DON CUPITT

 

Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)


DENNIS NINEHAM

 

... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)


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The Historical Jesus
The Trial and Crucifixion 
of Jesus as History

The trial of Jesus is important. At the very least, we need to know why Jesus was killed. All four Gospels have their accounts of the event - and yet certain features of their material throw considerable doubt on its value as history [1].

Despite justifiable suspicions about the accounts, and considering the importance of the subject to Christians and others, might it be possible to preserve more than the bare outline allowed by rigorous critics such as the Fellows of the Jesus Seminar? [2]

Such an enterprise is tricky. There is always a temptation to be too positive. Bias creeps in all-too-easily. Nevertheless, it seems a worthwhile venture. 

It may be that not much can be preserved as history if criteria for good history are applied rigorously. It must be admitted that only the most sceptical version - what I call "bare bones history" - is likely to satisfy the rigorous demands of a professional historian. What I aim at here is to isolate sections which, though not good bare bones history, are nevertheless convincing.

Church teaching often maintains that the so-called "Christ of faith" is sufficient. I take the line that we should follow the pioneering life of a real man, who lived, loved and died just as we all do. That is, Christianity is a way of life based in the first instance on a person who actually lived, and only secondarily on the subsequent teachings and interpretations of Christians, no matter how early in the life of the Church.

The probability of an event in the Gospels being good history depends on the answers to two main questions:

[1] Does the material come from more than one source and do those sources agree substantially?

[2] How strong are those accounts? Are they credible, or are they biased? Are they perhaps made up for reasons other than to relate "what really happened"?

That is, there is a distinction between "what really happened" and theology expressed as story. 

The former is a major concern of the modern Christian. We are used to basing what we believe on evidence about the world. We look for consensus amongst experts to draw our conclusions - not to past authority, whether or not it claims to have had direct contact with God. We generally distinguish between established (if provisional) fact and personal opinion expressed as social tradition. 

This was, to put it bluntly, not the major concern of the gospel authors. 

They sought to explain the meaning of Jesus to them and their communities. They did so with spoken and written material which, from our viewpoint, contains some history but not as much as we would like. It certainly does not contain enough to build even the slimmest of biographies about Jesus.

From their viewpoint, what they wrote about Jesus was not intended to be historical. Rather, it aimed to present the truth about Jesus from what we would today call a theological standpoint. That the result is truthful is, so they would say, confirmed by a strong correspondence with "the scriptures" - what we today call the Old Testament.

The gospels used is this brief analysis are Mark, Matthew, Luke, John, and Peter. The Gospel of Thomas is the only other gospel of any substance, but it contains nothing about the trial and crucifixion.

The Gospel of Peter is a fragmentary gospel discovered in 1886 in Egypt. It should probably be associated with an early church in Syria. Some critics think that there seems to be early material in this gospel, overlaid by substantial Christian interpretation. Some recent analyses place the primitive material in the gospel as early as the middle of the first century. If so, it would have been in circulation at about the same time as Paul was writing his letters.

The gospel material about the trial and crucifixion is here presented in parallel, fitting in some observations and conclusions as it goes along. But be cautioned: placing the versions parallel doesn't prove very much. It merely helps see how some details might be more convincing than others.

Note that just because something is reported in all the gospels doesn't mean that it is historical. I try to explain some omissions. Some lengthy passages are omitted because they are clearly not historical (such as some of the extended speeches in John's Gospel).

Remember also that the authors of Matthew and Luke often depend on Mark as their source. This means that although three gospels agree, it may be only a single source (Mark) which is our measure. It helps, therefore, when John's Gospel gives some support - but that doesn't happen often.

At the same time, it must be said that the gospels are our only substantial source of knowledge about Jesus. So if they all convincingly say something happened it must carry some weight. Despite their theological agenda, the gospel authors were neither fools nor charlatans. They were editors and their material reflects this.

One alternative is to reject the witness of the gospels in their entirety - which is a valid response if one has a highly rigorous notion of what's required for good history. Some choose this course. The vast majority accept the fundamental usefulness of the historical material in the gospel accounts of the trial and crucifixion, even though they may not meet the most rigorous standards of historical scholarship.

