The Jewish and Roman Trials of Jesus are Historically Plausible

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This is an ongoing review of The Death of the Messiah by mainstream New Testament scholar Raymond Brown:

I just finished reading chapter 31 (page 722) of the first volume of this massive two volume work.  This book of scholarship is nothing like any book on New Testament scholarship that I have ever read.  Brown has researched, in excruciating detail, the Passion Narrative of Jesus (from his prayer in Gethsemane to his burial in the tomb of Arimathea) in all four Gospels, comparing each pericope, and indeed at times, each verse, in all four gospels.  He lists the perspectives of multiple other scholars in his discussion on each passage, frequently indicating the current scholarly majority opinion.  It is tedious reading; boring at times; but overall, incredibly fascinating.

First a little about Raymond Brown (deceased):

-a devout Roman Catholic scholar whose writings were considered acceptable Catholic teaching during the conservative papacy of John Paul II.

-believed in the bodily resurrection of Jesus.

-believed that the authors of Mark and John are independent sources of the Gospel stories.

-believed that the Gospel of Mark was probably written in the 60’s (before the destruction of the Temple).

What I have learned so far about the Passion Narratives in the Gospels from reading Raymond Brown:

  1. The Gospels were not written by eyewitnesses nor the associates of eyewitnesses.
  2. An entire generation separated any eyewitnesses from the authors of the Gospels.
  3. The authors of the Gospels (specifically the Passion Narratives) were very skilled writers.  The Gospel of Mark, specifically, is not simply a rote collection of someone else’s memoirs.  All the Gospels were intricate works of literature, with skilled authors weaving references and imagery from the Old Testament into pre-Gospel oral traditions of Jesus in Mark and John’s case, and into Mark’s original gospel, in Matthew and Luke’s case.  (Or the other possibility:  Brown infers that it is possible that all four Passion Narratives come from one original source:  the author of Mark.  The later three gospel authors added their own material to Mark’s story to suit their individual theological purposes which were primarily to address current issues in their individual Christian communities.)
  4. The authors of Matthew and Luke heavily redacted the story in Mark, adding or deleting details in Mark for their own theological purposes.  (If Matthew had been an eyewitness as conservative Christians believe, why would he have done this?)
  5. Although Brown does not believe that the author of John was dependent on Mark, he admits that many of his fellow scholars disagree.  According to Brown, at one time Christians could speak of a scholarly consensus that John was an independent source.   This is no longer true, Brown says. Brown believes that the many scholars who believe that John was dependent on Mark are wrong, but he never suggests that they are wrong because they are biased.  (It is therefore plausible that the entire Passion Narrative comes from one source:  the author of Mark.)
  6. Brown gives excellent evidence that the arrest of Jesus, the Jewish trial of Jesus, and the Roman trial of Jesus are all plausible based on other historical sources even though the details in those Gospel accounts may be literary invention.  In other words, Brown believes that the early Christian, pre-Gospel tradition was that Jesus was arrested at night during the Passover festival, he was tried by the Jewish authorities, he was tried by Pilate.  The historicity of the details of those events is indeterminable.  Notice that Brown does not say that there is solid evidence that these events are historical fact, only that there is good evidence that these events were part of the earliest Christian tradition and that there is nothing in these accounts that definitely contradicts Jewish or Roman practice in the first half of the first century CE.
  7. The author of Luke moves much of the Jewish trial scene of Jesus to the trial scene of Stephen! (fascinating to me)



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