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The Mysterious Disappearance of Jesus and the Origin of Christianity

By: Dr. Ahmad Shafaat



Part II



Chapter 6


One natural response to every disappearance is the belief that the disappeared has died. If the disappearance takes place under some hostility from some people, then the death is naturally viewed as a murder or execution. This was the case with Jesus.

In this chapter I review Christian, Jewish and Roman references to the execution of Jesus. The review will show the speculative nature of the whole tradition of Jesus' execution and confirm that it arose not from any firm knowledge of the fate of Jesus but as unsubstantiated rumors that were used by different parties for their own purposes and thus became traditions.


Jesus' execution in Christian tradition

The gospels call special attention to the opposition directed by the Pharisees against Jesus on religious grounds throughout his ministry. But when we come to the accounts of his arrest, trials etc this religious opposition of the Pharisees plays no part. Such issues as Jesus' violation of Sabbath laws which played prominent part in the Pharisaic opposition are not in view. Those who arrest him are according to the synoptic gospels the temple authorities: the chief priests, the scribes and the elders. The charge now is blasphemy, related in the earlier Markan version in a very awkward way to Jesus' words against the temple (14:58), even though elsewhere in the gospels we do not find any evidence that Jesus was so against the temple as to want to destroy it. Later the scene shifts to the Roman court and the charge becomes a political one; we now find Jesus claiming to be the King of the Jews and being crucified by a very reluctant Pilate convinced of Jesus' innocence. These are first indications that there existed different traditions about who executed Jesus and why. Further examination of our sources shows that during the earliest, formative period of the Jesus tradition, some people said that Jesus was executed by the Jews alone, others said that he was crucified by Romans alone and still others that he was killed by Herod alone, presumably in Galilee.



The earliest view seems to have been that the Jews and they alone were responsible for the execution of Jesus. Paul never mentions Pilate nor does he say that Romans were partially or totally responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus. First Corinthians 2:8, if read carelessly and from the perspective of later gospel accounts may be so understood, for it reads: "None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory." Knowing the gospels, we may immediately identify the "rulers of this age" as Pilate and Caiaphas the high priest. But an examination of Paul's language has led commentators to take the words to mean "Satan and his angels" (cf. John 12:31, 14:30, 16:11).

While Paul does not mention Pilate, he does say that the Jews "killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets." These words are from Paul's First Letter to the Thessalonians (2:15) which is widely held to be the oldest extant letter of Paul and hence the oldest extant Christian piece of writing and the oldest extant writing to mention Jesus. (For the question of the authenticity of the passage, 2:14-16, see Ch. 10). That the Jews killed Jesus and the prophets before him is also stated in Acts 7:51, without any reference to the Romans. (See, also, Acts 10:39, where "they" refers to the "people of Israel" mentioned earlier in verse 36).

In another letter, Galatian, which is a rival of 1 Thessalonians for being the earliest extant letter of Paul, Jesus' execution is described as follows:

Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us; for it is written, Cursed is everyone who hangs from a tree (Gal 3:13).

This passage uses Deut 21:22-23:

When someone is convicted of a crime punishable by death and is executed, and you hang him on a tree, his corpse must not remain all night upon the tree; you shall bury him that same day, for anyone hung on tree is under God's curse ...

This Old Testament passage is alluded to in other Christian documents in different applications. In the Gospel of Peter 5.15 the passage is applied in connection with the burial of Jesus: since it is said that the body of one hung on a tree must not be left all night on the tree, therefore the Jews hastened to bury Jesus before sunset on the day he was executed. In the apostolic sermons in Acts it is said twice that the Jews hanged Jesus on a tree (5:30, 10:39). A similar tradition is probably assumed in Acts 13:29 ("they took him down from the tree") and 1 Pet 2:24 ("bore our sins in his body on the tree (Greek: xy'lon)"). This form of execution is not the same as crucifixion by the Romans, but a Jewish form. In Acts it serves no theological purpose and there is a high probability that it reflects the earliest tradition of execution solely by Jews on the basis of the religious charge of blasphemy. According to Deut 21:22-23, hanging was to be done after the guilty person had been stoned to death, which was a very ancient practice in the Near East, as is suggested by the story in the Sumerian tablets about the goddess Inanna, who is first put to death and then impaled (Kramer, From the Tablets of Sumer, 190). But according to the Temple Scroll from Qumran a person guilty of treason against his people or running to evade the punishment prescribed in Deut 21:22-23 is to be "hanged on a tree (in order) to die," that is, hanged alive to die. In any case, those who gave to the Jews the entire responsibility for the death of Jesus believed that Jesus was hung on a tree, either after or without stoning. The Roman-style crucifixion and Jewish-style hanging on a tree are then confused with each other at a later stage. As a result the Jews were said to crucify Jesus while Roman crucifixion was described as hanging on a tree.

The view that the earliest tradition of Jesus' execution pictured him as being hung on the tree by the Jews on a charge based on Jewish law makes the burial tradition much more understandable. It explains better the Jewish concern to bury Jesus before sunset, which is found in all gospels, than the assumption of crucifixion by Romans. This Jewish concern according to the Deuteronomy passage proceeds from the fact that a man judged to be a criminal by the Jews according to the Jewish law and then hung by them is cursed. Notice that the passage says: "And if ... you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain all night upon the tree ..." It is not expected that the Jews would regard those crucified by the Romans according to their rules of occupation and, indeed, we find no evidence of regular practice on the part of Jews to take down the bodies of men crucified from time to time by the Romans. If one assumes with the gospels that the Jews indeed judged Jesus to be punishable by death according to their law and the Romans simply confirmed the sentence and carried the crucifixion, then the application of the Deuteronomy law becomes understandable. But the gospel accounts are beset with so many difficulties (see Part V) that this assumption is by no means very probable. Moreover, in case of Roman crucifixion there is a practical difficulty in the application of the law: In the Jewish form of hanging, a person is expected to die on the same day as the execution while this is not the case for the Roman crucifixion, a fact recognized in Mark 15:44. The application of the Deuteronomy law would therefore be difficult in case of the Roman crucifixion, since death could occur any time during the night and one would have to watch the person all night to see if and when he died.

Paul does not even mention any circumstantial evidence that the Romans were involved in the execution of Jesus. For example, he never says that Jesus was crucified in Jerusalem or gives any other detail that would at least suggest that the Romans could be involved. The words used by Paul to refer to Jesus' execution in their English translation suggest to us today, after centuries of influence by the gospel tradition, a picture of Jesus being crucified by the Romans, but when we examine the underlying Greek this impression is not sustained. Paul uses two words: vvv (kremannunai) and ov (stauroun). The first word vvv (kremannunai) means to hang and may be used for the crucifixion or hanging of a living person or for hanging a person already executed, e.g. by stoning. This is the word that Paul and Acts use when they say that Jesus was hanged on a tree in reference to the Jewish law. The other word ov (stauroun) means properly to knock in posts, to erect palisades. It is found in the Septuagint in the sense of 'hanging on the gallows'. Haman, the enemy of the Jews in Esther, is hung up, and the word used for it is o (staurotheto) (7:9-10). It is rarely found before Paul with the transferred meaning of "crucify." The earliest reference to Jesus' crucifixion in Greek outside the Christian sources is probably found in Lucian of Samosata (see below) and he uses the word anaskolopizein and not stauroun. Connected with stauroun is the noun stauros often translated as "cross" and used by Paul, e.g. in Gal 6:12. There is some evidence that stauros can be used for "cross" in the context of Roman crucifixion. In Josephus we read: "And Pilate condemned him [Jesus] to the cross" (see below); the word used for "cross" is stauros. But the word really means every upright standing pale or a tree trunk and may be used for a beam used in any hanging whether crucifixion of a living criminal or hanging of a dead person. Trees were not always found in places where hanging was to be done, so a simple beam was erected by sinking it deep enough into the ground. In Ezra 6:11 it is decreed that "if anyone alters this edict, a beam shall be pulled out of the house of the perpetrator, who then shall be impaled on it" (although, admittedly in the LXX the word for "beam" is xy'lon (usually translated as "tree") and not stauros. (See W. E. Vine, An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words).

Thus lack of any mention of Roman involvement in the execution of Jesus in Paul's letters, explicit statement in 1 Thess that the Jews killed Jesus and absence in Paul of a language clearly suggesting Roman crucifixion in reference to Jesus' execution suggest strongly that the earliest view to establish itself was that the Jews hanged Jesus on a tree in fulfillment of their law. It is also significant that the three passion predictions in Mark (8:31,9:31,10:33-34) do not speak of crucifixion and the two earlier ones (8:31; 9:31) do not mention any responsibility of the Gentiles in the execution of Jesus. Also, as we shall see below, the earliest Jewish references to Jesus' execution state clearly that Jesus was executed by Jews alone in accordance with their law.

The tradition that Jews alone were responsible for the execution of Jesus survived for some time. It is present in two relatively late writings, one of them definitely Christian. In Apology for Christianity, written about 140 C.E. for the emperor Antoninus Pius (138-161 C.E.) by Aristides, a Christian philosopher from Athens, we read, after a reference to an unspecified gospel:

This Jesus, then, was born of the tribe of Hebrews, and had twelve disciples, in order that a certain dispensation of him might be fulfilled. He was pierced by the Jews and he died and was buried; and they say that after three days he arose and ascended to heaven; and then these twelve disciples went forth into the known parts of the world and taught concerning his greatness with all humility and sobriety. (Chapter 2. See J. Rendel Harris, The Apology of Aristides, p.36).

