Friday, April 29, 2011


It is well-known by now that John 18:3,12 tells us that Roman soldiers were at Jesus' arrest. John uses speira, the Greek word for a Roman cohort, and chiliarchos, the word for the captain. For a long time, speira had been mistranslated as a band of men. It was one of the few mistakes William Tyndale made and the King James translators continued it. But it has long since been cleared up, though you may not see it corrected in every translation you see.

The majority of scholars accept that Roman soldiers were there (primarily because they think it unlikely that John would include a detail like this that contradicts his major tendency to lay it on the Jews, unless that detail were authentic; I give four additional reasons in my book The Ghost in the Gospels why this is likely accurate, so I felt no need discuss it again in my more recent book True Jew). But there is an irony here. The majority of scholars, while they are correct in accepting this bit of information, don't really get it. They don't get a major implication. A few scholars who don't accept the authenticity of the Roman soldiers (I have found three scholars taking this position, Geza Vermes, Raymond Brown, and C.K. Barrett) actually do get it. They realize that this detail means the execution of Jesus was primarily, if not exclusively, a Roman affair. Since they don't like that implication, they reject the presence of the soldiers.

It is quite ironic that the scholars who refuse to see any validity in this part of John's account are the only ones who see what it means.

But I want to focus on something else. Even the scholars who believe Roman soldiers were there doubt that it was a cohort, which is 600 soldiers. They think John was exaggerating. A handful of soldiers maybe, but not such a large company. It does not really matter how many there were, but it has come to trouble me that so many scholars are quick to dismiss the accuracy of the cohort. They never do what is normally done in other fields: Make some attempt to think of various hypotheses that might explain this detail and further authenticate it. Historical Jesus studies is the only field that simply will not consider a variety of hypotheses in order to achieve a better understanding of history. Historical Jesus scholars want to limit knowledge (evidence, theories) and thus limit debate.

I can think of at least three theories that would explain why a cohort was necessary, not all of them being of equal likelihood, but the important thing is to put your brain to work and shake up the staleness of the scholarly world: 1) Jesus and/or his followers were considered extremely dangerous (I consider this the least probable explanation, as there really isn't any good, solid evidence for this, but it has to be put on the table); 2) the Romans had tried to arrest Jesus once before and something prevented it, like a Jewish mob interfering and not allowing them to carry out the arrest, so this time they came better prepared with more men; and 3) though Jesus was not so very dangerous, the Romans had received bad information that he was, so they sent a cohort to deal with him and his followers.

It turns out that the second is close to what really happened; there is a strong array of evidence to support something like it. Either one of my books explains it all (True Jew is shorter and an easier read, just published in January). The only point I want to make here is that if we exercised ourselves just a little bit to take the Gospel authors more seriously and to deeply consider that exploring other viewpoints can be enormously rewarding, we might discover some very real history.

Historical Jesus scholarship is a one hypothesis town on almost any issue. It is the best way to enforce false views -- one hypothesis that is never in much doubt because other possibilities are suppressed. The purpose of multiple hypotheses is not to sow doubt, but to open things up so that we can clearly see the best hypothesis -- the last thing scholars want. Their motto: The less we see, the more we know. Thinking up various hypotheses aims to defeat that by giving us more to see.

Leon Zitzer

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