax collectors "had to appear absolutely a betrayal." [Heng.JRev, 24] That was the last thing Jesus should have done if He wanted to be in with the Zealots.
But as it happens, Bruce Winter in After Paul Left Corinth  notes that the word "zealot" was applied to a disciple of a teacher, and had been used for a long time in the academy to describe the exclusive loyalty that was expected of a student. It may be no surprise that Luke alone, a Gentile writer, uses the term for Simon.
The implication of the Gospels, at any rate, is that anyone who became a disciple of Jesus, became an "ex-" whatever they were before - Matthew became an ex-tax collector; Peter, an ex-fisherman; thus Simon, an ex-Zealot [ibid, 10n].
2.The Zealot movement was a breakaway from the Pharisees who themselves sympathized with the nationalistic causes espoused by the Zealots and were awaiting a Messiah to seize the throne of Israel. Jesus himself is attributed with many sayings that are Pharisaic in, e.g., Mt. 7:12, Mk 2:27, Jn 7:22, B. Yoma 85b (Talmud), Mt. 7:15; and Jesus' own affinity for the poor demonstrate Pharisaic philosophy. Jesus' actions that are not depoliticized in the gospels (partially referenced here) indicate that Jesus sympathized with the Zealot cause.
Here is a common "all-or-nothing" error. No doubt some of what Jesus said and did was agreeable to the Pharisees; he would hardly be a Jew otherwise. Even the Sadducees and Pharisees had SOME common ground.
But there is much in Jesus' teaching that is plainly counter-Pharisaic [Bamm.TJ, 48-50] , including the antitheses of the Sermon on the Mount, which set Jesus "well outside the frontiers of Pharisaism." (For a brief, but relevant, analysis of the Pharisaic movement, and of the relationship to Jesus, see Bwk.JPh.)
3.The Zealot Judas, refers to Jesus as "Rabbi" a Pharisaic-title. (Mk 14:45) Many scholars subscribe to the "walks like a duck, must be a duck" philosophy and go as far as to say that Jesus himself was a Pharisee rabbi. The evidence does seem to support this conclusion, although Jesus seems to favor a more apocalyptic flavor of fringe Pharisaic thought. The "Jesus as Essene" theory still captivates many scholars as well--a theory that would also support his role of political Messiah as argued here.
We've handled "Jesus as Pharisee" above - the evidence does NOT support this conclusion, except when we parse the NT at will.
As for "Jesus as Essene" - that captivates no scholars that I know of today, other than Barbara Thiering; and the disagreements between Jesus and the Essenes are far greater. (One writer has half-jokingly suggested that if Jesus visited Qumran, the Essenes would probably have spit on Him - assuming they weren't too frightened of his accompanying burly Galileean fishermen.)
4.Jesus equipped his followers with swords in anticipation of trouble. (Lk 22:36-38) and at least one of Jesus' supporters scuffled with the Temple police to aid in resisting Jesus' arrest. (Mk 14:47)
The passage in Luke refers to only TWO swords - and during the so-called "scuffle," there was nothing but Peter slicing off a servant's ear, followed by Jesus instructing Peter to put his sword away.
Carmichael [Carm.DJ, 119] , to support his own Jesus = revolutionist view, has a ready explanation: The command to put the sword away was a later interpolation. When it gets down to explanations like THAT, with NO textual evidence, the thesis is managing the facts. I think Brown [Brow.DMh, 689] has rightly admonished those who read such things into this passage:
...such an isolated instance of spontaneous defense that could have occurred in a melee of any period is scarcely indicative of belonging to a resistance movement.
The swords in question, at any rate, were not the longswords of our medieval television programs. This would most likely have been a Jewish short sword - a dagger used as protection against wild animals and robbers, considered so essential that even the "peace-loving Essenes" carried it, and it was permitted to be carried on the Sabbath as part of one's adornment. [Heng.JRev, 21] Needless to say, this weapon would not be much use against the Temple police - much less against any number of armed Roman soldiers.
5.The manner in which Jesus entered Jerusalem was that of a Jewish king who claimed the throne. Convinced that he was King of the Jews and in deliberate fulfillment of Zechariah's prophecy, Jesus rides into Jerusalem on an ass's colt. The people greet Jesus with strewn palms and cries of "Hosanna!" the ancient cry of Jewish independence. For Jesus to not have known the seditious actions that this implied, and the political impact that his act caused, would be incredulous to say the least. (This is in direct contrast with the Gospels which attempt to contradict Jesus' action and claim that he was not seeking an earthly kingdom--clearly absurd given the circumstances.)
Here is the one place where Still is partially correct. Jesus was indeed asserting His right as King/Messiah in this action. But as Sanders [Sand.JesJud, 294] notes, "everything we know about Jesus indicates that he sought no secular kingship." Jesus' kingdom, as He said, was "not of this world," and every thread of His teachings supports that connotation - and where Still gets this idea of "Hosanna" as "an ancient cry of Jewish independence," I cannot say, although some in the crowd may well have anticipated some sort of political/military action by Jesus anyway. The cry may well have had multiple functions, but Still offers no footnote for the reader to check out.
But then again, even in that case, the crowd members would have been engaging in some wishful thinking. The prophecy in Zechariah 9:9 states that the king comes to Jerusalem "GENTLE and riding on a donkey" - not to make war, but to "proclaim peace to the nations" (Zech. 9:10b). Seditious in Roman eyes, true enough; but no indicator of Zealot-like military aspirations. Who would lead a military charge on a baby donkey?
Beyond all of the above, however, a simple fact is this: There is no need for Jesus to have been leader of a para-military group for the Romans to have taken action and seen a case for sedition. This was not the case for John the Baptist, whom Josephus tells us Herod executed as a precaution against uprising because he "feared that such eloquence could stir the people to some form of sedition," [Rivk.WCJ, 30] - and our only records show that this was also the case for Jesus. If Jesus had indeed been the founder of an insurgent political group, then His followers would have been rounded up and arrested - but this did not happen; instead, Christianity was tolerated, perhaps even protected, by the Romans up until the time of Nero.
It is not sufficient to hazard, as Carmichael does[Carm.UCO, 143-4] , that Jesus' followers "managed to survive Roman justice by disavowing complicity and fleeing." Rome was not known for that type of tolerance towards insurrectionists, even former ones, especially in Judea. In every other recorded case - Judas, Theudas, the unnamed Egyptian - followers were arrested and executed - Yama.TCJ, 7 - and they would not hear any excuses about how, "This time it's different".
Clearly, the Romans "regarded (Jesus) as dangerous at one level but not at another: dangerous as one who excited the hopes and dreams of the Jews, but not as an actual leader of an insurgent group" [Sand.JesJud, 295]. Or, as Sanders says elsewhere [Sand.HistF, 265]: "The high priest wanted (Jesus) dead for the same reason Antipas wanted John dead: he might cause trouble." Historical revisionism is uncalled for.
Before delving into the Gospel accounts for specifics, we will see if there is any evidence that is relevant in secular works of the period. Two items in particular are from strongly reliable sources.
We have elsewhere studied the testimony of Tacitus. Let's take a look at the most relevant portion here:
Christus, the founder of the name, was put to death by Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea in the reign of Tiberius...
This confirms that Jesus was executed under Roman supervision - which is generally agreed to by all reasonable parties.
Now let us examine a passage that gives some of the historical revisionists heartburn - the so-called Testimonium Flavium:
Antiquities 18.3.3 Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews, and many of the Gentiles. When Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men among us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him. And the tribe of Christians so named from him are not extinct at this day.
Here we have removed all of the phrases regarded as interpolations - and note well what is NOT among them: A phrase which, in agreement with the Gospels, clearly indicates that the Jewish leadership had a role in having Jesus executed.
Attempts to explain away this passage by those who wish to eliminate all Jewish involvement - whether out of concern over anti-Semitism, or in order to view Jesus as a Zealot executed directly by Rome - are quite frankly not able to be taken seriously. Fricke, in an effort to avoid the necessary conclusion of Jewish involvement, takes the expedient of declaring the entire passage a forgery, and says[Fric.CMJ, 48-9] :
That these sentences constitute a forgery, and a rather crude one at that, is no longer doubted by any serious researcher as far as I know.
Needless to say, Fricke's bibliography contains no references to serious and recognized Josephan scholars such as Thackery and Feldman - but does contain such names as Drews and Maccoby. So, it is not surprising that the "forgery" view is his resort, and that he considers the stand of authenticity a "minority view". As we have shown in this article, this is FAR FROM a minority view - and again, the phrase we are concerned with here is not one of those that is in doubt.
Ironically, Fricke later [ibid., 152] says that if the Gospel record were true, then it is "inconceivable" that something did not find its way into secular histories.
Cohn [Cohn.TDJ, 310], a little less brazenly, merely hints at the total-interpolation theory, but prefers mild skepticism, saying: "...once it is established that at least some of the phrases in (the Testimonium Flavium) were interpolated by a Christian editor, no part of it can confidently be regarded as the composition of Josephus, and the whole is suspect...with no objective and reliable criterion to determine which (the sentence in question) is, it can prove nothing."
Cohn is wrong: Josephan scholars have objective and reliable criterion to work with, and have determined that the sentence implicating the leading men of the Jewish nation is NOT one of the interpolations. This is contrivance on Cohn's part; but he has another suggestion (ibid., 312):
...Josephus himself would then be suspect of a tendentious purpose of his own: no less than the interpolators were at pains to put blame on the Jews and whitewash Pilate, Josephus was at pains to assign the credit for the crucifixion of Jesus to the Jews and Romans in equal shares.
So, Josephus apparently would lie about Jewish involvement just to curry favor with Rome. This seems to be an overstatement of what is said by Brandon [Brand.TJ, 39], who is trying to show why Josephus would make mention of such a thing in the first place:
On a priori grounds...it is likely that Josephus, in the interest of his apologetical theme, would have shown that the Jewish leaders took prompt action to suppress (Christianity)...
Since Christianity was regarded as being of revolutionary origin, Brandon argues, Josephus would gladly demonstrate that the Jews wanted no part of it. But I find it a little too convenient that anywhere Cohn finds a problem that works against his theory, he suspects revisionism or tendentiousness. There is no reason for Josephus to have LIED about Jewish participation; in fact, we may just as easily argue that a) taking credit from Rome would have gotten him in trouble; and, b) all he had to do was say that the Jewish leaders merely DENOUNCED Jesus - but there is more to it than even that.
Accepting, then, the passage in question as authentic, critical study reveals that what Josephus records is quite in light with what the Gospels portray. The word we read "suggestion" is endeixei - which is "a straightforward legal term denoting the laying of information against a person, or a writ of indictment." [Brand.TJ, 152] This, as we shall see, matches at least one (if not more) suggestion for viewing the Jewish trial in the Gospels.
The matter is secure, and attested to both inside and outside the Gospels: The Jewish leadership of the time assuredly had some involvement in the demise of Jesus. The questions remains: How far did this involvement go? And that's the subject of several of our next sections.
I would like to mention here that a small paragraph in the Talmudic sources refers to "Jesus of Nazareth" as being indicted by the Jewish leadership on several charges and "hanged on the eve of Passover." We ascribe little value to this reference, other than it indicates that there was no denial of Jewish involvement in Jesus' demise.
Cohn [Cohn.TDJ, 307] , however, knows that this refutes his theory that the Jewish leadership was trying to save Jesus. He admits that his theory would almost require that there be some mention in the Talmud that Jesus was a favored person and that the "trial" was performed as a saving measure. Thus, he hypothesizes:
* That the "Jesus" in question above was not the Christian Jesus - the words "of Nazareth" having been interpolated at a much later date.
* That the "favorable review" of Jesus was expunged by later editors and censors.
Needless to say, at such points we are obliged to wonder if facts are not being invented in order to save a theory.
Who Arrested Jesus?
Matthew: While he was still speaking, Judas, one of the Twelve, arrived. With him was a large crowd armed with swords and clubs, sent from the chief priests and the elders of the people...
Mark: Just as he was speaking, Judas, one of the Twelve, appeared. With him was a crowd armed with swords and clubs, sent from the chief priests, the teachers of the law, and the elders.
Luke: While he was still speaking a crowd came up, and the man who was called Judas, one of the Twelve, was leading them....Then Jesus said to the chief priests, the officers of the temple guard, and the elders...
John: So Judas came to the grove, guiding a detachment of soldiers and some officials from the chief priests and Pharisees. They were carrying torches, lanterns and weapons...Then the detachment of soldiers with its commander and the Jewish officials arrested Jesus.
The Gospels are unanimous: The Jewish leadership was involved with the arrest of Jesus. But several other questions arise in this matter.
That the Jewish authorities had a hand in the arrest of Jesus is seldom doubted by anyone who accepts that Jewish officials had some part in the trial of Jesus. Sanders resolves that "(t)he Romans did not act entirely on their own initiative. We could know this to be the case without accepting as authentic a single one of the conflict stories in the Gospels." [Sand.JesJud, 295]
On the other hand, Fricke, who wishes to deny all Jewish involvement, suggests that the only Jews in the arresting party were interpreters[Fric.CMJ, 130].
However, this would run against not only the testimony of the Gospels and the implications of Jospehus, but also against the normal Roman procedure - for evidence from throughout the Roman Empire indicates that local police forces were generally the ones responsible for making arrests.
In Judea, that meant the Jewish religious authorities, and in Jerusalem particularly, the high priest and the Temple police. Rivkin [Rivk.WCJ, 31] notes that a function of the high priest:
>...was to serve as the eyes and ears of the puppet king or procurator, so as to head off demonstrative challenges to Roman rule.
Similarly, Brandon [Brand.TJ, 88] reports that it was the duty of the high priest - especially in light of the threat Jesus presented to orderly government - to discover the nature of Jesus' intentions. Sanders [Sand.HistF, 266, 269] adds that the high priests and his counselors "often had the task of preventing trouble and stopping trouble-makers," and also states:
When Caiaphas ordered Jesus to be arrested, he was carrying out his duties, one of the chief of which was to prevent uprising.
This is right in line with the admonition of Caiaphas recorded in the Gospel of John, concerning Jesus:
Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin. "What are we accomplishing?" they asked. "Here is this man performing many miraculous signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation." Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, "You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish."
And Winter [Wint.TJ, 28-9] goes further than Rivkin, agreeing that the high priest had...
...(a) duty to render assistance in the apprehension of political suspects and in the preparation of proceedings against political offenders....
This applied, Winter notes, even when the suspect in question was wanted by the Romans. Harvey [Harv.JTr, 2] adds that it was "more normal procedure" for the arrest to be initiated by the Jews than for there to be direct Roman intervention.
Why? Because throughout the Empire, the Romans would not dismantle the local institutions of justice; rather, they would use them to their own ends [Wint.TJ, 29] . And this was rather necessary for the Romans to do, throughout the Empire, for these reasons:
1) The Romans could hardly afford to spread themselves too thin - especially in Judea. The popular idea of a Roman soldier on every corner is patently erroneous - the Romans held Judea with only about three thousand troops [Wils.ExJ, 6] ; they could hardly spare the men to arrest every single criminal.
2) The wheels of justice turned much faster. Fricke only wants translators at the arrest; but "translation" would be wanted at other times as well - for questioning and interrogation, for preparation of the charge-sheet (cf. Luke 23:2) - every step of the process was made easier by the Roman authorities having the preliminaries handled by the local justice machinery.
And again, every bit as much as their military presence, their administrative presence was spread fairly thin. Thus it is as Overstreet [Overs.RLTC, 325] remarks: "Generally speaking, Roman law allowed the local law of each province to be exercised without much interference." - the only exception being (as we shall see) capital cases.
A practical example of this system in action is found about 30 years later than Jesus in the case of Jesus ben Ananias. Josephus records that this man was found prophesying against the Temple, and was taken in by the Jewish authorities, who flogged and interrogated him. When he would respond with nothing but further lamentations, he was turned over to the Romans. The governor examined him, determined that he was insane, and released him.
Simply put: The Jews arrested and examined on behalf of the governor; the governor also made an examination, and then made his decision.
To his credit, Fricke does at least allow that the ruling powers and the Saducees MAY have arrested Jesus and handed him over to the Romans [ibid., 135] - but he does so only grudgingly.
And so, what was the impetus for bringing Jesus in? The question is beyond our scope, but we may take brief note of a common suggestion. Some recognize the action in the Temple as the decisive moment [Sand.JesJud, 61] , and this is backed up by the Gospel records which show that the interrogation before the Sanhedrin was concerned to find testimony concerning what Jesus said about the Temple. Sanders [ibid., 71] submits that even if the whole trial account before the Sanhedrin is false, even then "it would seem likely that this specific accusation is based on an accurate memory of the principal point on which Jesus offended many of his contemporaries."
On the other hand, it is possible to go TOO far with this - as has Joel Carmichael, who suggests that Jesus OCCUPIED the Temple with His own sort of paramilitary force, large enough to withstand both the Temple police AND the Roman garrison. [Carm.DJ, 116-7] Needless to say, this is a highly questionable reconstruction, one that is held by no responsible historian, and is not borne out by secular reactions to Jesus, such as that of Jospehus, Lucian, and Mara Bar-Serapion.
