More On Jesus’ Arrest

downloadLet’s return to the topic I began in a post earlier this month on the arrest of Jesus. There are thoughts I’d like to add to that post, inspired in large part on comments I received here and some additional research I performed to address those comments.

Who Arrested Jesus

In my prior post, I noted that the Synoptic Gospels (Mark, Matthew and Luke) describe the force that arrested Jesus as a Jewish ochlos (a “crowd,” or “multitude”), while John’s Gospel describes this force as a mixed group of Jewish Temple police and Roman soldiers. I wrote that John’s description seems more plausible to me. All of the Gospels seek to portray the arrest as stealthy: under cover of night, intended to avoid the protest of Jesus’ many admirers. But there is no stealth in gathering a “crowd” to arrest someone! It makes much more sense to imagine Jesus being arrested by a smaller, more conventional force, perhaps a dozen or so Roman soldiers and Temple police, which is what I think John is describing.

But some scholars think that the arresting force described by John was much larger than a dozen men!  John uses the Greek word σπεῖραν, pronounced speiran, to describe the Roman soldiers sent to arrest Jesus. Speiran is the word used to describe a Roman “cohort,” which technically was one-tenth of a Roman legion, or approximately 600 men. Of course, a “cohort” is a much larger force than we would anticipate being deployed to arrest someone like Jesus, who would not have been expected to put up much in the way of resistance. But there’s no reason to think that John intended to refer to a force this large. True, sperian can mean “cohort,” but it can also mean a body of soldiers of any size. Various New Testament versions translate sperian as “detachment,” “contingent,” “band,” “company,” “squad” or “troop.” So, I see nothing unrealistic or exaggerated in John’s description of Jesus’ arresting party.

In his tome The Death of the Messiah, Raymond Brown questioned whether there were really Roman soldiers present at Jesus’ arrest. Brown’s thinking is that John’s Gospel may have invented this story for a theological purpose, to show the extent of Jesus’ power. According to John’s Gospel, when Jesus identified himself to the mixed Jewish-Roman arresting force, all “fell to the ground” – and if Roman soldiers fell to the ground along with Jewish Temple police, this would show Jesus’ authority over all people, Jew and Gentile. But I see no reason why John might not have used a real historical event – the presence of Roman troops at Jesus’ arrest – to make a theological point about Jesus’ authority. Certainly, John did not have to invent a scene between Jesus and Romans to show who held ultimate power – there were many real encounters between Jesus and Romans for John to utilize to make this point.

Brown ultimately concludes that “we have no way of confirming or denying” the presence of Roman troops at Jesus’ arrest, and I think this probably represents the consensus of historians on this question. Certainly, there’s room here for multiple points of view. Jewish forces were capable of arresting Jesus without Roman help, and for that matter, the typical Roman crucifixion of a Jew like Jesus took place without any Jewish cooperation. Historically speaking, we can’t be sure that Jesus’ arrest was a joint Roman-Jewish project. Personally, I think that Roman troops were almost certainly present, and as we explore further details of Jesus’ arrest and trial, I think the likelihood of such presence will become clearer. But Brown goes on to make an interesting point: if Roman troops assisted in Jesus’s arrest, it can only be because they were “ordered to do so by the Roman prefect,” Pontius Pilate. Roman troops would not do anything under the direction of Jewish authorities, and John makes this clear enough when he tells us that these troops were led by a Χιλίαρχος (pronounced chiliarchos), a “chief captain” who would have command over 1,000 soldiers.

Is it then possible that Pilate was consulted by the Jewish authorities before Jesus was arrested, or even that it was Pilate who ordered Jesus arrested? I think this is a possibility worth exploring, and we will do so in later posts.

Judas’ Betrayal of Jesus

Most historians accept Judas’ betrayal of Jesus as one of the most historically certain facts in the Gospel accounts. But what, exactly, did Judas betray? This isn’t at all clear. The Gospels seem to indicate that Judas betrayed Jesus’ location and identity: the Greek word Mark uses to describe Judas’ intent is παραδοῖ, pronounced paradoi, and while this word is most often translated in the sense of “betray,” it can be more generally translated as “handing over” or “giving over.” Indeed, this is the betrayal described in the Gospels: Judas is with the arresting force when they confront Jesus at the Garden of Gethsemane, and it is Judas who identifies Jesus: “The betrayer [Judas] had given them a sign, saying, ‘The one I will kiss is the man; arrest him and lead him away under guard.’” The implication is that the Romans and Jews didn’t know where to find Jesus, or even what he looked like. But how could this be? Jesus himself told the arresting force that “Every day I was with you, teaching in the temple courts.” If Jesus was known by and publicly available to the Jerusalem authorities, then they certainly didn’t need Judas’ help to capture Jesus.