What I think are credible sections are in red. I have used the text of the excellent New Revised Standard Version of the Bible.
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[1] See The Trial and Death of Jesus
[2] See Mark 15; Matthew 26 & 27; Luke 22 & 23; John 18 & 19 

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The Arrest, Trial and Crucifixion of Jesus

Mark 14.1  It was two days before the Passover and the festival of Unleavened Bread. The chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him; for they said, "Not during the festival, for there may a a riot among the people. Matthew 26.3  The chief priests and the elders of the people gathered in the palace of the high priest, who was called Caiaphas, and they conspired to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him. But they said, "Not during the festival or there may be a riot among the people.
Luke 22.1  Now the festival of Unleavened Bread, which is called the Passover, was near. The chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to put Jesus to death, for they were afraid of the people. John 11.47  The chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the council and said, "What are we to do? This man is performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation." 53 So from that day on they planned to put him to death.
Comment  
#  The reference in Matthew to Caiaphas is accurate. We know of him from independent sources. He was High Priest from about the year 18 to about 37 and was the son-in-law of Annas, High Priest during the years 6 to 15.
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Mark 14.26  When they had sung a hymn they went out to the Mount of Olives. Matthew 26.30  When they had sung a hymn they went out to the Mount of Olives
Luke 22.39  He came out and went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives John 14.31  Rise, let us be on our way.
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Mark 14.32  They went to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, "Sit here while I pray." Matthew 26.36  Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, "Sit here while I go over there and pray."
Luke 22.39  When he reached the place [Mount of Olives], he said to them, "Pray that you may not come into the time of trial." John 18.1  When Jesus had spoken these words, he went out with his disciples across the Kidron valley to a place where there was a garden, which he and his disciples entered.
Comment   
#  Some think that John's version may have come from an independent source. The account here, which gives the same impression as the other three gospels but using different words, reflects the kind of differences one must take into account. Some dismiss it as John's invention.
#  Some think that John's reference to the Kidron valley was inspired by 2 Samuel 15.23 which relates that "... the king [David] crossed the Wadi Kidron and all the people moved on towards the wilderness". It's probable that early Jewish-Christians were convinced that Jesus was a second David (or perhaps Elijah returned) and that he had ushered in God's new kingdom on earth through the person of Jesus.
#  Many think that the visit to the Kidron valley was invented by John to validate his theology about Jesus. On the other hand, it may be that the sources (oral or written, or both) used by John related how Jesus went across the Kidron valley and that John selected it from other material because of the historic link to David.
#  Similarly, Mark refers to the Mount of Olives. In 2 Samuel 15.30 David ascends the Mount of Olives, weeping as he goes. In Zechariah 14.4 God stands victorious on the Mount of Olives. Mark may here have wanted to tell of Jesus' sorrow and his ultimate victory. But that doesn't prove that Jesus didn't go there.
#  The Mount of Olives is in fact reached by crossing the Kidron valley from the southern exit of Jerusalem. So there is more correspondence between Mark, Luke and John than at first meets the eye.
#  Because the Greek of Matthew and Luke at this point is identical with Mark's version (except that Luke adds "as was his custom") many agree that the former two used the text of the latter here. That is, we don't have evidence from three sources, but from two - John and Mark.
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Mark 14.43  While he was still speaking, Judas, one of the twelve, arrived; and with him there was a crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests, the scribes and the elders. Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, "The one I will kiss is the man; arrest him and lead him away under guard. So when he came, he went up to him at once and said, "Rabbi! and kissed him. They laid hands on him and arrested him. Matthew 26.47  And while he was still speaking, Judas, one of the twelve, arrived; with him was a large crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and elders of the people. Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, "The one I will kiss is the man; arrest him." At once he came up to Jesus and said, "Greetings, Rabbi!" and kissed him. Jesus said to him, "Friend, do what you are here to do." Then they came and laid hands on Jesus and arrested him.
