History or Gospel?
Can the Biblical Accounts of Jesus’s Passion Be Trusted?
It’s Good Friday, the day Christians celebrate the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. It may seem odd to celebrate the horrific killing of the Son of God, and it may seem foolish to call such an evil act “Good.” But it is Good—infinitely so—because Christ died the death we deserve as sinners who have rebelled against a holy God. I can call this day “Good” because “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Galatians 2:19–20).
History or Gospel?
Whenever someone considers the claims Christians make regarding the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, one of the first things they ask is, “Did all this really happen?” Was there an actual man named Jesus? Did he really suffer and die like that? Could he really have risen from the dead? In other words, is the gospel story historical, or merely the stuff of legend?
This question was the subject of a Dateline NBC special entitled The Last Days of Jesus, which aired around the time the movie The Passion of the Christ was released. NBC anchor Stone Phillips interviewed several Biblical scholars about key episodes in the final week of Jesus’s life. Among the scholars interviewed was John Dominic Crossan, co-chair of the Jesus Seminar and author of numerous books about the “historical Jesus.” Crossan, who describes Judas as a “powerful piece of fiction” and who declares that the “Pilate of the gospels” is “absolutely unhistorical,” has this to say about what he sees as the gospels’ lack of historical authenticity:
It’s not that anyone is telling a lie. They are writing gospel. If you read a gospel as giving you straight history you are denying what it claims to be, namely good news. And if we were to confront them and say, well, that’s not history, they say, ‘I never said I was writing history. That’s your problem. I’m writing gospel.’
Crossan does have a point about what the gospel writers were trying to do. They were not trying to write an objective, historiographical account of the events of Jesus’s life. They were writing to persuade their readers that Jesus is the Christ, the only path of salvation for sinful man. They were not merely reporting historical fact; they were interpreting the events they were describing in order to make a theological or evangelistic point. However, that fact does not rule out the possibility that the events they recorded actually took place. They may have been proclaiming the good news, but they also saw themselves as proclaiming the truth — a truth which was historical as well as spiritual.
To his credit, Stone Phillips also interviewed scholars such as Craig Evans who believe the gospels to be historically reliable. Unfortunately, we never see these scholars actually address the specific challenges to the gospels’ historicity which get raised. I contacted Dr. Evans to find out whether he had been asked if Judas was real or if the gospels’ portrayal of Pilate was accurate, and he was kind enough to send me a partial transcript of his interview. In it he ably defended the veracity of the gospel accounts, but for whatever reason, his answers to those questions never made it on the air. Thus, although Dateline’s viewers were presented with scholars from both sides of the debate, they only got to hear the arguments of those who question the Bible’s historical reliability. The net effect of all this was that Dateline’s viewers were given the distinct impression that the gospels are of dubious historical value.
History and Gospel
John Dominic Crossan’s juxtaposition of history and gospel is typical of those who challenge the historical reliability of the gospels, but where is it written that a document must be exclusively one or the other? If I report that I met Christ when I was fifteen years old, at the end of a dock on a lake in Alabama, is it not possible to reject my religious affirmation without denying my historical assertions? In other words, you may dispute my claim that I did, in fact, have a personal encounter with Jesus Christ, but why accuse me of lying about actually being at the end of a dock in Alabama when I was fifteen years old?
Let’s take this personal example a little further. What if, at another time, I told you that I have spent all my life in Florida and that I became a Christian through a small church in Orlando? Now should you question the historical accuracy of my claim that I met Christ (that is, became a Christian) in Alabama? After all, I’ve just said that I’ve spent all my life in Florida! Of course, the apparent contradiction is easily resolved when I explain that I was in Alabama on a week-long youth retreat, and that I was, in fact, actually living in Florida at that time.
When I give a personal testimony of my salvation experience, I am relating historical facts for evangelistic purposes, but my religious motives do not lead me to bend, distort, or exaggerate the historical elements of my message. In other words, my statements are both history and gospel. Yet scholars like Crossan tend to approach the gospels with the assumption that their authors were not above embellishing the truth if they thought it would serve their theological purposes. Thus, any episode which can be clearly shown to further the goals of the gospel writers immediately becomes suspect. In my opinion, this a priori presumption of guilt leads people like Crossan to see contradiction, exaggeration, and error in all kinds of places where it doesn’t really exist.
