What Really Happened
The events of the Passion, the suffering and death of Jesus of Nazareth, portrayed so violently and controversially in the recent movie by Mel Gibson, “The Passion of the Christ,” have been the subject of historical debate since their earliest descriptions were framed in Christian oral tradition. Disagreements about the death of Jesus are already inherent in the New Testament Gospels, in apocryphal Christian and Jewish accounts and, most importantly, in the reports of the historians Josephus and Tacitus.
The background for the career and death of Jesus begins already with the coming of the Romans to Judea in 63 B.C.E. The Maccabean revolt had taken place between 168 and 164 B.C.E., but it did not really end until 152 B.C.E. when the Hasmonean (Maccabean) dynasty came into existence. After about a century of Hasmonean rule, the two sons of the Queen Shelomzion (76-67 B.C.E.), Hyrcanus and Aristobulus, fought for the throne after her death in 67 B.C.E. That internal struggle gave the Romans the opportunity in 63 B.C.E. to conquer the strategic land of Judea that they had long desired to add to their empire as a buffer against the Parthians to the east.
The Romans were immediately faced with the question of how to govern Judea. Several solutions were tried. After direct rule through a series of procurators, and faced with constant guerilla opposition, the Romans installed the client King Herod in 40 B.C.E. He was a descendent of converts from Idumea—in the Negev–but had a non-Jewish mother, Cypros, an Arab princess. His rule was highly oppressive, and upon his death in 4 B.C.E., widespread protests broke out, so that by 6 C.E. the Romans had to remove his son Archelaus from rule over Judea. Then the Romans decided to reconstitute Judea as a subsection of the province of Syria under its own ruler, often termed “procurator” but, in fact, a prefect. Nevertheless, the Romans left the Galilee under Herod Antipas, one of the sons of Herod the Great, who continued to rule as a client king. He ruled the Galilee during the career of Jesus.
The Apocalyptic Matrix
Beginning already in the second century B.C.E., as we now know from the study of the Dead Sea Scrolls and related documents, apocalyptic, extreme messianism had spread among many elements of the Jewish community in the Land of Israel. Specifically, apocalyptic teachings had led many Jews to expect that the messiah would come soon and redeem them from Roman domination. Some Jews expected the violent overthrow of the Romans, as is the case with the Dead Sea sectarians who authored the Scroll of the War of the Sons of Light against the Sons of Darkness, a text that described a messianic war against the Romans that would usher in the end of days. Such ideas also encouraged those who from the entry of Rome into Judea in 63 B.C.E. began a guerrilla revolt against them, believing that Jews were essentially commanded by God to live under their own rule. These trends helped to fuel the Great Revolt against Rome in 66-73 CE and the Bar Kokhba Revolt of 132-135 CE. Others expected the messianic era to arise as a result of more peaceful events, and looked forward to a kingdom of heaven to be established on earth in the near future. It is apparent that Jesus and his followers hoped for such a peaceful transformation even in the face of Rome’s despotic rule.
Pontius Pilate and the Romans
The most infamous of these prefects, known from Roman sources, the New Testament, and an inscription found in Judea, was Pontius Pilate. He was the Roman official charged with rule over Judea, including internal rule of the Jewish people, at the time of the career and crucifixion of Jesus. It is necessary to emphasize that there was no independent Jewish government during this time, and that what was happening in Jerusalem was not under the aegis of a Jewish government, let alone one for which the Torah was the guiding principle.
The exclusivist nature of the Jewish religion and the organization of Judea as essentially a Temple state around Jerusalem meant that the Romans had to govern with the help of some kind of Jewish leadership. That is why they had tried the Herodian dynasty. This time, they decided to select high priests from families originating outside the land of Israel, to place them in charge of the Temple, and to use them as a bridge to the Jewish population. This scheme, however, meant that the high priests whom the Romans selected had little support among the populace, for their status was dependent only on their wealth and closeness to the Roman authorities.
