The trial, execution and supposed resurrection of Jesus Christ is THE central claim of the Christian religion. To varying degrees some two billion people around the world have shaped their lives around this claim. But is the life of Jesus that we read about in the Christian narratives historically correct? Did the trial really happen? Was he executed? Did Jesus really rise from the dead? These are the most important questions in all of Christianity.
We will forever lack scientific proof of a resurrection as we are unable to do a repeatable test in a lab on this event. So we have to rely on the types of evidence used in a court of law where motive, consistency, quality and quantity of facts, authentication, character analysis, evidence, logic, fluency and inference combine to create an air of reality. Only if the narrative leading up to the death of Jesus on Good Friday is historically accurate can any claims of a resurrection on Easter Sunday be seriously engaged.
This essay is my attempt to show you that the events of the death of Jesus of Nazareth do indeed contain such an air of reality. I will not try to justify a resurrection, but simply tell the story leading up to that point to see if the first half of the drama makes sense. I have deliberately limited my description to the last four days of Jesus’ life. I have explained the events from Thursday night to Sunday morning in a way that will fill in the many gaps left behind when Matthew, Mark, Luke and John wrote their own very brief accounts of those startling days that changed world history forever. My original source book in this endeavour is “Who Moved the Stone” by Frank Morrison, but I have elaborated extensively on that original text.
THURSDAY NIGHT: THE ARREST AND SCATTERING
Let’s start with the motivation for arresting Jesus. The legal orders for the arrest of Jesus came from an organisation called the Sanhedrin (Matt 26:3). This was a group of around 23 elite Sadducee religious rulers who controlled all daily facets of Jewish life under the watchful eye of the Roman Prefect, Pontius Pilate (John 18:31). They exercised great religious and legal power in this most religious and legalistic of cultures. They were also the defacto political rulers and they also ran a hated extortion racket at the great temple of Jerusalem by forcing people to exchange their gold and silver money for near worthless copper, then making them buy their sacrificial animals at inflated prices from a select cartel of suppliers (John 2:13-17). The combined religious, political, legal and economic power of the Sanhedrin made its leadership extremely wealthy. There was no separation of church, state and financial power in ancient Israel. It was a perpetual one-party state on the far eastern borderlands of imperial Rome. As the buffer zone against their great enemy, the Persians, it was one of Rome’s most prized possessions.
The ultimate reason for the Sanhedrin’s arrest of the greatest Jew of their generation at that very moment was simply a gut-wrenching fear of political revolution, a revolution that would involve a total loss of their iron-fisted control over Jewish political, religious and economic life (John 11:49-50). Consider these preceding events: At the beginning of the week Jesus had been welcomed into the city as a national hero by thousands of religious tourists who clearly saw him as a great prophet (John 12:12-13). In fact, it seems he already had international followers among the tens of thousands of people that had arrived from far and wide for the annual Pesach, or Passover feast (John 12:20-21). He then launched into a daily barrage of scathing attacks on the priests of the Sanhedrin for corrupting the purposes of God and stealing from the people (Matt 23:1-37). When they tried to counter attack he was able to repeatedly confound them in open public debate (Matt 22:15-45). He taught the people in veiled parables that the days of the Sanhedrin’s power and corruption were coming to an end (Matt 25:1-46). He even spoke of wars, rumours of wars and the destruction of the great temple (Matt 24:6). As the week wore on, Caiaphas and his inner circle came to the obvious conclusion that the teacher from Galilee was plotting a coup. But they also genuinely feared the people would side with Jesus if he was confronted openly, so they hesitated, waiting for a moment of weakness in their enemy’s movements that was outside the public gaze.
It is now Thursday evening, the beginning of Nisan 14 and the evening of the special Galilean feast called Seudah Maphsehket, which we commonly call the “Last Supper”. This special pre-Passover meal was adopted only by the Galileans and its purpose was to remember that it was only the first-born sons of the Hebrews who were in danger from death at God’s hand in Egypt. It was probably eaten in the Essene quarter of Jerusalem. After the Last Supper there would be a 24-hour fast. The next meal to be eaten was the Passover meal on the special Sabbath Saturday evening.
The Last Supper was a ritual that took about two to three hours to complete, so it would have finished at about 9.00pm. However, the capture of the prophet had to have taken place around midnight on that fateful night. This large gap is justified by several lines of reasoning, chief of which is the fact that the disciples had become extremely tired, even those who had been burly fishermen who were used to night shifts (Luke 5:5, John 21:3-4). In fact, by the time of the arrest some disciples had already fallen asleep three times (Matt 26:39-43). So it is very safe to say the arrest took place around the middle of the night. The text makes it very clear that these men were being held against their will deep into the night by a man spending time in anguished prayer. He was waiting to be arrested long after the normal time for sleep (Matt 26:45). So, why this three-hour wait on a dark hillside in a ten-degree chill? Why did the arrest take so damned long? Had Judas failed in his attempted betrayal when he left the meal at around 9.00pm (Matt 26:23-25)?
As a common informer Judas was useless because everyone knew Jesus was staying in Bethany (John 12:1). So where does he fit into this cascading scene on Thursday night? The record tells us that Judas had met with the priests on Monday or Tuesday and signalled his willingness to do a deal, but the priests took no notice (Matt 26:14). This was because the temple guard could have been dispatched to Mary and Martha’s house at any time during that week of festivities to collect Jesus (John 12:1-2). The delay in arresting Jesus is only explained by the High Priest’s genuine fear of the people, and of revolution. The popularity of their enemy had reached a point where they were afraid to act.
Suddenly, at around 9.15 pm Judas brought the Sanhedrin some unexpected news. Jesus was no longer combative, but was actually speaking about his immanent arrest (Matt 26:31). In fact, he was waiting to be arrested in a garden just to the east of the great temple (Matt 26:45). It seemed he had given up the fight. It was now or never for the priests to deal with the greatest threat to their power they had ever experienced. This new information precipitated action, and all it cost them was thirty pieces of silver (Matt 26:14-15) which was the going price of a slave at the time.