Another writing in which Jews alone are said to have killed Jesus is a letter written by Mara bar Serapion, probably not strictly a Christian, to his son. The letter was written from a Roman prison to exhort his son to continue in the pursuit of wisdom despite hardships. It was written in Syriac and the only surviving manuscript, preserved in the British Museum, is from the seventh century but the letter itself is dated from the first, second or third century. We read in the letter:

What advantage did the Athenians gain from putting Socrates to death? Famine and plague came upon them as a judgment for their crime. What advantage did the men of Samos gain from burning Pythagoras? In a moment their land was covered with sand. What advantage did the Jews gain from executing their wise King? It was just after that their kingdom was abolished. God justly avenged these three wise men: the Athenians died of hunger; the Samoans were overwhelmed by the sea; the Jews, ruined and driven from their land, live in complete dispersion. But Socrates did not die for good; he lived on in the teaching of Plato. Pythagoras did not die for good; he lived on in the statue of Hera. Nor did the wise King die for good; he lived on in the teaching which he had given.

The writer is not a Christian if being Christian means believing in Jesus' resurrection but he is a Christian in the sense that he believed that Jesus was Christ in the sense of King and that he was a legitimate teacher of wisdom. The writer would certainly be completely at home with many modern Christians. But as we saw in Chs. 2-5 even from the beginning there were people in the Jesus movement who believed in Jesus' prophethood and his martyrdom but not in his resurrection. In any case, what is important in the present context is the fact that the letter of Mara bar Serapion provides yet another instance where the Jews alone are responsible for the execution of Jesus.



There are indications that the Gospel of John is dependent on a tradition in which only the Romans were responsible for the arrest and execution of Jesus. The account of the arrest in the fourth gospel runs as follows:

18:2) Now Judas also who betrayed him, knew the place: for Jesus often resorted there with his disciples. 3) Judas then, having received the cohort, and officers from the chief priests and the Pharisees, comes there with lanterns and torches and weapons. 4) Jesus therefore, knowing all the things that were coming upon him, went forth, and says unto them, Whom do you seek? 5) They answered him, Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus says unto them, I am. And Judas also, which betrayed him, was standing with them. 6) When therefore he said unto them, I am, they went backward, and fell to the ground. ...

12) So the cohort and the military tribune (chiliarch), and the officers of the Jews, seized Jesus and bound him, 13) and led him to Annas; for he was father-in-law to Caiaphas who was high priest that year. ....

24) Annas therefore sent him bound unto Caiaphas the high priest.

Note that in v.3 Judas is at the head of the large arresting force (over 500), while in v.5 he is presented as standing by. Also, in v.2 he has already been introduced as the betrayer, whereas in v. 5 he is mentioned again in an introductory way. Thus one these verses is a later addition to an earlier source. It is clear that it is v. 5 that comes from an earlier source for it is "incomprehensible why the Evangelist on his own initiative should have inserted the comment in v.5" (Bultmann, The Gospel of John, p.638). But the source used by John itself may not be the most original tradition. It is doubtful that the original tradition would present us with the picture of a Roman chiliarch heading a cohort, taking the prisoner to the father-in-law of the Jewish high priest and then on the order of the father-in-law taking him to the high priest himself late at night. It is also difficult to see why the Roman cohort was there if the original tradition, just like the gospels, wanted to give the responsibility of the arrest and execution to the Jews. John is particularly concerned to give responsibility of Jesus' crucifixion to the Jews. Therefore he would not have brought the Roman cohort for the arrest of Jesus if his source mentioned only the Jews. But we could expect him to bring the Jews along if the source mentioned only the Romans. A number of writers (G. D. Kilpatrick, The Trial of Jesus, 1952; see other references in Bultmann, op. cit. p. 637) have argued that Jesus was arrested and condemned by the Romans alone, but as noted by Bultmann, "John's representation hardly rests on a superior knowledge" of history. All we can say is that there existed a tradition which gave to the Romans the sole responsibility of Jesus' arrest and execution.

A passage in 1 Timothy also seems to give Romans the sole responsibility of executing Jesus.

In the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Jesus Christ, who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, I charge you to keep the commandment without spot or blame until the manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ ... (6:13-14)

The situation assumed here is far from the one presented to us in the gospels in which Jesus' confession leads Pilate to declare him innocent and only the pressure from the Jewish authorities obliges him to pass very reluctantly the death sentence. Here the words "who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession" suggests a situation like that of a Christian martyr who stands before Roman authorities making confession of his faith and getting martyred for it by the Romans who need no prompting from anyone.

The existence of an early tradition giving Romans the exclusive responsibility for the execution is also supported by the presence in our earliest gospel Mark (followed by Matthew) of two trials of Jesus, one before the Jewish Sanhedrin and the other before Pilate. A probable explanation of this is that the two trials originally represented two separate versions of the execution, in one the Jews tried and executed Jesus while in the other Pilate tried and executed him. Mark has combined the two versions, giving the real responsibility to the Jews and formal responsibility to the Romans. That the two trials represent originally independent trials, each excluding the other and by itself ending in the execution of Jesus is supported by the following parallels between the Jewish trial and the Roman trial in Mark:

Mark 14:60-62

You reply nothing? How these do witness against you! (v. 60). But he remained silent and did not reply anything (v.61). Again the high priest asked him ... Are you the messiah ... (v. 62) And he said, I am (v.62)


Mark 15:2-5

You reply nothing? Look with what they accuse you (v.4). But Jesus no longer replied anything ... (v.5) And Pilate asked him, Are you the king of the Jews? (v.2). And answering him he said, You said it (v.2).

The closest parallels in the two passages are indicated by bold letters and they are close enough and numerous enough for us to admit the possibility that they are alternative versions of one trial.

A mention may also be made of the Gospel according to the Hebrews in which the risen Jesus gives his linen cloth to the servant of the high priest (Jerome, de viris inlustribus, 2; NTA, I, p. 165). In the canonical gospels the servant of the high priest appears at the arrest and is wounded in the ear by one of Jesus' companions as a member of the arresting party. The Gospel according to the Hebrews clearly tells a different story, one which may mean good relations between Jesus and the high priest of the type that existed between the Jews and Jesus' brother, James (see Ch. 3). If so, then the Gospel according to the Hebrews probably considered Romans as bearing the sole responsible for the arrest and execution of Jesus.

Finally, a passage in the Acts of Pilate (NTA, II, pp. 449-470) also gives the Romans the sole responsibility for the execution of Jesus. In the earlier part of this document (I-XIII), we find the same scenario as in the canonical gospels: The Jewish council, which includes Annas and Caiaphas, uses an extremely unwilling Pilate to execute Jesus. But in the last part of the document, Annas and Caiaphas describe the crucifixion without a hint that they played any part in it:

Then Annas and Caiaphas said:"... But Jesus had to give account before Pilate; we saw how he received blows and spitting on his face, that the soldiers put a crown of thorns upon him, that he was scourged and condemned by Pilate and then was crucified at the place of skull; he was given vinegar and gall to drink, and Longinus the soldier pierced his side with a spear (XVI.7).

This passage not only completely ignores what has gone before, but also contradicts it in at least one detail: while in the above passage it is a Roman soldier who pierces Jesus with a spear, in an earlier passage Joseph of Arimathaea, who antagonized the Jews for asking for the body of Jesus tells them:

And you have not done well with the righteous one, for you did not repent of having crucified him, but also pierced him with a spear (XII.1)

Also, while the above statement by Annas and Caiaphas refers to the spitting and striking, no such actions are described in the earlier narratives. Thus the passage belongs to a different stage in the composition of the document or comes from a different source and at this stage or in this source the Romans alone were assumed to have been responsible for the execution of Jesus.



A passion narrative may be defined as a narrative consisting of most of the following: a plot to kill Jesus, his arrest, trial, sentence, mocking and execution. Our sources contain evidence showing the existence of traditions, according to which almost all of these actions against Jesus were done by Herod and his men.

Thus there are some very revealing parallels between Mark 2:1-3:6 and Mark 12:13-40,14:1. In both passages we have some conflict or controversy stories in which actions or sayings of Jesus evoke objections from his opponents and Jesus silences them by his answers. In both the conflict leads to a decision by the opponents to kill Jesus:

And the Pharisees went out, and straight away with the Herodians took counsel against him, how they might destroy him Mark (3:6).

Now after two days was [the feast of] the Passover and the unleavened bread: and the chief priests and the scribes sought how they might take him by stealth, and kill him: for they said, Not during the feast, lest haply there shall be a tumult of the people Mark (14:1).

These parallels have been widely noted. Also, it is widely recognized that both units, and in any case 3:6 and 14:1, are pre-Markan. Normally such parallelism leads scholars to conclude that the two parallel traditions represent two different versions of the same story. In the present case, however, scholars have avoided such a conclusion, clearly because the execution of Jesus is considered a historical fact above doubt and the recognition of the early existence of two radically different versions of who executed Jesus will raise doubts about its historicity. Yet Mark 3:6 demands to be continued by a story of execution by the Pharisees and the Herodians (which probably means something like "party of Herod") and the conclusion is almost inescapable that the pre-Markan material in Mark 2:1-3:6 was originally followed by a Galilean passion narrative, according to which Jesus was executed in Galilee by the Herodians and the Pharisees. This version was probably based on a still earlier tradition according to which Jesus was executed by Herod in Galilee without any reference to the Pharisees. For Luke records a unique tradition in which Pharisees, instead of plotting with the Herodians to kill Jesus inform him of Herod's hostile intentions. They tell him: "get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you" (Luke 13:31).

