Who killed Jesus and why?
With the Roman occupation of Palestine and its tense atmosphere of messianic hopefuls within the first century CE, the horrors of crucifixion were a real and ever present reality for messianic claimants like Jesus. A reality of which Paul and the first Christians would have been all too aware. Simply put, [Richard] Carrier inadvertently depoliticizes early Christianity. (Daniel N. Gullotta 2016, “On Richard Carrier’s Doubts“, Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus, pp. 332-333, emphasis mine)
Do you know who else depoliticized early Christianity? Early Christians. Paul. The evangelists. The early Church Fathers. In short, everyone.
New Testament authors are clear about why Jesus died and who is responsible. According to “our oldest sources” (to invoke a scholarly term), Jesus had done nothing worthy of punishment. As Hyam Maccoby put it:
According to the Gospels, Jesus was the victim of a frame-up. His aims were purely religious, and in pursuing them, he had fallen foul of the Jewish religious establishment, who, in order to get rid of him, concocted a political charge, and managed to hoodwink the Roman governor, Pilate, into believing it. When Pilate still showed reluctance to execute Jesus, they pressed the political charge until he was left with no option: ‘The Jews kept shouting, “If you let this man go, you are no friend to Caesar; any man who claims to be king is defying Caesar.”’ (John 19.7). (Maccoby 1984, “Who Killed Jesus?” London Review of Books, emphasis mine)
A narrow, precarious path
The story of Jesus’ death, followed by the successful spread of Christianity as related in the gospels and Acts, reminds me of the road across Englewood Dam. The dam, located northwest of Dayton, Ohio, protects the area from flooding by the Stillwater River. A number of dams in the area, all built after the Great Dayton Flood, have a similar design. The levees on either side are enormous, allowing the reservoirs to retain billions of gallons of water.
The first time I drove across the levee, I was struck by how easy it seemed (if not for the guardrails) to veer slightly to the left or the right, tumbling 100 feet down the embankment into the trees. The story of the Passion follows a similarly narrow, but more circuitous path. If Jesus was a rebel, a brigand, then he really was an enemy of Rome. And that just won’t do, will it? However, if Jesus did nothing but teach and heal, then why would Pilate have put him to death? Somehow, Jesus must have provoked someone to cause this chain of events, but who?
According to the New Testament, it was “the Jews.” The Jewish leaders were jealous of his fame, or else they worried the people would believe in him and cause the Romans to come and destroy them. (See John 11:45-53.) And here we see one of the great uses of the hypothesized historical Jesus. A reconstructed Jesus allows NT scholars in the post-Holocaust world to reinterpret verses like these:
Jesus therefore no longer walked about openly among the Jews, but went from there to a town called Ephraim in the region near the wilderness; and he remained there with the disciples. (John 11:54, NRSV)
Then answered all the people, and said, His blood be on us, and on our children. (Matthew 27:25, KJV)
Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, then My servants would be fighting so that I would not be handed over to the Jews; but as it is, My kingdom is not of this realm.” (John 18:36, NASB)
The uncomfortably anti-semitic original story
I almost admire Johannine scholars for the mental contortions necessary to construct labyrinthine arguments that somehow reconcile a Jesus who is entirely Jewish with a Jesus who nonetheless is continually in conflict with “the Jews.” They misunderstand him, hate him, shout at him, plot against him, and finally convince the Romans to kill him. (The skittish English translators of the NIV often replace “the Jews” with “the Jewish leaders.” The NIV: Making the Bible say what Evangelicals want it to say since 1973!)
NT scholars explain that we need to read between the lines here. The gospels, they insist, contain a lot of real history. But not that part. The real story “must have” been different. And yet the original narrative hangs together with its own cruel logic. Jesus does things that are apparently meant to be interpreted in a spiritual, non-political context. “The Jews” bring him up on charges of sedition. Pilate seems to be onto their game. He tries to let Jesus go, but the Jewish crowd will have none of it.
