Video: The last days of Jesus

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NBC News
updated 2/20/2004 7:56:40 PM ET 2004-02-21T00:56:40

For 5,000 years, the city of Jerusalem has stood witness to the rise and fall of civilizations, the birth of great religions and the death of a man who changed the world: Jesus of Nazareth. Gospel accounts of his crucifixion are the inspiration for Mel Gibson's new film, "The Passion of the Christ."  Scheduled for release on Feb. 26, the film has already sparked enormous controversy for how it portrays Jesus' death.

For some there is no controversy, the gospels are literal truth. For others, what happened isn't so clear. So, we decided to seek out some of the world's most respected scholars -- believers and non-believers -- to find out what they think happened almost 2,000 years ago. We're not exploring the mysteries of faith, but the mysteries of history, to piece together the last days and moments of Jesus' life.

Piecing together what happened that week is a task that has puzzled scholars for centuries. The evidence is scarce, with different and sometimes contradictory books of the Christian gospel and a few lines penned by ancient historians. So what forces triggered Jesus’ death? Who was ultimately responsible? Our search begins five days before the crucifixion, on a Sunday in about the year 30, when the gospels say Jesus traveled to Jerusalem for the festival of Passover.

Paula Fredriksen, Aurelio Professor of Scripture, Boston University: “One of the lovely things about the gospel stories of Jesus' entry to Jerusalem for his last Passover is the tradition of the triumphal entry. Jesus is danced into the city by pilgrims that are singing about the coming kingdom of God.”

It's impossible to know how many pilgrims turned out that day -- but when Jesus entered the city, the gospels say he received a hero's welcome -- a kind of ancient ticker-tape parade:

Craig A. Evans, Professor of New Testament, Acadia Divinity College: “I see people lining the roadway leading into Jerusalem. They're waving the branches - showing that they believe in Jesus. He's smarter than the scribes. And he's the greatest. And so they're all excited.”

Jesus was a Jewish preacher from a small town in rural Galilee, an area some say was known for its political activism. And for at least a year, the gospels say, he'd been traveling the countryside, reaching out to the common people, including the outcasts, the unpopular and downtrodden of his time.

Evans: “He had this power and this charisma about him that had never been seen or experienced before.”

Stone Phillips: “How big was his following?”

Evans: “Well, we don't know for sure. Certainly hundreds at any given time in his ministry and public activities. He was a phenomenon.”

Scholars believe that crowds were drawn by reports of miraculous healings -- and that many came to see him as the long-promised savior who would usher in something called the Kingdom of God.

Evans: “They think he's the Lord's savior for the Jewish people. Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of God, and by that he meant the powerful presence of  and rule of God.”

Today, most Christians tend to think of that kingdom as a kind of spiritual or heavenly realm, but scholars say that that a 1st Century Jew like Jesus may have had something far more worldly in mind. 

Evans: “He's talking about power and privilege, recognition, authority. And he's suggesting a major shake-up in the society of his time. And I think he meant by that, there would be big changes in Israel, and eventually big changes throughout the world.”

Phillips: “How provocative was that message?”

Evans: “Well, very provocative.”

Marcus Borg, Hundere Professor of Religion, Oregon State University: “There were other kingdoms. There was the Kingdom of Herod, the Kingdom of Caesar. Jesus spoke about the Kingdom of God. And the Kingdom of God is what life on earth would be like if God were king, and those other guys weren't.”

Phillips: “So there's a political dimension to what he's talking about.”

Borg: “Very much so.”

For those who gathered to hear Jesus speak that week it would have been a message of hope, a promise of liberation from sickness, poverty and oppression. But scholars agree that not everyone who heard Jesus preach would have been pleased about the changes he pledged or the devotion he inspired. And as Jesus entered Jerusalem along this valley in the east, another man was arriving from the west. His name was Pontius Pilate.

At the time, the Jewish people were living under the yoke of the Roman Empire, a vast imperial territory that stretched from what is now Scotland to Saudi Arabia. Pilate was the Roman prefect, or governor, appointed to collect taxes and maintain order in the remote outpost of Judea.