We have just seen evidence of the existence of a tradition of a plot by Herod to kill Jesus. Luke and the Gospel of Peter also contain evidence of the existence of traditions of a trial, mocking and execution of Jesus under Herod. This evidence is presented in some detail in Ch. 24. Here it suffices to draw the reader's attention to the following passages from the two gospels:

[Herod] questioned him at some length, but he gave him no answer. ... Even Herod with his soldiers treated him with contempt and mocked him ... (Luke 23:9, 11)

And then Herod the king commanded the Lord should be marched off, saying to them, "What I have commanded you to do to him, do ye".... And [Herod] delivered him to the people on the day before the unleavened bread, their feast.... And they brought two malefactors and crucified the Lord between them (1:2, 2:5, 4:10)

Thus our sources have preserved traditions about a plot by Herod(ians) to kill Jesus and about a trial, mocking and execution by command of Herod; in other words, pieces of an entire passion narrative!

The tradition of Herodian execution of Jesus survived for a long time after the writing of the canonical passion narratives, finding its way in many Christian writings, though often combined with the responsibility on the part of the Romans and/or of the Jews. The following references to such a tradition are mostly from Crossan, The Cross That Spoke.

In his letter to the church in Tralles Ignatius says that Jesus was "persecuted by Pontius Pilate", while in the letter to Smyrnaeans he says that he was nailed to the cross "under Pontius Pilate and the tetrarch Herod". The crucifixion "under Pontius Pilate and the tetrarch Herod" may mean either that Herod also had some responsibility for the persecution of Jesus or it may simply mean that the crucifixion took place when Pilate was the procurator and Herod was the tetrarch. In other writings the reference to execution by Herod becomes more explicit.

In the Ascension of Isaiah (third or fourth century) we read:

And [the children of Israel] handed him to the ruler, and crucified him ... " (11:20).

Here "ruler" is most probably Herod Antipas. Pilate is not described by this term.

In the Acts of Thomas (first half of the third century) the devil in the form of a serpent identifies himself by mentioning all the evil things he had done in the past, saying:

I am he who hardened the heart of Pharaoh ... I am he who stirred up Caiaphas and Herod by slander against the Righteous Judge. I am he who caused Judas to take the bribe ..."

The mention of Herod between Caiaphas and Judas makes it almost certain that Herod Antipas is meant.

Didascalia Apostolorum (early third century) after freely quoting Matt 27:24-25, which talks of Pilate washing his hands, probably from memory, says:

"Herod commanded that [Jesus] be crucified ... "

In Dialogue of Adamantius (early fourth century) the Gnostic view that Jesus' suffering was apparent not real is countered with the argument:

If he is thought to have suffered but did not really suffer, then Herod must be thought to have judged, Pilate thought to have washed his hands ..." (5:1)

In the Acts of Andrew and Matthias (sixth century) the devil threatens Andrew:

Now we shall kill you like your master [i.e., Jesus] whom Herod slew.

In another apocryphal tradition it is related how Death (who previously had remained with the body of Jesus at the grave) sends his son Pestilence to secure Amente (i.e. Hell). But when Death with his six deacons comes to Amente, he finds only three "voices" left, Judas, Cain and Herod. All the rest have been set free by Christ (NTA, I, p. 506). It is probable that Herod and Judas are among the three that are not released from Hell because of their part in the execution of Jesus.



The tendency in our extant sources is to give some form of combined responsibility to the Jews, the Romans and Herod for the execution of Jesus. But a strong indication that originally there were three traditions, each giving responsibility for the execution to only one of the authorities, is that not only the final responsibility can be given to any of the three authorities but also the responsibilities are assigned to them in different ways in different sources.

In Mark the scene is first set in 3:6 for the involvement of the Pharisees and the Herodians in Galilee in the form of their hostility towards Jesus and their intention to kill him. Then in 12:13 they become messengers of the chief priests, the elders and the scribes who are sent to trap Jesus. The chief priests, the elders and the scribes then arrest Jesus and bring him to Pilate who finally and reluctantly sentences him to death.

Matthew and Luke more or less follow Mark. Matthew makes the role of the Pharisees more prominent and reduces that of the Herodians. Luke smooths the Markan story line. The early plot by the Pharisees and Herodians to kill Jesus which in Mark goes nowhere becomes simply a counsel as to "what they (scribes and Pharisees, but no Herodians) might do to Jesus". The Pharisees and Herodians who in Mark act as the messengers of the chief priests, the elders and the scribes are replaced by unspecified "spies". Luke also has knowledge of independent tradition of Herodian responsibility for the execution of Jesus, which likewise he has completely subordinated to the tradition of Roman execution by making Pilate send Jesus to Herod and Herod to return him to Pilate in a nearly meaningless episode. The trial before the Sanhedrin which in Mark looks like a trial before an authority able and willing to execute Jesus ceases to be a formal trial and leads to no sentencing.

John smoothes the story line still further. There is no mention of any independent decision on the part of Pharisees and/or Herodians to kill Jesus. Herodians are not mentioned and Pharisees appear as partners of the temple authorities. The appearance before the Jewish authorities becomes even less of a trial. Jesus is questioned by the father-in-law of the high priest and when later he is brought before the high priest nothing happens. But John combines the tradition of execution by Jews with the tradition of execution by Pilate in another way: he brings the Jewish chief priests at the arrest (which, as argued above, in the source behind John was probably done by Romans alone) and at the trial before Pilate during which they act as prosecutors.

Thus as we move from Mark to John there is a clear tendency to either suppress or reduce the independent character of the actions of Herod(ians) and the Jewish authorities against Jesus, suggesting that in the earlier pre-gospel stage there existed traditions giving independent responsibility for the execution of Jesus to each of the three main powers in Palestine: Herod, Romans and the temple authorities.

The non-canonical Gospel of Peter (written between 70 to 150 C.E.) also combines all the three traditions about who executed Jesus but in a way quite different from the canonical version:

But none of the Jews washed his hands, nor Herod nor any of his judges. Since they refused to wash, Pilate rose up [and left]. Then King Herod commanded the Lord to be taken away, saying to them: "Do all that I have commanded you to do to him. There stood there Joseph, the friend of Pilate and of the Lord, and knowing that they were about to crucify him he came to Pilate and begged the body of the Lord for burial. And Pilate sent to Herod and begged his body. And Herod said, Brother Pilate, even if no one had begged him, we should bury him, since the Sabbath is drawing on. For it stands written in the law: the sun should not set on one that has been put to death.

Here Herod is completely in charge of the execution, so much so that it is Pilate who, upon being asked by Joseph, has to beg Herod for Jesus' body. The Jewish temple authorities are not given any responsibility in the above passage, but they subsequently do appear. After the burial of Jesus, "the Jews and the elders and the priests, perceiving what great evil they had done to themselves, began to lament ..." (7.25). But their role is different in Peter than in the canonical gospels, showing once again that many different ways were possible in combining the roles of the three main powers in Palestine.

Christian writings quoted earlier in connection with the Herodian responsibility for Jesus' execution show other combinations of powers that collaborated to execute Jesus: Herod and Pilate; Herod and Caiaphas the high priest.

The sources are also not clear as to who actually carried out the sentence of death, Romans or Jews. In Mark it is the Roman soldiers who carry out the crucifixion but in Luke-Acts and John we read:

And they (i.e the Jews) kept urgently demanding ... that he should be crucified ... So Pilate ... handed Jesus over as they wished. As they led him away ... (Luke 23:23-26).

When they [i.e. the Jews] had carried out everything that was written about him, they took him down from the tree and buried him in a tomb (Acts 13:29).

They cried out, ... Crucify him! ... Then he handed him over to them to be crucified (John 19:15-16).

So Jesus said [speaking to the Jews]: "When you have lifted up the Son of Man ..." (Here "lifted up" clearly refers to the crucifixion, although originally the expression referred only to ascension; see Chs. 5, 14).

... how our chief priests and rulers handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him (Luke 24:20).

Notice in the last passage the Jewish authorities hand Jesus over to be condemned to death but crucify him themselves, assuming what is stated more explicitly in the other passages quoted above from Luke-Acts and John: the Jews hand Jesus to Pilate who condemns Jesus and then hands him over back to them and they crucify him. (The statement in Acts 2:23 that the Jews crucified and killed Jesus "by the hands of" the Gentiles suggests otherwise, but it is possible to understand "by the hands" to refer not to the actual execution of the death sentence but to the sentencing itself.)

It may be said, as does John Reumann (Jesus in the Church's Gospels, p. 76), that Luke and John are carrying here the tendency to emphasize the Jewish guilt a step further by suggesting that the Jews and not the Roman soldiers executed the actual crucifixion. However, in view of the much earlier and varied attestation of the view that Jesus was executed by Jews alone, it is more likely that the statements in Luke and John are the result of combining the traditions of execution by Jews alone and execution by Romans alone. One way to combine the two traditions would be to let the Jews hand over Jesus to the Romans and then let the Romans carry the crucifixion, while another way would be to let Pilate pass the sentence thereby giving the Jews the authority to carry it out. Mark and Matthew follow the first way while Luke and John follow the second.


