I’ve always found it intriguing that the vast majority of Christians are completely ignorant of the details in the Bible, never mind what little is known of the historical and political environment in which Jesus lived.
Some don’t even know that the four Gospels were not written by the four apostles whose names they bear, nor that the Gospels themselves don’t make that claim. The first three Gospels were written by Christians somewhere around 100 AD, all based on the same collection of source material. The fourth, the Gospel of John, is earlier and belived by some scholars to be, as it claims, mainly the work of an actual apostle. Although he wasn’t necessarily called “John” (no name is given). Unfortunately, the author of the Gospel of John, eyewitness or not, was also deliberateiy writing propaganda, which means he can’t be trusted completely.
All of the Gospels disagree and contradict one another, though, so it’s unwise to take any one of them as definitive. The “traditional” Easter story accepted implicitly by most Christians is a synthesis: a bit from here and a bit from there. (One of the many criticisms of Mel Gibson’s ‘Passion’ movie was that he also included elements with no Biblical source at all.)
The political situation in the region was complex. The whole region, from Egypt to Turkey, was under Roman rule, but different parts had different mechanisms of government. The Romans had installed a client King of the Jews, Herod, who ruled Judea and Galilee until his death in 6 AD. Then Direct Rule was imposed on Judea, with a Prefect, Pilate, being in charge at the time of Jesus’ execution. The Prefect of Judea’s immediate superior was the Legate of Syria.
Under Direct Rule, the Romans appointed a High Priest in Jerusalem who had the responsibility of day-to-day management of the religious and civil affairs of the Jewish population (comprising about half the total in Judea). The High Priest tried to mediate between the Romans and the Jews, and tried to avoid any trouble which would lead to intervention of the Roman authorities. He had an armed police force available to maintain order.
Let’s look at the story. For a start, Jesus makes the deliberately provocative gesture of riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, and people pick up on the implied scriptural reference (Zehariah 9:9): “Lo, your King comes to you, triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey.” (The disciples who were sent to collect the donkey were told only that they would be expected, suggesting machinations they weren’t privy to.)
It’s hard to know why he wasn’t arrested immediately, particularly if the crowd was as big as the Bible says. Perhaps it was all over too quickly for the authorities to react. Perhaps the Romans didn’t immediately get the point of this implicit scriptural claim to be “King”. There had actually been a previous attempt to arrest him — by the Jewish ‘Temple Police’ — on an earlier visit to Jerusalem (John 7:32) but for unexplained reasons, it was not successful.
So, not content with provoking the Roman regime with these subversive ideas of Jewish sovereignty, Jesus then goes to the Temple, kicks over some tables, and announces that the Temple will be destroyed — “Not a single stone here will be left in its place.” (Mark 13:2). This alarms the High Priest and the Temple authorities, and so they decide again to have him arrested.
Not leaving it to chance this time, they get a tip-off from a collaborator and send troops to the garden where Jesus is meditating. People often have a mistaken picture of this event: a few soldiers turn up and Jesus meekly goes with them. But that’s not what John says. For one thing, he’s quite clear that there are both Temple Police and Roman soldiers. He also quotes the correct military terminology for the size of the Roman unit: it’s a Cohort, commanded by a Tribune. There were different types of Cohort, but none was smaller than about 500 troops, and the presence of a senior Legionary officer suggests that these were core, professional Roman infantry. That is not the force you send to pick up one pacifist troublemaker.
And sure enough, at least one of Jesus’ followers is armed: Peter has a sword. People don’t understand the importance of this. A sword isn’t just a big knife and Peter hadn’t just finished buttering his pitta bread with it. A sword was a military weapon. It was expensive, and big, and dangerous; like perhaps an AK-47 today. Judean civilians, like all the subject peoples of the Empire, weren’t permitted to carry swords. It’s a rather odd detail that Peter isn’t immediately cut down by the soldiers, even when he injures one of the servants. Apparently, he isn’t even arrested. There must be more to the story that we aren’t being told — maybe some sort of armed stand-off.
Even though the Roman military provided this overwhelming force, Jesus wasn’t immediately taken to the Roman authorities for interrogation or trial. He was taken to the High Priest, who, remember, had to keep order in Jerusalem. The Gospels disagree on whether Jesus had a formal hearing with a properly-constituted Temple court, but in any case, he did eventually end up facing Pilate, the highest Roman authority in the area, charged with claiming to be King of the Jews.
According to the Biblical account, Pilate tried to be fair and decent, refusing at first to condemn him, offering to release him under amnesty, and only finally consigning him to crucifiction when the mob accused him of being soft on terrorism. This doesn’t fit at all well with what is known historically about the character of Pilate. He was a hard and brutal governor with little concern for legalities (he was specifically accused of “executions without trial”) and was eventually removed from office because of his excesses.
Crucifixion was a slow and painful death. It was supposed to be, because it was a form of execution reserved for enemies of the state. (Incidentally, this means that the other two prisoners who were executed alongside Jesus couldn’t have been “thieves”. And indeed the original Greek word is better translated as “bandits”, in the sense once used by the South African Defence Forces: they were anti-Roman rebels.) And the use of crucifixion by the occupying Roman administration against prophets, messiahs and other rabble-rousers is known from historical documents, and consistent with the general policy. So even though I find the story of his arrest, trial and conviction confusing and inconsistent, I have no doubt that Jesus was crucified.
But what is puzzling is how he died so quickly. Victims usually lasted three days before expiring, unless the coup de grâce of breaking their legs was administered. If this was performed, the victim died within minutes from asphyxiation, since he was no longer able to hold himself up on his transfixed ankles and gasp a breath. But when the soldiers came to break the legs of Jesus, he was found to be dead already. (They did break the legs of his two fellow outlaws, who presumably soon expired.)
At that point, one soldier stabbed the body with his spear, before it was lifted down and given to Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea for burial. He was taken down, dressed with funerary ointments, and placed in the Arimathea family tomb.
What happened after that? Again, the four Gospels all have different accounts about where Jesus appeared and who saw him, but that’s the basic story: he was dead, but he was walking around (the body was gone) and talking to people.
The easy explanation of subsequent events is that Jesus wasn’t dead, he was just resting, and that first, the empty tomb; and then his appearance to followers was simply because he was a rescuscitated man, not a resurrected one. In fact, there’s a major religious group, the Ahmadiyya, with 200 million followers, who believe exactly that. (They call themselves a sect of Islam. Mainstream Islamic bodies disagree.) The Ahmadiyya say that Jesus travelled to the East after his crucifixion, where he became known as Yuz Asaf, and eventually died and was buried in Kashmir.
But that won’t do. If Jesus really was alive and walking round after surviving the crucifixion, you’d expect the descriptions and narrative to be a lot more consistent. I don’t get the bit about his disciples not recognizing him. He can’t be so ill and injured as to be unrecognizable if he’s up and about and able to eat and converse. It’s strange; when someone close to you dies, you unconsciously expect to see them, yet in this case there is no recognition. So did the resurrected Jesus look like a completely different man?
The four Gospels don’t even agree on who saw him and when. Later on, St. Paul came up with a different list entirely, ending with himself “seeing” Jesus at the point of his conversion.
I’m inclined to believe that the death was real and the resurrection was a myth. No surprise there then.