The Defeat of the Gnostics

There is only one fact on which nearly all accounts about Jesus of Nazareth, whether written by persons hostile or devoted to him, agree: that, by order of the Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate, he was condemned and crucified in c. AD 30. The aristocratic Roman historian Tacitus (c. 55-115), who knew virtually nothing about Jesus, mentions only that the emperor Nero (54-58)

substituted as culprits and punished with the utmost refinements of cruelty, a class of persons hated for their vices, whom the crowd called Christians. Christus, the founder of the name, had undergone the death penalty in the reign of Tiberius, by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilate, and the pernicious superstition was checked for a moment, only to break out once more, not only in Judea, the home of the disease, but in the capital itself, where everything horrible or shameful in the world gathers and becomes fashionable.1

The Jewish historian Josephus includes Jesus of Nazareth in a list of troubles that disturbed Jewish relations with Rome when Pilate was governor of Jerusalem (roughly 26-36). A comment attributed to Josephus reports that “Pilate, having heard him accused by men of the highest standing among us…condemned him to be crucified.”2

Jesus’ followers confirm this report. The gospel of Mark, probably the earliest of the New Testament accounts (c. 70-80), tells how Jesus was betrayed by Judas Iscariot at night in the garden of Gethsemane outside Jerusalem, and then arrested by armed men as his disciples fled (14:43-51). Charged with sedition before Pilate, he was condemned to death (15:1-15). Jesus remained alive on the cross for several hours before, as Mark tells it, he “uttered a loud cry” (15.37) and died. The gospels of Luke and John, written perhaps a generation later (c. 90-110), give a more heroic account: Jesus forgives his torturers and, with a prayer, yields up his life.3

All four of the New Testament gospels describe his suffering, death, and hasty burial, interpreting the circumstances leading to his death to demonstrate his innocence. Mark says that the chief priests and religious leaders in Jerusalem planned to have Jesus arrested and executed because of his teaching against them (15:10). In John’s fuller, and more historically plausible, account, he reports that as Jesus’ popularity grew, the chief priests gathered the council of the Sanhedrin to discuss the dangers of riot. Many of the uneducated Jews already acclaimed Jesus as Messiah (11:45-53)—the “annointed king” who they expected would liberate Israel from Roman imperialism and restore the Jewish state. The council feared that Jesus’ presence in the city would provoke a nationalist revolt among thousands of Jews who came to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover holiday. The council was responsible for keeping peace between the Jewish population and the Roman occupying army—a peace so tenuous that only a few years later, when a Roman soldier stationed in Jerusalem during Passover contemptuously exposed himself in the Temple courtyard, he provoked a riot in which 30,000 people…

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