To the Editor:
The appearance of Paul Winter’s article “The Trial of Jesus” [September 1964] is, for obvious reasons, as timely as it is important. I am, of course, familiar with the more analytical and detailed study of this problem in Dr. Winter’s book, On The Trial of Jesus, but . . . the arguments advanced in the book are even more clearly presented in this condensed form.
So far as I am aware, this is the first occasion on which Paul Winter’s thesis has received serious notice in a Jewish periodical. His contributions to New Testament scholarship have so far appeared almost exclusively, and perhaps understandably, in non-Jewish periodicals, but the manifest importance of this whole subject for Jewish as well as Christian readers encourages the hope that the lead you have given may be followed by other Jewish publications.
(Rev.) William W. Simpson
The Council of Christians and Jews
To the Editor:
In his article, . . . Dr. Winter rightly insists on the juridical competence of the Sanhedrin to deal with capital cases during the pro-curatorial period—citing supporting evidence from the Acts of the Apostles and from patristic literature. I should like to point out further that support may also be found in non-Christian sources, as for example, the Mishnah, San. 7:2; Philo, Legatio ad Gaium, 39; and the inscription, discovered in 1871 by Clermont-Ganneau, which shows that the Jewish authorities were formally entitled by the imperial government to put any Gentile to death if he ventured beyond the second enclosure of the Temple, an ordinance referred to by Josephus (Ant. 15:11:5; Bell. 5:5:2; 6:2:4), by Philo (Leg. 31), and perhaps by the author of the Epistle to the Ephesians, 2:14. . . .
COMMENTARY is to be congratulated on publishing the article.
T. A. Burkill
University of Alberta,
Edmonton, Alberta, Canada
To the Editor:
Speaking as a Christian New Testament scholar, . . . . I wish to commend you for publishing Mr. Winter’s article which reveals that the author has made a careful study of the subject.
I agree with all of his main conclusions: that Jesus existed; that we do not know the exact year of his death (but Mr. Winter’s dating must be very close) nor the exact day of the week; that he was arrested by Roman soldiers who were accompanied by Jewish policemen who probably served as guides; that he was arrested as a rebel; that it is doubtful that there was any Jewish trial or at least a Sanhedrin trial; that Jesus was arrested, accused, tried, sentenced, and executed on a charge of insurrection against Roman rule; that the Sanhedrin had the power to carry out capital sentences and did so; . . . that Stephen’s speech is not genuine; that if Jesus’s offense were only religious, the Jews could have eliminated him without accusing him of sedition, for Roman law provided the death sentence for religious offenses; that the title “Christ” and his followers’ expectation of Israel’s triumph over Rome are evidence he was viewed as a rebel.
Minor points in the article which I question are as follows: that Josephus mentions Jesus (some Christian scholars regard it as a Christian interpolation); that we know the place where Jesus was arrested; that the Gospel of Mark was written in Rome (this is the prevailing Christian view, but I think Bartlett is right in saying Antioch is more probable); and the author’s concluding statement (that we do not know what Jesus thought, etc.), though largely true, may eliminate a conclusion or two justified by deduction. It is largely true that we do not know what Jesus thought, because the bulk of the Gospel traditions are not authentic sayings of Jesus, but originated later in the Church in efforts to solve various problems. Yet Mark 1:15, I believe, is historical and reflects his views. I think Jesus must actually have been the leader of a revolt and that his thoughts were sympathetic to Jewish nationalism and revolt. In spite of these minor criticisms, I commend Mr. Winter for his excellent work.
Howard M. Teeple
To the Editor:
Paul Winter has made a good case for his thesis that Jesus was executed by Pilate as a political criminal because the Sanhedrin had the power to have him executed, but did not do so. But Winter rather cavalierly ignores the contrary evidence—especially that standby of Jewish apologetics, the Talmudic tradition that the Sanhedrin lost (or gave up) capital jurisdiction forty years before the destruction of the Temple.
Winter’s book has been hailed as the first non-apologetic work, Jewish or Christian, on the subject. Yet COMMENTARY undoubtedly presented his views with an apologetic aim in mind. I wonder whether the time has not come, instead of finding new apologetic positions, to give the whole business up as a bad job. No one can be really certain about an event which took place two millennia ago without leaving any contemporary account; nor are we likely to convince believing Christians that their sacred books contain politically inspired falsehoods. We might do better by stressing that, except for the Roman governor and his soldiery, everyone on both sides was a Jew—from the high priest to Simon of Arimethea. It makes as much sense to say that “the Jews” killed Jesus as to say that “the Greeks” killed Socrates or “the Americans” killed Sacco and Vanzetti. . . .
