Imagining a Life Without Jesus – Two Minutes That Decided History

In two “interviews” with Jesus over the past days I tried to address some of the variances which exist between the Jesus recognized by scholars and the Jesus insisted upon by Christianity and in particular, evangelical and fundamentalist Christianity. The answers Jesus gave were not invented; they are direct from the gospels themselves, identified to be likely sayings of Jesus  through various tests: contextual credibility (does it fit into the historical context?), multiple attestation (does the evidence come from multiple independent sources?) and the criterion of dissimilarity (does the story support an early Christian agenda? – if it runs counter, it is more likely to be historically reliable).[1] Some people might object to that as they objected to the methods of the Jesus Seminar, flawed mortals voting on what Jesus said or didn’t say, but that is precisely what the early Church Councils did in the centuries after Jesus’ death.[2]

But try for a moment to think about what Christianity sees as the single most momentous event in human history, the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth, in a slightly different way. Look at it from the perspective of Pontius Pilate, the man who sentenced him to death. To Pilate, who no doubt had more than one trial on his hands that day, it was likely just a fleeting annoyance in an already busy, possibly hectic, day. Why was his day busy? Because apparently, Jesus wasn’t the only one proclaiming the end – or trying to forcibly end – Roman rule of Palestine.

What is critical in this regard is that the Gospels preserve a tradition of an armed insurrection against Roman rule in the city of Jerusalem while Jesus was in the city for Passover and shortly before his arrest and execution, usually understood to have taken place in the year 30 CE.[3] The events of Jesus’ last days must be understood in this context, especially Pilate’s reaction.

Every Christian knows the name of Barabbas, who was arrested in Jerusalem for his role in an insurrection (Mark 15.7)[4] that apparently occurred during Passover, the same time frame in which Jesus was present in Jerusalem (they even made a movie about him which I saw in a $5 bin at K-Mart the other day). Barabbas is described in the gospels as a lestes, the same term used by Josephus to describe Zealots – those are the folks who rebelled against Rome in 66 CE, leading to a rebellion that lasted as long as America’s Vietnam War. [5]

Furthermore, the two men crucified with Jesus are described by Mark (15.27; cf. Matt. 27.38, 44) as lestai but translated as “bandits,” again the term Josephus uses to describe those nationalist guerillas or freedom fighters, which would seem to indicate that these men were not the common robbers they are usually presented as and must have participated in the same insurrection in which Barabbas was captured, unless we want to believe there had been multiple insurrections or riots in a very short time. If so, we may want to reassess Pilate’s competence in light of preventing the full scale war that finally broke out three decades later.

Luke, on the other hand, writing a decade or so after Mark, refers to the men as kakourkoi, a term translated as simply “criminals” (Luke 23.32, 33, 39). It bears repeating that as is admitted by the Gospels that Jesus was executed by Roman authorities. This makes the charge most likely one of sedition (though an attempt is made in the Gospels to show Jesus – and Pilate – as innocent and the Jews guilty).

It does not matter if, as has at times been suggested,[6]Jesus was part of the insurrection that got Barabbas and the other two arrested, though several facts must be stressed:  We find Jesus being accused to stirring up the people (Luke 23.5) and indeed, John tells us (6.15) that the people of Galilee even tried to make Jesus king. S.G.F. Brandon believes that the author of John here relates a tradition both “primitive and authentic.”[7]

What we believe isn’t as important as what the Romans – and Pilate – believed. What all these pieces of evidence do suggest is that the Romans made that connection, and they publicly executed Jesus of Nazareth, messianic agitator, with two men identified as messianic nationalist rebels after a failed insurrection during the Passover holiday in Jerusalem in 30 CE.

The Roman garrison of the province was small, on the order of 2,500 to 3,000 men and so on the occasion of Passover, when violence was particularly likely (remember Passover’s origins), the procurator would bring with him to the city the garrison of Caesarea, the provincial capital. Despite Pilate’s precautions there was obviously an insurrection, or Barabbas could not have been taken and it must have just occurred or the prisoners would have already been executed.

There is every reason to believe then, that Pilate’s Passover visit to Jerusalem had been a very busy one. He perhaps asked a question or two: “Are you Jesus of Nazareth?” no doubt followed by the most important question of all – the reason Jesus had been arrested and brought before him, “Do you say you are King of the Jews?”

