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)



... 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 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 contradictory.

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 narrative continuity.

There are a few broad conclusions about the narrative which many scholars support:

  1. 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 disorder. 

    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.

  2. 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".

  3. 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 this:

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.

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