For his own part, Carmichael relies upon: 1) the reference by Tacitus, which tells us nothing of the sort about Jesus; 2) a Roman governor who was a contemporary of the Emperor Diocletian (late 200s/early 300s AD) who says that Jesus led a band of 900 highway robbers; 3) a "medieval Hebrew copy of a lost version of a work of Josephus" that credits Jesus with having "two thousand armed followers" on the Mount of Olives; and, 4) Luke 23:39-42, where the thief observes that Jesus is under the same sentence as they are - which, like Tacitus, tells us nothing of the sort about Jesus.
Upon such gossamer threads are the greatest of speculations made. One is obliged to ask how Carmichael can prefer 2) and especially 3) to the wealth of evidence that is much closer to the source and has been proven quite reliable.
One other relevant question asks whether the chief priests, elders etc. THEMSELVES came out to participate in the arrest (as seems to be said in Luke). This is often objected to [Cohn.TDJ.73] ; it is said that such people would not be present at this sort of action. I do not think that this is necessarily so, but it does not matter: Luke has simply engaged the common device of representation equalling identification. This was a party sent by the chief priests, so in that sense, the chief priests were "there" - or as Sloyan remarks, it is probably a case of metonymy [Sloy.JT, 101] .
The biggest technical issue of all concerning the arrest is an interesting one - were there indeed Roman soldiers involved with the arrest of Jesus?
The question revolves around the use of two rather precise words in the Gospel of John - speira (meaning "cohort") and chiliarchos ("captain"). The speira would refer to an a force of 600 men - which, we may suggest, is not to be read overliterally; it is doubtful that John counted out the 600 men, and "cohort" may simply be his "man on the street" way of saying, "there were a lot of soldiers." Or, as Winter puts it, John "may have specific in exact military language what his source might have conveyed terminologically in a less precise fashion." [Wint.TJ, 46] (To which I would only add that John himself WAS the source - nevertheless, the point remains the same.)
On the other hand, Pesch[Pesc.TJC, 18] notes that these particular Greek terms are found in Greek translations of the OT - so that their presence "does not necessarily point to the Roman army." Sloyan [Sloy.JT, 115n] points out that the same words were used of Jewish soldiery in other places (Judith 14:11, 2 Macc. 8:23, 12:20, 22; Jos. Ant. 17.215, War 2.578). Wilson [Wils.ExJ, 108-9] believes, a bit imaginatively, that the Roman soldiers were not really there, but were added as a demonstration of Jesus' power (i.e., if He can put the Romans into submission, imagine what He can do for you). Finally, Blinzler [JBz.TJ, 65] finds Luke's omission of Roman designations rather telling, since the evangelist elsewhere was precise in using Roman military terminology where appropriate.
The balance of the evidence seems to favor, very slightly, the position that there were no Roman soldiers. Allow me to diverge a moment, however, for a bit of informed speculation upon a few verses that have been the subject of much Skeptical malice. To wit:
Jesus, knowing all that was going to happen to him, went out and asked them, "Who is it you want?" "Jesus of Nazareth," they replied. "I am he," Jesus said. (And Judas the traitor was standing there with them.) When Jesus said, "I am he," they drew back and fell to the ground. Again he asked them, "Who is it you want?" And they said, "Jesus of Nazareth." "I told you that I am he," Jesus answered.
What is happening here? Why is the arresting party here drawing back and falling down like the Keystone Kops? Most commentators suggest that somehow Jesus' own power and holiness forced the men backwards; and this may well be what happened. But I'd like to offer a slightly different interpretation, by way of suggestion.
Let us keep in mind the setting: The Garden of Gethsemane upon the Mount of Olives, which itself was very likely an olive grove, privately owned - and perhaps, enclosed by a high wall with a single gate. Now enter the mind of the arresting party and see things through their eyes. You are being led to this place by one reputed as a traitor and scoundrel; it is the darkest part of night, and you are told that your subject is inside a walled garden with only one entrance, wide enough for only one or two people abreast.
If you are an experienced officer of the Temple police or the Roman army, what might you be thinking? One word surely would have been on their minds: AMBUSH. The garden may have been a perfect place for an small armed force to make a stand; and of course, whoever enters first is the most likely to be killed.
Now enter unto the next step, when your "informer" (?) steps forward to make his identification. He greets the suspect cordially; they exchange a few quiet words that you can't quite overhear -- you see a few others nearby, bearing weapons -- then all at once, the suspect asks who you seek, and in answer to your reply, steps forward, saying in a loud, clear voice, "I am he!"
If you are in the lead ranks, nervous enough already, that MIGHT be seen as a signal to the suspect's followers to emerge from their hiding places and start laying some heavy hurt on you and your party.
And thus, I tender as a suggestion: What John reported here, unwittingly, was a sudden, clumsily executed, and quite untactical expression of the better part of valor on the part of the front ranks of the arresting force. This is not at all implausible, especially if we are dealing with mixed Temple and Roman troops, who would be decidedly unfamiliar with each others' tactics and movements.
But back to the primary topic at hand. If John gives us Roman soldiers (which is an open question), why are they not mentioned in the other Gospels? Schonfield [Schoe.PP, 144] believes that non-Jews are referenced as part of the arresting party - and he cites this as proof:
Matt. 26:45 Then he returned to the disciples and said to them, "Are you still sleeping and resting? Look, the hour is near, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners." (parallel found also in Mark)
"Sinners," Schonfield maintains, refers to Gentiles, and therefore, the non-Jewish servants of the high priests. Given that this is so, why could it not also refer to Roman soldiers?
However, I believe that Schonfield is wrong here; throughout the Gospels, "sinners" is used to refer simply to those who sin - it has no exclusive reference to Gentiles.
Fricke [Fric.CMJ, 128] suggests that Matthew and Mark do reveal the presence of Romans; they mention the crowd as carrying swords, and only Romans were permitted to carry swords. However, as we have noted, the word in question is far from conclusive, as it may well refer to the smaller daggers used by the Jews - and that is the sort of weapon that would be most likely to have been used for Peter's "precision cut" on the servant's ear.
Winter, I would say, probably has the correct answer in context: The other Gospel writers did not mention the Roman soldiers because they wished to convince their readers of the "unpolitical character of the message of salvation through Jesus." But that assumes, again, that they were there in the first place, which is by no means certain.
But now back in the other directional extreme: The assumed presence of Roman forces is widely taken by the Jesus-as-Zealot crowd to mean that Jesus must have been arrested as a seditionist, and that He was indeed one of those sorts, perhaps even a Zealot. Brandon [Brand.TJ, 130] , for example, who held to a weaker version of this position, surmises that the presence of Roman troops:
...would mean that Jesus was so strongly supported that the Jewish leaders felt incapable of undertaking his arrest, even though clandestinely, with their own forces.
And this, indeed, may be so: Perhaps the Jewish leaders DID expect some major resistance from Jesus and His followers. But I say that beyond this, there was a further role for those soldiers to play, IF they were there - and we will get to that, later on.
As an added note: Some critics have doubted that the attack by Peter on Malchus, the servant of the high priest, was historical; for they say, if this were true, why was not Peter arrested along with Jesus? [Crav.LJ, 393] Even Pesch [Pesc.TJC, 31] , in order to avoid the problem, suggests that it was actually one of the other members of the arresting party who took the ear off!
It may be that Peter was lost in the crowd, and then fled into the darkness before being recognized. [Broo.Mk, 241] But there is a much neater solution to this problem. Skeptics would probably not accept the answer, but it is found in Luke:
And one of them struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his right ear. But Jesus answered, "No more of this!" And he touched the man's ear and healed him.
Now imagine, if you will, bringing a charge against Peter on this count, and needing proof - the man's ear was restored; so, where's the evidence? It was probably that simple
On a related note - only John mentions Peter by name for this event; why is this so? Possibly because it would have been dangerous when the other Gospels were written to name the disciple who struck the blow - it would have been tantamount to admitting the crime or giving evidence to the prosecution. John, the latest to issue his Gospel, or perhaps sufficiently geographically removed, would not have had this problem.
Skeptics and scholars alike have a host of objections against the historicity of the Sanhedrin trial(s) of Jesus, focussing in particular on the perceived "illegality" of the events. But it is far more reasonable, I daresay, to give the Gospel writers the benefit of the doubt - and to keep in mind their limitations as described above. Let's explore a few options in this area.
A word is in order, first. Although sometimes not noted by skeptics, the fact is that the rules that they refer to as being violated do NOT come from the time of Jesus - they come from a time no earlier than 70 AD! [Harv.JTr, 61] The rules are found in what is called the Mishna Sanhedrin - a source which itself dates to over a century after the destruction of Jerusalem (c. 220 AD), and was codified no earlier than the destruction of Jerusalem. This material is often used uncritically by critics of the trial accounts; Haim Cohn [Cohn.TDJ] , for example, quotes this and other sources freely, including some that date even later than 220, never telling his readers just how late this material is.
Winter admits that the laws "belong to a time posterior to that of Jesus" - although he does say, without specification, that "some of the ordinances enumerated...were already valid in the time of Jesus." [Wint.TJ, 9] Brandon [Brand.TJ, 87] concedes of the Mishnah: "How far this tractate accurately reports Sanhedrin procedure in the first century AD, or represents a later idealised rabbinic 'blue-print,' is uncertain." Stein [Stein.Lk, 569] brings secular history to bear in arguing that "...some of the rules found in (the Mishna) conflict with Josephus' description of how things were in the first century," and, he adds, may be as much apologetic in purpose as the Gospels are.
Yamauchi [Yama.TCJ, 10] , perhaps exaggeratedly, says that the Mishna portrays the Sanhedrin as "all-powerful," and does not mention the Romans or the Saducees, as would be expected if it derived from an earlier time. Wilson [Wils.ExJ, 9] echoes: "It is now certain that many of these rules were only idealistic and theoretical and do not reflect actual practice in any period." Sanders [Sand.JesJud, 407] goes as far as saying that "The court of the Mishnah is a fantasy one" which is quite lacking in aspects of reality. Schonfield [Schoe.PP, 147] says that the Sanhedrin rules are "as they were ideally represented long after this body had ceased to function." Kilpatrick [Kilp.TJ, 11] calls the Mishnah "an indiscriminate mixture of tradition and academic fiction" - but allows that some of the rules may be recognized as having been in existence, based on how closely they were related to OT law, which would have (of course) been in effect. Harvey [AH.TJ, 61] acknowledges the rules, but says "...it is far from certain that they were in force before the fall of Jerusalem, or, even if they were, that they would have been observed in an emergency." And finally, Pesch [Pesc.TJC] says that Skeptical arguments using the Mishnah rules:
...insinuate, of course, that nothing would ever happen which is forbidden by law. The world, our history, is full of transgressions against laws! If one wanted to make valid laws the measuring rod for the reconstruction of actual history, then one would, at every turn, be led astray.
In summary, I would make these observations:
- Pesch is quite correct. If "there was a law against it" is equated with "it didn't happen" were applied universally, then it is time to empty out our prisons.
One thing that is NOT being stated, but is being
implicitly assumed as stated by critics, is that the trial of
Jesus before the Sanhedrin was unusual, and that the Sanhedrin
gave everyone else the red carpet treatment and followed the rules
to a "T". We need not doubt, based on evidence from Josephus and
other sources (not to mention the history of politics in general)
that there were other corrupt trials, other times when the rules
were not followed, when a bribe or a wink of an eye satisfied the
scales of justice.
After all, who was going to put a stop to it? The Romans were just as corrupt as anyone else. Caiaphas himself was deposed sometime later by the legate of Syria, WITH popular support - which indicates that some rather serious claims had been made against him. - Schoe.PP, 150. And, the house of Annas the high priest, of which Caiaphas was a member by marriage, is not noted for its popularity and fairness in later rabbinic sources.
Skeptical strike-backs in this regard have been notable for their lack of specificity. Fricke [Fric.CMJ, 255n] , citing Blinzler's argument that the Sanhedrin rules were not in force in Jesus' time, merely replies that "others, including Strobel, have refuted this hypothesis convincingly." How convincingly? I cannot say, since Fricke does not deign to tell us HOW Strobel accomplished this refutation, and Strobel's work is only available in German! Not that I expected Fricke, a West German himself, to cite only English sources; but he could at least do us the courtesy of outlining, however briefly, the tenets of this "convincing" refutation.
Wilson [Wils.ExJ, 168], a bit more critically, objects that even if the rules were not in effect, "no law code of any kind could have countenanced the judicial methods described by Mark." And we may agree: But again, we are not saying that ANY laws were followed here. One way or another, we have corrupt politics in action.
Finally, Cohn objects that this view makes the priests and elders "not much better than common criminals" [Cohn.TDJ, 34] - which is a caricature of the position being taken; unless Cohn himself regards, for example, a mayor who accepts a bribe as "not much better" than a common criminal. This, again, is the state of politics. In fact, Cohn (ibid., 36-7) notes the description of atrocities by the high priest recorded in Josephus, dated to 60 AD; to this, he merely replies, without proof, that the situation 30 years earlier may have been "entirely different" and says, "I think that even the high priests should be entitled to the benefit of the presumption of innocence."
If that is so, one wonders where Cohn gets off accusing the evangelists of fabricating stories! On the other hand, Cohn IS willing to grant the picture of Caiaphas as one politically inclined, prudent, and with an instinct for self-preservation - which, we may point out, is exactly how he appears in the Gospels.
The net of this is:
1) If those who are Skeptical are going to argue this way, then when they cite specifics, it is specifics we must address. Just saying, "Well, SOMETHING must have been in effect" is not sufficient. We need to know WHAT that "something" was.
2) Any argument based merely on the rules of the Mishnah Sanhedrin hangs by a gossamer thread. There is simply no reason to doubt the historicity of the trial on this account.
But for yet another twist, let's assume that most or all of the rules in question were indeed in effect at the time of Jesus, and that they were taken seriously as a rule - does that necessarily mean that the trial accounts are ahistorical?
Absolutely NOT! These sort of comments reflect a surprisingly two-dimensional view of the political situation and human nature in power structures. The accounts portray the entire subterfuge with Judas as opportunistic. For all we know, they would have done it on the Sabbath (and found some way to justify it, like they did murder in John 11.49ff). Sophistry is not just a Christian folly.
The trial had to take place quickly, since the Triumphal Entry had already occurred, and Jesus was escalating matters every day of Holy Week (cleansing of the temple, challenge of authority - even the anointing in Bethany). Time was running out for the Sanhedrin stooges; people were starting to pour into Jerusalem for the feast. They were simply pressured by the situation into "unlikely" actions. The Gospels' description makes PERFECT sense -- it is not implausible in the least, even as they are commonly interpreted.Let's move on, though, by asking whether these violations cited actually occurred as described. I will begin with a framework established by Still:
1.It was against Jewish law for the Sanhedrin to meet outside of the designated Chamber of Hewn Stone in the Temple and would not have been violated under any circumstance.
This rule was actually NOT violated, according to our historians' source, Luke, whose reference to Jesus being "taken into the assembly" indicates a meeting in the official chambers. (The meeting in the house of the high priest, we learn from John, was an informal interrogation.) Matthew and Mark only give the impression (to the uninformed modern reader) that the Sanhedrin met in the house of the high priest because they have deliberately juxtaposed Peter's denial with the responses of Christ to the Sanhedrin. [See also for this objection Fric.CMJ, 153]
2.The Sanhedrin had an express rule that it could not meet at night because justice must be carried out in the "light of day."
objection, see also [ Carm.DJ, 39; This is
a common objection [see also Carm.DJ, 38; Sand.JesJud,
would this body, in any case, meet on the Passover or so close to
it? I daresay, again, they might have, under certain circumstances -
such as a "messianic pretender" making some moves that MIGHT lead to
all of Judea being trampled into dust by the Romans. And in fact,
as we shall see, there is a PARTICULAR instance, under the Sanhedrin
rules, where they WOULD willingly meet at night, and on the eve of
Passover. Other than that, there are indications from Josephus that
this particular rule about not meeting on the Passover was in effect
in his time, but not earlier - Bamm.TJ, 58 -
and there is no prohibition in the OT against a meeting at this
isn't really a rule, just an observation by Still, which we'll
look at now anyway.
What is actually written is: So is
was not the Elders who did the strike-and-spit; it was their grunts,
which would not be surprising. I hazard that a critical reading the
other Gospels would reveal the same conclusion; however, even if it
did not, I daresay that any group that would engage in the stoning
of Stephen would have no inhibitions about striking or spitting on
someone. (For this objection, see also Crav.LJ, 398)
Moreover, it should be kept in mind that the Sanhedrin would not be
used to someone acting the way Jesus did. Josephus reports that
plaintiffs in Jewish courts "habitually adopted an attitude of utter
servility" in order to arouse pity in the judges [JBz.TJ, 86] . That Jesus broke this mold, and would not "play the game,"
may well have been enough to incite the mockery of Him. Here are
some objections other than those posited by Still [Fric.CMJ,
153-4] : There is
direct evidence that this particular rule was NOT in effect prior to
70 AD. Josephus reports the case of Mariamne (Ant. 15.229), where a
verdict was reached on the same day as the trial. A counter-example
noted in Jospehus, that of Herod [Ant. 14:163-84], refers to a
second session, but indications are that this second session was the
result of "practical expediency" - not because a rule required it. [Bamm.TJ, 54] This,
because the high priest himself testified to Jesus' blasphemy. If
this rule WAS in effect, and this WAS an official trial, it was
violated. And we may also offer the explanation in this next entry:
as Fricke points out immediately after this, the Jewish practice was
"(i)n contrast to Roman criminal procedure, (where) the confession
of the accused was sufficient." Under all interpretations, Jesus'
extracted "confession" was USED by the high priests to convict Him
in a Roman court before Pilate. The question by Caiaphas, Kilpatrick
recognizes in a similar vein, "was put in order to have grounds for
a political charge, to be preferred by Pilate". Whether it was used
to convict Him in the Jewish court is another matter. Also,
[JBz.TJ, 137] notes that technically, this rule was NOT violated because
Jesus' "confession" was not an admission to a crime - it "was" a
crime in and of itself. So these last two items rather miss the
this may depend on whether there WAS a verdict (see
Fricke says, these fellows had been "rudely awakened from sleep" and
had the night before drunk at least 4 glasses of seder wine each.
