Tuesday, May 30, 2017


It is fascinating to watch a scholar go through the evidence concerning Jesus’s death and not see what he is compiling. Witness Geza Vermes in his very short book The Passion (printed as a smaller size volume, the main text is still only 122 pages). His goal is to substantiate the traditional story of Jesus’ death in which Jewish leaders are the main instigators, despite the fact that so many pieces of evidence do not support this.

He himself will “stress that in the Fourth Gospel there is no Jewish trial [his emphasis], there are no witnesses, and no sentence is pronounced by Jewish judges on religious or any other grounds.” He also knows that the mention of a Roman cohort (speira in Greek) in John could be significant. “This would put a different complexion on the whole Passion story.” That is an understatement. It would  mean that the arrest of Jesus was primarily or exclusively a Roman event and that Jewish leaders had little or nothing to do with it. But Vermes’s commitment to assign blame to Jewish leaders means that he must preclude this evidence. He rejects it precisely because of what it implies. Vermes is not so much driving towards a conclusion, as starting with a conclusion and dismissing any evidence that gets in his way.

Vermes also knows how unlikely it is that Jewish authorities would hold a trial at night or on the eve of a holiday like Passover, or even that Jewish leaders would neglect their Temple and festival duties to help the Romans. None of these details in the traditional account make any historical sense. But Vermes pushes on to offer his conclusion at the end of the book that Jewish Temple police arrested Jesus and that the high priest interrogated him and charged him with sedition before Pilate. He avoids using the word ‘trial’ but that is a minor detail. He describes what is in effect a trial, even though he knows that too much evidence contradicts it.

Most startlingly of all, Vermes recounts a well-known incident related by Josephus which demonstrates Jewish devotion to due process, but again Vermes fails to see the significance of what he has presented. When Herod was very young, he and his band of men caught up with a group of Jews who were accused of highway robberies. He had them summarily executed without the benefit of a trial. This was a shock to the nation. Josephus states that our law requires that no man may be put to death without first being tried by the Sanhedrin. That is as frank a statement of due process as you are likely to find anywhere. So deep was this idea of due process that Jews demanded not that Herod be executed for his temerity but that he be put on trial to determine his guilt or innocence. Even Herod deserves due process.

Yet if the traditional account of Jesus’s death were true, his due process was violated in so many ways (being tried at night, a rush to judgment in less than 24 hours, etc.) and there were no Jewish protests—which is impossible to believe. Vermes has gone through so much evidence that a Jewish hostile procedure against Jesus could not have taken place, and yet he sticks to a conclusion that defies all this evidence.

The simplest explanation (one Vermes will not even put on the table for discussion) is that there was an informal meeting held by Jewish leaders. An informal meeting makes sense of all the evidence. And the only purpose of an informal meeting would have been to help Jesus avoid a Roman execution. They certainly would not have held a meeting to help Rome. Jews would have rioted in the streets if their leaders had done that. I go through all the evidence in both my books, with the more compact case being presented in True Jew. I won’t repeat this demonstration here.

The point is that there is another worthy hypothesis to be considered. A Jewish informal meeting in an attempt to rescue Jesus resolves all the difficulties in the evidence, and it does this in a simple way, no mental acrobatics required. What a shame that it has become a rule in historical Jesus scholarship that any approach which exonerates Jewish leaders must automatically be excluded from consideration. Have Jewish leaders received due process from scholars?

© 2017 Leon Zitzer

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