Editor’s Note: Thomas A. Wayment and Richard Neitzel Holzapfel have just published From the Last Supper through the Resurrection, The Savior’s Final Hours. It is a scholarly effort designed to explore in a fresh, new way the events of Jesus’ final mortal moments and the glorious events of His resurrection. Both are members of the BYU Faculty.
The recent release of The Passion of the Christ has created quite a stir in a society that is already saturated with those claiming to present the true picture of Jesus. These discordant voices are often justified and defended on the grounds that they are presenting the real Jesus of history while others are presenting the Jesus of faith. This is no less the case with The Passion of the Christ. It focuses heavily on the physical details of the crucifixion of Jesus and presents a quite moving portrayal of the crucifixion.
The story begins in the Garden of Gethsemane and ends with a thirty-second glimpse at the Resurrection. The voice that is heard overwhelmingly in this film is that of the physical torture that Jesus experienced at the hands of the Romans, yet after all of the physical abuse that is heaped upon Jesus, it is the Elders of the Jews who remain solely responsible. It is the Elders of the Jews who direct the arrest, call to order a Sanhedrin in disarray, and force Pilate’s hand when he was considering the release of Jesus. The underlying sentiment is that the Romans were the vehicle of Jewish opposition to Jesus.
The common perception that first century Palestine was ruled with iron clad determinism by the Romans is likely to be deceiving. For the period of Jesus’ public ministry, the region of Judea was ruled by the Roman prefect Pilate. Prefects ruled directly under the leadership of the Roman Emperor and were answerable to Caesar in cases of misconduct and appeal. For a Roman prefect, such as Pilate, there was a precarious relationship between his constituents and the Roman Emperor.
If Pilate’s administration of the Imperial province of Judea went well, he could expect advancement in rank and expansion of power within the Roman equestrian class. If his administration of a province went poorly, Pilate could expect a speedy exit to public office. Pilate’s decisions were subject to the scrutiny of the Roman Emperor, but were also aimed at keeping the peace in his province. In a manner of speaking, the Roman method of governance in Judea paved the way for a man such as Pilate being pressured into making a rash decision that he would otherwise not make.
Many of the Roman prefects of the equestrian class had a wealthy or powerful patron who helped procure their office for them. In the case of Pilate, many have suggested that the wealthy patron may have been L. Aelius Seianus, a powerful administrator under Tiberius. In 31 A.D. Seianus was deposed and condemned to death and at the same time many of his appointees were either removed from office with him or were called into question. If Seianus were indeed Pilate’s patron, his removal would have weakened Pilate’s resolve and undermined his relationship with Rome. There may have indeed been questions regarding whether or not Pilate was a friend of Rome or not.
In a manner of speaking, the early 30’s were a period of political difficulties at the highest levels of government in Rome with Pilate’s fortunes being considerably intertwined. The character of Pilate may be described as randomly harsh, lacking resolve, and relatively unconcerned with local religious traditions. From several incidents of Pilate’s tenure in Judea (26-36 A.D.), there is ample evidence to suggest that the prefect would haphazardly force allegiance to Roman ways of life while not considering the religious ramifications.
Pilate’s quelling of the supposed rebellion on Mount Gerezim in Samaria, although subsequent to Christ’s death, reveals a man who reacted cruelly to a supposed rebellion without carefully analyzing the situation. The picture of Pilate is one of a man willing to use force to carry out his edicts, but who was also willing to rescind unpopular edicts if it would keep the peace.
Thus the stage was set for the Roman prefect of Judea to be manipulated into making a harsh decision that he was unwilling to make. But was Pilate really alleviated of responsibility or was he irresponsible? The Passion of the Christ focuses its attention squarely on the Elders of the Jews and removes almost all responsibility from Pilate. Perhaps Pilate’s harshness and cruelty could be marshaled in to support this conclusion, yet there are serious difficulties with this lone viewpoint.
