Commentary Magazine

The Trial of Jesus

There may still be people who think, or pretend to think, that no such person as Jesus of Nazareth ever existed. One hears them saying that the story of Jesus was invented to account for the emergence of a strange salvation myth, intended by those who invented it to bring hope to the oppressed masses living under the sway of imperial Rome. No doubt, there are in the New Testament mythical features, but the persons who figure in the story, Jesus and his disciples, are not mythical characters; they are historical persons. Jesus of Nazareth lived, and he died. He died on the cross.

This much, at least, is confirmed by two ancient historians, Josephus and Tacitus, both of whom record that Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judaea, condemned Jesus. Josephus explicitly mentions the mode of execution—crucifixion; Tacitus does not say in what manner the execution was carried out. However, neither the reason for the execution of Jesus nor the character of the penal proceedings which preceded it, is disclosed by either of the two historians, who, moreover, show a marked difference in their manner of referring to Jesus. Josephus, the Jew, speaks rather respectfully of him, calling him “a wise man,” “a teacher of people.”1 By contrast, Tacitus, the aristocratic Roman, is full of scorn for one whom he considers to have been “the originator of a pernicious superstition,” an agitator among barbarian orientals, and an enemy of the law and order introduced and upheld by Rome in a distant province. (He seems to connect the teachings of Jesus and the activities of Jesus's disciples after their master's death with the outbreak of the great Jewish revolt in the year 66.)

What we also know for a fact is where Jesus was arrested. Visitors to the Arab part of Jerusalem will be shown a grove on the Mount of Olives called “the Garden of the Agony.” There, or somewhere not far from that place, Jesus was apprehended. He was then taken to the house of the Jewish high-priest, and from there, according to the Gospel of Luke, to the meeting-place of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish Council, before being handed over for trial to Pilate. We do not know where the high-priest's house stood. The locality shown by Jerusalem cicerones as “The House of Caiaphas” is certainly not the spot; it is the ruin of a large building from Byzantine times. As for the location of the Sanhedrin's meeting-place, we have conflicting reports; it seems, however, to have been situated on the Temple Mount, in the area known today as the Haramesh-Sherif. And the residence of Pilate, when the governor stayed in Jerusalem for official or for private reasons, was the Herodian Palace which was located in the southwestern sector of the present-day walled city, near the Jaffa Gate.

We do not know the exact year of Jesus's death; nor do we know the day. All that is certain is that he was crucified while Pontius Pilate held office as Prefect of Judaea—that is, some time between 26 and 36 of the current era—and that his crucifixion took place shortly before or on the feast of Passover. Since Jesus is popularly supposed to have been born in the year 1, since the Gospel of Luke reports that he was approximately 30 years old when he began to preach, and since the Gospel of John seems to lend some support to the assumption that His preaching activities lasted three years, the year of his death has widely been thought to be 33. But all the premises on which this calculation is based are wrong. In recent times, the year 30 has been suggested by an increasing number of scholars, notably continental Roman Catholic scholars, but I believe that we have to go still further back, to 29 or even 28.

Three arguments favor this earlier dating. First of all, a 2nd-century tradition, preserved by Clement of Alexandria, states that Jesus died forty-two years before the destruction of Jerusalem under Titus—that is, in 28. Secondly, Josephus places the crucifixion among those events which occurred close to the beginning of Pilate's governorship. The third reason, and in my opinion the decisive one, for dating the crucifixion before the year 30, lies in the chronology of the Apostle Paul's missionary travels. Fourteen years after his conversion, Paul attended what is traditionally called the “Council of Jerusalem,” a meeting of the elders of the Church which is believed to have taken place during the reign of Agrippa I. If this Council met as late as the year of Agrippa's death, 44, Paul's conversion would fall somewhere around the year 30. Paul was not one of the original disciples of Jesus, but on the contrary an opponent of the messianist sect whose members he is said to have persecuted in the beginning. Hence, we must assume that some time elapsed between the death of Jesus and Paul's conversion. How long this time was, we do not know. But it pushes the year of Jesus's crucifixion back before 30.