This, needless to say, is Fricke's own interpretation of events; we
will argue that no one involved was rudely awakened, and all were
very likely to have been alert, because they knew what was coming
and wanted to be ready. There
is, however, no clear evidence of a verdict, as we shall see; nor is
it clear that any vote taken was unanimous, other than
overliteralizing an "all" passage. (In fact, we KNOW that Joseph
and Nicodemus at least would have voted against a conviction, so
there was probably no violation here. Fricke, rather oddly,
suggests that Luke, who makes note of Joseph's dissidence, was trying
to "fix up" the other writers' mistakes - ibid., 156. In that case,
one wonders how Luke, who is the "least professional" of the
evangelists in his reportage of Jewish customs, knew to make the
fix, and why he did not fix every other error that was noted.
other hand, Fricke's fellow-revisionist, Haim Cohn [Cohn.TDJ,
360n], points out that the rule in question actually states that in
the case of a unanimous vote, the suspect should at once be
"dismissed." Where most interpreters see this as meaning that the
unanimous verdict was due to a conspiracy, and therefore the suspect
should be released, Cohn maintains that it means that it was
regarded as pointless to wait until the next day to render sentence
- and thus, the suspect was "dismissed" in the sense of a summary
condemnation. It may therefore be that Fricke is misinterpreting
this rule anyway. So we
have ten objections listed. (Some find more violations, up to 27 of
them; but many are these are based on arguments from silence -
assumptions that something not recorded in the Gospel accounts did
not happen.) Of these ten objections:
>3.Jesus' entry into Jerusalem was probably during
the Feast of the Tabernacles, not Passover. (the palm leaves
strewn in front of Jesus as he entered Jerusalem would not have
been in bloom during Passover) The Sanhedrin would not have met
during the eight-day festival for any
4.The Elders of the Sanhedrin would no more
strike or spit on an accused person, than would the Supreme Court
of the U.S. hearing a case! Luke's account is completely
out-of-context and shows remarkable ignorance as to the
machinations of Jewish Law.
The men who were guarding Jesus began mocking and
beating him. They blindfolded him and demanded, "Prophesy! Who hit
you?" And they said many other insulting things to
5. The verdict upon the accused always had to be
postponed until the next day.
6. Evidence must be from two informers or from
the deposition of the injured party - not from an official.
7. Two witnesses were needed for capital crimes;
the confession of the accused was not admissible.
8. Witnesses could not participate in the verdict
as the judges did where blasphemy occurred.
9. The judges in the case must be mentally alert
10. The verdict cannot be
a common objection [see also Carm.DJ, 38; Sand.JesJud,
But would this body, in any case, meet on the Passover or so close to it? I daresay, again, they might have, under certain circumstances - such as a "messianic pretender" making some moves that MIGHT lead to all of Judea being trampled into dust by the Romans. And in fact, as we shall see, there is a PARTICULAR instance, under the Sanhedrin rules, where they WOULD willingly meet at night, and on the eve of Passover.
Other than that, there are indications from Josephus that this particular rule about not meeting on the Passover was in effect in his time, but not earlier - Bamm.TJ, 58 - and there is no prohibition in the OT against a meeting at this time.
This isn't really a rule, just an observation by Still, which we'll look at now anyway. What is actually written is:
So is was not the Elders who did the strike-and-spit; it was their grunts, which would not be surprising. I hazard that a critical reading the other Gospels would reveal the same conclusion; however, even if it did not, I daresay that any group that would engage in the stoning of Stephen would have no inhibitions about striking or spitting on someone. (For this objection, see also Crav.LJ, 398)
Moreover, it should be kept in mind that the Sanhedrin would not be used to someone acting the way Jesus did. Josephus reports that plaintiffs in Jewish courts "habitually adopted an attitude of utter servility" in order to arouse pity in the judges [JBz.TJ, 86] . That Jesus broke this mold, and would not "play the game," may well have been enough to incite the mockery of Him.
Here are some objections other than those posited by Still [Fric.CMJ, 153-4] :
There is direct evidence that this particular rule was NOT in effect prior to 70 AD. Josephus reports the case of Mariamne (Ant. 15.229), where a verdict was reached on the same day as the trial. A counter-example noted in Jospehus, that of Herod [Ant. 14:163-84], refers to a second session, but indications are that this second session was the result of "practical expediency" - not because a rule required it. [Bamm.TJ, 54]
This, because the high priest himself testified to Jesus' blasphemy. If this rule WAS in effect, and this WAS an official trial, it was violated. And we may also offer the explanation in this next entry:
However, as Fricke points out immediately after this, the Jewish practice was "(i)n contrast to Roman criminal procedure, (where) the confession of the accused was sufficient." Under all interpretations, Jesus' extracted "confession" was USED by the high priests to convict Him in a Roman court before Pilate. The question by Caiaphas, Kilpatrick recognizes in a similar vein, "was put in order to have grounds for a political charge, to be preferred by Pilate". Whether it was used to convict Him in the Jewish court is another matter.
Also, Blinzler [JBz.TJ, 137] notes that technically, this rule was NOT violated because Jesus' "confession" was not an admission to a crime - it "was" a crime in and of itself. So these last two items rather miss the mark.
Again, this may depend on whether there WAS a verdict (see below).
But, Fricke says, these fellows had been "rudely awakened from sleep" and had the night before drunk at least 4 glasses of seder wine each. This, needless to say, is Fricke's own interpretation of events; we will argue that no one involved was rudely awakened, and all were very likely to have been alert, because they knew what was coming and wanted to be ready.
There is, however, no clear evidence of a verdict, as we shall see; nor is it clear that any vote taken was unanimous, other than overliteralizing an "all" passage. (In fact, we KNOW that Joseph and Nicodemus at least would have voted against a conviction, so there was probably no violation here. Fricke, rather oddly, suggests that Luke, who makes note of Joseph's dissidence, was trying to "fix up" the other writers' mistakes - ibid., 156. In that case, one wonders how Luke, who is the "least professional" of the evangelists in his reportage of Jewish customs, knew to make the fix, and why he did not fix every other error that was noted.
On the other hand, Fricke's fellow-revisionist, Haim Cohn [Cohn.TDJ, 360n], points out that the rule in question actually states that in the case of a unanimous vote, the suspect should at once be "dismissed." Where most interpreters see this as meaning that the unanimous verdict was due to a conspiracy, and therefore the suspect should be released, Cohn maintains that it means that it was regarded as pointless to wait until the next day to render sentence - and thus, the suspect was "dismissed" in the sense of a summary condemnation. It may therefore be that Fricke is misinterpreting this rule anyway.
So we have ten objections listed. (Some find more violations, up to 27 of them; but many are these are based on arguments from silence - assumptions that something not recorded in the Gospel accounts did not happen.) Of these ten objections:
- The trial was either legal, or in some part illegal, and Jesus was convicted. (traditional view, discussed above)
- The trial was illegal, and because of that, Jesus was not convicted. (Watson)
- The trial was legal because Jesus was being tried as a 'seducer' under special rules. (Pesch, Salvador)
- The trial was before a non-religious body, and therefore the rules were not relevant. (Rivkin)
- There was no "trial" - what is being described is an interrogation/indictment, or a "show trial" for shaming purposes, and the actual trial came before Pilate - hence, the rules were not relevant. (Wilson, Herzog)
Currently, I am leaning towards options #1 and #5 - although I find 2-4 attractive options as well. We've already considered whether #1 is viable; let's look at the rest one at a time.
2) The trial was illegal, and Jesus was not convicted.
Watson [Wats.TJ, 38] asserts that there was indeed a full meeting of the Sanhedrin, and that jurisprudence was thrown to the wind in several ways because of the absolute desperation of the high priests to dispense with Jesus as quickly as possible, and before the mob favoring Jesus (as opposed to the possibly-paid "Crucify Him!" crowd - see below) could find out what was going on. Watson [ibid., 122] also believes that the Sanhedrin broadened their charge of blasphemy into a charge of sedition (see below) that Pilate would be able to act upon - thereby hoping to get Pilate to do their dirty work and avoid trouble for themselves with Jesus' followers and admirers.
He also indicates that because of the improper behavior of the high priest and the unjust conditions of the Sanhedrin trial, more upright members of the Sanhedrin protested and refused to convict - thus forcing the high priest to rework the charge into one of sedition, and thereby explaining why Jesus was not stoned.
(A similar suggestion, made by Allen [Bamm.TJ, 78], is that the Sanhedrin was unable to convict due to lack of evidence.)
The idea encased in both 1) and 2) above, then, share the idea that the Sanhedrin (to some degree) willingly and flagrantly violated rules in the interest of a power play.
Skeptical answers are ineffective: Fricke [Fric.CMJ, 250n] argues that there were far too many rules violated to accept this idea; this never would have happened, he says, because the Sanhedrin was composed of the "wisest men in Israel." Well, RICHEST, perhaps; MOST POWERFUL, no doubt; most EDUCATED, maybe - but WISEST is a value judgment that we cannot presume upon the scenario, and even then, even the wisest in society have been noted for their lack of wisdom at times, especially where emotional issues are at stake. And again, as we have seen, there simply were not that many violations in the first place.
On the other hand, that the trial was NOT illegal, or that what was illegal was not seriously so, is perhaps indicated by the fact that, if it had been, then it surely would have been exploited by the apostolic church and the Apostolic Fathers in their polemics - JBz.TJ, 43; Brow.DMh, 359n.
3) The trial was legal because Jesus was being tried as a 'seducer' under special rules.
Pesch argues [Pesc.TJC, 21-2; 32; see also Betz.TST] , within the presumed-valid Mishna rules, that Jesus was regarded as a "seducer" of the people - one who led the people astray by speaking treason against the Lord. Let's look at these verses:
Deut. 13:1-5 If a prophet, or one who foretells by dreams, appears among you and announces to you a miraculous sign or wonder, and if the sign or wonder of which he has spoken takes place, and he says, "Let us follow other gods" (gods you have not known) "and let us worship them," you must not listen to the words of that prophet or dreamer. The LORD your God is testing you to find out whether you love him with all your heart and with all your soul. It is the LORD your God you must follow, and him you must revere. Keep his commands and obey him; serve him and hold fast to him. That prophet or dreamer must be put to death, because he preached rebellion against the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt and redeemed you from the land of slavery; he has tried to turn you from the way the LORD your God commanded you to follow. You must purge the evil from among you.
How would this apply to Jesus? Pesch argues that in His symbolic demonstration in the Temple, and in His teaching regarding it, Jesus was seen as preaching rebellion against the order established by God. Further, he notes that the Qumran Temple Scroll interpreted a seducer as one who "betrays his people to a foreign nation" - which fits nicely both with Caiaphas' "better that one man die" speech and the charge recorded by Luke that Jesus was "subverting the nation." (The word in Luke, Tyson observes [Tys.DLA, 129], literally means "to turn away," but also was "used to designate the act of misleading someone or misshaping something.")
The Sanhedrin, Pesch tells us, had special regulations where this sort of offense was concerned - notably, the principle of horaath sa'ah, or, "as time demands it." Due to the explosive danger seen in the nature of the crime, action against the seducer could be initiated DURING THE NIGHT and concluded the same day - and, an early Jewish interpretation in the matter also suggests that seducers SHOULD be executed "precisely on a pilgrims' feast day in Jerusalem, in order to frighten the people". [Pesc.TJC, 32]
Thus, by this scenario, the complaint that meeting on Passover eve is against what we know, is actually here precisely the opposite - it fits what we know exactly. Pesch also notes that the Qumran temple scroll, in a commentary on Deut. 21:21, regarded CRUCIFIXION as the proper punishment for the treasonous! The Sanhedrin in this case would find the Roman punishment quite satisfactory, and perhaps seek a way to implement it. - see also Betz.TST, 5; and Brow.DMh, 533.)
Other circumstances reported in the Gospels fit this scenario hauntingly well. Note, for example, Mark 14:1, where the authorities seek to arrest Jesus by stealth. The Tosephtha Sanhedrin 7.11 says: "For all who are guilty of the punishment of death (as named) by law, one may not set traps, except for the seducer." Thus, Pesch argues, Mark was not only reporting what happened; he was reporting a legal-historical fact; and the role of Judas takes on an entirely new light. [Pesc.TJC, 29-30]
Again, skeptical response here is notably ineffective. Fricke <[Fric.CMJ, 157, 251n] puts forward the following objections:
1) "Jesus had never enjoined anyone to commit anything that could be remotely regarded as 'idolatry'."
No? What about encouraging people to see Him as God's only Son or as the Messiah, and claiming the attributes of God? What about demonstrating against the Temple order, which was ordained by God, thereby suggesting rebellion against God's established order and leaving open the option of going to other gods? And even beyond that, Pesch's Qumran interpretation covers that issue - it was seen as encompassing more than just simple idolatry.
2) There was "no denunciation, nor was a hearing conducted as prescribed in Deut. 13:14."
I see no requirement for a denunciation anywhere; as for the hearing - there was one, according to John. That would be the place where Caiaphas made his "one dying for the nation" speech. Or, it could be the meeting at Annas' place that counted in that respect.
3) Finally, we are told that a "convention of the German-speaking Catholic New Testament scholars," in April 1987, pronounced Pesch's thesis "downright misleading."
Unfortunately, Fricke once again neglects to give us the details. And we may add that Pesch was NOT the first to suggest this idea...back in 1862, it was suggested by the Jewish legal expert Salvador, who apparently did not consider it "misleading" at all. - Chand.TJ, 96
A similar theory by Bowker [Bwk.JPh] sees Jesus as being tried as a "rebellious elder" according to rules in Deut. 17. Bowker acknowledges that his interpretation depends upon presuming that there was a broader definition of the term in the time of Jesus than there was in rabbinic material of a later period; Cohn [Cohn.TDJ, 60] objects, perhaps correctly, that the charge applied only to ordained scholars. However, Bowker sees in the case of Jesus some things that might be applicable to the "seducer" charge. To wit [ibid., 43, 45]:
(Jesus) appeared to be claiming that the effect of God, the revelation of God to a human situation, is possible even where no attempt at all is being made to accept and implement what God has commanded in Torah. Sin can apparently be forgiven by a word. (Mk. 2:1-12) Jesus did not necessarily deny the observance of the Torah. But he certainly resisted the view that its observance is an indispensable and prior condition of the action of God; faith is, if anything, the prior condition.
This, Bowker says, would be most unwelcome to the Pharisees, and perceived as "a betrayal of Torah" - which point of view would have been Jesus' own business, had He not started teaching it publicly! Bowker does not come to this conclusion, but I would like to suggest that here, perhaps, is the "idolatry" that Fricke is looking for. The God that Jesus preached may have seemed a bit out-of-character to the Pharisees - perhaps even seen as a "new" god that was not the true God at all.
4) The trial was before a non-religious body, and therefore the rules were not relevant.
Rivkin, a Jewish historian, suggests that when the NT refers to the Sanhedrin, it means not the official body called the Great Sanhedrin, but an informal council of political advisers to the high priest [Rivk.WCJ, 83] - hence there were no violations of rabbinical jurisprudence, for the meeting was not of an official religious body. He sees the Sanhedrin described by Josephus as "a sort of privy council, not a permanent body which enjoyed a religious status independent of the high priest and procurator" and which "functioned as an adjunct to the political authority," although religious leaders could participate. [ibid., 34-5] Certain linguistic ambiguities in Luke may support this theory [Tys.DLA, 121-2] .
Rivkin has not been alone in espousing this theory, which I find has elements of plausibility. The biggest objection against it is that a clear division between a religious and political Sanhedrin is not mentioned in the histories of the time, not even clearly in Josephus. [See Wils.ExJ, 176n] Rivkin acknowledges this, but points out that Josephus says nothing about Caiaphas, other than that he was high priest. [Rivk.WCJ, 36] This suggestion by Rivkin remains an open one.
5) There was no "trial" - what is being described is an interrogation/indictment or "show trial", and the actual trial came before Pilate. Hence, there were no illegalities.
It is a common assumption - made by Skeptics and believers alike - that Jesus underwent an official trial by the Sanhedrin. This, indeed, may have happened, but it may also be a false impression given by an over-literal reading of the Gospel accounts (though we emphasize, again, that this could very well have been an illegal gathering of the Sanhedrin, yet not affect the plausibility of the account).
Under this view, what was the nature of the Jewish "trial"? John and Luke would preserve the most literally accurate picture - interrogation before Annas and then Caiaphas, with other Sanhedrin officials perhaps nearby, but not the entire body of the Sanhedrin - and then, not a trial, but "a police investigation designed to reveal the charge under which a suspect may be brought before a court," with those present capable by virtue of their qualifications to become a "trial court" once some kind of confession or evidence was elicited [Harv.JTr, 59-60] ; or else, a "show trial" which was "a way of processing deviants in an authoritaarian society." [Herz.PT, 216].
