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)
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)
The Historical Jesus
The Trial and Crucifixion
of Jesus as History
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 .
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?
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
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
 Does the material come from more
than one source and do those sources agree substantially?
 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
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
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
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
What I think are credible sections are in
red. I have used the text of the
excellent New Revised Standard Version of the Bible.
 See The
Trial and Death of Jesus
 See Mark 15;
Matthew 26 & 27; Luke 22 & 23;
John 18 & 19
The Arrest, Trial and
Crucifixion of Jesus
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.
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.
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
||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
# 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.
|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
He came out and went, as was his custom,
to the Mount of Olives
||John 14.31 Rise, let us be on our
They went to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples,
"Sit here while I pray."
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."
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
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.
# 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
# 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
# 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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
# 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.
They seized him and led him away,
||John 18.12 So the soldiers, their
officer and the Jewish police arrested Jesus and
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.
They took him to the high priest; and all the chief priests,
the elders, and the scribes were assembled.
Those who had arrested him took him to Caiaphas the high priest,
in whose house the scribes and the elders had gathered.
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.
# 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.
|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
# 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
# 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.
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."
They bound him, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate the
Now Jesus stood before the governor; and the
governor asked him, Are you the King of the Jews?" Jesus said, "You
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."
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."
# 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.
So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd,
released Barabbas for them; and after
flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified.
So he [Pilate] released Barabbas
for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed
him over to be crucified.
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.
# 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
# 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.
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.
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
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.
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.
And they brought two criminals and crucified the Lord between them.
# 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.
|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
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.
There was also an inscription over him, "This is the King of the
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.
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.
# 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.