The original story even contains a built-in explanation for the survival of his followers. The authorities had no interest in the disciples, because the accusation of insurrection was a trumped-up charge. Jesus was not political, and neither is Christianity. His kingdom is “not of this world.” Not only was Jesus not a political messiah, not a pretender to the Earthly throne, and not a brigand, but everyone in our Passion Play knew it. As a result, only Jesus was killed, while his followers roamed about freely.
Sure, we have verses that relate their supposed hiding, but we see absolutely nothing about a concerted effort by the Romans or the Jewish authority to round up Jesus’ disciples. Mark has them fleeing to Galilee, but the author of the Acts of the Apostles has them preaching in the streets of Jerusalem just a few days later. In Acts, Roman magistrates show little interest in stepping into an internal, schismatic debate among religious nuts.
Was Jesus a Zealot?
Gullotta’s accusation that Carrier inadvertently depoliticized early Christianity precedes his valiant attempt at a written Gish Gallop, whose purpose is quickly to list Greek, Roman, Jewish, and even Christian reactions to the problem of Jesus’ crucifixion, “due to its connections with criminality, Roman capital punishment, and shameful burial.” While glancing at the footnotes for the Daniel Dash, one of his supporting references caught my eye. He cited a piece by William Horbury called “Christ as Brigand in Ancient Anti-Christian Polemic” found in Jesus and the Politics of His Day. If you’re interested in reactions to S. G. F. Brandon‘s Zealot Jesus hypothesis (clumsily resurrected by Reza Aslan), you should probably buy this book.
If we drive off the narrow, precarious path of the New Testament Passion Story, in which Jesus threads the needle at every twist and turn, we will tumble down one side or the other. That is, we will end up with a meek-and-mild Jesus who did nothing worthy of execution or a political Jesus whose followers would have been slaughtered en masse. The Zealot Jesus hypothesis represents the latter “wrong turn.”
However, calling on another overworked metaphor, the porridge of the Zealot Jesus is too hot, which causes mainstream scholars to wince and slide back over to the bowl on the table that’s “just right.” Jesus and the Politics of His Day contains a collection of essays that examine the bowl of hot porridge, with the aim of leading us all back to the comfort and safety of warm gruel.
Horbury’s essay looks specifically at the accusations of brigandage, and while he finds they could be damaging to the Christian cause he reminds us that they’re relatively late.
Assertions about Christ such as this occur in polemic which is anti-Christian, concerned primarily not with history but with the contemporary church. (Horbury 1985, p. 184)
He agrees that pagan critics may have worked backward from effect to cause: “The crime of the crucified has been made to fit his punishment.” (Horbury 1985, p. 193) But if we read all the way to the end of the essay, we find Horbury’s remarkable conclusion.
Despite the innuendo of subversion in polemic on these points . . . and the recurrent charge of sedition . . ., polemical accounts of Christs’s life continue to depict him as a false prophet rather than a bandit. W. Bauer’s collection of material [ref. Walter Bauer, Das leben Jesu im Zeitalter der neutestamentlichen Apokryphen, 1909 (link leads to HathiTrust)] shows that, even allowing for possible loss, our passage [ref. Lactantius, Divine Institutes, (Of Justice) Book V, Chapters 3 and 4] is exceptional. (Horbury 1985, p. 195, emphasis mine)
In case you missed it, Horbury concluded that charges against Jesus of brigandage, insurrection, and sedition — political charges — were rare. They are the exception, not the rule. He continues:
There are instances, as we have seen, where polemical narratives of Christ seem to depend ultimately on traditions incorporated into the New Testament rather than the New Testament writings themselves. It is the more striking that pagan and Jew, no less than Christian, appear to have proceeded from data on the life of Christ in which practices definable as the sorcery and deceit of a false prophet predominated over activity which could be straightforwardly identified as insurrection. (Horbury 1985, p. 195)
In other words, the instances of charges against Jesus as a teacher who led the people astray and a magician who bamboozled the mob with sorcery far outnumber any we have for those that he was a brigand or a Zealot. Notice that neither the accusation of false teacher nor sorcerer focuses on Jesus’ death or his means of execution, nor do they require any connection to his status as “failed Messianic pretender.”
