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Jesus’ Crucifixion as King of the Jews

It is often said that one of the best pieces of evidence that Jesus is to be understood as a political insurgent who favored the overthrow of the Roman empire by means of (human) force is that he was crucified on charges of political insurgency. If he was charged with insurgency, he was probably an insurgent. There is, of course, a powerful logic to this view, but it has its flaws, and an alternative explanation actually works better.

In terms of flaws, it needs to be noted and emphasized that in our sources the other two people crucified with Jesus were called lestai (sometimes translate “robbers” – but Josephus uses it to refer to someone engaged in guerrilla warfare against the ruling authorities, an armed insurgent). So too in the Gospel of John, Barabbas – the one the crowds preferred to Jesus – is also called a lestes. But – here’s the *big* point: Jesus is NOT called a lestes in these accounts. Ever. And he is not condemned to death –as are these others – for being a lestes. He is condemned for calling himself the king of the Jews. There’s a big difference.

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Final Loose Threads on the Zealot Hypothesis
Jesus and the Temple

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    toddfrederick  January 6, 2014

    I agree with what you are saying as the primary thesis of your post. I have, however, a question that is not directly related to who Jesus said he was and why he was executed, but has to do with the *sources* of this information.

    I also agree with the idea of dissimilarity as a criteria for authenticity, but I want to ask a question that I have asked before but still do not have a clear understanding.

    Evidently the “Q” source is quite authentic, but why? And, other sources of Jesus’ sayings may be related to oral traditions and even to early church teachings that were fed back into the Gospels and are less authentic.

    Jesus did not have a scribe walking with him taking notes. There was no one writing down what was said by Jesus to his disciples, or the conversations with the high priest or with Pilate or a secretary writing down the details of the miracles and on and on.

    I find it hard to accept that what we have in the New Testament is the authentic material was was actually said and done by Jesus (in the strict historic sense).

    You said that the statement about Jesus relating to God’s Kingdom on earth and who was to rule and that Jesus thought he was the King of the Jews and that Judas reported that to the religious authorities. How do we know that this is historically accurate?

    How can we know that one item is authentic and others aren’t? I did read your book dealing with the criteria, but I am not convinced.

    I came to your blog believing that most of what was written was based on lost early documents or reliable oral traditions handed down from times early in Jesus’ ministry, and so on. I have since changed that view based on the scholarship you have presented here and in your books.

    ***Question*** How do we know, absolutely and historically, that even those sayings of Jesus that meet the criteria you use are authentic and not simply the teachings of the early church fed back into the Gospel documents?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  January 8, 2014

      These are great questions — and they show what a miserable job of communicating I’ve been doing!! Rather than answer here, I’ll devote a post to them.

      • Avatar
        toddfrederick  January 8, 2014

        Bart…thank you very much. Todd

    • Avatar
      donmax  January 11, 2014

      I like your comments very much, Todd. You are so right, Jesus did NOT have a personal biographer like Boswell, taking notes and “reporting” what was being said and done at any given moment in time. It is a mistake, I think, to treat the the Gospels, including the Book of Acts, as *history*. They may reflect slivers of truth, of course, but very little that is definitive. Instead, we should understand and approach what was written purely, or at least mostly, as *literature*, where characters and events reveal a different kind of truth, something akin to ancient storytelling with literary themes and fictive embellishments. More than that, I find the dependency of modern historians/scholars referring to theoretical sources like the Q documents, and relying on interpretive devices such as multiple attestations, dissimilarity, etc., to be a convenient but misleading way of picking and choosing between historical fact and non-historical fabrication. In essence, this is not much different from what other great thinkers have done (even distinguished scientists like Isaac Newton) in bygone days.

      Perhaps what we need is a new way of talking about biblical truth, something more literary, less historical and nonreligious.