We do not know the exact day. The fact that all four Gospels place the trial either on the eve of Passover or on the day of the actual festival, makes it virtually a certainty that Jesus was arrested and tried around that time, but it might well have been a few days earlier or later. It would appear that one group of his followers drew a comparison between the death of Jesus and he slaying of the paschal lamb, and therefore lad the moment of the crucifixion coincide with that event. This tradition, mentioned already by the Apostle Paul, was preserved by John, who dates the crucifixion on the fourteenth of Nisan. Another early group of Christians connected the festive Passover meal, the seder, with the establishment of the New Covenant, the institution of the Eucharist, and to allow Jesus to partake of the seder, his crucifixion had to be dated after it. This tradition influenced the Marcan dating. Since both datings are inspired by religious motivation, there is little to choose between them from the historian's point of view. All we can say for sure is that the trial and subsequent crucifixion fell on a day close to the Passover.


All four Gospels report that Jesus was arrested at night. According to Mark, Matthew, and Luke, his arrest was carried out by a team, some men being armed with swords, others with staves or cudgels. According to John, the arrest was carried out by a detachment of soldiers under the command of a Roman officer, and accompanied by Jewish policemen. At first sight, these reports conflict with each other, but the conflict is resolved if we remember that Roman soldiers carried swords, while the Jewish police carried batons. Thus the men who are mentioned in Mark as having been armed with staves are Jewish policemen, while those members of the crowd whom Mark describes as carrying swords are identical with the detachment that is specified as a cohort of soldiers by John.

Mark, we must remember, was written in Rome, at a time when Christians were exposed to attack by the Roman mob, and were subject to suspicion on the part of Roman officials. Therefore, the evangelist may well have had cogent reasons for not wishing to draw attention to the fact that Jesus had been arrested by Roman soldiers or mercenaries in the service of Rome; and this may well have made him substitute the vague and colorless expression “a crowd with swords” for the more definite designation of his source—a source which still comes to the fore in the Johannine account. Jesus was arrested by Roman soldiers who were accompanied, probably as guides, by some Jewish policemen.

None of the evangelists tells us in plain language the reason for the arrest. But Mark, Matthew, and Luke reproduce the gist of a conversation which Jesus is reported to have held with the people who came to arrest him: “You have come,” Jesus complains, “with swords and batons to arrest me as a rebel. I stayed with you in the daytime [or daily] on the Temple Hill and I taught. You did not arrest me then.”2 The Greek word which the synoptic evangelists use (leeistees) can be and usually is translated “robber” as well as “rebel.” In the 1st century, however, this term was not exclusively used of bandits, but was applied to persons who in any of the Roman provinces resorted to armed resistance against Roman rule. In Roman eyes such people were bandits, robbers; in the people's estimate of themselves, they were patriots, perhaps guerrillas, partisans, freedom fighters. When Jesus, on the Mount of Olives, said to those who were taking him into custody, “You come with swords and batons to arrest me as a rebel. Was I not with you, teaching openly in the light of day?”—he was defending himself by asserting his peaceful aims as a teacher. In Pilate's court, the charge was the same as that for which he had been arrested: he was accused of being “King of the Jews.” And the cause for which he was sentenced to crucifixion was again the same, as the inscription on the cross confirms. Jesus was arrested by Roman troops as a Jewish rebel.