Jesus' execution in rabbinical writings

Although written Jewish references to Jesus and Jesus' execution are found in relatively late period, it is certain that there existed a continuous Jewish tradition about Jesus going back to the time of Jesus. There were Jews in Jesus' time who rejected or opposed him. These Jews must have had some knowledge of Jesus' activities and teaching and must have formed some impressions of him. As Jesus movement continued, so did the communication of the negative impressions formed about him by his Jewish opponents in the form of propaganda against him. As Christian preaching about Jesus changed with time and place, so did the Jewish propaganda against him. But there are some elements in the Jewish propaganda which can be traced to the earliest times.

Both Mark and Q attest that the Jews charged that Jesus cast out devils by the power of Beelzebub, probably a deity invoked in Palestinian magical practices. In both Mark and Q Jesus himself refers to, and refutes, the charge and, since there seems to be no reason why the church will invent the charge and its refutation by Jesus, we can accept that at this point Mark and Q are relating substantially historical traditions.

In addition to the charge of being in league with the devil, Jesus was also charged that he was a rioter or a brigand who wanted to be king. Such a charge was at first made by some Jews and then repeated by the Romans as they became familiar with Christianity. The charge may have been put to a positive use by zealots in the Jesus movement to present him as a martyred zealot or such a use may have given rise to the charge among hostile Jews. Later, it was used by Christians to reinforce their view of Jesus as the Messiah or Christ, since it seemed to the Christians that it was more fitting for the Messiah, the king, to be executed by sentence of Romans on a charge of royal pretensions. In any case, the two types of charges produced two traditions among Jews about the execution of Jesus. These two traditions correspond to two of the traditions found in Christian writings, one according to which Jews alone were responsible for executing Jesus and the other which gave the Romans the sole responsibility for that action.



The charge made by the Jews against Jesus during his life that he was in league with the devil is found in a somewhat different and more developed form in the first written reference to Jesus in rabbinical writings:

Yeshu ha-Nosri (Jesus) was hanged on passover eve. Forty days previously the herald had cried, 'He is being led out for stoning, because he practised magic and led Israel astray and enticed them into apostasy. Whosoever has anything to say in his defence let him come and declare it.' As nothing was brought forward in his defence, he was hanged on passover eve. (Talmudic tractate Sanhedrin 43a)

There are indications that the charge here is that of a "false prophet" and it was based some of the very early Jewish perceptions of Jesus. The "false prophet" was a person who with omen and portents (magic) directs people to "other gods" (Deut 13:1-6) or who falsely attributes words to the God of Israel (Deut 18:20-22). Such a prophet is to be put to death for speaking "treason against the Lord your God ... to turn you away from the way in which the Lord your God commanded you to walk" (Deut 13:5), that is, for leading Israel astray and enticing apostasy. The early Palestinian and relatively more specific charge of casting devils by the power of Beelzebub has found in this passage a more general form of "practicing magic". "Leading Israel astray" usually means "turning Israel away from her God" which is implied in the practice of magic by invoking a deity other than the Jewish god. In the first century, Matthew attributes to the Jews the view that Jesus was a "deceiver," that is, one who entices the people to apostasy (27:63).

The hanging mentioned in the above Talmudic passage is the same "hanging on the tree" that we find in many New Testament passages (see above) and that according to the law --(Deut 21:22-23: "All ... shall stone him to death ... when a man has committed a sin worthy of death and he is put to death, you shall hang him on a tree") -- was to be done after the execution, presumably as a further public display of the consequences of the crime. This seems to have been the basis of the later mishnaic law, as seen in m.Sinh 6:4: "All who have been stoned must be hanged." (see also Ch. 18). Consequently, there is not much likelihood that the Talmud is recognizing the "fact" of Roman crucifixion of Jesus without giving Romans any responsibility for it.

The Talmudic passage is closest to John. In John 7:12, 47 it is stated by the Pharisees and/or other Jews that Jesus led people astray. The date of the execution -- Passover eve -- also agrees with John and not the synoptic gospels, in which Jesus dies on the day of passover. Also, John mentions several Jewish attempts to stone Jesus (5:18, 8:59, 10:31), although Jesus ultimately dies by sentence of Pontius Pilate. John also says that the final decision to arrest Jesus was made by the Jewish authorities because Jesus performed many miracles. Although in John miracles are a problem for the authorities because they are expected to increase Jesus' popularity to the point that the Romans would be forced to act against the Jewish nation, in the more original tradition used by John their problem with miracles might have been that they represented magic in the eyes of the Jews, as is clearly indicated in the synoptic gospels. It is thus quite possible that John has contact with a Christian tradition, according to which Jesus was convicted on Passover eve by the Jewish authorities of blasphemy and of practicing magic, stoned to death and then hanged until evening to be taken down for burial before sunset and that this tradition lies behind the Talmudic passage. In John this tradition has been subordinated to the tradition of crucifixion by sentence of Pilate.

Some further light is thrown on the Talmudic passage by a comment by rabbi 'Ulla:

'Ulla says, "Would it be supposed that Yeshu ha-Nosri was one for whom anything in his favor might be said? Was he not a deceiver? And the Merciful has said, 'Thou shalt not spare, neither shalt thou conceal him' [Deut 13:8]. But it was different with Yeshu ha-Nosri, for he was near to the kingdom or kingship.

That is, despite the fact that there was little chance for finding anything favorable to Yeshu ha-Yosri, defense was unusually zealously sought in case of him because "he was near to the kingdom or kingship." This either means that Jesus was connected with the government or it is a sarcastic comment on the Christian belief in Jesus as the king.

The Babylonian Talmud was completed by 500 C.E. but the above passage could come from the Tannaitic period (70 - 200 C.E.) and very probably before 300 C.E., since rabbi 'Ulla, who commented on the passage, flourished around the end of the third century. Whatever the exact date of the passage there is little doubt that it reflects a Jewish tradition about Jesus that began to develop during Jesus' life and took form soon after him. This is shown by the clear parallels mentioned above between the Talmudic passage and the much earlier gospel traditions about Jewish perceptions about, and actions against Jesus. Such parallels continue after the writing of the gospels. Thus Justin, speaking to the Jew Trypho, says: "You (people) crucified him". Trypho responds by saying, "If the Father wanted him to suffer these things ... we did no wrong" (Dialogue, 17.1, 95.3). Here, as in the Talmudic passage, Jews are as willing to take responsibility for the execution of Jesus as the Christians are willing to give to them. In another passage we read:

Yet you not only have not repented, after you learned that he rose from the dead, but ... have sent chosen and ordained men throughout all the world to proclaim that a godless and lawless heresy had sprung from one Jesus, a Galilean deceiver, whom we crucified, but his disciples stole him by night from the tomb, where he was laid when taken down from the cross, and now deceive men by asserting that he has risen from the dead and ascended to heaven (Justin Martyr, Dialogue with the Jew Trypho 108:2, cf. Eusebius, Church History IV, 187)

Christian proclamation was that "you (the Jews) killed Jesus but God raised him". The Jewish propaganda in the second century was: "We crucified Jesus, but you stole his body from the tomb". The description of Jesus as "deceiver" and a founder of a "godless and lawless heresy" is similar to the one in the Talmudic passage. It is interesting that when Justin wants to represent the Jewish view he says that the Jews crucified Jesus. But when he wants to represent the Christian view he seems to make the Romans responsible for the execution of Jesus. Thus in his Apology for Christianity written for Antoninus Pius we read:

But the words [in Psalm 22:16], 'They pierced my hands and feet' refer to the nails which were fixed in Jesus' hands and feet on the cross; and after he was crucified, his executioners cast lots for his garments, and divided them among themselves. That these things happened you may learn from the 'Acts' which were recorded under Pontius Pilate (I.35.7-9).

The reference to the "Acts" recorded by Pilate suggest that here crucifixion by sentence of Pilate is assumed.

Justin wrote his books in the middle of second century. A few decades later, Celsus wrote his attack on Christianity in which he quotes a Jew as saying, "We had convicted him, condemned him, and decided that he should be punished" (Origen, Contra Celsum 1.71). These words seemingly leave the possibility of actual punishment being executed by the Romans as in the gospels. But earlier the Jew says, "We punished this fellow who was a cheater" (1.28). Here "cheater" may well be Celsus' rendering of mesith (deceiving enticer) which we find in the Talmud in reference to Jesus.

One of the most stable elements in the Jewish tradition about Jesus is that he was executed by Jews according to Jewish law. It is therefore not always anti-Semitic to answer the question, "Who killed Jesus?" by saying that Jews were solely and entirely responsible for that action, although in our age it may be good or necessary marketing strategy for a book to pretend otherwise. In fact, before the nineteenth century almost no Jewish writer denies Jewish responsibility in the execution of Jesus (see below for an exception); rather Jews seem to be more than happy to take the "credit" for the execution. The tradition that Jews (alone) killed Jesus is not in itself anti-Semitic; only a reaction to it can be anti-Semitic and it is one of the obvious and tragic facts that such a reaction has been shown by Christians from the earliest times. But if the tradition can be used in an anti-Semitic way, it can also be used in an anti-Christian way; indeed, when the Jews repeated the tradition, they often did so with an anti-Christian intentions; they meant to say that the founder of Christianity was a magician and a blasphemer and hence Christianity a false religion. The only thing that prevented the persecution of Christians by the Jews is that the Jews did not have the necessary power, except in the first century or so, when they did persecute Christians.

