Tag Archives: Herod

When neither the Gospel nor Josephus makes sense

Execution of John the Baptist
Image via Wikipedia

The image we have from the Gospels of the death of John the Baptist belongs to the world of make-believe fantasy. A man out in the wilderness publicly complains that a king’s marriage is unlawful, so the king has him arrested and imprisoned. Later he is seduced by a dance into making an incautious promise so that he is honour-bound to deliver the head of John on a dinner plate to his new wife.

There’s another story in a historical work by Josephus about how John the Baptist met his death. John had a reputation for teaching people to be good towards one another and reverential before God. His teaching was so persuasive that Herod was frightened John might decide to tell all his followers to rise up and rebel against their king, so had him sent off to prison to be executed. (Antiquities 18.5.2)

Paula Fredriksen, author of Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews, is one scholar who acknowledges that neither account makes much sense. read more »

Gospel of Luke, reconciler of the Herod and Pilate gospel narratives?

Further thoughts from earlier post on rival gospel traditions. . . . .

It is easy to overlook that the gospels of John and Luke say that the Jews themselves, not Roman soldiers, crucified Jesus with Pilate’s permission. This is as is narrated in the Gospel of Peter and elsewhere, as per the above post.

Luke also, like the Gospel of Peter, assigns Herod a leading role in the circumstances of Christ’s death. In the following I’m assuming, as I have presented arguments elsewhere, both a late (second century) date for the gospels, and Luke being the last gospel written (as per Matson, Shellard, et al).

I am exploring here the possibility that while John was strongly influenced by the eastern narratives, it was the author of the Gospel of Luke who, after many who had composed narratives before him, attempted the most “catholic” (albeit anti-Marcionite and anti-Ebionite/Nazarene) gospel. Luke is famous for his introduction in which he declares that “many” have preceded him.  This alone points to a late date for the gospel.

If, as per Tyson et al, canonical Luke was composed in the mid second century, it is possible that the Gospel of Peter was known to its author.

John and Luke declare the Jews carried out the crucifixion:

John 19:14-16

And it was the preparation of the passover, and about the sixth hour: and he saith unto the Jews, Behold your King! But they cried out, Away with him, away with him, crucify him. Pilate saith unto them, Shall I crucify your King? The chief priest answered, We have no king but Caesar. Then delivered he him therefore unto them to be crucified. And they took Jesus, and led him away.

(Thanks to Joe Wallack, who in a comment on the earlier post, alerted me to this John passage that prompted the thoughts of this post.)

Luke 23:24-36

And Pilate gave sentence that it should be as they required. And he released unto them him that for sedition and murder was cast into prison, whom they had desired; but he delivered Jesus to their will. And as they led him away, . . . .

Taking this passage in Luke “seriously”, as many like to say, will also prompt us to read more literally the passage in Acts where the Jews are declared to be the ones who crucified Jesus. After all, Acts was very likely written by the same final author of canonical (not the original) Luke (as discussed in my notes on Tyson’s Marcion and Luke-Acts).

Acts 3:13-15

. . . his Son Jesus; whom ye delivered up, and denied him in the presence of Pilate, when he was determined to let him go. But ye denied the Holy One and the Just, and desired a murderer to be granted unto you; and killed the Prince of life . . .

Mark and Matthew say the Romans did it

Of course it is the narratives of Mark and Matthew that have carried the day and through which we too easily read John and Luke. We are also persuaded to read all four gospels through the perspectives of Mark and Matthew because they appear to be comport more closely to what would have been the historical reality of the event — if it were historical.

Mark 15:15-16

And so Pilate, willing to content the people, released Barabbas unto them, and delivered Jesus, when he had scourged him, to be crucified. And the soldiers led him away into the hall, called Praetorium; and they call together the whole band.

Matthew 27:24-27

When Pilate saw that he could prevail nothing, but that rather a tumult was made, he took water, and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, I am innocent of the blood of this just person: see ye to it. Then answered all the people, and said, His blood be on us, and on our children. Then released he Barabbas unto them: and when he had scourged Jesus, he delivered him to be crucified. Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the common hall, and gathered unto him the whole band of soldiers.

The Role of Herod vis a vis Pilate

The Gospel of Peter, and other writings associated more with the eastern Roman empire, agree with John and Luke. But they also say that Herod was the ruler primarily responsible for Christ’s execution.

The earliest gospel, Mark, makes three mentions of Herod or his supporters. Twice Mark speaks of the Pharisees and Herodians colluding to trap Jesus. The first time Jesus escaped their joint plot to kill him, and the last time he outwitted their envoys in a game of riddles:

Mark 3:6

And the Pharisees went forth, and straightway took counsel with the Herodians against him, how they might destroy him.

Mark 12:13

And they send unto him certain of the Pharisees and of the Herodians, to catch him in his words.

In between Herod executed John the Baptist as a foreshadowing of the fate awaiting Jesus, and subsequently confused Jesus for John. (Mark 6

At the end of the gospel when Jesus is on trial the Pharisees and Herodians are nowhere to be seen. Their narrative function has been fulfilled. The climax of the gospel is when the Jerusalem and Roman leaders, the representatives of Jerusalem and Rome, take centre stage.

