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Jesus’ Crucifixion as King of the Jews

One of the main reasons I think Jesus called himself the future messiah is that this best explains the best attested event of his entire life: his crucifixion by the Romans.

There are a few things we can say with virtual certainty about Jesus.  For example: he was a Jewish preacher from rural Galilee who made a fateful trip to Jerusalem and was crucified by the Roman governor Pontius Pilate.  There are, of course, lots of other things that we can say, without quite so much certainty (see my book Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium).  But that much is certain.  So why did the Romans crucify him?

Romans had to have a reason to crucify a person.  There had to be a criminal charge.  There could be lots of charges – runaway slaves, brigands, insurrectionists, all could be crucified.  So why was Jesus crucified?  The Gospels tell us, and in this particular case, there are very good reasons for thinking what they say is right.  Jesus was crucified for calling himself King of the Jews.

There are several points to make that, taken altogether, suggest this is historically what actually happened.   First, all the Gospels agree that at Jesus’ trial this is what Pontius Pilate accused Jesus of, based on what the governor had learned from the Jewish authorities.  Second, this is the charge that is written against Jesus on the placard over his head on the cross – again, in all our accounts.

So those two points are suggestive, but not in themselves convincing.  Two other points show why the Gospels are historically correct about this.  The first is that there is nothing up to this point in the Gospels that would lead either anyone in the narrative itself or anyone reading the narrative to expect that this will be the charge leveled against Jesus.  Nowhere in the Gospels does Jesus preach he is the present or future king of the Jews.  He does not enrage his enemies by calling himself the king of the Jews.  He never so much as mentions to anyone that he is the king of the Jews.  The charge at the trial comes almost completely out of the blue.  It is the one thing Pilate asks Jesus, and there is nothing that ever happens in the Gospel prior to that point that would make you think that it *will* be the charge.  And so it is not a charge made up by the Gospel writers to conform the account of the trial to the rest of their narrative.

A final point is even more interesting and compelling.  The title “King of the Jews” is not a title Christians used, so far as we can tell, for Jesus.  That really matters for this question.  Here is why.

Christians were frequently making up stories about Jesus in order to have him say and do what Christians wanted him to say and do.  No one really doubts this, even conservative Bible believing Christians, because we have Gospels from outside the New Testament that are chock full of stories about Jesus that no one on the planet thinks are historically accurate but that portray Jesus in ways that people wanted to portray him.

And so we have later Gospels like the Infancy Gospel of Thomas that shows Jesus with amazing miraculous powers as a five-year-old Son of God.  Yes, he seems a bit mischievous, but the point is he was astoundingly powerful, something Christians would want to emphasize.  We have Gospels like the Gospel of Peter that narrate the fantastic account of Jesus emerging from his tomb on the morning of the resurrection tall as a mountain, with a walking talking cross behind him.  We have gnostic Gospels where Jesus delivers mysterious secretive teachings that lo and behold sound very much like what Gnostics themselves believed.  And so on.  Someone is making these things up.

When Christians made up stories about what Jesus said and did, it was in order to show that Jesus was who Christians were saying he was.  It is a striking fact that so far as we can know, Christians were not going around proclaiming Jesus by using the title “King of the Jews.”  They used a lot of other titles for him – Lord, Savior, Son of Man, Son of God, God, and so on – so when these titles are used of him in the Gospels, you’re never really sure: is this something that’s historical or is this something that has been read back into Jesus’ life by later followers who wanted to portray him in certain ways?

But Christians – at least in our surviving texts (for example, the Gospels, Acts, Paul’s letters, and the other writings of the New Testament) – do not speak of him as the King of the Jews.  Then why do all the accounts of his trial indicate he was condemned for saying just that?  Probably because really was put on trial for saying that.

If that was the charge against Jesus, why didn’t he simply deny the charge and get off the hook?   Well, he couldn’t get off the hook if in fact he did call himself the king of the Jews.  So maybe he did.

But if he did, how did Pilate find out about it?  Jesus does not call himself this publicly in the Gospels.  So if he was calling himself that privately, how would Pilate know?

Someone must have spilled the beans.  Someone must have betrayed his private teachings.   That would have been an insider.  Guess who.

I’ll follow up on that thought in the next post.

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Jesus’ Private Teachings about the King of the Jews
The Apocalyptic Background to Jesus’ Messiahship

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Comments

  1. Scott  November 21, 2016

    If the early Christians had wanted to add a charge for the Romans to pin on Jesus, King of Kings or King of the World would have worked even better. The Romans would liked that claim even less than the King of the Jews!

  2. Adam0685  November 21, 2016

    Is it possible that Judas made up the claim to the authorities that Jesus called himself “King of the Jews” when Jesus in fact did not claim that title/identity? If he did in fact, what did “King” mean in Jesus’ context? A military figure or political ruler? Why King as opposed to Son of God/Man, etc. How could Jesus really think that about himself, he had only a few followers and had nothing “kingly” going for him?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 23, 2016

      Sure! I would say it’s at least possible. As to why “king” — see my post today.

  3. gavriel  November 21, 2016

    So far I am not entirely convinced. Surely Jesus must have been proclaiming the coming Kingdom publicly, and it would not require much fantasy to assume that Jesus though of himself as having some important role in it. What makes me a bit skeptical is that the Romans would know that this was nothing but a “harmless” and unarmed sectarian, who at most could create popular unrest during the festival. So they invented a charge in line with his public message, to get rid of him and deter the remaining disciples, all to maintain an orderly festival. Do you think this is a viable hypothesis?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 23, 2016

      I’m not sure they would need an excuse to execute someone they thought was a pain in the neck. They did it a lot.

      • iameyes137  November 24, 2016

        It has been my understanding for years that the use of crucifixion for execution was very rarely attested to in any of the writings outside of the Gospels. Can you briefly enlighten us on that ?

        • Bart
          Bart  November 24, 2016

          No, it is a very widely attested form of Roman execution.

