National Geographic has been airing a documentary entitled, “Who Really Killed Jesus.” According to this documentary, the execution of Jesus “was just another day at the office” for Pontius Pilate. He would probably have soon forgotten who Jesus was. Nat Geo says the Gospels present Pilate as weak, cowardly and indecisive, rather than the ruthless and brutal man he really was.
The NatGeo documentary repeatedly makes the point that the Gospels are historically unreliable and the writers changed the truth of what happened: “The Christian story acquits Pontius Pilate and blames the Jews instead.”This, according to NatGeo, is the reason for centuries of anti-Semitism.
Is this true? Are the Gospels completely unreliable? Did the Gospel writers really change the truth of history to blame the Jews?
It may be helpful to begin by pointing out a couple places where I agree with the National Geographic documentary (by the way, while the NatGeo documentary presents the views of several scholars, they all advocate the same basic view. No one is included who defends the historical reliability of the Gospel story. No on is included who defends the Gospel writers from the charge of antisemitism. Only one side of the story is presented).
First, I agree with NatGeo that Pontius Pilate was pragmatic, brutal, and ruthless.
Second, I agree with NatGeo that according to the very earliest sources (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John), Jesus was handed over by Jewish leaders to Pontius Pilate, who examined Jesus and tried to release him but eventually gave in to Jewish demands for Jesus’ execution.
These are the facts and they are undisputed.
So what is the problem? I mean, after all, NatGeo admits that the execution of Jesus was because Jewish leaders, including the High Priest, wanted Jesus dead. So the idea that the Gospel writers changed the story to blame the Jews is at least to some extent sensationalist nonsense right from the beginning.
Unfortunately, the idea that the Gospel writers were anti-Semites who changed the Gospel story to blame Jews is a popular misconception so it warrants further exploration.
First, the ideas presented in the NatGeo documentary that 1) the execution of Jesus was just “another day at the office for Pilate,” or 2) that Pilate wouldn’t hesitate to execute a prisoner during Passover or 3) that Pilate would have been more inclined to convict than acquit; all seem like reasonable assumptions until you dig deeper.
For example, NatGeo admits that Jesus was being charged with sedition, i.e. as being a “king of the Jews.” Even if this fact alone did not make this case important for Pilate, the fact that Jesus was a popular Jewish prophet with a good-sized following would have made this case—though not unique—far from ordinary.
The facts that this popular Jewish preacher who was being charged with being sedition,” had only days before been hailed by a Jerusalem crowd saying “hosanna!” (Save us!), during the largest and most potentially volatile feast of the year, made this case anything but ordinary. This was hardly just another day at the office.
Second, the idea that the Gospels present Pilate as weak, cowardly and indecisive is actually reading ideas into the text that really are not there. For example, as evidence of Pilate’s weak, cowardly and indecisive nature, NatGeo cites the question Pilate asked when Jesus was first presented before him. Pilate asked, “Why? What has he done?”
Regardless of how brutal Pilate may have been, this sounds like a pretty reasonable question. Are we really to imagine that—even given Pilate’s brutal nature—Pilate’s knee jerk reaction to everyone brought before him for death would have been, “crucify him”? Such a notion is silly.
The question, “Why? What has he done?” sounds like a perfectly natural and historical question which in no way presents Pilate as indecisive or weak.
Another piece of evidence NatGeo uses to say the Gospels present Pilate as weak, cowardly and indecisive is the Gospel account of how Pilate’s wife had a dream and told her husband to have nothing to do with Jesus. This assumes, of course that powerful and decisive men never pay attention to their wives, which is sexist nonsense both today and in the first century. Besides, people have dreams all the time and Jesus was a popular preacher. There is nothing unlikely about someone dreaming about him.
Yet another piece of evidence NatGeo uses to say the Gospels present Pilate as weak, cowardly and indecisive are statements made by the crowds. According to the Gospel of John the people yelled “If you release this man, you are not Caesar’s friend.” According to the Gospel of Matthew they also yelled, “His blood be upon us and on our children.”