Since the tradition of Jewish responsibility produced or encouraged anti-semitic reaction, it is natural for modern Jews and Christians to try to get rid of the tradition. Of course, if the thesis developed in the present book is correct, then their task is made infinitely easier. Nobody killed Jesus except in the imagination of some uninformed early Hellenist Jesus followers and centuries of persecution of Jews for the murder of Christ is simply one of the most horrible and cruel jokes of human history.

In view of the very early attestation of the charge which is made the basis of Jesus' execution in the above Talmudic passage, it is tempting to see in the passage a substantially historical tradition as does Morton Smith. But for two reasons we should resist the temptation.

The first reason is that propagandists usually do not completely reject the opponents' traditions but whenever possible give them a new twist and use them to their own ends. We have other examples of this in Jewish propaganda against Jesus. Thus the Jews did not deny the Christian tradition that Jesus' tomb was found empty but charged that the disciples stole the body (see Matt 28:62-66 and the passage from Justin quoted above). Similarly, the Christian tradition of Jesus' virgin birth is not rejected as baseless fabrication but explained as a Christian attempt to cover the "fact" that Jesus was illegitimate. This clearly raises the possibility that Jews in the earlier centuries might have simply accepted the unhistorical Christian tradition of Jesus' execution and put it to their propagandist use. To say that Jesus was executed by respected Jewish religious authorities for practising magic and leading Israel to apostasy after complete inability on the part of everyone in the whole of Palestine or Jerusalem to defend him would have been very effective in expressing and maintaining a very negative Jewish image of Jesus among the Jews and thus to prevent them from accepting Christianity.

The second reason for resisting any temptation to see history in the Talmudic passage is that another passage in the Talmud gives us a completely different account of Jesus' execution.



Although the Jewish tradition for the most part viewed Jesus as a false prophet and magician who was executed by the Jews, some rabbis also seem to have used the other tradition about Jesus' execution, the one which viewed him as a brigand and a false royal pretender who was crucified by the Romans. In this way the rabbis presented Jesus not as a false prophet but as a false Messiah. Thus:

Rabbi Meir used to say, "What is the meaning of (the verse), "For he that is hanged is a curse of God?" [Deut 21:23]. (It is as) two twin brothers who looked alike. One ruled over the whole world, and the other took to brigandage. After a time the one who took to robbery was caught, and they crucified him on the cross. And every one who passed to and fro said, 'It seems that the king is crucified' (t. Sanh 9:7).

Here the crucified king is undoubtedly Jesus. If his name is not mentioned it is because Jews often maligned Jesus without mentioning his name for fear of Christian persecution. The passage is telling us that Jesus' crucifixion proves that he is the false messiah and the accursed of God while his twin brother is the true messiah who will rule the world as the messiah was supposed to. Also, the references to crucifixion, cross, brigandage, royal pretension show that the execution is supposed to be done only by Romans. Thus at some point some Jews felt that it was more useful to attack Jesus as a false messiah than as a false prophet and for this purpose they started to use the Christian tradition of crucifixion by the Romans on charge of royal pretensions.


Jesus' execution in pagan writers

The earliest Roman references to Jesus are found in two historians who were contemporaries: Suetonius who about 120 C.E. wrote biographies of the first twelve Roman emperors beginning with Julius Caesar and Tacitus who, a few years before or after Suetonius' work wrote his Roman Annals. There is also a somewhat later reference in Lucian of Samosata (c. 115-c. 200).



In 49 C.E. a series of riots broke out in the considerably large Jewish community in Rome, serious enough for the emperor Claudius to banish all Jews from the capital (Acts 18:2). In his Life of Claudius, Suetonius makes a brief reference to this event in the following words:

He expelled the Jews from Rome, on account of the riots in which they were constantly indulging, at the instigation of Chrestus (25.4). ['Chrestus', a common name for slaves, is a mis-spelling for 'Christus=Christ' among the Romans, either deliberate or by error. The possibility of error is raised by the fact that even Christian writings, including some of the best New Testament manuscripts, often committed a similar error and mis-spelled Christianus as Chrestianus].

In 49 C.E. Christians were part of the Jewish community and some of them could have been quite nationalistic. Clearly no credibility can be given to the statement that the riots were instigated by 'Chrestus,' that is, Christ. But it is not unlikely that some Jewish Christians were behind the riots in Rome. It is noteworthy that Suetonius is completely unaware of any report of Jesus' execution under Pontius Pilate in the reign of Tiberius (14-37 C.E.).

The implication of the above passage that Christ might be active in Rome in the reign of Claudius (41-54 C.E.) is related to a number of other texts, both Christian and Jewish. Thus Irenaeus (Haer. 2.22.5f.) "expresses the opinion that Jesus was crucified when he was in his forties and he dates this event expressis verbis as having taken place under Claudius; he refers for this to the view taken by elders of Asia. Two fragments, one from Milan and another from Padua, even give A. D. 46 as the date of the crucifixion. Above all Pilate's letter to Claudius

points in the same direction. ... [The view that Jesus died at an advanced age] is likely originally to have existed independently and to have been more widespread. The references we possess point to the East as the region of origin, from which it spread to the West . " (Bammel, "Jesus as a political agent in a version of the Josippon," 207). Bammel also says that Justim (Dial. 88) may have shared the view and refers to an interpolation in the Daniel commentary of Hippolytus (4.23.3) according to which Jesus died in the first year of Claudius. In a version of the Josippon we read a story about Jesus built upon the incident known from Philo and Josephus that when emperor Caligula or Gaius (37-41 C. E.) wanted to put his image in Jerusalem Jews protested and Herod sent a delegation to Rome to plead the emperor against such an action. The story in the Josippon tells that pretending to be a messenger of God, Jesus hailed Caligula as God on earth and advises him to erect altars to himself as to a god. The image of the emperor is then sent to Jerusalem to be placed there. The Jews resist and Herod sends a delegation of rabbis to Rome but without any success. Caligula decides to destroy the country of the Jews and he is supported by Jesus and others. The Jews hold a fast and pray God for intervention. As a result Caligula is killed by being cut to pieces which are eaten by dogs. Claudius who is a supporter of the Jews succeeded him. He rehabilitated the members of the Jewish delegation who had been sent away by Caligula in disgrace. He gave the Perizim (?) into their hands, caught three of them who had fled, killed them and gave their corpses to dogs in order to exclude the possibility that their wandering followers should steal them at night. It is understood that the execution took place in Rome.

In his Life of Nero Suetonius makes another brief reference to Christians though not to Christ. In 64 C.E. Rome was swept by a disastrous fire, which was rumored to have been set at the command of the emperor Nero but which Nero blamed on Christians. Referring to this event, he says:

Punishment was inflicted on the Christians, a body of people addicted to a novel and mischievous superstition (16.2).

The image of Christianity described here is also found in Tacitus and is therefore probably a common Roman perception of that religion in the early decades of the second century.



After mentioning the fire of 64 C.E. and the rumors that Nero ordered the fire Tacitus introduces his only reference to Jesus in the following words:

Therefore to scotch the rumor, Nero substituted as culprits, and punished with the utmost refinements of cruelty, a class of men, loathed for their vices, whom the crowds styled Christians. Christus, the founder of the name, had undergone the death penalty in the reign of Tiberius, by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilatus, and the pernicious superstition was checked for the moment, only to break out once more, not only in Judea, the home of the disease, but in the capital itself, where all things horrible or shameful in the world collect and find a vogue (Annals 15.44).

It is doubtful that Tacitus had at his disposal any reliable independent Roman records about Jesus and the earliest churches. In his statements about the fire and Nero's punishment of the Christians for it he is clearly dependent on some Roman sources to which Suetonius also had an access, as a comparison of the quotations from the two historians can show. His statements of Jesus' execution, in conflict with both Suetonius and Jewish sources, need not be traced to some authentic Roman records about Jesus. Traditions current in a community when used with critical judgement were valid sources of history of that community for the ancient historians as for the modern ones. By the time Tacitus wrote, the tradition that Jesus was crucified under Pontius Pilate was well established among Christians and it is quite possible that Tacitus knew of this tradition and accepted it. For his readers, who would not have heard of Pilate -- outside of this passage from Tacitus, Pilate is nowhere mentioned in any pagan document that has come down to us -- Tacitus adds that Pilate was the procurator in the reign of Tiberius. Actually, Pilate was a prefect and not a procurator, as is shown by the "Pilate stone" discovered in 1961 in Caesarea Maritima. Apparently Tacitus uses the title Procurator because it was more common at the time of his writing than the historically correct Prefect.