The impression of a trial before the entire Sanhedrin is given by an overliteral reading of Mark 14:55, which says that "the whole Sanhedrin" was looking for evidence against Jesus (followed by Matt. 26:59, and to some extent by Luke 22:66). This should no more be taken to mean that the entire Sanhedrin was there than saying that someone who testified before Congress had the exclusive attention of all 535 members. After all, we know that if this WAS a full meeting, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus weren't voting for conviction, and Gamaliel probably would not have, either. And as Sanders [Sand.JesJud, 299] points out, as far as the Sanhedrin goes, the disciples:
...were not privy to the membership list; if people hurried into the high priest's house at night, there was no one to identify them and tick their names off.
I would qualify here by observing that Sanders here has accepted the false impression of a Sanhedrin trial at the high priest's house. But the point is the same: For Mark and Matt, the chiefs of the Sanhedrin were there (or perhaps, they figured that there were enough Sanhedrists present to constitute a quorum - 23 members out of 71 [Fric.CMJ, 150; Chand.TJ, 59]) and that meant that the vested power of that body, which is to say the whole of it, was there; and thus, in their "man-on-the-street" view of justice, this was a formal action, perhaps even in their minds, a trial. It is also perhaps indicative of typical Semitic hyperbole - i.e., "They were ALL out to get Jesus" - or more likely in this regard, a literary effort to portray Jesus "against a biblical background of the just one standing alone (except for God's help) against all adversaries." ( Brow.DMh, 633 - See also Harv.JTr, 64.)
Let's have a "round-up" of relevant opinions in this regard - bearing in mind that our stance here is that once Mark and Matthew are read critically, they reveal the same order of events as Luke and John:
Winter [Wint.TJ, 30]
allows that Jesus was questioned in the high priests' house
by some official, which Mark took to be a session of the Senate
(but as with the others, I think Winter is reading the wrong thing
into Mark) and John as an investigation conducted by Annas. Winter
[ibid., 27] also suggests that the evangelists came up with their
scenarios based on a tradition that a later morning session of the
Sanhedrin approved a writ of indictment drawn up the night before
- something he allows as a possibility; citing Mark 15:1 and Luke
22:6, he says that the meeting "seems to have dealt with an
administrative question [NOTE: as opposed to a judicial question]
within the council's competence, namely the delivery of a person
suspected of sedition to the procurator."
In the Luke passage, he finds no indication of a "formal sentence" - merely an "official approval of the charge-sheet." [ibid., 48; see also Brand.TJ, 118-9]
- Cohn [Cohn.TDJ, 106] objects that the rules that apply to a trial should probably also apply to a preliminary hearing, but provides no foundation for this assertion, and at any rate, does not deal with the problem of the rules in question being from a much later source.
- Brandon [Brand.TJ, 130-1, 139] recognizes that "the proceedings in the high priests' house were not a formal trial" but a "fact-finding enquiry" by "an expert on Jewish affairs," arranged because "Pilate would probably have decided that it would assist his own evaluation of the matter, if he were informed about the prisoner's ideas and aims by a Jewish expert." Annas in his view would then send Jesus to Caiaphas, who was, as head of the Jewish state, the direct liaison to Rome.
- Herzog [Herz.PT, 216f] approaching from the social science perspective considers even the use of the word "trial" anachronistic, and regards what happened before the Sanhedrin as "political theater" in which Jesus' guilt had already been determined, and there is no real presenting of evidence for the purpose of conviction. The purpose rather is to "publicly shame and humiliate an enemy of the state so as to discredit and degrade everything he represents." Any "witnesses" have been coached as to what to say and the whole process is scripted and choreographed.
- Sanders [Sand.JesJud, 317-8] indicates that he finds "nothing intrinsically improbable" in the account as John presents it, and concludes that "The vaguer account of John seems better to correspond with the way things actually worked." (But as I have said, it is also what is reflected by a critical reading of the other Gospels.)
- Harvey [AH.TJ, 59-61] , as noted above, finds not a trial, but a police investigation - what we may today refer to as an interrogation/arraignment. He finds this in all four Gospels, noting that Mark "nowhere states this to have been a formal sitting of the court" - although he does maintain that those present were qualified to act as a court, and may have done so once Jesus spoke His alleged blasphemy.
- Wilson [Wils.ExJ, 56], though he denies that any harmonization with the other Gospels is possible, observes that Luke does not depict any sort of trial by the Sanhedrin - rather, what is presented in more like an inquiry.
We may also note in support of this "no trial" view Acts 13:27-8, where Paul observes that the rulers had NOT found a proper cause to find Jesus guilty, nor passed sentence - they had to ask Pilate to perform the execution, although they did indeed supply the basis for condemnation [Bamm.TJ, 56]. Under this view, the statement that Jesus was "worthy of death" becomes merely an observation/opinion - not a verdict or formal condemnation - see (Wils.ExJ, 49.
This view is also in line with what Josephus records (see above). Even Fricke [Fric.CMJ, 252n]roundaboutly (and unwittingly) admits to this possibility, noting that the Encyclopedia Judaica says: "A man suspected of being a messianic pretender could be delivered to the Romans without a verdict of the Jewish high court." To which we reply: Precisely. Under this scenario, there was no trial, and no verdict: Just an interrogation, a fact-finding, a delivery to the Romans.
In closing: We have five very good scenarios, each of which is plausible, and some to an extensive degree. There is simply no good grounds for rejecting the historicity of the trial accounts on the basis of alleged "violations" of judicial/administrative practice - especially since rejection of that sort would lead us to discard the transcripts of many modern trials as fabrications.
Matthew: The high priest said to him, "I charge you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God." "Yes, it is as you say," Jesus replied. "But I say to all of you: In the future you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven." Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, "He has spoken blasphemy! Why do we need any more witnesses? Look, now you have heard the blasphemy. What do you think?" "He is worthy of death," they answered.
Mark: Again the high priest asked him, "Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?" "I am," said Jesus. "And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven." The high priest tore his clothes. "Why do we need any more witnesses?" he asked. "You have heard the blasphemy. What do you think?" They all condemned him as worthy of death.
Luke: "If you are the Christ, " they said, "tell us." Jesus answered, "If I tell you, you will not believe me, and if I asked you, you would not answer. But from now on, the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the mighty God." They all asked, "Are you then the Son of God?" He replied, "You are right in saying I am." Then they said, "Why do we need any more testimony? We have heard it from his own lips."
Whichever of the views of the trial above we may subscribe to, it is clear that a turning point in the Sanhedrin "trial" of Jesus is that in which Caiaphas asks Jesus directly if He is the Messiah - and Jesus answers in the affirmative and adds further descriptions, leading Caiaiphas to declare that blasphemy has been spoken.
There are two parts to Jesus' answer. First claiming to be Messiah - was this the blasphemy? Critics say no. Carmichael says that the claim to be Messiah was "definitely not blasphemy," [Carm.DJ, 21] but makes no effort to explain why it was not, and does not even address the second part of Jesus' response. Sanders [Sand.JesJud, 298] observes that "Subsequent would-be Messiahs were not charged with blasphemy, and 'son of God' could mean almost anything." In a later work [Sand.HistF, 271], however, Sanders concludes that Caiaphas had resolved in advance to charge Jesus with blasphemy, found the most opportune statement, and tore his garments as a way of persuading the rest of the council to go along with him.
Brandon [Brand.TJ, 90] remarks: "...Josephus does not mention that any other of the many Messianic pretenders, whom he records, was adjudged worthy of death for blasphemy." Sloyan [Sloy.JT, 61] asserts: "Obviously, the claim to messiahship was not blasphemous. Many had made it before, and Bar Kokhba would make it subsequently."
Note, to begin, these things about Messianic pretenders in general, and Bar Kochba in particular:
* A difference in the Messianic-claim example of Bar Kokhba - according to rabbinic lore, Rabbi Akiba pointed to Simon Bar Kochba as the Messiah [Mark.BKB, 6] . Simon Bar Kochba did NOT make the claim for himself. The title was only bestowed upon him by others.
As we note elsewhere, to claim on your own to be the Messiah would be taken as proof that you most assuredly were not telling the truth - and thus, you could very well be charged with blasphemy.
Admittedly, there IS a tradition in the Babylonian Talmud - a few hundred years after the fact - that Kochba, after two and a half years of leadership, DID claim to be the Messiah; but when he failed a test put to him, he was executed. [Juel.MTm, 70] But even if this is a reliable retelling, it hardly fits where Jesus was concerned: Kochba had been a leader of the people for some time, and was in a position where he might well have been given the benefit of the doubt; whereas Jesus, arrested, bound, and standing before the Sanhedrin, was certainly in no such position. Or as Blinzler [JBz.TJ, 107] puts it:
...(T)hat revolutionary hero corresponded absolutely ideally with the popular Jewish mental picture of the belligerent political Messias, whereas Jesus must have appeared to his contemporaries to be the complete antithesis of that picture.
* Brandon cites the reports of Josephus, but he errs in doing so - for the truth is that bar Kochba was the "first recorded" of the Pseudo-Messiahs. Not ONE of the rebel leaders recorded by Josephus claimed to be anything more than a "king" - they had some "messianic" ambitions, but they did NOT make a claim to be a Messiah. [Harv.JTr, 9-10n; see alsoBrow.DMh, 475] As far as we can tell, then, Jesus' claim was the first of its kind.
* So, to call upon what we noted elsewhere, in this context, in the words of O'Neill [ONi.WhoD, 48-53; Bamm.TJ, 75]: "the blasphemy lay in saying one was the Messiah," for, by Jewish thinking, "the Messiah is not to glorify himself." And: "The blasphemy would then consist not in the particular title chosen but in the very temerity of using any title at all before God the Father had himself announced the enthronement of his anointed one." Jesus' blasphemy in this regard was, by this view, a blasphemy of presumption to know God's mind.
* Re "Son of God," and the comment by Sanders: It is quite possible to see this messianically, in a rather direct way. This could have been equated with "son of David," a clear messianic title, based on certain OT passages (2 Sam. 7:14, Ps. 2:7, 89:26-7 - Broo.Mk, 243).
But is the phrase used by Jesus indeed an affirmation? O'Neill saw the phrase as an "avoidance of the direct denial the court required", and therefore less than equivocal, [ibid., 120n], but does note that other commentators see the statement by Jesus and the others as meaning, "As you have said, so it is."
And indeed, the further evidence that I have uncovered indicates that this is more of an affirmatory phrase, and one actually in line with social constraints of the day. Let us look at two examples of its use in detail:
*Judah the Patriarch is dying, and it has been said that anyone who announces the death will suffer severe consequences. Rabbi Bar Kapparah announces the death euphemistically by referring to angels snatching away the tables of the covenant. Those around Kapparah exclaim, "Rabbi is dead!" Kapparah replies, "You have said it; I have not said it." In this Catchpole [Catch.AJC, 219] sees "an affirmation, qualified only by reluctance to state the matter openly expressis verbis."
This presents an interesting parallel to Jesus' reply, for He would know what the result of an affirmative answer would be.
*Simon the Modest, in reply to Rabbi Eliezer's question concerning his lack of adherence to Temple protocol: "Are you ashamed to admit that the high priest's dog is more beloved than you?", replies "You have said so" - which may be seen as a "shame-faced acquiescence and an embarrassed admission" that Eliezer has caught him. [ibid., 220]
Indeed both of these examples fit in with the observations of Herzog [Herz.JJ, 130] that in an honor and shame society like first-century Palestine, such an "evasive" answer would have been what we would expect if Jesus were an honorable man. His silence before his accusers, and "evasive" answer, are part of the honor-shame paradigm: "The honorable man never defends himself against a charge or answers directly a question posed by an enemy."
Instead one must shift the focus -- which is exactly what Jesus does in the Son of Man statements that follow: "Yes, I am -- and I'll prove it, and you'll see it."
The difficulty here, then, is non-existent. It is probable, indeed quite likely, that part 1 of Jesus' answer was blasphemy - what about part 2, all that stuff about the Son of Man coming on the clouds and all that? Was that blasphemy?
Interestingly, we find a defense of this idea from Skeptic Robert Price -- who says this in Beyond Born Again:
I dare say that most readers of this text naturally assume that this statement (the second part) was the alleged blasphemy in question. And I think they are right.
If one still wants to go in search of extrabiblical corroboration, it is there to be found. Rabbinic literature refers to a Jewish "binitarian" heresy, whereby some claimed that "There are two Powers in heaven." This binitarian heresy was particularly associated with the idea that one of God's servants should be so highly exalted as to be enthroned by his side. According to one rabbinic text, a scholar suggests that David will occupy a throne next to God. A colleague reproaches him: "How long will you profane the Shekinah?" In the late book III Enoch, the exalted Enoch is given the divine Name and a throne next to God's. A later redactor tries to tone this down for fear of binitarianism. What we can see in all this is that Jesus' claim to be enthroned by God's side could be taken by hearers as blasphemy even if not intended as a claim to be God.
In the examples just referred to, the binitarian divinity claim was a conclusion drawn not by the original speaker (or writer) , but by his opponents who feared what they saw as the implication of his words. We might be justified in reading the "blasphemy" charge in the Marcan text as one more example of this. My appeal to Jewish literature merely supports what l believe to be the natural' reading of the Marcan text. Stauffer's on the other hand serves to interpret the text in a way that is rather less than obvious. In short, once again, it is not at all clear that we must reckon with a "claim to be God."
Although some commentators have considered the "Shekinah" comment not relevant in this case, there is still indeed a "blasphemy" here - and Price fails to see the very obvious claim to divinity. "Son of Man" was one of Jesus' appellations for Himself. Therefore, Jesus was affirming for Himself this enthroning by God's side - and as God will not share His glory with another, this is a declaration of equality, and hence identity, with God.
This amounts, then, to a constructive blasphemy - making oneself an assessor and peer of the Most High. It may not have met the technical, legal definition of blasphemy (assuming that rule to have been in effect - see below), but it was clearly, and "correctly," recognized as such in the mouth of One who was presumed to not be deserving of it. As Brown [Brow.DMh, 531] puts it:
The only likely historical charge would have been that Jesus arrogantly claimed for himself status or privileges that belonged properly to the God of Israel alone and in that sense implicitly demeaned God.
But critics take another turn in this regard, and it involves another appeal to the previously-referred-to constraints of the Mishnah. Winter [Wint.TJ, 102n] observes that according to these rules, "The blasphemer is not culpable unless he distinctly pronounces the [divine] Name." Jesus did not say the Divine Name, according to the Gospels; therefore, Winter says, there was no blasphemy.
Again, this objection fails on the grounds that there is no absolute certainty that these rules were in effect at the time of Jesus, nor that they were strictly observed - and in fact, there is evidence that there was a broader definition of blasphemy in effect at the time. Let's first look at some relevant verses from the OT:
Lev. 24:15-6 Say to the Israelites: 'If anyone curses his God, he will be held responsible; anyone who blasphemes the name of the LORD must be put to death. The entire assembly must stone him. Whether an alien or native-born, when he blasphemes the Name, he must be put to death.
Harvey [Harv.JTr, 78-80] observes that the Jewish writer Philo, a contemporary of Jesus, "finds it inconceivable that any form whatsoever of cursing or blaspheming God should not carry the death penalty" in light of that other offenses, like cursing your parents, did - thus, he interpreted "his God" in v. 15 as meaning "anyone who blasphemes his OWN god" - whether the true one or a heathen one. Philo also records that blasphemy includes "any 'unreasonable' uttering of God's name" - which we might equate today with cursing after hitting one's thumb with a hammer.
Harvey sees in this observation by Philo the possibility that Jesus was charged with referring to God in an "unreasonable" way - and he concludes:
...it would be unreasonable to reject out of hand the remarkably consistent testimony of the Gospels that Jesus, by claiming or admitting that he was Messiah and Son of God, laid himself open to a charge of blasphemy that was punishable by death.
Other evidence for a broader definition of blasphemy is found in Mark's Gospel. Blasphemy is said to include the power to forgive sins (2:17) and attributing the works of the Holy Spirit to Satan (3:28). These may be seen as infringements upon the prerogative of God [Juel.MTm, 102-3] - "constructive blasphemy," if you will - in much the same way that Jesus proclaimed for Himself the prerogative of God with the "clouds" remark.
Third and final question, now: Jesus was recognized as committing blasphemy; but was he actually CHARGED with it? Here I find an open question. I lean towards the idea that Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin RECOGNIZED the blasphemy, but did not necessarily formally charge Jesus with it. In any event, they brought a case for sedition to Pilate...but for what reason?
Sedition Sentence, Execution Power
If Jesus was charged with blasphemy, or even if it was recognized informally, then why wasn't He stoned on the spot, as would be expected? There are a lot of possible answers: The Jewish leadership wanted Pilate to do their dirty work so that they would not bear the brunt of executing a popular leader; the arrest had been initiated by Pilate in the first place, or he had some interest in it; there was no actual verdict; and, among the most-appealed to reasons, the Sanhedrin had no right to execute.