  2. Avatar
    Clayton Strand  January 6, 2014

    I don’t think that what occurred in Jerusalem in the middle of the first century can be known, even in outline, with only one point of view, that of Josephus available, except in fragments. I still remain curious, for instance, if Paul was not a Roman Citizen, why he was sent by Felix to Rome for trial. It hints, to me, of him being involved in some larger political adventure, or at least being accused of being involved in one, and what political adventure was current in Palestine at the time besides Jewish independence?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  January 8, 2014

      Acts is our only source that indicates Paul was a Roman; it is also the only source that indicates that Felix sent him to Rome for a trial. So if it’s not reliable for the first claim, there’s no reason (on the surface) to trust its other claim

  3. Avatar
    judaswasjames  January 6, 2014

    Bart,

    You speak of “two other people who were crucified with Jesus” as if it were an established fact. What corroboration is there for this besides the four fictional NT gospels?

    And what’s up with this?

    The twelve disciples of Jesus will be twelve rulers of the future kingdom. The reason no later Christian would make up this saying is that among the twelve Jesus is talking to is Judas Iscariot, who obviously and definitely – for early Christians – would NOT be one of the rulers of the future kingdom. Then why is there a saying of Jesus that indicates he will be? Because this is an actual saying of Jesus, spoken before the events of his last days and hours – before Judas’s betrayal. In other words, it’s an authentic saying, something Jesus really said.

    Maybe the gospel writers just screwed up and forgot about Judas. Seems Paul did, too! (- 1 Cor. 15:5)

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  January 8, 2014

      There’s no other corroboration, although Mark, Luke, Acts, and the Gospel of Peter all have independent attestations of the claim.

      • Avatar
        judaswasjames  January 8, 2014

        So, therefore, it is historical? These are “independent”? Not derived?

        You didn’t take on the second question. Paul’s silence on it speaks volumes. He loved to say what happens to those who cross his Lord.

  4. Robertus
    Robertus  January 6, 2014

    Do you think Jesus was important enough to actually merit a trial before Pilate? With only a couple of dozen Galilean followers who apparently abandoned him at the first sign of trouble?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  January 8, 2014

      Great question. My sense is that he was in town precisely for such occasions. The way I imagine it is that he had a daily agenda, including — that morning — three capital cases that may have taken about a minute each to deal with .

  5. Avatar
    Azeus  January 6, 2014

    What are your thoughts about using Gamaliel the Elder as a historical withness to an actual Jesus figure? The Martyrdom of Pilate and Gospel of Gamaliel are 5th cen but arent there much older references in koine Greek and Syriac? If I am unaware of some obvious objection of scholarship on this forgive me as I am all too aware of my limitations from this arm chair. Thanks.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  January 8, 2014

      I don’t think we have access to the historical Gamaliel. The later sources, from centuries later, are simply Christian legends.

  6. Avatar
    Jrgebert  January 6, 2014

    If the Q source never knew of Judas’ betrayal of Jesus, it could make up such as statement by Jesus. It could make up such a statement because the source beleived Jesus was the Messiah. Are there reasons that you beleive the Q source material are really statements of Jesus and not made up? I beleive the Q source material contains the temptations of Jesus in the desert which I beleive was not historical.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  January 8, 2014

      I absolutely do NOT think that the Q source contains historically accurate material and nothing but historically accurate material! Quite the contrary. I’ll talk about this in a post soon.

  7. Brad Billips
    Brad Billips  January 6, 2014

    Are there any other references to the twelve tribes ruling again in other sources (non-canonical, Dead Sea Scrolls, Josephus, etc.)? Or is it a historical reference only made by Jesus? Thanks.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  January 8, 2014

      No, the twelve tribes do not rule; they are *ruled* — i.e. Israel will exist, in full, yet again.

  8. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  January 6, 2014

    Very interesting – a coherent explanation which explains a lot of pieces. I would be interested in reading a “scholarly” opposing, critical (in the good sense of the word) view to this theory. Thanks for putting so many pieces together.

