Book Review: The Final Days of Jesus: The Thrill of Victory. A Classical Historian Explores Jesus's Arrest, Trial, and Execution.
Mark Smith applies the methods and contextual analysis of a classical historian to a study, and reconstruction, of Jesus’ trial and execution. As a co-director of the Bethsaida Excavations Project in Israel, Smith also brings considerations from archaeology to bear on the matter. The result is a fresh, intriguing, and compelling account of political and religious motivations for Jesus’ death.
He begins by outlining some of the difficulties of the task: one major one being the paucity of the evidence, which he likens to trying to decipher a 1000-piece puzzle when one only has one hundred pieces. Nevertheless, some of the evidence is as good as any that a classical historian might have for other ancient events.
Smith discusses the nature of the evidence. He makes the very good point (not always remembered by biblical scholars) that all sources are biased, each written from a perspective, with their own agendas. These factors must be recognized and taken into account, but they do not render the source useless as a piece of historical evidence.
He begins by analysing and discussing the sources: Philo, Josephus, Tacitus, Suetonius, Cassius Dio, Rabbinic literature, the Gospel of Peter, and the Gospels of the New Testament. He outlines what they are good for: whether this is providing information on Roman life and culture, details about the reigns of the Caesars, or (as for example, Josephus), giving notifications about Jesus.
When it comes to the canonical Gospels, Smith argues for an early date for Mark’s Gospel along lines I have not come across before, though feel that I should as it makes sense. He argues for the ending of Acts to be before Nero’s persecution in 64CE, hence 63. This pushes Luke’s Gospel back into the early 60’s (before 63) and Mark “in the late 50s or early 60s” (23). One might think this a bit tight: and that Mark ought, on this dating, be dated even earlier. One aspect here in which Smith is vulnerable, is that he does not discuss the Synoptic problem, simply accepting the priority of Mark, and the two-source documentary theory.
Smith details the type of criteria that classical historians use, and makes the point that classical historians (unlike historical Jesus scholars who have often attempted to determine certainty, as have the Jesus Seminar over Jesus’ sayings) work in terms of probability, and consider most historical analyses and reconstructions would sit within the 4 – 6 range (out of a 0 to 10 probability scale). The criteria are these: (1) Proximity to the event; closer is best, and may be assumed to be falsifiable i.e. other witnesses would confirm or deny a report: (2) Corroboration: the ability to check, and compare multiple sources; (3) Consistency; (4) Who benefits from this account?; and (5) Authorial intent.
Two chapters (three and four) set the scene for the “inquest” and trial of Jesus, by examining Pontius Pilate’s world and fortunes as “prefect” of the province of Judea prior to Jesus’ trial, and the role and place of the high priest’s family in Jewish society, and religious-political life. After examining the evidence for Pilate’s life, and the structure of Rome’s empire and factors that influenced dynamics of life in Roman Palestine, Smith turns to discuss three incidents that influenced and illuminated the way in which he acted when trying Jesus.
Pilate’s governorship of Roman Palestine was marked by a series of misjudgements and missteps. Three of these are outlined. The first, “the affair of the standards”, occurred soon after Pilate arrived in Palestine. He stationed a cohort of troops in Jerusalem whose standards bore words and symbols deemed to be blasphemous to his Jewish subjects. They protested to him in front of his Caesarean headquarters. After some days, Pilate decided to use force to intimidate the Jews into acquiescence. This failed, for they simply lay down in front of his troops, baring their necks, and declaring that they would prefer death, to betraying the principles of their law. Pilate did not wish to be seen to allow a massacre of defenceless citizens, and risk a bad report in Rome. So he backed down.
Next, he decided to fund an aqueduct which would bring water into Jerusalem, using money from the Temple treasury. Smith thinks that Pilate did not take the money by force, but managed to get the assent for this action from the Jewish religious leadership. However, when his use of the Temple funds created a riot, and there was some bloodshed in quelling it, Pilate found that the Jewish hierarchy maintained silence, and he was left unsupported.
Finally, in “the affair of the shields”, Pilate had some shields made in honour of the Emperor Tiberius. These he had placed in his palace in Jerusalem. When the Jewish populace objected, Pilate refused to remove them. This was in part because his patron, Sejanus, in Rome, had been executed for treason, and Pilate had no wish for Tiberius to think he might not be loyal. However, when a letter of complaint was sent to Tiberius, Tiberius strongly condemned Pilate’s actions and order him to remove the shields from Jerusalem.
When he turns to the high priesthood in Jerusalem, Smith discusses how the position of high priest was the preserve of the family of Chanin ben Seth (known as Ananus by Josephus, and Annas in the New Testament). This family was both wealthy and influential, and though Annas’ son-in-law Caiaphas was high priest when Jesus was arrested, Annas was very much the patriarchal head. This family had vested interests in the running of the temple, and especially controlled the exchange system (Tyrian coins, not required by law, but by the religious authorities) were needed to purchase sacrificial animals and pay the Temple tax.
As part of the Jerusalem elites, and as it became wealthy at the expense of the other and poorer classes, the family was not particularly liked by the Jewish populace. Jesus’ teaching disturbed and annoyed the members of this family, and his action in the temple, when he declared it “a den of robbers”, was seen as an attack on both their standing and their honour.
They desired to get rid of Jesus, but to do so unobtrusively, given the popular support Jesus had. When they arrested him, they held a night-time “inquest” to determine what charge would carry weight with the Roman prefect. Their meeting probably consisted of members of the family, and some select supporters. Smith thoroughly discusses the different ways in which the term synedrion may be understood: from an ad-hoc group of variable size, to a formal meeting of the Jewish “council” (the “inquest” was most likely of the former type).
Jesus was presented to Pilate as one who claimed to be “king of the Jews”, and hence in direct competition to Roman imperial rule in Judea. There ensued a series of delicate, diplomatic manoeuvres as Pilate tried to ensure that this time he would have the full support of the Jewish hierarchy for any action he took, and that nothing he did would result in a bad report back in Rome. The high priest, for his part, won the day by reminding Pilate (though a reminder was scarcely needed) that releasing Jesus would put him offside with the emperor.
The final major chapter (seven) discusses the manner of Jesus’ death and burial. Smith examines the process of crucifixion, discusses the place of crucifixion (most likely where the Church of the Holy Sepulchre now stands), the mode of burial in Roman custom, and whether it was likely a crucified man would be buried (it was most likely in Jesus’ case as bodies were generally only left exposed in times of war).
Smith dubs the trial before Pilate as “the trial of the millennium”. Why an action by relatively minor historical figures should result in such widespread knowledge both of them and the event, is, of course, due to the resurrection. Smith touches briefly on this at the end, and fleetingly on the significance of that Passover time that propelled Pilate to such fame (or infamy) as he introduces his story. And it is a story: Smith allows his imagination to recreate the scenes and the sensibilities of the main actors. But all the while he fills the reconstruction out with discussion of archaeological and literary evidence. This, and his judicious discussion of the historian’s task, make this a most readable, and important contribution to the understanding of the gospel narratives.
The book includes two appendices. In the first, Smith discusses the evidence for and the debates over the chronology of Jesus’ birth, and dates of the Last Supper and Jesus’ crucifixion. It is a helpful contribution: with the interesting conclusion that Jesus’ birth must be dated to 6CE. The other appendix simply lists all the New Testament references to synedrion.
Derek Tovey is the book review editor for Stimulus.
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