The Trial and Death of Jesus
Traditional accounts of the trial
and death of Jesus are so well known that the paucity of historical
details about "what really happened" can come as a surprise. The bare
bones of history presented here are just that - a maximum about which we
can be reasonably certain is history to the satisfaction of the general
body of historians. This can be contrasted with the criteria of biblical
critics which are often less demanding.
The bare bones history we are left with in Mark is much
the same in Matthew and Luke. It's surrounding details pose a problem
because disagreement between the three sources is substantial. John's
account differs from the others to a considerable degree. The account in
the Gospel of Peter is also very different.
"Good" history is that account of what really happened
about which we can be reasonably certain. This requires more than one
account of an event. A stand-alone account may be accurate, but unless
there is some corroboration, we can never be certain. Conversely, if the
very broad outline is the same in more than one source, but the smaller
details disagree, then we have to eliminate those elements which are
An important element in establishing what really
happened is often a good knowledge of motive. Just as a crime is difficult
to prove without demonstrating motive, so the motives of the Gospel
authors are crucial to good history. If it can be shown - as I think has
been shown - that their primary motive was very frequently to make
theological rather than historical points, anything which looks like
theology or may have a theological point has to be in doubt.
If the doubt is reasonable, then it must prevail. A good
example of the process of establishing reasonable doubt is well portrayed
in the film Twelve Angry Men. The case against a teenager who
killed his father seems cast-iron.
But questions arise. How could a witness have seen what
she said she'd seen if she didn't have her glasses on? How could the act
have been seen from a passing elevated train if the observer's coach was
not opposite the right window at the right moment? Why did the
psychological profile of the youth not match the violent act? The accused
had to be found not guilty.
To get to the point of reasonable certainty (that is,
high probability) on so important a narrative, I have been ruthless in
eliminating everything that indicates that it probably was (or even might
have been) invented by the author of Mark. The accounts of Matthew and
Luke seem to have originated with Mark's version, though each has made his
own distinctive changes.
When I say "invented" I mean primarily the following:
Even though I suspect that good evidence might lie behind
an account, if it is clearly presented as fulfilling Old Testament
prophecy I usually have to put it aside.
When the author of Mark is clearly mistaken about something for
which we have evidence external to his Gospel I have to take the
outside authority as more certain if it is itself good evidence. This is
mainly because Mark's author is more likely, because he writes as a
Christian, to be biased.
If scholars agree that the structure of the text indicates
that it has been cobbled together from bits and pieces into what seems
at first sight a continuous account, I have to exercise caution about
the text as an historical record. Good accounts of "what really
happened" are usually constructed as a whole. They don't demonstrate
obvious breaks in continuity.
In this case, we should remember that most scholars
think that Mark's Gospel is almost certainly the earliest of the four (in
my opinion, most likely no earlier than 70ce
and not much later). This doesn't necessarily guarantee that it's the most
accurate, however. This account of what's usually known as the "Passion"
or "suffering" of Jesus is very similar to all the other Gospels. Many
scholars think the exceptions to that similarity are relatively
insignificant. If they are all crafted from an original tradition, and
Mark's account is poor history, then the chances are they are all
similarly blighted as accounts of "what really happened".
One conclusion, then, is that a traditional (perhaps
verbal) version of the Passion narrative began with the arrest of Jesus -
so the chapter break in our Bibles is not quite the best in terms of
There are a few broad conclusions about the narrative which many scholars
The arrest and crucifixion of Jesus almost certainly took place
during the Passover and Feast of the Unleavened Bread. Jerusalem would
in all probability have been a busy, crowded and somewhat chaotic place
at this time. We have considerable evidence that Jewish and Roman
authorities would have been nervous about the possibility of riot and
So even if Judas wasn't the one who identified Jesus, then it was
probably someone who knew him or the area well. It would have been
important to accomplish a quick, quiet arrest among the festival crowds.
The authorities would not have wanted an uncertain, disturbing search
through thousands of excited pilgrims.
We can trust the information about the followers of Jesus running
for it. Original verbal information such as this is often massaged to
present important people (like Peter) in a good light. We can be certain
that Mark's author did just this in the case of Jesus himself,
identifying him with the Jewish Messiah, for example.
So a bit of information like this, which is negative about important
Christians, can probably be trusted as good history - even though it's
here sandwiched between elements designed to convey theological meaning
rather than plain history "as it really happened".
The gripping account of Peter's denial of Jesus has all the
elements of a good story, but few indicating good history. There's
nothing wrong in reading the tale for what it is.
But what must alert us about the historical veracity of it is (a) it's
obvious construction as a story, including predictions and (b) the
likelihood, driven home by many scholars, that it is included as a
cautionary tale to early Christians about the horrible sin of apostasy.
