This three-part article examines the evidence against three men pivotal in the death of Jesus. Was it an execution or murder, and who was responsible?
Last updated 2009-09-18
This three-part article examines the evidence against three men pivotal in the death of Jesus. Was it an execution or murder, and who was responsible?
No trial or execution in history has had such a momentous outcome as that of Jesus in Roman-occupied Jerusalem, 2000 years ago.
But was it an execution or a judicial murder; and who was responsible?
The story begins when the Galilean rebel Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey, deliberately fulfilling a prophecy in the Hebrew Bible about the coming of the Messiah. He's mobbed by an adoring crowd.
The next day Jesus raids the Temple, the heart of the Jewish religion, and attacks money-changers for defiling a holy place.
The leaders of the Jewish establishment realise that he threatens their power, and so do the Romans, who fear that Jesus has the charisma to lead a guerrilla uprising against Imperial Rome.
Jesus is arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, tried by Caiaphas and then by the Roman Governor. He's sentenced to death and executed.
Caiaphas was a supreme political operator and one of the most influential men in Jerusalem. He'd already survived 18 years as High Priest of the Temple (most High Priests only lasted 4), and had built a strong alliance with the occupying Roman power.
Caiaphas knew everybody who mattered. He was the de-facto ruler of the worldwide Jewish community at that time, and he planned to keep it that way.
The case against Caiaphas is that he arrested Jesus, tried him in a kangaroo court and convicted him on a religious charge that carried the death penalty.
Jesus threatened Caiaphas's authority. Caiaphas could not afford to allow any upstart preacher to get away with challenging his authority; especially not at Passover time. This was the biggest Jewish festival and scholars estimate that around two and half million Jews would have been in Jerusalem to take part. Caiaphas did not want to lose face.
Caiaphas' power base was the Sanhedrin, the supreme council of Jews which controlled civil and religious law. It had 71 members, mostly chief priests, and Caiaphas presided over its deliberations.
It was hard work but it had big rewards - modern archaeologists have discovered that Caiaphas and his associates lived lives of luxury with large and lavishly decorated houses.
But, of course, the Sanhedrin only ruled because the Romans allowed them to and the way to keep the Romans happy was to maintain order in society. Caiaphas himself was a Roman appointment, so he needed to keep cosy with the governor, Pilate, if he wanted to stay in power and preserve his luxurious way of life.
So if Jesus was making trouble, he was making trouble for both Caiaphas and Pilate - and trouble for Pilate was still trouble for Caiaphas.
Jesus was undoubtedly a threat; the public liked him, indeed they may have been paying more attention to Jesus than to the priests, and the public were listening to his condemnation of what he saw as wrong in the religious establishment.
Jesus was also threatening a useful source of income for the Temple priests.
The Temple apparatus brought in huge revenues for simple matters like purification and the forgiveness of sins. Archaeologists have discovered 150 mikvehs around the Temple. Mikvehs are ritual baths which Jews use in order to purify themselves before any act of worship.
Jewish people could only enter the Temple if they were ritually pure and almost everyone arriving in Jerusalem for Passover was deemed ritually unclean. They had to use a mikveh before they could fulfil their religious obligations. The priests controlled the mikvehs and charged people to use them.
There were so many regulations requiring ritual purification that control of the mikvehs was a way of making money.
Jesus thought the whole thing was rubbish. He taught that the elaborate purity rituals were unnecessary - the Kingdom of God was available to everyone and they didn't have to go through these rituals or pay the money in order to get there.
Bad news for the Temple apparatchiks. A quick way to raise a revolt was to tell people that they were being ripped off. This could cause a riot in the Temple if it got out of hand.
But there was worse. Jesus stormed into the Temple and accused the moneychangers and sacrificial dove sellers of extortion and of turning the Temple into a den of thieves.
The ultimate challenge to any religious leaders: What you are doing is against God and God will destroy you and cleanse the whole religious apparatus. And God, as every Jew knew, had the power to do it - he'd demonstrated that many times before.
Jesus was doing this in the Temple, in front of the crowds and without any fear or respect for Caiaphas and his staff.
Caiaphas had to do something to show that he was still boss, and he had to do it quickly; Jesus was on a roll, and who knew what he was going to do next.
