What the gospels got right, and wrong, about history’s most famous execution …
Pontius Pilate was not in the best of moods. If not for these backward people and their festivals, he would be enjoying a glass of wine at his villa on the Mediterranean coast at Caesarea. Instead, he was stuck in dusty, sunburnt Jerusalem, riding herd over a bunch of superstitious fanatics.
If he had his way, there would be no exception for the Jews. Allowing them not to sacrifice to the emperor only encouraged fantasies of independence. Oh sure, the Jewish aristocracy — such as it was — welcomed Roman roads and palaces and plumbing. But some supporters of the displaced Temple priests and royals still entertained mirages of regaining power, and insurgents among the peasantry fervently believed in bizarre prophecies no Roman could make heads or tails of. Some were willing to kill and die for their chimeras.
But he was merely a governor. Well, if any of the muckety-mucks back in Rome had to deal with all this nonsense, they’d change their tune pretty quick. As long as they left it up to him, he would handle problems as he saw fit.
Every year at Passover, Pontius Pilate, Prefect of Judea, made the 100-plus kilometer trek from the provincial capital at Caesarea Maritima down to Jerusalem with a reinforcement of Roman troops to ensure religious zeal didn’t boil over into rebellion. While the Samaritans did not recognize the Jerusalem Temple, Galileans and Judeans thronged the city, and inevitably there would be anti-Roman factions chafing against the government, including attempted assassinations of Roman officials, their appointed priests and scribes, and even Jews who adopted Roman ways. Then there were the self-styled prophets performing miracles and whipping their followers into a righteous frenzy.
Pilate’s troops installed themselves in a garrison at one corner of the Temple complex. Although not allowed into the innermost courtyards during the festival, they patrolled the tops of the walls, keeping watch on the crowds below.
It was during one such Passover that Pilate ordered the execution of an itinerant Galilean prophet and miracle worker called Jesus of Nazareth. If anyone had told him this single act would eventually make him more famous than Emperor Tiberius himself, he could not possibly have believed it.
The surviving accounts of Jesus’ arrest, sentencing, and execution were not written until a generation or two after the event. The Gospel According to Mark was penned by a Gentile Christian around the year 70, about four decades after Jesus’ death. The gospels of Matthew and Luke, both using Mark as a source, were written some years later, well after the Roman sacking of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Mother Church there, formerly led by Jesus’ brother James and Jesus’ disciples Simon Peter and John (likely the son of Zebedee). The Gospel According to John followed sometime near the end of the first century after Christian Jews were expelled from the synagogues as heretics for equating Jesus with God, rendering the nascent Christian sect a non-Jewish religion.
The gospel accounts are not histories, as we think of them, but docudramas, accounts in story form with missing details filled in according to what the author sought to convey by the narrative. So it’s no surprise that these accounts disagree on several points, such as the exact day of the execution, the details of Jesus’ infraction and his subsequent arrest, who was involved in his sentencing, what was said at trial, and Jesus’ final words. But historians generally agree on the broad outlines of what most likely happened: Jesus was involved in some sort of disturbance at the Temple complex during Passover, was identified to Roman authorities by one of his followers, was arrested and tried for sedition, was convicted and sentenced to public scourging and crucifixion, and was summarily executed in this manner.
Other features of the gospel accounts must be dismissed not simply as necessary fictions, such as the actual words spoken during Jesus’ trial, but as non-events. Among these are Jesus’ trial by the Jewish Sanhedrin, the involvement of Galilean tetrarch Herod Antipas, and Pilate offering to free a prisoner, either Jesus or an insurrectionist called Barabbas.
The Sanhedrin, the Jewish high court, did not meet during Passover. Nor could they. The priests who sat in the Sanhedrin officiated the religious duties of the week-long festival, and were also required to observe the home rites. Nor had Jesus done anything to place himself under their jurisdiction. Stories of the Jewish authorities’ supposed involvement appear to reflect later tensions between Christians and mainstream Judaism during the lives of the gospel authors and their audiences. And the notion that such a common case would be sent to Herod Antipas is simply not credible on its face.
