Rival gospel traditions: Herod or Pilate the executioner of Christ?

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by Neil Godfrey

I listened in on a Good Friday service in St Joseph’s church in Singapore last night, while standing amidst hundreds of others holding magic or holy candles, and during the reading of the Gospel of John’s passion narrative I was struck to suddenly hear echoes of thematic details also found in the apocryphal Gospel of Peter.

Now the Gospel of Peter is generally taken to have been written after the Gospel of John, but some have dated the Gospel of John towards the middle of the second century, and others have dated the Gospel of Peter to around the same period. What is a more tenable scenario, however, is that the “traditions” behind the Gospel of Peter do go back quite early. (See various online sources, including Wikipedia.)

I have compiled a comparative table of the Gospel of Peter with the canonical gospels.

Most of my argument assumes a late (very late – second century) dating of the gospels. I believe I can defend this view, and argue that most (not all) earlier datings rest more on apologetic assumptions and interpretations than hard evidence.

The common explanation for the variant view that Herod crucified Jesus is that it was an outgrowth of rising anti-semitism. That may be true. But there might also be another explanation – that the Herod story was the original one, and a more complex narrative involving Roman involvement was a later evolution. Either model will do — my views of rival narratives do not rely on either one.

One of the most significant differences is that in the Gospel of Peter it is Herod, the King of the Jews, who orders the crucifixion of Jesus, not the Roman Pilate. Pilate is clearly narrated as leaving Herod to carry out this deed. It is Jewish guards, not Roman soldiers, who do the dirty work. The same narrative appears to be in the mind of the Christian author who wrote the vision in The Ascension of Isaiah

And after this the adversary envied him and roused the children of Israel against him, not knowing who he was, and they delivered him to the king [presumably Herod], and crucified him. . . . (Ascension 11:19)

Justin Martyr, a church father who spent much time in the eastern churches (Syria, Samaria. . . ), who wrote about the middle of the second century, also believed it was Herod, not Pilate, who crucified Jesus. See my comparative table of Justin and the canonical and apocryphal gospels for details.

We also have the Slavonic Josephus with a Christian insertion that must be traced back to an eastern tradition that Pilate was bribed by the Jews (with 30 pieces of silver) to hand Jesus over to them for execution.

The teachers of the Law were [therefore] envenomed with envy and gave thirty talents to Pilate, in order that he should put him to death. And he, after he had taken [the money], gave them consent that they should themselves carry out their purpose. And they took him and crucified him according to the ancestral law.

See my earlier blog post Gospel of Peter and the Slavonic Josephus for discussion.

The Acts of Peter, from Asia Minor, may be assuming a similar narrative when we read:

Thou didst harden the heart of Herod . . . . thou didst give boldness unto Caiaphas, that he should deliver our Lord Jesus Christ unto the unrighteous multitude (Acts Peter VIII)

Eastern and Western rival narratives?

Was it an eastern “gospel tradition” that it was “the Jews” under their king Herod who crucified Jesus? Was the gospel tradition that became canonical, that Pilate killed Jesus, of western (Roman?) derivation? Was the eastern tradition expanded by what became the canonical gospel “tradition”, with the gospels of Mark and (canonical) Luke being western, even Roman, in origin? The Gospel of Matthew, I think, also assumed prominent status among western theologians. And was not John’s gospel on the cusp of the two — being traced to Asia Minor centres that were crossroads of dialogue between east and west?

Both the Gospels of John and Peter place heavy emphasis on the culpability of the Jews as Jews for the death of Jesus. “The Jews” are addressed as a race apart from Jesus.

Both the Gospels of John and Peter place extra heavy emphasis on Jesus’ death being the fulfilment of scriptures. (All the gospels do this to lesser and greater extents, but this trope is given particular emphasis in these two gospels, I think.)

But the alarm started ringing when I heard in the reading Pilate twice attempting to pass Jesus back to the Jews for punishment, with each attempt proving to be a narrative foil to explain why it really was Pilate, and not the Jews, who took over the role of crucifying Pilate.

