Monday, January 27, 2014


I was recently startled to see that some of the people leaving comments on my Amazon review of Bill O’Reilly’s Killing Jesus believe that if I challenge the traditional story of how Jesus died, I must be arguing that the Gospel authors were liars. These people are assuming that the Gospel version and the traditional version are the same. In fact, they are not. The traditional story rides roughly over the full Gospel accounts, selecting a few details to fashion its vision and erasing a lot of others that point in another direction. I believe the Gospel authors were basically truth tellers who got many of the details right, possibly most, but changed a few (a very few). Tradition made even more radical changes.
At this point, I think it would be a good idea to list a few of the more notable differences between the two:
TRADITION: Judas betrayed Jesus. No ambiguity about it.
THE GOSPELS: Almost everything about Judas in all four Gospels is ambiguous. That includes the Greek word used to describe his deed, paradidomi. The Greek word for betray is prodidomi. None of the Gospels use this. Many scholars tell us that paradidomi simply means to deliver or convey with no connotation of betrayal whatsoever. Some scholars argue that betray is a secondary meaning of paradidomi, but no scholar, not even the most conservative, will claim it is the primary meaning. That makes its use in the Gospels highly ambiguous at the very least. That goes for almost all the other details about Judas. Nothing about him is clearly negative. The negative characterization of him in later tradition is all exaggerated spin. The original story is murky.
TRADITION: Jewish leaders condemned Jesus to death. It is very simple with no qualifications.
THE GOSPELS:  Luke does not have this, nor does John. Luke is also the author of Acts in which Paul says that Jewish leaders found nothing worthy of death in Jesus. The only place where something like the pronouncement of capital punishment appears is in the accounts of Mark and Matthew which are almost identical. But there, the announcement that Jesus deserves death is not accompanied by any explanation of according to whom does he deserve this, nor is it described as a judicial sentence. Mark/Matthew does not tell us if this was according to Jewish law or Roman law. Paul’s statement in Acts would preclude Jewish law and a Jewish death penalty.
TRADITION: Pilate offers the crowd a choice of freeing either Jesus or Barabbas, a criminal.
THE GOSPELS: This is where the Gospels and tradition are closest, but even here, there are some differences. Pilate does appear to be offering the crowd a choice in all the Gospels (except possibly in Luke; the oldest copies of this Gospel do not have a verse relating that Pilate offers the crowd a choice). But only Luke and John present Barabbas as a criminal. Mark and Matthew do not identify him as such or state his crime. Also, Matthew calls this freeing of prisoners a custom (which no historical source confirms), but there are early manuscripts of Mark in which he seems to reporting this as a one-time event. The full Gospel story leaves the reason for Barabbas’ release in some ambiguity. This should make us suspicious that a Jewish crowd ever called on Pilate to crucify Jesus, a rabbi (a historically unlikely event to begin with).
What does all this add up to? The Gospels give us reason to doubt the traditional story. Since many people, not only Jesus’ followers, would have been discussing these events at the time they happened, the Gospel authors had to have accurately preserved many details, otherwise no one would have believed their version. But Jewish leaders persecuting Jesus and Judas betraying him are not good explanations of these details. If Judas betrayed Jesus, why not just use the right word for this? If Barabbas was a criminal, why don’t Mark and Matthew say so? If Jewish leaders tried Jesus and condemned him to death, why don’t Luke and John clearly tell it this way? These questions are just the tip of the iceberg. There has to be a better theory to account for all this.
There must have been a Judas and a Barabbas and a meeting between Jewish leaders and Jesus, but none of these things have quite the anti-Jewish spin in the Gospels that the traditional version gives them. It is possible to draw a much better theory of the original, historical event out of the Gospel story. That’s what my books are for.
© 2014 Leon Zitzer

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