If Judas left the Last Supper when the meal concluded at approximately 9.00pm (Matt 26:23-25), and the arrest didn’t occur until around midnight, why the three-hour delay? This can only be explained by walking through the logistics of the drama. It took Judas around 15 minutes to get to the High Priest’s home with the news, and probably another 15 minutes to deliver the message to the appropriate person, Caiaphas. Assume it took another 30 minutes for the Sanhedrin to assemble and debate their decision. Assume it took another 30 minutes to organise an arrest party of guards and 15 minutes to walk to Gethsemane. This only takes us to around 10.30pm, not late enough for the disciples, who were fishermen, to have fallen asleep three times. We have a ninety-minute gap in the drama that remains a mystery.
I suggest this gap can only be explained if there was a late night deal made with the Roman Prefect Pilate to have Jesus executed early the next day. All executions had to go through Pilate as this privilege had been taken away from the Jews in 15AD. If Pilate had not agreed the night before to speedily process the execution, then there was no point in arresting Jesus on Thursday night as he would have to be kept alive for the next seven days while the feast was in progress. This stalemate could have stirred up social unrest, and possibly rebellion, once people found out their hero was behind bars. Jesus had to be executed the next day before people caught on that the plot was afoot. The solution was to go to Pilate and seal the deal before making the final decision to execute the arrest. Only this action can account for the one-hour delay in the arrest and the extended wait in the garden for the arrest party to arrive.
In addition to the logic of this timeline there are three lines of supporting evidence. First, Pilate was ready for a trial very early the next morning on a day when trials a not normally heard, so he must have known about the arrest (Mark 15:1). In addition, his wife Procula had a dream that evening about the prophet. Early Friday morning she told her husband, just before the trial, to have nothing to do with him (Matt 27:19). People often dream about the last topic of conversation before their go to bed. Finally, Pilate opened the trial the next morning formally, instead of simply going through the legal formalities of concluding a show trial. The shocked reply of the priests suggests they were not expecting to go through a process of proving the guilt of Jesus from scratch (John 18:29-31).
So, at an hour to midnight, a large contingent of temple guards (John 18:3) and temple servants (John 19:10) were assembled and briefed by Caiaphas. Judas probably spoke as well because he knew where to go (John 18:2) and he told them he would identify Jesus for them with a kiss on the darkened hillside (Matt 26:48-49). Aware of the Galilean’s threats to overthrow the social order and suspicious of his rumoured supernatural powers, these men left the fortified city walls all heavily armed and in great numbers. They were ready for mass resistance to their cause, ready for a rebellion (Matt 26:47). We can assume forty to fifty men to be in this party, including a contingent of Pharisees and court officials (John 18:3) who would soon act as court “witnesses”. By law it was required that witnesses in a Jewish court case had to be part of the arrest party.
Up on the hillside, the arrest party was first spotted from some distance as a single file of flickering naked flames made its way through the pitch darkness of the olive grove to confront the small party of weary disciples. As they could be seen drawing menacingly closer, Jesus surprisingly stood his ground, forcing his disciples to stay when fear told them to run. Consternation filled their minds. Why wasn’t their leader, with the advantage of darkness, fleeing the huge approaching mob? When finally the two groups met face to face a few minutes later, the disciples fear was replaced with anger as it was discovered their friend Judas was a traitor! Some of the disciples began to reach for their weapons. The potential melee was only averted with a stern rebuke from their Jesus (Luke 22:49-51). Then, for reasons that didn’t make sense at the time, Jesus offered himself without resistance on the proviso that the disciples be left alone (John 18:4-7). This request was granted and Jesus was immediately bound and led away, leaving his band of men stunned.
Reading between the lines it seems that in the swirl of bodies and noise during that confrontation, both John and Peter managed to intermingle undetected with the mob and secretly gain entry to the city (John 18:15). The city gates were always firmly shut and guarded at all times after dark. This was also the case on that fateful night, except during the exit and re-entry of the arrest party. This is the only conceivable explanation for the appearance of John and Peter in the city later that night at the trial (John 18:15).
As the torch lights filed back toward the city, the other nine disciples regrouped a safe distance further up the hill and spent a precious few minutes assessing their options. Once it was realised they were missing Peter and John, as well as Jesus, it undoubtedly created a sense of horror and foreboding in their minds. The only conclusion they could read from their rapidly diminishing set of circumstances was that Peter and John were arrested along with Jesus, and they would be next.
At this point it is most likely that John’s older brother James (Matt 4:21-22) started calling the shots as he was now the most senior member of the team (Matt 26:36-37). The options they discussed in those few moments must have centred on securing their own safety and assessing the possibility of the temple guard seeking out other followers of the prophet. This would mean arrests the next day in their village of lodging, Bethany (John 12:10-11). Only one course of action was now deemed sensible, and that was to get over the hill and down to the village to warn other followers of the prophet of the tragic arrest and the mortal danger that all now faced them all (John 12:1-4).
So nine frightened and bewildered men began to stumble through the pitch darkness for some 1.5 kilometres and arrived at Bethany around 1.00am. After the raising of Lazarus from the dead a few months earlier, the whole village were followers of the great prophet (Matt 26:6). This fact, combined with the tiny size of homes in that era of foreign occupation and heavy taxation, tells us that only a few of the disciples were staying at Mary and Martha’s home. Still, that is where they must have delivered the news first. The women were already anxious because the party had not returned at a normal hour. Now their worst fears are now realized. The fugitives desperately woke up their respective hosts with a story of horror. Within minutes the entire village was awake and listening, weary eyed, to the terrible fate that had just befallen Jesus and his leadership.
Sleep would not have come easily until nearer to daybreak. But before it did, plans were being sketched into their conversations as to what to do the next day in the face of various threats and developments. They would not be caught off-guard twice. Their entire leadership was under arrest and the mothers of three of these nine men were trapped in Jerusalem. Amazingly, because of the complete lack of reference to this entire group for the rest of the crucifixion and resurrection drama, we now know exactly what those plans were. There was to be no rescue attempt and no plan to sneak into the city with the flow of traffic the next day to connect with the others. There was just too much chance of arrest at the city gate. These men decided, for their own safety and that of their many friends in Bethany, to simply lay low and wait. At any moment they may have needed to flee further north toward their home district of Galilee. Alternatively, if Peter and John were released, they would need to be in Bethany to meet them. Either way, they chose wisely to stay out of the city.