    • tompicard
      tompicard  November 23, 2016

      Gavriel,

      I would say your hypothesis sounds viable, depending on who you contend ‘they’ were ‘who invented a charge in line with his public message’.

      Now if your ‘they’ refers to the Sanhedrin, yeah they would know the apocalyptic worldview and could easily tweak Jesus’ words to use to against him if they so choose in bringing him before Pilate.

      If your ‘they’ is referring to the Romans, no then it doesn’t make quite as much sense, as apocalyism would be pretty much greek to them.

  4. Foxtank  November 21, 2016

    I would like to hear your take on Matt. 19:11&12. This is a most interesting comment given the question ask and given the reference to the kingdom. Is this truly attributed to Jesus? Thanks

    • Bart
      Bart  November 23, 2016

      I”m not sure. It appears to mean simply that some of those expecting the kingdom renunciate sex in preparatoin for it.

  5. Daniel  November 21, 2016

    “Christians [did] not speak of him as the King of the Jews.”

    But if your theory is right — that Jesus told his disciples in secret that he was the King of the Jews — why didn’t his disciples later preach that he actually was the King of the Jews?

    Thank you.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 23, 2016

      It was not long before Christians thought he was the king of the entire world! Maybe that had something to do with it.

      • Rick
        Rick  November 23, 2016

        Ironically, except for “the Jews”.

    • talmoore
      talmoore  November 23, 2016

      My hypothesis — and this is just my opinion — is that the Jewish Christians never referred to Jesus as a “king,” as in the way one would say “the king of the Jews” in Aramaic (מלכא דיהודיא — Malka D’Yehudayah) or Hebrew (מלך היהודים — Melekh Ha-Yehudim). I don’t think Peter, or John, or James, or any of the first Jewish Christians ever used those terms. I think they simply called him the Messiah (המשיח — Ha-Moshiach). And it was only when Gentiles (such as Pilate) were confronted with the concept of the Messiah that words such as “king” got bandied about. That is, it was the gentiles who talked about Jesus being a “king”, not his Jewish followers. Anyway, that’s just my opinion.

  6. doug  November 21, 2016

    Since most Jews of Jesus’ time did not accept Jesus as the Messiah because he was pretty much the opposite of what they thought the Messiah would be like, do you have any thoughts on how Jesus convinced some or all of his disciples that he was the Messiah?

  7. tompicard
    tompicard  November 21, 2016

    Don’t these four points prove merely that the Sanhedrin TOLD Pilate that Jesus was claiming to be ‘The King of the Jews’ ?
    To PROVE Jesus claimed to be King of the Jews then you must prove the above point and also provide evidence that the Sanhedrin WERE NOT liars.

    Isn’t it also multiply attested that Pilate was reluctant to find Jesus guilty?
    I find the account EXTREMELY plausible i.e Pilate actually recognized the Sanhedrin as a bunch of hypocrites, yet unfortunately thought condemning Jesus was expedient.

    Do you think Pilate was such a fair judge that he would subpoena Judas testimony to corroborate the Sanhedrin’s accusations?

    Why didn’t Jesus merely deny the charge?
    I don’t know, but there can be many possible explanations
    a) he actually did deny it
    b) he felt denying it would have been fruitless
    c) he felt betrayed and discouraged at this point felt resigned to his fate and thus felt it more appropriate to remain silent
    d) etc etc etc
    however it is recorded that he actually neither confessed to the charge nor denied it.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 23, 2016

      No, I don’t think Judas was subpoenaed. And yes, there are lots of ways to explain what happened. One needs always to prefer the most plausible, looking at all the evidence!

      • tompicard
        tompicard  November 23, 2016

        Dr Ehrman,

        I don’t doubt that Jesus spoke in a manner that could be interpreted, if one wished to, as implying Jesus would be an earthly king. Though no conscientious person who listened to what he preached should call it criminal; No, just the opposite he demanded his followers to obey civil authority. So why was he even brought to trial?

        do you think it is historically likely or unlikely, as portrayed in the gospels, that Pilate saw Jesus’ accusers as hypocrites and was reluctant to condemn him?

        oh and about the subpoena, that was rhetorical but thanks for answering.

        • Bart
          Bart  November 24, 2016

          No, I don’t think the historical Pilate cared a fig about Jewish hypocrisy. That’s a later Christian view.

      • SBrudney091941
        SBrudney091941  December 4, 2016

        I guess, given that “most plausible” does not imply “correct.” One needs to accept that one is most plausible if it is most plausible but it might not be correct.

    • dankoh  November 26, 2016

      Actually, I think the evidence shows Pilate was not at all reluctant about condemning Jesus; more likely, he could have cared less (to paraphrase Lemonon on the topic). The few contemporary portraits we have of Pilate show that he was a typical Roman governor of the time: venal, ruthless, concerned to keep order so that Rome would not get upset. Both Josephus and Philo describe him this way (though Philo possibly went overboard). The gospels’ depictions of Pilate, on the other hand, gradually shift the blame from Pilate to the Jews precisely because the gospel writers were writing after the fall of Jerusalem and wanted the Roman world to see that the Jesus followers blamed the Jews, not Rome.

      Just a couple of inconsistencies to consider: Pilate had absolute authority in Judaea; the high priest owed his position to him, and even had to go to him each time he wanted the festival regalia. If Pilate thought Jesus was innocent, he would have just let him go; who was going to argue with him? Also, there is no record anywhere that there was a Jewish custom of releasing one prisoner on Passover (though the gospel readers in the Greek world would not have known that). Even if there was, Pilate is on record as showing no sensitivity whatever to Jewish laws and customs (when he wanted funds to build an aqueduct, he just took them from the Temple, and then had his soldiers slaughter the protestors). Also, consider that the high priest was afraid of Jesus because the people were following him (per the gospels). It does not make sense that the same people would, 12 hours later, all uniformly demand his execution (not that Pilate would have bothered to ask them).