Then Pilate said to them, “You take him and judge him according to your law.” Therefore the Jews said to him, “It is not lawful for us to put anyone to death.” (John 18:31)

Therefore, when the chief priests and officers saw him, they cried out, saying, “Crucify him, crucify him!” Pilate said to them, “You take him and crucify him, for I find no fault in him.” The Jews answered him, “We have a law, and according to our law he ought to die, because he made himself the Son of God.” Therefore when Pilate heard that saying he was the more afraid, and went again into the Praetorium. . . (John 19:6-9)

Why does “John” introduce these exchanges? Is he attempting to rebut an alternative gospel tradition that it was indeed the Jews who crucified Christ?

Is he attempting to tackle head on what the Gospel of Mark had attempted to dismiss with a sideways glance? GMark told a story that while Herod (or Herodians) had sought to kill Jesus, Jesus eluded them.

Then the Pharisees went out and immediately plotted with the Herodians against [Jesus], how they might destroy him. But Jesus withdrew with his disciples to the sea. (Mark 3:6-7)

The Gospel of Luke (which in its canonical form I often suspect is later than the other three gospels) addresses the issue with a revised narrative insert that might appear to explain how the confusion arose in the first place:

When Pilate heard of Galilee, he asked whether the man were a Galilaean.  And as soon as he knew that he belonged unto Herod’s jurisdiction, he sent him to Herod, who himself also was at Jerusalem at that time.  And when Herod saw Jesus, he was exceeding glad: for he was desirous to see him of a long season, because he had heard many things of him; and he hoped to have seen some miracle done by him.  Then he questioned with him in many words; but he answered him nothing.  And the chief priests and scribes stood and vehemently accused him.  And Herod with his men of war set him at nought, and mocked him, and arrayed him in a gorgeous robe, and sent him again to Pilate.  And the same day Pilate and Herod were made friends together: for before they were at enmity between themselves. (Luke 23:6-12)

The advantage of the Pilate narrative?

If this was the case, and there was a rival narrative in which the Jews, led by their King and High Priest, crucified Jesus, how might we account for the eventual takeover by the canonical version?

One answer may be alluded to in another post of mine in which I discussed thoughts arising from two strange bedfellows: John Carroll’s The Existential Jesus and Michael Patella’s The Lord of the Cosmos. See Pilate and the Cosmic Order in Mark.

The canonical narrative with its complex interrelationship of Jewish and Roman court hearings is certainly a more sophisticated structure than the more direct linear tale of Herod killing Jesus. This alone might reasonably suggest it was of later origin. Add to this the apparent references in Mark, Luke and John (cited above) that appear to be in dialogue with another tradition. But we can’t be sure.

I would think that the canonical version involving Rome had the long-term sustainable advantage of bringing into the myth the notion of Jesus’ death being linked to a new cosmic order on earth (not just in heaven), and involved the spiritual overthrow of all earthly powers. Pilate, as the representative of Rome, and the close involvement of the Roman soldiers in his death, alongside Jewish culpability, broadened the message of the gospel into a well, more “catholic” one. It was more than an anti-semitic diatribe. Pilate’s reluctance, the centurion’s recognition of Jesus, the soldier’s role in opening up another “sign” of Jesus by piercing his side, — these introduced somewhat relatively more neutral (merely doing the job, not motivated by envy like the Jews) and “ready to be converted” non-Jews into a central gospel role.

The role of Rome also gave the gospel a clearer focus on “the cosmos”, the world, represented by Rome, and its leading role that emerged through the second century.

Besides, the gospels of Matthew and John preserved enough that was of value for anti-semitic fodder without the need for the blunter Gospel of Peter.

St Josephs on Good Friday, Singapore, where the above thoughts suddenly hit me 🙂
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Neil Godfrey

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13 thoughts on “Rival gospel traditions: Herod or Pilate the executioner of Christ?”

  1. I found this post as I have your many others on the gospels to be fascinating. I certainly do not have the scholarship to speak to any of them, but in this one a thought came to mind; the method of execution.

    The Romans used crucifixion on a cross and the Jews used stoning; I am thinking specifically of the stoning of Stephen in Acts where the Jewish religious authorities executed someone.

    Always look forward to reading your posts on the gospels.

  2. Thanks for the comment. Re the method of execution, the view that Jews practiced stoning is probably based on an assumption that the Pentateuch reflected historical reality throughout the generations and ignores the simple historical fact that Jewish kings had other options.