The latter answer is often disputed by Skeptics; we will let our Price have the floor again on this one:
It even becomes an open question whether the Sanhedrin had any role in the trial and death of Jesus, simply because of the manner of execution. He was crucified, a Roman penalty inflicted on pirates, seditionists, and runaway slaves. A.N. Sherwin-White, though not an accomplished judge in the State of New York, was an authority on Roman law, and he argued in Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament that the Sanhedrin would have needed Pilate's permission for Jesus to be executed, as the gospels say. Other scholars dispute Sherwin-White's opinion. I am by no means in a position to take sides on the matter. But even if Sherwin-White is correct, the real difficulty remains unresolved: if Jesus were to be executed for blasphemy, why did Annas and Caiaphas not simply seek Pilate's permission to have Jesus stoned to death, since stoning was the required penalty? That they did not raises the real possibility that the grounds for the execution were entirely different, perhaps political, as many scholars have held.
This is rather a strange statement. The gospels explicitly tell us that the political issues were the major "real" issue (the "envy" passage in Matt. 27:18 - see below - plus the parable of the Wicked Tenants, told during Holy Week). One should not confuse the motive with the method, as Price has somehow done here.
However, we would agree that the charge which the Sanhedrin delegates brought to Pilate was indeed not blasphemy - it couldn't have been, because the Romans could have cared less about that. Let's look at the actual charges that they brought to Pilate:
Mark (15:1-3), Matthew (27) and John (18) do not give the specific charges, Mark saying only that Jesus was accused of "many things." But the implication of Pilate's question, which is the same in the others as asked in Luke below, tells us that the accusations made were the same as Luke records:
Luke 23:1-5 Then the whole assembly rose and led him off to Pilate. And they began to accuse him, saying, "We have found this man subverting our nation. He opposes payment of taxes to Caesar and claims to be Christ, a king." So Pilate asked Jesus, "Are you the king of the Jews?" "Yes, it is as you say," Jesus replied. Then Pilate announced to the chief priests and the crowd, "I find no basis for a charge against this man." But they insisted, "He stirs up the people all over Judea by his teaching. He started in Galilee and has come all the way here."
So the charge brought before Pilate was not blasphemy, but, indeed, sedition - a crime that Price acknowledges earned the Roman death penalty. It is quite likely that the Sanhedrin simply took their own discovery of blasphemy and re-interpreted it in a light that Pilate would react to, adding the bit about opposing payment of taxes to Caesar (an oblique, distorted reference to Jesus' "Give unto Caesar" quote, perhaps) to seal the deal.
This, indeed, seems well-agreed to by critics:
* Brandon [Brand.TJ, 139] even takes the issue too far, insisting that the problems between the trial accounts "stem from the embarrassing fact of the Roman execution of Jesus for sedition" - though he fails to explain why it should have been found embarrassing, when so many other things were recorded in the Gospels that were potentially embarrassing to Christianity.
Let me add here that if the evangelists were trying to hide the charge against Jesus, then they might as well have tried to hide an elephant in a teacup. Crucifixion was widely known as the death penalty for slaves and rebels.
* More likely, Wilson says, is that the Gospels writers considered the charge of blasphemy more important than that of sedition, or else wished to avoid the interpretation that Christianity was a sect that was interested in anarchy [Wils.ExJ, 79] .
* Pesch [Pesc.TJC, 33] places special attention upon the initial inquiries concerning Jesus' claim about the Temple, and the implied threat to it, and subsequent rebuilding: 2 Samuel 7:12-14 was interpreted as Messianic in Jesus' day; it indicates that the Messiah would build a new temple. Caiaphas may well have been purposely setting the inquiry in this direction from the start.
This leads to our final observation, which ties the two concepts of blasphemy and sedition together:
* The blasphemy charge (or observation) may be seen as the impetus for the priests to charge sedition, and it would be rather easy to derive one from the other. Rivkin [Rivk.WCJ, 85] puts it this way:
The high priest of the Sanhedrin would thus report to (Pilate) the simple facts - Here is a charismatic of charismatics who attracted crowds; who set off a disturbance in the Temple area, thronged at festival time with highly excitable pilgrims; who was acclaimed as the Messiah, the King of the Jews, as he walked through the streets of Jerusalem, and who called upon the people to prepare for the (imminent) coming of God's kingdom.
And Wilson [Wils.ExJ, 126], in his words:
It is reasonable to suppose that the Jewish proceedings against Jesus dwelt on this claim to be the Messiah, because of the political implications which this would have conveyed to Pilate.
And Pesch [Pesc.TJC, 35-6] explains, in line with his "seducer" theory:
>Jesus slandered God because, in spite of his powerlessness, he wanted to be on equal footing with God. Such a messianic claim endangers, of course...the temple and the Holy City, [it] hands the people of God over to a Gentile power and is therefore blasphemous.
Thus could the one charge be dovetailed into the other: The claim to be Messiah could be made into evidence for political high treason - in Jewish eyes, perhaps, a seducer of the people - and would fit hand-in-glove with the Roman crime of sedition [Pesc.TJC, 14, 36-7; see Sanders' similar conclusion, resolving sedition from the threat against the Temple, Sand.JesJud, 296] .
We may agree, then, that the ultimate charge was sedition; but the question remains as to why Jesus was not executed by stoning as blasphemy requires. We have seen Watson's theoretical answer: the Sanhedrin refused to convict; and, the Sanhedrin was using Pilate as their hatchet man - the second part of which I completely agree with, and will elaborate upon below. Similarly, Allen [Bamm.TJ, 78-83] supposes that the Sanhedrin was unable to reach a conviction because they were unable to fulfill the requirement in Deuteronomy of having their witnesses agree - so, they had to turn the case over to Pilate and charge sedition to get the desired result.
Finally, if Winter is correct, then Pilate was involved from the very beginning, and this was a Roman case from the very start, so that it had already been agreed as to who was going to do the dirty work. But now we will look at one verse in particular that addresses the issue:
>John 19:7 The Jews insisted, "We have a law, and according to that law he must die, because he claimed to be the Son of God."
This verse may be evidence for O'Neill's speculation [ONi.WhoD, 48] that a law existed at the time making it blasphemy to claim to be the Messiah. It is also (along with an earlier verse in John) taken as an indication that the Jews could not execute a death sentence, a fact which Price earlier suggested Sherwin-White might be wrong on. What of this particular issue?
First, this sounds much like an attempt by the Jewish leaders to say that under their law, they would execute Jesus anyway - so there is no reason why Pilate should not proceed with the execution. Second, it may be that the Jewish leaders are actually restating the case for sedition and mean Roman law, not Jewish law. Either way, the question remains the same: Did the Jews have the right to execute?
Although many writers in the past disputed it [see Wint.TJ, 74ff; Carm.DJ, 39] , and others like Fricke continue to assert it [Fric.CMJ, 112] , it is, in fact, contra Price, well-attested that Sherwin-White was correct - the Jews did not have the right to execute someone at the time of Jesus [see Bamm.TJ, 59-63; Pesc.TJC, 18-9; Wils.ExJ, 15; Harv.JTr, 4], although they were able to pronounce death sentences which had to be ratified and carried out. The Romans seldom granted ANYONE capital power, and there is "(n)o evidence from any Roman source...that the Romans ever granted the right of capital power punishment to provincial courts." If it was to be granted ANYWHERE, it would be to free states that had shown special loyalty to Rome. Judea was NOT one of these.
And this tells us one reason why it was not granted: In decidedly Roman-unfriendly areas, it could be used by the local courts to deal with local Roman sympathizers. In fact, it is notable how picky the Romans were about restricting the power: Particularly, a decree of Augustus to the proconsul of Cyrene, dated 7-6 BC, SPECIFICALLY EXCLUDES capital power from the province of the native court. [Wils.ExJ, 13]
It is further noted by Overstreet [Overs.RLTC, 326] that the high priest Annas (yes, the one in the Gospels) was deposed in AD 15 precisely BECAUSE he took it upon himself to violate this exclusion in between times of procuratoruial assignments. Capital punishment was a right that the Romans reserved unto themselves, and while in the interest of peace they might wink an eye at occasional violations on the local level (see below), officially speaking, the law was taken seriously - and to demonstrate that, let's take a look at the cases commonly brought forward to prove that the Jews were able to exercise capital power.
- John the Baptist. [Fric.CMJ, 112]Fricke is the only writer to cite this one. He forgets that Herod Antipas, the tetrarch of Galilee, served as the representative of the Roman Empire - and was therefore vested with its capital power. But Jesus was executed in Judea, which was under a procurator.
The stoning of Stephen. [Fric.CMJ,
155n] This was actually more of a lynch mob than an official
trial. There was no verdict, and no sentence. Fricke, though, suggests that the Roman procurator declined to execute
Stephen, so the Sanhedrin did it - ibid., 246n. Winter suggests that the passage of the death sentence was
omitted by a copyist - ibid., 192n. Both of these are adding to history in order to deny history. But
wouldn't those Romans step in and do something about this
travesty of justice? Actually, no. Remember that there were only
3000 or so troops stationed in all of Judea. Some give-and-take HAD to
occur. And this happened Empire-wide, as Wilson [Wils.ExJ,
11-12] points out:
There is extensive evidence that throughout the empire in Jesus' day native provincial citizens frequently took matters into their own hands and illegally executed natives on criminal charges. The Romans were totally unable to police the internal life of the provinces closely; and would not have done so if they had been able. Roman officials often winked at the excesses of the provincial courts in dealing with alleged offenses, as long as Roman citizens were not involved.
This will also apply to some of the other cases we will examine. It has also been suggested that this incident occurred "between procurators" c. 36-7 AD, at a time when the legate of Syria, who was more or less in charge, gave the Jews more freedom in such matters.
- The woman caught in adultery in John 8. [Fric.CMJ, 112] Actually, all this does is make the "dare" of those who brought the woman even more exceptional. Not only were they challenging Jesus concerning the Jewish Law - they were also challenging Him to commit a violation of Roman law - i.e., commit sedition! It's the same pattern that came to pass during Passion Week.
- The Temple Court warning. [Fric.CMJ, 112; Wint.TJ, 155n]. This indicates a special exception to NORMAL practice. The Jews were allowed to kill any Gentile who entered the sacred inner court - even if they were a Roman citizen. It should be recognized as "clearly exceptional" [Bamm.TJ, 60] to normal Roman procedure - and in line with the Roman custom of granting provincial subjects "as much freedom as possible in practicing their religion." [Wils.ExJ, 11]
The Jews of course would wish to maintain the purity and sanctity of the Temple; hence, the special exception. (And at any rate, this offense does not necessarily involve trial or examination by the Sanhedrin.- [Kilp.TJ, 18; contra Burk.ConJ, 338n )
- The stoning of the high priest's daughter as a fornicator. [Fric.CMJ, 112; Wint.TJ, 155n] This event, recorded in a third-century document [Wils.ExJ, 9] , allegedly took place c. 41 AD - during the reign of Herod Agrippa I, who served as a client-king in Judea sandwiched between two long runs of procurators. It may be that he had some part in it, for he would have been allowed to impose the death penalty [Brow.DMh, 369] . However, since an exact time for this event cannot be established, its relevance cannot be established. [Kilp.TJ, 18-19]
Moreover, the story tells us that the execution occurred because the court that performed the sentence was "unskilled" - which leads to the deduction that may have been an "illegal" sentence and execution anyway. [Wils.ExJ, 11]
- The death of James, the brother of Jesus (AD 62). [Fric.CMJ, 112; Wint.TJ, 155n; Brand.TJ, 91] Again, as with Stephen, we have more of a "lynch mob" action - and the Sanhedrin in question was illegally convened in the first place.
- The Holy of Holies. [Wint.TJ, 155n] A letter of Agrippa I indicates that those who trespassed in the Holy of Holies were "liable to the death penalty." However, this has the appearance of a crime along the lines of #4 above; and at any rate, Agrippa does not describe the process whereby the execution takes place. [Kilp.TJ, 19]
- Paul in Acts. [Brand.TJ, 91] It is argued that Paul was before the Sanhedrin in a capital matter; but, this cannot really be used, since it never got as far as the penalty phase.
- Paul as persecutor. In Acts Paul professes to have harassed Christians to their deaths. This, like #2 above, however, seems to have occurred at a time between procurators, c. 36-7 AD; it also says nothing about who actually performed the executions. Or, it may be another example of Roman "give-and-take".
- Executions by the Essenes. Kilpatrick [Kilp.TJ, 7] notes this objection from Lietzmann. But it offers no relevant parallels, since the Essenes were a secret society, "not in the habit of referring to established governments their decisions for life and death." [ibid., 19]
x) The restriction on capital power is not mentioned by Mark. [Wint.TJ, 10] This is an argument from silence: Winter argues that Mark would have mentioned such a restriction if he had known about it. In reply, let me say:
a) It was probably so obvious that he did not NEED to mention it - do we need to remind people today that the local sheriff cannot execute someone?
b) Even if Mark did NOT know of the limitation, history certainly does.
y) There were rules for those "executed by the State" vs. those executed "by the Law Court" in the Mishnah Sanhedrin. [Wint.TJ, 155n] As we have noted, however, these rules belong to a much later time; and at any rate, the historical/legal context suggests that this has to do with people CHARGED with capital offenses by these bodies, and the type of crime they committed - NOT with who actually wielded the hatchet. Winter also mentions rules for testing witnesses in capital cases, which again, has no relevance on who actually performed the execution.
z) Pilate's challenge: "Go and execute him yourself..." [Brand.TJ, 90] We will look at this one later - critics take it to mean that Pilate was reminding the Jewish leaders that they could execute if they wanted to. The context suggests otherwise.
On the other hand, aside from the precedent of Roman rule, there are some positive indications that the Jews did not possess the right to execute at the time of Jesus:
Both the Palestinian and the Babylonian Talmud indicate
that 40 years before the temple was destroyed, the right of
capital punishment was taken from the Jews. [Kilp.TJ, 17]
There is good reason, furthermore, to believe that this
privilege was taken away even earlier, as early as 6 AD [Bamm.TJ, 59]. The counterargument by Winter that this was a Jewish
attempt to avoid responsibility for Jesus' death runs counter to
the typical Talmudic tendency to take INCREASING responsibility
Another reference, Meg. Taan. 6, indicates a restoration of the right to execute criminals later on. [ibid, 62] Of course, the problems with the reliability of the Talmudic material which we have mentioned previously do apply here as well.
- Josephus, Bell. Jud. 2.7.1., "states specifically that the governor of Judea had the right of life and death over the populace." [Wils.ExJ, 5] The first Roman prefect, Coponius, had the power - and we would therefore have to conclude either that he held it alone, or that he shared it with the Sanhedrin, which would be an unprecedented and unparalleled concession, of unthinkable magnitude, on the part of Rome; for as Sloyan [Sloy.JT, 23] observes:
Jurisdiction was personal from the emperor and in capital sentences could not be delegated.
The net of this is stated well by Catchpole [Bamm.TJ, 63]: "The Jews could try, but they could not execute." This, as we have said, fits the normal Roman praxis of using local officials as a means to reach the end that they reserved for their own power.
But even supposing that the Gospels were not a reasonably genuine recounting of events, how would this story get by Jewish readers who would remember all too well what restrictions the Romans placed upon them? Jewish rulers - major opponents of Christianity - would know the ins and outs of the political system extremely well; they knew that they could argue, appeal, and negotiate with Pilate -- even threaten (e.g. "no friend of Caesar" - a phrase which "recalls the frequent manipulation of the treason law for political ends in Roman public life" - ShW.RSRL, 47). The dynamics of the story would have made perfect sense to them: The concessions about the temple precinct, for example, showed them there was SOME give-and-take (as there was in ALL Roman states).
Nothing out of the ordinary is said in the Gospels, and a totally one-sided account (either side) would have alerted the reader to "something fishy" -- just as perfectly harmonized resurrection accounts would suggest conspiracy, so too would a "one-sided" power structure. And, there is no reason for John to have invented the restriction, for the demonstration of Jesus' fulfillment in question could have been demonstrated easily without it - Bamm.TJ, 63.
So, it is very probable that this was one reason why the Sanhedrin did not execute Jesus themselves; and the evidence above certainly lends weight to the claim in John's Gospel that the Jewish leaders could not perform their own execution. But there is actually no need to go that far, if we assume that, in the arrest and trial of Jesus, the Romans had a finger in the pie to start with...and that's something we will expand upon in our next section.
The Sanhedrin trials are not the only subject of skeptical scrutiny in the trial accounts. Pilate himself comes under the microscope as well - but in order to answer questions about what Pilate was up to in the Gospels, there are other questions that must be dealt with first.
First to the technical issues of the Roman trial. Unlike the matter of the Jewish "trial" scenes, the Roman trial of Jesus has been subjected to very little critical flak. Most objections center upon non-legal details, in particular the treatment of Pilate's personality in the Gospels (versus secular accounts), the trip to Herod, and the release of Barabbas.
We will get to these in a moment; first, let us deal with minor objections regarding the Roman trial, and the verification of the Gospels' reportage of it from a legal perspective.