It would seem that Judas betrayed Jesus in some other way … but how? One possibility is that Judas gave information to the authorities that led to Jesus’ arrest, conviction and execution. Bart Ehrman speculates that Judas provided key evidence against Jesus by describing some of Jesus’ secret teachings to these authorities. Ehrman points to Jesus’ teaching his disciples that “when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” Jesus never taught this publicly, yet he was executed by Pilate on a charge of sedition, for claiming to be “king of the Jews.” Perhaps Judas betrayed Jesus by revealing this secret teaching: Jesus said that he himself was the Son of Man who would rule the Jews as their king.

There are at least two problems with Ehrman’s theory. First, it’s not clear that the Romans would execute anyone for merely saying that they would be king at some future point. For certain, sedition was a capital crime in the Roman Empire, but sedition refers to conduct that tends to incite insurrection or rebellion. It’s not clear that Jesus would have been executed merely for teaching that he’d be king someday, particularly if the teaching was secret. In what way could Judas have claimed that Jesus had acted to incite popular rebellion – particularly since Jesus had not revealed his teaching beyond his small circle of disciples? There’s a second major problem with Ehrman’s theory: it’s not supported by the historical account. There’s no indication in the Gospels that Judas testified against Jesus at his trial. There’s no indication in the Gospels that Judas revealed any secret teaching of Jesus. The Gospels instead indicate that Judas aided in Jesus’ arrest, not his conviction. Ehrman’s theory is mere speculation – highly educated and plausible speculation, but speculation nonetheless. We really don’t know exactly how Judas betrayed Jesus.

So long as we’re discussing questions concerning Judas’ betrayal, I thought I’d mention two more raised by Raymond Brown in Death of the Messiah. First, how did Judas find out that the authorities were looking for assistance so they could arrest and convict Jesus? The Gospels frequently state that the Jewish authorities were seeking Jesus’ downfall, but the Gospel authors tell us this in narrative summary – there was no public announcement that Jesus was on anyone’s “most wanted” list. And even if Judas knew that the authorities were after Jesus, what made Judas think that the authorities needed his help? Thousands of Jews were crucified by the Romans during their occupation of Judea – perhaps hundreds of thousands – so it’s not as if the Romans typically needed anyone’s help to nail a Jew to a cross. Judas actually risked his own neck by stepping forward like he did, for if Jesus had committed a crime worthy of crucifixion, then Judas (as Jesus’ disciple) might have been found guilty of aiding and abetting that same crime! Yet the Gospels seem to indicate that Judas knew exactly what he was doing – that his betrayal of Jesus would be welcomed and rewarded by the authorities. How did he know this?

There’s also the question of how Judas knew where to find Jesus on the night he was arrested. Luke’s Gospel tells us that it was Jesus’ “custom” to go to the Garden of Gethsemane, and John’s Gospel says that Jesus often met with his disciples at the Garden of Gethsemane. But there’s no indication that Jesus had gone to this garden on any previous night. In fact, the Gospel description of Jesus’ time at the garden is extraordinary – Luke has Jesus “sweat blood” at the garden that night – so it’s hard to imagine that this was just how Jesus routinely spent his evenings while in Jerusalem. So … how did Judas know where to guide the troops and police to find Jesus?

I’ll ask a lot of questions about the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ arrest, trial and conviction before I’m through writing this series. But now it’s your turn. In the comments below, please raise any of your own questions about Jesus’ arrest. Or if you think you have answers to any of my questions, let me know what they are!

  • John Brantingham

    This is really fascinating. Do the apocryphal books offer any indications. Is there even value to them?

    • John, thanks! The apocryphal books are of great value, but
      not as evidence of the sayings and doings of the historical Jesus. A few
      scholars think that the Coptic Gospel of Thomas may preserve authentic sayings
      of Jesus, but this Gospel is purely a sayings Gospel, and it tells us nothing
      of Jesus’ arrest, trial or passion. The Gospel of Peter is regarded by very few
      as containing historical truth, and it contains a passion narrative, but we
      only have a portion of this Gospel, and it begins with Pilate washing his hands
      – well after Jesus’ arrest. The only apocryphal Gospel I can find that covers
      the period of Jesus’ arrest is something called “The Gospel of Nicodemus,” or “The
      Acts of Pilate.” This is probably a 4th Century composition, and it’s
      obscure even as apocryphal Gospels go! This account begins with the Jewish high
      priests and scribes coming to Pilate to accuse Jesus of claiming to be the Son
      of God, plotting to destroy Jewish law, and practicing sorcery. Pilate then
      calls Jesus into his office for questioning, and Jesus comes to Pilate
      voluntarily! I don’t think this account is based on historical memory, but it
      IS interesting that some Christians at some point imagined that this is how
      Jesus came into Pilate’s custody.