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The Passion of the Christ:
Who Really Killed Jesus?

Editor’s note: I asked the Religion Editor of Skeptic magazine, Tim Callahan, to give us a brief overview of the “who killed Jesus?” business, a question generated—by Mel Gibson’s film, “The Passion of the Christ’, being released this Wednesday. Numerous documentaries and news reports have been discussing the subject, and last week’s Newsweek published one as a cover story. As you know by now, there are concerns from some Jewish groups that the film may re-ignite the old canard about how “the Jews killed our Lord,” and that this might incite violence on the part of Christians against Jews for “deicide,” as it has in centuries past.

Allow me one brief comment of a theological nature. If Jesus did not die for our sins then there is no point in being a Christian—one might as well be a Jew (no religious belief is also acceptable). If Jesus did die for our sins—indeed, if he HAD to die for our sins as we are told he did in order for us to be saved—then why must ANYONE be blamed, let alone condemned? If this was a foreordained event by God, then it was out of human hands. If it was not predetermined by God and was instead a contingent event that might or might not have happened, shouldn’t we be THANKING the Jews (or the Romans) for doing the unpleasant but necessary deed? After all, thanks to the crucifixion and the resurrection, all who accept it are born again, saved, and will have everlasting life. Shouldn’t Pilate, Barabbas, and Ciaphas get special dispensation from God?

As for the historicity of the event, which is what is really in question throughout this national debate, I HIGHLY recommend Tim’s book, The Secret Origins of the Bible. He has a whole chapter on Jesus, who he was, the evidence for his existence and ministry, the crucifixion, the ressurection, etc. I strongly urge you to order Tim’s book at and read it for a truly fair and balanced treatment (really!) about the Bible. He provides the pre-biblical mythic origins of all the famous Bible stories, showing that they mostly came from other sources. (The resurrection theme, for example, is a common one in world mythology.) I also recommend Randel Helms’ book, Who Wrote the Gospels?, which Tim references and you can also order at
—Michael Shermer

Tim Callahan ([email protected]) is the Religion Editor for Skeptic magazine and eSkeptic, for which he has written dozens of research articles, commentaries, and review essays, covering all aspects of religion, science and religion, theology, and the philosophy of religion. He is the author of The Secret Origins of the Bible, available at

The Passion of the Christ:
Who Really Killed Jesus?

by Tim Callahan

With the release of Mel Gibson’s film “The Passion of the Christ” an old controversy has been reignited. Because the film follows the account (or rather accounts) in the gospels, the ugly accusation of the blood libel against the Jews—that is, that they were responsible for the death of Jesus and must bear that guilt forever—has been raised once more. So, did the Jews sentence Jesus to death or did the Romans? In answering that question we must remember, as I point out in detail in Chapter 15 of my book Secret Origins of the Bible, that virtually all of the New Testament narratives of the Passion, from the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday to the Resurrection, are entirely mythical. To answer the question of who was responsible for sentencing Jesus to death we need to examine the narrative of his trial before the high priest Ciaphas, the crowd demanding that Barabbas be freed rather than Jesus, and the role of Pontius Pilate, whom the Christian scriptures have nearly turned into a saint.

The Two Trials of Jesus

According to the gospels, Jesus is arrested at night after being betrayed by Judas and is taken under the cover of darkness to a secret trial before the high priest Ciaphas. In Mark when Ciaphas asks Jesus if he is “the Christ, the Son of the Blessed” (Mk. 14:61) Jesus answers emphatically (v.62), “I am; and you will see the Son of man sitting at the right hand of Power and coming in the clouds of heaven.” In Lk. 22:67-70 Jesus is less forthright, using the, “You say that I am” idiomatic affirmative rather than a simple “yes.” Yet he still says that “the Son of man will be seated at the right hand of power.” Jesus’ answer in Mt. 26:64 falls between those of Mark and Luke. In Jn. 18:19-24 Ciaphas merely asks about Jesus’ disciples and teachings. Jesus says that his teachings are a matter of public record. The claim of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels (Mark, Matthew and Luke) that the priest would see him coming on the clouds, is part of the apocalyptic nature of his ministry and an indication that he expected the world to end in his generation. In his book, Gospel Fictions, Dr. Randel Helms notes that this trial is impossible to accept as historical, at least in its particulars (Helms 1988, p. 118):

Mark’s account of the trial must be speculative, since there were no followers of Jesus present to report on it later: “the disciples all deserted him and ran away” at his arrest (Mark 14:50). Early Christians, in composing an account of the trial, followed the usual method of gathering information about Jesus in the absence of real evidence: they went to the Old Testament.

