In this post I shift from a general overview of what we can know about Jesus’ last days/hours to a specific instance.  What can we actually know about his trial before Pontius Pilate, that led to his crucifixion?    Do we know the details?  Can we get the gist?   Is there *anything* that is (relatively) certain?   Or are all the things “remembered” in the Gospel writings distorted?

From my book, Jesus Before the Gospels (HarperOne):

An Illustration of the Method: Jesus’ Trial Before Pilate

The biggest question we have to deal with at the outset is also the most obvious one.  How do we know if a memory of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels is accurate, by which I mean that it is something that in fact did not actually take place?   My analyses in this series of posts will be based on a premise that it is indeed possible to uncover a distorted recollection of Jesus’ life, and that it can be done in one of two ways.

On one hand, there are some memories of the same event from the life of Jesus that are at odds with one another.  This happens, for example, when different Gospels tell different versions of the same incident.  It is true that sometimes different versions of an event are simply looking at the same thing in a different way.   But sometimes the differences are stark enough – or even contradictory – that it is clear that they both, or all, can’t be true to what actually happened.  When that is the case, then one or more of the descriptions cannot be historically accurate and represent somebody’s distorted memory. [1]

On the other hand, there are some descriptions of past events that are simply implausible – utterly beyond what seems likely.   These, of course, have to be argued, and explained, on a case-by-case basis.  Still, there are such descriptions in our accounts, both of Jesus’ life and of his death.  Since these are historically implausible episodes, they too would appear to represent distorted memories.   These distorted memories are important, I will argue, not only for knowing as best we can what really happened in Jesus’ life (although certainly that), but also for knowing what his later followers thought was really important about his life, presumably because their own present contexts were influencing how they remembered him in the ways they did.

I will try to illustrate both ways of detecting distorted memories by picking a single example that contains both features: some aspects of the description differ from one Gospel account to the other, and several other aspects are simply implausible.   The example involves Jesus’ trial before Pilate, as described in all four of our canonical Gospels.

As I have indicated, most critical scholars would agree that

Unlock 4,000+ Articles Like This!

Get access to Dr. Ehrman's library of 4,000+ articles plus five new articles per week about the New Testament and early Christianity. It costs as little as $2.99/mth and every cent goes to charity!

Learn More!