So, now we have set the scene. Most of Jesus’ disciples are absent for the rest of the crucifixion drama, while a small party are marooned inside the city walls, completely cut off from their friends. The party inside Jerusalem consisted of Peter and John, Joanna, who was the wife of king Herod’s palace manager, Mary mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene the ex-prostitute, and Salome mother of James and John. It is this unlikely group that now gains a ringside seat into our planet’s most history-altering event. John, through his connections and influence with the priests, becomes their leader. Peter’s character faults are soon exposed and he disappears from view until Sunday morning. The women are free to come and go as they wish.
THURSDAY NIGHT: THE JEWISH TRIAL
After the drama of the arrest, Jesus was taken straight back to the home of Annas, father-in-law of Caiaphas the High Priest, for preliminary questioning. This note in the narrative tells us a lot about this man’s lingering authority in the Sanhedrin. Then it was on to the nearby home of Caiaphas (Matt 26:57-8, John 18:12-13). There were two options available to the arrest party to get to the homes of Annas and Caiaphas once inside the walls. The arrest party most likely took Jesus via the temple grounds so as to avoid the route through the residential streets of the city where they could have been spotted by any of the thousands of admirers of the great prophet.
Who was this Caiaphas, whose very tomb was possibly unearthed in 1990? Joseph Caiaphas, the sworn enemy of Jesus, had been High Priest since 18AD and would remain in that powerful position for half a decade after this trial. Caiaphas, with the help of the Sanhedrin, ruled the everyday affairs of Israel. Roman consent was only needed for the more important matters, such as this trial as it involved capital punishment. Caiaphas had married the daughter of the previous High Priest Annas, who had been forcibly removed by the Romans for executing people. However, Annas still held real political power. This supreme position in the Jewish world was jealously guarded within an extended family structure that included Annas’ five sons and son-in-law. Caiaphas was at the peak of his tenure and had every motive in the world to make sure no one, absolutely no one, usurped his family control over the nation. A few months earlier he even threatened to kill the recently “resurrected” Lazarus in light of the thousands of Jerusalemites who were becoming admirers and followers of the upstart Galilean prophet (John 12:10-11). A few years further on in history we find him threatening Peter and John for healing a crippled man (Acts 4:1-7). Power ruled supreme in the mind of this man and any threat, no matter how justified, philosophically consistent, prophetically compelling or politically popular, must be crushed. Caiaphas knew his family’s unpopular neck was on the line if the population turned on him.
Waiting for the arrest party to arrive at Caiaphas’ home was the full body of the Sanhedrin, the supreme court of all matters religious. Interestingly, some of the Sanhedrin are known to us. Nicodemus and possibly Joseph of Arimathea, both secret admirers of the prophet, were reluctantly present (John 3:1, Mark 15:43). In all likelihood Annas’ own sons John and Alexander were present (Acts 4:6). The official ruler of the Sanhedrin, the very wise and learned Gamaliel, was there also (Acts 5:34). In fact, he should have directed proceedings, but was usurped in this instance by Caiaphas. Once joined by the mob and the guards, we can imagine a crowded, noisy, adrenaline-filled courtyard (John 18:15) of up to one hundred people, with faces dimly lit by a few candles and olive oil lamps. Their noisy entrance was to be brusquely quietened after a few minutes by Caiaphas as he rose to speak.
Three of Jesus’ disciples were watching from corners of the room. John and Peter were in one corner. Judas, with guilt etched into his face, was in another. John was known to the High Priests family, and was probably a close relative through either his mother Salome or his father Zebedee (John 18:15, Matt 4:21). Peter only got in to the courtyard because of John’s personal influence at the front gate (John 15:16). His Galilean accent would soon give him away (Matt 26:73). Judas was so disgusted with the outcome of his doing that later he committed suicide (Matt 27:3-5, John 12:6).
So, with the timeline now understood, we can safely assume the Jewish trial of Jesus (Matt 26:57-75) took place in the very early hours of Friday morning. This is a very strange time indeed, since in Jewish law a capital charge against a man could not be heard after dark. Adding to the illegality of the trial was the fact that only accusers and witnesses could execute an arrest. In this case it had been the temple guard accompanied by a motley crew of friends, palace servants and priests assembled at the last minute. Now they had to hastily concoct some fabricated evidence against Jesus.
First there were several unnamed charges brought against Jesus based on falsehoods and lies (Matt 26:60). This makes sense given the last minute nature of the arrest party and the lack of time the witnesses had to collaborate their lines of argument. In the Jewish legal system witnesses and prosecution lawyers were one and the same people. This first line of accusation quickly fell apart as witnesses contradicted each other, so it was overthrown.
Then someone, probably a court official or Pharisee with a little more intelligence, spoke up and suggested a more valid line of accusation by stating that Jesus had committed the crime of threatening to destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days (Matt 26:61). The penalty for this crime of sorcery was death. This accusation was much more promising. However, Caiaphas knew it would not carry any weight with Pilate as it only involved speculation within a religious system and no obvious threat to Roman power.
The fact that Caiaphas wasted time on these charges suggests that he was not all-powerful to work his will on the Sanhedrin. He had to satisfy their very strong tradition of abiding by Jewish legalities. In their system of jurisprudence there were three classes of evidence. Vain evidence resulted in the death of the witnesses because they were obviously lying to get the accused punished. Standing evidence looked good but needed more proof. Adequate evidence resulted in the establishment of guilt and immediate punishment. Today we call it “beyond reasonable doubt”. Frustrated with the vainness of witnesses and weakness of their accusations, Caiaphas had to finally break with legal tradition again and cross examine the prisoner himself. Perhaps it was the clue “in three days” that inspired Caiaphas to personally wade in. Was Jesus talking about his own claim to divinity, kingship and royalty?