Carmichael [Carm.DJ, 32; see also Carm.UCO, 32] , noting Pilate's straightforward question "Are you king of the Jews?" simply remarks that "Roman justice must surely have had more protocol." Needless to say, there is no indication that Carmichael has even studied the matter of Roman legal protocol; he also has no cognizance of the sort of admonitions we have offered about not turning the evangelists into 20th-century court-reporters. Fricke [Fric.CMJ, 211] objects that Roman criminal law required direct confrontation of the parties of the dispute - but I daresay that there is no indication that this did NOT happen at some point (indeed, a critical reading of the Gospels suggests that it DID happen, since Jesus was led to Pilate BY the Jewish leadership!); and even if it did not, the words of Brandon [Brand.TJ, 93] are appropriate here: "What was the proper procedure for a Roman governor on the delivery of a prisoner, accused of sedition by the Jewish authorities, is not known by any of our sources." Likewise, Overstreet [Overs.RLTC, 329] , writing on the basis of a study of Roman law: "...a provincial governor had the legal freedom to conduct a trial as informally and with as little set procedure as he wished." And, Wilson [Wils.ExJ, 130] : "Judicial administration in the provinces was much less precise and technical than that which was required in Rome itself."
- We may expect to find that the trial meets Roman standards - although we may also expect variances owing to local conditions and customs (i.e., Pilate going outside to meet the Jewish leaders.)
- There are some things that we do NOT know; we must judge by what we DO know - and in that light, the Gospel record stands out remarkably for its historicity.
- An adequate summary is presented by Maier [Maie.TDJ, 9] who says that "nothing from the vast resources of Roman history and law contradicts any aspects of the events of Good Friday, as traditionally reported in the Gospels."
One final objection is from Craveri, who objects to the complete lack of references to the trial of Jesus in Roman archives [Crav.LJ, 407] . Craveri does NOT tell his readers that almost nothing has survived from that time regarding ANY official records from the provinces to the Roman central administration. This is therefore an empty objection.
Anti-Semites have often wrongly concluded that the mob which demanded the release of Barabbas and the execution of Jesus was representative of the Jewish people. This could hardly be the case, of course: Despite his many mistakes, Fricke [Fric.CMJ, 205] is certainly correct in saying that the 3000 or so people who would fit into the inner court of the Antonia Fortress (the place where "the pavement" probably was) were by no means representative - they would comprise only 2% of all people in Jerusalem at the time, and not even a thousandth of the Jews alive on the planet. And there may not have even been that many present: Smith [Smit.Mt27, 422] proposes what is probably too low a number, 50-75. However, the question is the same: Who were these people?
Fricke, I believe, also rightly rejects the typical answer that these were fickle citizens who changed their mind about Jesus when they saw Him humiliated - though there were probably a few of those in the crowd, too, along with people who probably had no idea what was going on anyway, some of Jesus' (badly out-numbered and out-shouted) supporters; people looking for a spectacle, and perhaps even a few people who were on Barabbas' side and really did want him released.
But that would not account for the majority; who would? Two suggestions are worthy of consideration, and combined, give us our answer - as well as further insight into the behavior of Pilate.
The first suggestion is that the crowd was peppered with bad characters - "creatures in the pay of the high priest," as one writer cited by Fricke describes. [Fric.CMJ, 270-1n] This would not be hard to believe - witness the rounding up of "bad characters" by the Jewish synagogue leaders in Thessalonica (Acts 17) - and I accept it as partially sufficient.
Schonfield [Schoe.PP, 153] identified the crowd as "slaves and henchmen" of the high priest. Winter [Wint.TJ, 57] , too, suggested that the crowd was composed of "street-rabble" and was assembled as "a tactical move engineered perhaps by the priestly rulers to prove that the population of Judea was immune against being inveighed into insurrection by political agitation." The method stated last I think may be part of the scene. But there was neither the time nor the method (that we know of) to round up enough bad characters to fill the courtyard; there had to be another source available - and I daresay that we know exactly what that source was; a source readily available, and intensely loyal (for the most part) to the high priest.
Ian Wilson, author of The Evidence for Jesus, made a suggestion once that I believe deserves some special attention. The machinery of the Temple was an enormous one - it had "as many as 20,000 attendants" [Carm.DJ, 113] . Think of this now: After the demonstration by Jesus in the Temple, which would have caused havoc and dismay among these attendants (which is not to say among ALL of them) - how hard would it be for the priestly circle to assemble the 3000 or so needed to fill the courtyard in front of the Antonia Fortress to capacity, or even to get together a crowd that was large enough to look good?
This is backed up by the Gospel record; for note well how the priestly clique seems to be in control of things:
Mark 15:11 - the priests "stirred up the crowd" (How, unless the crowd gave ear to the priests?)
Matt. 27:20 - the priests and elders "persuaded the crowd" (Same question)
Luke 23:3 - regards the chief priests, rulers, and "the people" as being of the same mind (How likely is this, unless "the people" in question are ALREADY on their side?)
John - refers to "the Jews" as being who did the shouting - and as we have seen above, for John, "the Jews" in context means, "the establishment"
And in his own analysis of alleged anti-Semitism in Luke in particular, seeking to target where the NT writers assigned blame for the death of Jesus, Weatherly [Weath.JwLKA, 269] offers a suggestion that applies to all of the Gospels:
It may be that the crowd who called for Jesus' death was composed primarily of Jerusalemites whose livelihood depended on the temple and who were especially subject to the influence of the priesthood, not pilgrims, many of whom may still have been asleep in the hours just after dawn.
I think that this is one of the keys to understanding the politics behind the prosecution of Jesus - and the WHY of Pilate's supposedly "strange" behavior. Whatever the source, the point to keep in mind is: THIS WAS A "PAID CROWD" - a stacked deck, an arranged demonstration - and Pilate was most assuredly aware of this. Let this be kept in mind as we proceed now to that subject.
Who is the Real Pontius Pilate?Now to the broader question: Is the Pontius Pilate recorded in the Gospels equivalent to the Pontius Pilate known to history? Critics say no, and we shall let the Still voice the chief objection:
Further complicating the truth of the Gospel accounts is the motivations and actions of the Roman Procurator Pontius Pilate, whom Jesus is brought to by the High Priest. Jesus is handed over to Pilate, accused of sedition, and Pilate questions Jesus personally asking him, "Are you the King of the Jews?" to which Jesus replies "I am." For some reason, the priests are said to go on "heaping accusations" against Jesus despite the fact that his sedition was clearly established by Jesus himself. Even stranger still, Pilate seems to not even care that Jesus claims to be the King of the Jews and Pilate "wonders" if Jesus is dangerous. (Mk 15:1-5) At this point the author of Mark is either blatantly ignorant of the facts, or spinning a good yarn for the sake of his overall story.
I do not see anywhere in Mark 15:1-5 where Pilate "wonders" if Jesus is dangerous. He IS amazed by Jesus' lack of response to the preists' continuing accusations - which is not surprising in any scenario; Pilate was no doubt accustomed to prisoners vehemently denying the guilt [Brand.TJ, 93].
Continuing with Still:
This account is quite out of context with the monster that Philo wrote Gaius Caesar about, reporting that Pilate was inflexible and "cruel." Further, Josephus reports several occurrences where Pilate flagrantly incites insurrection in order to ruthlessly purge it with his soldiers. Pilate was eventually recalled to Vitellius (then Legate of Syria) after a particularly violent attack on the Samaritans in 36 CE, and was ordered sent to Rome in order to stand accusations of the slaughter. (Antiquities 18.4.85) The anti-Semitic Pilate was not the sort of governor that would have acted with even the slightest civility toward a Jew who openly admitted to sedition. Pilate's dismal record of purges and punishments against seditious behavior was anathema and history shows him to be one of, if not the cruelest of the Procurators of Judaea.
Still is not alone in his assessment. Here is a brief compendium of opinions of the Pilate of the Gospels and the NT, in opposition to the Pilate of history: "meekly acquiescent to a shouting crowd," [Cross.WKJ, 111] ; "balanced and judicious, if somewhat vacillating" [Sloy.JT, 27] ; "represented as a mild presiding judge who supposedly moved heaven and earth in a futile attempt to free the accused Jesus," "a good-natured fellow," "a charming man" (!) <[Fric.CMJ, 4, 11, 209] ; "a feeble figure...vacillating...faint-hearted weakling...inspired by the most humane and honorable intentions...dim-witted, weak-minded, but well-meaning" [Wint.TJ, 53-5] ;"a vacillating, compromising individual"[Overs.RLTC, 332] ; "feeble-minded, vacillating" [Burk.ConJ, 327] ;"weak, abject figure" [Brand.TJ, 190n] ; "weak and vacillating" [Wils.ExJ, 18] ; "thoroughly whitewashed," "a good-natured and merciful man." [Cohn.TDJ, xvi, 164] .
What does all of this add up to? Brandon [Brand.TJ, 99] summarizes the case for the prosecution when he says that what we see in the Gospels in "a tough-minded Roman governor (who) bargained with a Jewish mob for the release of a prisoner in his custody, whom he knew to be innocent."
The critics find a quandary, and no solution: Wilson [Wils.ExJ, 22] says that the only alternatives are that 1) Pilate just happened to have a change of character around the time of the Gospels (mid-life crisis, perhaps?); or 2) one or the other of our sources (Gospels, or Philo/Josephus) are wrong.
But I say, there is a third alternative. What we actually see in the Gospels is: a tough-minded Roman governor, contemptuous of his subjects and their leaders , resentful at an attempt to manipulate him for their own ends, cleverly, maliciously, turning the tables. I shall back up this scenario shortly; but first, lest some think I am myself out of my mind, I shall bring up some like-minded opinions and proposals.
We should first consider whether Wilson's suggestion #2 might have some validity. It has been noted by McGing [McG.PP] that Josephus' description of Pilate is surprisingly neutral - and Philo, who is responsible for the worst descriptions of Pilate, had his own reasons for making Pilate look bad. The incident referred to by Still above is in fact the ONLY event that Philo actually refers to - the rest of his descriptions of Pilate being typical of what seems to be "a store of standard, highly rhetorical accusations and even vocabulary, reserved mostly for Roman (occasionally other) enemies of the Jewish people, and applied with no great distinction between one Roman and another." [ibid., 433]
In short, and without doubting any particular report made in his writings, the descriptions of Pilate as inflexible, cruel, etc. seem to be nothing more than Philo's efforts at stereotyping. Note, also, the context of the account: As Still notes, this was written to the attention of Gaius Caesar - aka Caligula. Caligula, we may remember, wanted to set up a statue of Zeus in the Jewish Temple. Philo, in trying to persuade him to defer, held up a story (see below) in which Pilate erected some shields that offended the people, and then was chastened by Tiberius for his unreasonableness - the point for Philo being, to hold up the relatively reasonable Tiberius as an example for Caligula to follow. And thus, it was needful for Philo to make Pilate look as wicked as possible.
This is not to say that Pilate was amenable and friendly - but it IS to say that he was probably no more insensitive, intolerant, or bloodthirsty than any other Judean procurator, Still's characterization of him as perhaps "the cruelest" of the procurators notwithstanding. It may be recalled that Pilate lasted in office for ten years, more than any other procurator of Judea (his predecessor, Valerius Gratus, lasted nine years; Felix, referred to in Acts, lasted seven; no other lasted more than four), which suggests that he may not have been too off the beam, since that was the typical length of a procurator's term during the reign of Tiberius, and does indicate a high degree of stability - especially since, while many appointees of Pilate's patron, Sejanus, were deposed in AD 31 along with him, Pilate himself remained in office another five years. [ibid., 434 - see also Brow.DMh, 684].
The net of this is: A balanced view of the subject reveals that the Gospel writers are not at all wrong in their characterization of Pilate.
But now let's take a look at that incident recorded by Philo. Glenn Miller offered the following in answer to Still:
The description of Pilate's behavior accords PERFECTLY with what we know about him from history--from Philo, Josephus, and the NT.
Philo, in the strongest passage describing Pilate's cruelty, also displays the EXACT characteristics of Pilate that would have generated his Trial-behavior. Earlier in his career as procurator of Judea, Pilate had set up some votive shields in Herod's palace, highly offending the Jewish people. After numerous appeals to him failed, the Jews sent a message to his 'boss' (two levels up!)--Tiberius--who responded with an extreme rEBuke to Pilate and orders to capitulate. Philo's account illuminates the political force Herod and the Jews were able to generate against him in this matter of the shields ( cited in Kee, "The Origins of Christianity", 1973, p.50f):
But when the Jews at large learnt of his action [putting up the shields], which was indeed already widely known, they chose as their spokesman the king's four sons , who enjoyed rank and prestige equal to that of kings, his other descendants, and their own officials, and besought Pilate to undo his innovation in the shape of the shields, and not to violate their native customs, which had hitherto been invariably preserved inviolate by kings and emperors alike. When Pilate, who was a man of inflexible, stubborn, and cruel disposition, obstinately refused, they shouted, "Do not cause a revolt! Do not cause a war! Do not break the peace! Disrespect done to our ancient laws brings no honor to the emperor. Do not make Tiberius an excuse for insulting our nation. He does not want any of our traditions done away with. If you say that he does, show us some decree or letter or something of the sort, so that we may cease troubling you and appeal to our master by means of an embassy." This last remark exasperated Pilate most of all, for he was afraid that if they really sent an embassy, they would bring accusations against the rest of his administration as well, specifying in detail his venality, his violence, his thefts, his assaults, his abusive behavior, his frequent executions of untried prisoners, and his endless savage ferocity...When the Jewish officials...realized that Pilate was regretting what he had done, although he did not wish to show it, they wrote a letter to Tiberius, pleading their cause as forcibly as they could. What words, what threats Tiberius uttered against Pilate when he read it! It would be superfluous to describe his anger, since his reaction speaks for itself. For immediately, without even waiting for the next day, he wrote to Pilate, reproaching and rEBuking him a thousand times for his new-fangled audacity and telling him to remove the shields at once and have them taken from the capital..."
Notice a couple of things about this story:
1. The Jews 'tell on' Pilate to his boss;
2. The group that did this was headed up by Antipas (and his three brothers);
3. Pilate got seriously chewed out(!) by the emperor, IN SPITE OF his 'patron' Sejanus in Rome (BNTH: 201; BBC:311)
Now there is a good chance Pilate (as a shrewd politician) probably learned something from this experience! Maybe like, 'pacify these folk if you think they are gonna tell on you!'! So, in the gospel accounts of the Trial, we see Pilate playing politics versus justice. He finds nothing wrong with Jesus and tries to let him go (maybe even to irritate the Jews), but as soon as the not-so-veiled threat of 'telling on him' is raised (cf. John 19.12: the Jews kept shouting, "If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar."). So Tenney:
The phrase "friend of Caesar" was more than a casual allusion to Roman patriotism. It usually denoted a supporter or associate of the emperor, a member of the important inner circle. The cry was a veiled threat: if Pilate exonerated Jesus, the high priest would report to Rome that Pilate had refused to bring a rival pretender to justice and was perhaps plotting to establish a new political alliance of his own. Tiberius, the reigning emperor, was notoriously bitter and suspicious of rivals. If such a report were sent to him, he would instantly end Pilate's political career and probably his life also. Pilate also had the problem of a much larger than normal crowd--Jerusalem would have been swollen with people for the Feast. A riot or uprising (on the heels of the recent one--cf. Luke 23.19) would have also been a major concern of Pilate.
Pilate does NOT appear 'sympathetic' at all--he DOES appear 'confused' as to what is the most politically expedient path. If he appears conciliatory to the crowd (in the crucifixion) or to Antipas (in sending Jesus to him first), it is perfectly in keeping with his character/experiences for us to see political motives rather than noble ones.
Miller is clearly on track here, especially where he says that Pilate was out to "irritate" the Jews. Let's run through events in the Gospels as we see them - keeping in mind these factors mentioned before:
a) Roman forces may have been involved in the arrest of Jesus. This is not strictly necessary to our scenario. The key will be what these forces see, not what they do, and what they saw could also have been gathered by Pilate's intelligence workers - and that is: that Jesus did NOT resist arrest; that He had only three followers with Him, who put up token resistance and then fled at His bidding; and finally, though not necessarily, that the Jewish leadership had a grudge against this man.
b) The mob in the courtyard was an "arranged" crowd - and Pilate was fully cognizant of who they were, why there were there, and who was leading them.
To these two preliminaries, we now add four others:
c) The dream of Pilate's wife. (Mt. 27:19) Critics generally dismiss this record out of hand. Carmichael [Carm.DJ, 37; Carm.UCO, 90] says it "scarcely calls for comment." Sloyan [Sloy.JT, 84] refers to it as an "improbable account." Craveri [Crav.LJ, 409] dismisses it as a story invented "for the edification of Roman matrons" - which would be a strange thing to suggest for a JEWISH-oriented Gospel, and at any rate, one wonders how "edifying" a single sentence could be.
I do not propose that this dream be attached with too much importance; it may not have affected Pilate at all, though Matthew and his source perhaps thought it did. What is far more important is what ELSE it indicates!
d) Pilate was aware of the impending arrest of Jesus beforehand. This is corollary with item a) above. It has been noted by Winter [Wint.TJ, 47] that the meeting with Pilate very early in the morning "indicates that he must have had advance information about what was taking place in the night." (See also Sloy.JT, 71-2.) Critics often simply assume that the priests woke Pilate up, and then proceed to make much of that; but this is exceptionally presumptuous. It is unlikely that this case would have proceeded in the manner described unless Pilate had known what was coming beforehand. And at any rate, it was not uncommon for Roman officials to begin their workday before dawn and end it around noon. And finally:
e) Pilate was an insensitive boor. We have already seen instances where Pilate disrespected Jewish beliefs, as recorded in Philo and Jospehus - these indicate the "contemptuous manner in which Pilate dealt with the people of the province." [Wint.TJ, 54-5] More generally speaking, though, Pilate was one who cared not a whit for the feelings of others, and regarded them with haughty disdain - so you can imagine how much he cared about the feelings of his subjects. Winter [ibid.] adds:
As a Roman realist, Pilate had no understanding of the workings of a priest-ridden theocracy nor any patience with his subjects' habits of squabbling about 'names and words.'