Gullotta has inadvertently referred to an essay by Horbury, which itself depoliticizes early Christianity. Here we see again the dangers of quote-fishing. Horbury does indeed mention Celsus and Lucian on the first page of his essay, which is admittedly quite useful for anyone not wishing to bother actually reading Celsus and Lucian.
Tertullian’s illuminator and guide of humanity, is Lucian’s crucified sophist and Celsus’s charlatan and leader of sedition. (Horbury 1985, p. 183, emphasis his)
Yet the essay’s main thrust is completely the opposite of what Gullotta attempts to prove. In fact, I would argue that the idea of a “failed Messianic pretender” is, for the most part, a modern idea, connected with the historical Jesus reconstructed as an apocalyptic prophet who somehow managed to get himself killed.
Crucifixion as a political stumbling block
Gullotta’s point, as far as I can tell, is that Carrier underestimates the nature of crucifixion itself. Just admitting he was crucified meant that outsiders would think he must have been the worst kind of criminal. Let’s look at his critique again.
While Carrier compares Jesus’ crucifixion to other supposedly embarrassing stories about Greco-Roman gods, such as Attis’ castration, he does not reckon with the normality of crucifixion within ancient Palestine. Josephus’ works about Palestine and other ancient writers portrays crucifixion as a horrifically common feature of Roman punishment for Jewish rebels. With the Roman occupation of Palestine and its tense atmosphere of messianic hopefuls within the first century CE, the horrors of crucifixion were a real and ever present reality for messianic claimants like Jesus. A reality of which Paul and the first Christians would have been all too aware. Simply put, [Richard] Carrier inadvertently depoliticizes early Christianity. (Gullotta 2016, p. 332, emphasis mine)
First, cheers to Gullotta for describing Attis’ castration as “supposedly embarrassing.” That’s bold. Beyond that, however, it remains unclear to me what it would mean to “reckon with the normality of crucifixion,” let alone how much reckoning would satisfy him. He apparently thinks crucifixion is far more shameful, and thus more likely to have happened. But there’s more:
While Hebrews 12.2 claims that Jesus disregarded the αἰσχύνης (shame) of the cross, evidently his earliest followers, despite their best apologetic strategies, had a difficult time doing so due to its connections with criminality, Roman capital punishment, and shameful burial. Given our sources concerning Jesus’ death and knowledge about his executed contemporaries, the reality of a crucified Jesus as another failed messianic pretender from Palestine is remarkably more likely than a demonic crucifixion in outer space. (Gullotta 2016, p. 333, emphasis mine)
The wording here confuses me somewhat. And I will leave it to Carrier to defend whether a mythical crucifixion in the sublunar realm (“outer space” is a jarring anachronism that invites ridicule) is more likely than a legendary crucifixion on Earth.
I will only point out in closing that given what we know about other failed rebels, be they Messianic pretenders or not, Jesus is unique. The Romans normally intervened quickly and without hesitation, killing suspected rebels and their followers on the spot. In many cases, they found out what they were doing beforehand and acted ruthlessly — even, for instance, confronting a symbolic march to the Jordan and mowing down the participants. In most cases, they met any suspected danger head-on with massive force.
The Romans didn’t fool around when it came to internal or external threats. They remembered the horrors of the rebellion of Spartacus and wars with Mithridates. Reaction had to be swift and brutal; anything else would invite even more trouble.
The idea of a Goldilocks Jesus who just managed to get himself (and only himself) killed is, therefore, an extremely dubious proposition from the outset. It becomes even less plausible when the historical reconstruction rejects (rightly, I think) the notion of making “the Jews” out to be the villain, while painting the Romans as nice, patient, rational observers. But without the cartoon bad guys and a sweet, sympathetic Pilate, we’re truly left in the dark.