Pilate: A Test Case
In order to assess the historical reliability of the gospels, let’s examine an episode in the life of Christ which has often been declared “implausible” and “absolutely unhistorical” by Crossan and others: Jesus’s trial before Pilate.
The gospels portray Pilate as reluctant to crucify Jesus, as doing so only in response to pressure from the Jewish priests and the crowd. Yet other ancient historical witnesses describe Pilate as a ruthless dictator who did not hesitate to resort to brutality. Philo speaks of Pilate’s “corruption, and his acts of insolence, and his rapine, and his habit of insulting people, and his cruelty, and his continual murders of people untried and uncondemned, and his never ending, and gratuitous, and most grievous inhumanity” (Philo, Embassy to Gaius, 302). Josephus tells of several instances where Pilate suppressed minor, religiously-inspired uprisings with violence. John Dominic Crossan summarizes Pilate’s relationship with his Jewish subjects like this:
He would not give in to a crowd. Pilate had his own way of crowd control, which is known as slaughter. He is not the Pilate of the gospels, the meek or the just person who is just trying to be a good governor but that crowd won’t let him go so he finally gives in. That is absolutely unhistorical.
When asked whether Pilate would have crucified Jesus to please the priests, Paula Fredricksen, another scholar featured in the Dateline Special mentioned above, responded, “Pilate is appointed by the Emperor. He doesn’t have to worry about pleasing the priests.”
Scholars who regard the gospels’ depiction of Pilate as unhistorical tend to argue that the gospel writers had an ulterior motive for describing Pilate as reluctant to crucify a righteous man without just cause. Because the gospels were written around the time of the First Jewish Revolt, these scholars see the gospels as an attempt by Christians to distance themselves from Jews. By whitewashing Pilate’s involvement in Jesus’s death and laying the blame squarely at the feet of the Jews, the gospel writers were trying to appease their Roman rulers and avoid being lumped together with the Jews who were proving so troublesome at the time.
Did the gospel writers gloss over Pilate’s cruelty in order to get in good with the Romans? Are Pilate’s actions in the trial of Jesus inconsistent with what we know of him from other ancient sources? Not at all.
To begin with, one of the gospels makes explicit mention of Pilate’s cruelties. In Luke 13:1, Jesus receives news about some Galileans “whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.” In other words, Pilate had ordered some Galileans to be slaughtered while they were in the act of offering sacrifices to God, an act which would have been absolutely reprehensible to Jews. Luke’s gospel, at least, does not try to cover up Pilate’s penchant for brutality.
Neither do the gospels depict Pilate as being particularly eager to please either the priests or the crowd. When the chief priests bring Jesus before Pilate, the gospel of John portrays Pilate as dismissive: “Take him yourselves and judge him by your own law” (John 18:31). Later he says to them, “You take him and crucify him” — knowing perfectly well that they have no authority to crucify anyone. When Pilate presents Jesus to the crowd, he repeatedly refers to Jesus as their “king,” almost as if he is enjoying the fact that they are calling for the death of a Jewish king. His famous act of “washing his hands” is not meant to appease the crowd, but to make it clear that they are responsible for Jesus’s crucifixion.
Why would Pilate behave like this? Why didn’t he just condemn Christ immediately and be done with it? Was it because he was so convinced of Jesus’s innocence? Was it because he didn’t want to participate in a miscarriage of justice? I don’t think so. The gospels do not portray Pilate as the “meek or just person who is just trying to be a good governor” (see Crossan’s quote above), but as a politician trying to work out the best way to handle a difficult situation.
Paula Fredricksen is right that Pilate was appointed by the Roman Emperor and therefore did not have to answer to the desires of the Jewish priests. But she is being far too simplistic when she says that he didn’t have to “worry” about pleasing his Jewish subjects. After all, the Jews could, and had, appealed directly to the emperor in cases where they felt Pilate was being unjust or doing something which violated their religious traditions. Philo reports of one instance where Pilate was harshly reprimanded by the emperor for not removing some objects from Jerusalem which the Jews found objectionable. Josephus tells us that Pilate was ultimately removed from office when his Jewish subjects complained about his cruelties to the higher-ranking governor of Syria. In other words, Pilate may have had all the power in Jerusalem, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t accountable to any higher authority or that he could do whatever he wanted. Like most politicians, Pilate likely spent a lot of time looking over his shoulder and trying to figure out how to hold on to his position or to advance his career.
