One feature of conspiracy theorists is that they always try to poke holes without filling any in. 9/11 Truthers, for example, will go to great lengths to attempt to show some problem with the “official” story, but never explain the hundreds of other facts that fail to support their claim. It’s not enough to find problems with a theory–you must present one of your own that explains all the facts the old theory explained. It’s the same for creationists who find supposed mysteries in nature that evolution can’t explain. Okay, but does your theory explain everything Darwinian evolution can explain? Of course not.
Christians will discount alternate explanations for biblical accounts in much the same way. In my first post about Jesus, for example, I listed several inconvenient early Christian beliefs make it likely John the Baptist was never actually a follower of Jesus–that he baptized Jesus, that Jesus waited until after John was imprisoned to begin preaching, that Jesus and John’s “Gospels” were the same, that Jesus was often confused with John. More importantly, the Christian explanation of John the Baptist holds no water. The author of Acts has Paul say, for example:
John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. He told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus (Acts 19:4).
The Gospels all have similar explanations of the Jesus-John relationship, but if this version of events is true, why did John’s disciples survive as a separate sect long after Jesus began his mission (Mt 11:2), and even after he died (Acts 9:1-4)? Why, according to Matthew and Luke’s Q source, did John not realize that Jesus was the Messiah (Lk 7:20)? Why did John’s followers believe that he had risen (Mk 6:14)? And why did they believe that John was the Messiah (Clementine Recognitions Book I: Chapter 60)? All these facts are explained once you accept the premise that Christians had an incentive to describe John as nothing more than a forerunner to Jesus: it fit their narrative.
As I pointed out in my following post, if Jesus was just an exceptional follower of John’s Gospel (“Repent, for Kingdom of God is near“), it is also very likely that Jesus never claimed to be God, and we should expect to find examples of Christian explanations for why this was so, and in fact, we do. I pointed out more than a dozen places in the Gospels where Jesus admits that he’s the Messiah, but does so in private, or demonstrates his divine authority, but tells his followers to stay silent about it. He actually forbids his disciples from telling anyone that he’s the Messiah (Mk 8:30). There’s simply no good explanation for this unless early Christians were trying to explain why no one remembered Jesus’s messianic claims.
Several Christians told me the fact that Jesus was killed for blasphemy falsifies my theory. But again, it’s not enough to point to a theory’s potential problems; your theory must not only explain this seemingly incongruous fact but also all the other facts my theory does explain. Rather than falsifying my account, this claim–which supports the Evangelist’s agenda–that Jesus was killed for blasphemy is rendered even more highly suspect than normal. In fact, based on the evidence above, it’s decidely unlikely that Jesus was killed for blasphemy.
The whole idea that Jews killed Jesus is on its face questionable. The manner of Jesus’s death–crucifixion–implicates Roman, not Jewish authorities. The earliest accounts of Jesus’s death in the apostle Paul’s letters never mention Jesus being killed by Jews for blasphemy, and it’s hard to imagine him leaving out that little detail when arguing for Jesus’s divinity. Paul writes that Jesus was “crucified” (implying a Roman death) “by the rulers of this age” (I Cor. 2:8), and the language throughout Paul’s letters is decidedly pro-Jewish (Romans 9-11, for example). This changes dramatically after the destruction of Jerusalem when the Christian church attempted to distance themselves from the rebel Jews. Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians, for example, is edited to include this rant against the Jews:
You suffered from your own people the same things those churches suffered from the Jews who killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets and also drove us out. They displease God and are hostile to all mankind in their effort to keep us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved. In this way they always heap up their sins to the limit. The wrath of God has come upon them at last. (2:14-16)
The hostile tone–Jews are “hostile to all mankind”–is entirely out of character for Paul who calls Jews God’s “divine glory” (Rm 9:4), but furthermore, the interpolation–that “the wrath of God has already come” on the Jews–can only refer to the destruction of Jerusalem, which didn’t occur until after Paul’s death. Nor were there any widespread Jewish persecutions of Christians except those led by Paul himself (Gal. 1:23) before his conversion!