Tacitus talks of two outbreaks of Christianity. First in Judea which was checked for a while by the crucifixion of Jesus and the second which spread as far as Rome. In his reference to the second outbreak Tacitus is probably dependent on the riots among the Jews of Rome incited or led by Christians. He is deducing the first outbreak from the reported crucifixion of Jesus in the reign of Tiberius: this crucifixion, Tacitus seems to be thinking, must have been the result of trouble caused by the founder of Christianity in the reign of Tiberius similar to the one caused by his followers in Rome in the reign of Claudius. It would also be an easy deduction from the reported crucifixion that the trouble was checked for a while only to break out again. Since Tacitus does not know of any trouble caused by the Jesus movement after the trouble which he deduced from the reported crucifixion until the riots in Rome, this second trouble seems to him as fresh outbreak of what was temporarily suppressed by the crucifixion of the founder.

It is noteworthy that just as the rabbis were more than happy to give full responsibility for the execution of Jesus to their fellow Jews who lived in the time of Jesus, so also the Roman Tacitus and presumably some other Romans were willing to give that responsibility to one of their own. The reason for this willingness is the same in case of Romans as in case of the rabbis: execution of Jesus supported the respective negative images held by the Romans and the Jews. For the Jews Christians and their founder were heretics who had gone astray and who were leading other Jews to apostasy; this is confirmed by the "fact" that Jesus was stoned to death for practicing magic and for being a false prophet by Jewish religious authorities. For the Romans, Christians and therefore Christ were rioters and followers of a novel, mischievous and pernicious superstition; this is confirmed by the "fact" that Jesus was given the death penalty by a Roman procurator for indulging in riots against Rome under the inspiration of a novel superstition. A similar reasoning lies behind the reference to Jesus in another pagan writer.



Describing in a mocking way the life and death of one Peregrinus, a religious-philosophical dabbler who for a time was a Christian, Lucian (c.115-c.200) makes some passing references to the founder of Christianity:

It was then that he learned the remarkable wisdom of the Christians, by associating with their priests and scribes in Palestine. And - what else? - in short order he made them look like children for he was a prophet, cult leader, head of the congregation, and everything, all by himself. He interpreted and explained some of their books, and wrote many himself. They revered him as a god, used him as a lawgiver, and set him down as a protector - to be sure, after that other whom they still worship, the man who was crucified in Palestine because he introduced this new cult into the world.

For having convinced themselves that they are going to be immortal and live forever, the poor wretches despise death and most even willingly give themselves up. Furthermore, their first lawgiver persuaded them that they are all brothers of one another after they have transgressed once and for all by denying the Greek gods and by worshipping that crucified sophist himself and living according to his laws. Therefore they despise all things equally and regard them common, without certain evidence accepting such things. (Passing of Peregrinus, sections 11, 13; Craig, "Jesus in Non-Christian Sources," p. 462)

Lucian wrote several decades after Suetonius and Tacitus and therefore seems to know more about Christianity than they did. Not being a historian, he does not know of any riots caused by Christians in the past or at present. His quarrel with Christianity is therefore not because Christians cause riots but only on religious grounds: Christians reject the Greek gods and have a god of their own. He accepts the Christian tradition of Jesus' crucifixion but understands it in the light of his quarrel with Christianity. He specifically tells us that Jesus was crucified in Palestine because he founded of the false cult of Christianity. The way Lucian refers to the worship of a crucified man suggests that he thinks of such a worship as an obvious absurdity. Thus if for the Jews the execution of Jesus meant that he was a false prophet or a false messiah and if for Tacitus it meant that he was a rioter and a founder of a superstition, then for Lucian it meant that he was a false god and a founder of a false cult.


Jesus' execution in Josephus


The passage in Josephus with the greatest claim to authenticity appears in Jewish Antiquities 18 where after relating various troubles which arose during the prefecture of Pilate (26-36 C.E.) the ancient Jewish historian says:

About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was one who wrought surprising feats and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. He was the Messiah. When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing amongst us, had condemned him to be crucified, those who had in the first place come to love him did not give up their affection for him. On the third day he appeared to them restored to life, for the prophets of God had prophesied these and countless other marvelous things about him. And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared." (18:63).

It is at once clear that the italicized parts of the passage go back to some Christian interpolator(s). But what remains after these obvious interpolations is by no means free of problems. Josephus, prior to the above passage is relating the troubles that arose during the governorship of Pilate, but this passage does not link with that context. Crucifixion of a religious teacher implies trouble but the passage does not bring that out. When in the same book (18:116-119) Josephus mentions the execution of John the Baptist he gives reasons for that execution and comments on what people thought of that execution. In case of Jesus nothing is said about why and on what charge Jesus was crucified. Also, if the statement "He was the Christ" is removed it is not clear why his tribe was called Christians after him. Finally, recognizing Jesus as someone who teaches the truth seems to lean too far towards Christianity for a Jewish historian who was weary of Jewish messianism. Because of these difficulties it is doubtful that Josephus wrote the above passage in its present form even after more obvious Christian interpolations are removed.

One possible reconstruction of what Josephus originally wrote can start with the observation that in the statement that Jesus was a teacher of those who receive truth with pleasure, the Greek for "truth" is alethe, which is very close to aethe (strange things). It is possible that Josephus originally wrote aethe (H.St.J. Thackeray, Josephus the Man and the Historian, pp. 144f.). Likewise, in the statement that Jesus won over many Jews and Gentiles, the Greek for "won over" is epegageto and has the sense of "bringing something upon somebody, mostly something bad" and is often used in Josephus in a negative way (G.N.Stanton as used by Craig A. Evans, "Jesus in Non-Christian Sources", pp.470-471). The sense may be better brought out by translating the word as "led away with him". This leaves only one apparently positive element in the extant text when the obvious interpolations are removed: the description of Jesus as a wise man. But Josephus may have used the description in a neutral way as a kind of a commonly held view of Jesus. Lucian of Samosata speaks in a negative way of the "wisdom of the Christians" and calls Jesus a "sophist". Josephus may have used "sophos aner" in a similar way. Or, perhaps he understood "wise man" as "magician," as is suggested by his reference to Jesus' surprising feats. Thus what Josephus wrote might have been closer to something like the following:

About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man [or a magician]. For he was one who performed surprising feats and was a teacher of such people who are attracted to strange things. He led away many Jews and many of the Gentiles. [They believed that he was the Christ]. But when Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing amongst us, had condemned him to be crucified, those who in the first place loved him did not give up doing so. And the tribe of Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared. (Reconstruction)

Starting with this reconstructed passage we can also explain the Christian changes more naturally. When a scribe read the reference to Jesus as a wise man who taught true things, reading alethe for aethe, he found the text a positive assessment of Jesus. He felt justified to make explicit by his interpolations what he thought was implicit in the text. Thus if Jesus was for Josephus a wise man who performed miracles and who taught truth, then the Christian belief that he was the Christ was shared by Josephus. So instead of something like "they believed that he was the Christ" the scribe wrote "he was the Christ." Also, the statement that the love of some people did not die with the execution of Jesus is explained in Christian terms by Jesus' resurrection.

The above reconstruction also conforms well to the other statements about Jesus in non-Christian sources. That Jesus performed surprising feats, taught strange things and led away many Jews, corresponds to the statement in Talmud that Jesus was executed for practicing magic and leading Israel astray. It also corresponds to the description of Christianity in Tacitus as a superstition that found a home in Rome, presumably "leading away" the Gentiles as well as the Jews. The statement that despite the execution of Jesus the tribe of the Christians is still in existence corresponds to the statement in Tacitus that the pernicious superstition was only partially and temporarily checked by the execution of Jesus. Josephus, who was in touch with both the Jewish and Roman points of view produces an account which combines those two points of views. Jesus is accused by Jewish authorities as in rabbinical sources and is then crucified by Pilate as in Roman view. This synthesis may be Josephus' own or, more probably, he may have been influenced by Christian traditions which also say that Jesus was sentenced by Pilate upon being accused by the Jewish priests, scribes and elders. Craig, however, argues that Josephus was not in contact with Christian sources: "Since Josephus says nothing about Jesus' resurrection, Meier [A Marginal Jew, pp. 67-68] has concluded, rightly in my judgment, that Josephus probably did not learn of Jesus and James from Christian sources." ("Jesus in Non-Christian Sources," pp. 473-474). This argument seems to be based on the assumption that if Josephus does not mention the resurrection, he was ignorant of the belief in Jesus' resurrection and therefore out of touch with Christian sources. Needless to say that this assumption is unwarranted. In the context of talking about the problems that Pilate had to deal with, Josephus may well have felt contented with mentioning the few things that he does mention even though he knew some other facts about Jesus and his followers. Also, it seems inherently unlikely that a well informed Jew like Josephus would have no direct or indirect contact with Christian sources in the last decade of the first century.

In addition to the passage from Jewish Antiquities discussed above there are also some other passages about Jesus in Jewish War. These can be confidently declared as unauthentic because their Christian character is easily visible and because they are found in an Old Russian version but are not found in the Greek edition. Yet in some sense these unauthentic passages are even more interesting than the probably authentic one that lies behind Ant. 18.63f. For they refer to some intriguing traditions very dissimilar to those found elsewhere in our earlier sources for the Christian tradition. I quote below some of the most striking examples of such unfamiliar traditions:

There [on the Mount of Olives, Jesus] wrought cures for the people. A hundred and fifty assistants followed him, and a multitude of the populace. ....