In Jesus’ time, the high priest appointed by Pontius Pilate was Joseph Caiaphas, whose tomb was recently found in Jerusalem. He had married into a family that, together with related aristocratic Sadducean families, controlled the priesthood generation after generation. Caiaphas lasted in office for about eighteen years (c. 18-36 CE). Most high priests lasted no more than a year, and one lasted one day! How did he manage to hold on to his position for so long? In fact, he was essentially a collaborator. His job was to keep the peace, especially at the festivals, so that the Roman Empire could pursue its policy in the East, untrammeled by trouble from the Jews.
We know quite a bit about Pontius Pilate from Josephus. His lack of consideration for his Jewish subjects and his brutality would eventually be his undoing. At the beginning of his rule, he had tried to bring the legionary standards, which were worshiped in the Roman army, into Jerusalem. Jews went to demonstrate in Caesarea, his capital. When they were told that that there was no choice, they lay down, exposed their necks, and said that they would gladly have their throats slit by the Romans before they would see the standards brought into the city of Jerusalem. When one of his soldiers performed some kind of obscene gesture near the Temple, causing a riot, thousands of people were killed by him. Another time there was a demonstration against Pilate’s use of Temple funds for building an aqueduct, so Pilate sent his soldiers to dress up like Jews. At a signal, he had them kill all the demonstrators. He was so terrible that the New Testament says about him that he mingled the blood of the sacrifices with the blood of the Galileans (Luke 13:1), apparently referring to some bloody disturbances. Finally, there was an attempt by the Samaritans to find their ancient holy objects. Pilate took it as a political move to reassert independence, so he slaughtered all the people involved. It was this last act of brutality that led the Romans to recall him from his position as prefect of Judea.
It was this type of ruler who cooperated with a high priest and a few of his associates to maintain a semblance of order at all costs. This situation led from the very beginning of Roman rule to widespread dissatisfaction, so that there was continuous Jewish rebellion. Eventually, of course, we know that this dissatisfaction came to the fore with the revolt of 66-73 CE, as a result of which the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70.
This was an atmosphere in which numerous people were executed. According to Roman historical texts, after the slave revolt led by Spartacus (73-71 BCE), 6000 rebels were crucified in one day. Josephus reports that during the siege of Jerusalem 500 people were crucified each day in front of the city of Jerusalem. We also know about a certain Theudas and somebody called “The Egyptian,” who assembled large groups of people to follow them as messianic pretenders, and they were all killed by the Romans. Finally, Jesus’ apparent teacher, and certainly a great influence on him, John the Baptist, was executed by Herod Antipas for the very same reason (following Josephus, rather than the Gospel account).
The Jewish community during this period was divided, according to the historian Josephus, into the major sects of Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes, the last of which are identified by most scholars as the sect that collected the Dead Sea Scrolls at the sectarian settlement at Qumran. The Pharisees were the lay sages, the forerunners of the Talmudic rabbis. The Sadducees represented the aristocratic high priests, and some of them had made common cause with the Romans to rule over Judea. The Dead Sea sect and other apocalyptic, messianic groups eagerly awaited the final redemption of the Jewish people. But the main players in the internal affairs of the Jewish community were the Pharisees and the Sadducees who are pictured as arguing with Jesus in a variety of passages in the New Testament. In general terms, the Pharisees are pictured as opposing Jesus on various questions, primarily of Jewish law. Later Gospel texts, reflecting tensions between Jews and Christians late in the first century, portray greater antagonism to Jesus on the part of Pharisees as well as attributing to them a role in the events leading to his execution. The Sadducean priests seem to have opposed Jesus’ views regarding the Temple of which they were the guardians. While both of these groups opposed Jesus for various reasons, it was only a small group of highly pro-Roman Sadducees, the high priest and his closest associates that may have actually participated in the events that led to his death.