Borg: “His job depended upon his keeping peace in that province. So any kind of popular movement that seemed to threaten the peacefulness and stability of Judea would've been seen by Pilate as a threat.”

Pilate was a career military man and member of the Roman aristocracy. On most days he resided at his seaside retreat in the town of Caesaria. But on special occasions like Passover he made the 40-mile march to Jerusalem to keep an eye on the crowds who would flock to worship and offer sacrifices at the Temple.

Fredriksen: “Pilate had to leave one of the loveliest seaside resorts in the eastern Mediterranean and go to a madhouse house of somewhere between 200,000 and 400,000 extra people, and stay there for about two-and-a-half weeks while everybody came, did their stuff in the Temple, and then left.”

Phillips: “What kind of mood would Pilate have been in on an occasion like this?”

Fredriksen: “My guess would be that Pilate was in a bad mood before he even got to town. I would be.”

And scholars trying to piece together what happened that week say that Pilate's mood was sure to get even worse when word came back that a Jewish preacher was in the city stirring up crowds with promises about any Kingdom of God.

John Dominic Crossan, Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies, DePaul University: “The Kingdom of God is picking the one term that will make the Romans listen. They considered themselves the Kingdom of God. Theirs was the power and the glory, 25 legions or so, too. When Jesus talked about the Kingdom of God, he is saying as clearly as is possible in the 1st  Century, ‘In your face, Caesar.’”

Phillips: “Was Jesus meek and mild, as we view him through the scripture?”                     

Crossan: “Not at all. To speak of the Kingdom of God, and to speak of what God wants for the world, is not meek and mild. If he wanted to be meek and mild, he'd have stayed home and kept his mouth shut.”    

Phillips: “Was this a direct challenge to Roman authority?”

Crossan: “It was the most direct challenge possible. That is an attack, that is a frontal attack.”

And on that weekend, Pilate wouldn't have been the only one keeping tabs on the preacher from Galilee... Inside the Temple, scholars believe that another powerful man would have been keeping watch, as well.

Evans: “I am sure Caiphas heard the day Jesus arrived in Jerusalem. And Caiphas had the most to lose.“

Joseph Caiaphas was the high priest of the Jewish Temple, an aristocrat appointed by Rome who presided over everything from religious laws to some criminal trials. He was the most powerful man in Jerusalem and scholars agree the person whom Pilate would have held responsible if anything went wrong that Passover.

Evans: “He's been the high priest for years. He's planning on being the high priest for many more years to come. And if he can't control what is happening in Jerusalem, then there's a good chance the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, is going to remove him from office. So he has a lot to be worried about.”

And scholars say anyone entering the city with the kind of fanfare Jesus attracted was sure to capture Caiaphas' attention.

Evans: “So he sends out his emissaries to ask questions, to do reconnaissance, and also to find out what kind of following does he have? What am I dealing with here?”

By Monday, all three men -- Jesus, Pilate and Caiaphas -- would have been in the city. And as Jesus made his way to the Temple in the heart of Jerusalem, the countdown to his death four days later had begun.

After Jesus arrived in Jerusalem that Passover, the gospels say he made his way to the Temple, a grand, sprawling compound that was the political heart of the city and the most sacred place in the Jewish world.

Phillips: “And this would have been bustling with people?”

Evans: “Bustling with people, activity. People preparing for the Passover. Purchasing lambs, getting ready for the Passover sacrifice. There would be excitement in the air.”

Fredriksen: “It's a holiday, which means that there is mostly unstructured time. People don't have laptops. They can't be doing their work while they're on vacation. They’re just there. So, there's a concentrated effort to keep sanitation, food, water, crowd circulation, everything, as quiet as possible.”

Phillips: “It's New Year’s Eve in Times Square?”

Fredriksen: “It's New Year’s Eve in Times Square for two and a half weeks without modern sanitation.”

There would have been excitement in the air, but tension as well. The festival commemorated the Jews liberation from slavery in Egypt, and now the people were subjects of another imperial power, Rome.  And so as the festival began, it is believed that hundreds of Pontius Pilate's troops marched into the city to work on crowd control.

Crossan: ”Anything could cause a riot. Anything could cause a revolution. People were crowded together. A stampede, a riot would be very dangerous.”

