Luke’s UNRELIABLE Passion Story – Part 1

THE PASSION NARRATIVES AND THE CASE FOR THE RESURRECTION OF JESUS

Was Jesus crucified in Jerusalem about 30 CE? Did Jesus die on the cross on a Friday afternoon? Was his body placed into a stone tomb on Friday evening, after his crucifixion? Was his tomb found to be empty early on Sunday morning? Did a living, walking, talking, physically embodied Jesus meet with his disciples in Jerusalem on Sunday evening, a little more than 48 hours after his crucifixion? Did Jesus rise from the dead?

According to Christian apologists, and to most Evangelical Christian believers, Jesus was crucified in Jerusalem about 30 CE; he died on the cross on Friday afternoon. His body was placed into a stone tomb on Friday evening, after the crucifixion; the tomb was found to be empty early on that Sunday morning, and a living, walking, talking, physically embodied Jesus met with his disciples in Jerusalem on Sunday evening, a little more than 48 hours after his crucifixion. They conclude that Jesus did actually rise from the dead.

But what is the EVIDENCE for these various Christian beliefs? The evidence that they provide is, primarily, various stories contained in the four Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

The most important stories relating to these historical questions are contained in what are called the Passion Narratives of the four Gospels. In the Passion Narratives, we find stories about Jesus’ “Last Supper” with his disciples, about his arrest, about his interrogation by Jewish authorities in Jerusalem, and about a trial before Pilate, the Roman who ruled over Jerusalem and Palestine. We also find stories about Jesus’ crucifixion, death, and burial. The Passion Narratives in Matthew, Mark, and Luke are confined to two chapters of each Gospel: Matthew 26 & 27, Mark 14 & 15, Luke 22 & 23. In the Gospel of John, the Passion Narrative is primarily found in chapters 18 & 19.

THE GOSPEL OF JOHN

When Christian apologists quote from the Gospel of John to support their case for the resurrection, I snort and roll my eyes, because anyone who studies New Testament scholarship, and Historical Jesus scholarship, knows that the Gospel of John provides a historically unreliable account of the life, ministry, teachings, death, and burial of Jesus.

For 150 years or so, scholars who studied the life of the historical Jesus simply ignored the Gospel of John, because it was so obviously unreliable. In recent decades, some Jesus scholars have taken a more serious look at the Gospel of John, and have attempted to find “nuggets” of historical information about Jesus in that Gospel. However, NONE of these scholars claim that the Gospel of John provides a historically reliable account of the life, ministry, teachings, death, and burial of Jesus. They work very diligently in hopes of finding a few bits of historical data buried in this Gospel, but they read the Gospel of John SKEPTICALLY, understanding that it is not, in general, historically reliable.

Christian apologists, if they knew anything about NT scholarship and Historical Jesus scholarship, would NEVER quote from the Gospel of John as evidence for the death or resurrection of Jesus.

GENERAL REASONS FOR SKEPTICISM ABOUT THE OTHER GOSPELS

There are three other Gospels that Christian apologists can use to try to support their case for the resurrection of Jesus: Matthew, Mark, and Luke. In my view, NONE of those three Gospels provides a historically reliable account of the life, ministry, teachings, death, and burial of Jesus. All of the Gospels are historically unreliable, even if these three Gospels are not as obviously UNRELIABLE as the Gospel of John.