  9. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  January 6, 2014

    Hmmm? For me, the weak link in your post is your thesis that Jesus said things to His disciples that He did no say in public. If, indeed, Jesus, did say such things, wouldn’t the disciples have told others this information, after the death of Jesus, and wouldn’t such information then haven gotten passed along via oral tradition and then included in at least one of the Gospels?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  January 8, 2014

      They did tell others. That’s why we have traditions about what Jesus taught them in private (e.g., Mark 4).

  10. Avatar
    fishician  January 6, 2014

    Maybe a minor point, but when asked by Pilate about being king of the Jews doesn’t Jesus say, “You say so,” rather than “Yes”? Maybe that’s just a clever way of avoiding a direct answer. And of course that’s a Greek translation of what I assume would have been an Aramaic response, if the gospel writers even had any real knowledge of what Jesus and Pilate said, if in fact there was any meeting between them at all. But I certainly don’t see Jesus advocating a rebellion against Rome for the simple reason that it would be unnecessary – he thought God himself was soon going to take care of that evil empire and establish his own righteous kingdom.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  January 8, 2014

      Yes, my view is that we have no clue about what *exactly* was said at the trial, or how it was conducted. But my sense is that it was short and sweet. Jesus was accused of calling himself King, and Pilate asked if it were true, and Jesus either said yes, didn’t reply, or didn’t say anything to get himself off the hook.

  11. Avatar
    hwl  January 6, 2014

    Why do you think Jesus thought he qualified to be king over God’s coming kingdom? Was he the only apocalyptic prophet who claimed to be God’s appointed king?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  January 8, 2014

      He’s the only one I can think of. I’m not sure why he thought it. There are a lot of people who feel like God has called them for a special purpose. (E.g., the apostle Paul!)

    • Avatar
      donmax  January 11, 2014

      The protagonist of the NT gospels, while ambivalent about his role in the coming kingdom (at least according to Schweitzer’s “A Psychiatric Study of Jesus”), must have been aware of his own heritage. Even Matthew and Luke managed to open their stories with his family bloodline, a royal lineage, it seems, extending all the way back to King David and Adam.

  12. Avatar
    hwl  January 6, 2014

    What did early Christian tradition preserved the saying about the twelve ruling over the kingdom, when it must have been well-known at the start of the Christian movement that Judas was a black sheep?

  13. Avatar
    hwl  January 6, 2014

    There is still one detail I don’t get – why from perspective of Pilate and Roman authorities, the claim to be king of the Jews is a more serious political offence (deserving death penalty) than claiming God will destroy the Romans (not deserving death penalty)?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  January 8, 2014

      They weren’t interested in theology. The claim to be a king was a political claim. The Romans couldn’t execute every apocalypticist — that would have been a massive portion of the entire Palestinian population!

  14. Avatar
    jutterback  January 6, 2014

    Bart,

    Would Jesus coming down on the practice of slavery gotten him in trouble immediately with the Romans?

  15. Avatar
    Shubhang  January 6, 2014

    Dear Dr. Ehrman, I remember reading this theory in you book on the Gospel according to Judas and thought this was quite convincing, it ties a lot of loose ends together. I have a question, is this view a ‘consensus’ view among scholars? If not, what is the consensus on why Jesus was crucified? Was it just the ruckus in the temple a subsequent pre-emptive execution by the Romans?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  January 8, 2014

      This view is widely held (I didn’t come up with it!); I’m not sure what the consensus would be, but my guess is that it is something like this.

    • Avatar
      judaswasjames  January 8, 2014

      Shubjhang,

      Please. It is NOT the Gospel “according to” Judas. BART — correct this kind of error, will ya please? You wrote A BOOK about it , for cryin’ out loud. It is the Gospel OF Judas. There is a difference, a BIG difference. The Coptic title is “NIOYUDAS” — check it out if you think not, “NI is “of” not “according to”. This is the Good News OF Judas. That’s why the whole thing is about HIM and not Jesus, even at the sacrificial climax. It is a MYSTIC self-sacrifice!!! There are textual reasons to confirm this.

