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E.P. Sanders and the ‘Trial’ of Jesus

In: Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus
Author: Helen K. Bond1
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This study outlines E.P. Sanders’ views on the Jewish ‘trial’ of Jesus, paying particular attention to the following topics: ‘who ran what’ at the time of Jesus; the involvement of the Jewish leaders; the role and character of the high priest Caiaphas; what sources we can rely on at this point; and the differences between Sanders’ views in Jesus and Judaism and the later (and more popular) Historical Figure of Jesus. It concludes by suggesting ways in which scholars can build on Sanders’ insights, not only in terms of historical reconstruction but also as a starting point for a fuller appreciation of the evangelists’ narrative and creative art.

Abstract

This study outlines E.P. Sanders’ views on the Jewish ‘trial’ of Jesus, paying particular attention to the following topics: ‘who ran what’ at the time of Jesus; the involvement of the Jewish leaders; the role and character of the high priest Caiaphas; what sources we can rely on at this point; and the differences between Sanders’ views in Jesus and Judaism and the later (and more popular) Historical Figure of Jesus. It concludes by suggesting ways in which scholars can build on Sanders’ insights, not only in terms of historical reconstruction but also as a starting point for a fuller appreciation of the evangelists’ narrative and creative art.

Introduction

An enduring legacy of early twentieth-century form criticism was the assumption that the Gospel passion narratives were early and broadly historical. Legendary and apologetic embellishments had clearly crept into the accounts, yet the general view that they had been put together soon after the death of Jesus for apologetic/kerygmatic reasons has dominated scholarship ever since.1Investigations into the trial of Jesus, particularly after the terrible events of the Second World War, tended to focus on specific historical questions: the Jewish right of capital punishment, the historicity of the Sanhedrin trial, the question of ‘responsibility’, and so on.2 Appeal was frequently made to (often problematic) rabbinic texts, but there was generally little attempt to ground the trial and execution of Jesus with what we know of the concrete social and political conditions of first-century Judaea,3 or even quite often with the life and ministry of Jesus that preceded it.4 What marked Professor Sanders’s work, first in his monumental Jesus and Judaism (1985) and then later in the more popular and slightly emended Historical Figure of Jesus (1993),5 was his ability to reconstruct events surrounding Jesus’ last few hours in a way that made good sense of both the historical context and Jesus’ career more broadly.

Sanders’s Views on the Trial of Jesus

One of the great contributions of Sanders’s work is his insistence that Jesus’ death must be clearly connected to his life and ministry. Although it is clearly possible that Jesus was put to death by accident, or even as a result of an incident with no connection to his message, a reconstruction that offers clear reasons for his execution is clearly to be preferred.6 Standing in the line of A. Schweitzer at the turn of the twentieth century, Sanders argues persuasively that Jesus was a Jewish prophet espousing a first-century restoration eschatology. Like earlier prophets, Jesus performed symbolic actions: the selection of twelve apostles symbolized the reconstitution of the twelve tribes; his exorcisms may have symbolized the conquest of evil and the impending arrival of God’s kingdom; the entry into Jerusalem (for Sanders a modest affair) revealed Jesus’ identity as ‘king’; and the last supper proclaimed that the kingdom was at hand, and that Jesus would share in it with his disciples. But the action that led to Jesus’ arrest was the incident in the Temple. Rather than a reform or a ‘cleansing’, Jesus’ actions were a powerful prophecy of the Temple’s imminent destruction, a destruction that would be followed in the new age by a new and perfect Temple built by God himself.7

It was this action that sealed Jesus’ fate: to threaten the Temple was to court trouble. The Jewish high priest feared that a riot might break out, sent armed guards to arrest Jesus, gave him a hearing, and sent him to Pilate with a recommendation that he be put to death. The Roman prefect regarded him as a ‘religious fanatic’ who might excite the hopes and dreams of the people: ‘A man who spoke of a kingdom, spoke against the Temple, and had a following was one marked for execution; but no one need have regarded him as a military leader.’8 Assuming that his followers would dissipate as soon as their chief was out of the way, Pilate, without further ado, sent Jesus to the cross on the morning of Friday 15th Nisan.

In the following discussion, I shall concentrate on Sanders’s analysis of Jesus’ Jewish ‘trial’, particularly the involvement of the high priest and his advisers. I should perhaps acknowledge from the start that the publication of Sanders’s books was broadly contemporary with my own student days; I still remember the excitement they caused, and was then, and remain, broadly convinced by his views. Nevertheless, I would like to discuss six related topics: (1) ‘who ran what’ at the time of Jesus? (2) the involvement of the Jewish leaders, (3) Sanders’s presentation of the role and character of the high priest Caiaphas, (4) the value of our sources when it comes to the Jewish trial narrative itself, (5) the differences between Sanders’s reconstruction of the ‘trial’ in Jesus and Judaism and the later Historical Figure of Jesus, (6) and what I shall call ‘Building on Sanders: allowing the synoptic trial narratives to speak for themselves’.

‘Who Ran What’ at the Time of Jesus?9

Perhaps the greatest achievement of Prof. Sanders’s work is his contextualization of Jesus within the world of first-century Judaism. Jesus was not ‘against Judaism’, preaching a living belief in God’s grace and love in contrast to the dead erudition of the Jewish teachers,10 but an eschatological prophet very much at home in a particular strand of contemporary Jewish thought. For Sanders, appreciation of the historical, religious and political context is fundamental to understanding Jesus, and his tremendous knowledge of Jewish literature is apparent in all his historical reconstructions (his Judaism: Practice and Belief is a fascinating study of every conceivable aspect of ancient Jewish life).

For the social and political aspects of the first century, Sanders appeals frequently to Flavius Josephus. Eschewing older appraisals of the Jewish aristocrat which regarded him as a tendentious propagandist, Sanders (in line with recent Josephus scholarship11) has a high opinion of his value: ‘By the standards of the day, he was a very good historian, and for some parts of his historical narratives he had excellent sources.’12 But Sanders does not use him uncritically. Following Morton Smith, his method is to look at Josephus’s descriptions of events rather than his summary statements (which, as we shall see, are often tendentious).13 Constant appeal to Josephus and retelling of anecdotes (especially in Judaism: Practice and Belief, but also in the more popular Historical Figure of Josephus) lends a fresh and vivid sense to his reconstruction, and a plausibility that is often lacking in less historically grounded studies.

Josephus allows Sanders to counter opposing views of Galilee. Both the proposal that Galilee faced severe social and economic crisis, poverty and banditry (associated with Horsley and Applebaum), and the suggestion that the region was prosperous, highly urbanized and Hellenized (associated with Crossan, Downing and Mack) are seen to lack secure historical evidence. Instead, he argues that there was no sense of Rome ‘occupying’ Palestine in Jesus’ day (not even in Judaea); that Roman rule was not particularly repressive; and that there was no attempt to ‘Romanize’ the province in terms of imposing Graeco-Roman institutions on the Jewish people. Counter to Josephus’s presentation, he maintains that Palestine in the 20s and 30s was not tottering on the brink of revolt. Sporadic outbursts were not unknown and there was clearly a need for vigilance on the part of the rulers, but most protests were non-violent (for example those associated with Pilate’s standards [War 2.169–71; Ant. 18.55–59] and Gaius’s statue [War 2.184–203]). For its part, Rome wanted only loyalty and secure borders from its provincials.14

Within Judaea itself, government was precisely as it had been in the Persian and pre-Maccabean Hellenistic periods. Rome ruled the province of Judaea remotely, with only a small body of troops mainly garrisoned in Caesarea Maritima; the day-to-day running of the country was largely left to the traditional rulers—the elders in smaller settlements, and the high priest and his advisers in Jerusalem.15 It was the high priest’s task to maintain law and order and to alert Rome of any potential troublemakers; they co-operated with the foreign rulers, but there was also a sense in which they genuinely sought to protect the people from Rome.16 Anyone creating a disturbance in the Temple could expect to be apprehended by the Jewish aristocrats and passed to Rome; that was simply how things functioned. Sanders thus avoids the anachronism of much earlier scholarship which tended to drive a wedge between the Jewish rulers as upholders of ‘religion’ and the Romans as representatives of ‘politics’.17 In a later reflective study, he expresses some regret that he did not use the word ‘System’ to explain ‘what killed Jesus’, a word of course used by Ellis Rivkin just as Sanders’s work was going to press.18

Throughout the history of Christian scholarship on the trial of Jesus, too much role, Sanders argues, has been ascribed to a fixed council (Sanhedrin in Hebrew) and the role of the Pharisees in any such gathering. Much has been made of Josephus’s claim that Sadducees had to submit to the views of the Pharisees who controlled the populace (Ant. 18.15–17), but this is not supported by Sanders’s analysis of the events themselves which suggest that the high priest was the man in charge, and that any ‘council’ actually consisted of the high priest and a group of specially selected aristocratic advisers drawn together to determine a particular case.19 The implication of this is important: the Pharisees (now removed from ‘the Sanhedrin’) play no part in the events of Jesus’ last hours. The quarrel is with the priestly leaders alone and it was they who were responsible for Jesus’ arrest and transferral to Rome.