There are some general considerations about Matthew, Mark, and Luke that raise significant doubts about the view that they provide historically reliable accounts of the life, ministry, teachings, death, and burial of Jesus:

  • The authors of these Gospels were NOT eyewitnesses to the events they describe.
  • We know almost nothing about the authors of the Gospels, other than what we can infer from a careful reading of the Gospels that they wrote.
  • These Gospels were written decades after the events they describe. Mark was the first Gospel to be written, and it was written about four decades after Jesus was allegedly crucified. Matthew and Luke were written even later, between five or six decades after the alleged crucifixion of Jesus.
  • These Gospels were written in GREEK, but Jesus and his disciples spoke ARAMAIC, so somebody at some point had to translate the words of Jesus and his disciples from ARAMAIC into GREEK. This translation was probably done by some unknown early Christian believer(s) before any of the Gospels were written.
  • Jesus and his twelve disciples were probably illiterate, so they probably left no written records about the life, ministry, teachings, and death of Jesus.
  • The authors of the Gospels were all Christian believers who were writing the Gospels in order to promote the Christian faith (so they were not neutral and objective historians).
  • The Gospels do not indicate the specific sources of their stories and quotes of Jesus and of others. Scholars have to make educated guesses about the sources of the stories and alleged words of Jesus found in the Gospels.

In addition to these general reasons for skepticism about the historical reliability of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, there are good reasons for doubting many specific events, quotations, and details found in the accounts provided in these three Gospels.

In this series of posts, I will be looking at the stories and quotations in the Passion Narrative of the Gospel of Luke. There are various reasons for doubting specific events, quotations, and details found in the Passion Narrative in the Gospel of Luke.

ONE MORE REASON TO DOUBT THE HISTORICAL RELIABILITY OF LUKE

Before I begin to examine specific pieces of the Passion Narrative in Luke, there is one more general reason for skepticism about the historical reliability of the Gospel of Luke: The opening chapters of Luke present a FICTIONAL story about Jesus, and the closing chapter of Luke also presents a FICTIONAL story about Jesus. Given that this is the case, I find it hard to believe that the 21 Chapters that come between the fictional stories at the beginning and the end of Luke are consistently historically reliable.

Perhaps there is a fair amount of historically reliable information about Jesus in those intervening chapters, but it is reasonable to expect to find a fair amount of historically unreliable information, given that this Gospel begins with a fictional Christmas story, and ends with a fictional Easter story.

I should note that my rejection of the historicity of the Christmas story in Luke is not based simply on my skepticism about the alleged virgin birth of Jesus, and that my rejection of the historicity of the Easter story in Luke is not based simply on my skepticism about the alleged resurrection of Jesus. There are plenty of other historical problems with these stories, even setting aside my doubts about miracles and supernatural events.

For example, the Gospel of Mark clearly implies that the risen Jesus did NOT appear to his remaining eleven disciples in Jerusalem on Easter Sunday. Instead, Mark implies that the risen Jesus left Jerusalem early Sunday morning, and headed back to Galilee. Mark implies that the risen Jesus appeared to at least some of his eleven remaining disciples in Galilee (northern Palestine) a week or more after Jesus was crucified (it takes several days to walk from Jerusalem to Galilee). The author of Luke clearly alters the story he found in the Gospel of Mark, so that the disciples remain in Jerusalem and so that Jesus appears to them in Jerusalem on Easter Sunday, only about 48 hours after Jesus was crucified.

Since Mark is the earliest Gospel to be written, and since Luke generally depends on Mark for stories about Jesus, and since it fits very nicely (a bit too nicely) into the geographical flow or structure of Luke’s two-volume work (Luke and Acts) to have the disciples remain in Jerusalem rather than heading back to Galilee, it seems most likely that Mark’s account was correct, and that the author of Luke created a fictional story about the risen Jesus appearing to his remaining eleven disciples in Jerusalem on Easter Sunday, and did so for the sake of maintaining the planned geographical flow of his story, placing a higher value on making his story smooth and well-organized over telling a story that was factually and historically true.

The author of Matthew, like the author of Luke, depends on the Gospel of Mark for most of his stories about Jesus. But the Gospel of Matthew sticks more closely (than the Gospel of Luke) to Mark’s account of what happened on the first Easter Sunday. So, the Gospel of Matthew agrees with the Gospel of Mark that Jesus did NOT appear to his eleven remaining disciples in Jerusalem on the first Easter Sunday. Thus, Luke contradicts both the Gospel of Mark and the Gospel of Matthew on this important historical issue. Given this conflict between Mark and Matthew on the one hand, and Luke on the other, it is probably the case that Luke (or an early Christian storyteller) invented the Easter Sunday appearances of the risen Jesus in Jerusalem.

