Pontius, Our Pilot – Part 3

<< Continued from Part 2

Probable Cause

Some 40 years after the death of Jesus, stories about him finally found their way into a heroic written tale, the book of Mark. In the subsequent two decades, these accounts were duly amplified by the later three gospel writers, along with many other non-canonical gospels. But the stories preserved about Jesus, while retaining a good deal of historically implausible content, persistently steer further away from conceding the most probable cause for Jesus’ violent end.

Israel chafed under Roman oppression, and many looked for the promised messiah. The messiah was to be “the anointed one,” and many Jews were in expectation of a kingly Davidic figure that would at last end the Roman oppression. Messianic claimants had led uprisings heretofore quashed by Roman response. As such, the Passover was a time of significant political tension in Jerusalem, one that had been the occasion for bloodletting and violence before. We could consider the air of the city around Passover to be something like that in the US surrounding 9/11. It was a time when violence could and had broken out. Pilate was responsible for the region, and he wanted no problems. Indeed, the Jewish authorities also wanted no problems. So security was in a heightened state and close watch was kept on the city.

Into this atmosphere, Jesus purportedly entered the city amid a flurry of fanfare, in primitive though kingly fashion. He later entered the Temple, the focal point of the city, where he undertook a violent assault upon the money changers. The Jewish authorities arrested him as a troublemaker and brought him to Pilate. And the one necessary word was uttered: messiah. Pilate was precisely the sort of ruler to show no patience for another violent messiah figure causing trouble on Passover. Crucifixion was the standard punishment for sedition – for violent messianic claimants attempting to create an uprising in the tender box of Jerusalem at Passover. Kingly entrance. Violent disturbance. Messianic claims. Judgment in such a case? Simple.

All the nonsensical storylines about reluctance in Pilate, or envy among the Jews, are entirely unnecessary, and they do not fit with what we know about either the city or Pilate. Neither the Jews nor the Romans wanted disturbances on Passover. And they had already seen enough bloodletting over self-deluded messianic claimants. It probably matters very little what other religious or spiritual truths Jesus taught or believed. From the perspective of a man like Pontius Pilate – short on fuse and quick to punishments as he was – the solution was simple and probably reflexive. Jesus was briefly interrogated and immediately executed, essentially for being what we would think of as a terrorist.

The modern analogue is not hard to picture. How would the US government label the leader of a fringe religious group, who went into downtown NYC on 9/11 and undertook a violent attack upon unarmed people at the city’s central landmark? And this is what Jesus effectively did. In this era, it would be a good way to wind up in GITMO. The consequences were a bit more terminal under the Romans.

But execution for insurrection is simply not the kind of story that a splinter faction of religious followers wants to believe. Nor would they want to paint the circumstances in such a light when trying to explain why their leader was killed by the Romans. And so the passing decades proved ever kinder to the Jesus follower’s recollections and portrayals. Pilate was painted as reluctant, unable to find reason to come to a verdict, washing his hands of the affair, acting as an unwitting pawn, and befuddled by the situation. And instead, the blame was hung about the necks a stiff-necked Jewish leadership, who had bullied Pilate into doing their wet work, because they envied Jesus’ following and miracles.

Surely You Must be Joking

But surely I am suggesting the unreasonable. Surely, one may say, it is out of the question to say that all four gospel accounts somehow misrepresented the trial events. Surely it is unreasonable to think that we can intelligently evaluate such a thing today. Surely the most reasonable course would be to assume that the gospels, as our only written records of those events, should be taken at face value regarding what happened.

Surely not.

The critical reason why it would be utterly wrong to confer the benefit of doubt on the divergent gospel records is precisely because these records are gospels. They are religious accounts of heroic tenor, depicting an exalted religious figure, written by religious followers of that figure, and directed to the ends of attaining eternal life through a salvific miracle. And in any case, a range of cues indicate that these tales were not written in the lifetime of witnesses to the events. So we do not really even know whose recollections we are being sold. What we do know is that these stories do not add up.

Yet happily, we can observe an excellent proof case of false martyrdom within recent history – one in which the facts concerning about the circumstances of death are repainted without a milligram of concern for historical reality.

Just a Bit Like Joseph Smith

The whitewashing of sepulchers proves nearly cliché wherever one hears a religion stake martyrdom claims for their leaders. As a recent and well-documented case, consider the veneer with which Mormons varnish the death of Joseph Smith. We know from the historical record that Smith had been both a fraud and impostor before graduating to religious leader. Yet as a leader, there is good reason to suppose he never veered his nefarious ways. Polygamy and the seduction of other men’s wives led to schism, wherein he excommunicated a number of his former followers. To stifle bad press from the new rival sect, he supported the attack and destruction of an unfriendly newspaper, then mobilized a militia and declared martial law. He was arrested for inciting riot and charged with treason. But Smith never made it to trial:

Once the Smiths were in custody, the charges were increased to treason against Illinois… an armed mob with blackened faces stormed Carthage Jail where Joseph and Hyrum were being held… He was shot multiple times before falling out the window, crying, “Oh Lord my God!”  He died shortly after hitting the ground, but was shot several times more before the mob dispersed.

~ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_smith#Death

And so, the megalomaniacal leader of a religious cult met a violent and grisly end, after himself uncorking the bottle of violence in the first place. Not unfamiliar.

But what on earth do Mormons say when they describe his death? One can almost hear the throbbing strings beckon the heart:

We sometimes think that dying for a cause is the purest display of devotion, but living for something is usually much more demanding. Joseph Smith did both. He wore out his life in God’s service, suffering derision and violence for the things he believed. He did not die in public with the sympathy of the world; he was shot by a mob while he was locked in a jail on false charges.

He showed his devotion to God in life and in death. It was said of him, “he lived great, and he died great in the eyes of God and his people; and . . . has sealed his mission and his works with his own blood”

~ A Martyr of the Restored Gospel (www.mormon.org )

Rosy, to be sure. And here the Wikipedia summary proves almost British in understatement:

…within Mormonism, Smith was memorialized first and foremost as a prophet, to the point of eclipsing his defects.

~ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_smith#Death

It is a tale of violence forgotten. Smith was killed because of his own violent and schismatic actions. But that counts for little against the inertia of hero tales woven about him. He died righteously, arrested on false charges, because of his faith, yet devoted to the end. Familiar.

Ah, what stories cannot be told, and believed, when given with Tincture of Faith?


Related Sources:

  • Thomas, Robert L, and Stanley N. Gundry. A Harmony of the Gospels, NASB. Harper Collins, 1978.
  • Price, Robert M., John Dominic Crossan, Luke Timothy Johnson, James D.G. Dunn, and Darrel L. Bock. The Historical Jesus: Five Views. Edited by James K. Beilby, & Paul R. Eddy. IVP Academic, 2009.
  • Ehrman, Bart D. Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (And Why We Don’t Know About Them). HarperOne, 2010.
  • Ehrman, Bart D. Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium. USA: Oxford University Press, 2001.
  • Borg, Marcus J. Evolution of the Word: The New Testament in the Order the Books Were Written. HarperOne , 2012.
  • Bart Ehrman. Lecture on Misquoting Jesus.
  • Debate: Bart Ehrman versus Craig Evans.


  1. Charity says:

    Hello Matt,

    I thank you for this series for it’s reminded me of just how dependant I was upon John’s writings while I was a Christian.

    John “the Revelator” or “the Beloved” was someone I often quoted or referred to. It was also John who had the only account of Holy Spirit taking on the form of a dove. I was really into prophecy and eschatology throughout my Christian days. To me, he was much more important than Peter and Paul. I seriously believed thay John received the Revelation because he was the disciple who Jesus loved.

    At one time I had a theory that Jesus had already come back to earth. After all, he said he was coming back to this (his earthly time) generation. I chalked up John’s accounts as an actual eye witness to Christ’s return.

    Wow, it’s amazing what we’re willing to believe, anything to hold onto our faith.


    • Hey Charity,

      I know what you mean. How could we have a full-orbed Christianity without, “I am the way, the truth, and the life”… or “I am the resurrection and the life”… or “For God so loved the world”… ?

      What has been amazing to me has been the unpacking process. Buying and studying a parallel “harmonization” of the gospels was probably the best $20 I spent during this entire ordeal. Ehrman challenges people flat out to simple read the Bible for themselves, horizontally. I took up his challenge on the nativity accounts… man. Dark day.

      Of course, I denigrate St. John in the posts, but the book seems to have been written in at least three different lifts, by different redactors, picking up more and more as it went. And then there is the woman caught in adultery… added even later on. It was just so much monkey business the whole way down.

      I would have to say that Paul is probably the single most important author in the NT… there might not have been a church at all without Paul. Mark is critical as the seed bearer for the gospels. But John is so desperately important for high Christology, for the heavenly notion of reward (transmuted from the hear and now kingdom in Mark), etc. It probably never would have gone big without John.

      But this third part of the series I think is important. Its important to realize that it all started the wall all cults do. Its a cult that got big, and then got accepted as maybe-not-crazy simply because it was widely accepted. Just like old Joey Smith and Mormonism. And hey, both Joey and Johnny could spin a good yarn, eh?



  1. […] << Continued from Part 3 […]


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