Alfred A. Greenbaum
To the Editor:
Paul Winter’s article gives a somewhat different impression than did his book On The Trial of Jesus, published three years earlier. Has the author altered his views about Jesus? The article is wholly devoted to showing that Jesus was somehow involved in seditious activities and was crucified on this account. . . . In the book, however, Winter does not emphasize the rebellious nature of Jesus. He writes that “Jesus of Nazareth . . . was no revolutionary, prompted by political ambitions . . . he was a teacher”; and the adventure in the temple courtyard is dismissed as “a brawl in an Eastern bazaar”. . . .
Johannesburg, South Africa
To the Editor:
Congratulations upon your publication of Dr. Paul Winter’s article. The essay is a fine example of the results obtainable from “form-criticism” of the Gospels when this technique is properly used by one who combines scholarship with good judgment.
Your readers may be interested in a small, but significant, indication of the impact of Mr. Winter’s book upon circles devoted to New Testament scholarship and the serious study of religion. In two successive issues (April and July, 1964), one of America’s foremost theological quarterlies, Journal of Religion, published a review of the book and a review-article about it, the latter by the well-known Professor F. C. Grant (Union Theological Seminary) who was the delegate-observer for the Anglican Communion at Vatican II. . . .
Professor, Biblical and
Ithaca, New York
To the Editor:
. . . Nothing but good can come of such sympathetic, critical, and painstaking examination of the facts surrrounding the origins of the Christian faith in the heart of Judaism, even if it arouses the fury of tender religious spirits, Jewish or Christian.
Many Christian scholars would go along with Winter in much of his reconstruction of events. In particular, the evidence that Jesus was executed by the Romans for a crime against Rome is very strong. A feature deserving more attention than Winter gives, however, is the motive the Jews might have had for encouraging the persecution of the Church and perhaps of Jesus himself. This was, of course, the use of seditious terms like “Kingdom of God” and “Messiah” by the early Christians. Jews would naturally wish to dissociate themselves from a group which appeared to set up another King than Caesar, and how better than by denouncing those who used such language?
To the Christian, on the other hand, such charges would appear wilfully misleading. Contrary to what Winter writes, the cumulative evidence of the New Testament suggests to most of us that the early Church repudiated nationalism of every kind; it claimed that the ancient promises of God to Israel (including the Messianic universal King) were fulfilled in one who opened the doors to sinners and Gentiles; that Israel’s faith, rightly understood, found all men equally under the judgment and love of God. (I would add, with most British scholars, that this message can be traced back in its fundamentals to the teaching of Jesus himself.) But, though the message was universalist, it used words of highly nationalist flavor. The Church’s enemies (and Jesus’s enemies) could easily misuse them in evidence. Hence, perhaps, the tendency of Christian writers, in their turn, to regard the crucifixion of Jesus and the persecution of the Church as the result of Jewish intrigue and slander.
In fairness to the Gospel writers it should be added that they find the Roman authorities and the Christians themselves (represented by the disciples) equally culpable with the Jewish rulers and people. The Church has never acted less Christianly than when it forgot its own part in the crucifixion.
(Rev.) Stuart G. Hall
Department of Christian Theology
University of Nottingham
To the Editor:
Although, in my opinion, Paul Winter’s “The Trial of Jesus” is an excellent analysis of the event, I feel that a number of points remain to be clarified. . . .
Firstly, during the period in question, the Sanhedrin was controlled by a strong majority of Sadducees . . . who as the property-owning citizens and large businessmen were the most assimilated party, and closely aligned with the Roman government. They feared that any “Messiah”—political or spiritual—would be considered by the Romans an enemy of the Caesar and thus a revolutionary. . . . Hence they arrested Jesus in order to prove to Rome that he did not betoken an uprising on the part of all Israel. This is the real reason behind the arrest of Jesus, so that the accusation of blasphemy brought against him is, in my opinion, what Christian scholars have called a “trumped-up charge,” invented by the Jews. . . . There were hundreds of others besides Jesus professing similar beliefs, which were basically merely Pharisaic in nature.
Jesus was arrested as a . . . religious heretic, because the Sanhedrin had power to arrest only in religious matters and, even then, a death verdict had to be approved and carried out by the Roman governor. Therefore the Sanhedrin was not so much a court as a grand jury of preliminary investigation which turned over “convictions” to the governor for actual trial, and conviction or sentencing. This view of the power of the Sanhedrin is supported by a Talmudic Baraitha (Babylonian Talmud, Sabbath 15a) which reads—“Forty years before the destruction of the Temple, the right [of the Sanhedrin] to judge and carry out death penalties was taken away from Israel [by the Roman government].” This date would coincide with the rule of Pilate and the period of the trial of Jesus, as already stated by Klausner in Jesus of Nazareth.
