Book Review: What crucified Jesus?

rivkinI picked up this book by Jewish scholar Ellis Rivkin (who died earlier this year) for just 75 pence. I bought it for two reasons, primarily the preface by EP Sanders who said he thought, ‘the overall argument, is in my judgement, completely convincing.’ and second to that, the bargain price. I can’t resist highly recommended books on the historical Jesus for less than a quid.

It’s not a long book (79 pages) and asks an interesting question, ‘what crucified Jesus?’ as opposed to the more natural, ‘who crucified Jesus?’ Rivkin works on the historicity of the event of the gospel not from the gospels themselves but by creating a framework from the writings of Josephus. He basis the historicity of Jesus not on the contentious passages referring to him but to one that isn’t challenged when Josephus mentions the execution of James the brother of Jesus.

Then using various references to other events around the time of Jesus he builds a convincing picture of the times. A ruthless governor in Pilate, a high priest in Caiaphas who made compromises to protect his people, zealots who made Judaea a restless province, a fervent atmosphere where charismatic preachers like John the Baptist emerge to great support from the people and consternation from the authorities. The fate of these preachers and leaders is almost always the same – death. Not on religious grounds but on political ones. Rome will brook no challenge. As long as the religion is not messed with the spiritual leaders render unto Caesar, as long as they do they are free to render unto God.

Rivkin then describes what he calls ‘a charismatic of charismatics’, an anointed inspirational figure who because of his popularity, because of the crowds, because of the support, because of the inherent challenge to one called ‘Lord’ the fate that awaits would almost certainly be the cross. Interestingly, the similarities as well as the differences put the relationship between Jesus and the Pharisees as more complex than Jesus = good; Pharisees = bad.

So Rivkin accords the first three gospels with historical value (he rejects any real historical value to the gospel of John) and sees the picture they paint of Jesus as authentic. Where the stories differ is (unsurprisingly) at the resurrection. For Rivkin, the cry of ‘My God why have you forsaken me?’ was to be taken at face value. Jesus realised the kingdom had not come, his mission had failed, God had abandoned him.

As for the resurrection, well like the Pharisees Jesus believed the resurrection was inevitable for the righteous and his followers did too. So when Jesus died, well of course they saw Jesus alive again and how faithless for any to doubt it. It seems it was a consequence of people who really believed it. So the disciples didn’t die for something they knew was a lie, they died for something they really believed was true, they were deluded.

The point of all this though is to examine the causes of the death of Jesus and Rivkin puts the blame squarely with Rome. People died not because of religion but because of politics. The Sanhedrin wasn’t a religious council but a political tool used by Caiaphas in working with the governor. As our creeds state, Jesus was crucified under Pontius Pilate. Jews and Christians can disagree about the resurrection but that should not lead to anti-semitism, that was because Christians blamed Jews for the death of Jesus but really Rome is to blame. The case is made easier with a rejection of John’s gospel.

On the whole there is much to learn from this, the case for the historical Jesus through the framework of the writings of Josephus is probably a useful apologetic to those that doubt the gospels (synoptics anyway) and the insights into how the Pharisees tackled Jesus as they tested his claims to be a messiah is very helpful. Ultimately the differences on the resurrection mean that the usefulness extends only so far.

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