So they [the Jews] went and told Pilate [about Jesus' alleged plans for a revolt against the Romans]. Pilate sent soldiers who killed many of the multitude. The miracle-worker was brought before him, and after he held an inquiry concerning him, he pronounced judgment as follows: "He is a benefactor, he is no criminal, no rebel, no seeker after kingship." So he released him, for he had healed his wife when she was dying. He went back to his usual place and did his customary works. Even more people gathered round him, and he gained even more glory by his acts. The scribes were stung with envy, and they gave Pilate thirty talents to kill him. He took it and gave them liberty to carry out their will. So they seized him and crucified him, contrary to the law of their fathers. (Immediately after War 2.174).

Above these inscriptions a fourth inscription was hung in the same letters, which said: "Jesus, a king who did not reign, was crucified by the Jews because he foretold the destruction of the city and the desolation of the temple." (Inserted in War 5.195, where Josephus gives a description of the temple as it was on the eve of its investment by the Romans and mentions the notices defining the limits that the Gentiles may not cross).

"A hundred and fifty assistants ... and a multitude of the populace" is consistent with other reports: In a medieval Hebrew copy of a lost version of a first-century work by Josephus it is said that Jesus had more than 2000 armed followers with him on the Mount of Olives. Much earlier than these medieval versions of Josephus' writings the Church Father Lactantius (c.260-c.340) quotes Sossianus Hierocles, the Roman governor under the emperor Diocletian (284-305) as saying that Jesus was the leader of a band of highway robbers (i.e. rebels) numbering more than 900 men.

The statement that upon hearing accusations by the Jewish leaders against Jesus Pilate sent soldiers who killed many of the multitude implies that Jesus was arrested by a large number of Pilate's soldiers. This is consistent with John l8:12 (also Mark 15:16 in The Jerusalem Bible) according to which Jesus was arrested by a speiran of Romans, which is correctly translated by "cohort" and not, as in some translations, by "band". In New Testament times a "cohort" was a very precise figure, consisting of 500 troops. Just as modern armies consist of companies, regiments, brigades etc, so the Romans organized their armies into centuries, cohorts, legions. The fourth gospel does not say that any armed conflict took place in which many of the multitude were killed but it does say that those with Jesus were under threat at least of arrest and Jesus used his supernatural powers to save them. Also all four canonical gospels say that there was non-fatal violence at the arrest during which the ear of one of the servants of the high priest was cut. The non-canonical Gospel of Peter says that the disciples hid themselves because they were being searched for them "as criminals and as persons who wanted to set fire to the temple".

Our Christian interpolator like the canonical evangelists makes Pilate declare Jesus innocent, despite reporting loss of life at the time of arrest; perhaps he implies that loss of life was the result of wanton killing on the part of the Roman soldiers. In any case, what is of the greatest interest is the statement that Jesus was actually released and that he returned, presumably, to Galilee to continue his activities even more successfully. We may be inclined to dismiss this statement as a pure concoction of a medieval interpolator were it not for the fact that in John Jesus does return to Galilee after he faces a threat to his life, though in John he is not arrested and released (see also Chs. 1, 5). Also, imbedded in the earliest layer of the canonical passion tradition is the story of a rebel leader who was actually released by Pilate. The name of this leader is Barabbas but in some manuscripts Jesus Barabbas. Could it be that early in the formation of speculations about the fate of Jesus there developed some confusion between Jesus Christ and Jesus Barabbas because of the identity of names? This will certainly explain those Christian and non-Christian traditions where Jesus looks like or is presented as a rebel, anxiousness on the part of the Christian tradition to show that Jesus was not a rebel, and the statement in the present passage that Jesus was released. We will return to this subject in Ch. 23.

Of great interest also is the statement that Pilate ordered the crucifixion after arresting Jesus a second time because he was given 30 talents in bribery. In Matthew 26:15 the Jews bribe Judas Iscariot with 30 silver shekels (1 talent=3000 shekels). It is difficult to imagine that our medieval interpolator is inventing this new version right out of his head, especially after we have seen that his other statements have foundations in much earlier tradition. It thus seems that he is here dependent on one of the many apocryphal documents written in earlier centuries, which are full of similar examples of radically different versions of the stories found in the canonical gospels.


Making sense of the varied traditions

What is the most reasonable explanation of the tradition of Jesus' execution reviewed above?

The canonical gospels leave one with the strong impression that the crucifixion of Jesus by sentence of Pilate is one sure historical fact about him. It occupies a central place in each of the four gospels and Mark and John even seem to revolve around it. More than that, the evangelists do not seem to be comfortable with it, since they are all unanimous in their desire to absolve Pilate of any real responsibility for the crucifixion and to put it squarely on the shoulders of the Jewish leaders. One thinks that if all the evangelists record the crucifixion by Pilate while inclining strongly to blame the Jews, it must be a fact, for otherwise they would have simply created a story in which Jews try and execute Jesus.

Yet if we look at the entire tradition of Jesus' execution, including not only the four canonical gospels but also the canonical epistles, non-canonical Christian sources and the non-Christian writings, then this impression vanishes. We see then that the earliest attestations are not for the crucifixion of Jesus by Pilate (although this tradition is quite early) but for hanging or some other form of execution by the Jews (Paul, Mark 3:6, Talmudic tractate Sanhedrin (43a)).

The question that must be raised is this: Suppose we start with the assumption that Jesus was crucified by the Romans in Jerusalem on the day of Passover after being delivered by the Jewish authorities on a charge of royal pretensions, just as the canonical gospels tell us. Crucifixion is meant to be a public punishment in order to act as a deterrent. Therefore many Romans, many companions of Jesus and many other Jews would have known about the crucifixion of this religious leader of some prominence. Even if not many knew of the role that the Jewish authorities played, they must have known the fact of the crucifixion by the Romans which would immediately suggest a charge of some form of rebellion or sedition. Now by what process of history, known to us and supported by adequate evidence, the explicit responsibility for the execution of Jesus is given only to the Jews in our earliest documents, Paul's letters (where interest in the death of Jesus is at its maximum) and there is not even an indication that Jesus was crucified in Jerusalem by the Romans? by what process the tradition of execution is changed in such a way that in the Gospel of Peter the Roman governor washes his hands of the responsibility for executing Jesus and it is Herod who sentences him and delivers him to the Jews for crucifixion? by what process the "fact" of Jesus' crucifixion by Romans produces the Talmudic tradition according to which the Jews stone and hang Jesus according to their own law with Romans playing absolutely no part?

Unfortunately, this question has not been carefully examined by scholars since they have decided that the crucifixion is above all question. When I wanted to find an answer on my own I could find none. I could find no understandable process whereby the traditions could develop the way they did starting from the solid and publicly known fact of Jesus' crucifixion by the Romans in Jerusalem on a feast day. On the other hand, if one starts with the disappearance of Jesus under ambiguous circumstances we can understand the development of tradition in terms of a known and studied process -- the rumor process.

The disappearance of a prominent leader under ambiguous circumstances was bound to start varied rumors. For, as noted in Ch. 4, rumors often start with a process of making sense of an ambiguous event. In the beginning "there is a swarm of interpretations, each trying to account as well as possible for 'reality', i.e. to construct its own truth" (Kapferer, Rumors, p. 139). This process may quickly end or it may result in the survival of a small number of stories. In order for some rumors to survive they must find a home in some groups where they are found meaningful and may be shaped further to enhance their meaningfulness.

Given the execution of John before Jesus and given a measure of hostility from different authorities towards him, it was natural that the disappearance of Jesus was explained by some as execution. Some of those who had reasons to believe that Jesus had returned to Galilee thought that Herod did away with him because he was concerned that Jesus may revive the Baptist challenge to him. This view was strengthened by reports that Herod had actually threatened Jesus. Some of those who were in the dark about Jesus' return to Galilee attributed the execution to some authority in Jerusalem, the Jewish high priest or Roman prefect, depending on what they knew about Jesus' last days in Jerusalem and also on their political and religious leanings.

Just as the rumors about who executed Jesus differed, so also the explanations of why he was executed. When execution was attributed to the temple authorities, it was generally believed to be for some religious charges of blasphemy, while when it was attributed to the Romans the charge was believed to be the political one of being a brigand and royal pretender.

The rumors of Jesus' execution started in simple forms like "he was crucified by Pilate", "the Jews killed him" or "Herod slew him". Soon they found "homes" in some groups where these simple forms were shaped in order to create images of Jesus that suited those groups.

The rumor of Jesus' execution by the Jewish temple authorities on a religious charge first found a home among the anti-temple Hellenists in Jerusalem. This group shaped the story that Jesus was executed by the Jewish priests for rejecting the temple cult as a prophet-reformer. For a considerable time a similar rumor continued in the Hellenist churches outside Palestine even though the image of Jesus as an anti-temple prophet-reformer was no longer meaningful there. The rumor of execution by the Jews was still meaningful because it corresponded to the fact that the main opposition to the Christian mission came from the Jews and not Romans.

The rumor of execution by Romans seems to have found an initial home among the activist nationalists, probably somewhere in Palestine outside Jerusalem, who were particularly opposed to the Roman rule. They shaped the story that Jesus was crucified by the Romans for being a nationalist leader, one who wanted to lead an armed struggle against the Roman occupation and/or claimed to be a king. Since crucifixion by the Romans conformed more closely to the view of Jesus as the Christ than execution by the Jews as a prophet this view of Jesus' death began to be preferred as the belief in Jesus as the Messiah became established, especially after the Christians also began to experience persecutions from Romans. Christians first experienced Roman persecution in 49 C.E. in the time of Claudius (Acts 18:2) but it gradually became more serious, finding its most serious manifestation in the time of Nero in 64 C.E. By the time the gospels were written the view that Jesus was crucified by the Romans was well established.

