In my last two posts, I looked at a recent article by Dale Martin arguing that Jesus was arrested and crucified for leading an armed band of disciples into Jerusalem on Passover to join in a heavenly-earthly battle to inaugurate the Kingdom of G-d. After my last post, Professor Martin was interviewed about his article over at The Jesus Blog – I think he makes a better case for his argument in this interview than he did in his article, so the interview is certainly worth a read. I’m still not on board with Prof. Martin, for all the reasons I’ve stated earlier, but I want to emphasize that Martin is one of the smartest people in this room, and I share his focus on the presence of swords in the Gospels. He thinks that Jesus’ disciples were carrying swords for a reason central to his mission; I doubt that they were carrying any weapon like a sword, and I don’t think these swords were ever used. This is a good time to emphasize, both my opinion and Martin’s are minority opinions (at least Martin has the intellectual credentials to go out on a limb – so why am I doing out here on the opposite limb?).
I looked at Martin’s article because it speaks directly to my focus here in recent weeks on the arrest, trial and execution of Jesus. Specifically, I’m interested in the Jewish involvement in what happened to Jesus – did the Apostle Paul have any reason in 1 Thessalonians to write that the Ἰουδαίων (pronounced “Ioudaiōn,” and commonly translated as “Jews”) killed Jesus? Most recently, I asked what crime Jesus was charged with at his arrest.
Note that I purposely avoided asking why Jesus was arrested – the reasons why a person is arrested may be quite different from the crime named in the indictment against that person. Consider the well-known case against the gangster Al Capone, who was indicted for tax evasion. It’s obvious that the Feds did not go after Capone because he failed to pay taxes on the money he stole. Here, I won’t ask whether Jesus was arrested because the Jewish authorities were jealous of his popularity, or because they saw him as a threat to incite a riot, or because they thought he was a zealous political revolutionary, or (as the New Testament puts it) because Jesus came to Earth “as a ransom for all people.” It’s a complicated matter to determine anyone’s motives, let alone the motives of a Jewish leadership that lived 2,000 years ago and left us with no record of what they were thinking.
The only existing record of Jesus’ arrest and trial is what we find in the Gospel accounts written by Jesus’ supporters, and while these accounts describe (or at least attempt to describe) the inner motivation of Jesus’ prosecutors, I think it’s worth looking for the outward, formal reasons given for Jesus’ arrest. We are, after all, looking at what the Gospels describe as a legal procedure – unlike John the Baptist, the Gospels do not indicate that Jesus was the victim of a political murder. The Gospels indicate that Jesus was arrested, tried and executed in a proceeding under Jewish and Roman law. We shouldn’t be too cynical when it comes to the meaning of the rule of law. Both Roman and Jewish law took procedural requirements seriously. While we’ve already questioned whether Pilate was bound by procedural requirements, scholars recognize that ancient Jewish criminal law contains “strict procedural and substantive requirements.” This does not mean that Jesus received a fair trial before Caiaphas and the Jewish elders, but we might at least learn something from the efforts made by Jesus’ Jewish prosecutors to satisfy these requirements.
However, there’s a problem: the Gospels do not purport to provide us with anything like a complete record of Jesus’ arrest and trial. We don’t have a copy of Jesus’ arrest warrant (if there was a warrant, not that there had to be an arrest warrant) – we don’t even have a statement from the arresting officers saying why Jesus was being arrested. This forces us to look ahead to the trial itself to ascertain the charge against Jesus. But again, the Gospel authors do not provide us with much to go on. We do not know the names of the witnesses, we have no verbatim testimony (except a bit from Jesus), and if the judges reached a reasoned decision, we’re given little more than a hint of what their reasoning might have been.
With so little to go on, I came up with three possible charges against Jesus: (1) he blasphemed, (2) he claimed to be the Messiah, and (3) he threatened to destroy the Temple. But the first two of these charges do not seem to be plausible historically. Two Gospels (Mark and Matthew) indicate that Jesus was convicted for blasphemy, but if Jesus was arrested for blasphemy, then presumably the authorities would have arranged for witnesses to come forward and accuse Jesus of this crime. But the Gospels report no such testimony – in Mark and Matthew, Jesus is convicted for an allegedly blasphemous statement he made at the trial itself.* And as for Jesus’ being arrested for claiming to be the Messiah, this too is unlikely, since claiming to be a Messiah was not a Jewish crime.
(* It’s possible to view as “blasphemous” Jesus’ words and actions against the Temple. I’ll discuss this briefly towards the end of this post.)