Latest posts by Tim Widowfield (see all)
- The Memory Mavens, Part 13: The Purpose of Halbwachs’s La Topographie - 2023-05-22 16:15:00 GMT+0000
- The Memory Mavens, Part 12: The Collective Memory of a Halbwachs Quotation - 2023-05-15 00:33:35 GMT+0000
- Expanding on My Essay in Varieties of Jesus Mythicism: Part 1 - 2022-12-05 23:07:44 GMT+0000
If you enjoyed this post, please consider donating to Vridar. Thanks!
14 thoughts on “Who Depoliticized Early Christianity?”
It is interesting to compare another episode that is said to be historical on the basis of the criterion of embarrassment, the baptism of Jesus.
1. Mark tells the story “as it is” — embarrassing but only included because the evangelist could not ignore it since it was so well known (despite our earlier sources, the epistles, knowing nothing of it);
2. Matthew tones it down by having Jesus say it was done only for the appearance of righteousness;
3. Luke goes one step further and glosses over it as a past event, “now after Jesus was also baptized….”;
4. John manages to ignore it completely and have John say only that he recognized who Jesus was.
Compare the crucifixion:
1. Mark tells the story as matter of fact (to the extent the implausible, the miraculous, and the unhistorical can ever be “matter of fact”) — but he has Jesus crucified with 2 “lestes” (rebels), a detail that one might think could otherwise have been ignored, but we must presume common knowledge forced him to include it;
2. Matthew repeats, no attempt to dilute the account in any way as he had done with the baptism;
3. Luke adds the detail of Jesus’ following taking swords with them to Gethsemane. What’s he up to? Is he trying to revive the view that Jesus was really a revolutionary?
4. John adds that Pilate should have “more accurately” have inscribed Jesus’ crime the explicit statement that he claimed to be the king of the Jews — that is, really claimed to be a rebel leader!
Of course none of this makes any consistent argument on the basis of the criterion of embarrassment. If minimization and hiding details is the sign of embarrassment in the baptism scene, are expanding and adding potentially incriminating detail the sign of embarrassment in the crucifixion narrative?
I like Paula Fredriksen’s even more finely honed hypothesis to explain how historicity surely does lie behind the gospels after all. Pilate knew that Jesus was not really a political threat. After all, Pilate somehow knew Jesus used to go to Jerusalem every other Passover without any trouble. (Of course he would know that.) He just let himself get bullied by the angry priests, the wus.
I’ve picked up Edward Schillebeeckx’s Jesus again. It’s supposed to contain the first known use of the criterion of embarrassment.
“Outer space” may be a jarring anachronism that invites ridicule, but its an expression that Carrier himself uses, without irony, in the same context, in “On the Historicity…”
You’re absolutely correct. But I think Carrier is mistaken to use it. “Outer space” to us moderns means an airless vacuum above the atmosphere that extends out practically to infinity. Ancient people’s conception of the heavens was quite different.
Evangelicals believe Hell is a real place, but it is by coincidence that the center of the Earth is an absurdly hot liquid. Likewise they believe that Heaven is a real place also, that it is necessarily above the surface of the Earth, as it is where Jesus bodily ascended and from where He and His New Jerusalem must descend. Whether there is AIR in Heaven seems to not be a relevant issue.
I agree entirely. I suspect that this peculiar expression derives from Carrier’s overly binary way of thinking (along the lines of “if its not on earth then there is no place other than ‘outer space'”) which, come to think of it, gives structure to the entire book, with its emphatic binary opposition of historicist and mythicist scenarios. Carrier’s approach effectively excludes consideration of any intermediate scenarios somewhere between those two opposites. While his (and the mythicists’) arguments against historicity are certainly compelling, I remain somewhat sceptical of the mythicist scenario itself, which is not built on patricularly strong foundations at all, and am toying with alternatives that are situated between these two poles.
Apparently Jesus was a failed Messiah who the Romans had to get rid of.
But not his followers.
Even though Jesus very own brother allegedly started to lead the movement.
Can you imagine the Romans executing an insurrectionist and standing idly by while the movement selected the brother to lead it?
What sort of world do Biblical scholars live in?
