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A Rational Look at Christianity; Basing Reason in Truth

(After waiting more than a month, my library has finally provided me with a copy of Michael Baigent's The Jesus Papers. This is part three of some posts that I intend to write reviewing parts of the book as the mood strikes me. Part I is located here and Part II is located here.)

With Chapter 3, Michael Baigent turns from telling irrelevant tales that seem to be divorced from reality (chapter 1) and drawing conclusions from minor changes in artwork (Chapter 2) to something of an analysis of the Biblical accounts of Jesus life. Of course, to do so he has to confront the Bible, and he doesn't seem to be able to do that in an honest fashion. Here's what he says:

First, and importantly, crucifixion was historically the punishment for a political crime. According to the Gospels, however, Pilate gave Jesus over to the mobs, who then brayed for his execution on the basis of religious dissent. The Jewish execution for this particular transgression was death by stoning. Crucifixion was a Roman punishment reserved for sedition, not religious eccentricity. This contradiction alone illustrates that the Gospels are not reporting the matter truthfully. Could they be trying to hide some vital aspects of the events from us? Trying to blame the wrong people perhaps?

Now, what he says about some of the facts involved is largely accurate. Crucifixion was historically the punishment by the Romans for a political crime, but according to the Jewish Encyclopedia crucifixion was the punishment for several crimes including piracy, highway robbery, assassination, forgery, false testimony, mutiny, high treason and rebellion. He is also correct that Pilate gave Jesus over to the mobs who were brayng for his excution on the basis of religious dissent. The Jewish execution for blasphemy was stoning. Is this a contradiction? Hardly -- al least it isn't a contradiction if you take some time to look into what the Gospels say.

First, it is certainly clear that Jesus was initially tried by the Sanhedrin (who had plotted to kill him) in a technically illegal trial. All of the Gospels reported that they were looking for a reason to kill him, but found no evidence of wrong until they asked him if he was the coming messiah. Now, the Gospel accounts differ a little in the wording as to exactly what Jesus was asked and how he responded, but all of them make it very clear that Jesus said words to the effect that "I am the messiah and the Son of God." Now, it was not a crime to claim to be the messiah -- the people were awaiting the arrival of the messiah and it would have been pretty silly to put to death anyone who actually claimed to be the messiah. What the chief priests, teachers of the law and elders objected to was Jesus claim to be the Son of God -- a claim which they called blasphemy (they knew exactly what Jesus meant when He made that claim).

So why didn't they just stone him then and there? Well, for one thing, they had just had an illegal trial and that would have reflected poorly on them as the upstanding members of the religious community which had very strict rules of proper conduct. But more importantly, as John 18:31 notes, the Romans had taken away from the Jews the right to kill anyone.

Pilate said, "Take him yourselves and judge him by your own law."
"But we have no right to execute anyone," the Jews objected. This happened so that the words Jesus had spoken indicating the kind of death he was going to die would be fulfilled.

Are the Gospels the only place where this restriction was recorded? No, apparently not. According to J.P. Holding's article "The Trial on Trial : A Defense of the Authenticity of the Trial Narratives ", most historians agree that the Romans generally reserved the right to execute prisoners to themselves:

Although many writers in the past disputed it [see Wint.TJ, 74ff; Carm.DJ, 39] , and amateur nuisance-writers like Fricke continue to assert it [Fric.CMJ, 112] , it is, in fact, contra Price, well-attested that Sherwin-White was correct - the Jews did not have the right to execute someone at the time of Jesus [see Bamm.TJ, 59-63; Pesc.TJC, 18-9; Wils.ExJ, 15; Harv.JTr, 4] , although they were able to pronounce death sentences which had to be ratified and carried out. The Romans seldom granted ANYONE capital power, and there is "(n)o evidence from any Roman source...that the Romans ever granted the right of capital power punishment to provincial courts." (If it was to be granted ANYWHERE, it would be to free states that had shown special loyalty to Rome...hint for the dense-minded: Judea was NOT one of these! And this tells us one reason why it was not granted: In decidedly Roman-unfriendly areas, it could be used by the local courts to deal with local Roman sympathizers!) In fact, it is notable how picky the Romans were about restricting the power: Particularly, a decree of Augustus to the proconsul of Cyrene, dated 7-6 BC, SPECIFICALLY EXCLUDES capital power from the province of the native court! [Wils.ExJ, 13] It is further noted by Overstreet [Overs.RLTC, 326] that the high priest Annas (yes, the one in the Gospels!) was deposed in AD 15 precisely BECAUSE he took it upon himself to violate this exclusion in between times of procuratoruial assignments. Capital punishment was a right that the Romans reserved unto themselves, and while in the interest of peace they might wink an eye at occasional violations on the local level (see below), officially speaking, the law was taken seriously . . . .