After his arrest, Jesus was brought to the house of the Jewish high-priest. All four Gospels agree on this. But why was he not immediately taken to the Jewish law court? Because it was night, and the court was closed. Then why was he not immediately taken to the Roman prison? Because a preliminary investigation was required for which the Romans used local officials, Jews, who, by reason of their knowledge of the local conditions and language, were better equipped to carry out any necessary inquiries. Up to the moment when Jesus arrived in the house of the high-priest, the four reports of the Gospels are more or less in agreement; from that moment on, they differ profoundly in their accounts of the proceedings. According to John, Jesus was led to Annas, who interrogated him privately. There is no accusation, no witnesses are heard, no court assembles. It is a private conversation, or at the most a preliminary hearing. In the morning Jesus is sent, via Caiaphas, to the procurator Pontius Pilate. Thus, in John's account, no Jewish law court deals with the case. Yet at the very time at which John presents Jesus as conversing with Annas, Mark and Matthew arrange for him to be tried in a plenary session by the whole Sanhedrin. Mark does not mention the name of the presiding high-priest; Matthew gives his name as Caiaphas. The Sanhedrin meets at night in the high-priest's house—surprisingly, for this body, as the Parliament cum High Court of the Jewish nation, had a meeting-place of its own, its proper Council Hall, and there exists no record besides the accounts of Mark and Matthew from which it might be guessed that it ever met in a high-priest's residence to hold its consultations; especially not at night, and not on a feast day. Nevertheless, according to Mark and Matthew, Jesus is tried before an official session of the Council held in the high-priest's residence; witnesses are examined, their testimony is dismissed; Jesus is then closely interrogated by the presiding high-priest, convicted on his self-incriminatory reply—without corroboration—by all the assembled councilors, and sentenced to death for the crime of blasphemy.

Luke has nothing of that. No session of the Sanhedrin takes place at night. Jesus spends the rest of the night in the custody of the guards who had arrested him.

Early in the morning the Sanhedrin convenes—for the second time, according to Mark and Matthew; for the first time according to Luke; John reports nothing of a session. From the Lucan wording it can be concluded that the morning session of the Sanhedrin was held in a locality other than the place where Jesus had been detained during the night. At their morning session the Jewish councilors decide to conduct Jesus to Pilate, to be tried by the Roman authority.


Here we are faced with a problem. If Jesus, as Mark and Matthew have it, was sentenced during an earlier session by the Sanhedrin, we would expect to find a reference to the verdict in the report of the Sanhedrin's second meeting. No word of it. As if they have forgotten that they themselves had sentenced Jesus for the crime of blasphemy, the Jewish magistrates hand Jesus over to Pilate for trial, on another charge—the charge, it turns out, on which he had been arrested in the first place! Pilate is not asked to confirm a sentence for blasphemy; he is not even told that Jesus has been tried and found guilty of such an offense; and he acts throughout as a magistrate who is presiding over the first stage of judicial proceedings, not as one who has been called to confirm a sentence passed by some other court of law. He demands to know whether Jesus has claimed to be the king of the Jews. The reply of Jesus, “You have said it,” may be taken as an affirmation, though there are scholars who dispute this. In any case, it is not a direct reply.

All four Gospels agree that Jesus appeared before Pilate in the early morning. It must have been at a very early hour indeed, if the Marcan statement that Jesus was crucified at 9 A.M.3 is correct. For even if we leave out the amplification of the trial scenes in Luke and John, Mark himself places quite a few events between the examination of Jesus by Pilate and the execution: a protracted parley with the accusers, Pilate's indecision, the Barabbas episode, the clamor of the mob, the death sentence, the scourging and the mockery of Jesus, the journey to the place of execution outside Jerusalem. Such early preparedness on the governor's part to sit in judgment would have been impossible unless Pilate had been given prior knowledge that his presence would be required in the court. The early hour thus tends to confirm the reliability of the Johannine report concerning the arrest of Jesus by military personnel under the command of a Roman officer.