Specifically, Helms cites Daniel 6:4 and verses from Psalms 27:12 and 35:11 In Dan. 6:4 the satraps of the Persian Empire seek grounds to lodge charges against him, but can find none, which parallels Mk. 15:55 in which the chief priests seek testimony by which they might put Jesus to death, but can find none. In Mk. 14:56, 57 we are told that many bore false witness against Jesus and that their testimony did not agree. Both psalm verses concern false witnesses. In Ps. 27:12 the psalmist says, “false witnesses have risen against me,” and Ps. 35:11 says: “Malicious witnesses rise up/they ask me of things that I know not.”

Fundamentalists often claim that the similarities between events in the gospels and material from the Jewish scriptures indicates that what happened in the life of Jesus was plainly foretold in the Old Testament. But Helms points out time and again that the Greek of the gospels and the Greek of the Septuagint (the Hebrew Scriptures translated into Greek for the benefit of Hellenized Diaspora Jews who no longer spoke either Hebrew or Aramaic) is so close to word use and phrasing, sometimes being identical, that the gospel writers had to have been copying the material. Also, his point that there were no witnesses sympathetic to Jesus at his supposed trial before Ciaphas would seem irrefutable. Believers might say that members of the court who would have reported the unfairness of the trial were there and kept silent during the proceedings, only revealing the false testimony to the gospel writers later. But in fact the gospels make mention of no such people. Thus, they either didn’t exist or, if revealing them would imperil them, they would more likely have kept silent, rather than give the author of Mark an exclusive interview some 20 or more years later.

In fact, the gospels do mention two well situated men who were followers of Jesus, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus. If we were to accept the gospels as historical to any degree, we would have to accept that the association of these men with Jesus was common knowledge. Thus, if they had witnessed the trial at least one of the gospels would have mentioned that fact. This only leaves Jesus as a sympathetic witness, which means that he had to have imparted a narrative of the trial during one of his post-resurrection appearances, none of which are mentioned in Mark. This is stretching things a bit, and using Jesus as the supernatural source means that we have to accept his divinity and the gospel record as divinely inspired in order to use the gospels as a source upon which to base the opinion that Jesus was divine and did what the gospels (when they agree) say he did. In other words, the reasoning gets circular.

As to what happened after the first trial, Mark 15 has only a brief hearing before Pilate (verses 1-5), whose character is not developed at all, before the mob chooses between Jesus and Barabbas. The same is true of Mt. 27:11-14. In Lk. 23:1-25 everyone seems afraid to deal with Jesus. The priests give him to Pilate to try. He says that he sees no fault in the man, but upon finding that he is a Galilean, he sends him to Herod Antipas. Herod questions him at length and gets no answer. His soldiers mock and abuse Jesus, something the Romans do in the other gospels. Then he sends Jesus back to Pilate, who says he will chastise and release Jesus, but the Jews demand Barabbas be released instead. In Jn. 18:28-19:22 Pilate is fully developed and quite sympathetic.