      Finally, Pilate was a busy man; he almost certainly did the same thing to Jesus as he did to all the others accused of sedition ( rebellion): ask one or two perfunctory questions, say “Guilty! Next” and move on.

  8. talmoore
    talmoore  November 21, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman, the “King of the Jews” charge is something I have had to tackle within my novel, as well. I agree with you that the charge is so out of place within the gospels as to make it near certain to be authentic. But in having to fit it plausibly into my narrative (the whole point of the novel is to make it as plausible a reconstruction as possible) I’ve been forced to approach it through four layers of languages: Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek and Latin. That is to say, to make the charge of “King of the Jews” make sense within the context of the time and place, I’ve had to essentially reconstruct how such a charge could be communicated between the various parties.

    So I first have to begin with the man who would have heard the allegations and executed judgment: Pontius Pilate. Now, Pilate as a Roman spoke Latin, and in Latin there is no word for Messiah or “anointed one” (or, to be more accurate, the Latin words for “anointed,” unctus or unguentatus, are not exactly ennobling). So that would mean he would have to understand the term through the Greek, Χριστός. (As an aristocratic Roman Pilate would have definitely spoken Greek.) But Christos doesn’t mean “king” in Greek. The Greek for “king” is βασιλιάς. So in his mind Pilate had to associate Christos with Basilias, and then Basilias with Rex (king in Latin).

    But now Pilate, who it is very unlikely was an Aramaic speaker, and it is absolutely certain did not understand Hebrew, he had to understand that Jesus was claiming to be (or others were proclaiming him to be) this person in Hebrew called the משיח. So I can just imagine that Jesus is brought before Pilate, and Pilate is not about to ask Jesus if Jesus is claiming to be the Messiah. He’s also not going to ask Jesus if Jesus is claiming to be the Christ. Such questions would have been word salad to a Roman of the Equestrian Order. So there must have been a Shakespearean scene of the operator game, where a Jewish representative, speaking Aramaic, would have to explain that Jesus is claiming a Hebrew title, that a translator would then have to translate into the Greek as Christ, but then have to explain that the Christ was a title for a King, so that Pilate would then understand that Jesus was claiming to be a king. The King of the Jews.

    Hence, the charges attached to the cross weren’t: “Here is Jesus the Nazorene, who claimed to be the Messiah,” a sentence that would have been nonsense to Pilate. Instead was written: “Here is Jesus the Nazorene, who claimed to be King of the Judeans.” And that’s probably why that’s what we find in the gospel accounts.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 23, 2016

      Very interesting. And yes, the big quesiton I suppose would be whether htere were translators/interpreters present.

      • talmoore
        talmoore  November 23, 2016

        I would have to assume there was at least a translator present at the “trial”. (The reason I put trial in quotes is that I don’t think it was a proper trial, but more of a hasty meeting where Pilate met the accused Jesus, heard the allegations and evidence against him, and passed judgment, all within a very brief hearing.) I’m still in the process of fleshing out who exactly was at the “trial” in my novel, but I’m pretty sure at minimum I’ll included the following individuals for the following reasons:

        Jesus: the accused (naturally)
        Pilate: the judge and jury (presumably)
        A Roman officer, probably a centurian: who would have been in charge of arresting, keeping and, ultimately, executing Jesus (played by Richard Burton, naturally)
        Several Roman soldiers: serving as guards
        Some representatives of the Jewish authorities: there in lieu of the Jewish authorities, and this is important, because most of the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem were priests or Levites, who wouldn’t have risked potential defilement on the eve of Passover merely to oversee the “trial” of one possible troublemaker. If anything, they would have merely had some representatives there in an official capacity only. The Jews, themselves, had no authority. Pilate had all the authority. The several Jews there were merely witnesses.
        And lastly, at least one bilingual individual, probably a Jew: because it’s highly unlikely that Pilate spoke Aramaic. (He spent the vast majority of his time in Caesarea, a town where everyone, even the Jews, spoke Greek. I’ve been to Caesarea on several occasions. All the preserved stele and mosaics are in Greek or Latin. I saw none with Hebrew or Aramaic.) And it is highly unlikely that Jesus spoke Greek, so we have to assume that a translator was necessary in order for Pilate to interrogate Jesus.

        And, of course, if some of the Jewish representatives tried to explain the allegations against Jesus to Pilate, they wouldn’t say that Jesus was claiming to be the Messiah and leave it at that. Pilate would have no idea what a Messiah is and why it was so bad for Jesus to claim to be one. No, the Jews would have to then explain to Pilate what the Messiah is, and once Pilate got the sense a Messiah was an anointed ruler, that’s when he connected the dots and realized Jesus was claiming to be some kind of “King of the Jews”. And hence the final charges levelled against him.

        This is the only way the scenario plausibly plays out in my head, anyway.

        • Bart
          Bart  November 24, 2016

          Why would observing a trial lead to possible defilement before the Passover?

          • talmoore
            talmoore  November 24, 2016

            It’s not the trial per se that could lead to becoming defiled. It’s the idea that the entire city of Jerusalem, especially during times of festivals, seemed to have a pretty strict cleanness policy. (The Jews would protest even when an ostensible idol was brought inside the city gates; not within the Temple, just within the city itself! They didn’t even let dogs into the city for fear that a dog might carry in some human remains that could by chance touch something or someone that could then pass on it’s uncleanness onto something or someone, and so on and so forth until the whole city is טמא!)

            I get the sense that the priests and Levites (and probably the Pharisees) were especially paranoid about possible contaminants coming off of Gentiles, hence why there are so many halakhot in regard to contact with Gentiles. (Why else would Paul have given Peter such a hard time for not wanting to eat with Gentiles? Because Jews were habitually paranoid about contamination.)