We now come to the third possible charge against Jesus, that Jesus was arrested because he advocated the destruction of the Temple. At first blush, this charge does seem historically plausible. For one thing, Jesus may have actually been guilty of this particular crime. In John 2:19, Jesus does say, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” Now, it’s not exactly clear what Jesus meant when he said, “Destroy this temple.” John’s Gospel says that Jesus was speaking metaphorically – “he was speaking about the temple of his body.” But even if John was wrong on this point and Jesus was speaking literally, Jesus might have also been speaking hypothetically: Jesus might not have been threatening to destroy the Temple himself. Jesus might instead have been saying that if someone else destroyed the Temple, then Jesus would rebuild it.
But it seems that Jesus’ words were understood literally and not hypothetically by at least some Jews as a threat against the Temple. Jesus was reportedly mocked by passers-by while on the cross: “You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself!”
Moreover, the Gospels tell us that Jesus did more than merely talk about the destruction of the Temple. He took action to “cleanse” the Temple. According to Mark’s Gospel, Jesus “entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold and those who bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. And he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. And he was teaching them and saying to them, ‘Is it not written, my house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations? But you have made it a den of robbers.’” The description of this scene in John’s Gospel is even more violent: Jesus “made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple area, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables.”
The accusation that Jesus sought to destroy the Temple would have been a deadly serious matter. The Temple was the very center of Jewish life, in Jerusalem, in Israel and throughout the world. To destroy the Temple required that it be burned to the ground – indeed, this is how the Romans accomplished the Temple’s destruction, some 40 years after Jesus’ execution. If Jesus truly intended to destroy the Temple, he was threatening armed insurrection, and arson, in a manner that would surely have led to deaths in the thousands. Such a threat, if meant literally and taken seriously, would most certainly have led to Jesus’ arrest and execution.
But there’s the rub: if meant literally and taken seriously. If the Temple authorities thought that Jesus really intended to destroy the Temple, then he should have been arrested then and there, on the Temple mount, before the Last Supper, before Judas’ betrayal. The Temple had a police force. Roman soldiers were stationed nearby. And you have to figure that the money changers had their own security present. The Temple Mount would have been crowded with Passover pilgrims; security forces would have been on high alert. Yet Jesus wasn’t arrested. Mark’s Gospel indicates that Jesus calmly left the scene of the Temple cleansing, without incident. Matthew’s Gospel indicates that Jesus remained at the Temple after the cleansing, to teach and heal the sick, and that Jesus actually had a short debate with the chief priests and scribes before finally leaving the Temple.
To see how improbable these reports appear to be, try to picture this: a young man walks into a major metropolitan bank with his followers. Or if you prefer: the young man walks into an international airport (replete with post-9/11 security), or into the White House. Let’s say that this happens near an important holiday, like Thanksgiving or Christmas, where the scene is unusually crowded. The young man starts overturning tables, scattering money hither and yon, uttering threats and causing the people who work there to flee. What’s going to happen to that young man? Is he going to proceed to teach those remaining in the airport/bank/White House about what comes out of the mouths of infants? Is he going to debate questions of current interest with airport security and White House officials? No. Of course not. He’s going to be immediately arrested, along with all of his followers. His trial will be an open-and-shut affair, with more witnesses than even a zealous prosecutor would know what to do with. The defendant would have no defense, and the idea that he’d been unfairly convicted never would have gotten off the ground.
(Some stories you can’t make up: earlier this year a man was arrested for overturning tables inside Joel Osteen’s megachurch bookstore! And while the irony is heavy here, isn’t this exactly the result we expect when tables are overturned within a commercial establishment? That someone is going to get arrested?)
Here, I’m echoing a point made by many prominent and reputable scholars: from an historical standpoint, the so-called “Temple cleansing” could NOT have happened as it is portrayed in the Gospels. In his landmark book Jesus and Judaism, E.P. Sanders wrote that Jesus’ Temple-cleansing could not have been “substantial enough even to interfere with the daily routine [of the Temple]; for if it had been [Jesus] would surely have been arrested on the spot.” On his blog (subscription required), Bart Ehrman writes that “The reason Jesus wasn’t arrested [in the Temple-cleansing incident] is because it wasn’t a big deal but a very small incident.” Ehrman describes this explanation as “the one that has been most influential among scholars for the past 30 years or so.” The Temple cleansing appears to be a big deal in the Gospels because, according to Ehrman, it was exaggerated by Jesus’ followers after his death.