Joseph Caiaphas, the Temple's High Priest, would have also had good reason to be on alert.  A Passover riot in Jerusalem 30 years earlier had left as many as 3,000 Jews dead in a Roman slaughter.

Fredriksen: If any kind of turmoil breaks out internally in the country, the high priest loses his job and the prefect loses his job. But the high priest has an added incentive to keep things peaceful that the Roman prefect doesn't. The people he's trying to keep peaceful are his own people.”

With so much at stake, some scholars have suggested that the men may have struck an informal agreement about how to handle anything -- or anyone -- that caused trouble during Passover.

Crossan: “I would say that Passover was zero toleration time for anything that could disturb the peace. You could imagine standing orders: ‘Anyone moves, crucify him as a warning.’”

Piecing together precisely what Jesus did that week is, of course, impossible. First Century historians wrote only a few lines about Jesus. The Gospels of Mark, Luke, Matthew and John, which are read and regarded as sacred by millions, tell us more, but when scholars try to use the books historically, problems emerge. The writers sometimes disagree, and the earliest gospel was written at least 30 years after Jesus' death by believers trying to spread the news about their new religion, Christianity.

Crossan: It's not that anyone is telling a lie. They are writing gospel. If you read a gospel as giving you straight history you are denying what it claims to be, namely good news. And if we were to confront them and say, well, that's not history, they say, ‘I never said I was writing history. That's your problem. I'm writing gospel."

Some of the scholars we spoke with, like Bishop Tom Wright and Craig Evans, see the gospels as credible -- if incomplete -- snapshots of history. Others, like Dominic Crossan and Paula Fredricksen, view the gospel accounts more skeptically. What are Jesus scholars to do? Well, they take the gospels and compare them to each other, and other things they know about, like archeology, customs, and law of the day -- and they guess.

Bishop Nicholas Thomas Wright, Bishop of Durham: “For us as historians, the question is how plausible is this? Can we rely on these sources? Does the story make sense? Now, I believe the story does make sense.”

That brings us back to Passover, where as Roman soldiers and temple police stood guard, the gospels say Jesus entered the Temple and began to preach. And from the start, it was not the kind of lesson that a Roman prefect or a Temple priest would be eager to hear.

Evans: “Jesus is in and out of the Temple precincts daily, teaching. And his teaching became increasingly threatening and provocative as he began to observe things that I think he didn't like.”

The gospels say that Jesus criticized the way the ruling priests were handling the Temple and the Jewish pilgrims who went there to worship. Such criticism was not unusual in that day and it may have touched a nerve with many of Jesus' followers.

Evans: “He joined in with a wider criticism of the ruling priests as insensitive to the needs of the poor, as negligent in their duties, living like aristocrats.”

Phillips: “He's an anti-elitist?”

Evans: ”Oh sure he is.”

Phillips: “And his message was?”

Evans: “Well there's going to be change. And you either cooperate with the change and benefit from it, or you stand in the way and get trampled.”

On Sunday or Monday, three of the gospels say Jesus came to the outer court of the Temple, where stalls would have been bustling with merchants. Some would have been exchanging the pilgrims' money into Temple coins, others would be selling the pigeons and lambs that were part of the Passover sacrifice. And it was here, the gospels say, that Jesus did something that was sure to draw attention. He stormed into the court, overturned the tables, and cast the vendors out.

Wright: “We can imagine the coins scattering and bouncing all down the little cobbles in this very hilly, stony, small city of Jerusalem. We can imagine all sorts of animal noises and birds fluttering and  general mayhem and chaos. And in the middle of it, Jesus saying, this is all completely inappropriate.”

No other historical records corroborate the incident at the Temple, and one book of the gospel places it years earlier, at the beginning of Jesus' ministry. Whenever it happened, it was an act of protest. But against what?

Crossan: “What he does is what somebody might do during the Vietnam War if they went into a draft office and poured, say, blood on the files. It doesn't stop the war. It doesn't destroy the Pentagon. It doesn't even destroy the draft office. It's a symbolic gesture. So Jesus symbolically says, ‘the Temple is going to be destroyed by God, because you're not practicing justice.’”