    Alexander Jannaeus, Hasmonean King of the Jews in the first century b.c.e., had 800 Pharisees crucified.

    King Herod is also said to have had John the Baptist beheaded.

    If religious authorities ever felt constrained to use stoning, Jewish kings suffered no such constraints.

    But the idea that the Christ had to be crucified could go back to the idea of the cross (equinox) being the gateway between the material and spiritual realms, as discussed by Plato in Timaeus. Just a thought — but if Paul’s theology knows no real history and preceded the gospels, it looks like later gospels were attempts to flesh out aspects of this theological claim (messiah coming down and returning in glory via crucifixion) with “historical” narrative. Early attempts focussed on different aspects of this theological claim (Asc of Isaiah on the descent of Messiah; Proto Gospel of James on the entry of Messiah into world; some gospels on his earthly career, others on his post resurrection teaching . . . . — with many of these drawing heavily on “Old Testament prophecies” to find hooks and anchors for those narrative details.)

  3. >>Was the eastern tradition expanded by what became the canonical gospel “tradition”, with the gospels of Mark and (canonical) Luke being western, even Roman, in origin?<<

    This sounds very interesting. While reading, I kept wondering whether the material presented by Crossan (The Cross that Spoke, pp. 60-95) can be integrated into the discussion. Crossan uses Psalm 2 as a starting point:

    “The four categories mentioned by Justin are 1. ‘Herod the King of the Jews’, 2. ‘the Jews themselves’, 3. ‘Pilate, who was your governor among them’, and 4. ‘with his soldiers’. These are the four classes specified in Psalm 2:1-2 once the Hebraic parallelism is ignored: the Jewish people and the Jewish leader(s), the Gentile people and the Gentile leader(s). But, just as Acts gave them in one order as Herod, Pilate, Gentiles, Jews, so Justin gives them in another as Herod, Jews, Pilate, Gentiles” (p. 67).

    If I may turn to a second issue, it would be very interesting to hear your opinion on which gospel(s) Celsus may have known. Speaking as a non-specialist, I think there are at least two strong indications that Celsus had read the Gospel of Peter.

    1. Ah yes — I’d forgotten about Psalm 2 when I wrote that piece. Thanks for the reminder — that is probably behind the original story of collusion of Jews and Romans against Jesus. Suspect Mark was the first to make Pilate the executioner. He relegates the Pharisees and Herodians to an earlier (failed) plot to kill Jesus, and then Herod is assigned the role of killing John the Baptist (probably adapted from a story about Herod in Josephus, — that is a passage just prior to the current doubtful passage about JB there) who is confused with Jesus. By these means he re-writes the role of Herod and the Jews. His aim is much bigger. He wants to climax his gospel by uniting Jerusalem and Rome and having Jesus “overcome” both on the cross. The cross is on Golgotha, the place of the skull, an allusion to the Capitol of Rome (Michael Turton), and the crucifixion procession is a mock Roman triumph. Mark has created a much more imaginative story than the Herod executioner version based simplistically on Psalm 2.

      Just thoughts, of course. Need to explore more.

      Can you remind me where you see Origen/Celsus links to GPeter? Thanks.

  4. Thank you very much for these comments on Psalm 2.

    Regarding Celsus and GPeter, I had in mind the following two passages: Against Celsus 2.33 and 4.22. Celsus, in the latter passage, writes that “the Jews, having chastised Jesus, and given him gall to drink, have brought upon themselves the divine wrath.” These words sound very much like an echo of GPeter 5: “And one of them (the Jews) said, Give him to drink gall with vinegar. And they mixed and gave him to drink, and fulfilled all things, and accomplished their sins against their own head.” The NT gospels do not mention the guilt of the Jews in one breath with the gall and vinegar. Celsus and GPeter, however, do exactly that.

    Against Celsus 2.33 speaks of earthquakes as well as a solar eclipse. In GPeter 5-6 the eclipse and the earthquake are placed more in the foreground than they are in Matt. 27:45-54: “And it was noon, and darkness came over all Judaea: and they were troubled and distressed, lest the sun had set, whilst he was yet alive… And then they drew out the nails from the hands of the Lord, and laid him upon the earth, and the whole earth quaked, and great fear arose. Then the sun shone, and it was found the ninth hour…”

    (This is just a digression.)