Luke 22.47  While he was still speaking, suddenly a crowd came, and the one called Judas, one of the twelve, was leading them. He approached Jesus to kiss him; but Jesus said to him, "Judas, is it with a kiss that you are betraying the Son of Man? John 18.2  Now Judas, who betrayed him, also knew the place because Jesus often met there with his disciples. So Judas brought a detachment of soldiers together with police from the chief priests and the Pharisees, and they came there with lanterns and torches and weapons.
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Mark 14.47  But one of those who stood near drew his sword and struck the slave of the high priest, cutting off his ear. So all of them deserted him and fled. A certain young man was following him, wearing nothing but a linen cloth. They caught hold of him, but he left the linen cloth and ran off naked.   Matthew 26.51  Suddenly, one of those with Jesus put his hand on his sword, drew it, and struck the slave of the high priest, cutting off his ear. Then all the disciples deserted him and fled.
Luke 22.49  When  those who were around him saw what was coming, they asked, "Lord, should we strike with the sword?" Then one of them struck the slave of the high priest and cut off his right ear. John 18.4  Then Simon Peter, who had a sword, drew it, struck the high priest's slave, and cut off his right ear
Comment
#  Both tradition and modern criticism have it that the disciples ran away when Jesus was arrested. But I've decided that the gospels don't agree about this. The rest of this passage seems to have been heavily edited by the authors.
#  Jesus certainly posed a threat to the Roman authorities. He was killed as an insurrectionist. Temple priests, especially the senior ones, were supported and in effect enriched by Roman licence and official validation. So the Jewish authorities may well have helped matters along for their own reasons. But if so, it's surprising that the disciples were not rounded up as well. In fact, they were later allowed to form a Jewish-Christian community. This is difficult to credit given the way the Roman authorities treated similar potential rebels. Some think that Jesus, in the way he handled Pilate (or, if not Pilate, whichever Romans authorised his death), managed to protect his friends so that they would not be hunted down and killed with him.
# While I'm reluctant to dismiss some aspects of this account of a potentially lethal brawl as a fabrication, it should be noted in favour of treating it with some suspicion that Mark could well be referring here to Zechariah 13.7 "Awake, O sword, against my shepherd, against the man who is my associate". The gospel authors and their communities were constantly seeking confirmation from the Hebrew Bible of the meaning of Jesus for them. They thought nothing of re-writing their information as though a passage in the Hebrew Bible witnessed to what happened in the life of Jesus. They could do this because they didn't have our strict sense of time as contained in the "now".
# Note also that to have an ear cut off would have meant shame and ridicule for the victim. He would not have been able to go to church. The gospel writers could well be having a go at the high priest through his representative - and not without a degree of malice.
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Mark  Matthew 
Luke 22.  They seized him and led him away, John 18.12  So the soldiers, their officer and the Jewish police arrested Jesus and bound him.
Comment  I've taken this as possible history because a reading of Mark and Matthew, although they don't use these words, shows that both assume the arrest spelled out by Luke and John. But it's wise to recognise that both these brief passages could equally well have been inserted by the authors rather than taken from another source.
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Mark 14.53  They took him to the high priest; and all the chief priests, the elders, and the scribes were assembled. Matthew 26.57  Those who had arrested him took him to Caiaphas the high priest, in whose house the scribes and the elders had gathered.
Luke 22.54  bringing him into the high priest's house. John 18.13  First they took him to Annas, who was the father-in-law of Caiaphas, the high priest that year. 
Comment  
#  John gets Caiaphas right - but the rest is fiction. Look at verse 19 and you'll see that the action switches abruptly to Caiaphas while Annas disappears without further mention! 
#  That the elders and scribes should have assembled in the middle of the night is apparently unlikely on the grounds that a night trial was against Jewish law. But if one accepts that Jesus was summarily got rid of, then a hurried, secret night-time Jewish court makes some sense, particularly if the evidence against him was weak.
#  I have here left out the account of Peter's denial because it isn't strictly speaking to do with the trial itself.
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Mark 14.55  Now the chief priests and the whole council were looking for testimony against Jesus to put him to death. Matthew 26.59  Now the chief priests and the whole council were looking for false testimony against Jesus so that they might put him to death.