Sanders’s down-to-earth and credible reconstruction of the historical realities of first-century Judaea has generally been well-received. Some may think that he has gone too far in denying any conflict with the Pharisees throughout Jesus’ ministry,20 but few today would argue either that the Pharisees were in a position to try Jesus and determine his fate, or that they were involved in his particular case (here the Gospel records in which the Pharisees virtually disappear from the passion narratives offer powerful support for Sanders’s case). His challenge to the existence of a fixed council (‘the Sanhedrin’) has also been upheld by several other studies,21 though as so often, this been slow to percolate through to general Gospel scholarship. But two questions present themselves. First, can we be absolutely sure that there was any kind of Jewish involvement in Jesus’ case? And, second, what kind of men were these high priestly aristocrats? I shall look at each in turn.

Involvement of the Jewish leaders in the Execution of Jesus

A long tradition of historiography relates to the question of Jewish involvement in Jesus’ death. Yet even Hans Lietzmann, who famously argued that the Sanhedrin retained the right to stone offenders in the first century, and the Jewish scholars Paul Winter and David Flusser, who queried the historical nature of the trial narratives and argued for dramatically reduced Jewish involvement, all followed the broad canonical consensus that Jesus was arrested principally on the orders of the leading Jews.22 Sanders’s reconstruction is shared by the majority of scholars,23 although a number of subsequent reconstructions challenged this sequence of events. An example here is J.D. Crossan. Taking his starting point from the fact that Jesus was crucified, a characteristically Roman form of execution, Crossan argues that Jesus was simply arrested after his disturbance in the Temple, hauled outside the city walls by the soldiers on duty, and crucified. The passion narratives, he maintains, including the Jewish involvement in Jesus’ death, are later elaborations of scriptural prophecies and contain nothing of historical value whatsoever. Crossan wishes to emphasize the ‘casual brutality’ of it all; for him there was no need for a trial, still less a series of trials, and no need for any kind of high-level consultation between Caiaphas and Pilate.24

Crossan is surely right to highlight Roman brutality. We need only consider Roman reprisals following the disturbances after Herod I’s death when whole cities were burned and their inhabitants taken into slavery (War 2.39–78; Ant. 17.250–98), or the presence of Barabbas and the other two ‘robbers’ crucified with Jesus (Mk 15.7, 27 and pars.) to realize that Rome thought nothing of stamping out the lives of provincials. Yet I would argue that Crossan’s reconstruction underestimates the impact of Jesus in a way that Sanders’s does not. The great merit of Sanders’s presentation is that he situates Jesus alongside other similar prophetic figures: John the Baptist whose movement was ‘nipped in the bud’ before he could cause trouble (Ant. 18.109–119); Theudas, a second Joshua, who appeared in 44/5 ce (Ant. 20.97–98); the unnamed desert prophets from the 50s who promised the people ‘signs of deliverance’ in the wilderness (War 2.258–60; Ant. 20.167–68); or the Egyptian for whom Paul was mistaken (War 2.261–63; Ant. 20.169–72; Acts 21.38). A comparison with the case of Jesus ben Ananias is particularly instructive: appearing at the feast of Tabernacles in 62 ce and repeatedly prophesying against the Temple, ben Ananias was arrested by the Jewish leaders and passed over to the Roman procurator, Albinus, who after hearing him concluded that he was mad, flogged him and let him go (War 6.300–309).25 Jesus of Nazareth, in comparison, was much more dangerous: he had a following, talked about a kingdom, and had performed a physical action in the Temple. Both men were heard at the highest level by Jewish and Roman authorities, though the reasons for the harsher sentence in the case of Jesus of Nazareth are clear.

Two other pieces of information, I would suggest, back up Sanders’s case. The first is Paul’s comment in 1 Thess 2.14–16 that ‘the Jews … killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets’. Although there have been attempts to argue that this is inauthentic, there is no textual support for such a position.26 The most obvious reading of the passage is that Paul, writing only fifteen or so years after Jesus’ execution, believed that the Jewish leaders had been involved. The second piece of evidence is Josephus’s paragraph on Jesus, known for centuries as the Testimonium Flavianum (Ant. 18.63–64). By universal agreement, this brief report is not now in the state in which Josephus wrote it: three statements could clearly have only been penned by later Christian copyists, and it is impossible to know how much has been omitted (since the section comes in the midst of a series of tumults,, in the time of Pilate, the paragraph may originally have included a note of some disturbance, perhaps in connection with the incident in the Temple). Modern reconstructions, however, are surprisingly agreed that, when the Christianized elements are stripped away, what remains could well be Josephan and may well be tolerably close to what the historian originally wrote.27 Two things are important. First, the fact that Josephus, looking back from the late first century, had anything to say about Jesus at all suggests that he was a significant figure,28 comparable perhaps to John the Baptist or Jesus ben Ananias. The very fact that he was significant makes the more complex series of events after his arrest (involving some kind of hearing by both parties) at least comprehensible. Second, the statement that Jesus was accused in front of Pilate by ‘men of the highest standing among us’ (τω̃ν πρώτων ἀνδρω̃ν παρ᾽ ἡμι̃ν, 18.64) is thoroughly in keeping with Josephus’s style and is arguably part of the original narrative.29 If so, we have a non-Christian witness to the fact that Jesus was passed over to Rome by the Jewish leaders—and even if Josephus derived his information on this point from Christian sources, it certainly cannot have struck him as a strange chain of events. Neither Josephus nor 1 Thessalonians are conclusive, but both do tend in the direction proposed by Sanders: that the Jewish authorities were the prime movers in Jesus’ execution.30

If Pilate had taken the initiative himself, the casualties (Sanders argues) would doubtless have been much higher, as the case of Pilate’s encounter with the Samaritan messiah just a few years later (Ant. 18.85–9) and the fates of the desert prophets of the 50s make clear (in none of these cases is there any record of high priestly intervention). We might well wish, of course, that this were not the case, and that Jesus had been arrested by a group of auxiliary solders, but wishful thinking cannot form the basis of historical enquiry. The best way to approach these texts is to read them in their historical context: the out-dated approach that put responsibility on all Jews is clearly untenable. What Sanders has done is to put responsibility on the appropriate Jewish leader, the high priest, and attempted to explain his actions. But what kind of man was this high priest?