As Tuesday and Wednesday passed, the gospels say that Jesus' threats became even more explicit. As crowds flocked to hear him preach, he predicted that the stones of the Temple would be destroyed. For the Jewish leaders, those would have been provocative words, and for a Roman like Pilate, against the law.

Evans: “If you make a threat against a Temple in the Roman Empire, that is a serious offense. That's like today making a death threat, or making a terrorist threat of some sort. You're subject to immediate arrest.”

For Caiaphas, the high priest, the threat would have been even more direct.

Evans: “And they want to shut him up. Like a contagion, it may spread.  And pretty soon there could be a riot or a revolt.”

Fredriksen: “This is guesswork, But I'm trying to make sense of the facts we have. Caiaphas wants to minimize Jewish bloodshed. It's his job. Pilate wants things running as smoothly as possible.”

But three of the gospels say that Jesus was so popular that the priests were afraid to arrest him by day. So on Wednesday, two days before the crucifixion, as Jesus continued to preach, some scholars believe a decision was made to bring him in.

Fredriksen: “In my movie, Caiaphas knows how Pilate works. He's not terrifically successful at managing crowds. I think Caiaphas can tell that Pilate's getting agitated. And Caiaphas says, ‘If we can help you get this guy, fast, will you call off your goons and not do a general action?’ And Pilate says, ‘You got 15 minutes.’”

On Thursday, the night before the crucifixion, three of the gospels say that Jesus shared a Last Supper with his disciples, then went to an olive grove on the outskirts of Jerusalem to pray. It is described as an evening of torment, where Jesus foresaw his own death.

Wright: “He seems to have gone through some kind of deep, personal, spiritual agony, which is still very moving when we read about it, because it reads as a deeply human story. And he's wrestling with vocation. He's staying there because he believes that he has been called to stay there and then to be picked up by the authorities and ultimately to die.”

The only sources for what happened that night are the gospels but after the outbursts at the Temple, Jesus would have had good reason to believe he was in danger. He'd seen it happen before. When his mentor John the Baptist caused a stir in Galilee, where Jesus grew up, he'd been seized and executed.

Fredriksen: “Popular prophets tended to make ruling authorities nervous because a lot of sound government requires good crowd control. If I were in Jesus' line of work, John's execution would have made me nervous, too.”

Crossan: “It wouldn't take prophetic knowledge or divine foreknowledge or anything. He would know exactly that what he was doing was dangerous. He knows it can happen to him.”

Especially at Passover, when both Pilate and Caiaphas would have been eager to quash any hint of rebellion. On Thursday night, as Jesus was praying somewhere in this olive grove across the valley from the Temple, a posse of temple guards or perhaps Roman soldiers -- the gospels offer different accounts -- surrounded Jesus. And in what would become known as the greatest act of betrayal in history, a disciple named Judas approached and gave him a kiss.

Evans: “And then the arresting people know, oh this is Jesus. This is our man, and they grab him. And that was very important because these men who were sent to arrest Jesus, for all we know, had never seen him before. That's what the betrayal is all about and that's what made it so significant.”

Some scholars have questioned whether Judas was a real figure, or a kind of dramatic fictional device. He isn't mentioned in any source outside the Bible so scholars say it's impossible to know for sure.

Crossan: “It's a powerful story and I think it's a powerful piece of fiction. It's also possible, It's possible that Judas was a real character. It's one of the ones that you almost end up agnostic on. How can you decide that?”

After the ambush, the gospels say that Judas and the other disciples fled, and that Jesus was brought before a gathering of Jewish authorities to stand trial. Today, 20 centuries later, what did or didn't happen in the hours that followed continues to generate passionate debate. Sorting out what happened in that trial and another one that followed, is enormously difficult.

In the books of Matthew and Mark, Jesus was tried by Caiaphas and a prestigious council of priests and elders, called the Sanhedrin. Witnesses were interrogated and a verdict rendered. But many scholars say that scenario is unlikely, that despite his popularity, a rural preacher like Jesus would not have rated such a high-level proceeding, especially not in the dead of night during a major religious festival like Passover.