It is a little puzzling why these statements should be deemed to be unhistorical unless someone has determined in advance that Jesus had no enemies among the Jewish people. This, of course, is nonsense! All the available evidence shows that while Jesus did have crowds of supporters, he also had a lot of enemies.
History shows that the Jewish people as a whole have never been supporters of Jesus. In fact, the very earliest records we have of Jewish-Christian interaction present Jews as persecutors of Christians—even to death! The record of antagonism by Jews against Christian does not just come from Christian sources like Paul’s letters or Acts, but also from first century Jewish sources.
For example, the first century Jewish historian Josephus writes of how a “Sanhedrin of judges” was assembled to try James, “the brother of Jesus who was called Christ, and some others.” The decision was that they should be stoned to death (Antiquities 20.9.1)!
There is also the “twelfth benediction” of the first century Jewish council of Yavne (aka Jamnia or Jabneah) which made it impossible for Christians to attend synagogue services and pretty much condemned Christians to hell: "For apostates who have rejected Your Torah let there be no hope, and may the Nazarenes [i.e. Christians] and heretics perish in an instant” (Encyclopedia of Judaism, Birkat Ha-Minim).
There is, therefore, absolutely nothing necessarily unhistorical about the idea that a group of people incited by the Jewish leadership—which even NatGeo admits wanted Jesus dead—would yell “If you release this man, you are not Caesar’s friend” and “His blood be upon us and on our children.”
We might also add, by way of digression, that while many of these first century Jews had rejected Jesus and Christianity, the earliest Christians returned this rejection with love (after all, the very earliest Christians were all Jews)! Jesus’ “Great Commission” commanded his disciples to begin making disciples in Judea which is exactly what Peter, John and other disciples did.
Peter, in fact, became known as “Apostle to the Jews” (Galatians 2:8). Paul actually writes that he would be willing to be condemned to hell if it would save his Jewish brothers and sisters (Romans 9:1-4)! This is hardly the attitude of an anti-Semite.
It wasn’t until the second century—after Christians had been officially expelled from the synagogue—that Christian anti-Semitism began to raise its ugly head in opposition to everything Jesus and the apostles taught about loving even our enemies.
Third, there is actually a very reasonable explanation for Pilate’s actions as presented in the Gospels. According to all four Gospels, Jesus’ last week in Jerusalem was initiated when Jesus rode into Jerusalem riding on a donkey, a deliberate fulfillment of a prophesy written about four hundred years earlier in the Book of Zechariah which prophesied of how Israel’s “king” would come to them humbly, riding on a donkey (Zechariah 9:9; cf. 14:9, 16-17).
The Gospels say that many people eagerly welcomed Jesus into the city, waving palm branches and yelling “Hosanna!” (Save us)! Jesus was known as a miracle-working prophet, and Jewish hopes were undoubtedly high that this popular prophet was indeed their long-awaited Messiah whom they expected to deliver them from their bondage to Rome just as Judas Maccabeus had delivered Jerusalem from the oppression of Syria almost 200 years earlier (2 Maccabees 10:7; cf the welcome of Simon Maccabeus, 1 Maccabees 13:51). Perhaps, they hoped, this Passover would be the time this Messiah would make his move!
The people’s hopes were dashed, however, when only days later Jesus was presented before them beaten, bloodied and in Roman custody! To their minds, the idea of a beaten, bloodied Messiah in Roman custody was an absolute impossibility.
They were infuriated, concluding that they had been deceived and that Jesus was just another false prophet. They demanded—no doubt being spurred on by the Jewish leadership—that Pilate do to Jesus what the Law required of false prophets. Execute him! Far from being a fabrication, this story makes perfect sense in its historical context.
If we believe the National Geographic documentary, however, Pilate would have then executed Jesus without further ado. This conclusion, however, fails to grapple very deeply with the actual political dilemma facing Pilate.
