Who Killed Jesus? Don't Trust the Gospels

Sunday Mail (Queensland, Australia) 3-14-04

Christopher Morgan and Stuart Wavell

[I]s the Bible itself historically reliable?

A study of biblical texts shows that [Mel] Gibson's account is rooted in the scriptures.

The gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are its main sources of material.

Those chroniclers leave no doubt about who, in their opinion, was responsible for Christ's death -- the Jewish leaders.

The film begins with Christ's agonies of doubt in the Garden of Gethsemane after the Last Supper. Judas, Christ's betrayer among the 12 disciples, arrives with a detachment of soldiers and the police of the Jewish chief priests. From there Jesus is taken to the house of Caiaphas, the High Priest.

In the Bible, St Matthew records: "The chief priests and the whole council tried to make some allegation against Jesus on which a death sentence could be based."

According to Matthew, the high priest asked Jesus: "Are you the Messiah, the Son of God?" Jesus replied: "The words are yours but I tell you this. From now you will see the son of man seated at the right hand of God and coming on the clouds of heaven." At this, Caiaphas denounced Jesus's blasphemy, provoking the crowd to cry out: "He should die."

The account continues: "Then they spat in his face and struck him with their fists."

Matthew does not mince his words describing the next sequence: "When morning came, the chief priests and the elders of the nation met together to plan the death of Jesus. They then put him in chains and led him off to hand him over to Pilate, the Roman governor."

According to Matthew, the Jewish people demanded Jesus's crucifixion but Pilate asked them: "Why, what wrong has he done?" In St John's account, the Jews answered: "We have a law and by that law he ought to die because he has claimed to be the son of God."

According to Matthew, when Pilate said, "My hands are clean of this man's blood, see to that yourselves," the crowd roared: "His blood be on us and on our children."

That claim of responsibility has haunted Jews for two millennia. It does not show up, however, in the English subtitles of Gibson's film.

Each of the biblical accounts describes Christ's suffering at the hands of the Jewish police and even more severe treatment by Roman soldiers, who flog and then crucify him. Gibson appears to have closely followed the torture sequences described in scripture.

So much for "the gospel truth". What about historical accuracy?

A number of biblical scholars acknowledge that the four gospels were not the work of the evangelists but inspired by them and written by their anonymous followers, between 40 and 70 years after the crucifixion.

Questions about their veracity have absorbed theologians since David Frederick Strauss, a German philosopher, wrote his 1835 critique The Life of Jesus. He argued that the gospels could not be believed, as they were written by evangelists expressing their own faith.

The new spirit of scientific inquiry demanded answers. Had faith caused the authors to embellish the facts? Did the politics of the early Christians lead them to edit or add to Christ's story?

In America, a "Jesus seminar" of 75 experts in 1993 concluded after historical analysis that the Gospels were unauthentic. Philip Esler, professor of biblical criticism at Scotland's St Andrews University, agrees.

"They're all written from a particular slant, so whatever they say can't automatically be assumed to be an accurate account," Esler said.

Yet few experts deny that a historical figure named Jesus was crucified. There is some scant, independent corroboration. The Roman historian Tacitus, describing the Emperor Nero's persecution of Christians in Rome, wrote: "Their originator Christ had been executed in the reign of Tiberius by the governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate."

Josephus, a Jewish historian, made a precise reference to the crucifixion in The Antiquities of the Jews: "He (Christ) won over to him many Jews and gentiles and when Pilate at the suggestion of the principal men among us had condemned him to the cross, those who had loved him first did not forsake him."

What else do we know for sure? The Romans had colonised Judea, a country centred on Jerusalem and its temple, to which pilgrims from the dispersed diaspora flocked for the Passover being celebrated over the first Good Friday -- the last chapter of Jesus's life.

The Jews awaited a prophesied Messiah, but one with particular qualities.

Dan Cohn-Sherbok, professor of Jewish theology at the University of Wales, said: "They were expecting a kingly figure, a descendant of King David."

Instead, according to the Bible, the high priests were confronted with a figure who associated with the poor, allowed his feet to be washed by a prostitute and spoke of forgiving one's enemies.

"He wasn't a high priest or in any way royal and it would have been inconceivable for the majority of Jews to think the Messiah was going to come from that background," Cohn-Sherbok reasons.

Jesus clashed with the two main rival Jewish groups, the Sadducees and the Pharisees, but that was not sufficient reason to condemn him to death, Cohn-Sherbok argues.

"His confrontations were typical of the debate that was going on at the time. There was a fundamental split . . . that's why it would be unlikely that he would have been crucified for his religious views."

Nor does he believe the Romans would involve themselves in a purely religious dispute by imposing the death penalty for blasphemy. The truth, he believes, has been airbrushed out by the gospel writers. "The gospels serve as propaganda to proclaim the Christian message, intentionally denigrating Judaism as part of the feud between the early Christian church and the synagogue."

Here is the nub of the present controversy. The quarrel of Jewish leaders appears to be with the gospels themselves, to which Gibson's film gives lurid currency.

Cohn-Sherbok readily admits this. "The film presents history from a particular perspective and the reason there has been such outrage in the Jewish community is because in the gospel narratives, particularly Matthew, the Jews are baying for Jesus's blood," he said.

So who did kill Jesus? Cohn-Sherbok contends the Romans were primarily responsible. "I think the Romans saw Jesus as a threat. They were worried about insurrection."

Anne Wroe, author of the acclaimed book Pilate, agrees -- up to a point. "The film and the gospels are a pretty big whitewash," she said. "In the gospels, the early Christians wanted to ingratiate themselves with the Romans, who saw them as an awful lot. The Romans were concerned about a return of kingship, and they found the notion of a Messiah very worrying."

She believes the Jews condemned Jesus for blasphemy but could only interest the Romans in executing their sentence by suggesting he was "politically dangerous". Pilate's repeated question to Jesus -- was he the king of the Jews? -- showed his preoccupation.

Under pressure to keep the peace, Pilate would also not have paused to wash his hands before ordering Jesus's death.

Jerome Murphy-O'Connor, a prominent Catholic scholar, concurs: "The Jews couldn't do anything about Jesus so they had to transform what for them was a blasphemy trial into a political charge. They handed him over to Pilate on a charge of treason and Pilate executed him."

Murphy-O'Connor also disputes the notion of a trial by priests. "It's against Jewish law. Two or three individual Jews handed Jesus over to Pilate, and on that basis it is wrong to blame a whole people."

Esler goes further: "The problem is that there were no Jews in the first century. There were people in Palestine who called themselves Judeans. When we use the word Jew or Jewish we're projecting back a modern group identity on to ancient people who began to acquire a new identity in the centuries afterwards. Who killed Jesus? The Romans did."

The Catholic Church absolved Jews of responsibility for Jesus's death as long ago as the Council of Trent in 1570. As recently as the 1960s, the declaration of Nostra Aetate again made clear that "neither all Jews indiscriminately at the time, nor Jews today, can be charged with the crimes committed during the Passion".

Gibson accepts the consensus that the crucifixion was the fault of all mankind.

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