Luke 22.66 When day came, the assembly of the elders of the people, both chief priests and scribes, gathered together and they brought him to their council. John 18.19  Then the high priest questioned Jesus about his disciples and about his teaching.
Comment  
#  Supporting information is patchy here. Matthew and Luke seem to have used Mark as their source, editing him somewhat. John backs Mark up in saying that Jesus was questioned. That seems likely, though we can't be sure by whom he was questioned. Scholars still argue about whether the Jewish or the Roman authorities arrested and questioned Jesus. It seems probable that Jesus came before both authorities. If so, the interrogation must have been quicker than the gospels imply.
#  It's tempting to include some of the material about mocking and violence towards Jesus, first by the Jews and then by the Romans. But the gospel accounts are too ill-fitting at this point to give us good history - though some scholars point out that the main points of the account are possible, if not probable. At the same time, we should be cautious about anti-Semitic motives of some early Christian communities. They would have had ulterior motives for expanding the tradition and giving it a negative slant.
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Mark 15.1  They bound Jesus, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate. Pilate asked him, "Are you the king of the Jews?" He answered, "You say so." Matthew 27.2  They bound him, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate the governor. Now Jesus stood before the governor; and the governor asked him, Are you the King of the Jews?" Jesus said, "You say so."
Luke 23.1  Then [they] brought Jesus before Pilate. They began to accuse him, saying, "We found this man perverting our nation, forbidding us to pay taxes to the emperor, and saying that he himself is the Messiah, a king." Then Pilate asked him, "Are you the king of the Jews?" He answered, "You say so." John 18.28  Then they took Jesus from Caiaphas to Pilate's headquarters. It was early in the morning. 18.33  Then Pilate entered the headquarters [again], summoned Jesus, and asked him, "Are you the King of the Jews?" Jesus answered, "Do you ask this on your own, or did the others tell you about me?" 18.37 Pilate asked him, "So you are a king?" Jesus answered, "You say that I am a king."
Comment
#  The account of Judas' suicide (Matthew 27.3-10) must be left out, even though it appears at first sight to be closely connected with the events of the trial. This is because only Matthew relates it. The story also parallels 2 Samuel 15.23 in which Ahithophel hangs himself after having given poor counsel to Absalom. So it's more  likely than not that the author of Matthew's Gospel used it for a theological purpose. We have no way of verifying that the story is even reasonably credible history.
#  When it comes to detailed, verbatim reports of what anyone said during the trial, caution is the watchword. Look at the extra dialogue the author of John's Gospel inserts here for an indication of how material can be embroidered. The question about being a "king" and Jesus reply are, however, well attested. The reply does not admit kingship of any sort, though his response has a degree of ambiguity to it. Because this indefinite denial is so contrary to the theological interests of the gospel authors and because it goes against core traditional theology, it is more likely than not to accurately reflect what Jesus actually said. The recording of aspects contrary to the interests of Christian tradition is a good criterion for judging historicity in the gospels. That is, if the gospel writers had a motive to exclude something, and yet didn't, the inclusion indicates that a passage comes from an earlier source.
#  The Romans, and therefore Pilate, would have taken any kingship claim as evidence of sedition. Jesus was a marked man, a dangerous agitator, the moment he was thought to have admitted some sort of kingship. Death by crucifixion was the usual official penalty for subversion and insurrection.
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Mark 15.15  So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified. Matthew 27.26  So he [Pilate] released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified.
Luke 23.25  He [Pilate] released the man they asked for, the one who had been put in prison for insurrection and murder, and he handed Jesus over as they wished. John 18.40 They [the crowd] shouted [to Pilate] in reply, "Not this man, but Barabbas!" Now Barabbas was a bandit. 19.1  Then Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged. 19.16 Then he handed him over to be crucified.
Comment