Taking leave of the legal proprieties, Caiaphas now used this ace card and accused Jesus of a false claim to divinity, of being the long awaited Jewish Messiah, a claim that carried the death penalty. After watching Jesus previously defend himself with stoic silence, Caiaphas cleverly added “I adjure you by the living God”. This is the most solemn oath in the Hebrew legal code (Matt 26:63). To not answer when thus challenged in a Jewish trial was in itself grounds for stoning. Jesus was caught. So he answered for the first time. The replies we are given vary slightly in each gospel. They begin with “I am” in Mark 14:62, “You have said” in Matthew 26:64, and “You say that I am” in Luke 22:70. The discrepancies lie in the fact that, to a cultivated Jew, courtesy forbade a direct answer. His answer was affirmative and this alone was going to carry weight with both the Sanhedrin and the Roman Prefect.
The time was now just before the first glow of morning as the record tells us that a local rooster started crowing (John 18:27). So it was probably around 4.00 am. With guilt secured, it was time to rest up a few hours before heading, en masse, over to Pilate’s Jerusalem residence for the early morning show trial before Pilate.
FRIDAY MORNING: THE ROMAN TRIAL
First, let’s look at the personality and background of the judge in this trial as this information will help us understand the trial’s motives and outcome. Pilate has come down to us as one of the more enigmatic figures of ancient Roman history. Little is known about his early years but it is now certain that he existed as prefect of Judea since a stone with his name on it was found during archaeological excavations in 1961. It is assumed that he was an Italian who was born to the Pontii clan in the vicinity of the town of Samnium in central Italy, as that is where this family name originates. All Pontii’s were members of the equestrian order, those who were rich enough to own horses, therefore we know Pilate was born into a family of high social rank.
As a young man Pilate carved out a military career for himself and probably rose through the ranks via friendship and patronage with Sejanus, a fellow equestrian and the powerful head of the 9,000 strong elite Praetorian Guard, the emperor’s final line of personal defence. Sejanus was thus a confidant of the emperor Tiberius himself. As a rising star on the edge of Rome’s inner circle, Pilate captured the affections of a young woman by the name of Procula, who was the illegitimate daughter of Claudia, third wife of Tiberius. Procula was also the granddaughter of Caesar Augustus. Pilate was indeed a social climber. It is most probable that Sejanus himself recommended Pilate for the position of prefect of Judea in the year 26AD as a good choice for protecting Judea, which was on the eastern edge of the empire, with hostile Persian influence beginning just 50km east of the great lake of Galilee. Because of her social pedigree, Pilate obtained the rare privilege of taking his wife Procula with him on his assignment to this restive part of the empire.
At that time large numbers of Jews lived in Rome as well as Israel and this created a potential threat to the emperor Tiberius. Just 37 years earlier all Jews had been banished from Rome after the emperor’s sister publically declared her allegiance to the Hebrew god. Several years later they had been allowed back into the capital, and they came in large numbers. Tiberius needed a prefect who could delicately handle the beliefs and famous dogmatism of the Jews.
So how did Pilate fare on that score? Almost immediately he arrived in Judea, there was trouble. Pilate proved to be a bad choice for this most delicate of diplomatic positions. He showed himself over and over again to be a coarse, antagonistic and tactless governor. His military background led him again and again to resort to a military solution for a religious problem. He lacked the refined personality of the leading classes of Rome.
Three examples will illustrate this point. Soon after arriving in Judea, Pilate sent ensigns into the Roman military barracks in Jerusalem. Immediately he was besieged by tens of thousands of protestors in his palace in Caesarea on the Mediterranean coast, and they would not move for a week. To them there could never be a graven image inside the holy city. On threat of death they still did not move so a stunned Pilate placated them with a humiliating back down.
This episode was followed a few years later by the sacred treasury affair where Pilate, thinking to win favour with the people, took money from the “bank” of the great temple and used it to construct an aqua-duct into the city. When word spread that the source of the funds was temple offerings, crowds once again besieged Pilate. However this time there would be no back down and Pilate slaughtered them en mass.
Finally, in a move designed to enrage, Pilate placed votive shields in honour of Emperor Tiberius in King Herod’s Palace in Jerusalem. This time the priests appealed directly to Tiberius. In a huge blow to Pilate’s ego and authority, he was ordered by Tiberius himself to remove them. By the time of the trial of Jesus of Nazareth Pilate was looking for any means possible to score points and antagonise this insubordinate Jewish leadership and nation.
Now we come back to the trial at hand. The text tells us in black and white that Pilate wanted Jesus acquitted at all costs (Luke 23:4). He changed his stand first thing in the morning and reopened the trial (John 18:29). He even gave the case to Herod hoping it would not come back (Luke 23:6). He pronounced Jesus innocent three times (Luke 22:22). Finally, he ceremonially washed his hands of the case and passed the moral responsibility over to the priests (Matt 27:24). So, exactly why did Pilate re-open the trial and go through this whole gut-wrenching exercise?
Perhaps Pilate was looking for a political counterweight to the priests, and thought the rising popularity of the Galilean teacher might create this much-needed division among the Jews. After all, the High Priest and his family wielded immense power over the nation and to split that power down the middle made his own job much easier. Or perhaps Pilate truly saw Jesus as innocent, and in a rare moment of altruism he pushed hard for his release. However, This does not account for the late night deal with the priests. Perhaps it was Procula’s dream that challenged Pilate’s highly developed Roman superstitions. We will never know what actually motivated Pilate, but it is most likely the desire to drive a political wedge between the Jews and their leaders. This is the most obvious motive for a Roman Prefect in a troubled and prized province. Nevertheless the narrative plainly suggests Pilate also genuinely saw Jesus as innocent and having been set up by his enemies. So a secondary motive of justice was undoubtedly at play. Pilate was using this obvious innocence as his card to create the political wedge.
