Who Really Killed Jesus?
Hot on the heels of last week’s Secrets of the Jesus Tomb comes Who Really Killed Jesus? the second entry in Channel Five’s series Secrets of the Cross. Of the four documentaries this looks to be the one least driven by conspiracy theories and the most grounded historical research. As ever the filmmakers cobble together their story from interviews with experts and voiced-over reconstructions. Some bits are new and surprising whilst others seem somewhat out of place.
The sad history of the church is that the last two thousand years have been marred by numerous acts of violence against those perceived as “Christ killers”. What this documentary wants to know is whether the charge is even plausible given the recent advances in historical research.
The gospels split the blame for Jesus’ death between the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate, and the Jewish people and their Chief Priests. Yet they tend to place the majority of the blame with the Jews rather than the Romans. But the film unearths evidence which suggests that Pilate was not an “indecisive and weak” ruler pushed into crucifying Jesus but rather a battle-hardened soldier whose noted brutality ultimately found him recalled to Rome in disgrace.
In fact this is also the impression we get from the gospels prior to Jesus’ trial. Luke 13:1 tells us about the “Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices” a statement that sounds very much in keeping with the statements of Jewish historians Philo and Josephus. Furthermore, the Bible is also clear that it was the Romans who actually put Jesus to death. “Only the Romans are permitted to execute someone” as John 18:32 has it.
So does all this mean, as the programme suggests, that the gospel accounts of Jesus’ trial are not as historically reliable as is sometimes claimed? Well possibly. Christians, certainly, have varying opinions, as do historians and Bible scholars. Some, for example, point out that at the time that the gospels were written Christians were a smaller persecuted minority within the larger Jewish movement. Making the Jewish people out to be the bad guys was a form of self defence; absolving the Romans helped them gain credibility within the wider empire.
But others disagree. After all,the Bible is also a historical source that should not be discounted. And, as the programme points out, Jesus would have posed a threat to Caiaphas’ position. The “crowd” at Jesus’ trial could simply consist of a handful of the High Priests cronies eager to shore up their relatively privileged positions. It’s interesting, given all this, that the Nicene Creed holds Pilate, rather than any of his Jewish counterparts, responsible for Jesus’s death.
So whilst the evidence presented by Who Really Killed Jesus? is certainly significant it’s perhaps not as comprehensive enough to answer its main question once and for all. Whilst most accept that the gospels re-contextualise the story to appeal to their specific audiences, the suggestion that they did it out of a desire to appeal to Rome and distance themselves from the Jews is still unproven. What is important is that the programme helps unravel the troubling link between the trial of Jesus and the Jewish people as a whole. And given that this link has led to centuries of anti-Semitism culminating in the Holocaust, that has to be a good thing.
Who Really Killed Jesus? is currently available at Five on Demand
Posted by: Matt Page on Friday Sep 12th, 2008
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