The rumor of Jesus' execution by Herod seems to have found a home among a Galilean group mostly consisting of tax collectors and sinners and led by Levi (see Ch. 24). But there were no strong factors favoring its wide acceptance.

When the gospels began to be written, the compilers of tradition tried to make sense of the conflicting traditions. The most plausible and meaningful scenario was that the Jewish authorities initiated the process of execution but they used the Romans to carry it through. This fitted well with the view of Jesus as the Messiah. The crucifixion of Jesus by a Roman governor on a charge of royal pretensions, seemed to give credence to the messiahship of the risen Jesus. It also seems to be plausible because under Roman occupation the capital punishment might have required permission of the governor. The compilers did not quite know how to handle the tradition of Herodian responsibility. Some ignored it, since it was never found widely to be meaningful while others found artificial ways to incorporate it.

The rumors of Jesus' execution also naturally reached the Jews and Romans and as the Christian mission continued in their midst they feel motivated to form their own versions. They took one or both of the two primary versions and modified them to fit Jesus in their own image. The Romans accepted the story of crucifixion by one of their own governors which is seen as a confirmation of their view that Jesus was a founder of a group of trouble makers and of a pernicious superstition, that is, of a religious cult opposed to the Roman religion.

The Jews used both of the primary versions. Most accepted the tradition that Jesus was executed by the Jews on a religious charge. They shaped the rumor using various negative perceptions that had continued among them from the earliest days. One enduring form of the rumor among them was that Jesus was stoned and hanged by the Jewish authorities for practicing magic and preaching apostasy after a very thorough search for any contrary evidence. This proved to the Jews that Jesus was a false prophet and a magician in league with the devil. As the belief in the crucifixion by the Romans became almost universally established among Christians some Jews also accepted it after shaping it in a way that presented Jesus as a false Messiah. Since for the Jews, the resurrection of Jesus was no more than a fraud, his crucifixion proved that he was a false messiah, an impostor. However, the older view of stoning and hanging by the Jewish authorities was too much older, too much well established and too appealing to be replaced by this new scenario.

In connection with the passion narratives, scholars often discuss whether the Jews had the right to inflict capital punishment or whether they practiced crucifixion. Such discussion is useful only to the extent that it proves that these questions do not have clear answers and that therefore those who shaped stories of Jesus' execution, it was plausible to assume any answer that suited them. Once again, let us recall that in shaping rumors "facts" are not given a very high degree of importance. The resident of the town in Maine who turned a Chinese tourist into a Japanese spy did not look at the fact that the region around the hill from which the tourist was taking picture contained absolutely nothing of military significance (Ch. 4).

Of course, it may be argued that even traditions that are based on historical facts are shaped by groups to fit into their thinking. But the point made above is that starting with the fact of Jesus' crucifixion by the Romans we cannot explain the way the tradition of Jesus' execution was shaped by different groups. Thus we should expect the Jews to shape a tradition built on the crucifixion by the Romans. For what purpose would it have served for them to talk of Jesus' stoning and hanging by their own authorities on a religious charge of blasphemy when everyone else believed that Jesus was crucified by the Romans as a royal pretender? The story of stoning and hanging as a magician and deceiver would have been useful only if the existing view allowed such a scenario or at least if the existing traditions were sufficiently varied for this scenario to be a possibility. This incidentally also shows that the story of stoning and hanging of Jesus as a magician and deceiver is earlier than the gospels, for after the gospels the story of crucifixion by the Romans was so well established that the Jews should be expected to build their view on that basis. That Jews could have easily build their negative image of Jesus starting from the crucifixion by the Romans is shown by the Rabbi Meir's view (t. Sanh 9:7) quoted above in which he presents Jesus as a false Messiah crucified by the Romans.


Some other fictitious executions

In case it may still seem difficult to accept that the crucifixion of Jesus was a creation of tradition and not a historical fact, let it be noted that the death or execution of Jesus is not the only fictional death or execution in history. Other examples include:

1) We have already seen how millions of Americans insisted that Paul McCartney was dead while there was plenty of evidence that he was alive and singing (Ch. 4).

2) Vansina records the following tradition found in Burundi:

A tradition from eastern Burundi tells how a certain Kilima, who had been a rival claimant to the throne, was killed by King Mweezi II, his head being subsequently displayed in the royal kraaz. Nothing of the kind in fact occurred. Mweezi died in 1908, and Kilima died later. (Vansina, Oral Tradition, p. 117).

This tradition was found by Vansina in the 1950's while the events involved took place about forty years earlier. That is, some decades after the original events, the story of an execution that never happened still circulated. This example is instructive because here the story of execution was probably formed during the lifetime of the "executed" person. It is thus quite possible that while Jesus was being seen in Galilee, in Jerusalem many came to believe that he had been executed.

The above tradition was found in a district at some distance from the places where the events occurred. But that is not necessary for the development of false reports. Essential factor is ignorance of events, and such ignorance can exist at any place. In case of Jesus, for example, most people in Jerusalem would have been quite ignorant of what happened to him if he suddenly hid himself and left for Galilee in secret.

It is interesting to speculate what would have happened if Kilima was not just a pretender to a throne but also a miracle worker and a central figure in a mission. Perhaps the reports of his being alive after the man who was supposed to have killed him was himself dead would have been interpreted to mean that he rose again after his execution.

3) The invention of executions is limited neither to the ancients nor to the illiterate societies. When the time is right, they can be invented by the twentieth-century European press, supported by all the proper documentation. A. Ponsonby (Falsehood in Wartime) uncovered the following amazing series of reports, dealing with the fall of Antwerp to the German Army in November, 1914, published successively in the newspapers Kolnische Zeitung, Le Matin, The Times, Corriere della Sera and finally in Le Matin again.

a) When the fall of Antwerp became known, the church bells were rung. Kolnische Zeitung

b) According to the Kolnische Zeitung, the clergy of Antwerp were compelled to ring the church bells when the fortress was taken. Le Matin

c) According to what Le Matin has heard from Cologne, the Belgian priests who refused to ring the church bells when Antwerp was taken have been driven away from their positions. The Times

d) According to what The Times has heard from Cologne via Paris, the unfortunate priests who refused to ring the church bells when Antwerp was taken have been sentenced to hard labor. Corriere della Sera

e) According to information to the Corriere della Sera from Cologne via London, it is confirmed that the barbaric conquerors of Antwerp punished the unfortunate Belgian priests for their heroic refusal to ring the church bells by hanging them as living clappers to the bells with their heads down. Le Matin

The first of these five reports records the verifiable fact that church bells were rung in Germany to celebrate the conquest of Antwerp. The report was not explicit that the bells were rung in Germany which made a Le Matin reporter to conclude that the ringing of bells took place in the fallen city itself and to assume, quite naturally, that this must have been done under compulsion. The Times then assumed that some at least of the priest must have resisted and must have been punished for doing so, imagining the punishment to be dismissal from their positions. This punishment was made harsher by the two successive reports. The final fate of the "heroic" priests by the "barbaric " conquerors resulting from their getting hung to the church bells is not stated explicitly, but it should be clear enough that this reticence on the part of Le Matin is not due to the restraining influence of facts.

4) Our last example is about a fictitious crucifixion, that of Marcus Atilius Regulus, Roman general and consul in 256 B.C.E. Regulus was the commander of the Roman expedition to North Africa in the First Punic War against the Carthaginians. At first the Romans were victorious and the Carthaginians were inclined to make peace. However, the terms proposed by Regulus were so harsh that they preferred to continue the war. In 255 B.C.E Regulus was completely defeated and taken prisoner. From this point "there is no further trustworthy information about him" (Enc. Brit. 1960 edition). Tradition, however, built all kinds of stories about him as a martyred Roman hero. He is said to have been sent back to Rome by the Carthaginians to negotiate prisoners' exchange or a peace treaty. Once there, however, he counselled the senate to stay firm. He then returned to his captors, only to be put to death. "Traditions about the manner of his death vary widely: among those mentioned are slow-working poison, being deprived of sleep, being shut up in a dark room, having his eye-lids cut off, being exposed to blinding light and finally also crucifixion" (M. Hengel, The Cross of the Son of God, p.150). In time crucifixion gets accepted as the manner of Regulus' death. A second-century writer, Silius Italicus says: "I was looking on when he hung high upon the tree and saw Italy from his lofty cross." And Seneca writes: "Many men have overcome separate trials: Mucius fire, Regulus the cross, Socrates poison." Hengel (op. cit., p.157) after quoting these statements says that "the reason why Regulus was said to have been executed on the cross, contrary to all historical reality" was that the cross was par excellence the expression of cruelty which Regulus as the martyred national hero had to suffer.

The cross of Regulus was created by tradition out of lack of any real knowledge of his fate. The same was the case with Jesus. Jesus, however, was not a commander of an organized army but a roaming miracle-worker (=healer) and a prophet who impressed in different ways different people not in contact with each other. His fate was subject to some other interpretations.

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