On the one hand, Pilate needed to appease the Jewish leadership who wanted Jesus dead and whose support Pilate needed to maintain peace (NatGeo concedes both of these points).
On the other hand, Pilate knew that Jesus was still a very popular preacher. Executing him during the potentially volatile season of Passover—when millions of Jews descended on Jerusalem from all over the empire—could be the spark which would ignite the whole powder keg of Jewish hatred against Rome. While rebellion was not in the best interests of the High Priest, there were undoubtedly some on the Jewish high Council who would be more than happy to see Roman rule overthrown in rebellion.
Pilate was indeed between a rock and a hard place. What was he to do?
While it was true that Pilate was brutal and couldn’t care less about Jesus, Pilate was also very political and pragmatic (a point conceded by NatGeo). His job depended on keeping peace and avoiding rebellion. He tried to get off the horns of this dilemma by having Jesus beaten and released, but the Jewish leadership would not let him off the hook. They wanted Jesus dead because they were convinced—as NatGeo admits—that Jesus was guilty of blasphemy. Jewish Law required the death penalty for blasphemy.
What Pilate did next was nothing less than a stroke of political genius. Standing before the Jewish leadership and the angry crowd, he publicly washed his hands of the matter, not because he was weak and cowardly, but precisely because he was political and pragmatic.
By publicly washing his hands of this case Pilate would allow the Jewish leadership to have their way--thereby keeping their support to maintain peace--but if that failed and rebellion did break out, he could then distance himself from the rebellion by placing the blame entirely on the back on the High Priest and the Council.
Pilate’s action was not indecisive, weak or cowardly. It was a shrewd and pragmatic political decision. The story as told by the Gospel writers makes perfect historical sense when considered in historical context.
Fourth, the NatGeo documentary goes to great lengths to convince viewers that the Gospels are fundamentally unreliable. They have to do this, of course, because they are presenting as history a story that has no support in the ancient sources. The only way their fiction has any hope of being accepted is by subverting the actual historical sources.
The documentary flatly states, therefore, that the “Gospel’s aren’t historical fact,” that there is “no hard evidence” that any event in them ever happened,” and that there isn’t even proof that Jesus even existed!
These statements threaten to put the NatGeo documentary on the same level as “911 truthers,” or those who deny the moon landing or holocaust! While you can always find someone to support any position regardless of how ridiculous, even scholars who are radical skeptics and critics of the Gospels—like Robert Funk, Burton Mack, John Dominic Crossan, et al.—acknowledge that Jesus actually existed and that at least some of the events recorded in the Gospels actually happened.
NatGeo, however, gives several reasons for questioning the Gospel’s reliability. First, the reliability of the Gospels is dismissed because they were written decades after the time of Jesus (40-70 years). The documentary, however, never questions the reliability of information it presents about Pilate or Tiberius even though most of our sources for this information (e.g. Josephus, Suetonius, Tacitus, Dio Cassius) are as far (or farther) removed in time from Pilate and Tiberius as the Gospels are from Jesus. Clearly, something other than objective history is at work here.
Second, NatGeo says that the gospels were not presenting history but theology. This idea ignores the fact that unlike some other religions, Jews and Christians based their theology squarely on history. The Jewish feasts of Passover and Tabernacles, for example, were based on the belief that these events actually happened in history.
Christians’ belief in the atonement was based on the historical fact of Jesus’ execution. If Jesus had just died of natural causes, like Muhammad, there would be no discussion of how Jesus “died for our sins.” For first century Christians and Jews, theology was based on what they really believed actually happened.
To summarily dismiss the historical reliability of the Gospels as if their writers were issuing some kind of speculative theology rather than history is modern nonsense read back anachronistically into the first century.
A third piece of evidence presented by NatGeo for the unrereliability of the Gospels came from a scholar who called the story of the release of Barabbas during Passover “completely crazy.” The documentary pointed out that there is no historical evidence of prisoners being released by Romans in Judea.