The evangelists—all four of them—describe Pilate as convinced of Jesus's innocence and anxious to acquit him. But instead of using his supreme authority as the highest judge and governor of the province, and simply passing a verdict of acquittal, Pilate offers to let Jesus go as an act of grace. The Gospels refer to a habit of Pilate, or a Jewish custom, of releasing a prisoner on the Passover; in accordance with this, Pilate asks the Jews whether he should release Jesus or another prisoner called Barabbas. Here the evangelists actually contradict themselves. On the one hand, they say that the Jewish citizens of Jerusalem were free to demand the release of any one prisoner; on the other hand, they report that Pilate limited the people's choice by offering them only the alternative of freeing Jesus or Barabbas. We read later on in the Gospels that Jesus was not crucified alone, but together with two other men. Hence when Jesus stood before Pilate there must have been at least two more accused or condemned men in the governor's custody. If the Jews of Jerusalem were free to demand the release of any prisoner, why should Pilate have limited them to Jesus or Barabbas? In actual fact, no custom of releasing a prisoner at the Passover season ever existed, either in Jewish or in Roman law. Barabbas, however, seems to have been a historical person, though “Barabbas” is only part of his name. There exist Gospel codices which give the name in full as Jesus bar Abba. If two persons, both called Jesus, had been arrested instead of one, the Roman magistrate might have asked which of the two was to be tried. In that case, endeavoring to present Pilate as being favorably disposed toward Jesus, the writer of the Second Gospel might have construed the Barabbas episode as we have it in his book, making it appear that the governor was not asking about the identity of the accused, but rather offering one of the two for pardon: “Which one of the two shall I release, Jesus who is called Bar Abba or Jesus who is called Messiah?” Yet Pilate had no need to resort to a presumed paschal custom of granting amnesty; nor did he have any reason to leave the decision to the crowd. He was the judge. If he found Jesus to be guiltless, and the stubborn Jews insisted that Barabbas should be granted a pardon, all Pilate had to do was pronounce Jesus innocent and release him along with Barabbas. Nobody in Jerusalem—no high-priest nor any other Jew—could have prevented the imperial governor from setting Jesus free, if he had ever been inclined to do so.

The evangelists, however, report that Pilate's kindly gesture to set Jesus free by an act of grace proved of no avail. The Jews prefer Barabbas. He is released and the proceedings of the court come to an end.


If we wish to understand what lies behind this version of the story, we have to remind ourselves once again that Mark—the oldest Gospel, though the second in the Canon—was written in Rome at a time (around the year 70 of the current era) when the small community of Christians living there was in constant danger of persecution. Already in the 40's, Christian missionary preaching had provoked the Emperor Claudius to expel all Jews from the capital city, those who believed that the Messiah had appeared and those who did not share such a belief (the Romans were as yet unable to distinguish between messianist Jews—that is, Christians—and other Jews), and in Nero's reign the persecution of the Christians took an even grimmer form. Since Mark was composed either at the end of Nero's reign or shortly afterward, the evangelist had every reason to try to ingratiate himself and his co-religionists with the Romans. The fact that Jesus had been sentenced to the cross by Pilate—a death penalty which carried opprobrium in Roman eyes, as being reserved for the most heinous crimes, and for slaves and despised foreigners—could not be concealed. But the evangelist could portray Pilate as having been unwilling to pass a death sentence and as having recognized the innocence of the man whom Christians now worshipped. For this purpose Pilate had to be presented as acting under Jewish pressure against his own better conviction. The evangelist's tendency was not “anti-Semitic,” as some might say; it was defensive and apologetic. He was concerned with promoting the fortunes of his little group, and was anxious to avoid suspicion and counter hostility on the part of the authorities. Accordingly, he presented the Roman authority of Jesus's own day, Pontius Pilate, as professing that he had found “no fault in this man.” The writer of the Second Gospel and those who came after him never realized what results this shift in the responsibility for Jesus's crucifixion would have in future generations.

In this connection, it is instructive to look at how the various evangelists refer to the governor's final decision. Not one of them is prepared to state plainly that a sentence of death was passed on Jesus by the Roman magistrate. In Mark and Matthew we read that “Pilate delivered Jesus to be crucified”—an oblique manner of reporting a judicial verdict. Luke and John are even more reticent. The former states that Pilate gave in to the demand of the Jews and allowed Jesus to be crucified, while the latter goes so far as to say that Pilate relinquished Jesus to the Jews who themselves took him away and crucified him. All the evangelists are at pains to avoid putting on record the passing of a death sentence by the Roman magistrate. But the fact remains that crucifixion was a Roman punishment, not a Jewish one.