You don't get to stay High Priest without being able to take the tough decisions and follow them through.
Caiaphas decided Jesus had to be stopped and he called a meeting of the chief priests. Matthew's Gospel tells us that Caiaphas told them that Jesus had to be killed.
The priests weren't at all sure about this. If Jesus was killed, there might be riots. But Caiaphas got his decision and put it into effect at once.
The Temple guards arrested Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane that night and he was put on trial before the High Court.
We might disapprove of some of the self-interested motives behind Caiaphas' actions: protecting his income and his power-base; but it doesn't amount to a crime of any sort.
Jesus was causing trouble in Jerusalem. He was a known rebel and he was endangering public peace at a time when large and volatile crowds were thronging the city. It was entirely reasonable to arrest him.
At this point Caiaphas crossed to the wrong side of the law. He rigged the trial.
Caiaphas took on the usually incompatible roles of chief judge and prosecuting lawyer.
Scholars know the rules that applied to Jewish trials at that period and the trial of Jesus broke many of those rules:
The trial went wrong for Caiaphas. He needed to prove that Jesus had threatened to destroy the Temple, which would have been both treason and an offence against God. But the witnesses couldn't agree on what Jesus had said. So that charge failed.
Caiaphas decided to see if he could induce Jesus to utter blasphemy.
He asked Jesus, point blank, "Are you the Son of God, the Son of the Blessed? Are you The Messiah?"
The Gospels vary a little, and only in Mark's account does Jesus answer that he is.
It's enough. Caiaphas announces that Jesus has spoken blasphemy. The rest of the Court agree. Jesus deserves the death sentence.
Just one problem; the court didn't have the power to execute people. And that's where the Romans come into the story.
Actually, there are two problems: blasphemy against the God of Jews was not a crime under Roman Law, and unless Caiaphas could think of something better, it might not be enough to persuade the Romans to execute Jesus.
Caiaphas was removed from office soon after the death of Jesus and lived quietly on his farm near Galilee.
Pilate was the Governor of Judea, a province of the Roman Empire. He had 6,000 crack troops with him and 30,000 more on call in nearby Syria.
Pilate was effectively a dictator; so long as he kept Rome happy, he had absolute power, including power of life and death.
The case against Pilate is that he found Jesus not guilty, but had him executed in order to keep the peace.
We don't know what Pilate was like. The Bible story paints him as a weak but innocent man who didn't want to execute a man he believed innocent, but who gave in to political pressure.
Some historians disagree. Philo, writing at the time, said that Pilate was calculating, cruel and brutal. He probably had a typical Roman's disdain for any other culture, thinking the Jews not nearly as civilised as the Romans.
Pilate was well known for having executed prisoners even without trial, so it would not be out of character for him to be responsible for killing Jesus.
Pilate was desperate to keep the peace. His career in the Roman Empire depended on his running the province smoothly and efficiently.
He had 6,000 soldiers on hand to keep the peace in a city bulging with 2.5 million Jews. The religious authorities, whose cooperation he needed for a quiet life, wanted him to execute Jesus and there was an angry mob baying for Jesus' blood.
To release Jesus would have been likely to cause a riot; Pilate could have lost control of the city, and possibly the province.
Pilate sacrificed Jesus to preserve Roman rule and his own career.
No matter how little he thought of the people of Judea, Pilate could not get out of attending the major festival of Passover.
The message of Passover was one that was certain to unsettle anyone who was trying to keep the Jewish people under their thumb, for it celebrated the time when God brought the Israelites out of Egypt into the Holy Land, shaking off foreign oppression.
So it's no accident that nearly all of the riots that we hear about in the first century took place at Passover.
Pilate would have been anxious about any possibility of trouble breaking out, particularly trouble near the Temple, the heart of the Jewish community.
And because trouble in that sort of situation is contagious, Pilate knew that he would have to be ruthless in stamping out any sort of disorder.
The Romans wouldn't have been able to rule without an extensive network of spies, so it's certain that Pilate knew all about Jesus' arrival in Jerusalem, his preaching and the havoc he'd caused in the Temple.
But Pilate was probably unprepared for the problem that Caiaphas presented him with when he brought Jesus before him.
Instead of leading with the conviction for blasphemy, Caiaphas claimed that Jesus was guilty of sedition.