Fredriksen: “Given that it's Passover, it's a lot like the Supreme Court meeting twice between nightfall and morning of Christmas.”

Phillips: “So that kind of trial seems highly unlikely to you, historically?”

Fredriksen: “It's impossible as it’s depicted in the gospels historically. And it's also inconsistent in the gospel traditions.”

So what did happen? A number of scholars have suggested a scaled down proceeding, a kind of preliminary hearing before Caiaphas

Evans: “I think what happened was that Jesus was taken into custody and there was a hearing his interrogators want to settle among themselves how they want to proceed with Jesus. Do they want to hand him over the Romans and if so, with what recommendation? Perhaps Jesus needs a good beating and be sent out of town. Perhaps he needs to be jailed for a while until Passover's over. There are lots of options.”

But the gospels say that Caiaphas, who had to protect both his people and his job from any Roman crackdown, was looking for evidence that would convince Pilate to order an execution. 

Crossan: “Caiaphas is what from some people's point of view would be called a collaborator. His job is to collaborate with the Roman authority. I don't find any reason to demonize him. That's what he has to do. If he doesn't he'll be fired and somebody else will take his place.”

Evans: “I suspect that there were some in the Jewish Council who thought, ‘Hey, why are we ganging up on a fellow Jew? He's from Galilee. Maybe he's got some ideas we don't agree with, but why are we persecuting him? You have to convince us Caiaphas, that this man is a threat.’”

Phillips: “And how does he do that?”

Evans: “Finally he asks Jesus point blank, ‘Are you the messiah and the son of God,’ and Jesus says, 'yes.' That's bad enough. If Jesus had just said yes that probably would have done him in. But he goes on to say, you will see the son of man, and he's referring to himself that way, ‘seated at the right hand of power,’ meaning sitting on God's throne next to God, ‘coming on judgment on you,’ if I may paraphrase. And when he said that, Jesus put his head in the noose.”

But even that version of events has skeptics. The book of John doesn't feature a Jewish trial, which leaves some scholars wondering whether it happened at all.. 

Fredriksen: “They arrest Jesus. He's stopped very briefly for a very brief conversation before the father-in-law of the high priest, who asks him about his message and his followers. That's it. No trial.”

Whether there was a trial, a brief conversation or something in between, the gospels and nearly all scholars agree as dawn broke, Jesus was handed over to Pontius Pilate, the highest authority in the land, and the man whose decision would ultimately seal Jesus' fate.

It was now Friday, the day of the crucifixion. For Jesus, it had been a long night of interrogation and imprisonment, and as dawn broke the gospels say that he was bound, led through the streets of Jerusalem and brought before Pontius Pilate.

Wright: “We’re talking about Jesus looking pretty bedraggled and cutting a fairly sorry figure in amongst a Roman guard and then Pilate addressing him as very much I am the great Roman. I am the representative of the almighty Caesar and you are simply a little worm that has been brought before me.”

Passover was always a tense week for the Roman prefect, and now Pilate had been called upon to pass judgment on a popular preacher whose teachings threatened to disrupt the festival.

Fredriksen: “He could put Jesus in prison over the weekend. He could have jesus murdered any way he wants. He's the Roman prefect. He can do anything.”

Wright: “Pilate has sent plenty of people to their deaths before and he will do it again. This is not a problem for him.”

But first there were charges to consider:

Evans: “From a Jewish point of view, the crime is threatening the Temple and the Temple establishment. From the Roman point of view, that's serious enough. But when you add to that Jesus' authority for making these threats, namely he's the lord's anointed, and that's where we get the word messiah, that means he's claiming to be the king of the Jews. well, that's a capital offense.”

Like Caiaphas, Pilate would have been eager to crush any hint of rebellion, and the gospels report that he interrogated Jesus, asking if he was "King of the Jews.” In some gospels Jesus answers evasively, in others, he is silent. And all four accounts say that Pilate began to harbor doubts about Jesus' guilt.

What happened next is one of the most dramatic and debated scenes of the Bible. According to the gospels, Pilate led the preacher to a courtyard, presented him to the people, and made an offer: They could free Jesus, or another man imprisoned that week named Barabbas. The man chosen by the crowd would live, the other would die.