The four gospels give different versions of the trial with some details missing from each. Below is a reconstruction of the events of that fateful Friday morning using all four gospels and putting them in the logical order where their statements fit. Gaps in one are often covered by another. However, it is very obvious from a reading of John’s account, that he was able to smuggle his way in with the large crowd that attended the Roman trial. This fits in well with his privileged position as a member of the priestly class himself (John 18:15). Also, given the crowd could have numbered five hundred or more, this was not that hard a feat to accomplish. The three synoptic gospels are therefore written as second-hand versions of John’s personal eye-witness explanation to his fellow disciples.
The first point to note in this most famous of all Roman trials, is that Pilate was ready for a trial on the day of preparation for the Sabbath (John 18:28). Court was not meant to be held on this day. Secondly, he was ready first thing in the morning. he knew they were coming. Now, to a first century reader the term “early in the morning” reads differently to what it does for us. These people normally rose and went to bed with the sun. So “early in the morning” was a lot closer to sunrise than what we would naturally assume it to be. Sunrise was at 6.05 am on that day, so court would have been sitting by 6.30 am at the very latest.
From this point on the following is the most logical sequence of events:
One: Pilate went out to the courtyard to meet the priests because they could not enter his palace just before the Passover meal and remain ceremonially clean. To their surprise the Roman governor declared “What charge do you bring against this man” (John 18:29). This is the opening statement of a Roman trial. Trials always started with a call for an Accusatio to be made by the offended party.
Two: “They answered and said to him “If this man were not an evil doer we would not have brought him to you.” (John 18:30). The priests were taken aback by Pilate’s re-opening of the trial and were mentally thrown off guard due to the assumption they had a deal done the night before.
Three: “Pilate therefore said to them “Take him yourselves and judge him according to your law.” (John 18:31). Pilate was taunting the priests because he knew full well they did not have the authority to carry out an execution.
Four: “The Jews said to him “It is not lawful for us to put any man to death.” (John 18:31) “And they began to accuse him by saying “We found this man perverting our nation and forbidding to give tribute to Caesar, and saying that he himself is the Messiah the king.” (Luke 23:2). This is the improvised Accusatio needed to keep the trial going.
Five: Pilate pondered this last comment for a few moments for it actually made an impact on his military mind. He then retreated into the palace, called Jesus over and said to him “Are you the king of the Jews?” (Matt 27:11, Mark 15:2, Luke 23:3, John 18:33). This is the second part of a Roman trial, the Interrogatio. It was this and only this accusation of kingship that carried any weight with Pilate. This was a direct challenge to Emperor Tiberius himself. It is therefore this statement alone that forced Pilate to continue with the trial.
Six: Jesus’ reply intrigued Pilate. He slowly, deliberately and calmly declared “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom was of this world my servants would fight, so that I would not be delivered to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from here.” In reply to this eloquent spirituality Pilate said to him “Are you a king then?” (John 18:36). The Galilean continued, “You say correctly that I am a king” (Matt 27;11, Mark 15:2, Luke 23:3). “For this cause I was born and for this cause I have come into the world, that I would bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice.”
Seven: Pilate now utters those famous words that have echoed down through history. They speak to Pilate’s own frustration with his personal search for life’s meaning through political service to the Emperor, service to the superstition of Roman mythology, and his pursuit of wealth and status. With almost a sigh that suggests he has given up on this youthful quest he asks “What is truth?” (John 18:37). When he had finished speaking to the Galilean he was impressed, for he went out again to the Jews and said to them “I find no fault in him at all.” (Luke 23:4, John 18:38).
Eight: Pilate’s decision would normally be final. But in Luke’s gospel we find the priests protesting indignantly and in their anger they mention the fact that Jesus is a Galilean (Luke 23:4-5). This gave Pilate a way out of his dilemma by transferring the trial to Herod Antipas who was the Roman puppet king of northern Israel. Herod had jurisdiction over the territory of Galilee and was down in the holy city for the great festival (Luke 23:5-7). Jesus was from Galilee. Herod was soon disappointed that Jesus did not perform a miracle on demand, so wisely and cunningly sent Jesus back to Pilate (Luke 23:8-12).
Nine: The stakes were now high for Pilate and he could sense the game of cat and mouse coming to an uncomfortable close. In one last vain attempt at retrieving the trial and his pride, Pilate appealed to the tradition of releasing one criminal during the festival who was about to face execution. This again proved to be pointless as the crowd, at the behest of the priests, chanted for the release of a convicted murderer called Barabbas (Luke 23:18). Then, sensing they had the upper hand, the priests yelled abusively at Pilate, arrogantly challenging him over his loyalty to the emperor, saying “Any man who makes himself king is against Caesar. If you let this man go you are no friend of Caesar” (John 19:12). Checkmate!
Ten: The dilemma Pilate faced was now chillingly clear. He could release Jesus and have the Jewish leadership once again appeal to Caesar, as they did in the motive shields affair. This would result in Pilate’s execution. Alternatively he could once again cave in to the priest’s demands and walk away alive but with his pride, power and ego wounded in the process. It was his neck, or the neck of a simple teacher from the borderlands of the empire. In the end there was no choice. The fate of Jesus was sealed. Pilate, sitting on the judgement seat at that part of the palace called the Stone Pavement, washed his hands in disgust (Matthew 27:24). In wrapping up the trial he declared sarcastically “Here is your king!” The abuse and arrogant attitude of the priests simply got louder and bolder with this wisecrack and acknowledgment of tactical defeat. They demanded crucifixion, and they wanted it immediately. (John 19:14-15). They got what they wanted.
Eleven: At this point Jesus became a death row prisoner with zero rights as a human (John 19:16). He was handed over to the Roman garrison for their cruel pleasure. Firstly, he was mockingly clothed in purple, the colour of royalty, and viciously taunted. Then a spiked wreath, hastily woven from a nearby thorn bush, was driven into his head. Finally, he received 39 lashes with a cat-o-nine tails, leaving his back chopped to bloody pieces (Matt 27:27-31, Mark 15:16-20). With the torture now complete, preparations began for the ultimate cruelty of the crucifixion.