# Note that Luke does not mention Barabbas. We don't know why - though it might have been because he was more Greek in orientation that the Mark and Matthew and didn't appreciate the word-play around the name.
#  When deciding exactly what happened at the trial, much depends on how well each gospel author matches the others. If, as seems very likely, Matthew and Luke used Mark as their basis, we can rely more on something in Mark when it is matched by John's Gospel. The details of the trial don't come out too well in this respect. But the name of Barabbas (Greek for the Hebrew Bar-'Abba meaning "son of the father" or "Daddy's boy") occurs in all four gospels. But note that Jesus was also seen as the "Son of God [the Father]". We should wonder what play of words and concepts is going on here. Barabbas was released while Jesus was condemned. But it's not safe to conclude more than that. In particular, we shouldn't assume that it was the Jews who wanted Barabbas released and Jesus killed. There was considerable conflict between the Jewish establishment and Jewish-Christians in the early years. Anti-Jewish sentiments quickly evolved. This aspect of the account could reflect later antagonism towards Jews and should therefore be put aside.
#  Some think that a trial by Pilate is credible because the Jewish authorities would not have had the power either to try Jesus or to apply the death penalty. But the evidence isn't entirely secure and the debate goes on.
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Mark 15.22  Then they brought Jesus to the place called Golgotha (which means the place of the skull). And they offered him wine mixed with myrrh; but he did not take it. And they crucified him, and divided his clothes among them, casting lots to decide what each should take. Matthew 27.33  And when they came to a place called Golgotha (which means Place of a Skull), they offered him wine to drink, mixed with gall; but when he tasted it he would not drink it. And when they had crucified him, they divided his clothes among themselves by casting lots; then they sat down there and kept watch over him.
Luke 23.32  Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. And they cast lots to divide his clothing. John 19.24  So they took Jesus; and carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called The Place of the Skull, which in Hebrew is called Golgotha. There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, with Jesus between them.
Peter 4.1  And they brought two criminals and crucified the Lord between them.
Comment
#  Crucifixion was carried out throughout the ancient world by Persians, Indians and Assyrians and others. There is even some evidence that it was used by Jewish authorities before the time of Herod the Great (47-4 BC). There was no standard method of crucifixion. Wrist and heel bones with rusted nails still embedded in them have recently been discovered (1968). Iit seems that this particular victim was tied to the beam as well as nailed to it. Perhaps this applied to Jesus as well, though the Gospels give no details of the method used on him. Unlike much of the gospel material, the death of Jesus (though not the crucifixion) is attested by an outside authority (The Annals of Tacitus).
#  Golgotha (a Greek translation of the original Aramaic), according to our most recent archeological evidence, was a quarry just outside the northern perimeter of Jerusalem.
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Mark 15.25  It was nine o'clock in the morning when they crucified him. The inscription of the charge against him read, "The King of the Jews." And with him they crucified two bandits, one on his right and one on his left. Matthew 27.37  Over his head they put the charge against him which read, "This is Jesus, the King of the Jews." Then two bandits were crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left.
Luke 23.38  There was also an inscription over him, "This is the King of the Jews." John 19.19  Pilate also had an inscription written and put on the cross. It read, "Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews." 23 When the soldiers had crucified Jesus, they took his clothes and divided them into four parts, one for each soldier. They also took his tunic; now the tunic was seamless, woven in one piece from the top. So they said to one another, "Let us not tear it, but cast lots for it to see who will get it." This was to fulfill what the scripture says, "They divided my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots." And that was what the soldiers did. 
Peter 4.2  And when they set up the cross, they put an inscription on it, "This was the king of Israel." And they piled his clothing in front of him; and then they divided it among themselves, and gambled for it.
Comment
#  All the sources agree about the two criminals. I think this aspect is credible - though it looks as though the gospel authors put their own details in. It is possible that this is an invention on the basis of Isaiah 53.12 ("numbered with the transgressors"). But, to make a point once more, it fits equally well that the two criminals were actually there and then later identified with the Isaiah passage.
#  A majority think that the division of Jesus' clothes has been inserted on the basis of Psalm 22.18. If that is the case, one could conclude that the crucifixion itself was was invented on the basis of Psalm 22.16. I think this is going too far. But it is likely that the psalm influenced the way the crucifixion was reported by the gospel authors and how it was interpreted theologically.
#  The inscription is agreed by all. It, or something very close to it, would have been consistent with the charge of insurrection for which Jesus was executed.

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