As mentioned above, Paula Fredriksen has come to the rescue here. In Jesus of Nazareth she argues that Pilate knew Jesus posed no threat — after all, he had visited Jerusalem before with the same non-violent message — so there was no need to go after his followers. So why crucify Jesus at all? Fredriksen introduces one hypothesis after another to build up the picture: lots of new pilgrims that year had not heard of Jesus before and, given that they were all very excited and hopeful for a messiah to appear (just as generations before them every year never let their hopes wane), they misunderstood Jesus’ message and began to think he would be the messiah. That is, Jesus lost control of his crowd. The priests recommended to Pilate that for the crowd’s sake Jesus should be crucified. . . . .
It’s a wonderful display of smoke and mirrors, every detail.
Was Jesus executed by the Roman governing authorities as a rebel?
Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.
What does Gullota say about Romans 13? My guess is that he says nothing about it.
p. 332, Gullotta writes:
I’m sure you’ve read Richard Carrier’s rebuttal to Gullotta on this. But if others haven’t I would recommend it to them.
I think that there is actually a very reasonable explanation for the behavior of Pilate as depicted in the gospels. It starts with background evidence that is not given in the gospels, but that is probably applicable to the historical situation if the events occurred in AD 33. The background information can be found in the Wikipedia article about Lucius Aelius Sejanus that is located at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sejanus.
For a book length argument that places the trials and crucifixion of Jesus in AD 33, I recommend the following book:
Humphreys, Colin J. The Mystery of the Last Supper: Reconstructing the Final Days of Jesus. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2011.
The best explanation of how the events surrounding Lucius Aelius Sejanus would have affected Pilate and the trial of Jesus are presented in the following journal article:
Maier, Paul L. “Sejanus, Pilate, and the Date of the Crucifixion.” Church History, vol. 37, no. 1, Mar. 1968, pp. 3-13.
The following is a lengthy excerpt from Paul Maier’s article:
The politics and policies of Rome vis-a-vis Palestine are regularly scanted in New Testament scholarship: events in Judea are usually appraised through Christian or Jewish eyes, but rarely Roman. And yet is was by the decision of a Roman prefect of Judea (not procurator) that Jesus was crucified.
It seems more than probable that in 26 A.D., Pontius Pilate was nominated to succeed Valerius Gratus as praefectus Iudaeae by L. Aelius Sejanus, Tiberius’ notorious prefect of the Praetorian Guard, whose conspiracy would be exposed five years later. Philo identifies Sejanus as a dedicated anti-Semite, referring to his “policy of attacking the Jews” by inventing “false slanders against the Jewish inhabitants of Rome . . . because he wished to do away with the nation.” Sejanus appears to have been influential in fostering an anti-Semitic attitude also in Tiberius. In 19 A.D., the princeps compelled the Jews to burn their religious vestments and expelled them from Rome, conscripting 4,000 of them into the army and packing them off to Sardinia.
Undoubtedly it was Pontius Pilate’s implementation of Sejanian policy in Palestine which caused the familiar imbroglios with the Jews during his administration which are recorded by Josephus.
Whether motivated by direct order or indirect suggestion from Sejanus, Pilate’s conduct appears bold, even harsh toward the Jews, with little fear of repercussions or official complaints from them. The prefect of Judea was not in a defensive posture.
Contrast this portrait of the man with the Pilate of Good Friday, whose lineaments are so clearly drawn in the Gospels. There are parallels, to be sure: the harsh attitude still shows in his bluster with the accusatores, the Jewish religious establishment. But when the prosecution plays its trump-“If you release this man, you are not Caesar’s friend; every one who makes himself a king sets himself against Caesar” (John 19:12)-Pilate’s till-then resolute defense of Jesus crumbles and he gives way to the popular demand for crucifixion. What changed Pilate’s mind at this point?