There are five points I would like to examine concerning Jesus before Pilate. They are:

  1. the equivocal answers Jesus makes,
  2. the increasing development of the character of Pilate,
  3. the origins of the Barabbas episode,
  4. the growing anti-semitism of the mob scene, and
  5. the historicity of the whole segment.
1. Jesus

Let us begin with the response of Jesus to Pilate’s questions. In Mk. 15:1-5 Pilate asks the question that is important to the Romans: “Are you the king of the Jews?” He gets no answer. In Mt. 27: 11 Jesus answers, “You have said so.” This could be an affirmative answer, or perhaps Jesus is merely deflecting the question. The Jewish priests and elders then make many charges against Jesus before Pilate, who says (Mt. 27; 13), “Do you not hear how many things they testify against you?” But Jesus gives him no answer. In Lk. 23:4 Jesus’ equivocal answer causes Pilate to say, “I find no crime in this man.” To this the Jewish authorities respond that Jesus has been stirring up the people in both Galilee and Judea. This prompts Pilate to ask if Jesus is a Galilean, and when he finds that he is, he sends Jesus to Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee, who is in Jerusalem at the time, presumably for the Passover (though the Herodeans are treated in the gospels as being less than pious). This enables Luke to say that Herod’s soldiers, not Pilate’s, mocked and abused Jesus, even arraying him in “gorgeous apparel” (Lk. 23:11).

This is at variance with all the other gospels, and, given that in Mark and Matthew the mocking of Jesus is because he has been found guilty of claiming to be the king of the Jews, that Luke has Herod do it to a man he hasn’t found guilty shows it to be an obvious fiction. Jesus is as mute before Herod as he had been before Pilate. Why is this? If Jesus intended to die and rise from the grave, there would be no reason for him not to say that he was the king of the Jews just as he had said to the Sanhedrin that he was the Son of man, who they would see coming in the clouds seated at the right hand of power. If, on the other hand, he had no intention of making such a claim, then disputing the charges would have been his logical course. The reason for the silence of Jesus is that the song of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah (Is. 52:13-53:12) was taken to be prophetic of Jesus, and in Is. 53:7 we are told of the suffering servant that he was oppressed but “opened not his mouth.” Instead he was led like lamb to the slaughter and, like a sheep, is dumb before its shearers. While this poem was mined for allusions that could be applied to Jesus, the servant songs of Isaiah in many cases refer to the servant as the Jewish people (see Is. 42:18-24; 44:1, 2, 49:3). That the silence of Jesus doesn’t make sense except in the context of making Is. 53:7 prophetic indicates that the material of the gospels has been made to fit Isaiah rather than Isaiah being prophetic of Jesus.

In John, Jesus is anything but mute. When Pilate first asks him if he is the king of the Jews, Jesus asks him a question in turn Qn. 18:34): “Do you say this of your own accord, or did others say it about me?” When Pilate presses the issue, Jesus answers (Jn. 18:36): “My kingship is not of this world; if my kingship were of this world my servants would fight that I might not be handed over to the Jews; but my kingship is not of this world.”

Pilate persists in asking Jesus if he is a king, which leads to the climactic exchange between them (Jn. 18:37, 38):

Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice.” Pilate said to him, “What is truth?”

As Frank Miele has noted, this perfect opportunity for Jesus to expound on the nature of truth was either missed by the Savior or the author of the gospel, leaving us—Christians and non-Christians alike—to find the truth on our own. Despite failing to answer this specific question, however, Jesus, in conversing with Pilate, appears not to be fulfilling any prophecy out of Isaiah in John’s very different rendition of his final trial.

2. Pilate

In Jn. 29:1-16, his soldiers having scourged Jesus and crowned him with thorns, Pilate repeatedly tries to release him (verses. 4-6, 12, 14-16). However, against his will, the people demand that Jesus be crucified. Pilate’s final act is to write the sign posted on the cross in Hebrew, Greek and Latin, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” When the chief priests of the Jews ask him not to write that Jesus was a king but that he claimed to be king, he says (Jn. 19:22), “What I have written, I have written.” Pilate, then, has accepted what the Jews cannot, that Jesus is indeed the Messiah. In Luke 23 and Matthew 15 Pilate attempts to free Jesus three times, and in Mt. 27:19 Pilate’s wife sends him word not to have anything to do with “that righteous man” since she has suffered from a bad dream about him already that day. Accordingly, Pilate, having asked the Jews twice whether they would rather have Jesus or Barabbas released to them, excuses himself from executing Jesus in the famous scene from Mt. 27:24-26:

So when Pilate saw that he was gaining nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.” And all the people answered, “His blood be on us and on our children!” Then he released for them Barabbas and having scourged Jesus, delivered him up to be crucified.