Jesus is crucified, according to Mark at nine o'clock in the morning, according to John in the late afternoon. Together with him two other prisoners are executed by crucifixion, of whose trial and sentencing the New Testament gives no information. But there is one small, perhaps significant, detail: the two men are designated as leeistai, rebels—the same appellation which is applied to Jesus in the synoptists' account of his arrest. On Pilate's order, an inscription is attached to the cross stating the reason, the causa, or eitia, for pronouncing the death sentence. This inscription reads: “King of the Jews.” In the tangled mass of evangelical accounts of Jesus's trial, one point stands out with clarity: he was arrested as “a rebel,” accused before Pilate as “King of the Jews,” found guilty as such, and executed as such. None of the later accretions which in the Gospels overlay the original primitive account, and none of the editorial modifications from the hands of successive evangelists, can hide or disguise the fact that Jesus of Nazareth was arrested, accused, tried, sentenced, and executed on a charge of insurrection against Roman rule in Judaea.


Christian Scholars, Catholic and Protestant, generally do not dispute this. But many of them, the great majority perhaps, will say that the political accusation was a “trumped-up charge,” invented by the Jewish authorities of the day who had found Jesus “worthy of death” for religious reasons, but who could not act on their own authority because while the Sanhedrin had the right to pass sentences of death, it had no right to carry out such sentences. This argument is faulty. At the time when Judaea was under procuratorial rule, from the year 6 to the year 66 C.E., Jewish law courts did pass death sentences upon Jewish inhabitants of Israel, and did carry out such sentences on their own authority, without referring the cases to the Roman political administrator of the country.

There is evidence for this in the New Testament itself. The Acts of the Apostles (a book which has as its subject the growth of Christianity in the first three decades or so after Jesus's death) mentions several cases in which the Sanhedrin either intended to exercise its power to pass and carry out capital sentences, or actually did so. For example, there is the description4 of how Stephen, denounced for his preaching, was brought before the Jewish magistrates, led into the courthouse for his trial and, after being taken out again, was immediately carried off to his execution. He was executed in the Jewish manner, by stoning, in strict accordance with Jewish law as laid down in Deuteronomy.5

Certain exegetes explain away the execution of Stephen on the Sanhedrin's orders as an irregularity, an illegal act of lynching carried out by an excited mob. But these exegetes commit the error of concentrating primarily on the contents of the so-called “Speech of Stephen” to his judges6 instead of on the factual account of how Stephen was taken into the Sanhedrin's council-hall and executed after he re-emerged. The author of the Acts of the Apostles was in a position to obtain factual information only concerning what happened before Stephen was taken to the courthouse and what happened after he left it. He had no minutes of the court proceedings, no information about what went on inside the council-hall, and knew nothing of what Stephen might have said to his judges. The diatribe he attributes to Stephen is not a defense plea; it bears no connection with the case at all; and except for the additional final words7 is not even “Christian” in its content. It is a violent denunciation of the Temple ritual—and Jewish Christians took part in the Temple cult until the Temple was destroyed in the year 70—such as might possibly have originated among members of the pre-Christian Dead Sea Covenanters or a kindred Jewish group. The writer of the Acts could have found some transcript of a homily with an anti-cultic tenor, restyled and adapted it, and then used this material to amplify and enliven his meagre account of the trial of Stephen.8

Once we recognize that what the Acts presents as Stephen's speech is in no way a transcript of the actual words Stephen said to his judges, we shall not fall into the error of contending that Stephen so enraged his audience by this speech that they seized him and carried him off to be stoned without awaiting the court's proper verdict. Stephen was not stoned by an excited mob. He was executed in pursuance of a legal sentence, legally passed by a court competent to try him.

