Christ Before Pilate by Mihály Munkácsy
The question of who killed Jesus has been debated since his crucifixion more than two thousand years ago. Judas Iscariot and Jews collectively have been singled out through most of history for the crime--and Jews have been the only ones persecuted in retaliation. But now the tide has shifted. The current consensus of biblical scholars and commentators is that the Romans did it, since they were the only ones who could implement execution.
In view of the fact that the Roman Governor, Pontius Pilate, chose crucifixion for killing Jesus, the authors of several recent popular books contend that Jesus must have been an insurrectionist who was preaching armed rebellion to those multitudes who followed him. The Romans, these writers insist, only crucified rebellious insurgents, escaped slaves, and some who committed heinous crimes. Thus, case closed: Jesus was Rambo.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach in his book Kosher Jesus endorses that thesis. Reza Aslan author of Zealot agrees. And in Killing Jesus Bill O'Reilly gives us the Tea Party Jesus who, he says, was inciting his Jewish followers against big government and taxation, which were challenges to Roman power and rule. On the opposite side, Dr. Michael Brown reminds us in The Real Kosher Jesus that billions of Christians throughout history, and today, have been inspired and drawn to Christianity by their perception of Jesus as the embodiment of peace and love. So which door can we open to find the authentic Jesus to solve this conundrum?
We don't know for sure who Jesus was, and we probably never will know. The dearth of factual information with big blocks of missing years in his biography in the Gospels and history books will continue to invite speculations.
So the case is not closed. Let's then reopen it and examine it with this imagined conversation between Pontius Pilate and one of his advisers about what to do with the pesky Rabbi Jesus.
Adviser: This Rabbi Jesus is irritating the Jewish leadership with unrelenting criticism that they are not representing the true principles of their religion. And others keep joining his cause. They are coming from all over -- from Syria and Jordan, and even Egypt. They believe Jesus performs miracles and heals the sick. Although this is a Jewish religious matter we should get rid of him. Crowds for whatever purpose are dangerous,
Pontius Pilate: Agreed, Crucify him.
Adviser: Pilate, you can't crucify him. Here on page XLIV of "The Crucifixion Rule Book" it specifically says that only insurrectionists, escaped slaves, and the perpetrators of heinous crimes can be crucified. But there's nothing about rabbi's claiming to fulfill silly prophesies. We have to choose another method. We could throw him into a lions' den and have him eaten alive, but all the lions in the region have been shipped to Rome for the entertainment of the Emperor and the Roman masses. If we have him mauled to death in a fight with a gladiator that might incite the Jews and then we might have a real rebellion to contend with. Just crucify him. The Emperor kills people for fun. And the Jews are used to crucifixion. We've done it to thousands of them--and they weren't all insurrectionists.
While this conversation is not likely to have taken place, the point is that the Romans were unarguably not nice guys. They would casually kill whomever was troublesome, as quickly as saying good morning, without tortuously fretting over it. And this was particularly true for Pontius Pilate. Here's one description of Pontius Pilate's indiscriminate brutality:
The Jewish historians Josephus and Philo describe Pontius Pilate as a stubborn, inflexible, and cruel man who had no respect for the Jewish people. Perhaps because of his military background, he may have sometimes used force when it wasn't necessary. On one occasion he told his soldiers to disguise themselves in civilian clothes, with their swords hidden under their cloaks, and mingle with a crowd of demonstrators. After they were in position, he signaled for them to pull out their weapons and attack. In the ensuing bloodbath, hundreds of people were killed.
His [Pontius Pilate] administration was characterized by corruption, violence, robberies, ill treatment of the people, and continuous executions without even the form of a trial. His very first act nearly caused a general insurrection.
Eventually, Pontius Pilate was recalled by the Emperor Tiberius for cruelty after a complaint by the Syrian governor that Pilate massacred thousands of Samaritans (members of a Jewish sect) who were on a pilgrimage to the holy Mount Gerizim. How vicious do you have to be for the Romans to call you "cruel?"
It may be that Jesus was inciting the Galilean rebels who frequently attacked Roman soldiers. But for that conclusion we need more solid evidence than "The Crucifixion Rule Book." As far as Romans strictly adhering to "The Rule Book," the jury is still out. And will probably be deadlocked for the lack of conclusive evidence that there was a rule book that was strictly adhered to without exception.
So for those who wish to celebrate the spiritual enlightenment of the Rabbi from Galilee for his embodiment of peace and love, they can comfortably do so.
Bernard Starr, PhD is Professor Emeritus at the City University of New York (Brooklyn College). His latest book is "Jesus, Jews, and Anti-Semitism in Art:.How Renaissance Art Erased Jesus' Jewish Identity and How Today's Artists Are Restoring It."