One fact seems abundantly clear: if Tiberius were still firmly dedicated to a Sejanus-inspired policy of anti-Semitism, the Jewish authorities would surely not have dared make such a veiled threat to send a written appeal if not a full delegation to Rome to complain of Pilate’s adjudication-this, after all, is what their statement all but suggests. Any such embassy would, at best, have been sent packing by Sejanus; at worst, he would probably have launched a severe countersuit against the Judeans for daring to indict his appointee who was carrying out his policies. It is unlikely that Tiberius would even have received any message of complaint or heard such a delegation, ensconced as he was on the isle of Capri, with Sejanus handling all his affairs in Rome and controlling all correspondence between the mainland and Capri.38 In fine, before the fall of Sejanus, the prosecution’s statement in John 19:12 would have been a meaningless threat, which Pilate would simply have ignored or even scorned.
Applying this consideration to the problem of dating the crucifixion of Jesus, it becomes clear that if Good Friday were on April 7, 30 A.D., the threat of appealing to Tiberius would indeed have been impotent and empty.
All this, of course, was known throughout the Empire-it was information especially dreaded by the Jews-and the prosecution at Jesus’ trial would hardly have risked antagonizing Sejanus by making the threat to Pilate cited above. Or, had they made the threat anyway, Pilate could cheerfully have ignored it, protected as he was by the active anti-Semitism of Sejanus.
But the Sejanian conspiracy was exposed and Sejanus himself executed on October 18, 31 A.D. One result was a dramatic change in imperial policy: Tiberius quickly shifted from an anti to a pro-Semitic attitude, or at least a principle of toleration, which Philo carefully records
Now the vulnerable and defensive posture of Pontius Pilate on Good Friday makes immediate sense. Obviously, he was one of the provincial governors who received the communication from Tiberius cited by Philo. Moreover, ever since late in 31, when news reached Palestine of the fall of his patron, Sejanus, Pilate had doubtless been living under his political sword of Damocles, wondering if the “Tiberian terror” in uprooting supporters of the fallen minister and murderer of the princeps’ son Drusus would extend to the provinces. The fact that Pilate had probably not been in personal contact with Sejanus for the last six years likely saved him at the time, though he realized his now-vulnerable position and undoubtedly strove to show his loyalty to Tiberius while also adjusting to the new directives concerning the Jews.
Pilate who was under the protection of Sejanus in 30 was dangerously exposed after his fall late in 31. April of 33 would have been a mere sixteen months after news arrived in Palestine of the death of the praetorian prefect, so Pilate’s position was still freshly vulnerable. He could not tolerate a Jewish appeal to Rome in the case of one, Jesus of Nazareth, since the complaint would undoubtedly be framed about the charge already presented at Pilate’s tribunal: that Jesus had made treasonable claims to kingship. At a time when Tiberius was prosecuting adherents of Sejanus precisely under the rubric of maiestas-treason to state and emperor-the prosecution’s threat in John 19:12 was masterfully barbed and weighted. Add to this Tiberius’ direct order to his governors, cited by Philo, warning them to uphold Jewish customs and institutions. Furthermore, the threat was accurate even to the detail of what fate might be in store for Pilate if an appeal to Tiberius became necessary: “If you release this man, you are not Caesar’s friend. . . .” He would be excluded from the inner elite governing circle of amici Caesaris, whose membership was reserved for senators and those equestrians, high in government service, who were specifically called to this status. Loss of the rank amicus Caesaris led to political and social ostracism, even suicide.
Answering the immediate, compelling call of natural self-interest, Pontius Pilate, in his present, vulnerable position, had little choice but to capitulate. A threatened appeal which would have been meaningless on April 7, 30 A.D. was terribly formidable on April 3, 33.
These sorts of analyses remind me of the thrill of trying to figure out a who-dunnit before the last chapter or last ten minutes of a murder mystery movie. Trying to piece together the little clues to see who might have the motive, etc. It’s a fun activity. But at the end of the day it is all fiction.
Ditto with the gospel stories. There is absolutely no empirical evidence to confirm that Jesus was ever crucified by Pilate or Herod at any time in the 30s. The whole scenario has multiple versions, each one of them with its own theological message and pieced together from literary sources that are readily identifiable.