Twelve: Thoroughly humiliated, Pilate initiated one final act of political spite designed to deeply upset the Jews. He authorised a sarcastic notice be nailed to the condemned man’s cross which read “JESUS OF NAZARETH, KING OF THE JEWS”. It was in Hebrew, Latin and Greek (John 19:19-22). On finding out about the offence, the priests once more fought for the upper hand by demanding it be amended. Pilate had lost the war but was determined to win this one last battle and refused to budge. It was now around 7.30-8.00 am in the morning.
There are several technical points to note from this trial that are worth recording. First, we can conclude that Plate himself had obviously heard much about the teacher from Galilee and his reputed power over people and nature. The records we have suggest that some of Pilate’s own soldiers had already been in contact with Jesus and gathered information about the Galilean (Matt 8:5-13). It is also obvious Pilate had great respect for the man by the time the trial was over. It can also be assumed that the conversation between Procula and her husband early that morning regarding her dream was the final trigger for Pilate’s determination to make it difficult for his enemies. Finally, it is also evident that John not only attended the Roman trial but was also the one who later pieced together, from Roman guards and other officials, the private conversations between Pilate and Jesus that were conducted away from the priests in the Praetorium.
We also need to clarify when the crucifixion took place as most commentators suggest around 9.00 am. The problem of timing is because in Johns account it says it was at the “sixth hour” which is often translated as around noon as time was only ever approximate in this era. This is clarified when we see that back in John 4:52 John also uses “the seventh hour” to describe the time of day. These two phrases were not used in the Jewish time reference system. This tells us that he was using the Roman system of counting time for his gospel. The Romans counted time as we do, from midnight onwards. The Jews counted time from sunset to sunset. Both systems were in use in ancient Israel. So when John says Jesus was condemned at the “sixth hour” it refers to a time much closer to 6.00 am than midday. This makes more sense when we understand the condemned men were left hanging on their crosses for around six hours and there was still time to bundle them off to a grave before sunset. John himself describes the trial at beginning early in the morning (John 18:28). So it is highly doubtful it lasted six hours!
Little is known of Pilate’s life after this event. We do know he spent 11 years as prefect in Judea and left in 37AD. Tradition says that not long after leaving Judea he was either banished to modern day France or asked to commit suicide after coming out on the wrong side of a political scandal. Tradition also says his wife Procula became an early follower of Jesus. We will never really know the fate of either of them.
FRIDAY AFTERNOON: THE CRUCIFICTION
It is now time to tell the next part of the tale from a slightly different angle, that of the followers of Jesus. Nine of his disciples who attended the last supper and the garden are now missing, probably hiding in Bethany. One has committed suicide and two have smuggled themselves into the city where they are looking after the five women. These seven inside the city followed the drama all the way to the cross and the grave. We now switch our attention to their story.
After his Roman trial, Jesus was finally and agonisingly dragged through the narrow streets of Jerusalem at the head of a death procession, which must have included John, Peter and the women. At one point he stumbled under the weight of the heavy cross-bar he was dragging. So an onlooker, Simon of Cyrene, a pilgrim from Lybia in Africa, was forced to carry it for him (Mark 15:21). The stunned citizens of Jerusalem looked on in disbelief. Their hero, Jesus, had the city in his hand for a week. Now he was about to be executed by imperial Rome! There was nothing they could do but call to their friends to come, and weep as he passed by. On the party trudged, through the city gates and up the hill to his place of death called Golgotha or “The Skull”, which lay a few hundred metres outside the city walls.
There Jesus was stripped completely naked and hauled, with two others, onto Rome’s favourite instrument of torture and death, one originally designed for Romans by their arch-enemy, the Persians. Jesus’ feet were hammered to a large tree trunk with a 20cm iron spike. His wrists suffered the same fate as they were firmly secured to the crossbar. The frame was lifted up and then dropped into a hole in the rock used many times previously for the same capital punishment. From that moment, at around 9.00 (Mark 15:25) until his death at around 3.00pm, Jesus’ only way of breathing was to push up on his spiked feet so his lungs could fill with air. Each and every breath was pure agony.
As the hours passed and his life ebbed away, a very eclectic crowd watched on. There were the four Roman soldiers left behind on duty and who’s privilege it was to take ownership of the prisoners clothes (John 19:23-24). We know for certain that only four Roman soldiers were on duty, as they split his clothing four ways and then gambled for his undergarment (John 19:23-24). The thrill seekers were also there, those who came to all these grizzly events for entertainment (Matt 27:39-40). Some of the chief priests and Sanhedrin were also present, and were shouting their last rounds of abuse (Matt 27:41-43). As they waited for their great enemy to die they probably added to their abuse by pelting him with stones (Isaiah 52:14). Undoubtedly, some who were welcoming him into the city as a hero a few days earlier were there also, with saddened faces. Finally, some of his loyal followers hung in the shadows to see the gruesome scene to the end. These were the disciple John, Mary the mother of Jesus and Mary, the wife of Clopas (John 19:25), Mary Magdalene and possibly Mary mother of Joses (Mark 15:47).
As the day wore on, this last group kept up their patient vigil of respect for their dying leader. Sometime after midday a remarkable event occurred. As Jesus hung with intense agony on the cross, he looked at his mother and stuttered “Behold your son” (John 19:26) in reference to John who stood with her and the others. In ancient Israel the words of a dying man were legal testimony, so in this one short statement the eldest son of Joseph transferred his filial responsibility for the future welfare of his mother to his best friend John. In short, Jesus was asking John to take Mary in as his adopted mother. This strongly suggests that Joseph, father of Jesus, had died some years before this event and Mary was a widow. Joseph’s complete absence from the gospels after the birth of his first son confirms this conclusion. Jesus, as the eldest in a family of at about five boys and three girls (Matt 8:55-56), bore the responsibility to care for his mother in her old age and he fulfilled this duty through this last act of kindness. From that day on the mother of Jesus went to live with John (John 19:27).