            But there was one place in the city that appeared to be exempt from such scrutiny, and, ironically, it was right abut the Temple itself. The Antonia Fortress housed Jerusalem’s Roman garrison, and that’s the location to which Jesus would have likely been taken for interrogation. (And we know that the Jews feared the Romans entering the Temple area from the Antonia without proper notice, risking possible defilement, because the Jews were always complaining about it!)

            So it’s the first night of the Passover, with tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of peple crammed into Jerusalem, and the Romans have a suspected insurgent in custody within the Antonia. And you’re a priest or Levite or Pharisee or any other variation of Jewish authority. Are you going to go up into a tower full of Gentile soldiers, with their Gentile food stuffs, and Gentile untensils, and Gentile furniture, and Gentile clothes, etc. simply to be witness to the interrogation of a suspected malcontent?? I very, very much highly doubt it. You have more important matters to attend to. Let the goyim handle it.

        • dankoh  November 26, 2016

          I think there is a misunderstanding here about Jewish ideas about purity. First, there is the prohibition against contact with the dead; second, there are the ritual dietary laws that effectively prevented social contact with non-observers (and which is what Peter was complaining about). However, neither rule prevented the levites from having business contacts with the Romans. While it’s true that Passover was coming (there seem to be some inconsistencies about the exact date), the priesthood, which numbered in the thousands, could easily have spared one or two to go see Pilate about Jesus. There was no contact with the dead, and no eating of unclean food, so there would be no defilement.

          As to the “king of the Jews” part: Since Rome ruled the Jews, anyone claiming to be king was an obvious challenge to Rome, especially at Passover time, which celebrated Jewish freedom. The charge is seditio (rebellion or troublemaking). Some Levite whom Pilate probably knew stood up and said something like “This fellow claims he is the king of the Jews.” Pilate glances his way and says,. “Well, are you?” Jesus shrugs; Pilate says, “OK, crucify him.” And moves on.

          Oh, yes, probably there was a translator. The priest could have spoken Greek; many of the upper class did, but Jesus probably spoke only Aramaic.

          • talmoore
            talmoore  November 28, 2016

            “the priesthood, which numbered in the thousands, could easily have spared one or two to go see Pilate about Jesus”
            Hence what I mean by “representatives” of the Jewish authorities. Do I you think Caiaphas himself, who at that time would have been officiating the slaughtering and butchering of thousands upon thousands of livestock, do you think he would be taking time off to enter into a potentially contaminating environment simply to oversee the interrogation of a criminal?? I don’t think so. Any Jews who went in lieu of the kohen gadol — or any of the other leading priests and Levites — would probably have been pretty low on the totem pole, if you know what I mean. The assistant to the associate to the secretary and so on.

            And, sure, some aristocratic priests and Levites probably knew Greek. But you have to remember that the only people at that time who learned Greek in their childhood homes were the actual Greeks, i.e. people who lived either within a Greek polis or colony! All other Greek speakers had to be taught Greek, the same way that someone in China doesn’t learn English at home, but must go to school to learn English.

            Back in Jesus’ day going to school or hiring a tutor to learn Greek wasn’t cheap. That’s why you don’t hear about any lower-class Greek speakers from that time. It seems everyone who spoke or wrote Greek came from a pretty comfortable socio-economic class that allowed them the time and money to learn Greek. Even Josephus, who was himself an aristocratic priest from a well-to-do family, even he had to learn Greek (or at least learn better Greek) later in life in order to write his books. Josephus claims that until adulthood he primarily spoke Aramaic and Hebrew, and that his Greek was, more or less, terrible. That strongly suggests that Pilate must have communicated regularly with the Jewish authorities via Greek/Aramaic interpretors.

    • James Chalmers  November 23, 2016

      So we can be reasonably sure even rough and ready Pilate gave lowly rebel Jesus a semblance of due process? And did hire in a translator?
      And–a cool idea–a translator might have leaked accurate information about the proceedings to followers of Jesus? So we could know,, though not with great certainty, what passed between Jesus and Pilate?

      • talmoore
        talmoore  November 26, 2016

        “semblance of due process”
        Semblence is the key word. Pilate probably didn’t have the time or patience for a thorough investigation. Whatever evidence was put before him apparently was good enough.

        “a translator might have leaked accurate information about the proceedings”
        I very much highly doubt it. Jesus’ disciples had probably scattered like rats leaving a sinking ship by that point (the gospel basically tell us they did). Any any translator in the room was probably connected to the Jerusalem authorities, so he had no duty or inclination to brief any of the followers of an accused rebel leader.

    • Rick
      Rick  December 1, 2016

      talmore, just want you to know that I now have that scene playing in my head – with a very peeved Pontius Pilate loudly asking “why do I are if he wants to oil his head!”

  9. clipper9422@yahoo.com  November 21, 2016

    Even though Jesus wasn’t the kind of king that Jews expected the messiah to be, do you think the evidence that he thought of himself as some kind of king also supports the claim that he thought he was the messiah — and that his claimed kingship might have helped his followers accept him as the messiah despite Jesus being different from what was expected?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 23, 2016

      Yes, I think he thought he was the future king-messiah.

  10. tompicard
    tompicard  November 21, 2016

    Secondly,
    The thrust of Jesus preaching was the coming of the Kingdom of God, so isn’t it reasonable to ask who was to the head of that Kingdom?

    And Jesus spoke in a manner that could easily be misconstrued.
    James and John or maybe their mother misconstrued, I suppose unintentionally, that Jesus would have a throne and they wanted thrones on each side of his. Jesus tried to explain to them that that Kingdom and therefore its rulers were not the type they were expecting.

    It seems throughout history there are always prosecutors who like to twist a person’s words to use against them.
    Do you think the Sanhedrin were likely to use the same words James and John misunderstood to accuse Jesus before Pilate?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 23, 2016

      I think they simply heard Jesus was calling himself king, and that was all they needed.

      • James Chalmers  November 23, 2016

        So this term–king, not messiah–is traceable to Jesus himself? But it was not picked up by his followers–doesn’t appear in the gospels or Pau?