Sanders’s Portrait of Caiaphas, the High Priest

Sanders’s views on the high priests are distinctive. An important corollary to his insistence that Jesus’ action in the Temple was a prophecy of its destruction is that the traditional view that the priesthood was in need of ‘cleansing’ is harder to sustain. While Sanders notes that Josephus refers to elements of dishonesty and abuse amongst the Temple priesthood (for example Ant. 20.204–10, and the deteriorating priesthood under the ever-meddling Agrippa ii), he argues that these were the exceptions: ‘the priests believed in God, they served him faithfully in the Temple, and they tried to set a good example by strict adherence to the divine law’.31 He admits that Herod’s habit of appointing and deposing high priests at will (which was followed by Rome) may have tarnished the office to some extent, but it still ‘had some prestige and a lot of authority’, and ‘reverence for the high priestly office was deep and genuine’.32 For the most part, rule by the high priests worked well. Caiaphas in particular is judged to have been a success, to have been ‘pretty decent’, and to have cared about the Jewish people.33 The very fact that he served longer than any other high priest shows his capability, and Sanders draws the reasonable conclusion that he and Pilate must have co-operated well. When he ordered Jesus’ arrest he was simply carrying out his duties—one of which was to prevent uprisings.34

Sanders’s vigorous rehabilitation of the Pharisees is well-known; he has exposed the Gospel Pharisees as caricatures, and few scholars today would portray them as legalistic and hypocritical. His work on the priestly leaders, however, has had far less impact. They are still routinely caricatured as corrupt, avaricious, self-serving and irreligious. A baraita from the Talmud is often used as evidence of their violence and dishonesty, despite the historical uncertainties surrounding it and the fact that it surely belongs to the much later disturbances created by Agrippa ii’s constant interference.35 Despite their clearly tendentious nature, the Gospel accounts are commonly regarded as broadly accurate portraits of these men and their motives by Christian and Jewish scholars alike.36 Perhaps, rather ironically, the priestly aristocrats have had to suffer as a result of the rehabilitation of the Pharisees. It is human nature to want to blame someone for Jesus’ death; if Jesus was no longer put to death by Pharisaic machinations, the ‘blame’ must rest rather with the Sadducean high priests, particularly since (unlike the Pharisees) they have no modern heirs, and represent a cultic religion that to most moderns is completely alien. It is much harder, especially for Christians, to accept that a decent high priest might honestly—and perhaps bravely—conclude that he was fulfilling his duties by handing Jesus over to Rome for execution.

In a book published in 2004, Caiaphas: Friend of Rome and Judge of Jesus?, I attempted to build on Sanders’s insights regarding the high priesthood, and Caiaphas in particular. My aim was not to rehabilitate the priest, but simply to look at the evidence from a more ‘neutral’ perspective, rather than through the negative lenses of the Gospels. My research backed up Sanders’s main points regarding the priestly leaders. While some were clearly ineffectual (and generally lost their position quickly), what evidence we have suggests that Caiaphas fulfilled his duties well, that he was able to maintain peace in Jerusalem, and that the Temple ran smoothly under his administration. The often repeated charge that he ran a monopoly of the sacrificial animals in the Temple with vastly inflated prices has simply no background in any source.37 The high priestly dynasties are often accused of nepotism, but we could level the same charge against early Christianity (Jesus was succeeded not by Peter, his chief disciple, but by his brother James, and in the time of Domitian by his great-great-nephews [Eusebius, he 3.19–20]). Similarly the charge of being ‘collaborators’ clearly has some basis in fact, but it is difficult to know what else the high priestly aristocrats could do in the circumstances. They might well have wished for Judaean independence (interestingly, during the Jewish revolt, most seem to have thrown in their lot with the revolutionaries), but were realistic to know that that was not an option, and optimistic enough to think that their government might succeed.38

Where I would want to go further than Sanders is in the significance of the fact that Jesus died at Passover. Caiaphas’s twin concerns, I would argue, were both to keep the peace and to maintain the Temple cult. One of his prime concerns, perhaps the single most important concern of the whole chief priestly compromise with Rome, was to keep Roman troops out of the Temple. Caiaphas might well have remembered the bloody battles in the Temple at the end of the war with Varus in 4 bce, resulting in great loss of Jewish life, the burning of the outer porticoes, and the plundering of the sacred treasury. Sanders notes the plausibility of the view ascribed to Caiaphas in Jn 11.48: ‘if we let [Jesus] go on thus … the Romans will come and destroy both our [holy] place (ie the Temple) and our nation.’ Yet maintenance of the cult went even further than this. The precise sequence of daily and seasonal sacrifices was carefully laid out in the Law, and had been revealed to Moses directly by God (Exod. 25.9, 40; 26.30); some even thought of Temple worship as a replica of a heavenly service carried out by God’s angels (1 Kgs 22.19, Dan. 7.11, Jub. 30.14, 31.15). Forming an unbroken chain from the time of Noah, sacrifices symbolized God’s covenant with his people, expressed the people’s thanks to God, obtained his mercy and forgiveness, and ensured the stability of the seasons, the fertility of the soil, and the fruitfulness of the crops. The significance of the cult went far beyond the land of Israel: the vast complex symbolized cosmic order and took on a universal significance.39 Although matters of security and the prevention of unrest in the crowded city were clearly important considerations in Caiaphas’s actions against Jesus, the threat that the Galilean posed to the smooth running of the cultic observance of Passover (perhaps in the form of another demonstration and Roman intervention) should not be underestimated.

There would have been no room in Caiaphas’s outlook for apocalyptic announcements of the Temple’s destruction, still less for a Galilean ‘messiah’. With hindsight, of course, we know that the high priestly compromise did crumble, first with the warring high priestly clans in the 50s and 60s, and then decisively with the revolt of 66 and the fall of the Temple in 70. Decades earlier, though, Caiaphas could not have predicted this. He may have hoped that the system of government introduced by Rome had every chance of success and may well have done everything in his power to make it work. Handing a Jewish trouble-maker over to a foreign power, though regrettable, was perhaps a small price to pay if it ensured stable government, kept Roman troops out of the Temple, and allowed the Passover to be celebrated unhindered.

But how precisely did Caiaphas hand Jesus over to Rome? Were they any kind of ‘proceedings’ against him? First, we need to address the question of sources.

Sources for the Jewish Proceedings Against Jesus

When compared with other ‘third quest’ Jesus scholars, Sanders shows remarkably little interest in non-canonical Christian sources for the life of Jesus. There is no appeal to the Gospel of Thomas, Secret Mark, a stratified Q, or a putative Cross Gospel lying behind the passion narratives.40 Even within the canonical Gospels, Sanders shows an almost total reliance on the Synoptics. As M.A. Powell notes, his ‘Jesus looks quite a lot like the Jesus of the Synoptic Gospels’.41 Sanders does, of course, acknowledge that the Synoptic writers were theologians who were capable of great creativity; nevertheless the length of Jesus’ ministry, the course of events and the date of the crucifixion all derive from the Synoptic (and therefore largely Markan) account.

John’s Gospel, in comparison, receives relatively short shrift. Sanders considers the Johannine material to have been revised much more thoroughly than that found in the Synoptics, and argues that John consistently alters his account for theological reasons. So, for example, the Temple incident is moved to chapter 2 so that theological conflict can start almost from the beginning, the lengthier ministry allows Jesus to participate in the Jewish feasts, and the death of Jesus on the Day of Preparation makes the evangelist’s theological point that Jesus died as the paschal lamb.42 In affording little space to John, Sanders is part of a long line of scholarship stretching back to F.C. Baur and D.F. Strauss in the early nineteenth century, and is perfectly in tune with most recent Jesus scholarship.43 Things become difficult for Sanders, however, when it comes to the Jewish trial narrative. John’s quiet hearing before the former high priest Annas and at least one attendant seems infinitely preferable to the noisy night-time trial of a full Sanhedrin recorded by Mark, with its false witnesses, charges of blasphemy, and high priest rending his robes. In Jesus and Judaism, Sanders notes that ‘there is nothing intrinsically improbable about the account in John’, and again, ‘[t]he vaguer account of John seems better to correspond with the way things actually worked’.44 Later, in The Historical Figure of Jesus, he outlines his problem more clearly:

I would like to accept John’s account of the Jewish trial because it is so much more believable than the synoptic trial, but it would be arbitrary to choose this part if I cannot show that a good source underlies Jn 18.12f, 24, and I cannot. Possibly John was just more astute with regard to realpolitik than were the other evangelists, and so wrote a story with greater verisimilitude. The Jewish trial in John is like the sort of thing that really happened in Judaea and in other Roman provinces that were governed in the same way. Whether it is an accurate account of what happened on that particular night in Jerusalem is another question.45

It has to be said that Sanders shows admirable logic and restraint here. Having chosen to sail with the Synoptics, it would be rather arbitrary to jump ship when it comes to the trial narrative (though, as Paula Fredriksen notes, many scholars do precisely that46). And John’s account is arguably not free from theological reflection even at this point: having devoted the whole of the first half of his Gospel to Jesus’ ‘trial’ before his Jewish opponents, all that remains now is to bring Jesus up against the supreme representative of ‘the Jews’ in a characteristically Johannine one-to-one night-time encounter which demonstrates Jesus’ utter superiority over yet another Jewish institution, this time the high priesthood.47

Yet I wonder if Sanders really has to be as rigid as this in choosing between sources. Since the pioneering works of C.H. Dodd and J.A.T. Robinson,48 a number of scholars have argued for at least some (albeit limited) degree of historical detail in John.49 While I think it unlikely that any of the teaching in the Fourth Gospel actually goes back to the historical Jesus, some of the elements contained in the Gospel may have a reasonable claim to historicity. John seems well-informed regarding both first-century Jerusalem and the Temple priesthood: he knows the topography of the Pool of Bethesda (5.2), that pilgrims went up to the holy city some time before Passover for purification (11.55; 12.12), that the high priest retained his title, even when deposed (18.19; 18.22), that he was popularly associated with prophecy (11.51), and that Annas was Caiaphas’s father-in-law (18.13).50 Furthermore, certain aspects of Jesus’ ministry have a degree of plausibility in John: the lengthier and more complex relationship with John the Baptist, for example, or the longer ministry, or the date of the crucifixion (the Day of Preparation in John).