Not only did Christians turn against Jews, but they actively attempted to make peace with Rome. The portrayals of both Pilate and Herod as being the unwilling administrators of Jesus’s and John the Baptist’s deaths, for example, are incompatible with historical descriptions by both Jewish and Roman historians who describe both men as being ruthless tyrants. For example, Mark’s explanation for John’s death–that it was a conspiracy by his wife–contradicts the Jewish historian Josephus who writes that Herod “feared lest the great influence John had over the people might put it into his power an inclination to raise a rebellion” (Book 18: 5, 2).
The anti-Jewish rhetoric is ramped up even higher after Jewish authorities officially expelled Christian Jews from synagogues around 85 CE. Matthew’s Gospel copies Mark’s earlier passion account word-for-word, but has “all the people” say, “His blood is on us and on our children!” which amounts to a Christian curse on Jews. John’s gospel–the last one written–not only exonerates Pilate and Herod entirely, but writes that “Pilate tried to set Jesus free” (19:12), and yet somehow, he was unable to. Then, the author attempts to explain how it could both be that the Romans killed Jesus, and yet still blame the Jews. He writes that:
Pilate came out to [the priests] and asked, “What charges are you bringing against this man?”
“If he were not a criminal,” they replied, “we would not have handed him over to you.”
Pilate said, “Take him yourselves and judge him by your own law.”
“But we have no right to execute anyone,” they objected. This took place in order to fulfill what Jesus had said about the kind of death he was going to die.
In other words, here we have a typical ad hoc Christian explanation. The Evangelist explains why Jesus had to die by the Romans–because that’s how he actually died. That’s not an explanation–that’s the absence of an explanation! Worse, why would the priests be reminding Pilate of the limitation of their powers? If Pilate–the prefect of the region–is telling them to go judge Jesus, why would they refuse? It’s nonsense.
Furthermore, the priests’ statement is baseless. We know that the Sanhedrin could handle capital cases, as is shown at length during the stoning of Stephen (Acts 7:6), and regardless of the story’s historicity, it seems assumed that the Priests had the authority to kill the adulterous woman in John 8:2-11, an authority that’s confirmed in Mishnah Sanhedrin (52b), which records that a priest’s daughter was burned alive for adultery during this time period. Independently in the Jewish Wars (6,2,4) and Antiquities (18,5,2), Josephus writes that Jews had the authority to execute individuals for religious offenses (as they do killing Jesus’s brother James)–whereas political offenses were Roman jurisdiction.
According to Jewish scholar Solomon Zeitlin, “the Talmud says that when the Temple was destroyed, the four forms of capital punishment were abolished. Hence the abolition of the death sentence came only after the destruction of the Temple and not forty years before.”* This wouldn’t be the only time in John’s gospel that the author mixes his time periods. In 9:22, for example, he writes that “the Jewish leaders… already had decided that anyone who acknowledged that Jesus was the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue.” Except this event wouldn’t happen until 85 CE with the Burkat Ha-Minim (Blessing on the Heretics). In the end, it appears that John’s author used this later-development in Jewish law as an ad hoc rationale for Roman involvement in his Jewish plot. Interestingly, the earliest gospel, Mark (70 CE), makes no similar justification. It simply transitions from Jesus’s trial before the Sanhedrin to Pilate with no explanation at all (15:1).
That the Romans killed Jesus doesn’t preclude Jewish involvement–though I’m skeptical–but what it does preclude is a Jewish crime–namely, blasphemy, which was punishable by stoning. So again, our theory predicts that there should be a strong tradition that Jesus was not killed for blasphemy, and again, our theory predicts correctly. In every gospel, Jesus is said to have been killed for claiming political authority. In Mark (on which Luke and Matthew base their accounts), “the written notice of the charge against him read: THE KING OF THE JEWS” (Mk 15:26). A nearly identical charge is given independently in John 19:19. This charge should be taken with some historical credibility, as it completely undercuts the Christian argument that Jesus died for his claim to be God.
The idea that Jesus was killed for claiming to be God originally comes from imaginative mind of Mark’s author, who as I have pointed out before, also imagines Jesus secretively concealing his divinity throughout his life. Mark’s author believes that Jesus is God, and so assumes that he would’ve been killed for such a claim. It’s interesting to note, however, that Jesus is not arrested for blasphemy, nor is blasphemy said to be the motivation for Jewish resentment. In both cases that Mark claims lead to Jesus’s arrest, Jesus has just denounced Jewish leaders for their wickedness (12:1-12, 11:15-18).