The Gospel of John tells us that there were Roman soldiers at the arrest, a fact that is implied in the Synoptic Gospels by the fact that Pilate does not inquire anything at all of the Jews who deliver Jesus into their hands. The Synoptic Gospels imply that Pilate was already aware of what was going on the night before and does not question the Jews regarding the charges, the earliness of the hour, nor their urgency to condemn Jesus. The Passion removes any Roman involvement in the arrest, and therefore removes these very questions.
Going back just one week in Jesus’ life may also provide further clues to unraveling the issue of responsibility. Roughly one week before that fateful Friday, Jesus entered Jerusalem from the direction of Bethphage, through the Kidron valley and into the temple. All four gospels report that a large crowd assembled for the event and proclaimed Jesus to be the Messiah in an act that literally fulfilled the prophecy recorded in Psalm 118.
The crowd, it is recorded, unanimously proclaimed Jesus as their king and laid down palm fronds for his donkey to walk on. Located on the northwest corner of the temple is the Antonia Fortress, the personal residence of Pilate while he was in Judea, as well as the home to the Roman garrison. It is unimaginable that Pilate was completely unaware of the events of the triumphal entry, and those events must have been reported to him in some form.
The temple had always been a hotbed of contention under Roman rule, and the prefects and later procurators had learned to expect uprisings associated with the temple. In this instance, it is likely that Pilate was tracking Jesus’ movements from the moment of the triumphal entry, and therefore, it is likely that John was correct to include Roman soldiers in the arrest story. Pilate could not let a public uprising, such as is suggested in the triumphal entry go unchecked, and therefore would be keenly interested in any further developments in this new messianic movement.
The Sanhedrin trial, if it can be called such, is a major component of Jesus’ final hours. The Passion represents their proceedings as the work of a semi-organized mob directed by a man, Caiaphas, who has a personal vendetta for Jesus. Caiaphas appears to personally direct the trial and condemn Jesus on the grounds that he has committed blasphemy. It is also Caiaphas who calls for the removal of members of the Sanhedrin who question the proceedings, a fact that is not mentioned in the four gospels.
This picture presents several major difficulties.
First, Caiaphas was known for his pro-Roman attitude and served longer than any other High Priest during the Roman occupation of Judea. He kept the peace with Rome and was rewarded for it. The family of Ananias, which includes his son-in-law Caiaphas, was very influential in first century Judea and maintained a chokehold on Jewish religious affairs for nearly three decades.
It is likely that Pilate was made aware of the proceedings of the Sanhedrin and also had some direct involvement in using it as a fact-finding inquisition. Caiaphas may have knowingly played on Pilate’s fear of a popular uprising by Jesus’ followers and goaded him into arresting Jesus with the help of Roman soldiers. The involvement of the Romans seems absolutely necessary to guarantee that there was no popular uprising, a concern for Pilate, and capture Jesus away from the crowds, something Caiaphas had been unable to do.
The roles of Pilate and Caiaphas in connection with the Sanhedrin are so intertwined that it would be irresponsible to suggest that one of them were alone responsible for the condemnation and death of Jesus. Pilate was in sole command of Judean politics and was the only earthly person who could have released Jesus. Caiaphas and a small band of Jewish leaders may have been legitimately afraid of the growing popularity of Jesus and his followers (John 11:47-54). The image of a bloodthirsty Caiaphas is not derived from the gospels, but is a loose interpretation of the events portrayed therein. Caiaphas’ personal lust for the death of Jesus in The Passion is an inaccuracy.
Huge Crowds ?
The film further portrays huge crowds who shout for the death of Jesus and throw stones at him while he is carrying his cross to Golgotha. This universal hatred of Jesus, amplified by the fact that Jesus has been beaten nearly to death, may be directed to evoke sympathy for Jesus. The problem with this picture is that it overlooks the crowds of Jesus’ followers who are equally present in the gospels. They were the ones who shouted at his arrival during the triumphal entry and are also the ones who caught the attention of the Pharisees (John 12:19). The misconception, one that is carried out in The Passion, is that Jesus’ followers were so insignificant in number as to be inconsequential, that they hid, or that they changed their minds about Jesus.