        • Bart
          Bart  November 24, 2016

          No, I think Jesus used the term messiah, but that was taken to mean “king” (which in fact it did mean)

          • SBrudney091941
            SBrudney091941  December 5, 2016

            Weren’t some prophets also anointed–ones who were special sons of God?

          • Bart
            Bart  December 5, 2016

            Yes, also priests.

          • SBrudney091941
            SBrudney091941  December 5, 2016

            But, if prophets and priests (at least some) were also anointed, then it’s not accurate to say that “messiah” does “in fact…mean” king, right? It could refer to a king but didn’t necessarily.

          • Bart
            Bart  December 7, 2016

            Messiah does not *mean* king. It *refers* to a king. And possibly to other things.

  11. TWood
    TWood  November 22, 2016

    This is a really interesting post. It makes some things I’ve “known” for years jell together in a synergetic way. Thanks. What’s strange is how Muhammad came up with the idea that Jesus didn’t die on the cross (which as you say, seems like a basic fact of history).

    Muhammad seems to take a similar approach to Basilides (where someone appears to take Jesus’ place on the cross). Then Jesus ascended sans dying at all.

    It’s often said Muhammad got his views from Nestorians, but doesn’t this sound a lot more like Basilides? or did Nestorius adopt ideas like Basilides? Below is the quote from the Quran:

    “And [for] their saying, “Indeed, we have killed the Messiah, Jesus, the son of Mary, the messenger of Allah.” And they did not kill him, nor did they crucify him; but [another] was made to resemble him to them. And indeed, those who differ over it are in doubt about it. They have no knowledge of it except the following of assumption. And they did not kill him, for certain. Rather, Allah raised him to Himself. And ever is Allah Exalted in Might and Wise.” Quran 4:157-158

    • Bart
      Bart  November 23, 2016

      Yes, it’s strange and hard to explain how the Qur’an would get something from Basilides. Presumably it was a tradition that continued on in the margins of Xty.

  12. godspell  November 22, 2016

    I’ve seen very strong arguments that he was crucified for defying the Temple Authorities, for behaving violently in the Temple courtyard, for questioning their authority–which was the same thing as questioning Rome’s authority, since Rome had entrusted them with keeping order among their people, preventing an uprising (which eventually came anyway).

    And it’s hardly impossible that the Temple authorities believed Jesus had called himself the King of the Jews, misinterpreted things he had said, in his typical allusive allegorical manner. It is difficult for the literal-minded to ever understand a mystic. The same problem occurred during the Inquisition, centuries later.

    If he was guilty of nothing more than saying “I am King of the Jews” in private, to a handful of poor followers with no military organization–would that really have been enough to get him crucified? I doubt that very much.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 23, 2016

      That may have been why the Jewish authorities were incensed with him. But it is nowhere reported as the reason the Roman authorities decided to crucify him.

      • godspell  November 24, 2016

        Something tells me that trial was not conducted with modern rules of evidence. Or any rules of evidence. If you want to even call it a trial.

        If the Temple Authorities were incensed with Jesus, if they felt he was a serious threat to their authority, to civic order, they could have exaggerated or outright fabricated things he’d said. Produced false witnesses to say he’d proclaimed himself King of the Jews. Jesus, like Socrates before him, would make a terrible witness on his own behalf. Philosophers, like mystics, are subject to being misinterpreted.

        Our only direct sources for the crucifixion are the gospels and Josephus–Josephus makes no mention of Jesus proclaiming himself king (and it’s unlikely he believed Jesus was Messiah). I doubt whoever rewrote the ‘Testimonium Flavianum’ would have edited it out if Josephus had mentioned that charge, since it bears out what is mentioned in the gospels.

        The gospels have Jesus refusing to answer the question directly. The three synoptics all have him saying “You have said so” alternately translated “You say so” (perhaps indicating sarcasm) in response to the question. At this point, Jesus knew he was going to die no matter what he said, and it’s possible that was his intent. Why not proclaim his kingship to the world, if he believes the Kingdom is coming, and the Son of Man will put an end to Rome? What does he have to lose? You can only be crucified once. (Well, that’s not strictly true, but in this context, once is all you get).

        Yes, later Christians may have been afraid to further provoke Rome, but how is it seditious to say Jesus was crucified for saying he was King of the Jews, if that’s what happened?

        It was hard for even Jesus’ own followers to understand him at times–this is a recurring theme in the gospels. He keeps saying “If you have ears, hear!” out of impatience at their inability to comprehend his meaning. But in fact, he’s hard for us to understand now.

        I think he was brought before the authorities because of his actions in the Temple Courtyard, and perhaps for the way he reportedly entered Jerusalem, in the manner of a conqueror, albeit one without an army. If he had not come to Jerusalem, and openly defied the Jewish authorities (and thus, indirectly, Rome’s authority), he might have continued to teach for many more years. Impossible to think he was not aware of the risk he was taking, and there’s evidence he avoided this kind of provocation for some time after John’s execution. Something had impelled him to act in such a way as to put his life at risk.

        Until he ACTED, his words meant little, and certainly not words only spoken to a handful of followers. As I said to another poster here, it makes little sense that Judas would be disgusted with him for proclaiming himself Messiah and King, since that’s precisely what a religious Jew following him would want. If it was a betrayal–as opposed to Judas carrying out Jesus’ will–that’s unlikely to be the motive.

        Jesus saw what happened to John. He knew he’d put himself in an impossible position. He had no reason to lie or evade, facing certain death at the hands of an authority that, once alerted to a potential threat, was strongly inclined to get rid of it. His followers would not have felt at liberty to obscure his claims of kingship, had he actually made those claims. Rome would not be much concerned with a crucified ‘king’ who had no heirs.