Wright: “And so we get into this should it be Jesus of Nazareth or should it be Barabbas. And the chief priests, according to the story, persuade the crowd to yell for Barabbas.”

And so, the gospels say Pilate set Barabbas free and condemned Jesus, but not before pausing to do something that would become etched in the popular imagination:

Wright: “He gets water and a bowl and washes his hands as a way of saying, I'm quit of this, this was your doing, you've put me on the spot and I'm only a civil servant just doing my job. It is the kind of snide -- a bit cheap thing to do, that a second rate governor like Pilate might well have done.”

Throughout the scene, Pilate appears weak and the crowd, out for blood. But Pilate washes his hands in just one of the gospel accounts, which is just one reason that many scholars question whether it really happened that way.

Fredriksen: “The whole scene even if you look at it within the woof and weave of the gospel stories is incoherent. Jesus is popular enough to have been celebrated by pilgrims and danced into the city. He was so popular that he had to be arrested by ambush. That was the only way they could risk getting him without causing popular uproar. And yet by morning, there's a hostile crowd screaming for his death. Where does this hostile crowd come from? Did it really exist?... It doesn't square. If this were a script for a “Law & Order” episode, you'd say, wait a minute, this is inconsistent. And that's where you have to sort through.”

And something else about the scene that doesn't square for some scholars is the notion that Pilate would be swayed by the whims of any crowd. Ancient historians describe him as an unyielding tyrant known for cruelty, thievery and executions with out trial.

Crossan: “He would not give in to a crowd. Pilate had his own way of crowd control, which is known as slaughter. He is not the Pilate of the gospels, the meek or the just person who is just trying to be a good governor but that crowd won't let him go so he finally gives in. That is absolutely unhistorical.”

Fredriksen: “What's important about being a prefect is that you demonstrate your unquestionable authority and power. The last thing he would have done is have some kind of open court with people saying, is this okay?"

Phillips: “Would Pilate have done it to please the priests?”

Fredriksen: “Pilate is appointed by the Emperor. He doesn't have to worry about pleasing the priests.”

Even if Pilate did not wash his hands that morning, the gospels and most scholars agree that in the end he sentenced Jesus to die by crucifixion. An event that would forever alter the course of history had begun.

As Pilate sentenced Jesus to death, the gospels say that Roman soldiers beat and scourged him, a brutal form of torture where the skin is whipped with leather straps studded with nails and bone.

Evans: “It was designed to weaken the person, to cause the person to bleed, to put the person in terrible agony.”

It may sound like a barbaric and rare form of punishment, but scholars say that scourging and crucifixion were tools of terror wielded on tens of thousands of people all across the Roman Empire. The aim was to bring about not only suffering, but humiliation, to send a message.

Crossan: “It's a warning. it's like hanging up a poster: ‘If you act like this person does, you will die this public, horrible death.’”

Evans: “That was terrifying and horrifying in the Roman world. And that's very clear in the sources. It's Rome's way of saying this is something you don't even want to think about.”

In three of the gospels Roman soldiers mock Jesus as "King of the Jews,” and sarcastically cloak him in a robe and crown of thorns.

Wright: “I imagine this crowded street with pilgrims everywhere and people looking out of the houses and shops and so on. And soldiers brutally saying get out of the way, we're off to do this. And people would know what this meant. They're taking him off and they're going to kill him.”

In paintings of the crucifixion, Jesus usually bears his own cross, but archeologists say it's more likely that he carried only its horizontal beam. Anything more would have been too heavy, especially for a man who had been beaten and scourged.

Wright: “He would have lost a lot of blood. He would be just really tired. So according to the records, he stumbles a couple of times. And they grab somebody from the crowd who's just passing by, a pilgrim to carry the cross beam for Jesus.”

Today, Christians come to a street in Jerusalem, to trace the steps that many pilgrims believe Jesus walked as he carried that hundred pound beam through the steep, winding streets of the city. There is some debate on the path, but scholars are united on one thing: that every step of the journey would be agony. And it would soon become much worse...