Note that the reasoning reserving the capital punishment to Rome: the Romans were concerned that if the Jews retained the right to put people to death outside of Roman authority, the Jews would put to death everyone who cooperated or even sympathized with the Romans. It was a political move.

So, the Jewish leaders had a problem: they wanted to kill Jesus for blasphemy but they knew they couldn't do that without getting the blessing of Pontius Pilate. They needed the Romans to order the execution and they needed to paint a reason for doing so. What was the most obvious reason? The messiah was to come and be king of the Jews. Jesus had admitted to being the messiah, so that was the charge under which they brought him to Pilate. As Luke reports, the Jewish leaders led him to Pilate where they accused him of many things, but the first and foremost charge was that he claimed to be the King of the Jews.

"We have found this man subverting our nation. He opposes payment of taxes to Caesar and claims to be Christ, a king."
So Pilate asked Jesus, "Are you the king of the Jews?"

Again, the exact wording differs in the four Gospels, but it is clear that Jesus answers this question affirmatively -- he is the King of the Jews. So, now we know why the Jews didn't stone him without taking him to Pilate and why the charge against Jesus was sedition -- a charge for which crucifixion was the appropriate punishment.

The Bagient paragraph quoted above suggests that after Pilate washed his hands of the matter and turned him over the the crowd, the crowd should have stoned him and instead crucified him which suggests that he was really tried for sedition. (Baigent does not directly say this, but it can be inferred if his paragraph is read broadly). So, assuming this is his objection, is it well-grounded? Well, the simple answer is this: the Bible reports that Pilate handed him over to the crowd "to be crucified." (Mark 15:15) Why crucified and not stoned? The Bible is unclear, but there are at least two possible reasons.

First, Pilate was a cruel man. According to the Jewish Virtual Library in an article definitely not favorable to the Gospel views of the resurrection:

Even among the long line of cruel procurators who ruled Judea, Pilate stood out as a notoriously vicious man. He eventually was replaced after murdering a group of Samaritans: The Romans realized that keeping him in power would only provoke continual rebellions.

So, why might Pilate have send Jesus to be crucified and not stoned? Possible answer: he liked to see people suffer.

Second (and more likely, in my opinion), Pilate was not happy having been thrust in that situation by the Jews. The Bible reports that Pilate was not predisposed to rubber-stamp the decision of the Jewish leaders to have him killed, and to a limited extent fought against it for several reasons (his wife's dream, the feeling that they were trying to trap him, etc.). But he he also may have known, the Jewish leaders were "stirring up the crowds" (Mark 15:11) and trying to force his hand into killing a religious dissident. Ultimately Pilate, who really didn't care about the entire affair, decided to turn the tables on them: he turned Jesus over to the Jews to execute, but if they were to execute Jesus it had to be by the Roman custom of punishment of crucifixion -- a type of execution forbidden to the Jews under Jewish law. What did the Jewish leaders do? Well, it seems that they decided getting rid of Jesus was more important than the Jewish law (which they had already violated several times in setting Jesus up for this punishment) and they cooperated in the crucifixion of Jesus.

So, is Baigent right that "[t]his contradiction alone illustrates that the Gospels are not reporting the matter truthfully"? Personally, I don't see a contradiction. Were the Biblical writers "trying to hide some vital aspects of the events from us?" No, it seems as if they were laying out the reasons quite clearly. Were they "trying to blame the wrong people perhaps?" Perhaps, but not based on this evidence.

Keep in mind, this is only the first paragraph of material where Baigent seeks to make claims in Chapter 3 of this book. I could spend hours contradicting his other assertions which are largely in the same vein -- they make accusations about the Gospel that are untrue then try to raise questions of motivations about the writers. In fact, there is no substance behind the original accusations, and so the allusions he makes to some type of cover-up are unfounded. His arguments are like hot air balloons that look nice but when the arguments are examined they are shown to stay afloat only through hot air.


Cross-blogged at Apologia Christi.

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