  16. Avatar
    Wilusa  January 6, 2014

    Many of us (including you, I know) believe Jesus had no reason to imagine either that he possessed miraculous powers, or that there’d been anything remarkable about his birth. But if he’d started out as just a man who’d been impressed by John the Baptist’s message, and begun preaching when John was no longer free to do it, how did he come, ultimately, to have such an exalted view of *himself*? Do you think he really did have some kind of “vision” experience when he was being baptized by John?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  January 8, 2014

      Great question! I’m always dubious of the idea that we can pinpoint it (It was at the baptism!). But lots of people have exalted views of themselves where we can’t figure out when they started having them. I guess that’s what I think about Jesus.

  17. Avatar
    hwl  January 6, 2014

    Presumably Jesus had been to the Temple for Passover many times during his life. Isn’t it peculiar that he only felt incensed at the activities in the Temple during his last visit?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  January 8, 2014

      I think the last week of his life was his first time there. It was about a week-long walk from Nazareth, and for people trying to eke out a hand-to-mouth existence there simply wasn’t time or money to make the trip.

      • Avatar
        hwl  January 8, 2014

        Jesus made only one trip to the Temple in his life: so are scholars pretty confident that Luke 2’s account of the boy Jesus in the Temple was apocryphal?

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  January 9, 2014

          Yup. (It’s foreshadowing the resurrection: notice they find him “after three days”)

          • Avatar
            judaswasjames  January 9, 2014

            Ever notice Hosea 6:2 has “in three days he will raise US up”? Maybe that’s just a general reference to “a little while”.

  18. Avatar
    Michael Burgess  January 6, 2014

    OFF-TOPIC QUESTION (no disrespect intended): Are there any handy computer apps that busy scholars at your level use for archiving, appending and sorting large images of documents and miscellaneous textual notes?

  19. steventrisel
    steventrisel  January 6, 2014

    This view seems to make the most sense as an explanation of why Jesus was crucified. In my view, it’s unfortunate that the early followers of Jesus continued to embellish the aftermath of the story to say that he rose from the dead and that he was one with God and was God, and further claiming that his death was the ultimate atonement for the sins of the elect. In any event, on a related note, I wonder about Reza Aslan’s recent book, “Zealot,” that claims that Jesus was a non-violent follower of the zealot doctrine (based on Jesus’ teachings concerning the Kingdom of God)? Specifically, I wonder if the zealot idea has any merit or played any part in the decision to crucify Jesus? -sbt

    • steventrisel
      steventrisel  January 7, 2014

      I apologize for my question — I’m now reading your earlier posts regarding Reza Aslan’s views! -sbt

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  January 8, 2014

      That’s what I’ve been discussing on the blog for the past few weeks!

      • steventrisel
        steventrisel  January 8, 2014

        A sincere mea culpa! I should have looked before I made my comment-leap! To be honest, I’ve been away from the site for a while and, upon returning from my hiatus, immediately accessed the newest post on 1/6. I also used my B&N Nook, rather than my PC, to see what was new. Unfortunately, due to the restricted view on my small Nook screen, I didn’t simultaneously see all the related (and voluminous) links on this topic until it was too late. Is there a way to retract comments after they’ve been submitted by dummies like me? Thanks for considering!

        p.s. I’m really looking forward to your forthcoming book, “How Jesus Became God,” due out in March. I also recently discovered and have been enjoying the high quality videos posted on your You Tube channel. I hope you will continue to add more of them over the next year!

  20. Avatar
    Peter  January 7, 2014

    Bart.

    Is the fact that the disciples of Jesus weren’t rounded up and sentenced as he was sentenced evidence of his “non-violent” message, do you think? Or was the number of followers he attracted so small that it wasn’t worth the hassle of tracking them down?

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