        The problem with Jesus is that he struggled to find words for what he felt he was. Messiah, Christ, King of Israel, King of the Jews, Elijah returned–he toyed with all of these and more, but none of them quite fit. I still believe that when he asked “Who do you say I am?” it wasn’t a rhetorical question. He was trying to figure that out himself. Maybe he thought the only way to find out was to put himself to the test.

    • talmoore
      talmoore  November 23, 2016

      I would think that Jesus’ commotion in the Temple was the pretext under which he was arrested. But it was Jesus’ claim to be a messianic king that got him executed. An illustrative analogy might be how a gangster gets arrested for drug possession, and it just so happens that his fingerprints are discovered to match those found at the location of an unsolved murder.

      • godspell  November 24, 2016

        Possible–and it would sound pretty bad, even in the context of the times, to say “We’re going to give this person one of the worst deaths imaginable for overturning a few tables at a bazaar.”

        But none of this proves Jesus said he was King of the Jews, publicly or privately. I agree there was a claim that he claimed this (this seems indisputable). There were a lot of claims about Socrates as well (some more believable than others), and he did, if possible, an even worse job of defending himself from them (and he may, like Jesus, have been less concerned with staying alive than your average defendant in a capital case).

        But we tend to project our present-day ideas of a fair trial back in time. In ancient times, there was no such thing. To be accused of something was basically to be presumed guilty of it. Pilate had nothing to lose by crucifying Jesus, but if it turned out he was really some zealot planning an uprising, and the legions had to be called in to quell it, whose neck is on the block? In his mind, better safe than sorry.

        How many women (and men) were judicially murdered in the Middle Ages for accusations of practicing witchcraft? Some in America as well. There were always witnesses to these alleged crimes. Do we believe they were telling the truth in all or even most cases? Probably many of the accused witches had said some things that were open to being misinterpreted as well.

        The issue, of course, is not whether we think Jesus got a fair trial–he didn’t get a trial at all. He was dead the moment the authorities took serious notice of him, and he knew it, and yet he seems to have gone to some pains to make sure they’d notice him. My conclusion is that he was looking for death, not running from it.

        We don’t know who accused him of saying he was King of the Jews. We don’t know what statements he might or might not have made to have led to those accusations. We do know that it’s very possible for people to be done to death–even today–for things they didn’t do.

        The only sane verdict is Not Guilty. We have ample evidence Jesus did not believe he would be a temporal king, and none that he thought he would be.

        And incidentally–if he told his followers they would be kings, and his private teachings were reported to the authorities–how come the Twelve were not also crucified? Clearly they all, with the possible exception of Jesus, had consented to this by continuing to follow Jesus.

        I understand it’s Bart’s job to try and figure out the story.

        But some parts of this story will never be fully figured out.

        • godspell  November 26, 2016

          “With the possible exception of Jesus”–whoops. Meant Judas.

        • talmoore
          talmoore  November 26, 2016

          I think the order of events was as follows:
          -Jesus, while preaching the imminent day of judgment, caused a ruckus in the Temple area
          -Said ruckus caught the attention of the Jerusalem authorities (both Jew and Roman)
          -Upon looking into the figure behind said ruckus (i.e. Jesus), the authorities came to find out Jesus was claiming to be the Messiah
          -Upon looking into this concept of the Messiah, the Roman authorities (i.e. Pilate) figured out that the Messiah was some kind of king or other earthly ruler
          -Once they connected all the dots, the authorities concluded that Jesus was a rebel leader, so he received the appropriate punishment, crucifixion

        • dankoh  November 26, 2016

          About your question on why the disciples were not crucified, I can think of a few reasons. The main one is that they never took any actions; only Jesus did, by overturning the tables and shouting that the priesthood was corrupt (which they were). Also, they ran away as soon as Jesus was arrested. Plus Pilate seems not to have known about them, nor much cared as long as they kept quiet.

          • talmoore
            talmoore  November 28, 2016

            Pilate probably subscribed to the philosophy that you kill the chicken by cutting off the head. So he killed the movement by killing the leader (i.e. Jesus).
            Or so Pilate thought.

          • godspell  December 1, 2016

            Except that Jesus never hurt anybody, and Peter reportedly cut someone’s ear off with a sword. And he was then hanging around near where Jesus was being held, and was supposedly recognized several times.

            Obviously we don’t assume all of this happened as reported, or at all, but given that Jesus had said violence was never justified, it does strike me as something that might have some basis in fact, however distorted the story could have become over time. My own suspicion is that Jesus only told his followers to get a few swords so that they could prove their submission to God’s will by laying them down. Some might have failed to understand this admittedly rather subtle bit of theater in the heat of the moment.

            When you’re out to stop a criminal conspiracy, which is how Pilate would have seen any Jewish cult that threatened the authority of Rome, you do not just kill the leader and assume everybody else will quiet down. That basically never works, because there’s always somebody to step up and take the place of the slain leader, and now they have a martyr to inspire them. At bare minimum, they should have rounded up as many as they could find, and send them to some penal colony, maybe a nice salt mine somewhere. That might actually have changed history. For good or ill is not really the historian’s purview to decide.

            Fortunately for Pilate, Jesus was not leading a revolutionary sect–not revolutionary in that sense–so even though Peter and others stepped forward to lead the cult (as Jesus would have expected them to), they took no violent actions against anyone. Peter may have erred that one time (I don’t know), but his shame over having failed his master would have made him all the more determined to live up to his teachings in future.

        • SBrudney091941
          SBrudney091941  December 5, 2016

          “one of the worst deaths imaginable”? Comedian Julia Sweeny talks about how her brother died over a six-week or six-month (I don’t recall) period suffering from lung cancer. She then says, “So let’s just say Jesus had a bad weekend.”

  13. tompicard
    tompicard  November 22, 2016

    Also
    He should have listened to his wife.

  14. rivercrowman  November 22, 2016

    Bart, I can’t remember any Catholic or Protestant apologists emphasizing that, according to the Gospels, Jesus admitted he was the King of the Jews.