Jesus’s trial is strange for so many reasons, including its illegality, but two others are worth noting in this context. Mark claims that Jesus was arrested and brought to trial, but that “the chief priests and the whole Sanhedrin were looking for evidence against him so that they could put him to death, but they did not find any” (14:55). How could they have arrested him without charges, and why would they have brought him to trial unless they were certain of a conviction? Further, if they were prohibited from killing Jesus themselves as John claims, they already knew what sort of crimes would appeal to Pilate, and if as Mark claims, false witnesses testified against Jesus (14:57-59), why didn’t they say Jesus claimed to be God from the beginning? Mark’s answer is, of course, that Jesus “hid” his true identity, but still, why not lie?
It’s only in exasperation that Mark imagines the High Priest asking Jesus, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” Jesus responds, “You have said so. And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.” The High Priest immediately exclaims, “Why do we need any more witnesses? You have heard the blasphemy.” So even to his death, Jesus refused to confirm that he was either a messiah or God. Again, how is this explicable apart from Jesus never having claimed to be God? It certainly doesn’t serve the Christian narrative.
Someone in the second century, however, decided that Jesus’s response was not sufficiently blasphemous, and changed “you have said so” to “I am,” which is a phrase that also makes the Jewish word for God: Yah-weh. That this was a redaction is confirmed by the fact that Matthew and Luke who copied Mark’s original passion account have Jesus give the noncommittal response (Mt 26:64; Lk 22:70). That both Matthew and Luke could have independently made an identical change in the same spot is impossible, but moreover, it’s ludicrous to think that either would’ve changed Mark’s strong affirmative response with a noncommittal one. Furthermore, when Pilate asks Jesus in the next chapter, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Mark has Jesus say noncommittally, “You have said so.” As scholar Robert Price reports, several early manuscripts maintain the original “you have said so,” but for obvious reasons, that version wasn’t as popular.
Even if this was what Jesus said, it still wasn’t blasphemous. As Jesus scholar Bart Ehrman writes in The Apocalyptic Prophet,
It wasn’t blasphemous to call oneself the Messiah–this simply meant that you understood yourself to be the deliverer/ruler of your people. Other Jews made this claim about themselves and about others both before Jesus and afterward, never with the charge of blasphemy. Nor was it blasphemous to say that the Son of Man was soon to arrive. This was simply to acknowledge that the book of Daniel had predicted something that would happen in your own day–something other apocalyptic prophets were saying as well, without being found blasphemous.
In other words, even Mark’s amended account doesn’t even make sense historically. Finally, even if it was blasphemous and Jewish leaders had to seek Pilate’s approval for execution, why didn’t the Jews stone Jesus as the Torah mandates for the crime of blasphemy?
Because Mark’s explanation does not line up historically, we have no way of determining exactly why Jesus was killed. Potential reasons are plentiful, however. John the Baptist was killed by Herod simply because he “thought it best, by putting him to death, to prevent any mischief he might cause, and not bring himself into difficulties, by sparing a man who might make him repent of it when it would be too late” (Book 18: 5, 2). The precautionary principle applied to politics–when in doubt, just kill a potential enemy. Maybe that’s why Jesus was killed as well–we can’t be sure. But we can be fairly sure that Jesus never claimed to be God, and therefore, was not killed for such a claim.
*The Palestinian Talmud (a third century document that compiled Jewish oral tradition on various topics) contains the statement that “forty years before the destruction of the Temple the power to pass capital sentences was taken away” (San. 1,1 7:2). The problem as pointed out earlier is that this is repeatedly contradicted by various other portions of both the Talmud and external sources including the New Testament and Josephus. Furthermore, the Babylonian Talmud doesn’t include this statement and provides an explanation for why the erroneous belief may have come to be. It is said in the Babylonian version that “forty years before the destruction of the Temple, the Sanhedrin moved from the Temple and established itself in the Bazaars” (Ab. Zar. 8b), and based on another rule, this meant that the Sanhedrin couldn’t judge capital cases, but this rule wasn’t implemented until 150 CE, which explains the confusion (Jewish scholar T.A. Burkhill gives this explanation).
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