There are two related themes that are developed to their fullest in John and Matthew in these accounts which contrast the reluctance of Pilate to crucify Jesus with the vehemence of the crowd to see him die. These are the near sanctification of Pontius Pilate, reaching its culmination in John, and the rise in anti-semitism culminating in Matthew with the people eagerly saying, “His blood be upon us and upon our children.” This verse, the infamous blood libel, has, unfortunately, been the justification of much bloodshed, in that the Jews are seen as actively taking on the guilt of putting Jesus to death.

Whence came this anti-semitism? It is likely that the earliest of the gospels, Mark, was written after the fall of Jerusalem in CE 70. In the revolt against Rome, those Jews of the Christian sect took a pacifist stance, believing no doubt that the struggle was pointless because Jesus was soon to return in glory to set up the heavenly kingdom. It was probably at this point that the other Jews completely severed relations with the Christians. Hence, increasingly the gospels show antagonism toward the Jews. In Jn. 18:36 Jesus specifically tells Pilate that, had his kingdom been of this world his servants wouldn’t have allowed him to be handed over to the Jews. Here it would seem that Jesus doesn’t see either himself or his followers as being Jewish. As the Jews became the villains of the piece, the Roman official in charge of sentencing Jesus to be crucified had to be increasingly rehabilitated. This also fit the Christian policy of not actively opposing the Roman state. Thus, if the Jews were the real culprits, then the Christians could say that they really didn’t oppose the will of Rome.

3. Barabbas

What the gospels needed to shift the blame to the Jews was a mechanism whereby the Romans could offer to let Jesus go free, and the Jews could refuse the offer. Enter Barabbas. In Mk. 15:7 and Lk. 23:19 he is identified as one who had committed murder and insurrection. In Mt. 27:16 he is merely referred to as a “notorious prisoner,” and in Jn. 18:40 he is reduced to being a mere robber. It seems that, along with the Jews, Barabbas is successively denigrated in Matthew and John. Therefore, the question becomes: Who was Barabbas? Many Bible dictionaries translate the name as Aramaic for “son (bar) of Abba,” which they say was a common enough name. According to other interpretations, he is the son of a rabbi or teacher, as in bar Rabba(n). In fact, if we also translate the last part of his name, he becomes “son (bar) of the father (abba).” That some early versions of Matthew refer to him as Jesus Barabbas helps clarify Pilate’s question in Mt. 27:17: “Whom do you want me to release to you, Barabbas or Jesus who is called the Christ?” There really isn’t any reason for adding “who is called the Christ” to the question unless the two men have the same name. It’s simpler for Pilate to say, “Whom do you want me to release to you, Barabbas or Jesus?” But “who is called the Christ” makes sense if the question originally read, “Whom do you want me to release to you, Jesus Barabbas or Jesus who is called the Christ?” Now, however, we have a bit of an identity crisis, since one of the men is “Jesus son of the father” and the other is “Jesus Christ who has admitted being the Son of God.” Thus, the next question that comes to mind is: Was Barabbas a real person?

To understand the Barabbas episode one must remember that there was a Babylonian festival called Zagmuku, which was the source of the Jewish holiday Purim, and especially the source for the opposite fates of Mordecai and Haman in the Book of Esther. During Zagmuku, the king was replaced by a mock king called Zoganes, usually a condemned prisoner. He was allowed to wear the king’s crown, given the king’s scepter, and even free run of the royal harem. But at the end of the festival he was stripped of his royal robes and crown, scourged and put to death either by hanging or crucifixion. The gospels all record the scourging and mocking of Jesus. The graphic depiction of that event in Mt. 27:27-30 is particularly reminiscent of the end of the mock king in the Zagmuku festival:

Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the praetorium, and they gathered the whole battalion before him. And they stripped him and put a scarlet robe upon him, and plaiting a crown of thorns, they put it on his head and put a reed in his right hand. And kneeling before him they mocked him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” And they spat upon him, and took the reed and struck him on the head. And when they had mocked him, they stripped him of the robe, and put his own clothes on him, and led him away to crucify him.