As we look at the accounts in Christian literature, we are faced with the central question of the Sanhedrin and its alleged involvement in the crucifixion. For a long time, the prevailing view was that of former Chief Justice of the Israeli Supreme Court, Haim Cohen, that none of the Gospel information could possibly be correct because the procedures described in the Gospel trial scenes violate the laws of the Mishnah, the rabbinic code of Jewish law edited c. 200 CE. His argument went like this: If a Jewish court had condemned Jesus to death, they would have had to follow halakhah (Jewish law). But the accounts in the New Testament do not conform to the procedures and evidentiary requirements of the Mishnah, so it follows that there could not have been a trial before the Sanhedrin.
But we now have a much different view of these events. We are aware that the Sanhedrin, as it is termed in the Gospels, is not the rabbinic Sanhedrin. The Pharisaic forebears of the Mishnaic rabbis did not have governmental authority; the Jews were under the heel of Rome. Rather, the Sanhedrin described in the New Testament was actually an ad hoc group assembled by the high priest from among his fellows who were part of that same social, political and economic group that was interested in maintaining order under Rome. Those individuals came together often on an ad hoc basis, and that is what the so-called Sanhedrin of the New Testament is.
There are three views in the New Testament about the role of a Sanhedrin in the events leading up to the trial of Jesus. There is the possibility that there occurred one trial, two trials, or three trials. According to the One Trial point of view, there was a trial by Pontius Pilate, after which Jesus was condemned. According to the latest John, the latest gospel, as we understand it, the Romans demanded that the Jews hand over Jesus because they thought that he was a revolutionary troublemaker, similar to some of the other rebels mentioned before, and similar to his teacher, John the Baptist, who had recently been killed. The high priest deliberated with his associates, and said, “Better we should give over one Jew to the Romans, Jesus, whom they have demanded, than that the whole nation should be destroyed.” This ruling is consistent with an early Rabbinic law (Tosefta Terumot 7:20) that says that if non-Jews surround a group of Jews say, “Hand us so-and-so so (by name) so that we can kill him, otherwise we will kill all of you,” it is permitted to hand him over. But if they say, “Just give us one (unidentified) man so we can kill him,” it is not permitted to hand him over. So the high priest and his friends, after questioning by Annas, a former high priest, handed over Jesus. Then Pilate conducted a trial and convicted him.
In the Two Trials scenario (Matthew, Mark) a “Sanhedrin” of Jews tries Jesus and hands him over to Pilate, who conducts another trial. According to that version, Pilate wants to let him go, but the Jews demand that he be executed anyhow.
The Three Trials (Luke) theory adds a third trial under Herod Antipas, ruler of Galilee, who was then in Jerusalem for the Passover festival. The court of Herod Antipas was considered by Pilate to be the correct jurisdiction for the offenses of Jesus since they had allegedly taken place in the Galilee. So according to the Three Trial version, Herod Antipas also tried Jesus, and declared him innocent because there were no grounds for conviction.
What we need to emphasize is that if there were a Sanhedrin, it did not function in any way according to Jewish law or according to Jewish popular will. It was simply a rump body of collaborating priests. According to John, no Jews ever tried Jesus, but, rather, he was handed over at the direct demand of the Romans.
Pilate had executed numerous people like this. That Pilate would want to execute Jesus makes perfect sense. In fact, Roman law prohibited capital punishment at the hands of local courts such as those of the Jews. Capital punishment in any case had been made virtually impossible according Jewish law, which required that the two witnesses see each other, that the witnesses warn the perpetrator, etc.—all making it almost impossible that that Jews would have wanted to actually go through with an execution. Under Roman rule, Jews themselves, without Pilate, without the Romans, would never have been permitted to carry on capital punishment of anybody.
What do we know about Caiaphas? Apparently, he was a collaborator, but we have no evidence that he was involved in this or any other execution. Pilate, however, was known for his cruelty, and in the Gospels he is represented as washing his hands, allowing the Jews to execute Jesus. But in Luke (13:1) he is described as mingling the blood of the sacrifices with the blood of the Jews he killed. So who is the most likely choice for the guilty party? It is obviously Pilate.