Jesus, Caiaphas said, thought himself, or his followers thought, or people said that he was the King of the Jews. This was a capital crime against Rome and Pilate had to deal with it whether he wanted to or not.
The rumour raced round Jerusalem: Jesus of Nazareth was on trial for his life.
Crowds began to gather, some of them probably a mob organised by the Temple authorities; just what a Roman governor hoping for a peaceful Passover did not want.
Pilate asked Jesus if he was calling himself King of the Jews. Jesus made little or no reply.
Pilate read the reports that he had from his officials and saw that it was quite clear that Jesus wasn't leading a military revolution. There was simply no evidence against Jesus.
Pilate said, 'this man is innocent'.
The crowd was angered by the verdict and began to shout for Jesus to be crucified.
Pilate faced a dilemma: If he released Jesus there might be serious riots. But the alternative was to execute an innocent man.
Pilate wanted a way out (he didn't need one - it was well within his authority to execute people on flimsy evidence) and he tried a masterstroke of lateral thinking.
There was a Passover amnesty, which allowed the Roman governor to release a prisoner on the festival. Pilate offered the crowd a choice between Jesus and Barabbas, a convicted murderer.
The crowd shouted for Barabbas to be released.
There was no way out for Pilate, but he made a last attempt at saving his own reputation.
Pilate declared that Jesus was innocent and condemned him to death by crucifixion. Then he symbolically washed his hands in front of the crowd, telling them he was innocent of Jesus' blood.
Pilate was recalled to Rome to be tried for his brutal treatment of Jews, but the Emperor Tiberius died, and Pilate was never brought to trial. He is thought to have committed suicide in 37 AD - not long after the crucifixion.
There is a Christian tradition that Pilate and his wife eventually converted to Christianity.
Many experts believe that, more than anyone else, the person responsible for the death of Jesus was Jesus himself.
There is a considerable body of evidence to suggest that everything he did was planned and that he knew what the consequences would be.
Jesus believed profoundly that he was on a mission from God and everything he did was to fulfil that mission.
In the events of Holy Week, Jesus seems to be deliberately acting out the prophecy in Hebrew scripture about Israel's true king, the anointed one, the Messiah, coming at last to be God's agent to redeem Israel.
His arrival in Jerusalem on a donkey was a fulfilment of prophecy but it would not have been enough on its own to get Jesus killed.
Jesus went to the Temple and launched not only an attack on the commercial activity of the moneychangers but a symbolic attack on the Temple itself.
Jesus was steeped in the religious culture of his time; he knew the potential consequences of his actions. He knew what it meant to proclaim the Temple's destruction and to claim that a new kingdom was forming, the Kingdom of God.
Jesus knew that it would not be long before the authorities took action against him, and he knew that the sentence was likely to be death. The obvious thing for Jesus to do was to leave Jerusalem and hide, and he had plenty of time to run.
But Jesus continued to put himself directly in the path of danger; he stayed in Jerusalem and celebrated the Passover with his disciples.
During that Last Supper Jesus seemed to be predicting his own death. As he and the disciples sat together, Jesus called the bread they were eating his broken body and referred to the red wine they drank as his spilled blood.
Later, Jesus identified Judas Iscariot as his betrayer. In one of the Gospels Jesus says to Judas, "Do what you have to do, but do it quickly."
The story of the night in Gethsemane contains powerful medical evidence to support the theory that Jesus knew what he was doing.
It was there that Jesus was touched by dreadful doubt - was death really what God wanted for him? He begged God to release him from his fate.
At that moment, St. Luke - himself a doctor - records that Jesus sweated drops of blood onto the path before him.
Doctors know that the sweat glands all over our body are supplied by small blood vessels. Under extreme stress these vessels can break and blood can leak into the sweat itself. The medical term is haematohydrosis - blood sweat.
If Jesus knew the torture and agonising death that lay ahead, the stress would have been unbearable, quite enough to cause him to sweat blood.
Not in any sense of guilt that most people would understand. A soldier who goes on a mission that is certain to lead to death is a brave man, not a guilty one.
Jesus was faithful to his vocation, even though it led to his death; but he was not guilty in the same sense that Caiaphas and Pilate are guilty.
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