Jesus must have answered yes to this, if he answered at all.  Even if Jesus gave the biblical “You say so” (Matt. 15:2) he did not deny it.  As Bart Ehrman puts it, “In either case, that was all Pilate needed. He had other things on his hands and other demands on his time.” The simplest thing to do with troublemakers “was simply to dispose of them.”[8]

Pilate then ordered Jesus crucified on the charge of sedition – the only possible punishment for that crime. Jesus was led off, flogged, and executed, ending his short, eventful day – and his life. “According to our earliest accounts,” says Ehrman, “he was dead within six hours.”[9 ] Two minutes in the life of Pontius Pilate decided world history for the next 2000 years, two minutes in which Jesus could have been pardoned – and forgotten by history. And with him, the threat facing America today. It is impossible to imagine a Rick Santorum without a Jesus.

Am I suggesting Pilate should have done other than what he did? Of course not. Nobody could make that judgment so far removed – and with almost nothing in the way of facts – from the event (there were no witnesses to the trial). Pilate knew what his responsibilities as governor of a province entailed, namely maintaining the peace of the province (‘quies provinciae’)and his decisions would have proceeded from that knowledge.

If, as the evidence tells us, Jesus had called himself king of the Jews, then Pilate could only find him guilty of sedition and execute him, which is precisely what he did.[10] We can only wonder what might have happened had Judas not betrayed Jesus’ plans to the Sanhedrin. A living Jesus would change the course of history over the past 2000 years dramatically and I would not be “interviewing” him today. How do we know this?

Assuming Jesus did not get himself arrested and killed through some other means than betrayal by one of his closest associates we know that Jesus was wrong: it was not the end of the age, as he preached. God did not intervene and inaugurate the Kingdom of God, destroying the Roman Empire, as Jesus believed he would. Had Jesus been allowed to continue his ministry unmolested by the authorities, his movement would likely have fizzled out and Jesus would have been proven just another false prophet, like so many before and after him.

Without his death, no savior – no atonement for sins, no salvation, no faith and belief in this Jesus just as there is none in another Jesus who lived decades later whom we know about through the writings of Josephus. Think for a moment without the horrors of twenty Christian centuries – persecutions, forced conversions, crusades, inquisitions, conquistadors, and witch-burnings.

All this history is due to a few hectic moments, but likely the two or three most important minutes in all human history, a few minutes Pilate had likely forgotten by the end of the day.

Interestingly, what brought Pilate’s tenure as governor of Judaea to an end was a Messianic “outbreak” in 36 CE. This seems to be the event that served as the catalyst for Pilate’s recall. E. Mary Smallwood calls this an “incipient” uprising and she is no doubt correct in this characterization of the incident.[11] Josephus refers to a tumult and relates how the Samaritans followed another of his “deceivers” and “imposters” to a holy mountain (Mount Gerizzim). They came armed, which certainly suggests ill-intent. As there was, in Josephus’ own words, a “great multitude” of them (Ant. 18.4.1 § 86) it is not surprising that Pilate was alarmed and sent his troops, both horse and foot, to disperse the gathering. The Samaritans responded by sending a deputation to the governor of Syria, Vitellius (the father of the Vitellius who would one day contest the Roman throne) and accused Pilate of murder.  Vitellius sent a friend of his from his staff to take over the administration of Judaea and ordered Pilate back to Rome to “answer before the emperor to the accusation of the Jews” (Ant. 18.4.2 §§ 88-89). From that point on, Pilate disappears from history, as, ironically enough, do most of the followers of Jesus named in the Gospels, including the two most important from a Gentile standpoint: Paul and Peter.

History is full of such moments, so momentous yet so mundane, and we would do well to remember them, and the historical context behind them, before we rush of zealously to spread the “good news” of things we really don’t understand at all.


[1] Bart D. Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth (HarperOne, 2012), 288-293. See also Geza Vermes, The Authentic Gospel of Jesus (Penguin Books, 2003).

[2] Ramsay MacMullen, Voting About God in Early Church Councils (Yale University Press, 2006).

[3] Paul L. Maier, “Sejanus, Pilate, and the Date of the Crucifixion,” Church History 37 (1968), 3-13, makes a case for 33 as the date of Jesus’ crucifixion.