What this means is that there is no historical evidence, except for the Gospel of Matthew, of prisoners being released by Romans in Judea. Leaving aside the fact that other ancient events are often accepted as historical even if only attested in one source, the phrase “in Judea” is key.
The documentary fails to point out that there is documented evidence that ancient governors did in fact release prisoners on special days as a gesture of good will. How can a 21st century scholar, therefore, possibly be so sure that this did not happen in first century Judea when it happened elsewhere in the Roman world? What makes 21st century scholars think they know more about it than a first century writer?
The fact is that there is nothing at all crazy about the possibility that a Roman governor of Judea would release a popular prisoner on a potentially volatile feast day in an attempt to placate the crowds and maintain peace.
Fourth, the NatGeo video says the authors of the Gospels wrote their stories with the Romans in mind, to convince the Romans that Christians are not a threat--that they are a new movement, not like the Jews, “not part of that despised race.” The Gospels make Pilate the official Roman mouthpiece for Jesus’ innocence as if to say, “your guy Pilate even liked our guy.” This is a cleaver theory but it fails to deal with the facts.
If the Gospel writers were trying to distance themselves from their Jewish heritage they certainly had a strange way of doing it. The Jesus of the Gospels is, after all, thoroughly Jewish!
In Matthew and Luke, Jesus’ genealogy is Jewish. Jesus celebrates Jewish feast days like Hanukkah (John 10:22-24) and Passover. He preaches to Jewish people in Jewish synagogues located in Jewish villages. He sends his disciples out with specific instructions to preach to the “lost sheep of Israel,” not to Gentiles (Matthew 10:6). He quotes from Jewish Scriptures and refers to Jewish heroes like Abraham and Moses, never to popular Greco-Roman writings or heroes.
Not only do the Gospels make no attempt to distance Jesus from his thoroughly Jewish roots, the Jesus of the Gospels even calls Herod Antipas, one of Rome’s governors, a derogatory name (Luke 13:32). Furthermore, the Gospels do not try to water down the fact that it was Rome’s governor, Herod the Great, who was so unreasonable and paranoid that he tried to kill Jesus as a little baby! And according to Matthew 2:22, after the death of Herod the Great, Joseph was afraid to return to Judea because another one of Rome’s guys, Archelaus, was ruling in Judea.
Although most of the blame for Jesus’ death falls to the Jewish leadership, Pilate is not thereby relieved of responsibility and does not come out as a good guy in any gospel. The idea that the Gospel writers were fabricating a story to distance their new religion from Judaism and to cozy up to Rome is itself nothing but a creative fiction.
Finally, NatGeo squarely lays the blame for centuries of anti-Semitism at the feet of the Gospel writers. There is a terrible lapse in logic behind this argument. Nothing written in the Gospels can legitimately be used to justify the travesty and disgrace of abuse and violence done to Jews at the hands of Christians down through the centuries.
Imagine, for example, that modern day Jews were persecuting Germans because of Jewish historical accounts of the Holocaust. Would anyone say the fault of the persecution rested with those who wrote the historical accounts? Of course not!
Would anyone say that what Germans did to Jews over 60 years ago would justify the persecution of the Nazi’s children, grandchildren, or great-great-grandchildren today? Of course not!
The Gospel writers were simply recording the historical fact that Jesus was executed on the demand of the Jewish leadership—a fact which the NatGeo documentary even concedes—and that some Jews agreed with them! This fact does not excuse those Christians who, throughout history, have persecuted Jews. It would be absolutely absurd to imagine that Jesus, Peter, John, or Paul would have wanted approved such persecution! In fact, such persecution of Jews by Christians is in blatant disobedience to the commands of Jesus and New Testament writers who commanded us to love even our enemies! But trying to re-write history to blame this persecution on the Gospel writers smacks of anti-Christian bigotry.
National Geographic usually produces excellent and high quality work so the production of this blatantly biased and anti-Christian documentary is very disappointing. I would encourage NatGeo to pull this propaganda and produce something which meets their usual standards of excellence by interacting with more than just one side of the issue.