At around 3.00pm (Matt27:45), after six hours of pushing his lacerated back up against rough-sawn timber while balancing on spikes for every desperate breath, Jesus was near death. Finally, in answer to the insults and mockery of soldiers and priests, Jesus cried out “my God, my God, why have you deserted me” (Matt 27:46). The huge loss of blood had left him parched with thirst, so he called for water (John 19:28). In response was offered a sample of the alcoholic drink the soldiers had with them. The gospels call it “vinegar”, but it was in fact a tart, sour wine mixed with water called posca which was a favourite of soldiers at that time (Matt 27:46-49). He then breathed his last with “It is finished”. Mary, distraught at the suffering of her first-born was soon taken away in the arms of her newly adopted son.
It is interesting to note that the same day that Jesus died on the cross thousands of sheep were being ceremonially slaughtered and barbequed across the city, especially at the great temple. The blood of sacrificial lambs was flowing in preparation for the greatest of annual Jewish feasts. The Passover required the death of a lamb for each family. After slitting the lamb’s throat, its blood was sprinkled across the doorway of each home in the tradition called the Pesaḥ Miẓrayim. There were two reasons people obeyed this unusual religious observance allied the Passover. Firstly it was to honour the creator Yahweh because he took rest after making the universe (Genesis 2:2). Secondly, it honoured the escape of the Hebrews out of Egypt some 1,440 years earlier. For them Egypt was a 400 year ordeal of slavery, toil and heartache. Yahweh had miraculously delivered them into Israel, the fabled Promised Land; their very own piece of permanent real estate. The Passover was an annual reminder of this act that required the death of a lamb and an elaborate ceremonial meal. At the very moment of Jesus’ death thousands of ovens and fires were blackening the sky of the city in preparation for the great barbeque. The timing and symbolism of the two events was not lost on John as he contemplated the words of John the Baptist spoken some three years earlier (John 1:29).
Crucified criminals would normally have slowly suffocated on a cross for another a day or two before finally succumbing to thirst, exhaustion or blood loss and given up the will to live. Their bodies were then thrown into a stinking mass grave with birds of prey circling overhead. However, the next day was a special Sabbath as it was also the annual Passover festival, so no removal and burial could take place for 24 hours after sunset that day. The priests therefore asked Pilate for the legs of the criminals to be broken. This would suffocate them in a few minutes as they could no longer push up on their feet to get a breath. The bodies could then be quickly buried before sunset (John 19:31).
Pilate gave permission for this to proceed and two sets of legs were duly smashed. But when it came to Jesus they found him already dead. Just to make sure of the fact, they thrust a spear deep into his rib cage and up into his heart, only to see “blood and water” ooze from the wound (John 19:34-36). This seemed like a miracle at the time, but was in fact no miracle at all. With the benefit of modern medicine it is now a known medical condition called pericardial effusion whereby extremely low blood pressure at the point of death causes fluid to build up around the heart. The fact that it is recorded and now understood suggests great accuracy in the telling of the story.
With the sun beginning to set, the drama now took an interesting and unexpected turn. An aging and infirm member of the Sanhedrin (Mark 15:43) asked Pilate for the body of Jesus for burial in his newly hewn, personal tomb. It is ironic that a member of the ruling elite itself, the council that orchestrated the capital punishment, saved Jesus from the commoner’s grave. This man was named Joseph, a man of some wealth (Matt 27:57), from the now non-existent village of Arimathea. Joseph had not consented to the Sanhedrin’s actions and must have sat there with great consternation watching the Jewish trial unfold. In modern terms Joseph would be called a secret believer. Pilate, surprised that Jesus was already dead, consented to this old man’s noble request. (Mark 15:44-46, Luke 23:50-54). Joseph collected his good friend Nicodemus, also a dissenting member of the Sanhedrin, and together they set about their melancholy task (John 19:39). What they were too afraid to do in life, they now made public in death, thereby forfeiting both their positions on the Sanhedrin and their lifetime of social privilege. They would now be out-castes along with the rest of the followers of the dead man. Normally, the body of a dead criminal was a Roman possession, but with the intervention of these two men, the body became a Jewish possession and responsibility.
The women watching this development unfold were now presented with one last opportunity to help dignify their fallen leader. It seems this group were informally led lead by Mary Magdalene, as she appears in all four gospel accounts of the story. The women had stood at a distance and watched the ordeal of the crucifixion of their leader. Now they decided to stay on after Mary and John’s departure, watching as Joseph’s workers took down and hastily wrapped the body of the dead prophet in a single linen cloth before taking it to Joseph’s own personal tomb about a few hundred metres away (Matthew 27:59). As they followed this small procession, they marvelled at the lack of proper preparation for burial that the body of Jesus was receiving. This was mostly due to the quickly setting sun, after which all work would cease due to the commencement of the Sabbath.
So, as they walked behind the burial team, they hatched a plan to rectify the situation straight after the Sabbath in order to pay their last respects to their fallen friend and spiritual leader (Luke 23:55-56). At the tomb they watched as a large stone, weighing about a tonne, was rolled down an incline and across the entrance of the tomb to keep out scavenging animals and tomb raiders (Matthew 27:60).
At 5.00pm, with 15 minutes to go before sunset and the closing of the city gates, the women quickly scurried back to their place of residence to observe the Sabbath, and to prepare the spices and wrappings needed for a proper Jewish burial. This would have involved collecting around 30 kilograms of myrrh and aloes, which were the preservative spices of that era (John 19:39). These were going to be tightly stuffed into a series of long linen sheets spirally wrapped tightly around the body so that the end product was a form of mummification. In the Jewish tradition the head of the deceased was wrapped separately to the body in its own linen cloth (John 20:6). Because of this hastily hatched plan to finish the burial first thing Sunday morning, it is quite obvious that none of the women were in any way expecting a resurrection.
After sunset the women, all Jerusalem, and every other player in this historical event, except of course for the Romans, ate the sacred Passover meal and then waited with baited breath a full 24 hours for the self-imposed lockdown to pass. Everyone knew the day after the Sabbath was going to involve great commotion, rumours, outrage, and possibly calls for revenge. But for now, the whole city was shut down from sunset Friday until sunset Saturday as people stayed in and near their homes for a whole day of quiet religious reflection. Anyone who has visited modern Israel will understand profoundly the Sabbath effects all activity in that nation.