Pilate disliked (perhaps even hated) his subjects, and he probably liked to annoy them. He, like many Romans, disliked the Jews and their customs - and this is a key, in our view, to understanding what actually happened. The Gospel Pilate IS the same as the Philo Pilate and the Josephus Pilate - we have simply read the wrong thing into the records of the evangelists.
Now some may say: "This seems rather complicated. Can we really read something different into the Gospel text? The evangelists sure make Pilate look nice!"
I submit that it is possible that one or more of the evangelists interpreted Pilate in a positive way. Rivkin [Rivk.WCJ, 115] , who proposes a similar scenario to that which we will propose, writes:
Pontius Pilate's strategy, however, could hardly have been discerned by the politically naive followers of Jesus. All they could see and comprehend was that the crowds, egged on by the priests, were calling for Barabbas. Little wonder that their anger would be directed against the other Jews, rather than against Pontius Pilate, who was taunting the crowd to name Jesus their king.
And Rivkin closes with a statement that lays the foundation for our interpretation, and his:
When we read of this incident in the light of our knowledge of Pilate's provocative tricks, we are struck by its ring of historical truth.
And so we conclude: We must let the secular histories interpret the Gospels for Pilate's case. It is natural for us to "root for" Pilate as he "tries to set Jesus free" - but this is not what is happening at all. I submit, again, that we have been reading the Gospels askew, and further, that the evangelists did indeed know what was going on. It is only the modern reader, Christian and Skeptic alike, who being unaware of political machinations and having distance from the subjects has given Pilate a character that he never had and that the Gospel writers, though perhaps grateful to Pilate for ANY chance for the freedom of Jesus, never intended.
And with that, let us run through the Gospel accounts of Pilate's role a bit at a time.
We begin with what we have already recounted. Pilate knows that an arrest is coming. He has been told that a seditionist, possibly dangerous, will be arrested; he has also perhaps been asked to supply some Roman troops to help out. This would be rather important, because recall that there were only about 3000 Roman soldiers in all of Judea, and 600 or so normally stationed in Jerusalem.
During the volatile Passover season, the presence of these troops was even more crucial: They could not be used out for just any occasion. They would no doubt have been taken from some other post, or denied a well-earned nights' sleep, to participate in Jesus' arrest.
Now, if this did happen, were the priests being deceptive here, bringing in forces they did not need at Pilate's expense? To be sure, the priests may have indeed thought that Jesus' followers would put up a major fight that their Temple police could not handle. But the key is, what would Pilate think, upon hearing that his much-needed troops were called upon to arrest someone who turned out to have an "army" of three disciples with only two swords between them? How would Pilate react when told that the seditionists' followers had fled into the darkness and the troops had been called out for nothing?
His time and his resources had been wasted. What if a REAL revolt had broken out, and his soldiers had been lost or killed? What would Rome have made of such carelessness? They did NOT look kindly upon people who wasted legions.
But even without the soldiers involved, Pilate would still be fairly upset about the inconvenience and perceived manipulation in the rest of the situation.
Let's now look quickly at our primary sources:
Matthew: Meanwhile Jesus stood before the governor, and the governor asked him, "Are you the king of the Jews?" "Yes, it is as you say," Jesus replied. When he was accused by the chief priests and the elders, he gave no answer. Then Pilate asked him, "Don't you hear the testimony they are bringing against you?" But Jesus made no reply, not even to a single charge--to the great amazement of the governor.
Mark: They bound Jesus, led him away and handed him over to Pilate. "Are you the king of the Jews?" asked Pilate. "Yes, it is as you say," Jesus replied. The chief priests accused him of many things. So again Pilate asked him, "Aren't you going to answer? See how many things they are accusing you of." But Jesus still made no reply, and Pilate was amazed.
Luke: Then the whole assembly rose and led him off to Pilate. And they began to accuse him, saying, "We have found this man subverting our nation. He opposes payment of taxes to Caesar and claims to be Christ, a king." So Pilate asked Jesus, "Are you the king of the Jews?" "Yes, it is as you say," Jesus replied. Then Pilate announced to the chief priests and the crowd, "I find no basis for a charge against this man." But they insisted, "He stirs up the people all over Judea by his teaching. He started in Galilee and has come all the way here."
>At this point, Luke adds his unique story about Herod; we will get to that in the next entry.
Luke: Pilate called together the chief priests, the rulers and the people, and said to them, "You brought me this man as one who was inciting the people to rebellion. I have examined him in your presence and have found no basis for your charges against him. Neither has Herod, for he sent him back to us; as you can see, he has done nothing to deserve death. Therefore, I will punish him and then release him."
John: So Pilate came out to them and asked, "What charges are you bringing against this man?" "If he were not a criminal," they replied, "we would not have handed him over to you." Pilate said, "Take him yourselves and judge him by your own law." "But we have no right to execute anyone," the Jews objected. This happened so that the words Jesus had spoken indicating the kind of death he was going to die would be fulfilled. Pilate then went back inside the palace, summoned Jesus and asked him, "Are you the king of the Jews?" "Is that your own idea," Jesus asked, "or did others talk to you about me?" "Am I a Jew?" Pilate replied. "It was your people and your chief priests who handed you over to me. What is it you have done?" Jesus said, "My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place." "You are a king, then!" said Pilate. Jesus answered, "You are right in saying I am a king. In fact, for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me." "What is truth?" Pilate asked. With this he went out again to the Jews and said, "I find no basis for a charge against him.
From here, all four Gospels go to the choice between Jesus and Barabbas; that too shall be covered in a separate section. But now to our reconstruction.
Matthew and Mark report nothing that is not given elsewhere, other than two very critical statements:
1) The "envy" passages. (Matt. 27:18; par. in Mark 15:10.) This reads as follows in Matt, and is basically the same in Mark:
>For he knew it was out of envy that they had handed Jesus over to him.
Here is our clue that Pilate knew something smelled bad, and that his actions in sending Jesus to Herod, offering Barabbas, etc. were NOT because he liked Jesus, or because he was being weak or vacillating, or because he was "charming," or even because he was standing up for the ancient and honorable Roman principles of fairness and justice.
The actual mood and motive of Pilate is captured very well by Schonfield [Schoe.PP, 151] :
But (Pilate) had the feeling that something was wrong, and that an attempt was being made to trap him. He did not trust these priests, and well knew the hostility of the Council towards him because of his disrespect for Jewish institutions. It seemed unnatural to him that the chief priests should be accusing a fellow Jew of conspiracy against Rome. Likely as not the prisoner was a man of no consequence who was being used to make trouble.
Brooks <[Broo.Mk, 251] remarks:
>Pilate quickly realized that the Jews did not ordinarily deliver one of their own to him for any purpose and certainly not for claiming to be a king in opposition to Roman rule. He quickly realized that the Jewish officials had other issues probably of a religious nature against Jesus, issues in which he had no interest. His attempt to release Jesus was not likely based on principles of humanity or justice, but on spite. (emphasis added)
And finally, Blinzler [JBz.TJ, 183] adds:
(The high priests) wanted to get rid of someone who had become obnoxious to them, and (Pilate), the Roman official, was to serve as their tool in this. Seen in this light, the resistance of Pilate to the Jews' demand is completely understandable.
This gives us part of the picture - and we must also consider how Pilate came to these realizations as described. But first we go back to Matt's unique contribution:
2) The warning of Pilate's wife. (Matt. 27:19)
While Pilate was sitting on the judge's seat, his wife sent him this message: "Don't have anything to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him."
The critics scoff, but we find this to be a clue. Frank Morison [Mori.WMS, 51], though affirming the role of Pilate as "nice guy" to a certain extent, I believe had a remarkable piece of insight concerning this incident. He has noted the urgency of the request, and observed that Pilate's wife:
>...had reason to believe that Pilate intended to ratify the finding of the Jewish tribunal without rehearing, or at any rate with a bare minimum of official formality. In other words, that he had practically decided to conform the Jewish decision, and had probably already given assurances to that effect overnight.
So: Pilate not only knew of the arrest, but had an understanding established with the Jewish leaders that he would approve of their findings in advance; and Morison believes that Pilate's wife was the one that made him think twice.
This, I think, may have been a contributing factor, especially if Pilate was superstitious about dreams and omens, as many Romans were. But I also say that there was another factor:
3) The reports of the Roman forces.
Here is where the report that Pilate receives comes into play - whether from the soldiers or from other intelligence is of little import. Pilate may have heard of any number of things prior to the presentation of the prisoner: Of the peculiar nature of the arrest; of the peculiarities of the Jewish interrogation, which focused rather on obscure points of Jewish religion than on political charges...the end result would be the same: Pilate saw that there was no real danger, and that he was being used by the Jewish leadership. And if you are Pilate, you do not like being used one bit.
And now we go to our sources of greatest historical value. First a summary:
Luke: Then the whole assembly rose and led him off to Pilate. And they began to accuse him, saying, "We have found this man subverting our nation. He opposes payment of taxes to Caesar and claims to be Christ, a king." So Pilate asked Jesus, "Are you the king of the Jews?" "Yes, it is as you say," Jesus replied. Then Pilate announced to the chief priests and the crowd, "I find no basis for a charge against this man." But they insisted, "He stirs up the people all over Judea by his teaching. He started in Galilee and has come all the way here."...
Pilate called together the chief priests, the rulers and the people, and said to them, "You brought me this man as one who was inciting the people to rEBellion. I have examined him in your presence and have found no basis for your charges against him. Neither has Herod, for he sent him back to us; as you can see, he has done nothing to deserve death. Therefore, I will punish him and then release him."
John: So Pilate came out to them and asked, "What charges are you bringing against this man?" "If he were not a criminal," they replied, "we would not have handed him over to you."
Pilate said, "Take him yourselves and judge him by your own law." "But we have no right to execute anyone," the Jews objected. This happened so that the words Jesus had spoken indicating the kind of death he was going to die would be fulfilled. Pilate then went back inside the palace, summoned Jesus and asked him, "Are you the king of the Jews?" "Is that your own idea," Jesus asked, "or did others talk to you about me?" "Am I a Jew?" Pilate replied. "It was your people and your chief priests who handed you over to me. What is it you have done?" Jesus said, "My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place." "You are a king, then!" said Pilate. Jesus answered, "You are right in saying I am a king. In fact, for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me." "What is truth?" Pilate asked. With this he went out again to the Jews and said, "I find no basis for a charge against him.
Here again I believe Morison has detected something of importance. Luke has also presented a summary; but John fills in the blanks for us. The events in order would be as follows:
Luke: Then the whole assembly rose and led him off to Pilate.
John: So Pilate came out to them and asked, "What charges are you bringing against this man?" "If he were not a criminal," they replied, "we would not have handed him over to you."
Pilate said, "Take him yourselves and judge him by your own law." "But we have no right to execute anyone," the Jews objected. This happened so that the words Jesus had spoken indicating the kind of death he was going to die would be fulfilled.
Luke: And they began to accuse him, saying, "We have found this man subverting our nation. He opposes payment of taxes to Caesar and claims to be Christ, a king."
John: Pilate then went back inside the palace, summoned Jesus and asked him, "Are you the king of the Jews?" "Is that your own idea," Jesus asked, "or did others talk to you about me?" "Am I a Jew?" Pilate replied. "It was your people and your chief priests who handed you over to me. What is it you have done?" Jesus said, "My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place." "You are a king, then!" said Pilate. Jesus answered, "You are right in saying I am a king. In fact, for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me." "What is truth?" Pilate asked. With this he went out again to the Jews and said, "I find no basis for a charge against him.
Luke (at the same time): So Pilate asked Jesus, "Are you the king of the Jews?" "Yes, it is as you say," Jesus replied. Then Pilate announced to the chief priests and the crowd, "I find no basis for a charge against this man." But they insisted, "He stirs up the people all over Judea by his teaching. He started in Galilee and has come all the way here."
And now we will break this up, a bit at a time - and see how the true character of Pilate emerges in light of our scenario.
Luke: Then the whole assembly rose and led him off to Pilate.
John: So Pilate came out to them and asked, "What charges are you bringing against this man?"
Brandon [Brand.TJ, 131] here would have us believe that this passage in John "represents Pilate as having no previous knowledge of Jesus."
But I say: It is the opposite. The difference here is that Pilate DOES know about Jesus - he knows that Jesus is not the dangerous seditionist that Caiaphas and the priests claimed that He was, and by now, as Schonfield surmises, suspects that a setup of some kind is afoot - perhaps that this was some sort of revenge plot for earlier taking the Corban money from the Temple treasury to build an aqueduct [Schoe.PP, 152] . Jesus was a nuisance, perhaps, and may have technically committed sedition; but He was no leader of an army.
So: This is the official beginning of a Roman trial - an expressed intent by Pilate to hear a case that the priests assumed would merely be a rubber-stamp upon their own findings and decision.
"If he were not a criminal," they replied, "we would not have handed him over to you." Pilate said, "Take him yourselves and judge him by your own law."
The Jewish leadership, of course, is stunned. As Morison [Mori.WMS, 56-7] puts it:
The priests resented Pilate's sudden determination to rehear the case. They were clearly under the impression that he would not insist on a formal restatement of the case against Jesus, and they appear to have come without any prepared or public accusation at all...They would hardly have made so insolent and pointed a reference to ratification of their sentence if they had not been led in some way to expect it.
Of course they were resentful: Up until now, it had all gone their way. And thus does Pilate tell them, "Take him yourselves and judge him by your own law!" - another clue that Pilate DID know that there was actually some religious matter at issue, and a sarcastic way of saying, "You wasted my troops' time; you had me awake until all hours of the night - leave me out of your petty squabbles and manipulations. I will not be your hatchet man!" And so:
"But we have no right to execute anyone," the Jews objected. This happened so that the words Jesus had spoken indicating the kind of death he was going to die would be fulfilled.
We have previously discussed the matter of capital power. At any rate, we now see the Jewish leaders recouping quickly, and putting together a few political charges that Pilate would be interested in:
Luke: And they began to accuse him, saying, "We have found this man subverting our nation. He opposes payment of taxes to Caesar and claims to be Christ, a king."
These charges may have been put together on the spot, as Morison suggests; or they may have been part of the plan from the beginning - a contingency just in case Pilate became uncooperative. At any rate, we have previously discussed the dovetailing of the religious charge onto the political one, above. This was on all accounts a shrewd move, but it is doubtful that it was enough to alleviate Pilate's suspicions after all he had heard from his soldiers and/or intelligence sources.
Still, there was a charge to work on here: The man claimed to be a king, and Pilate may have gotten a report about the Triumphal Entry. Pilate would rather be safe than sorry, and may well have been curious by now, so:
John: Pilate then went back inside the palace, summoned Jesus and asked him, "Are you the king of the Jews?" "Is that your own idea," Jesus asked, "or did others talk to you about me?" "Am I a Jew?" Pilate replied. "It was your people and your chief priests who handed you over to me. What is it you have done?" Jesus said, "My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place." "You are a king, then!" said Pilate. Jesus answered, "You are right in saying I am a king. In fact, for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me." "What is truth?" Pilate asked. With this he went out again to the Jews and said, "I find no basis for a charge against him.
Luke: So Pilate asked Jesus, "Are you the king of the Jews?" "Yes, it is as you say," Jesus replied. Then Pilate announced to the chief priests and the crowd, "I find no basis for a charge against this man." But they insisted, "He stirs up the people all over Judea by his teaching. He started in Galilee and has come all the way here."
It is difficult to conceive what Pilate would be thinking at this point. I doubt that it is as many traditional commentators have suggested: That he received some cognizance as to who Jesus really was. Burkill [Burk.ConJ, 322n], for example, resorts to seeing sophisticated theological subtleties, insisting that in asking "What is truth?" Pilate "represents the type of the restless outsider who, while fleetingly trying, fails to grasp the impact of the Christian mystery of salvation."
More likely, however, Pilate saw Jesus as a "deluded maniac" [Schoe.PP, 151] - and became very quickly tired of Jesus' elusive and (to him) nonsensical answers to his seemingly straightforward questions. Not only were the Jews trying to trick him; they were trying to make sport of him by sending him this country preacher with serious delusions of grandeur.
Pilate's fury at the Jews would surely be multiplied - as would his determination to beat them at their own game, and teach them a lesson for their trickery. As for this Jesus character - he was already a pawn in the game; why not use Him a little further?
It is at this point that Pilate sends Jesus to Herod - and we encounter another set of roadblocks that deserve to be dealt with separately.
This episode, recorded only by Luke, has come under some serious critical fire. "(P)ure Lukan creation," Crossan says [Cross.WKJ, 113] , offering presumptions of apostolic dishonesty and takes upon "prophecy historicized" to explain the story. The same suggestion is made by Wilson [Wils.ExJ, 138], who also commits an "all or nothing" error by objecting that Luke portrays the Jewish authorities as remaining with Pilate at his headquarters; so, they could not have gone to Herod. This is rather unrealistic: There were plenty of priests and elders available to send a delegation, of course.