Another reference to the Sanhedrin's power to pass and carry out sentences of death is in Acts 5:27,33, where it is reported that the Sanhedrin, when investigating the activities of some of Jesus's disciples, intended to sentence them to death and execute them. According to the Acts, the Jewish councilors were persuaded to abstain from carrying out this intention by Gamaliel's counsel of moderation.9

In chapters 13-26 of the Acts, we also have an account of a conflict of competence between the Jewish and the Roman authorities concerning the question as to whether the Apostle Paul—a Roman citizen!—ought to be tried by a Jewish or a Roman court. Acts 26:10 puts the following declaration on the lips of Paul: “On the authority of the senior priests, I sent many of the saints [Christians] to prison. When they were put to death, I cast my vote against them.” The relevant point, when appraising the significance of this declaration, is not whether Paul actually uttered these words or not. Nor does it matter much whether the statement here ascribed to him is historically correct. Of significance is the fact that the author of the Acts, writing in the latter part of the 1st century, had Paul make this statement. If jurisdiction in capital cases was in Judaea reserved to the Roman governor, it would have been common knowledge among the readers of the Acts of the Apostles that Jewish criminal courts had no right to carry out capital sentences and that Paul the Apostle could not have taken part in proceedings of this sort. Would the author of the Acts have deliberately invited contradiction by attributing a statement to Paul that his readers must have known to be incorrect?


Even in later centuries, several Fathers of the Church preserved knowledge of the fact that in the time of Jesus Jewish law courts in Judaea exercised unlimited jurisdiction over Jews who were being tried for capital offenses. Origen describes the condition of the Jewish judiciary after the year 70, and explains that it lost its capital jurisdiction as a result of the victory of Roman arms in that year.10 In another passage,11 Origen mentions that Jewish law courts continued to administer the death penalty even after the year 70, but were now compelled to do so clandestinely in order not to risk a conflict with the Roman rulers whom they were defying.

Origen wrote in the early 3rd century. Still later, Augustine of Hippo, when commenting on the passage of the Fourth Gospel which denies the Jewish leaders any right to carry out sentences of death,12 offers the following explanation: “This is to be understood in the sense that the Jews could not carry out an execution because they were celebrating a festival.”13 Thus according to Augustine, the Jews of Jesus's time were not deprived of the right to put sentences of death into effect; they voluntarily refrained from exercising it on a holy day. John Chrysostom of Antioch has the same explanation.14

Those who contend that the Sanhedrin lacked the power to administer the death sentence it is alleged to have passed on Jesus15 are therefore giving inadequate weight to the evidence which the New Testament itself provides. What is more, they fail to draw the logical conclusion from their argument when they maintain that the Sanhedrin was authorized to pass a sentence of death, yet not authorized to carry out this sentence without endorsement from the Roman procurator. For if it were indeed the procurator's duty to confirm or set aside a death sentence passed by a Jewish court, he would have been required to review the case in terms of Jewish law—the law that had been applied by the inferior court when passing sentence. Unless the procurator were an expert in the procedures and substance of Jewish law, it would have been quite impossible for him to do this. The Romans, however, true to their maxim not to become embroiled in the religious affairs of other nations, did permit the Sanhedrin jurisdiction in all cases, including capital ones, where Jewish religious law came into question.

But even supposing that the Jews were prevented by constitutional limitations from putting into effect a death sentence which they had passed on religious grounds, they would still not have needed to invent a political charge of sedition. It is ridiculous to assert, as some quasi-scholars do, that Pontius Pilate would have taken no cognizance of an accusation on religious grounds, that he might have “shrugged his shoulders” if the representatives of the Sanhedrin had asked him to confirm a sentence passed for blasphemy. When Rome took over the political administration of Judaea (at the wish of the Jews themselves, who hoped to enjoy a greater measure of autonomy under Roman dominion than they had done under the misgovernment of the Herodian dynasty), the Emperor recognized Rome's obligation to uphold the ancestral Jewish law and religion in the country. And Roman law provided the death sentence for religious offenses. We know from Josephus that a Roman procurator sentenced a Roman soldier to death because that soldier had shown disrespect for a scroll of the Torah.16 In other words, the Jewish religion, to use a modern expression, was “the religion of the State” in Judaea, even in procuratorial times. Hence, supposing that the Sanhedrin was not in a position to put into effect its own judgment and therefore referred Jesus's case to Pilate, the Jewish councilors could simply have accused Jews of a religious offense.