    1. Funny how many routinely repeat their mantra, “The one single fact we know about Jesus is that he was crucified by Pilate”, yet that this ‘single bedrock fact’ was a matter for some disagreement among the early Christians. Was it Pilate or Herod? Was he in fact crucified or did he only appear to be crucified? Was he even a man or was he only in the appearance of a man?” If the evidence for the historical Jesus really were so strong as it is for Julius Caesar, as they aslo routinely repeat, one does have to wonder how no other undoubtedly historical person ever came to be so radically questioned within a few generations of his supposed appearance, and why the so-called facts are first recorded as theological beliefs and credos and only subsequently become “historical”.

  5. >>Funny how many routinely repeat their mantra, “The one single fact we know about Jesus is that he was crucified by Pilate”, yet that this ‘single bedrock fact’ was a matter for some disagreement among the early Christians.<<

    The “single bedrock fact” should arguably be seen as a vatcinium ex eventu. The reason is that if there was a historical Jesus, it is very unlikely that by pure coincidence he preached and died exactly one generation before the destruction of the Herodian Temple. According to the Synoptics, Jesus preached against “this generation”, and as often stated, there is a double horizon present in these sayings. One is historical (70 CE), the other is eschatological. The destruction is used as a warning that Jesus’ opponents are facing judgement (see, e.g., Matt. 23:29-39). There are also other arguments against the plausibility of the chronological framework. The Last Supper, crucifixion, and resurrection are the elements of a new exodus. And as is well known, the wilderness generation perished in the desert…

  6. Speaking of Eastern and Western rivalry, it may be of some relevance here that GPeter is often interpreted as witness to an ancient, Quartodeciman celebration of the Pascha that was followed by a Christian “festival of Unleavened Bread”. As Western Christianity adopted the celebration of Pentecost, a festival of Unleavened Bread could not be adopted any more. The oldest witness that seems to support the Christian celebration of a week of Unleavened Bread after the celebration of the Pascha on the eveneing of (viz. preceding) the 15th of Nisan is GPeter. See Leonhard, _The Jewish Pesach and the Origins of the Christian Easter_ (2006), pp. 224-229. As is well known, the Synoptics on the one hand and GJohn and GPeter on the other disagree on whether Jesus died on the 15th or on the 14th of Nisan…

  7. Ehrman points out in Jesus, Interrupted that per “John” Pilate handed over Jesus to The Jews for crucifixion:


    “John 19:14 Now it was the Preparation of the passover: it was about the sixth hour. And he saith unto the Jews, Behold, your King!

    John 19:15 They therefore cried out, Away with [him], away with [him], crucify him! Pilate saith unto them, Shall I crucify your King? The chief priests answered, We have no king but Caesar.

    John 19:16 Then therefore he delivered him unto them to be crucified.”

    Also, see my Thread @ IIDB (Internet Infidels), Was Paul The First To Assert That Jesus Was Crucified? where I doubt the supposed historical crucifixion.

    1. Golly gosh, I’m getting careless not to have checked GJohn before writing that piece. Thanks for alerting me to it.

      So that means — if we read John in isolation from the other gospels — that the soldiers said to have crucified Jesus must have been Jewish, not Roman, soldiers. And Rome’s only role was for its governor to design and compose the placard placed on the top of the cross.

      And Gospel of John is the only canonical gospel to make no mention of Herod or Herodians.

      Maybe there’s more to my aside that John straddled the eastern and western communities than I suspected when I wrote it.

      Belated caveat: Didn’t quite mean what I said when I wrote of GJohn, “And Rome’s only role was for its governor to design and compose the placard placed on the top of the cross.”

      Was referring to the physical act of crucifying Jesus only. Of course GPeter indicates it was the Jews under Herod who tried and passed sentence on Jesus, in contrast to the obvious role of Pilate in GJohn.

  8. JW:
    You can add to the East Ghost posse Melito of Sardis:


    “72 It is He that has been murdered.
    And where has He been murdered? In the middle of Jerusalem.
    By whom? By Israel.
    Why? Because He healed their lame
    and cleansed their lepers
    and brought light to their blind
    and raised their dead;
    that is why He died.
    Where is it written in law and prophets,
    ‘ They repaid me bad things for good
    and childlessness for my soul,
    when they devised evil things against me and said,
    “Let us bind the just one,
    because he is a nuisance to us”‘?