As a final footnote, Jesus was not dead for three days but around 40 hours, from 3.00pm Friday until about 5.30 Sunday morning. This is exactly one full Sabbath with a few hours added to each end, a coincidence not lost on the disciples over the next six weeks as they tried to piece together the significance of all these happenings (Hebrews 4:9-10).
SATURDAY AFTERNOON: THE JEWISH GUARD
Only the writer Matthew picks up the story of what happened next. The priests were well aware of Jesus’ threats to cause a disturbance, even in death. “In three days” rang loud in their ears as it was one of the main accusations in the Jewish trial on Thursday night. They were afraid his followers would create a post-death disturbance, a hoax resurrection of some sort (Matthew 27:62-64). In this respect they completely over-estimated the courage of the disciples, who were mostly still all in hiding, fearing for their lives over the hill in Bethany on in the city. The Pharisees were also aware that in a city of some 20,000 that was groaning under that same number of visitors, news travelled fast and possibly thousands of people would rush to visit the grave in the next few days to find out if the rumours of the prophet’s death were indeed true. It could be ransacked in the chaos and din. Either way they needed to act.
So they asked Pilate for a guard to patrol the tomb. Pilate, in typical fashion, refused to help them, saying “you have a guard. Go and make the tomb as secure as you know how.” (Matt 27:65-66). He must have been in a right foul mood after being politically out-manoeuvred the day before. We know for certain that it was a Jewish guard because they reported directly to the priests the next morning after a disturbance at the tomb (Matt 28:11). They were also sleeping on their watch and this was a capital offence for a Roman soldier and something that would never have happened if the guard was indeed Roman.
SUNDAY MORNING: THE MISSING BODY
In the first century world, long before electric lighting, people rose and slept in rhythm with the sun. Night was a very dim world with perhaps a single olive oil lamp for each home, and that would only be for a few hours. So we know that the women, who had yet to complete the embalming of the body of Jesus, must have risen at the first glow of dawn on that fateful Sunday morning (Mark 16:1, John 20:1). If this task was left unattended for another few hours then decomposition would render the job impossible. A sense of urgency saw them approach the city gates right on sunrise at about 6.00am (Luke 24:1). They then rugged themselves up for the chilly ten-minute walk to the tomb, by which time daylight and warmth were beginning to flood the area. Who were these women? The posse definitely included Mary Magdalene, Salome the mother of James and John (Mark 16:1) and Joanna, a worker in Herod’s palace (Luke 24:10). The “others” mentioned in the narrative would have most probably included Mary mother of Jesus herself (Luke 24:9).
This humble team had no idea that a number of temple guards had been assigned to guard the tomb of the dead prophet the day before. The women thought they were the last to leave the site two days earlier and would be the first to return. On the way to the tomb they worried and chatted over how they were going to push the one metre circular tombstone back up its incline. (Mark 16:3). It must have been bigger than what four women could move on their own, for at least that many were in the party. One can only assume a large wooden construction lever had been left at the just-finished tomb and they were planning to use it to gain access.
What is startling to find in the record is that, after all Jesus’ teaching on his own resurrection, none of his followers had any expectation of a bodily resurrection (John 20:9). In their minds it was all over. But as the women reached the tomb that morning strange events overtook them in a hurry. The gospels at this point make no pretence at mirroring with each other and simply dive into the story, recording such varied phenomena as an earthquake, the stone in the process of being moved, or having already been moved just prior to arrival (Matt 28:2), the appearance of angels both inside and outside the tomb (John 20:11), the great fear and disappearance of the guards, the strange message of the embalming clothes (John 20:5-8) and the encounter with a man they thought was Jesus as they hurried back to the city in great excitement, fear, confusion and bewilderment (John 20:15).
Put yourself in the women’s shoes and imagine the shock and sensory overload these grieving souls were going through during the few minutes they spent at the burial site. It must have been only weeks or perhaps months later that they could calmly explain and recall all the diverse events that transformed their lives forever. The varied nature of the gospel accounts give us a hint at the utter confusion these women experienced. At this stage they have encountered the supernatural world, but are still not yet ready to conclude that a resurrection has taken place.
Fast forward another ten minutes to about 6.30am and the women, both hysterical and short of breath, have arrived back at their secret lodgings with the staggering news that “they have taken the Lord out of the tomb and we don’t know where they have put him!” (John 20:2). Whatever happened at the tomb, it had not yet convinced the women that their Lord was alive. Their narrative was still one filled with fear. At about the same time, or a little earlier, the temple guards arrived at their headquarters and reported to the High Priest and his officials that the tomb is empty due to some very disturbing and inexplicable events (Matt 28:11). Their honesty is rewarded with a sum of money and an instruction to send out a rumour to gossip-hungry friends, neighbours and family that they were overpowered by a pack of violent fishermen who stole the body of their deceased leader in a macabre hoax resurrection plot (Matt 28:12-15).
Meanwhile a drowsy Peter and John are shocked into action by the news of the women. They both set out immediately to find out for themselves what had happened at the tomb, with Mary Magdalene and probably the other women struggling along behind (John 20:10). They sprinted as fast as they could. One of the more quirky footnotes of the record helps us see the genuine nature of the narrative. We are told simply that John was a faster runner than Peter as he arrived first (John 20:3-4). If this is not a genuine fact, then it seems an odd thing to include in the record. However, once he arrived John hesitated at the door to catch his breath and this allowed Peter to catch up and crawl straight past him into the tomb.
What they saw somehow convinced them a supernatural resurrection had taken place (John 20:8). What did they see that was so convincing? Yes, it was the absence of a body, but it was also the appearance of the burial clothes. John’s eye-witness description strongly suggests he “believed” because the grave clothes had not been disturbed, but had merely sunk (John 20:6-7). However, his description stops just short of mentioning this concept, so we will never know for sure.