The difficulty facing the historian in all of this is that arguments over authenticity can work both ways. We can argue that Mark has a geographical/topical schema rather than a chronological one (which was perfectly acceptible in a bios), but this does not mean that John should be preferred. Similarly, we can argue that John’s lengthier ministry serves his interest in depicting Jesus as the fulfilment and replacement of Jewish feasts and institutions, yet this does not necessarily prove that John’s account lacks historicity. It is at least possible that John’s theological presentation simply grew out of historical events.51 In the end, choosing between two options seems rather artibrary, and Sanders is right to be cautious.52 This is compounded further by the fact that appeal to John commonly occurs in places where the Synoptics are themselves difficult or deficient in some way (such as the Jewish trial narrative with its strong anti-Jewish tone), and the positive reasons for using John at these places are often unclear.

What is needed is a much more sophisticated way of ‘doing’ history, one that draws on the interpreted nature of all human discourse, on studies of memory (both individual and social), and that takes seriously the nature of our sources as ancient bioi.53 In some cases it may be that neither tradition is historically accurate. Take the dating of Jesus’ death, for example, where scholars overwhelmingly opt for the Johannine Day of Preparation, despite the clear theological presentation of Jesus as the paschal lamb. Mark’s Gospel is equally theological here, with its clear links between the Eucharist and the Passover seder. Rather than imagine one evangelist has altered the date of Jesus’ death to fit his theology, a more plausible line of enquiry might imagine that both interpretations spring from pious reflection on a death ‘around Passover’, that both are quite ancient traditions (quite possibly deriving from soon after events), and that both traditions were meaningful to various early Christian groups. Historically, we may conclude that neither are historically factual, that it is just as unlikely that the chief priests were bothering Pilate during the slaughter of the lambs as that they were away from their homes on Passover night, and that all we can say with any confidence is that Jesus’ death occurred some time ‘around the Passover’. This may lead the historian to bemoan the fact that, despite possessing two apparently good historical traditions, she now knows less about the dating of Jesus’ death than she did before, but it is surely a more cautious way to proceed.54

Turning once again to the Jewish proceedings against Jesus, the most sure-footed way forward is not only to analyse the theological and apologetic tendencies of the Markan and Johannine traditions, but more importantly to ask what historical reality might have given rise to our differing accounts.55 A knowledge of Josephus’s reports of trials will be indispensible here, along with a sense of how the Jewish priestly and Roman leaders worked with one another. If, in the end, we conclude that the broad contours of John’s account has a greater claim to historicity (allowing, of course, for a high level of theological colouring in terms of the details), we are at liberty to follow the Fourth Gospel at this point.

What, then, can we say about the Jewish ‘procedings’ against Jesus? Here Sanders’s views seem to have shifted between his two books.

The Trial Narrative: Differences between Jesus and Judaism and The Historical Figure of Jesus

In Jesus and Judaism, Sanders’s views are exceptionally clear. He begins with a list of ‘almost indisputable facts’, in which ‘Jesus engaged in a controversy about the Temple’ is followed immediately by ‘Jesus was crucified outside Jerusalem by the Roman authorities’.56 Later, although he maintains that the Jewish authorities were behind Jesus’ arrest, he argues against the historicity of the Jewish trial scene as it is presented in Mk 14.53, 55–65//Mt. 27.57, 59–68.57 He continues:

when we admit the long trial scene of Matthew and Mark is not historical, then we must also grant that we do not know (1) if there was a trial, (2) if the whole Sanhedrin actually convened, (3) if there was a formal charge, (4) if there was a formal conviction under Jewish law.58

The confusion in the Gospels, he suggests, may point to the fact that there was no orderly procedure that night; the chief priests simply passed Jesus to Pilate with or without a brief hearing. Elements in Matthew and Mark such as the Christological titles, the charge of blasphemy, and the very existence of trial narratives at all are Christian retrojections designed to shift as much formal responsibility as possible for Jesus’ death onto the Jewish leaders.

Eight years later, in The Historical Figure of Jesus, Sanders’s position is markedly less clear. Now his opening list of facts which are ‘almost beyond dispute’ is lengthier and includes the following: ‘he was arrested and interrogated by the Jewish authorities, specifically the high priest’.59 The more popular nature of the book, of course, may account to some extent for this more generous listing, and the ‘fact’ is not significantly out of line with his earlier study.60 Analysis of Sanders’s chapter on ‘Jesus’ Last Week’, however, does suggest that he has conceded some ground. He still highlights elements of Christian creativity in the Markan/Matthean trial narratives, but now maintains that the trial scenes are ‘accurate enough for general purposes’, and that while we cannot ‘rely on Mark’s description of the trial in a very precise way, as if it were a court recorder’s transcript, … it will form the basis of our examination’.61 The general tenor of Mark’s narrative—that ‘Jesus threatened the Temple and gave himself airs’—is considered quite reasonable.62 The testimony regarding the Temple was thrown out of court because the witnesses did not agree. But Caiaphas—who had made only one decision, that Jesus was to be arrested and executed—continued his interrogation until finally he was able to persuade the rest of the council of his point of view, and Jesus was sent to Pilate.

What Sanders is proposing is a significantly pared-down version of the Markan/Matthean trial narrative. He is quite clear that he does not accept the motives given to the main actors by the evangelists,63 but precisely where he stands on some of the other components of the trial scenes (false witnesses, the charge of kingship, the high priest’s tearing his robe) is not so clear. That Sanders actually would prefer John’s account (as noted above) is obscured by the fact that almost 200 pages intervene between his discussion of sources and his reconstruction of Jesus’ last hours (and John is not mentioned again in the later discussion). The reader is left with the distinct impression that there is something of historical value in the Markan/Matthean trial narratives.

This reconstruction, in my view, is much less convincing than that of Jesus and Judaism for the simple reason that the Markan/Matthean trial narratives are highly anti-Jewish constructs.64 I wish to illustrate this with reference to Mark’s account (which almost certainly formed the basis of Matthew’s version). It is commonly noted that Mark’s scene breaks all the rules laid down for capital trials in the Mishna.65 Coming from a later period, these rules are actually of limited use in understanding the trial of Jesus, but their value is to show us how ancient people thought that an ideal trial ought to be conducted. The fact that Mark’s scene is so much at variance (the night-time setting at Passover; the verdict of the high priest given prior to those of more junior advisers; and the swift decision to put Jesus to death) suggests that Mark intends his readers to see that Jesus’ trial is illegal. Added to this are his charge that the Jewish leaders met with the intention of killing Jesus (14.1–2, 55), that they instigated the false witnesses (14.56–59), and that it was members of the council who abused and ridiculed Jesus at the end (14.65). Mark clearly depicts this as a kangaroo court in which Jesus is tried, in effect (as Sanders notes), for being a Christian. On a broader scale, the final courtroom denouement between Jesus and his chief priestly enemies represents the first part of Jesus’ allegory against them in 12.1–12. The rulers of Israel (the tenants) have treated the owner’s servants (the prophets) shamefully and are now about to put to death the owner’s son (Jesus). ‘What will the owner of the vineyard do?’ asks Jesus. The answer is clear: he will destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others (for Mark, Gentile Christians). Jesus will be vindicated (Mk 12.10–11 cites Ps. 118.22–23) but the Jewish authorities will be rejected by God. The prophecy begins to take effect almost immediately: as Jesus breathes his last on the cross, the Temple veil is torn in two by God as he leaves the sanctuary and abandons the Jewish leaders to their fate. For Mark’s original readers in the early 70s ce, of course, the fulfilment was even clearer: the Temple stood in ruins, its cult was desolate, and the old religious order was at an end.66

To give any kind of historical credence to this account is surely misguided. If we are using Mark as a source, it would be better, it seems to me, to build on Mark’s brief (and quite possibly traditional) notice of a morning hearing of a council in 15.1. Quite clearly, as I noted above, we should not reject the historicity of an account of an event simply because it offends our sensitivities, but the Markan/Matthean trial narratives offend historical sensibilities in so many ways that to grant them even a reduced or scaled-down value is surely dangerous. Sanders’s brilliantly argued and cautious reconstruction in Jesus and Judaism is much to be preferred.