The Barabbas scene also is not credible on several points. First, there simply was no custom of offering a prisoner to be freed at Passover. Nor could the massive throngs crowding the city have been brought together for such an event. And given Pilate’s reputation as a draconian governor quick to brutally repress any whiff of rebellion, who was eventually recalled for his excesses, allowing an insurrectionist to walk free does not comport with any surviving records about him. Finally, the choice between Jesus and Barabbas — whose name means “son of the father” — is a rather obvious literary device intended to dramatize the Christian view that non-Christian Judaism had rejected its last true prophet (the genuine son of the Father). It’s possible there were also political points to be made with Rome by exonerating Pilate and placing blame for Jesus’ death squarely on Jewish shoulders.
What was Jesus’ crime?
Charges of sedition may seem odd to the modern mind. What did Jesus’ preaching about the Kingdom of God, or his argument with vendors and money changers at the Temple, have to do with the Roman government?
To understand the connection, we need to know a little about theocratic politics in the ancient Mediterranean region.
Jewish response to Roman rule fell into four broad categories. The Hellenizers, mostly among the urban upper classes, were not religious dogmatists and welcomed the commerce and comforts afforded by Roman culture. The insurgents, cutting across almost all social strata, either wanted the Romans out for political reasons, or believed that allowing Roman customs in Hebrew lands was defiling and would incur God’s wrath. They advocated armed rebellion to re-establish Jewish autonomy.
Some apocalyptic sects believed the Romans had defiled the land and the Temple so egregiously as to trigger the imminent arrival of the prophesied Day of YHWH, when God would send his heavenly host to utterly destroy the existing world, cast out the wicked, remake the earth from pure celestial materials as a new Eden with God himself ruling from the Jerusalem Temple, and give perfect and immortal bodies to the righteous survivors of his wrath who would live forever in peace and prosperity. Many Jews, however, fell into none of these categories, being more concerned about their families and their livelihoods than about whoever happened to be in charge of the palaces and the Temple.
Jesus fell into the third category. He advised his followers to live in voluntary poverty and to be endlessly merciful and forgiving, because God would judge everyone by their own measure. The only way to survive divine judgment and enter paradise on earth was to take the rabbinical dictum literally to love others and God as one loved oneself.
There is a long tradition in ancient Jewish prophecy of delivering “oracles” to those in power, describing God’s blessings for choosing wisely and God’s curses for opposing the divine will. As the son of a landless day laborer from a tiny village in rural Galilee, where Rome had not even bothered to build any roads, Jesus was among the poorest of the poor. From his perspective, those who led lives of luxury while others went hungry were clearly risking God’s punishment and needed to be warned.
That included not only the wealthy merchant and ruling classes, but also those who profited by exchanging various currencies into Temple currency and selling sacrificial animals. All the gospel accounts preserve a tradition that Jesus caused a scene during the Passover celebration by overturning tables in the Temple portico. While these accounts are certainly exaggerated — claiming that Jesus stopped all Temple commerce or even drove out all the sacrificial animals with an improvised bull whip — subsequent events indicate that Jesus did in fact make some sort of demonstration which caused his arrest. But it was not likely what got him executed.
Was Jesus betrayed?
The gospels also preserve a tradition that Judas, one of Jesus’ disciples, identified Jesus to authorities and then had nothing more to do with the group. It’s highly likely that Jesus was betrayed by a disciple, because it’s highly unlikely that his followers would invent such an embarrassing story if it were not true. And although some gospel writers attempt to align the betrayal by Judas with Hebrew scripture, there is nothing in the primary prophecies cited by the early Christians to indicate that any such event was necessary to their central claims about Jesus.