[4] Frustratingly Mark tells us simply “during the insurrection” expecting us to know what insurrection; to speak of it in such terms means it must have been well known in antiquity, even if it is forgotten today.

[5] John Dominic Crossan has advanced the theory that Barabbas did not exist but that the episode was invented by Mark because of his conviction that the Jews had picked the wrong savior . See John Dominic Crossan, Who Killed Jesus? Exposing the Roots of Anti-Semitism in the Gospel Story of the Death of Jesus (San Francsico: HarperSanFrancisco, 1995).

[6] S.G.F. Brandon, Jesus and the Zealots (NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1967).

[7] Brandon (1967), 16.

[8] Ehrman (2012), 331.

[9] Ehrman (2012), 331.

[10] See in this regard Bart D. Ehrman, Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millenium. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1999.

[11] E. Mary Smallwood, Greece & Rome Second Series, Vol. 17, No. 1 (Apr., 1970), 93.

9 Replies to “Imagining a Life Without Jesus – Two Minutes That Decided History”

  1. Could it be that Jesus planned to have himself crucified, hoping to survive the ordeal, he was only on the cross for 6 hours. He planned it to happen on that Friday, knowing that his friend, Joseph, a powerful man, could get an audience was Pilot in late afternoon to have his body taken down. Joseph owned the house of the Last Supper as well as the tomb where Jesus was taken. Jesus wanted to survive the ordeal to reconnect to his band of supporters and to attract many, many more people to his calling.

  2. In Matthew 8:28-34 where Jesus cast the demons into the swine, and the swine were drowned, this would have been cause enough for the Romans to hunt him down and execute him. Attempting to destroy their food supply as the jews do not partake of pork. There was no need for “King of the Jews” talk or testimony. But then again, the entire gospels were written long after the deed and excepted centuries later.

  3. Hrafnkell, you are a great teacher. Thank you for shining the light of scholarship on so many things I previously found highly confusing.

    Perhaps you have already covered this and I simply missed it, but for me, one of the most puzzling aspects of the Jesus story is: “For God so loved the world, he gave his only begotten son to die for it.”

    How does that make any sense–I mean, even to believers? If God is omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent why would he have to beget a son–whom He knew (being omniscient) would suffer and die horribly–for the purpose of sacrificing His son to Himself to enable Himself to forgive people for their sins . . . or something.

    What am I missing here?

  4. Yes, twenty centuries of atrocities have been committed in Jesus’ name, to the eternal shame of those who dishonored him.

    Yet, who is to say that twenty centuries of atrocities wouldn’t have been committed in someone ELSE’s name? We are human beings, after all; vicious, violent, and power mad.

  5. @ Molly Malone: That was always a huge stumbling block for me as well. They totally lost me, even as a child, on that particular point and I have never had it adequately explained to me either while a Lutheran or a Heathen. That wasn’t anything possible or necessary in Judaism, not what they expected at all. I guess if you eliminate the Law you need some structure to replace it and this is the result?

  6. What is today called “Christianity” cannot be understood outside the context of the several “Mystery Religions” prevalent in the Greco-Roman world of that Era, ALL OF WHOM taught a “theology” which centered around the death and resurrection of a Divinity. There is no record of an “historical biography” of Jesus prior to at least a hundred years AFTER the supposed death of the “historical Jesus” beyond the teaching of his death and resurrection. Once the “Holy Roman Church” succeeded in eliminating all the competing Mystery Religions, their story of an historical, human Jesus was accepted as the only “legitimate religion” and the real meaning of “Christianity” was forgotten.

  7. Bart Ehrman argues convincingly against that position in his new book, Did Jesus Exist (2012), not only regarding what mystery religions taught but that there is no record of a historical Jesus prior to a hundred years after his death.

  8. Looking up the name Judas Iscariot(s) gives us the fact that Iscariot was a name for a group of “freedom fighters” whose logo was a knife. The knife was an iscariot. There are many theorys why Judas turned jesus in but all of them had to do with revolution

    The religion is a pick up religion formed during revolution. Thats why it was changed from the old testament religion in my mind

  9. I like much of what Bart Ehrman has written but I think he’s off on this one. I’d be happy to discuss this with you via email and provide documentation for my position. I would also be happy to discuss what I think the “true meaning” of Christianity was. Provide me with an email address and we can have at it.

Comments are closed.