The preceding paragraph has begun to look at Mark’s trial narrative as a piece of literature, with specific rhetorical aims. In my final section, I want to build on Prof. Sanders’s work, asking how his historical reconstruction helps us to gain a better appreciation of the Gospels as literary narratives.

Building on Sanders: Allowing the Synoptic Trial Narratives to Speak for Themselves

One of the most impressive elements of Sanders’s work is his masterly ability to envisage and articulate the ‘big picture’. He resists becoming side-tracked by (often circular) arguments regarding the historicity of specific words, or bogged down by the minutiae of Gospel disagreements. Rather, as we have seen, he presents his case by building upon generally agreed facts, and relating them to a wonderfully vivid and detailed awareness of the first-century context.

However, the reader who comes to Sanders’s work hoping to learn something about Peter’s denials, Barabbas and the Passover amnesty, Pilate’s washing his hands, or the interrogation before Antipas might be rather frustrated. None of these scenes, so integral to most people’s (rather harmonized) views of what went on at Jesus’ trial, make any appearance in his discussion. This, I presume, is because Sanders doubts the historicity of some of them and the connection of others with the trial itself—a view I would also share. What Prof. Sanders’s reconstruction allows us to do, however, is to set aside these historical arguments. If he is correct in his assumption that the earliest followers had very little accurate knowledge about that confused night, and if he is right that we can reconstruct only the broadest of outlines (Jesus was arrested, taken briefly to the high priest, then passed to Pilate who ordered his crucifixion)—views which, again, I would share—then the synoptic passion narratives (just as much as John) are quite clearly theologically inspired presentations of Jesus’ last few hours and constant historical questions are out of place.

Sanders himself makes a similar point in Jesus and Judaism. He notes the number of scholars who argue that the early Christians knew only the general course of events, yet still continue to scrutinize the statements contained in the trial narratives, sometimes even arguing for the historicity of specific details (for example, the false witnesses, or the charge of blasphemy). He writes: ‘Scholars will continue to dissect the accounts of the “trial”, but I fear that our knowledge will not be greatly advanced.’67 I would agree entirely. A more fruitful approach, which builds on Sanders’s historical work, and which helps us to understand the Gospels in their own late first-century settings, is one that treats the ‘trials’ as narrative constructs, dealing with theological truths or pastoral concerns.

This can be illustrated with some examples. I suggested above that Mark’s Jewish trial is a literary device, dramatically designed as a final show-down between Jesus and his enemies, in which as much responsibility as possible is placed on the Jewish leadership for Jesus’ death. The account of Peter’s denial, too, with its close connection to the Jewish trial, is also a literary creation (either by Mark himself or an earlier editor68). Writing with pastoral concern for a persecuted community, the Markan author contrasts the responses of two men under cross-examination: Peter, outside, who denies everything; and Jesus, inside the courtroom, who accepts the charges of the high priest. Mark’s audience, of course, would be quite clear over which example they were to follow. I am not suggesting that Peter’s denial did not happen, but that its present literary position owes a great deal to early Christian editing.69 Turning to the Roman trial narrative, the same may well be true of Barabbas and the Passover amnesty. Although evidence for a regular release of prisoners is entirely lacking, there is no reason why someone named Barabbas may not have been released at about the same time that Jesus was executed. Barabbas may have been an historical man, but his appearance alongside Jesus in the Roman governor’s court is surely due to Christian creativity. It is hard to imagine any Roman governor, let alone one as able and efficient as Pilate, offering Jewish crowds a choice of prisoners for release at the volatile Passover festival. More likely, Barabbas has been introduced into the story as another foil to Jesus: Mark brings on a Jewish crowd who, stirred up by the ever-malevolent Markan chief priests, shout for the political revolutionary in preference to the true King of the Jews. Writing against the backdrop of the disastrous Jewish revolt against Rome, Mark’s story would have had tremendous contemporary relevance.70

While Matthew follows Mark’s Jewish trial quite closely, his account of the Roman proceedings contains a number of extra scenes: Judas’ death, Pilate’s washing his hands, and the cry of ‘all the people’ in 27.25. Matthew’s overriding concern is the question of responsibility: who was to blame for the death of Jesus? Within the narrative, each character tries to absolve himself from guilt; first Judas, then Pilate (who underlines his innocence by drawing on a well-known Jewish ritual from Deut. 21.1–9), until finally responsibility falls on those who accept it, the Jewish people, with the chilling cry ‘His blood be on us and on our children’. None of this is historical in terms of what happened at the trial of Jesus. What it does allow us to do historically, however, is to glimpse something of the strained relations between church and synagogue in Matthew’s late first-century setting.71

Similarly, Luke felt quite free to alter Mark’s version. He relocated Mark’s night-time meeting to the following morning where it forms the first of a four-part trial in which Jesus is passed from the Jewish leaders to Pilate, then to Antipas, and finally back to Pilate for sentence. As Sanders notes, Luke’s alterations are not due to different sources, but rather his own theological and apologetic concerns.72 The evangelist is particularly keen to emphasize Jesus’ innocence under Roman law; his Gospel is the only one to give specific charges against Jesus (Lk. 23.2; charges which the preceding chapters show to be false) and his is the only one to include a trial before Herod Antipas.73 Within the narrative both Pilate and Herod find Jesus innocent (Pilate explicitly, three times; Antipas implicitly by returning him to Pilate): both together provide Luke’s readers (who knew the Jewish scriptures well) with the two witnesses required by Deut. 19.15. In Luke’s presentation, Jesus ends up on a cross because of Pilate’s weakness in the face of the Jewish chief priests—a far cry from the prefect of Philo and Josephus.74

While the broad outline of the Gospel passion narratives may not be all that far from historical events, almost all the details of the trial scenes are due to the particular theological outlook of the various evangelists. It is important, I would suggest, to hold both historical and literary studies together. Exclusive attention to narrative creativity can obscure the fact that these narratives do have some basis in historical fact; conversely, attending only to what these texts can contribute to historical reconstructions (whether of the 30s or the late first-century environments of the evangelists) detracts from their vast dramatic and pastoral achievements. Prof. Sanders’s works, it seems to me, provide an excellent historical reconstruction upon which narrative and literary studies can hear the particular emphases of each Gospel’s presentation.

E.P. Sanders’s books are justifiably required reading for anyone interested in the historical Jesus. His work on the arrest and ‘trial’ of Jesus in particular is notable for its connection to the historical and political context of the day—especially his clear-sighted view of how things actually worked, his account of the roles of the main actors in the drama, and his sensitivity to the difficulties inherent in the high priestly office. I might have liked him to be a little more open to the possibility of historicity in John’s Gospel, and to be more wary of drawing on Mark’s trial before the Sanhedrin in his more popular book, The Historical Figure of Jesus, but overall his reconstructions offer what is arguably still the clearest and most plausible sequence of events between Jesus’ action in the Temple and his death on a Roman cross.

1 The classic texts are, of course, K.L. Schmidt, Der Rahmen der Geschichte Jesu: Literarkritische Untersuchungen zur ältesten Jesusüberlieferung (Berlin: Trowitzach, 1919); M. Dibelius, From Tradition to Gospel (trans from the rev. 2nd German edn; London: Ivor Nicholson and Watson, 1933), pp. 178–217; R. Bultmann, History of the Synoptic Tradition (trans. from 2nd German edn Oxford: Blackwell, 1963), pp. 262–84. Challenges to the form-critical consensus were offered by E. Linnemann, Studien zur Passionsgeschichte (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1970), and later from redactional studies such as those in W. Kelber (ed.), The Passion in Mark (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1976). Yet the view that a coherent self-contained passion account lies behind Mark’s Gospel is still popular today; see, for example, G. Theissen, The Gospels in Context (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1992) and R. Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006).