    73 What strange crime, O Israel, have you committed?
    You dishonoured Him that honoured you;
    you disgraced Him that glorified you;
    you denied Him that acknowledged you;
    you disclaimed Him that proclaimed you;
    you killed Him that made you live.”

    No mention of Roman involvement. Of course Melito is being figurative so it’s difficult to determine what relevant history he is literally claiming. This would have been a Patristic problem, literal verses figurative understanding.

    The original source is likely Paul, “crucified by the rulers of the age”, who was not a witness. Hence, the source of the problem, subsequent Patristic writings are based on a non-witness and not witnesses. Errorgo, the different traditions.

    Melito is being ironic above, ala “Mark”, but the true Irony here is that it caused the Christians to think a fictional death was reality and to think the reality of its causing a majority of subsequent innocent Jews to be murdered by Christians, a fiction. And yes Neil, we can add the Palestinians to the Christians here.


  9. Forgive me for resuscitating this old but very interesting thread.

    I long had suspected that Pilate was an anchronism in the story but couldn’t get round the specific pointers setting the story in the late 20s/30s ‘In the 15th year of Tiberius..’ etc.

    When reading Dennis Ninehams commentary ‘The Gospel of Saint Mark’ (1963) i found a note specifying that the mention of ‘Judea and beyond the Jordan (i.e. Perea)’ (Mark 10:1) was anachronistic because this joint territory was not administered as a whole until the 40s under Herod Agrippa I, who became ‘King Herod (Agrippa I) of Judea’ in 41 AD.

    Then I noticed the section Mark 6:14ff. Here we have a ‘King Herod’ followed by a reference to a ‘Herod’. It struck me that here might be the source of Mark’s resort to Pilate as the offending Roman governor.

    Here’s the beginning of the section:

    6:14 And king Herod heard thereof; for his name had become known: and he said, John the Baptizer is risen from the dead, and therefore do these powers work in him.

    6:15 But others said, It is Elijah. And others said, It is a prophet, even as one of the prophets.

    6:16 But Herod, when he heard thereof, said, John, whom I beheaded, he is risen.

    Notice how verse 16 is redundant. Mark has apparently told us already in v. 14 that Herod had heard of Jesus, who he thought to be JtB resurrected.

    Looked at in a different way the passage that Mark was using (in UrMark) might just have said something like:

    6:14 And King Herod (= Agrippa I) heard thereof; for his name had become known: and he said, John the Baptizer is risen from the dead, and therefore do these powers work in him.

    (6:15 But others said, It is Elijah. And others said, It is a prophet, even as one of the prophets.)

    6:17ff For Herod (= Antipas) … had sent forth and laid hold upon John, and bound him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife; for he had married her…

    Mark may have thought that only one Herod was involved, when in fact there were two. (Don’t we all get confused by the descendants of Herod the Gt.?)

    In Josephus (Ant. 18) King Herod Agrippa I is referred to (correctly) as a ‘king’ whereas Josephus only ever refers to Antipas as ‘Herod’ or ‘tetrarch’ (most definitely not a King). This parallels the kind of reference in these verses. I notice that in this post above people are also taking Anrtipas to be a ‘king’.

    Since Mark has collapsed two Herods into one: Antipas (and thus also two very distinct time periods), when choosing his guilty Roman the person he would have to use would be Pilate.

    Oddly a passage in John supports in a subtle way the proposition that a King Herod was involved here:

    19:12 Upon this Pilate sought to release him: but the Jews cried out, saying, If thou release this man, thou art not Caesar’s friend.

    The coins of the Herods carried the legend ‘philokaisar’ = ‘friend of Caesar’. It would be rather less cogent to have said this of Pilate, who was Caesar’s underling, and therefore not bound by ‘friendship’ but by the duties of his position.

    Irenaeus thought that Jesus had been crucified under Claudius, which would seem odd if one set the story in the 30s (Claudius shared his first 3 years, 41-44 AD, with Agrippa I).

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