by William Lane Craig
As we approach Easter, Jesus’ face will doubtless appear on the cover of many newsweeklies. Mel Gibson’s unexpected blockbuster “The Passion of the Christ” has raised a storm of controversy which has filled the airwaves with interviews, talk shows, and documentaries. All this furor raises the question: who was Jesus of Nazareth, really? Was He God incarnate, as Christians believe? Or could certain contemporary radical critics be right that Jesus was a sort of social gadfly, the Jewish equivalent of a Greek cynic philosopher?
Revisionist biblical critics such as John Dominic Crossan, Marcus Borg, and Paula Frederickson, who were interviewed on the NBC special “The Last Days of Jesus,” argue that the actual events of Jesus’ Passion were significantly different than those portrayed in Mel Gibson’s movie. Now in one sense that’s doubtlessly true. Gibson added to his film not only a good deal of artistic interpretation but also a good deal of Catholic tradition which goes beyond the bounds of history, such as the veil of Veronica, Mary’s participation in the events of the Passion, and the pieta-like scene when Jesus’ body was taken down from the cross.
But that’s not what revisionist critics are concerned about. Rather they claim that the Gospels themselves are historically inaccurate in portraying Jesus’ crucifixion as instigated by the Jewish chief priests and merely carried out by the Roman military authorities. The revisionist critics claim that ultimately it is the Roman authorities, not the Jewish authorities, who are to blame for Jesus’ crucifixion. They point out that there was great unrest in Palestine under Roman rule and that with hundreds of thousands of visitors in Jerusalem for the Feast of the Passover, the Roman authorities must have been anxious to maintain the public peace. Nerves must have been on edge. Extra-biblical sources portray Pilate as a cruel and ruthless man who would not hesitate to bring down soldiers on the people to keep order. The Temple priesthood were collaborators with Rome and were basically in cahoots with Pilate to keep things under control.
Revisionist critics interpret Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple as a symbolic attack on the Temple itself. Thus, not only was Jesus disturbing the peace, but the Jewish priesthood felt their authority threatened by Jesus’ actions. Pilate was about to bring his fist down hard in order to maintain public order, and this would have resulted in great loss of innocent life. So the chief priest Caiaphas, who felt his authority threatened by Jesus anyway, decided to deliver Jesus over to Pilate rather than let people be killed in a Roman crackdown. Therefore, the responsibility for Jesus’ crucifixion really lay at the feet of the Roman authorities, not the Jewish authorities, as the Gospels say.
Now in assessing the claims of the revisionist critics, it’s important that we don’t miss the forest for the trees: What’s remarkable here is the degree of agreement on the events of Jesus’ Passion. Even the skeptical critics affirm the central events of Jesus’ Passion…
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