In a play given during Zagmuku, two actors portrayed characters who were the source of the roles of Mordecai and Haman in Esther, in that one expects royal honors but is put to death, while one seems destined for death but escapes with his life. This would also seem to be the source of Jesus called the Christ and Jesus Barabbas. However, given that the Romans would have been likely to first humiliate a man they perceived as raising a revolt before putting him to a protracted and painful death, how can we know whether the story of Barabbas and the mocking of Jesus are real or mythical?

4. The Mob

To answer that question let us ask another. What do we have to accept as true to believe the gospel accounts of the freeing of Barabbas and the scourging of Jesus? We have to accept that the Romans would acquiesce to the whims of a subject people to the degree that they would release—according to the demands of a mob—a man guilty of insurrection, precisely the crime for which Jesus was being put to death. We would also have to believe that Pilate had so little control of the situation that the mob could force him to release a violent criminal and let someone he had found not guilty be put to death. Further, we have to believe that letting Barabbas go was somehow tied to putting Jesus to death. If such a custom as letting a condemned man go free existed, there is no reason to believe that such an action required the execution of an innocent man. However, such a symmetry would fit a work of fiction and it certainly fits the Zagmuku play. The idea that Pilate would or even could let a condemned rebel go free or that he could afford to let a mob dictate even a small part of his policy seems unlikely. The usual Roman response to a show of force on the part of a rabble would most likely have been lethal. Further, we must remember that Pilate was mentored by Lucius Aelius Sejanus, a captain of the Praetorian Guard who attempted to take over the Roman Empire during the reign of Tiberius. Sejanus was a complete scoundrel, and, as his protege, Pilate would hardly have been as saintly as he was painted in Matthew and John.

Another possible source of the mocking of Jesus is the Athenian festival of Thargelia in which either a misshapen or condemned man, along with a deformed woman were driven out of the city as scapegoats. This parallels the scapegoat given to the demon Azazel in the Yom Kippur ceremony in ancient Israel. So such festivals, in which a condemned man was either mocked before being put to death or bore the sins of the community as a subsitutionary atonement, were prevalent long before the time of Jesus. In fact, the ritual laying of sins on a chosen human or animal appears to be a nearly universal practice. Thus, it seems likely that the whole Barabbas incident derives from the same genre of powerful mythic material upon which the idea of Jesus dying for our sins was based.

5. So, who really killed Jesus?

Given all the mythic elaboration on whatever historical kernel lies at the base of the Passion narratives, can we say who killed Jesus? Some comentators, defending Gibson’s film, have pointed out that Jewish authorities writing in the Talmud accepted responsibility for the death of Jesus. However, one must remember that by the time of these writings, in the second century CE, the lines of conflict between Jews and Christians—whom the Rabbinical writers considered heretics—had hardened to the degree that the claim to having put Jesus to death was considered a righteous defense of Jewish orthodoxy. Also, I might add that if Jewish writers of the second century can be considered reliable sources then the same must be said of Roman writers of the time. In Book 1, chapter 15 of his Annals of Imperial Rome, Tacitus (ca 55-ca. 120 CE), says of the Christians:

Their originator, Christ, had been executed in Tiberius’ reign by the governor of Judea, Pontius Pilatus. But in spite of this temporary setback the deadly superstition had broken out afresh, not only in Judea (where the mischief had started), but even in Rome. All degraded and shameful practices collect and flourish in the capitol.

Here Tacitus, showing the same antagonism for Christianity evidenced in the Talmudic writers, says that it was temporarily checked when Pontius Pilate—not the Jewish authorities—executed Jesus. In summation, the trial before Ciaphas, the Barabbas episode, the reluctance of Pilate to condemn Jesus, and the Jewish mob demanding his death are, like every other aspect of the Passion and Resurrection narratives, pure fiction. The bare bones of the historical core of what is essentially grand myth is that Jesus was put to death by the Romans—not the Jews—for sedition.

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