2 For early studies, see H. Lietzmann, ‘Der Prozess Jesu’, Kleine Schriften ii. Studien zum Neuen Testament (tu, 68; Berlin, 1958; first published in 1931), pp. 264–76 and S. Zeitlin, Who Crucified Jesus? (New York: Harper, 1942). The historicity of the trial narratives was upheld by J. Blinzler, The Trial of Jesus (Cork: Mercier, 1959), while P. Winter, On the Trial of Jesus (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1961) subjected the gospels to a brilliant and incisive critique. A much more moderate position was taken by the essays in E. Bammel (ed.), The Trial of Jesus (London: scm Press, 1970).

3 Ancient historians and scholars of Judaism were busy here, though it took some time to filter into Gospel scholarship. See, for example, A.N. Sherwin White, Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1963); E. Rivkin, ‘Beth Din, Boulé, Sanhedrin: A Tragedy of Errors’, huca 46 (1975), pp. 181–99; and the revision of Schürer by G. Vermes, F. Millar and M. Goodman, 1973–87.

4 An exception here was S.G.F. Brandon, whose The Trial of Jesus of Nazareth (London: spck, 1968) was informed by his view that Jesus was a political revolutionary (see the response by a number of scholars in E. Bammel and C.F.D. Moule [eds.], Jesus and the Politics of his Day (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984). Most ‘new quest’ Jesus scholars, of course, tended to view Jesus as basically a teacher and preacher whose fundamental conflict with ‘Judaism’ was over the Law, and who aroused the opposition of the Scribes and Pharisees—a view vigorously countered by Sanders throughout Jesus and Judaism.

5 In the following discussion, I shall also be drawing on Sanders’s Judaism: Practice and Belief (London: scm, 1992) and a number of articles.

6 See the discussion in E.P. Sanders, Jesus and Judaism, London: scm, 1985, p. 22.

7 See E.P. Sanders, Historical Figure of Jesus, London: Allen Lane, 1993, pp. 253–54; idem, Jesus and Judaism, pp. 61–119.

8 Sanders, Historical Figure of Jesus, p. 273; idem, Jesus and Judaism, p. 295.

9 The quotation is the title of chapter 21 in Judaism: Practice and Belief.

10 Sanders, Jesus and Judaism, pp. 23–58.

11 See now the useful overview by S. Mason, Josephus and the New Testament (Peabody, ma: Hendrickson, 1992); the festschrift for L.H. Feldmann—S.J.D. Cohen and J. Schwartz (eds.), Studies in Josephus and the Varieties of Ancient Judaism (Leiden: Brill, 2007); and the Brill commentary series on Josephus, edited by S. Mason.

12 Sanders, Historical Figure of Jesus, p. 16.

13 Sanders, Judaism: Practice and Belief, pp. 318, 393–94, 401–402, 481–90.

14 Sanders puts forward these views in ‘Jesus in Historical Context’, Theology Today 50 (1993), pp. 429–48 and ‘Jesus’ Galilee’, in I. Dunderberg, C. Tuckett and K. Syreeni (eds.), Fair Play: Diversity and Conflicts in Early Christianity. Essays in Honour of Heikki Räisänen (Leiden: Brill, 2002), pp. 3–41. On the relative tranquillity of Judaea in Jesus’ time, see the work of Sanders’s former student, J.S. McLaren, Turbulent Times? Josephus and Scholarship on Judaea in the First Century ce (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998).

15 Josephus, Ant. 20.251; Sanders, Judaism: Practice and Belief, pp. 319–27; idem, Historical Figure of Jesus, pp. 22–31.

16 Sanders, ‘Jesus in Historical Context’, p. 444.

17 See R.A. Horsley, ‘The Death of Jesus’, in B. Chilton and C.A. Evans (eds.), Studying the Historical Jesus: Evaluations of the State of Current Research (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1994) for an analysis of this tendency.

18 See Sanders, ‘Comparing Judaism and Christianity: An Academic Autobiography’ in F.E. Udoh, S. Heschel and M.A. Chancey (eds.), Redefining First Century Jewish and Christian Identities (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2008), pp. 11–41, here pp. 25–27. E. Rivkin, What Killed Jesus? The Political Execution of a Charismatic (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1984). Ascribing Jesus’ death to ‘the System’, of course, removes the need for awkward and inappropriate questions of ‘responsibility’.

19 It is clear from Sanders’s later work that he doubts the existence of a fixed council known as ‘the Sanhedrin’; see Judaism: Practice and Belief, pp. 472–79.

20 See the critique of J.D.G. Dunn, ‘ Pharisees, Sinners and Jesus’, in Jesus, Paul and the Law: Studies in Mark and Galatians (London: spck, 1990); also M. Hengel and R. Deines, ‘E.P. Sanders’s "Common Judaism", Jesus, and the Pharisees’, jts 46 (1995), pp. 1–70; and B. Witherington iii, The Jesus Quest: The Third Search for the Jew of Nazareth (Carlisle: Paternoster, 1995), pp. 116–36.

21 See for example M. Goodman, The Ruling Class of Judaea (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), pp. 113–18; J.S. McLaren, Power and Politics in Palestine (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1991); and D. Goodblatt, The Monarchic Principle: Studies in Jewish Self-Government in Antiquity (Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr [Paul Siebeck], 1994).

22 For references to Lietzmann and Winter see note 2 above. D. Flusser (with R. Steve Notley), The Sage from Galilee: Rediscovering Jesus’ Genius (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), pp. 138–45. H. Cohn went even further, arguing that the Jewish leaders met in an attempt to save Jesus from Rome, a view that has not found any scholarly support; see The Trial and Death of Jesus (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1971 [Hebrew original 1967]).

23 For example: J. Gnilka, ‘Der Prozess Jesu nach den Berichten des Markus und Matthäus’, in K. Kertelge (ed.), Der Prozess gegen Jesus. Historische Rückfrage und theologische Deutung (Freiburg: Herder, 1988), pp. 11–40; F.G.B. Millar, ‘Reflections on the Trial of Jesus’, in P.R. Davies and R.T. White (eds.), A Tribute to Geza Vermes: Essays on Jewish and Christian Literature and History (Sheffield: jsot Press, 1990), pp. 355–81; R.E. Brown, The Death of the Messiah: From Gethsemane to the Grave (New York: Doubleday, 1994), i, pp. 362–63, 553–60; G. Theissen and A. Merz, The Historical Jesus: A Comprehensive Guide (London: scm Press, 1998), p. 467; P. Fredriksen, Jesus of Nazareth: King of the Jews (New York: Random House, 1999), pp. 235–59; and J.D.G. Dunn, Jesus Remembered (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), p. 784. N.T. Wright has a more ‘maximalist’ position, which accepts most of the Gospel narrative as historical; see Jesus and the Victory of God (London: spck, 1996), pp. 519–28, 547–52.

24 J.D. Crossan, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1994), p. 152. His views on the passion narratives more broadly can be found in The Cross that Spoke: The Origins of the Passion Narrative (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988) and Who Killed Jesus?: Exposing the Roots of Anti-Semitism in the Gospel Story of the Death of Jesus (San Franciso: Harper San Francisco, 1996)—the latter is a response to R.E. Brown, whose position is similar to Sanders’s.

25 See Sanders, Historical Figure of Jesus, pp. 265–68.

26 See B.A. Pearson, ‘1 Thess 2:13–16: A Deutero-Pauline Interpretation’, htr 64 (1971), pp. 79–94 and, arguing for originality, K.P. Donfried, ‘1 Thessalonians 2.13–16 as a Test Case’, Int 38 (1984), pp. 242–53.

27 See the studies of Robert E. Van Voorst, Jesus Outside the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), pp. 81–104; J.P. Meier, ‘Jesus in Josephus: A Modest Proposal’, cbq 52 (1990), pp. 76–103; and J. Carleton Paget, ‘Some Observations on Josephus and Christianity’, jts 52 (2001), pp. 539–624.