Carmichael [Carm.UCO, 91] calls the visit to Herod "quite preposterous" and says "it is silly to imagine that Pilate would have renounced his own jurisdiction in a matter affecting the security of the state." Although, Carmichael himself has the outrageous idea that Jesus was a dangerous revolutionary who seized and occupied the Temple, which means that the problem is of his own creation. Improbable, says Brandon [Brand.TJ, 121], although he can find no reason to say why, other than that no other Gospel mentions it. There was no need for it, and such action would not be in Pilate's character, says Craveri [Crav.LJ, 402].
Under our scenario, the trip to Herod becomes very sensible. The Jewish leaders had charged Jesus with stirring up the people, FIRST in Galilee and THEN in Judea. I can almost hear Pilate licking his chops, and the Jewish leaders trying to suck that complaint back into their mouths. He started in Galilee, you say? Maybe He did something worthy of extradition.
And there is nothing incredible reported here [Bamm.TJ, 85-9; Overs.RLTC, 330] : Herod was known to have attended feasts in Jerusalem (though which ones exactly, we do not know); while Pilate was under no legal OBLIGATION to send Jesus over to Herod, he could certainly do so of his own volition; provincial governors (like Pilate) were free to ask for advice from anyone they pleased, even from another provincial governor (like Herod - who, being from Galilee, was likely a seasoned expert when it came to insurrectionists - Brow.DMh, 766); and while there was a rule, in principle, that Roman authorities could not execute their power outside their jurisdiction (assuming that Herod and his retinue did not have "floating jurisdiction" - much like our embassies today), Roman give-and-take may have allowed for exceptions - as with Agrippa conducting Paul's trial in the territory of Festus (Acts 25-6), with the permission of Festus. It is even possible that Pilate knew of Herod's desire to see Jesus.
And what did Pilate have to lose? If Herod passed judgment on Jesus, he could (as tetrarch) take him back to Galilee and execute Him, and Pilate would throw the priests' manipulation back in their faces. And even if Herod did not take that step (which is what happened), Pilate gained the advantage of a diplomatic gesture (which he may have needed, after offending Herod by massacring those Galileeans referred to by Luke or setting up the votive shields in Jerusalem - Brow.DMh, 767).
Not only that, but Pilate may have seen the trip to Herod as a good way to gain time to set a counter-manipulation of his OWN into action - one which I would say came to fruition in the Barabbas exchange.
The net of this is: The story makes perfect sense, and is in line with what we know about both Pilate AND Herod in light of the circumstances.
A final objection concerns the custom alluded to in the Gospels of releasing a single prisoner on Passover - which permitted the choice between Jesus and Barabbas. Critics line up to dismiss this event: Crossan [Cross.WKJ, 111] calls the scene "absolutely unhistorical" and cites two reasons, which we will use to begin:
1) It portrays Pilate as "merely acquiescent to a shouting crowd." Under our scenario, however, the crowd is a paid one - and Pilate knows it. Let's see how this works out exegetically, using Matthew as a framework, and pieces from Luke and John that add to the picture (Mark adds nothing that is not repeated elsewhere):
Matthew: So when the crowd had gathered, Pilate asked them, "Which one do you want me to release to you: Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?" For he knew it was out of envy that they had handed Jesus over to him.
This, as we have seen, is one of our clues that Pilate knows the score: Envy was the motivation here. The leaders wanted Pilate to handle their problem with a popular preacher in a way that would not soil their own hands.
Matthew: While Pilate was sitting on the judge's seat, his wife sent him this message: "Don't have anything to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him."
We've already discussed this matter above.
Matthew: But the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus executed. "Which of the two do you want me to release to you?" asked the governor. "Barabbas," they answered. "What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called Christ?" Pilate asked. They all answered, "Crucify him!" "Why? What crime has he committed?" asked Pilate. But they shouted all the louder, "Crucify him!"
Of course as Matthew presents this, it is probably a summary, an ipsissima vox; we need not take this as verba. But here is the basic idea:
Pilate, knowing what's afoot, has decided to turn the tables on the crowd and their priestly supervisors: So you want me to execute your little problem? Let's see how important it is to you - I'll make you choose between the preacher and a REAL seditionist. You can choose the preacher (who by Roman law, could indeed be regarded as seditious, but was harmless, perhaps even crazy), and give up your manipulation; then, I win the game - or, you can prefer to follow your grudge, choose the seditionist (who actually went as far as participating in an insurrection, and killing someone), and then I'll be able to make all of YOU look like you support seditious activities.
For as Brandon [Brand.TJ, 99] rightly recognizes, to request the release of Barabbas would have indeed been regarded as seditious. In reply, Rome might do anything -- send more troops, or perhapstake away some of those vaunted privileges yhe Jews were getting.
We can easily see Pilate grinning broadly at the first response of "Crucify him!" - they had taken the bait; and so he twisted the knife a bit: "Why? What crime has he committed?"
Lest some think this far-fetched, let us call upon Rivkin [Rivk.WCJ, 104] for a similar opinion, in a slightly different direction:
As one who was given to provoking the Jews with wily stratagems, Pilate was not beyond using a politically naive charismatic, one who claimed to be their king, to entrap the Jews...Pilate was, in effect, compelling them to choose the revolutionary. They would fear to choose the other, lest Pilate loose his soldiery on them for acknowledging a king other than Caesar.
Again, Rivkin's scenario is not quite the same as ours - but it does picture the entire Barabbas episode as part of a manipulation game by Pilate, which we agree that it was. Continuing:
Matthew: When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. "I am innocent of this man's blood," he said. "It is your responsibility!" All the people answered, "Let his blood be on us and on our children!" Then he released Barabbas to them.
At this point, as with the loyal Jewish citizens who bared their necks rather than give up their principles, Pilate may have indeed gotten a surprise of his own here. He found out just how far the priestly crowd was willing to go to get the job done.
Still, he twisted the knife even further. Using a uniquely Jewish gesture (in part, perhaps, because some of the crowd would not have understood the language he spoke), he threw the whole issue back in their faces by washing his hands in front of them.
As an added note, this "blood" verse has been manipulated by anti-Semites to indicate that the Jewish people accepted blood-guilt for the execution of Jesus, knowing that He was innocent [see Smit.Mt27]. But evidence indicates that this is NOT that kind of statement at all. As Sloyan [Sloy.JT, 85] observes:
>The expression, far from being a self-inflicted curse, is a strong statement of innocence. It appears in later, mishnaic form in the Tractate Sanhedrin 37a, where in capital cases the witness uses the invocation as a proof of his innocence. If he is lying,he is willing to have the blood of the accused fall on himself and his offspring until the end of the world.
>Of course, this does come from a late source, but it would be unusual if this phrase meant something exactly the OPPOSITE of what it did previously.
Matthew: But he had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified.
Luke: Wanting to release Jesus, Pilate appealed to them again. But they kept shouting, "Crucify him! Crucify him!" For the third time he spoke to them: "Why? What crime has this man committed? I have found in him no grounds for the death penalty. Therefore I will have him punished and then release him." But with loud shouts they insistently demanded that he be crucified, and their shouts prevailed. So Pilate decided to grant their demand.
Barabbas was out, but Pilate wasn't through yet. With his usual contempt, he wants to irritate the Jewish leaders' sensibilities by hinting that Jesus ought to be released - certainly, we might add, not because he cared for Jesus. And again, perhaps, he is astonished by the vehemence of the reply.
The Synoptics end the story here, but John tells us that a bit more was afoot:
John: They shouted back, "No, not him! Give us Barabbas!" Now Barabbas had taken part in a rebellion. Then Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged. The soldiers twisted together a crown of thorns and put it on his head. They clothed him in a purple robe and went up to him again and again, saying, "Hail, king of the Jews!" And they struck him in the face. Once more Pilate came out and said to the Jews, "Look, I am bringing him out to you to let you know that I find no basis for a charge against him." When Jesus came out wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe, Pilate said to them, "Here is the man!" As soon as the chief priests and their officials saw him, they shouted, "Crucify! Crucify!" But Pilate answered, "You take him and crucify him. As for me, I find no basis for a charge against him."
This is really nought but more of the same (if it is not simply an expansion and literary rearrangement of previous events): Pilate taking further steps to irritate his subjects. In our view, Pilate was being confrontational here: He KNEW, of course, that they could not perform their own crucifixion, and that to do so would be a usurpation of Pilate's prerogative and power -- sedition.
He was saying basically (though by our scenario, calculatingly), "He is innocent in my eyes...if you think you are better and more authoritative than I, then you act upon that assumption -- crucify him...and THEN SEE what happens, as Rome judges between the two of us."
Again, in light of the fact that Pilate is fully cognizant of their purposes - turning over Jesus out of "envy" and using him as their hatchet man for their own private grudges - Pilate's reaction becomes quite understandable.
The Jews insisted, "We have a law, and according to that law he must die, because he claimed to be the Son of God." When Pilate heard this, he was even more afraid, and he went back inside the palace. "Where do you come from?" he asked Jesus, but Jesus gave him no answer. "Do you refuse to speak to me?" Pilate said. "Don't you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?" Jesus answered, "You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above. Therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin."
The Jews then insist, in so many words, that Jesus must die - but they take no responsibility for it themselves. We see here, and thereafter (John 19:12-16), then, a game of "hot potato" being played out between the crafty Pilate and the equally crafty priestly leaders, tending their crowd. Neither wanted to be responsible for executing Jesus: The leaders because of the crowds that were NOT on their side, Pilate because he did not want to permit them their manipulation. (In line with this, again, Watson suggests that the priests wanted Pilate to do the dirty work in order to avoid public backlash upon themselves.)
Now a good question here is: What was Pilate "afraid" of? The word in the text has a suggestion of alarm, or awe - so that perhaps Pilate was shocked at the magnitude of Jesus' claims, and the corresponding vehemence of the reaction, perhaps something that could lead to a real riot.
The question is an open one. It is almost certainly NOT, as pious commentators are wont to say, that Pilate was afraid of Jesus Himself - else, he would not speak to Jesus in such a threatening and condescending manner.
From then on, Pilate tried to set Jesus free, but the Jews kept shouting, "If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar." When Pilate heard this, he brought Jesus out and sat down on the judge's seat at a place known as the Stone Pavement (which in Aramaic is Gabbatha). It was the day of Preparation of Passover Week, about the sixth hour.
The leaders now play their final card: The "friend of Caesar" routine (see above). Checkmate, Pilate? Not quite - he still has the knife in his hands:
"Here is your king," Pilate said to the Jews. But they shouted, "Take him away! Take him away! Crucify him!" "Shall I crucify your king?" Pilate asked. "We have no king but Caesar," the chief priests answered. Finally Pilate handed him over to them to be crucified. So the soldiers took charge of Jesus.
And now Pilate gets the satisfaction he wants: He has forced the manipulators to say the unthinkable. He has against them that they have called for the freedom of Barabbas over a harmless (and perhaps crazy) country preacher; and now, surely biting their lips in unison, they make the pledge in favor of Caesar - lest Pilate have grounds to charge them with sedition as well, we might add.
The game closes with Pilate in the lead. He makes one final contemptuous gesture with the inscription upon the cross, "This is the King of the Jews." - as if to say, "Here is your king - a crucified, pitiable creature, one appropriate for you pathetic Jews."
So understood properly, there is nothing out of character for Pilate here. Let us move now to more general objections on the Barabbas matter:
2) It would be a custom "against any administrative wisdom" to release any criminal the crowd desired. This would be true if the criminals in question were chosen simply by the whim of the crowd from a large gallery; but if it was a "handpicked" set offered up (i.e., just a choice of 2, as in this case), then this need not be so. (See #5 below for further details.)
3) This custom never existed. Still brought up the typical objection that this was ahistorical, and was answered by Miller:
It would be accurate to say "we HAVE NO RECORD of a custom of releasing prisoners on a Palestinian holiday...".
However, it is not out of line with what we know about the political climate of the day. We know, for example, that political prisoners (like Barabbas) WERE released for various reasons (Jos. Antiq. XX, ix.3; Livy, V.13; cf. Deismann, "Light from the Ancient East", p 267), that Roman officials seem to have granted mass amnesty at some other regular feasts (outside of Palestine) and to have occasionally acquitted prisoners in responses to crowds (BBC, p. 309).
Plus, this 'custom' (and its exercise on Barabbas) is one of the few gospel events referred to in an independent manner by Luke, Mark-Matthew, and John (judging by the presence/absence of details/structures in the narrative), as well as the early reference in Act 3:14 as part of the sermon of Peter . Their individual accounts argue for independent streams of information, suggesting a stronger basis in history (since they all WITNESS TO the 'basics' of the event).
There is, in light of the data, no reason to make such an absolute statement as 'there was never...'. Jim has simply overstepped the data (or not paid attention to the wider data on Roman praxis).
Particularly, we do know of a Roman practice called the abolitio - the acquittal of a prisoner not yet condemned [JBz.TJ, 207] . While the Gospel texts are not clear on the matter, it is probable that neither Jesus nor Barabbas had yet been formally sentenced.
4) Why is there no other evidence of this custom? Surely Jospehus would have mentioned it. This is an argument from silence, but it does have some merit, for as Brandon [Brand.TJ, 101] points out, Josephus "was concerned to show his Gentile readers the various privileges which the Jews enjoyed from the Romans, in token of their mutual accord."
My speculation is this: The Passover amnesty, prior to this time and afterwards (if it existed at other times), was used only to release MINOR criminals - and was a very quiet affair. Pilate, however, by our scenario, chose Barabbas as one of the parties this time for a reason: to counter the manipulations of the high priests. Again, by offering Jesus and Barabbas, he was taking an upper hand in the manipulation game: Which will you choose, he asks: The one called Jesus (whom you know is "innocent") or the one called Barabbas (who IS guilty - and whose release would reveal that you value your personal grudge over "loyalty" to the Roman Empire)?
5) Why would Pilate offer to release such a dangerous criminal as Barabbas? This would have gotten him in hot water with the Emperor. [See Cohn.TDJ, 165; Sloy.JT, 68] This is also a valid objection, but Pilate was certainly a crafty fellow; he would not do something that would endanger himself so easily, especially since he had been in trouble with Rome before. Therefore, he almost certainly had counter-measures available that would give Rome satisfaction.
How much trouble would it be for him to have Barabbas re-captured and arraigned on another charge? Or could he not send one of his disguised operatives to assassinate Barabbas, if he was really so troublesome, just as he sent his disguised soldiers into the mob on that previous occasion?
Brandon [Brand.TJ, 101] also notes that the custom would have probably required imperial endorsement, and wonders why the Jews would be the only ones offered such - a question which, in light of the many significant exceptions granted to the Jews (not worshipping the Emperor; executing those who trespassed in the wrong part of the Temple, even Roman citizens) seems to need no answer, especially if, as I submit above, the custom was not that much of a spectacle under most conditions.
An issue which has been brought to my attention of late has to do with some charges by David Donnini. Donnini makes much of certain data having to do with the name of Barabbas, thusly:
...[E]verybody knows that the name of God could absolutely not be pronounced by the Jews, as to do so was, and still is, a substantial sacrilege. Nobody, but the High Priest on the Day of Atonmement could pronounce the name Yahweh; therefore, every time there was the necessity of addressing God or referring to Him, the Jews substituted terms like Adonai, Eloah, Supreme, Lord, Father, etc... Just the last one, "Father", which in Aramaic is "Abba", was the most commonly spoken by Jesus and it is commonly used in the Gospel texts. [Note: It is actually used only once that we know of, in Mark -- there is no proof that any other "Father" cites were "Abba".] We can inspect these sentences: "...And he said, Abba, Father, all things are possible unto thee..." (Mk 14, 36), "...when he cometh in the glory of his Father with the holy angels..." (Mk 8, 38), "...that your Father also which is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses..." (Mk 11, 25), "...I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth..." (Mt 11. 25)....both Jesus and the High Priest, instead of saying "son of God", would have certainly used the expression "son of the Father", that has been kept in Latin as the regular "filius Patris", which in the Aramaic idiom is rendered by the words "bar", that means "son", and "Abba", that means "father"; namely the entire expression is "bar Abba ", which can even be pronounced with no pause and so sounds like the word "Barabbas"...
Donnini regards this as an "odd coincidence," but his amazement is grounded by the simple fact that "Abba" (and therefore, "Bar-abba" as a patronymic) was a known, and indeed common, name among the Jews; it was even carried by rabbis (Samuel bar-Abba and Nathan bar-Abba are two examples; cited by Mann in his Markan commentary .)
Brown [Brow.DMh, 799] even records a Talmudic joke about a man who enters a room "looking for Abba" to be told "there are many Abbas here." He then asks for "Abba bar Abba" and is told there are a bunch of those, too! In addition, a pre-70 burial records the name .
Also note that "Bar-abbas" actually translates as "son of father" -- there is no article (a, the) involved. Also, as noted here, there is no indication of "Abba" as a title for God in this period.
By the same token, Donnini is also amazed by the following:
...some old manuscripts of the Gospel according to Matthew, dating back to the fourth century, call this fellow not only by his nickname but even give his real name as "Jesous Barabbas"...
He makes much of this from here, but "Jesus," too, was a common name of the Jews; Josephus lists nearly a dozen such men.
The trial accounts of Jesus present us with many difficulties - but they disappear upon further research and reflection and examination of the historical record. There is simply no reason to doubt that the Gospel accounts provide us with an accurate representation of what happened on that Passover night and day that had repercussions not only in Judea, but around the world, and for all eternity.
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