  15. Tony  November 22, 2016

    Dr Ehrman

    Could you please identify where, in Paul’s letters, one might find: “the best attested event of his entire life: his crucifixion by the Romans” ?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 23, 2016

      It’s the one thing Paul says most frequently about the historical Jesus. Cf. 1 Cor. 2:2 for example.

      • Tony  November 23, 2016

        Paul never identifies where or when his Jesus was crucified. The closest he comes to “who” is 1 Corinthians 2:6-8; the “rulers of this age” who are “doomed to perish”. Here the “archons” are Satan and his Demons. Paul is silent (ignorant?) about the role of Romans, Pilate, the Sanhedrin etc. in the crucifixion. Of course, he identifies Roman authorities as agents of God who can do no wrong in Romans 13.

        The closest Paul comes to describing the crucifixion “how” is in Galatians 3:13, where he refers to Jesus as being hung on a tree. The OT reference is to the practice of displaying the post mortem body of an executed criminal. This is obviously not the Roman crucifixion method. Paul uses the Greek “stauros” which is translated as “crucifixion”, but that does not necessarily means the Roman execution method. Nailing, or hanging a body on a pole, stake or tree would use the Greek stauros and be translated as “crucified”.

        Would you agree that the notion of Jesus’ crucifixion by the Romans does not come from Paul’s writings, but from the Gospels?

        • Bart
          Bart  November 24, 2016

          The question is what does Paul mean when he says the *arcontes* (rulers) killed Jesus. How do we know what the word means for Paul? Only by seeing how he uses it in other contexts. The only other context he uses the term is Romans 13. And there he refers not to Satan and his demons, but to the Roman civil authorities. Unless there are compelling reasons for thinking otherwise, one would have to conclude that this is what he means by the term in 1 Corinthians as well.

          • Tony  November 24, 2016

            It is obvious that the archons in Rom 13 are earthly authorities. Paul sees these rulers as agents of God who can do no wrong. Good conduct need not fear, only the wrongdoer will be punished.

            Nowhere does Paul identifies his Lord Jesus Christ as having committed an act which resulted in his rightful execution!

            Applying Paul’s archons interpretation in Romans to 1 Corinthians leads to some startling disconnects. In 1 Cor 2:6-8 the rulers made an ignorant mistake, (None of the rulers of this age understood this), and “are doomed to perish”. So, agents of God who can do no wrong made mistakes and will perish.

            Clearly, the ignorant rulers of this age in 1 Corinthians are not the ones Paul writes so fawningly about in Romans.

          • Bart
            Bart  November 26, 2016

            Thanks for your comment. But that’s not so clear to me!

        • godspell  December 1, 2016

          Very belatedly–I don’t think Paul’s use of the term ‘tree’ is terribly meaningful in itself. Paul is given to rather inexact poetic use of language at times. He had a pronounced literary gift, and he liked to use it. To him, it just sounds better to say Jesus was hung from a tree, when he was in fact hung on a cross made from one or several trees. Ezra Pound called Jesus’ cross a ‘gallows tree’ in his Christian nautical poem, “Ballad of The Goodly Fere.” It’s a rather natural metaphor to employ, and would occur to many people independently.

          You really do not want to take Paul literally, or assume he’s always using the correct technical terminology. Paul didn’t live in the same world as most people, in his time or ours. Paul was a visionary and a poet and yes he had a pragmatic crafty side to him, which is probably all that kept him alive long enough to write those epistles. But still basically not someone entirely of this earth.

  16. Wilusa  November 22, 2016

    Here’s something I just began thinking about.

    As I understand it, Jews in Jesus’s era could believe in a coming divinely-ruled Kingdom *and/or* a Messiah. (Or neither; but I’m thinking about people who did accept one or both concepts.)

    Some of Jesus’s disciples were previously disciples of John the Baptist, who claimed the Kingdom was at hand. If they embraced both concepts, might they have believed the Messiah *had to* appear in the same time frame as the Kingdom? Playing a part in bringing it about, and/or ruling it? (There seemingly wouldn’t have been any *need* for a savior-figure once the Kingdom existed!)

    If those were their beliefs, they might have thought John was the Messiah, even though he wasn’t claiming that or doing things most believers would have expected the Messiah to do.

    His death proved he wasn’t. But let’s suppose those disciples still believed that if the Kingdom was coming soon, the Messiah had to be coming too.

    They transferred their loyalty to Jesus. He too claimed the Kingdom was at hand. So might they then have decided *he* had to be the Messiah – even though he, like John, wasn’t claiming it or doing things the Messiah was traditionally expected to do? Might they have convinced him, rather than the reverse? (I admit I’d prefer to believe that; I’d have a less unfavorable view of Jesus.)

    And might Judas have been a disciple who never had believed in a coming Messiah, but only in the Kingdom? Expecting it to be ruled not by a human like Jesus, but by an obviously supernatural Being who’d descended from the clouds? That would explain a lot.

    • godspell  November 24, 2016

      There’s no evidence any religious Jews of this period believed in the Kingdom without The Christ.

      Jesus is supposed to have told Judas to betray him.

      This is portrayed in the gospels as his having prophetic powers, the supernatural ability to look into the hearts of men–but if you don’t believe Jesus had any such powers, wouldnt another explanation be that Judas was doing as Jesus had asked him?

      That would explain even more.

    • dankoh  November 26, 2016

      If John’s death proved to his followers that he was not the messiah, wouldn’t Jesus’ death have done the same?

      While there were a lot of ideas about the messiah at the time, they were all about a living human being (not a dead or supernatural one). The idea of a messianic age as opposed to a personal messiah came along later in Judaism.

      Also, messiah (or for that matter, christos) just means “anointed” as in “the anointed king.” Isaiah called Cyrus a messiah, for example. There was at that time no idea of a single unique “messiah.”