28 That Josephus wrote something is clear from his later reference to ‘Jesus called the Christ’, in Ant. 20.200.

29 Following S. Pinés’s examination of a tenth-century Arabic version of the Testimonium Flavianum, (An Arabic Version of the Testimonium Flavianum and its Implications [Jerusalem: Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, 1971]), D. Flusser ascribes the involvement of the Jewish leaders to early Christian editors (though he does accept the broad outline of the Gospel accounts; see n. 23 above), in Sage from Galilee, pp. 147–48; see also idem, ‘Bericht des Josephus über Jesus’, Entdeckungen im Neuen Testament (Vluyn: Neukirchen, 1987–1999), I, pp. 216–25. Arguing against the authenticity of the Arabic version, see E. Bammel, ‘A New Variant Form of the Testimonium Flavianum’, ExpT 85 (1973–74), pp. 145–47.

30 It is difficult to know what to make of b. Sanhedrin 43a, a text that seems to have taken shape in an environment where the legality of the Jewish hearing was at stake rather than the question of Jewish involvement (which is simply assumed). See further, Van Voorst, Jesus, pp. 104–122.

31 Sanders, Historical Figure of Jesus, p. 42.

32 Both quotations are from Sanders, Historical Figure of Jesus, p. 26.

33 Sanders, Historical Figure of Jesus, pp. 26–27.

34 Sanders, Historical Figure of Jesus, pp. 265–9; on the chief priests more generally, see also Sanders, Judaism: Practice and Belief, pp. 319–27.

35  b. Pesahim 57a; see further H.K. Bond, Caiaphas: Friend of Rome and Judge of Jesus? (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2004), p. 169.

36 On Caiaphas, see D. Flusser, ‘…To Bury Caiaphas, Not to Praise him’, Jerusalem Perspective 33–34 (1991), pp. 23–28; idem, ‘Caiaphas in the New Testament’, ‘Atiqot 21 (1992), pp. 81–87; B. Chilton, ‘Caiaphas’, abd 1.803–806. On the high priestly aristocracy, see J. Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus (London:scm Press, 3rd edn, 1976), pp. 147–232 ; Goodman, Ruling Class; R.A. Horsley, ‘High Priests and the Politics of Roman Palestine: A Contextual Analysis of the Evidence of Josephus’, jsj 17 (1986), pp. 23–55; C.A. Evans, ‘Jesus’ Action in the Temple: Cleansing or Portent of Destruction?’ in B. Chilton and C.A. Evans (eds.), Jesus in Context (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1997), pp. 395–439.

37 For this charge see V. Eppstein, ‘The Historicity of the Gospel Account of the Cleansing of the Temple’, znw 55 (1964), pp. 42–58 who built a case on a handful of rabbinic texts (unconvincingly, in my view). He has been followed, however, by Chilton, ‘Caiaphas’.

38 For a more recent, and sympathetic, assessment of Caiaphas, see A. Reinhartz, Caiaphas the High Priest (Columbia: South Carolina Press, 2011). Although Reinhartz accepts the involvement of ‘chief priests’ in Jesus’ arrest and trial, she argues that Caiaphas was not one of their number.

39 See the discussion in my Caiaphas, p. 31; also more generally C.T.R. Hayward, The Jewish Temple: A Non-Biblical Sourcebook (London: Routledge, 1996).

40 On the Gospel of Thomas, see Sanders, Historical Figure of Jesus, pp. 64–65.

41 M.A. Powell, The Jesus Debate: Modern Historians Investigate the Life of Christ (Oxford: Lion Publishing, 1999), p. 126.

42 Sanders, Historical Figure of Jesus, pp. 67–73.

43 Those who would include rather more Johannine material include J.P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus (4 vols.; New York: Doubleday, 1991–2009) and Fredriksen, Jesus.

44 Sanders, Jesus and Judaism, pp. 317, 318.

45 Sanders, Historical Figure of Jesus, p. 72.

46 Fredriksen, Jesus, pp. 221–24.

47 See my article, ‘At the Court of the High Priest: History and Theology in John 18.13–24’, in P.N. Anderson, F. Just and T. Thatcher (eds.), Jesus, John, and History. ii. Aspects of Historicity in John (sbl Symposium Series; Atlanta: sbl, 2008), pp. 313–24.

48 C.H. Dodd, Historical Tradition in the Fourth Gospel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1963); J.A.T. Robinson, The Priority of John (London: scm Press, 1985).

49 See for example D. Moody Smith, ‘Historical Issues and the Problem of John and the Synoptics’, in M. de Boer (ed.), From Jesus to John: Essays on John and New Testament Christology in Honour of Marinus de Jonge (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1993), pp. 252–67; C.L. Blomberg, Historical Reliability of John’s Gospel (Downers Grove, il: InterVarsity Press, 2002), who has a rather positive assessment of John as a historian; R. Bauckham, The Testimony of the Beloved Disciple: Narrative, History and Theology in the Gospel of John (Grand Rapids, mi: Baker, 2007); P.N. Anderson, F. Just and T. Thatcher (eds.), John, Jesus, and History: Critical Appraisals of Critical Views, vol. I (Atlanta ga: sbl, 2007), and John, Jesus, and History: Aspects of Historicity in the Fourth Gospel, vol. ii (Atlanta, ga, sbl, 2008).

50 See R.E. Brown, ‘The Problem of Historicity in John’, Catholic Biblical Quarterly 24 (1962), pp. 1–14; on the high priest and prophecy, see C.H. Dodd, ‘The Prophecy of Caiaphas (John xi 47–53)’, in Neotestamentica et Patristica (Leiden: Brill, 1962), pp. 134–43. Even the Jesus Seminar accept the note about the family relationship between Annas and Caiaphas, although John is our only source on this point; see R.W. Funk and the Jesus Seminar, The Acts of Jesus: The Search for the Authentic Deeds of Jesus (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1998), p. 429. On John’s particularly close relationship to the priesthood, see H.K. Bond, ‘Discarding the Seamless Robe: The High Priesthood of Jesus in John’s Gospel’, in D. Capes, A. DeConick, H.K. Bond and T. Miller (eds.), Israel’s God and Rebecca’s Children: Christology and Community (Festschrift L. Hurtado and A. Segal; Waco, tx: Baylor University Press, 2007), pp. 183–94.

51 In favour of John’s dating, amongst others, are Dunn, Jesus Remembered, pp. 772–73; Brown, Death of the Messiah, ii, pp. 1364–73; and several of the contributions in P.N. Anderson, F. Just and T. Thatcher (eds.), John, Jesus, and History. I. Critical Appraisals of Critical Views (Atlanta: sbl; Leiden: Brill, 2007).

52 For a fuller discussion of this, see my article, ‘How Historical is John’s Gospel? History, Memory and the Reception of Jesus Tradition in the Late First Century’, piba 36–37 (2013–14), pp. 56–71.

53 Much work has already taken place in this direction in the decades since Sanders wrote. See, for example, the pioneering work of J. Schroeter, From Jesus to the New Testament: Early Christian Theology and the Origin of the New Testament Canon (Waco, tx: Baylor University Press, 2013; German orig. 2007); A. Kirk, ‘Social and Cultural Memory’, in A. Kirk and T. Thatcher (eds.), Memory, Tradition and Text: Uses of the Past in Eary Christianity (Atlanta: sbl, 2005); A. LeDonne, The Historiographical Jesus: Memory, Typology and the Son of David (Waco, tx: Baylor University Press, 2009); D. Allison, Constructing Jesus: Memory, Imagination, and History (Grand Rapids, mi: Baker Academic, 2010); and Robert K. McIver, Memory, Jesus, and the Synoptic Gospels (Atlanta, ga: sbl, 2011).

54 For further discussion, see my article, ‘Dating the Death of Jesus: Memory and the Religious Imagination’, nts 59 (2013), pp. 461–75.

55 For this type of method, see Chris Keith, Jesus Against the Scribal Elite: The Origins of the Conflict (Grand Rapids, mi: Baker, 2013).