The Temple complex was massive, and of course there were no radios or other forms of remote communication in those days. It’s likely that by the time the Temple police and Roman soldiers arrived on the scene of the disturbance, Jesus was elsewhere. At some point thereafter, perhaps Judas was recognized as one of Jesus’ followers and detained. Why he agreed to lead the authorities to Jesus is unclear. Perhaps he was simply too afraid not to. Or perhaps he felt Jesus would somehow be vindicated.
Charges of sedition
Overturning tables in the Temple portico did not constitute sedition against Rome, nor would it merit execution by crucifixion. So why was Jesus crucified?
Almost certainly, it had to do with what Jesus preached. If anyone had mentioned to the Roman soldiers that Jesus was heard publicly saying God was going to punish the Roman ruling class or their appointed Temple priests and scribes, that constituted sedition and would have to be reported to Pilate. Politics in ancient Mediterranean cultures were theocratic. Asserting that the gods, or any god, opposed Roman rule was tantamount to fomenting insurrection, which was a capital crime, one for which Pilate was not prone to show mercy.
Public scourging and crucifixion was the standard Roman punishment for sedition. All it would have taken for Jesus to receive this sentence was more than one witness testifying to his seditious statements, or of course his own confession. Historians of the Ancient Near East agree that this fundamental element of the Christian tradition is accurate, not only because there is nothing surprising about it, but also because execution by crucifixion is not the kind of thing that any religious leader’s followers would invent to glorify him.
And in fact, over the course of half a century the early Christian Jews failed to convince mainstream Judaism of their interpretations of Hebrew scripture, positing Jesus’ execution as evidence of his status as an anointed prophet (a mashiach or christus) rather than a common criminal. Eventually, Christianity was declared apostasy and Jews who espoused it were barred from the synagogues.
It is unknown whether the tradition is accurate that a mocking placard reading IESVS NAZARENVS REX IVDÆORVM (“Jesus of Nazareth King of the Jews”) was placed on Jesus’ cross. If so, it would indicate that Jesus saw himself, or was seen by his followers, as the destined leader of the prophesied righteous few to survive the wrath of God and enjoy eternal life in paradise. Such a placard would serve as a warning to other apocalyptic sect leaders of their fate should they dare preach oracles against their Roman rulers as Jesus had.
It is interesting that Pilate did not pursue any of Jesus’ followers. This is likely because they had a reputation as pacifists, believing that God would treat them as they had treated others, and therefore posed no potential threat to Roman rule. Because of this, the story of Simon Peter taking a sword to one of the slaves among the group sent to arrest Jesus is certainly apocryphal. Nor is there any tradition or record of a popular response against Pilate’s execution of Jesus, indicating that Jesus had a small following, and that the tradition of the triumphal entry into Jerusalem is also a later embellishment, a conclusion supported by the inexplicable disappearance of the adoring crowds later in the gospel narratives.
It is commonly believed that Jesus was executed for violating Jewish law by declaring himself a messiah or the “son of God”. But analysis of the historical record, of traditions about Jesus, of the social context of his execution, and of the Jewish law itself, taken together does not support this view. Nor is it likely that Jesus equated himself with God, as the deification of Jesus did not occur until some decades after his death. (In Hebrew tradition, a “son of God” could be any leader who obeyed God’s will. Jewish kings were declared to be adopted by God upon their coronations. And the entire nation of Israel was at times referred to as the children of God.)
What most likely got Jesus in trouble was prophesying God’s wrath against the Romans, portraying himself as a leader of the righteous few destined to be elevated by God, and coming to Pilate’s attention by raising a ruckus and thereby drawing the eyes of the Roman soldiers, attentive as they were to any public disturbance during the Passover celebration.
At the end of the day, there is nothing particularly remarkable about the arrest, conviction, and execution of Jesus of Nazareth. What is amazing is that these events spawned a new religion which quickly spread around the Mediterranean, which within three and a half centuries had become the official religion of the Roman Empire, and which went on to become the most popular religion in the world.
But that story will have to wait for another time.
Header Image: The Crucifixion of Jesus Christ, illustration by Hortus Deliciarum (public domain)