This would have been an important lesson to be taught to early
Christians. They were under considerable pressure to the point of
persecution by Jewish and Roman authorities.
Remember, the author of Mark did not view "truth" and "lies" as we do. He
had relatively little concern for the scientific discovery and
presentation of history as events which really happened.
As you can read elsewhere on this site, I apply the
principle of "analogy" to history. That is, things which can't happen
today probably never could. Put another way, I'm not willing to accept (as
I do, by and large) the huge body of modern thought and knowledge in my
ordinary daily life, and also accept an entirely contradictory body of
thought and knowledge such as prevailed in the times the Gospels were
assembled and written.
So, for example, that "darkness covered the entire
land" miraculously because
the Son of God was being killed is not "what really happened", except
perhaps by coincidence.
The following details are useful:
The details of the trial are suspect because they don't fit what
we know of normal trial procedures from the Rabbinic Mishnah, a
document of the late 2nd century which codified much earlier
information. We know that the Rabbis of the time were extremely careful
to preserve such traditional material accurately.
That the trial was held in the middle of the night is inferred,
although nothing says so directly. A trial at night is most unlikely, if
only because it was against due process, framed to prevent a stitch-up.
Such a trial had by law to be held in broad daylight. It certainly would
not have been held in the High Priest's house, as implied by Mark 14.54.
The accusation of blasphemy was a capital offence, punished by
stoning to death. If blasphemy was the proven charge, there would
have been no reason to hand Jesus over to the Romans. Death by
crucifixion was a Roman not a Jewish penalty.
Scholars think that Jesus probably said something about the
Temple ceasing to be important in God's new empire. But everything we
know about Judaism indicates that whatever Jesus said about the Temple
did not constitute blasphemy. It might not have been liked, but
it was no reason to kill him.
Blasphemy would was almost certainly one of the early accusations
made by Jews against early Christians. This was because no Jew could
countenance the possibility that the Messiah could die on a cross (or
post) of wood (see Deuteronomy 21.23). Mark could easily have made this
mistake, assuming that the same applied to Jesus.
In verse 14.61 the phrase "Messiah, son of the Blessed One" is
not a Hebrew expression but a later Greek addition. The reply of Jesus
in verse 62 is from Daniel 7.13 and Psalm 110 and therefore most likely
an interpolation by the author in line with early Christian usage.
If Jesus was finally condemned for something like being a "king"
(the same thing as "leader" in modern terms) of a potential Jewish
rebellion, this was something the Romans would have expected the Jewish
authorities to nip in the bud. There is every reason to think that the
Roman authorities would not have worried about a trial for a lowly
Palestinian peasant. Even for highly-placed Roman citizens, so-called
justice could be rough and ready. The Roman Empire was what we would
today call a fascist police state.
We should note that two accounts have been fitted together
- one of immediate proceedings (at night) and another in the early
morning. Whenever collation happens, the historicity is suspect.
If witnesses were suborned, why did they fail to agree in what
they said? This doesn't make good historical sense.
Scholars tell us that there is a very rough transition
linguistically between Jesus' answer in verse 61 and the High Priest's
question - yet another sign of editorial clumsiness.
These and many other objections make the Passion of
Jesus as recounted by Mark unlikely as good history which would be
acceptable to a majority of critical historians today.
This is not to say that we shouldn't accept more than
this "bare bones history" as possible. But it does mean that we
have to be cautious about many of the details of the Passion in terms of
"what really happened".
My personal guess is that events went something like
Jesus was somewhere in Jerusalem during the Feast of
the Passover and Unleavened Bread (between the years 30 and 35, but more
likely the latter). Jewish and Roman authorities alike were
hypersensitive to any possibility of serious unrest - if only because
such events were difficult to put down, cost much in loss of life and
property, and needed extra troops to be brought in.
We know of other cases where the Romans took
decisive, brutal action against disturbers of the peace around this
time. Add to this the notorious bloody-mindedness of the Jews for which
we have abundant evidence, and we can understand that the Roman garrison
would have been on the alert for the slightest signs of trouble.
Jesus had been earmarked as a trouble maker. Although
we're not sure exactly when the events took place, it seems likely that
his actions in the Temple and a noisy entry into the city had raised his
profile as a danger to security.
A decision was made by the Jewish High Priest - one of
whose responsibilities it was to watch over the security of Jerusalem on
behalf of the Romans - to get rid of Jesus. With the help of someone who
knew him, he was identified and quietly arrested.
After an informal examination he was passed on to the
Roman military. Without further ado they whipped him as an example to
others, and then crucified him outside the walls of the city. The site
of the execution came to be known as the "Place of the Skull" and was
near a road so that passersby could see an example being made.