The argument offered by Winter that the Sanhedrin did have the power to tarry out the death penalty is weakened by the fact that all his sources are in the New Testament. Certainly, the New Testament would maintain that the Jewish court had the power to decide upon the death sentence, since the evangelists tried to place the blame for the death of Jesus upon the Jews.
By contrast, the Talmudic Baraitha deserves greater credence since it does not concern itself with any inter-religious argument, but is rather presented as a historical note. . . .
Chicago Jewish Academy
To the Editor:
I do not know the qualification of Mr. Paul Winter as a Biblical scholar and authority in New Testament studies and Christian origins. However, after a careful reading of his article, . . . I wonder how deeply read he is in a field wherein he seems ready to dogmatize rather freely. One is forewarned quickly enough when we read that “we also know for a fact. . . where Jesus was arrested.” Indeed, we apparently know quite a good deal from the Gospels which, however, we are told confidently, “are unsuitable as documents that would allow access to the mind of Jesus.” We are not told, however, why they are unsuitable. The possibility that there may be a positive relation between “their nature and origin” and “the mind of Jesus” is not even to be considered! May I suggest that Mr. Winter’s opinion, for all its ex-cathedra tone . . . is almost a mirror-image of a simplistic Fundamentalism; he assumes without substantial argument the rather tentative conclusions of one school of thought in contemporary New Testament criticism. No other voices are to be heard—except, presumably, to be refuted or dismissed. In this respect, I note that nowhere in the article is there a single mention or even footnote citation of any New Testament scholar—unless one accepts the condescending reference to the “faulty” argument of “the great majority perhaps” of “Christian scholars,” who have evidently either never read Mr. Winter or are blinded by apologetic zeal from seeing the “facts”!
The same arrogant dogmatism is manifest in Mr. Winter’s easy summary of the history and formation of the Gospel tradition and the growth of Christology amidst the diversities of New Testament religion. As usual, the desire “to simplify a complex process” has led to considerable over-simplification and distortion. . . .
(Rev.) Charles H. Whittier
Peirce Memorial Church
Dover, New Hampshire
Mr. Winter writes:
The views expressed by these correspondents display the diversity of positions from which people approach an examination of the trial of Jesus and, by implication, the complexity of the problem.
Professor Burkill is right in citing additional evidence for the Sanhedrin’s exercise of jurisdiction in capital cases. The instances he quotes are mentioned in my book On the Trial of Jesus (1961). Of great importance is the reference to the archaeological discovery of part of an inscription on the enclosure separating the Court of the Gentiles from the Inner Courts on the Temple Mount. For our literary evidence is not univocal. Unsubjected to the vagaries of literary transmission, the slab of limestone bearing this inscription has survived from before the year 70 C.E. In conjunction with such literary evidence as we possess, it sheds light on the extent of the Sanhedrin’s competence. Josephus (Jewish War II 117, Antiquities XX 200-203) is less explicit than modern historians would wish him to be. The evidence of the New Testament writers is contradictory (John against Acts), and no less so is the evidence to be gleaned from the Talmud (Shabb. 15a, Ab. Zarah 8b, Sanh. 12a, 41a, Rosh Hash. 31a etc.; against Sotah 8b, Keth. 30a, Sanh. 37b etc.). In this situation, the discovery of the inscription, made by Clermont-Ganneau in 1871, can assist in finding the correct answer.
The inscription prohibits non-Jews from passing beyond the Court of the Gentiles, and contains the warning that anyone who acts contrary to this prohibition “will himself be responsible for his death which will follow.” How a trespasser’s death is to “follow” is not explicit. There are three interpretations: (1) The inscription is not of a legal character, but of a kind known from antiquity, warning visitors to sacred shrines of the danger of incurring the deity’s wrath should they, unpurified or uninitiated, approach a sacred shrine; divine punishment will overtake offenders who neglect the warning. (2) The inscription is legal in character, and authorizes the Temple Police (or the assembled Jewish worshippers) to put offenders to death on the spot, without recourse to a law court. (3) The inscription is meant as a warning of regular prosecution in a Jewish court of law, with obligatory death penalty.
The first of the three possibilities is excluded when we have regard to Titus’s speech (Josephus, J.W. VI 126), a speech explicitly referring to the prohibition of passing the barrier on the Temple Mount. Titus says: “Did we not concede you the right to put to death anyone who passed it, even if he were a Roman?” Thus the inscription contains a warning of death by human action, not by divine retribution. The second possibility is incompatible with the account of the only case we know of in which actual proceedings for suspected trespass were instituted. Paul the Apostle was suspected of having “brought Greeks into the Temple and defiled the holy place” (Acts 21:28,29). When, in the ensuing tumult, he might have been killed by the enraged crowd, the commander of the Roman garrison stationed in the adjacent Antonia swiftly intervened and took Paul into protective custody (21:33,34). After perfunctory inquiries, the Roman commander brought Paul before the Sanhedrin (22:30). The Acts’ account of Roman intervention in this case makes it impossible to interpret the inscription as an authorization for dealing summarily with offenders without recourse to judicial procedure. On general grounds it is, of course, quite improbable that the Romans who supervised the public order in the province would in advance have sanctioned acts of lynch justice, especially as the victim of the lynching might have been a Roman.