To understand the Temple cleansing incident, I turn to scholar Paula Fredriksen, who makes the point I’ve repeated here in earlier posts: to understand what happened to Jesus, we have to make sense of the fact that “Jesus’ followers are not rounded up and killed. Only Jesus is killed. That’s one of the few firm facts we have about it.” Add to this that even Jesus is not arrested upon his Temple cleansing. In the Gospel of John, nearly three years pass between when Jesus made his “destroy this temple” utterance and when he was arrested! We should note that many historians doubt the chronology in John, preferring instead the chronology in Matthew, Mark and Luke that Jesus’ Temple cleansing took place at the end of Jesus’ ministry, shortly before his execution. But even if we go with the chronology in Matthew, Mark and Luke, we’re still struck by the fact that three days pass between Jesus’ actions against the Temple and his arrest. Why would the authorities allow Jesus to remain at large in Jerusalem for three days, while the city was overflowing with Jewish Passover pilgrims, if Jesus was taken seriously as a threat against the Temple? If the authorities were worried about Jesus’ supposed threats against the Temple, wouldn’t the authorities have been worried that a delay in arresting Jesus might give Jesus time to act on his threat?
Like me, Fredriksen doubts the historicity of the Temple cleansing reported in the Gospels. But she makes an interesting point in addition. Echoing Sanders, Fredriksen points out that the size of the Temple precinct was enormous: approximately 169,000 square feet, roughly the size of twelve football fields (stands and all). We’re talking about an area that could hold nearly half a million people! Assume for the moment that Jesus did perform some kind of cleansing in this place. Here’s how Fredriksen pictures it:
Imagine Jesus walking over to some of the vendors on the edges of this huge area and overturning their tables. Now ask yourself: How many people would have been able to see him? Those in his retinue and those standing immediately around him. But in the congestion and confusion of the holiday crowd, how many could have seen what was happening, say, twenty feet away? Fifty feet? Shrunk by the size of the Temple’s outer court, muffled by the density of the pilgrim crowds, Jesus’ gesture — had he made it — would simply have been swallowed up. Hermeneutically inaccessible (on the evidence of the evangelists), Jesus’ gesture would have visually inaccessible as well. What, then, on the basis of this gesture, did the priests have to worry about?
Let’s go one step further. We might imagine that Jesus might be arrested by the Jewish authorities merely for saying bad things about the Temple – this in itself might be a form of “blasphemy” against G-d, or G-d’s house, or G-d’s appointed priestly attendants. But as Fredriksen argues, Jesus’ critique of the Temple was rather tame, “compared to how the Pharisees are criticizing the Priests.” After all, Jesus never attacks the priests directly; his comments are directed to the money changers and animal sellers. In contrast, the Jews living in the Dead Sea Scroll community at Qumran referred to the Jerusalem high priest as the “wicked priest” (whether this was a criticism of priests prior to Caiaphas, the priesthood in general or Caiaphas himself is hard to say). As Craig Evans puts it, there is “significant evidence” of Jewish criticism of the way the Temple was being run in Jesus’ day, “some sharp and bitter; and this criticism is widespread and amply attested.” Evans points out that Jewish criticism of Temple operations can be found in the writings of the Jewish historian Josephus, in pseudepigraphical works like 2 Baruch, and later, in the writings that make up the Talmud. It’s hard to explain, then, how Jesus could have been arrested for saying unkind things about the Temple and the way the priests were running the Temple, when so many other Jews who’d said worse were allowed to roam free.
So … where does that leave us? Can we find any Jewish law that the Jewish authorities might have arrested Jesus for breaking?
I think we need to be humble here, and acknowledge both that there’s much we don’t know about Jesus’ final days, and that we can reach no firm conclusion regarding the charge against Jesus at his arrest. I think that most scholars today look to Jesus’ activities at the Temple as a “catalyst” for his arrest, even if these activities did not amount to very much. It’s possible that the Jewish authorities were concerned about the affect Jesus had (or might have) on the Jewish crowds, and whether Jesus might (intentionally or not) spark some sort of disturbance or riot.
Beyond this, I can only say that the facts as we have them, the facts as we’ve examined them, do not add up. The more closely we look at Jewish involvement in Jesus’ arrest, the less clear this involvement seems to be. We’re no longer sure who ordered Jesus’ arrest. While we think there were Jewish Temple police present at Jesus’ arrest, we suspect that Roman troops were also present, and even that these Roman troops might have taken charge. The arrest itself looks odd to us, with Jesus’ compatriots all allowed to go free (at least, none of them were arrested), and with the ear-slicing reported by all four Gospels in serious doubt. Now, we can’t even pinpoint a Jewish charge against Jesus. Something odd is going on here! But let’s keep going. Let’s leave Jesus’ arrest behind, and look at his prosecution. Starting next time.
In the meantime, ask questions! What do you think of the arguments I’ve made so far? Like me, are you starting to think that there’s something strange in the story of Jewish involvement in Jesus’ death? Are there scholarly arguments and opinions that you think we should consider at this point?