Around 9 a.m., the gospels say that Jesus arrived at Golgotha, or place of the skulls. Drawing on what is known about other crucifixions, archeologists believe that Roman soldiers stripped Jesus, probably nailed his feet and wrists -- not palms -- with iron spikes, and then left him there to die.

Wright: “What we have to imagine is a human being, a living, breathing human being being strung up not very high up and just left there, open to the elements. Open to birds, open to vermin, open to rats, open to dogs.”

According to one gospel, Jesus' mother, Mary, and his disciple, Mary Magdalene, stood at the foot of the cross, watching the horror unfold. It is believed that with each passing minute, Jesus'  breath became more labored as the weight of his body slowly crushed his lungs. After six hours, Jesus most likely succumbed to extreme shock or suffocation.

Jesus' death on the cross, and the belief that he was resurrected three days later, gave birth to a religion that has raised and toppled nations, and transformed lives. Today the world's Christian population is some two billion strong, and many flock to worship beneath the symbol of what happened that day in Jerusalem.

But the accounts of Jesus' final days have spawned darker sentiments as well. Over the centuries the gospel images of Caiaphas, Pilate, and the crowd crying out for crucifixion have fueled a notion in some quarters that the Jewish people were responsible for Jesus' death. it's a perception that has triggered anti-Semitic persecution and violence for almost 2,000 years.

Crossan: “It troubles me as a Christian to hear Christians say things like, ‘Oh, the Jewish people are Christ-killers,’ or something like that. That's outrageous. It's very wrong. It's bad theology. It's bad history. Most Jewish people didn't even know who Jesus was and never even heard about it, and would have been horrified at what happened to him in Jerusalem… If everything in the New Testament was literally correct, there is no reason whatsoever to blame anyone beyond the people who were right there.  And to go into centuries of anti-Semitism, but not to go into centuries of anti-Italianism, as it were, makes no sense whatsoever.”

Where did this notion come from? Largely, scholars say, from the gospels themselves. If you read the four books in the order in which they were most likely written, Jewish culpability appears to increase with each revision. Take for example the scene with Pilate and that crowd:

Crossan: “You can watch the crowd not only expand but metastasize before your eyes, from Mark where it starts as a crowd, to Matthew where it goes from a crowd to crowds to all the people in ten verses, and then on to John where it becomes ‘the Jews.’”

Those revisions, most scholars agree, were not overt acts of anti-Semitism. Three of the authors were almost certainly Jewish themselves. Instead, scholars see them as a byproduct of the times. The gospels were written decades after the crucifixion, when the earliest Christians were trying to break away from Judaism and shield their budding religion from the watchful eye of Rome.

Borg: “How do you avoid the implication that you are an anti-Roman religious movement? What you do is you say the Roman governor actually found Jesus innocent.”

In 1965, the Vatican issued a decree absolving the Jewish people of blame in Jesus' death. So in the end, what does it all mean? Who was responsible?

Phillips: “What's the bottom line for you? How do you answer the question, who killed Jesus?”

Evans: “The Romans killed Jesus. But the Romans killed Jesus in consultation with the Jewish authorities. And it's a very small number. And it needs to be understood that the Jewish authorities weren't acting as a mouthpiece for the Jewish people as a whole.”

Crossan: “There is absolutely no question in my mind but that Pilate, under the Roman Empire, was responsible for Jesus' death. There is no question about that. “

Fredriksen: “What I do in my historian's imagination is I stand next to the cross, and I look outward as Jesus would have been, and what Pilate would have known that Jesus was looking at, which is the crowd of pilgrims in Jerusalem. the message of the crucifixion is directed at the pilgrims. He's telling the pilgrim crowd that is so enthused about Jesus, you're wrong he's not the messiah.”

In the end, Jesus scholars are united in the belief that crucifixion was a Roman, not Jewish, form of execution. And two ancient sources outside of the Bible confirm it was Pontius Pilate who was ordered Jesus' death. In the year 93 the historian Josephus wrote of Jesus: "Those who had come to love him did not give up their affection for him. And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared."

That was written 60 years after the crucifixion. Twenty centuries later, in the hearts of Christian believers, the pieces of this story come together with a power that transcends history -- the suffering, the sacrifice, the symbol of grace.

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