As mentioned, Jesus was typical of a slew of “rebels” that the Romans executed, and that opens the question: what was his crime? The Talmudic rabbis preserved traditions saying that some of his ideas about Jewish law were unacceptable and, therefore, they saw him as one who was leading Jews astray. Other rabbinic and New Testament traditions have him practicing exorcism and magic, some of which could be considered objectionable. The New Testament says that the Jewish leaders saw his claims of messiahship as blasphemous, and some interpret the texts to indicate that he even saw himself as the son of God. None of this mattered. He died, because from the Roman point of view, he was guilty of sedition since the Romans understood his messianic claims and apocalyptic expectations of the kingdom of God on earth to be rebellious.
There are some scholars who maintain that Jesus was actually an armed revolutionary, a so-called “social bandit,” part of a class of rebels that existed throughout the Roman Empire, even in Judea. Following this theory, ABC put on its own competitor to “The Passion” called “Judas.” In ABC’s program, Judas turns in Jesus because he becomes disaffected with Jesus’ refusal to lead an armed struggle. Although some scholars have argued for this theory, there is simply no evidence at all to support it.
To the Romans Jesus was like all the other rebels. So the Romans put a sign over his head on the crucifix reading “King of the Jews.” The reality is that Jesus was executed by the Romans because they mistakenly thought that his kingdom of God and the messianic ideas that he preached were going to set off a violent revolution, and Pilate was afraid that this would cost him his job.
According to the synoptic Gospels, at the trial before Pilate the Jews were all yelling, “Crucify him, crucify him!” This portrayal is a reflection of later anti-Semitism, not of reality. According to the Gospels there was also another man who was to be crucified by the name of Barabbas, who is referred to in Greek as lestes. In the Talmud this word is transliterated as listim and is often translated as “robbers, thieves.” However, in Greek, lestes, also denotes a type of a rebel. The New Testament indicates that Barabbas was most likely a political rebel, not simply some common thief. That is why he was arrested and why he would have been executed. It is perfectly possible that he was popular with the Jews, which is supposedly why the Jews clamored for his release. But there is no ancient parallel to the claim of the New Testament that the prefect would release a Jewish captive on the eve of the festival as a goodwill gesture. This seems to be a fabrication of the Gospels. In any case, the story about Jesus and Barabbas cannot be verified.
The usual account of Jesus’ death is based on a synthesis of the accounts of the four Gospels, and goes like this: Jesus was coming up to Jerusalem for Passover, entering Jerusalem on a white donkey indicating his messianic status. His teachings were said to have been regarded as heretical by the high priestly authorities who arrested him and, according to the Gospel accounts tried him before the Sanhedrin. They turned him over to Pontius Pilate for execution. Pilate knew that he was innocent but was helpless before the demands of the Jewish leaders, and so had him crucified. According to the Gospel he was resurrected three days later.
But the Gospels, for the most part unknown to the earlier Pauline epistles, were actually put together from some earlier source material and oral traditions, sometime between about 70 and 90 C.E. When you examine the four canonical Gospels, you see that they all tell approximately, but not exactly, the same story. For example, only Matthew (27:25) relates the so-called blood curse in which the Jews take upon themselves and their future descendents forever guilt for Jesus’ death. But in the course of retelling the story, as the history of the tradition progresses over time, the anti-Semitism is increased. For example, if in Mark there was a crowd demanding Jesus’ execution, in John, which was later, there are “the Jews.” This is virtually, but not totally, a consistent fact in the internal historical development of these texts.
One very important point that scholarly research has demonstrated pertains to the sources of the Gospel accounts. Much of their “historical” information derives from their basic belief that the Hebrew Scriptures foretold a messiah who would be killed and would rise to save humanity. So they took biblical verses, for example, the famous suffering servant passage of Isaiah (chap. 53), and they constructed their narrative as the fulfillment of events that they thought had been prophesied. Many historically dubious details were created in this way, and this fulfillment theology and the interpretations that supposedly support these claims are, in fact, what gave birth to many of the details in the account, which is constructed in the image of the post-Jesus Christian reading of the Hebrew Bible. This explains why most of the Gospel narrative seems totally unknown to Paul. It also explains why in the Christian oral tradition the accounts diverged so that at least four different written Gospel accounts came down to us.