So when the Jewish religious leaders came to him to demand the death of a popular preacher, Pilate found himself in a political quagmire. I doubt there was any love lost between Pilate and the Jewish authorities, but Pilate depended on them to help keep the Jewish populace in line. If he completely alienated them, they were sure to cause him further headaches in the future. On the other hand, if he put to death this popular preacher during the festival of Passover, he was likely to end up with a riot on his hands. And while Pilate certainly wasn’t afraid to put down a riot with violence, there was always the risk of more political fallout from such an action. Pilate may even have suspected the Jewish authorities of trying to set a trap for him. After all, whatever he did with Jesus, it had the potential to backfire.
Pilate therefore did what any good politician would do. He began by trying to pass the buck: sending Jesus off to Herod when he learned that Jesus was a Galilean (Luke 23:6-7). Luke notes that when Herod sent Jesus back dressed in an “elegant robe,” Pilate and Herod became “friends” where previously they had been enemies (Luke 23:12). This new political alliance seems odd considering that Herod failed to take the Jesus problem off Pilate’s hands, but apparently Pilate was so pleased with Herod’s mockery of Jesus’s claim to be king of the Jews that he began to see Herod in a new light.
Pilate then seized upon another opportunity to avoid responsibility for the condemnation of Jesus. All four gospels record that it was customary for the Roman governor to release a prisoner to the crowd at Passover: sort of a low-cost way to show the benevolence of Roman rule. At the time, Pilate had a prisoner named Barabbas who had led an insurrection. It is doubtful Pilate would have wanted to release such a man anyway, and it was apparently clear to him from his interviews with Jesus that this people’s preacher posed more of a threat to the religious authorities than he did to the authority of Rome. By releasing Jesus, Pilate could appear benevolent to the crowd, go forward with the execution of a political prisoner, and, perhaps best of all, irritate the priests who had good reason to see Jesus as a threat. If it had worked, it would have been a pretty savvy bit of political maneuvering.
Unfortunately for Pilate, the crowd did not give him the out he wanted. The priests, who had no reason to want a man like Barabbas released either, may have surprised Pilate by calling for his release rather than Jesus’s. The gospels say that they “stirred up” the crowd to call for Barabbas to be released as well.
Paula Fredricksen finds this whole scene to be “incoherent”:
The whole scene even if you look at it within the woof and weave of the gospel stories is incoherent. Jesus is popular enough to have been celebrated by pilgrims and danced into the city. He was so popular that he had to be arrested by ambush. That was the only way they could risk getting him without causing popular uproar. And yet by morning, there’s a hostile crowd screaming for his death. Where does this hostile crowd come from? Did it really exist? … It doesn’t square. If this were a script for a “Law & Order” episode, you’d say, wait a minute, this is inconsistent. And that’s where you have to sort through.
But is it really that hard to understand? Consider how quickly we can turn on popular celebrities when they get into legal trouble or do something scandalous and the situation immediately becomes more believable. In the four days since he had entered Jerusalem to great fanfare, Jesus had been embroiled in controversy: terrorizing the money-changers at the temple, challenging the religious authorities, prophesying the temple’s destruction, and on and on. By Friday, I’m sure some of those who had hailed him as Messiah were beginning to wonder if they had been mistaken. We must also consider the fact that Jesus was not universally celebrated on Palm Sunday — many Jews were likely suspicious of this latest Messianic figure and nervous about the attention he was receiving. When, on Friday morning, this man appears in chains and looking like he has been in a fight, these people likely would have felt that their suspicions were being confirmed.
Jesus may have been too popular to arrest publicly, but Fredricksen seriously underestimates the effect of his suddenly appearing to people disgraced and already in custody. The same people who might have been outraged to see Jesus arrested right in front of them could easily have felt disillusioned to see him bedraggled and in chains. Finally, we need to consider the composition of the crowd which gathered before Pilate that morning. Many of them may have been Barabbas’s supporters hoping to push for his release. Others were likely just curious onlookers wanting to see the Roman governor release a Jewish prisoner. Such people probably could not have cared less who was released, and could easily have been swayed one way or the other. They might even have enjoyed the irony of seeing Pilate release a known insurrectionist. The point is that there are lots of possibilities which make this episode entirely plausible and quite coherent.