We are left with the last of the three above-mentioned possibilities: that the words “his death will follow” refer to the imposed penalty of a court of law; the fact that this is not explicitly stated in the warning being of little importance, since it was general knowledge. The permission granted to the Jewish law court was, to be sure, a “special concession” made by the Romans, but “special” only insofar as they allowed the Jews in a certain case capital jurisdiction over non-Jews. It is not very likely that the Romans would have conceded to a Jewish law court the right to administer in certain cases the death penalty upon Romans, while also denying them generally the same right over Jews.
Professor Burkill was right to have drawn your readers’ attention to Clermont-Ganneau’s discovery (the inscription is now kept in a museum in Istanbul; see On the Trial of Jesus, p. 156, note 37).
I agree with Dr. Teeple that Mark 1:15 reflects, in nucleus, Jesus’s message: “The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God is at hand—repent and believe in the gospel!” Yet even in such simple, unadorned expression, an element of “editorial accretion” has crept in; the closing words “and believe in the gospel,” could scarcely have been Jesus’s own utterance. They would reflect the evangelist’s understanding of the event of Jesus’s call.
Mr. Greenbaum mistakenly assumes that I ignored the Talmudic tradition on the question of the Sanhedrin’s judicial competence. This tradition is ambivalent. There are passages in the Talmud from which one may infer that the Sanhedrin retained its jurisdiction in capital cases until the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70, and there are passages implying that its jurisdiction ceased earlier. Both views are quoted in On the Trial of Jesus. The execution of Socrates, or Sacco and Vanzetti, will not do as parallels to the crucifixion of Jesus. Whatever one’s view of Mr. Greenbaum’s comparison, it is a fact that Greeks or Americans are not blamed for Socrates’s or Sacco’s and Vanzetti’s deaths—while Jews have for centuries collectively been blamed, and are being blamed, for the death of Jesus. I accept Mr. Greenbaum’s compliment that my book “has been hailed as the first non-apologetic work on its subject,” but I must add that I do not myself consider “apologetics” a dirty word.
It is Mr. Levin’s impression that I altered my views since the publication of my book. Not substantially so. I would, if I wrote that book today, probably have more to say on the subject. I concede to Mr. Levin that I might have underestimated the significance of the incident in the outer fore-court of the Temple (the so-called “Cleansing”) when calling it a mere brawl. I did point out (p. 124; p. 209, note 30) that there were “traditional links” between the account of this incident and the narrative of Jesus’s trial. Perhaps I should not have left it at that, but pursued the matter further. It is possible that in Mark 11:15-18, 27, 28 the immediate reason for the authorities’ action against Jesus is indicated. But my conviction that Jesus was no political revolutionary, that he never made a claim to messiahship and never incited the Jewish masses to overthrow by force the authority of the state—though he expected this to happen by an act of God—is as firm as ever.
Briefly to Mr. Stern: His remarks are less than clear. In one sentence he characterizes Jesus’s beliefs as “basically Pharisaic in nature,” while in the next he speaks of Jesus as a “religious heretic.” True, the Sanhedrin in Jesus’s days was composed mostly of Sadducees who had many arguments on halakhic matters with the Pharisees. But, whatever the differences, the Sadducean office-holders did not arrest Pharisees on account of religious disputes and extradite them to the Romans as heretics. Mr. Stern cannot have read the New Testament if he writes that it “would maintain that the Jewish court had the power to pass and give death sentence, since the evangelists tried to place the blame . . . upon the Jews.” The New Testament maintains nothing of the sort; different writers maintain different things. So did the rabbis, whose opinions are referred to in the Talmud (where Shabb. 15a contrasts with Sotah 8b, Keth. 30a, Sanh. 37b, etc.).
No doubt, there were differences between Jesus and the heads of certain Pharisaic guilds. But these differences were scarcely greater than those which exist today between the members of the Jewish Academy in Chicago and those of a Jewish Academy in some other North American city. Mr. Stern’s argument of Jesus’s heresy is one that does not recommend itself to my way of thinking. As Mr. Stern surely knows, Maimonides in his time was branded a heretic by Jewish opponents; so was the Baal-Shem-Tov, and so were many others. We should be a poor lot, indeed, if we had no “heretics” in our Jewish history.