Are these texts themselves anti-Semitic? On a certain level, yes, because their internal development is such that they become more and more anti-Jewish over time. Most scholars believe, and official Catholic documents assert, that this is a reflection of the fact that after Jesus’ death, the Jews rejected both his messiahship and his divinity. Hence, the early Christians had great antipathy to the Jews, which, in turn, is reflected in these texts. Some scholars believe that since the Christians were being persecuted by the Romans when these documents were put together, and since they sought recognition as a licit religion by the Roman authorities, they preferred to blame the Jews rather than the Romans. Hence, the Gospels themselves increasingly blame the Jews for the death of Jesus as they proceed chronologically.
If so, the actual Gospel narratives reflect a complex combination of what actually happened, as well as stories reflecting later Christian antipathy to the Jews and the attempt of the Gospel narrators to tell the story of Jesus’ death as the fulfillment of Hebrew biblical prophecies as the Christians interpreted them, or better as they read into them. Therefore, these accounts, to say the least, cannot be taken at face value.
Josephus and Tacitus
It is here that we are helped by two ancient historians, the first-century C.E. Jewish historian Flavius Josephus and the early second-century Roman historian Tacitus. If you open up a copy of Josephus (Antiquities 18:63-64), you will see that the text you are reading imputes to the author belief in Jesus’ messiahship, because the scribes who passed down the Greek text of Josephus Christianized his words. Josephus, however, if you take the Christian part out, says the following:
About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man. For he was one who wrought surprising feats. He won over many Jews and many Greeks. When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing among us, had condemned him to be crucified, those who in the first place had come to love him did not cease. And the tribe of Christians, so-called after him, has up to now, not disappeared.
We cannot be certain, because of the evidence to be quoted below, if the words, “upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing among us,” are actually part of Josephus’ original text. But what does this passage say? Josephus says that there was a teacher who had followers who believed that he had performed wonders, that Pilate killed him, and, depending on how we judge the evidence cited below, Josephus may be saying that those collaborators I mentioned before cooperated in his death. Further, the text asserts that in Josephus’ time the Christians still existed.
Confirmation of the reconstruction of Josephus presented above comes from a tenth-century Arabic version of this text that indicates what the correct text of Josephus originally was, because it has no Christianizing elements:
At this time there was a wise man who was called Jesus. And his conduct was good, and he was known to be virtuous. And many people from among the Jews and the other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die. And those who had become his disciples did not abandon his discipleship. They reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion and that he was alive; accordingly (they thought that) he was perhaps the Messiah concerning whom the prophets have recounted wonders.
Actually, this little paragraph can be taken as a simple statement of what actually happened. But this passage lacks the reference to the participation of Jewish leaders that most scholars believe was part of the Josephan text.
This third person account, that Josephus might truly have written, with or without the reference to Jewish participation, seems quite credible. Indeed, in the beginning of the second century the Roman historian Tacitus wrote the following: “Chrestus, from whom their name is derived,” for he was speaking earlier about the Christians, “was executed at the hands of the procurator Pontius Pilate in the reign of Tiberius.” This text sums up best of all what we know definitely to have happened, with no embellishment at all. And Tacitus totally ignores the possible participation of the high priests.
These texts tell the real truth. Pontius Pilate was responsible for Jesus’ crucifixion, although he may have had the help of some high priestly, pro-Roman collaborators. The reality is that Jesus was executed by the Romans as a political rebel because they mistakenly thought that his kingdom of God and the messianic ideas that his preaching would signal the violent revolution that was was, in fact, already going on as a guerrilla struggle and that would ultimately emerge into the open and engulf all of Judea and its Temple in flames.