SIX PARTS OF CHAPTER 23 IN THE GOSPEL OF LUKE

Chapter 23 of the Gospel of Luke contains a large portion of Luke’s Passion Narrative. Here are the main parts of Chapter 23:

Part 1: Jesus Before Pilate (verses 1-5)

Part 2: Jesus Before Herod (verses 6-12)

Part 3: Jesus Sentenced to Death (verses 13-25)

Part 4: Crucifixion of Jesus (verses 26-43)

Part 5: Death of Jesus (verses 44-49)

Part 6: Burial of Jesus (verses 50-56)

I plan to examine each of these six parts of Chapter 23, discussing reasons for doubting the historical reliability of each specific part.

PART 1: JESUS BEFORE PILATE (LUKE 23:1-5)

The first problem with this part of Luke’s Passion Narrative is that it is questionable whether there was a trial of Jesus by Pilate. It seems implausible to some Jesus scholars that Pilate would have wasted his time and energy on a trial for a Jewish peasant who had already been identified as a trouble-maker by the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem.

If Jesus had been a Roman, then Pilate might have had a trial, especially if the penalty of death was on the line. If the alleged troublemaker had been a wealthy or powerful Jew in Jerusalem, then Pilate might have bothered with a trial. But a Jewish peasant from Galilee doesn’t seem to be someone whom Pilate would bother holding a trial over:

It is not likely that a Roman trial was held; Pilate probably acted on his own authority, with the backing of Caiaphas. It is entirely probable that the trial before Jewish authorities was a fiction.

Honest to Jesus by Robert Funk, p.221-222

About the events reported between arrest and execution, including the trials before Jewish and Roman authorities, I have little historical confidence. The reason: whatever happened was not witnessed by Jesus’ followers; they had fled and were not there. …after Jesus was taken away…the events were essentially hidden from public view until the crucifixion.

In particular, I am uncertain about whether there were any formal trials of Jesus before either the high priest or the Roman governor. It is easy to imagine that the order for the arrest and execution of a peasant could have been given and carried out without Jesus ever appearing personally before the highest authorities.

“Why Was Jesus Killed?” by Marcus Borg in The Meaning of Jesus, p.87-88

Perhaps Jesus was led before the High Priest or his father-in-law, though this is unlikely. Between their duties at the Temple and their festive meals at home, these men would have put in a long day already; and besides, what need? Perhaps Jesus was interrogated briefly by Pilate, though this, too, is unlikely. There was no point. His death warrant had already been signed by the very crowd that had clamored around him, responding to his message of impending redemption. Pilate’s soldiers had their orders, and they knew what to do.

Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews by Paula Fredriksen, p.258

In addition to the previously mentioned general reasons for doubting the historical reliability of the Gospel of Luke, there are good reasons to doubt that there was an actual trial of Jesus before Pilate, such as the fact that Jesus’ disciples had fled and were in hiding (and thus unavailable to witness these alleged events) and that Pilate seems unlikely to have bothered to conduct a trial for a Jewish peasant who had already been identified as a troublemaker by the Jewish leadership in Jerusalem.

Let’s take a look at the brief opening passage in Chapter 23 of the Gospel of Luke:

Then the assembly rose as a body and brought Jesus before Pilate. They began to accuse him, saying, “We found this man inciting our nation, forbidding us to pay taxes to Caesar and saying that he himself is the Messiah, a king.” Then Pilate asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?” He answered, “You say so.” Then Pilate said to the chief priests and the crowds, “I find no basis for an accusation against this man.” But they were insistent and said, “He stirs up the people by teaching throughout all Judea, from Galilee where he began even to this place.”