The gospels, however, reveal a different picture of the events of the Jewish and Roman trials of Jesus. For the most part, their proceedings were carried on privately, away from the crowds who were likely preparing for the Passover feast. The gospels do not indicate that any significant crowd was aware of what went on during the arrest and arraignment of Jesus on Thursday evening and that Jesus was likely crucified before they could gather in any sufficient number.
The picture of the events of Thursday night and Friday morning tell the story of collaboration, stealth, and swiftness. Could the Jews and Romans have come together to make such an important decision without some previous collaboration? The misconception of The Passion is that it alleviates the Romans of almost all responsibility while at the same moment placing the blame squarely on the shoulders of the Jews. It is important that we differentiate between artistic license and historical reality. The motivation of Pilate, Caiaphas, and the Sanhedrin are important in understanding the full ramifications of the Atonement. The alternate voice presented in The Passion is in many respects different from our own.
Brutality and the Atonement
Another important issue is the question of what physically happened in the Atonement. In The Passion, the idea is presented that the Atonement was efficacious because of the sheer brutality of Jesus’ punishments. The Atonement is a question of endurance in the face of overwhelming physical torture and pain, and in one instance Jesus surprises his captors by standing in the face of such incredible pain. Jesus’ fortitude causes his captors to redouble their efforts in flogging him and at the end; one is left to wonder how anyone could survive such extreme brutality. In essence, the Atonement is the product of endurance, personal fortitude, and incredible strength.
The popular conception of Roman brutality plays into this manner of thinking. Satan offers Jesus and easier way in the Garden of Gethsemane, suggesting to Jesus that no one can endure such hardships. Is this really the reason that the Atonement was effective? Undoubtedly the floggings, beatings, and physical punishments were unbearable, but the Atonement was not effective solely because it was the most painful death anyone had ever experienced. The cross was part of a triad of events that worked together to effect the Atonement. No single act brought it about; it required the pain of the Garden, the suffering on the cross, and the glory of the Resurrection to be complete. Focusing solely on the physical brutality of the event causes the authors to rely on stereotypical attitudes of Pilate, the Romans, and the Sanhedrin.
For the past three years, a team of Brigham Young University professors has been seeking to answer these very questions and trying to formulate their responses using the most accurate information available. Their conclusions have been published in the volume From the Last Supper through the Resurrection: The Savior’s Final Hours (edited by Richard Neitzel Holzapfel and Thomas A. Wayment; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2003). Perhaps unsurprisingly, these scholars come to very different conclusions on some of the most important events associated with the condemnation and death of Jesus Christ.
The project was initiated independently in an effort to look at these very questions as openly as possible. Movies such as The Passion, and articles in popular magazines such as Newsweek are grabbing headlines and offering solutions to problems such as who was responsible for the death of Jesus. Often their responses are undermined by their popular audience, a concern addressed in the making of The Passion of the Christ. Their views, however, are not necessarily in harmony with ours.
A more balanced approach can be seen in their work through the words of Eric D. Huntsman, “In the end, however, the type and timing of the scourging are not in and of themselves important. Instead, the fulfillment of prophecies regarding this suffering make it a fundamental part of the Atonement accomplished by Jesus Christ.” (p.316) Another excerpt from their work is also helpful in discussing these very issues. “Solid evidence exists to suggest that certain of Jesus’ actions and teachings caused great rumblings within the Jerusalem hierarchy. . . . At the same time, however, Jesus was planning His own demise and was well aware of what would ultimately come to pass. His disciples were being trained to lead the Church in His absence, and they were also warned of what would eventually happen.”(p. 448) The results of their research are easily accessible to the reader and offer a wealth of information. More importantly, they provide doctrinally sound answers in light of the extremes of the modern media.