Matthew has nothing to add to what is written in Mark about Herod’s role.

Mounting anti-semitism

But Matthew does introduce a new anti-semitic twist. In Mark, Pilate relished the chance to please the Jews and deliver Jesus up to be crucified (see Mark 15:15 quoted above). Matthew changes Pilate to a “horribly nice” weakling and coward who declares himself innocent of the blood of Jesus, and who orders Jesus to be crucified (by his own soldiers) simply because he is haplessly intimidated by the loud noises from the crowd and the clenched teeth of their religious leaders. It is the Jews who let Pilate off the hook with “clean hands” by declaring,

His blood be on us, and on our children. (Matthew 27:25)

John’s gospel carries us further into the pit of anti-semitism. Of the Jews Jesus in GJohn says:

Ye are of your father the devil (John 8:44)

John’s gospel regularly identifies the persecutors of Jesus as “the Jews”.

The Gospel of Peter has been interpreted by many as firmly in the same swamp of anti-semitism as John and Matthew. I have prepared a table where one can see easily where and how the Gospel of Peter compares in this and other respects to the canonical gospels. See Gospel of Peter Compared with Canonical Gospels.

Gospel anti-semitism climaxes with Herod replacing Pilate in centre-stage?

At the same time the Gospel of Peter has removed Pilate from centre stage to make room for the Jewish “king”, Herod, to take direct responsibility, with the rest of the Jewish judges and people, for crucifying Christ.

Gospel of Peter, 1:1-2

…but of the Jews no one washed his hands, neither did Herod nor any one of his judges. Since they were [un]willing to wash, Pilate stood up. 2 Then Herod the king orders the Lord to be taken away, saying to them “Do what I commanded you to do to him.”

Enter canonical Luke

Luke’s gospel concedes, with Mark’s, that Herod wanted to kill Jesus. Unlike Mark’s gospel, however, Luke’s gospel portrays an uncowered Jesus who brazenly declares that Herod cannot kill him, at least not for a while.

Luke 13:31-33

The same day there came certain of the Pharisees, saying unto him, Get thee out, and depart hence: for Herod will kill thee. And he said unto them, Go ye, and tell that fox, Behold, I cast out devils, and I do cures to day and to morrow, and the third day I shall be perfected. Nevertheless I must walk to day, and to morrow, and the day following: for it cannot be that a prophet perish out of Jerusalem.

Then, just as in the Gospel of Peter, Luke presents Herod in Jerusalem at the time of the final Passover.

Luke 23:7-12

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.

The Gospel of Peter paints a friendly relationship between Pilate and Herod. The disagreement over the justice of killing Jesus was not a big enough obstacle to come between them that way. In GPeter Herod addresses Pilate as “Brother”. Luke’s gospel points to the same relationship unfolding:

Luke 23:12

And the same day Pilate and Herod were made friends together: for before they were at enmity between themselves.

And as per the Gospel of Peter, the Gospel of Luke concurs that Herod at some point not only stood in judgment upon Jesus, but also

Luke 23:8-11

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.

Compare Gospel of Peter 3:1-2 which describes the Jewish soldiers of Herod treating Jesus:

They took out the Lord and kept pushing him along as they ran; and they would say, “Let’s drag the son of God since we have him in our power.” And they threw a purple robe around him and made him sit upon the judgment seat and said, “Judge justly, King of Israel.” . . .

Luke has more to say about Herod’s encounter with Jesus, but unfortunately a corresponding section is missing from the Gospel of Peter.

It seems a nice fit to have the Gospel of Luke at the end of a long trajectory of gospels that

1. began in a Pauline-like gospel with Rome and Jerusalem colluding equally in the murder of the Christ (GMark),

2. reacted with a legalistic bend where Jesus was portrayed as a new Moses, while lurching towards anti-semitism that distanced Pilate from blood-guilt (GMatthew),

3. dived deeper into anti-semitism, while incorporating other aspects of the eastern/Asian Passover tradition, and in particular replacing the Roman executioners with Jewish ones, as per GPeter (GJohn)

(thanks to M. W. Nordbakke for alerting me to the common thread uniting the Gospels of John and Peter here in a comment on the earlier post)

4. Pulled the Roman governor out of the direct line of responsibility altogether by having the Jewish soldiers under Herod’s command, yet retaining a Psalm 2 type collusion between Jewish and gentile rulers (GPeter)

5. Restored Rome’s authority, but still gave the direct Christ-killer role to the Jewish soldiers, and still found room to maintain some of the Herod “tradition”, while also critiquing Matthew’s Mosaic legalistic type of Jesus, and perhaps even finding a place for elements of a birth narrative from the Proto Gospel of James (but that’s all another story) (GLuke).

And I can’t prove a bit of it. At least not yet. But it’s a start for something new to think about. 🙂



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

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 🙂