Luke 23:1-5, New Revised Standard Version Updated Edition

According to Luke, the Jewish leaders have specific charges to level at Jesus, and those charges are spelled out. But no other Gospel spells out the specific charges made against Jesus to Pilate. Mark just says that “…the chief priests accused him of many things.” (Mark 15:3). Matthew follows Mark and also provides no specific charges: “…he was accused by the chief priests and elders….” (Matthew 27:12). The Gospel of John implies that no specific charges were made against Jesus:

29 So Pilate went out to them and said, “What accusation do you bring against this man?” 30 They answered, “If this man were not a criminal, we would not have handed him over to you.”

John 18:29-30, New Revised Standard Version Updated Edition

So, the Gospel of Luke is alone in having the Jewish leaders present specific charges against Jesus to Pilate. But the author of the Gospel of Luke gets most of the information for his Passion Narrative from the Gospel of Mark, so where did these charges come from? They didn’t come from Jesus’ eleven disciples, because they were in hiding, and were not present at this alleged trial of Jesus by Pilate.

In addition to the lack of corroboration from any of the other Gospels, and the fact that the disciples were not present to hear and see this alleged trial, there is also something suspicious about the content of these charges; the charges seem to reflect potential criticism of later Christian believers, which were then projected backward in time into Jesus’ trial:

All of Luke-Acts is epideictic apologetic, a “history” addressed to a larger public, attempting to persuade readers toward a favorable opinion of the church and its Founder, instead of the present negative one. Countering such “accusations” is then a core purpose of both volumes (see 6:7; 11:54; 23:2,10, 14; as well as the climactic second half of Acts: 22:30; 24:2, 8, 13, 19; 25:5, 11, 16; 28:19). The fundamental charge [against Jesus, according to Luke] is “perverting (misleading) our nation” by (1) forbidding…us to pay taxes to the emperor and (2) saying that he himself is the Messiah (23:2; cf. Acts 16:20-22). This is exactly what the Jewish revolutionaries against Rome did in AD 66, the fundamental charge of Josephus (J.W. 2.409-410; see Balch 1995b: 13) makes against them.

“Luke” by David Balch in Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible, p.1154

In other words, the author of Luke did not want Christians to be viewed as being enemies of the Romans, so Luke has Jesus accused of the same sort of opposition to Roman rule as the Jewish revolutionaries who later rebelled against Roman rule in Palestine. When Luke has Pilate “find no basis for an accusation against” Jesus, Luke is having the Roman governor exonerate both Jesus and his followers (i.e. Christian believers) from the charge of being enemies of Rome.

Given that such an apologetic was a basic purpose of Luke-Acts, we may reasonably conclude that the author of Luke invented these charges for this apologetic purpose. Thus, even if there was in fact a trial of Jesus before Pilate, it is unlikely that the author of Luke knew what anyone actually said at the trial (none of the disciples were present), and it is likely that the accusations specified in Luke’s account were invented by Luke and were not based on historical facts or data.

Some NT and Jesus scholars are not as skeptical about the occurrence of the trial of Jesus before Pilate as the Jesus scholars I quoted previously; however, most scholars are skeptical about the words attributed by Luke to Pilate exonerating Jesus. They, like the NT scholar quoted above, have suspicions about the apologetic purposes of the author of the Gospel of Luke in having Pilate declare Jesus to be innocent:

The gospels…want Jesus to have been condemned by the Jewish mob, against Pilate’s better judgement. …These elements of the story of Jesus’ last hours derive from the desire of the Christians to get along with Rome and to depict Jews as their real opponents. In all probability, Pilate received Caiphas’ charge, had Jesus flogged and briefly interrogated, and, when the answers were not completely satisfactory, sent him to the cross with not a second thought. …Jesus appeared before Pilate and was executed immediately, with no further witnesses and with no trial procedure. The stories of Pilate’s reluctance and weakness of will are best explained as Christian propaganda; they are a kind of excuse for Pilate’s action which reduces the conflict between the Christian movement and Roman authority.