It may be argued—and not without justification—that the charge of sedition on which Jesus was tried and executed was made by his enemies, Jewish or Roman, and that it says nothing about his own aims or of the state of his own mind. Owing to their nature and their origin, the Gospels are unsuitable as documents that would allow access to the mind of Jesus. The Gospels do contain, however, traditions of undeniably Christian origin which assert a claim to kingship on behalf of Jesus. In two of the Gospels, for instance, we find the genealogies of Jesus, intended to trace back his descent to David17 and thus establish the legitimacy of his royal right as David's heir. In one Gospel, we find the solemn announcement of Jesus's birth, made by an angel, who promises Mary that Jesus will inherit his royal ancestor's throne and reign over the house of Jacob. In two of the Gospels, we find on Jesus's lips a declaration to his twelve disciples that they will sit on thrones and judge the tribes of Israel. In one of the Gospels we also read that Jesus's followers, after the shattering experience of their master's death, voiced their despair in the words, “We had hoped that it would be he who comes to redeem Israel.”

Now the Gospels (all written two and three generations after the death of Jesus) reflect a great variety of traditions that developed in different surroundings and at different times. These traditions express divergent concepts of the character and function which various groups of people, all in some way attached to the memory of Jesus, assigned to him. The clearest indication of the differences in their outlook lies in the titular designations they gave to him. Sometimes he is called “teacher,” sometimes “the Son of Man,” sometimes “the Prophet,” sometimes “the Son of David,” sometimes “the Messiah (Christ),” sometimes “the Son of God”; he is also called by several other names. These titles are by no means synonymous. Each describes a distinct social status or a specific theological concept, pointing to a different role in the eschatological drama of history which the followers of Jesus expected to unfold.

The title which in due course came to sup plant all the others is, of course, christos (“Christ” in English) which is Greek for the Hebrew “Messiah,” meaning “The Anointed One.” Anointing was in ancient Jewish custom the formal act of investing the holder of the highest office in the Jewish polity with authority over those under his command, the act by which his legitimate appointment to the leadership of the nation was made known to one and all. What coronation is in British constitutional law, anointing was in Jewish law. The Anointed One, the Messiah, the Christ, was thus a title of honor, due to the highest functionary of the Jewish state. By the time of the Apostle Paul, however, the concept of messiahship, or rather christhood, had already advanced far beyond its primary connotation and toward the meaning which it now holds for Christians, denoting to them a Being of supra-historical significance and of transcendent character. This change resulted—to simplify a complex process—from the gradual amalgamation of two distinct eschatological concepts which were in vogue among Jews in the New Testament era: the expectation of a messiah who would re-establish Israel's political independence; and the expectation of the coming of the Son of Man, a mythical figure who would restore man to the primordial glory that was his before Adam fell from the friendship of God. A certain group of Jews, who believed that Jesus of Nazareth would take on a paramount role in the impending last act of human history, thought and spoke of him as the Messiah; another group of Jews, no less convinced of Jesus's vocation, thought of him in terms of the apocalyptic Son of Man. The two groups mixed, their members coalesced, and the combined group continued to use for their cult-hero the designation “Christ” (a title borrowed from legal-political terminology) while now attributing to the Christ the characteristics and functions of the transcendent, supra-historical Son of Man. The spread of Christianity to parts beyond Galilee and Judaea and the influx of converts with pagan antecedents accelerated the process of change, for to converts from the Gentile world the primary meaning of the word “Christ-Messiah” was unknown. There is already in the New Testament, the Gospels as well as the Epistles, a difference between what Christians meant when they used the expression “Christ,” and what “Messiah” meant in Jewish usage. Yet the fact that certain of his followers chose the title “Messiah” for him, and that their choice prevailed over others, indicates that an influential section among the early Christian fellowship connected with their belief in Jesus the expectation of political independence from foreign domination. In no other way can their choice of the title “Messiah” or “Christ” be explained.