56 Sanders, Jesus and Judaism, p. 11 (these are facts 5 and 6 respectively).

57 Sanders, Jesus and Judaism, pp. 297–98.

58 Sanders, Jesus and Judaism, p. 300.

59 Sanders, Historical Figure of Jesus, pp. 11–12.

60 In a personal communication, Sanders expressed to me a certain suspicion of attempts that tried too vigorously to exclude material, particularly given that the arguments for and against authenticity are so unscientific. His later book, he noted, was an attempt to incorporate more material, particularly when it did not contradict his fundamental presentation of Jesus as an eschatological prophet.

61 Both quotations are from Sanders, Historical Figure of Jesus, p. 269.

62 Sanders, Historical Figure of Jesus, p. 271.

63 Sanders, Historical Figure of Jesus, p. 272.

64 Sanders briefly mentions anti-Jewishness in the trial narratives in Jesus and Judaism, p. 298, though he also cites W. Horbury (‘The Passion Narratives and Historical Criticism’, Theology 75 [1972], pp. 58–71) who ‘cautions against taking the tendency to incriminate the Jews and exonerate the Romans as having completely controlled the tradition of Jesus’ death’, p. 407 n. 19. N.T. Wright makes a similar point, arguing that the ‘gospels have been read and exploited in this direction, sometimes devastatingly; but that is a fact about subsequent readers, not necessarily about the stories themselves’ (Jesus and the Victory, p. 542). On this issue I am in agreement with Crossan, Who Killed Jesus?, pp. 31–38.

65 See, for example, Brown, Death of the Messiah, I, pp. 357–63.

66 See my Caiaphas, pp. 98–108.

67 Sanders, Jesus and Judaism, p. 299.

68 If Johannine independence is maintained, the fact that John also intercalates the two scenes suggests that the two stories were put together at a pre-Markan stage, though I think it more likely that John simply knew Mark’s account here.

69 See further, A. Borrell, The Good News of Peter’s Denial (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1998).

70 For further discussion, see my ‘Barabbas Remembered’, in B.J. Oropeza, C.K. Robertson and D. Mohrmann (eds.), Jesus and Paul: Global Perspectives in Honor of James D. G. Dunn for his 70 th Birthday (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 2009), pp. 59–71.

71 For further discussion, see my Pontius Pilate in History and Interpretation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), pp. 120–37; also Caiaphas, pp. 120–28 for relations between Matthew’s church and the local synagogue.

72 Sanders, Jesus and Judaism, p. 406 n. 12.

73 See P.W. Walaskay who argues that the idea for a trial before Herod was inspired by Paul’s later trial before Agrippa ii: And So We Came to Rome: The Political Perspective of St Luke (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983).

74 See further my Pontius Pilate, pp. 138–62.

  • 8

    Sanders, Historical Figure of Jesus, p. 273; idem, Jesus and Judaism, p. 295.

  • 10

    Sanders, Jesus and Judaism, pp. 23–58.

  • 12

    Sanders, Historical Figure of Jesus, p. 16.

  • 13

    Sanders, Judaism: Practice and Belief, pp. 318, 393–94, 401–402, 481–90.

  • 15

    Josephus, Ant. 20.251; Sanders, Judaism: Practice and Belief, pp. 319–27; idem, Historical Figure of Jesus, pp. 22–31.

  • 16

    Sanders, ‘Jesus in Historical Context’, p. 444.

  • 20

     See the critique of J.D.G. Dunn, ‘ Pharisees, Sinners and Jesus’, in Jesus, Paul and the Law: Studies in Mark and Galatians (London: spck, 1990); also M. Hengel and R. Deines, ‘E.P. Sanders’s "Common Judaism", Jesus, and the Pharisees’, jts 46 (1995), pp. 1–70; and B. Witherington iii, The Jesus Quest: The Third Search for the Jew of Nazareth (Carlisle: Paternoster, 1995), pp. 116–36.

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  • 21

     See for example M. Goodman, The Ruling Class of Judaea (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), pp. 113–18; J.S. McLaren, Power and Politics in Palestine (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1991); and D. Goodblatt, The Monarchic Principle: Studies in Jewish Self-Government in Antiquity (Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr [Paul Siebeck], 1994).

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  • 24

    J.D. Crossan, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1994), p. 152. His views on the passion narratives more broadly can be found in The Cross that Spoke: The Origins of the Passion Narrative (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988) and Who Killed Jesus?: Exposing the Roots of Anti-Semitism in the Gospel Story of the Death of Jesus (San Franciso: Harper San Francisco, 1996)—the latter is a response to R.E. Brown, whose position is similar to Sanders’s.

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  • 25

     See Sanders, Historical Figure of Jesus, pp. 265–68.

  • 31

    Sanders, Historical Figure of Jesus, p. 42.

  • 32

    Both quotations are from Sanders, Historical Figure of Jesus, p. 26.

  • 33

    Sanders, Historical Figure of Jesus, pp. 26–27.

  • 34

    Sanders, Historical Figure of Jesus, pp. 265–9; on the chief priests more generally, see also Sanders, Judaism: Practice and Belief, pp. 319–27.

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  • 36

     On Caiaphas, see D. Flusser, ‘…To Bury Caiaphas, Not to Praise him’, Jerusalem Perspective 33–34 (1991), pp. 23–28; idem, ‘Caiaphas in the New Testament’, ‘Atiqot 21 (1992), pp. 81–87; B. Chilton, ‘Caiaphas’, abd 1.803–806. On the high priestly aristocracy, see J. Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus (London:scm Press, 3rd edn, 1976), pp. 147–232 ; Goodman, Ruling Class; R.A. Horsley, ‘High Priests and the Politics of Roman Palestine: A Contextual Analysis of the Evidence of Josephus’, jsj 17 (1986), pp. 23–55; C.A. Evans, ‘Jesus’ Action in the Temple: Cleansing or Portent of Destruction?’ in B. Chilton and C.A. Evans (eds.), Jesus in Context (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1997), pp. 395–439.

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  • 41

    M.A. Powell, The Jesus Debate: Modern Historians Investigate the Life of Christ (Oxford: Lion Publishing, 1999), p. 126.

  • 42

    Sanders, Historical Figure of Jesus, pp. 67–73.

  • 44

    Sanders, Jesus and Judaism, pp. 317, 318.

  • 45

    Sanders, Historical Figure of Jesus, p. 72.

  • 46

    Fredriksen, Jesus, pp. 221–24.

  • 48

    C.H. Dodd, Historical Tradition in the Fourth Gospel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1963); J.A.T. Robinson, The Priority of John (London: scm Press, 1985).

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  • 50

     See R.E. Brown, ‘The Problem of Historicity in John’, Catholic Biblical Quarterly 24 (1962), pp. 1–14; on the high priest and prophecy, see C.H. Dodd, ‘The Prophecy of Caiaphas (John xi 47–53)’, in Neotestamentica et Patristica (Leiden: Brill, 1962), pp. 134–43. Even the Jesus Seminar accept the note about the family relationship between Annas and Caiaphas, although John is our only source on this point; see R.W. Funk and the Jesus Seminar, The Acts of Jesus: The Search for the Authentic Deeds of Jesus (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1998), p. 429. On John’s particularly close relationship to the priesthood, see H.K. Bond, ‘Discarding the Seamless Robe: The High Priesthood of Jesus in John’s Gospel’, in D. Capes, A. DeConick, H.K. Bond and T. Miller (eds.), Israel’s God and Rebecca’s Children: Christology and Community (Festschrift L. Hurtado and A. Segal; Waco, tx: Baylor University Press, 2007), pp. 183–94.

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  • 56

    Sanders, Jesus and Judaism, p. 11 (these are facts 5 and 6 respectively).

  • 57

    Sanders, Jesus and Judaism, pp. 297–98.

  • 58

    Sanders, Jesus and Judaism, p. 300.

  • 59

    Sanders, Historical Figure of Jesus, pp. 11–12.

  • 61

    Both quotations are from Sanders, Historical Figure of Jesus, p. 269.

  • 62

    Sanders, Historical Figure of Jesus, p. 271.

  • 63

    Sanders, Historical Figure of Jesus, p. 272.

  • 67

    Sanders, Jesus and Judaism, p. 299.

  • 69

     See further, A. Borrell, The Good News of Peter’s Denial (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1998).

  • 72

    Sanders, Jesus and Judaism, p. 406 n. 12.

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