The Historical Figure of Jesus by E. P. Sanders, p. 273-274

…the depiction of Pilate being in effect bullied by the high priest and his counsellors, to execute a man of whose innocence he was convinced, almost certainly owes more to political motivation than to historical recollection. Of course, the policy of excusing Roman injustice is understandable for a movement which soon sought to win converts through the eastern territories of the Roman Empire.

Christianity in the Making, Volume 1: Jesus Remembered by James D. G. Dunn, p.776

Pilate’s almost abject pleading with the priestly leaders and the Jewish crowd, and his fear of a riot seem to be baseless and out of character. An order to his legionaries would have made the vociferous Jews run for their lives. On the whole, the Roman governor of the Gospels is pictured as a man who believed Jesus to be innocent but allowed himself to be manipulated by the Jews and ended by sending their king to the cross.

However, the Pilate of the New Testament has little in common with the Pilate of history. …

[…]

All told, the Pilate picture of the Passion story is best held to be fiction, devised by the evangelists with a view to currying favour with Rome, in whose empire the nascent Church was developing. Christianity being generally unpopular in Roman eyes–Tacitus calls it a ‘pernicious superstition’ (Annals 15:44)–it was in the interest of the Gospel writers to placate the authorities. Also, by the time of the recording of the Passion narratives the Jewish rebellion had been put down by the armies of Vespasian and Titus. It was therefore politically doubly correct to blame the Jews for the murder of Christ and to absolve the Roman Pontius Pilate.

The Passion by Geza Vermes, p.120 & 121

Some Jesus scholars have serious doubts about the claim that Jesus even had a trial before Pilate. Most Jesus scholars accept there was some sort of trial before Pilate, but they reject the Gospel portraits of Pilate as exonerating Jesus or as being reluctant about having Jesus executed. Thus, Luke’s portrait of Pilate as consistently proclaiming Jesus to be innocent is probably FICTION rather than history.

There is one more point about the opening verses of Luke Chapter 23 that raises doubt about the historical reliability of this passage: Pilate and Jesus having a conversation.

Commentaries on Luke generally fail to mention this problem, but there is a significant problem with Pilate having a conversation with Jesus; they did not speak the same language. Jesus was probably illiterate, and so far as we know, Jesus left nothing in writing. Also, Jesus probably spoke Aramaic. But there is no reason to believe that Pilate would have bothered to learn Aramaic. Pilate probably spoke Greek, and perhaps a bit of Latin. The Gospels give no indication that Jesus spoke Greek or any language other than Aramaic. So, in all likelihood, Pilate and Jesus could NOT have a conversation with each other, unless there was a person who could quickly translate from Greek to Aramaic and from Aramaic to Greek. But none of the Gospels mention the presence of a translator at Jesus’ alleged trial before Pilate.

This is one more reason to view the Gospel accounts about Jesus’ trial before Pilate as works of fiction. The historical Jesus and the historical Pilate probably did not speak the same language and probably could not have a conversation, unless a skilled translator was present. Thus, the ease of conversation between Jesus and Pilate appears to be FICTIONAL, and is one more reason to doubt that Luke had reliable historical information about what took place between Pilate and Jesus (if anything had taken place between them).

CONCLUSION

In addition to seven general reasons for doubting the historical reliability of the Gospels, and in addition to another general reason for doubting the historical reliability of the Gospel of Luke (i.e. it begins with a FICTIONAL birth story and ends with FICTIONAL stories about appearances of the risen Jesus in Jerusalem), there are a number of more specific reasons for doubting the historical reliability of the opening passage of Chapter 23 of the Gospel of Luke. Therefore, we have good reason to doubt the historical reliability of that opening passage (i.e. Luke 23:1-5).