But if the Gospels make it clear that it was Christians who harbored hopes of Israel's emancipation from political subjection, of re-establishment of the ancient Jewish dynasty, and who believed that the final triumph of Israel over Rome would be the triumph of Good over Evil, the victory of God over Satan—the Gospels do not tell us whether the hope arose in the lifetime of Jesus or only after the disciples' experience at Easter. We can say without hestitation that Jesus's followers cherished aspirations of Jewish national independence. We cannot say whether they were encouraged to such aspirations by Jesus himself. Only what his followers hoped, what they thought and expected, finds expression in the Gospels. What Jesus himself thought, what his aims were, what he asserted or what he expected, we simply do not know.


1 Josephus, Jewish Antiquities, 18:63,64. Scholars are divided in their opinions on the authenticity of this passage. The text in our editions of the Antiquities certainly contains insertions which do not come from Josephus's own hand. The passage appears to have been tampered with by a Christian copyist, probably in the 3rd century. Nevertheless, there are good reasons for assuming that Josephus did relate the death of Jesus. When writing about James the Just (Jewish Antiquities 20:199, 200), Josephus casually mentions that James was the brother of “Jesus who is called Christ.” It thus seems that Josephus, before he referred to James, had already informed his readers about Jesus. Furthermore, the testimonium displays features which can scarcely be attributed to a Christian interpolator. Jesus is here called “a wise man,” a designation not in keeping with 3rd-century Christian notions about who and what Jesus was. The immediately following words, “if it is permissible to call him a man,” may have been added; they show that the copyist felt uneasy about an expression Josephus had used. The testimonium distinguishes between the roles which the Jews and which the Romans played in Jesus's trial. It refers to an indictment that was drawn up by Jewish nobles, yet states that the death sentence was passed by the Roman governor. It was not customary for Christians in the 3rd century to make such fine distinctions; they flatly charged the Jews with responsibility for everything—arrest, trial, sentencing, and crucifixion. Ultimately, the adherents of Jesus are in the testimonium called “the tribe of Christians,” a phrase not used of Christians by people who were Christians themselves, but credible in the mouth of a 1st-century Jew who was steeped in the Old Testament and would be accustomed to describing internal divisions within the body politic of the Jewish nation by the word “tribe.”

2 Mark 14:48, 49; Matthew 26:55; Luke 22:52, 53.

3 Mark 15:25.

4 Acts 6:12-7:59.

5 Acts 7:58b; compare Deuteronomy 17:5-27.

6 Acts 7:2-53, 56.

7 Acts 7:56.

8 Compare my remarks in the Deutsche Literaturzeitung, Vol. 82, 1961, columns 790-792.

9 Acts 5:34-40.

10 Origen, Commentary on St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans 6:7 (Patrologia Graeca, Vol. 14, columns 1072, 1075).

11 Origen, Letter to Africanus 14 (Patrologia Graeca, Vol. 2, column 84).

12 John 18:31.

13 Augustine, On John, Tractate CXIV 4 (Patrologia Latina, Vol. 35, column 1937).

14 Chrysostom, Homilies on John, LXXXIII 4 (Patrologia Graeca, Vol. 59, column 452).

15 Mark 14:64b; Matthew 26:66.

16 Josephus, The Jewish War 2:231. For similar instances of Roman deference to the susceptibilities of the Jewish population, see The Jewish War 3:246 and Antiquities 20:136.

17 Matthew 1:1-16; Luke 3:23-31. The two “family trees” were manifestly revised before being incorporated into the Gospels. In the evangelists' presentation, the line of Jesus's descent from David is broken (in Matthew 1:16 and Luke 3:23) as a result of rewording.

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