Whatever the reasons, the crowd did call for Barabbas to be released instead of Jesus. Still, Pilate wasn’t completely off the hook. The whole episode could easily have been “spun” as another example of Pilate’s cruelty and injustice: Pilate releases a known murderer and crucifies a popular religious teacher. So Pilate goes to great lengths to show that this time, he cannot be blamed for the bloodshed. First, he has Jesus flogged. His soldiers crown Jesus with thorns and beat him with a staff. When he is returned to Pilate he is seriously disfigured, clothed in Herod’s robe, and wearing a crown of thorns. Still, the chief priests are not appeased. They cry out for him to be crucified.
Why would they not have been satisfied? The cynical answer is that a beaten and humiliated Jesus would have been even more of a threat to their authority. Jesus could have used his flogging at the hands of Pilate to curry sympathy among the Jewish people, as proof that he was more courageous and more faithful to God than the collaborating Jewish priests. The more sympathetic answer is that these men were zealous for the Law, and as a blasphemer, they saw Jesus as deserving of death — a flogging was simply not enough. Whatever their motives, these men wanted Jesus dead.
The gospel of John, which records Jesus’s trial before Pilate in greater detail than any of the other gospels, describes the ironic conclusion like this:
From then on, Pilate tried to set Jesus free, but the Jews kept shouting, “If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar.”
When Pilate heard this, he brought Jesus out and sat down on the judge’s seat at a place known as the Stone Pavement (which in Aramaic is Gabbatha). It was the day of Preparation of Passover Week, about the sixth hour.
“Here is your king,” Pilate said to the Jews.
But they shouted, “Take him away! Take him away! Crucify him!”
“Shall I crucify your king?” Pilate asked.
“We have no king but Caesar,” the chief priests answered.
At last Pilate had what he was looking for. There was now no way the chief priests could use this episode against him. Even better, he had their assertion that they had no king but Caesar.
I suspect Pilate enjoyed the irony of forcing a Jewish crowd and their Jewish priests to repeatedly call for the death of a Jewish king. Again and again, Pilate refers to Jesus as “your king,” as if to remind the crowd that the only king Jews could produce was this pitiful figure before him. And how did they reward their “king”? By crying out for his crucifixion!
The gospel of Matthew describes Pilate’s final bit of drama:
When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he said. “It is your responsibility!”
Was this the protest of a just judge who was unwilling to accept the guilt of innocent blood? Or was it a crass way of taking what the crowd had just done and throwing it back in their faces? Either interpretation is purely speculative, but it is certainly possible to see Pilate as saying to his Jewish subjects: “This one is your doing. You who act so righteous and who have called me cruel, how are you any better than me?”
Whatever his reasons and motivations, Pilate had escaped the political trap, and had most likely enjoyed himself in the bargain. I suspect that he also enjoyed the priests’ objections to the notice which he had posted to Jesus’s cross: “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” What a coup for a petty political dictator: he got to crucify a Jewish “king” and he couldn’t even be blamed for it. He got to warn other would-be messiahs about the dangers of achieving prominence, and in the process managed to extort a vow of loyalty to Caesar from the Jewish priests!
My point in all this is that the gospels do not whitewash Pilate or his soldiers while demonizing the Jews. Rather, they depict the complex multiplicity of factors leading to Jesus’s crucifixion. More often than not, it is the modern Biblical “historians” who end up flattening and oversimplifying history by failing to consider the full scope of the events being described. It is simply easier to dismiss the gospel writers as being unhistorical than it is to try to understand the subtle, hidden, and sometimes contradictory motives which drive people to do what they do.
Are the Gospels Historically Reliable?
So are the gospels historically reliable? Can we trust the accounts they give of Jesus’s passion, his death, and even his miraculous resurrection? Obviously, I believe we can. Have I proven the gospels’ historical accuracy in this article? Not by a long shot. But I hope I have shown that the gospel accounts cannot be dismissed as easily as scholars like Crossan and Fredricksen would have us believe. Yes, they are gospel, and we may choose not to accept the “good news” which they proclaim. But they are also history, and they should not be rejected as such simply because the gospels were written for theological and evangelistic purposes.