  17. Tempo1936  November 22, 2016

    Isn’t being called the Messiah, The anointed one, which was a common name for Jesus, the same as being called king of the Jews?
    Matthew 16:16
    Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
    Doesn’t Jesus come close to admitting to be the king of the Jews in this passage?

    He certainly does not deny it

    What’s the difference between Messiah and king?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 23, 2016

      Yes, in this thread I’m not asking what the Gospel writers’ views were, but what actually happened in the life of the historical Jesus. (I don’t think Matthew 16:16 is historical)

  18. Wilusa  November 22, 2016

    A P.S. to my previous post: Might it even be possible that *neither John the Baptist nor Jesus had believed in* a future “Messiah,” until some of Jesus’s disciples convinced him it was he? That would *really* have riled Judas!

  19. RonaldTaska  November 22, 2016

    If like me, you have struggled trying to separate the legendary from the historical Jesus, then I strongly recommend Dr. Ehrman’s book entitled “Jesus:Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium.” It is a terrific book.

  20. Tempo1936  November 23, 2016

    How common were crucifixions in Jerusalem at this point in time? 1/week or 10/month?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 23, 2016

      We don’t really know.

    • Eric  November 30, 2016

      I believe Crassus (pre-Trimvirate) was said to have crucified a couple hundred thousand at the conclusion of his defeating the Spartacus movement.

  21. davitako  November 23, 2016

    Bart, my question slightly digresses, sorry. It has to do with Jesus and the Son of Man.

    You’ve often said that in the Gospels, when Jesus is talking about the Son of Man in third person, he doesn’t mean himself. At the same time, Jesus viewed himself as the future ruler (king) of Israel.

    Matthew 19:28 (“Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.”). If “Son of Man”, here, isn’t Jesus (as the one enthroned), where does he fit in the context of this passage? In other words, is it Jesus who’s the future king, or the Son of Man?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 23, 2016

      Yes, in Matthew’s view Jesus is the Son of Man. What I’ve been arguing is that there are *some* sayings in the Gospels (not all the sayings) in which Jesus appears to differentiate between himself and the son of man. Those are the ones Christians would not have invented.

  22. tompicard
    tompicard  November 23, 2016

    Dr Ehrman,

    Pilate and Judas, James, John, probably all the disciples greatly misunderstood Jesus’ teaching about the ‘Kingdom of God’. Doesn’t ‘Kingdom of God’ always imply a king?

    The disciples mistakenly thought Jesus teaching destined them to be rulers living in great palaces commanding the respect of those unrighteous sinners who were now oppressing them. Pilate likewise imagined Jesus a threat, (still not exactly sure why) based on what he was told of Jesus message.

    [Question raised from my recent reading of John Cobb’s book “Jesus’ Abba” ] Does the Greek New Testament phrase used/proclaimed by Jesus ‘Kingdom of God’ necessarily imply a ‘King’?
    thanks

    • Bart
      Bart  November 24, 2016

      Yes, kingdoms always have kings.

      • SBrudney091941
        SBrudney091941  December 5, 2016

        Hence the words “Kingdom of GOD.”

        • tompicard
          tompicard  December 7, 2016

          yes, thank you i understand that the english word ‘kingdom’ implies the a ‘king’

          the question was whether the word spoken by Jesus (or if we don’t know that word exactly) the greek word that Mark or Luke or Matthew used ‘basileia’ NECESSARILY implies the english word ‘king

          I had understood it ‘basileia’ meant a politically defined region, regardless of title held by the leader of that region, be it president as in US govt, or parent as in a home, etc.

          • HistoricalChristianity  December 8, 2016

            It’s not necessary to answer that question. The phrase translated kingdom of God was very widely used among Jews in Palestine at the time. It always had the commonly understood meaning. At the very least, it meant a politically independent Israel, free of Roman rule. In the Jewish apocalyptic worldview, it meant the state of the world after the apocalypse, when God takes away the evil people for punishment, leaving only the righteous people. The world (or at least Palestine) would then be ruled directly, either by God, or by an agent of God. Perhaps the earliest expression of that idea is the ‘one like a son of man’ in Daniel, probably around 165 BCE.

            The meaning of a word always depends on context. In this case, context makes the meaning crystal clear.

  23. SidDhartha1953  November 28, 2016

    John 19:22 may suggest why Pilate would not ignore any claim to be King of the Jews, even from a harmless crank. The Jewish leaders object to the sign “the King of the Jews,” and say it should read, “He said he was the King of the Jews.” Pilate replies that he meant what he wrote, which Christological interpreters say means Pilate believed Jesus was special or that he wanted to insult the Jews who rejected Jesus. But could he not have also been saying, This is what Rome will do to any purported King of the Jews, however unlikely the claim?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 29, 2016

      Yup!

    • HistoricalChristianity  December 5, 2016

      No, Rome did not do that. The synoptic authors show Jesus being acquitted of that accusation. But the second tactic was to threaten riot. It was on that basis alone that Rome is said to have executed Jesus. The primary job of these regional kings and governors was to collect the taxes and to keep the peace. The authors want to show Jesus being executed despite being a good, innocent man. Falsely accuse him of Zealotry, then threaten riot.

  24. HistoricalChristianity  December 2, 2016

    Read the gospel narratives more carefully. Mostly they say that Jesus was accused of being a Zealot, but then adjudicated innocent of that charge by Pilate and/or Herod. A Zealot leader would, if successful, become the king of Judea (thus, the Jews). When that accusation failed, they threatened to riot. That was enough for a Roman leader to execute someone.

  25. Adam0685  December 7, 2016

    A 30 second video of you from over 20 years ago talking about why Jesus was sentenced to death. Has your views changed? 🙂
    https://www.facebook.com/goodacre/videos/10153919323576338/

    • Bart
      Bart  December 8, 2016

      Ha! Yeah, Mark sent that to me yesterday. What a scream. So young, so scruffy, and so high-pitched! But I still think what I did then…

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