Questions Surrounding “The Passion of the Christ”/Program 5

By: Dr. Darrell Bock; ©2000
The Historical accuracy of three key figures, Pilate, Caiaphas the Jewish High Priest, and Judas



Today on The John Ankerberg Show: Questions surrounding Mel Gibson’s controversial movie, The Passion of the Christ. The word “passion” comes from the Latin word for suffering. It usually refers to the last twelve hours of Christ’s earthly life, from His agony in the Garden of Gethsemane to His death on the Cross. Some critics question the historical reliability of the movie, but their greater fear seems to be that Gibson has succeeded far too well.

How did a realistic movie about Jesus get to be so controversial? What is the point of the film? Is it historically accurate? How does it answer the question, “Who killed Jesus?” Is the film “anti-Semitic”? What are the artistic liberties taken in the film? Why did Jesus have to die and did He really rise from the dead?

My guests today answering these questions are some of the most prominent scholars in the world. They include : Dr. Darrell Bock, Research Professor of New Testament Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary; Dr. N. T. Wright, Canon Theologian of Westminster Abbey in England; Dr. Ben Witherington, Professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary; Dr. William Lane Craig, Research Professor at Talbot School of Theology; Dr. Craig Blomberg, Professor of New Testament, Denver Seminary; and Dr. Gary Habermas, Professor of Apologetics and Philosophy, Liberty University.

We invite you to join us.

Ankerberg: Welcome. Many of you have now seen the Mel Gibson movie, The Passion of the Christ, and many of you have been reading newspaper and magazine articles and listening to folks on television talk about this movie. Critics of this movie question the historical accuracy of three key figures in the movie and in the Gospels. They are Pilate, Caiaphas, and Judas. Today, I want you to hear from a man who was asked by ABC and NBC to answer the questions about the historical and theological accuracy of the movie. His name is Dr. Darrell Bock, and he is Research Professor of New Testament at Dallas Theological Seminary. I began by asking him, “Did Mel Gibson accurately portray Pilate according to the Gospels?” and “Do the Gospels accurately portray Pilate according to history?” What he says I haven’t heard any place else, so please listen carefully. It’s important:

Ankerberg: Darrell, there has hardly been a TV interview, an article that’s been written on the Mel Gibson movie where they have not taken exceptions to the portrait of Pilate that is in the movie, and that is in the Gospels. And the bottom line is that which is portrayed in the movie and that which the Gospel writers suggest about Pilate is not true historically. You have written a tremendous article concerning the historical information about Pilate, and you say that it shows that the biblical account is probably right. I want you to take us through this point by point, and explain this to us and then give us the conclusion.
Bock: Okay, well, let’s start with the most basic features first, and that is the idea that Pilate is portrayed as an innocent who kind of washes his hands of this, really comes out looking like the good guy; and also that he’s not a very strong character, he vacillates. The real point of this is, the biblical accounts are very clear that Pilate could be ruthless. In Luke 13 there’s an incident described where Pilate involves the mixing of blood of sacrifices with Galileans. He obviously exercised some type of military power on people at the temple and shows his ruthlessness. He is ruthless.
There also is, in Acts 4, very clear discussion of the fact that Pilate is responsible for the death of Jesus along with everybody else. So Pilate is not innocent in this. And it’s not an innocent portrayal to have someone who believes someone is innocent act as a judge and send them to their death. I know you and I wouldn’t want a judge like that.
So, that’s where to start. The second part to consider about this situation with Pilate is that he’s under tremendous pressure vis-à-vis the Jews, and we have extra-biblical incidents that indicate this. Three of them come from Josephus, one of them comes from Philo. One of them happens right at the beginning when he rules; one of them happens right at the end, in fact, it leads to his demise; and then two incidents in between. Unfortunately, we can’t date those middle incidents. We don’t know exactly when they happened. If the first three incidents of the four happened before Jesus showed up before Pilate, then he’s on call and has been told, “You need to be a little more sensitive to the Jews here,” because the third incident involved a direct rebuke, a strong rebuke from the emperor for the way he was ruling.
Ankerberg: Alright, let’s take them in order. The one that we know for sure historically from extra-biblical material that happens to Pilate regarding the Jews is when Pilate brought the military standards, which were considered idols, to Jerusalem. And what happens?
Bock: Well, they brought in the military standards. This is something that text tells us no prefect had ever done before. It excited Jewish sensibilities because it was a violation of the First Commandment to have these idols in the holy city, in the sacred space, And so they protested, and they protested for a long period of time. And finally Pilate said, “I’m going to show them, the next time they come and protest, I’m going to surround them with soldiers and I’m going to threaten to kill them; and hopefully that’ll stop it.” Well, he did exactly as he’d planned. He surrounded them. They threatened to kill them. And the Jewish reaction caught him by surprise. They lay down before them, basically offered their necks, and said, in effect, “We would rather be faithful to our commandment and be faithful to our God [which really shows a lot of character on the part of the Jews] and not have these things going on in our sacred space.” And when Pilate saw the dedication that was involved here and he realized also the bloody mess that would have been created had he gone through with what he was threatening, he not only backed off and didn’t kill them, but he had the military standards pulled out of the city. And so we see here an example of Jewish pressure changing Pilate’s mind on something. This is an incident right at the beginning of his rule.
Ankerberg: Josephus in his Antiquities, Book 18, records that.
Bock: That’s exactly right, in sections 55-59.
Ankerberg: The second one also comes from Josephus in Book 18, where Pilate uses money from the Jewish temple to pay for Roman aqueducts. Tell us about that.
Bock: This shows Pilate really throwing his weight around. He basically goes in when people protest and wipes out not just the protesters but some innocents as well apparently. There was no reprisal from Rome for this. This is the reckless, ruthless, insensitive Pilate showing that he’s prefect.
Ankerberg: Then the final incident in Embassy to Gaius where he writes about Pilate in terms of that happened in Herod’s temple. What happened there?
Bock: Well, he took in gilded military shields. This was an act very much like the military standards. And these votive shields would have had some kind of design on them that would have been offensive as well. There was a protest to Herod’s sons, other rulers in the area whom Rome supported, and this protest got the attention of Tiberius and led to a rebuke from Tiberius, a strong rebuke against Pilate. And it’s in this passage from Philo that we get the descriptions of Pilate as being insensitive and cruel, and really kind of a cad in some ways, and someone who was really not too caring about Jewish attitudes.
The passage is important for another reason. Three of the incidents that we’ve talked about come from Josephus, but this is a singly-attested incident. And that’s important, because a lot of what’s happening with the discussion of Pilate and the Gospels is, “Well, if the event is singly-attested, we can’t trust it.” But most people accept this event from Philo even though Josephus has a fuller list that doesn’t include it. There are times in ancient history where events are singly-attested and we can trust that they happen. In fact, much of what we know about Alexander the Great we wouldn’t know if we didn’t have singly-attested sources.
And with regard to Matthew and John, we have reasons why perhaps these events are singly-attested. Matthew is the one Gospel written to an audience that has a high level of Jewish concern. And so for that reason there’s a lot more detail about the relationship with the Jews and the Jewish leadership in that Gospel. And as a result, there are singly-attested details the other Gospels aren’t concerned about because they’re writing to Gentiles.
Ankerberg: Alright, we’re talking about the fact of the depiction of Pilate in history and in the Gospels and the Gospels give a complex picture of Pilate. Some people think it’s a sympathetic and unrealistic picture but it really is a complex picture, and it seems to fit what you’re saying, the historical evidence, the extra-biblical material. Give us one more. Pilate quells a Samaritan uprising in AD 36, which again is recorded by Josephus in his Antiquities. What happened there?
Bock: Well, this is the final incident. This led to Pilate’s being dismissed as prefect. And apparently he, again, overran some Samaritans who were in the Mount Gerizim area which was the sacred site for the Samaritans. What’s interesting about this situation is that apparently the Jews and the Samaritans together issued a protest about what took place. And this apparently was the last straw. Pilate was recalled to Rome for a little discussion with the emperor. And, fortunately for Pilate, by the time he got there the emperor had died, so he never had the discussion. But Pilate never showed up again in Judea.
Ankerberg: So, what you’re saying is that he was probably very sensitive to what the Jewish leaders would write to the emperor, or what would happen, that he would be listening to Caiaphas. This picture is very complex, and the biblical writers probably got it right.
Bock: Yes. That’s exactly what I’m saying. That there were ways for the Jewish leadership to kind of do end-runs around Pilate, either through Herod or directly to the emperor; because the emperor was concerned that the people who the Romans ruled were reasonably happy with the Roman rule. Now, that doesn’t mean that the Romans couldn’t be ruthless on certain occasions if it was justified. But what Tiberius didn’t care for was a kind of insensitivity to the people who were being ruled. There was a respect for their religion, for their traditions, etc. In fact, one of the texts makes this point explicitly, that the respect for religion outranks respect for the emperor. And so, in that sense, this is a very plausible scenario that fits the cultural background.
What these articles are telling you is half right. Pilate was a ruthless guy. He liked to throw his power around. But what they’re not telling you is the rest of the story. And the rest of the story is he was a political realistic. And there were times when he was faced with a situation where he realized that, if he did certain things, it would get him into trouble and it would create discord in the area. And his responsibility was to keep the discord to a minimum.

Ankerberg: The second controversial figure in Mel Gibson’s movie is Caiaphas, the Jewish high priest. The critics claim that Gibson has given us a distorted picture of him because Caiaphas didn’t have that much influence over the Roman governor, Pilate. I wanted to find out if this was true or not.

Ankerberg: Let’s talk about the background of Caiaphas: how he got into the position he was in; how long he and his family were in that position; and what was the working relationship that he had with Pilate.
Bock: Well, best that we can tell, Caiaphas is in a very powerful position. The family that he’s a part of, the patriarch’s name is Annas, who was high priest back in AD 6. And, in fact, this family stays in power in the high priesthood for the better part of 60 years. So this is a patriarchal family. It’s almost a regal family within Judaism from a priestly perspective. And he, Caiaphas, is Annas’ son-in-law. So Annas is the father-in-law, and they keep the power.
What happened during Pilate’s rule is that every year, in effect, Caiaphas was reappointed to this office. There was only one high priest the entire time that Pilate was around, and that was Caiaphas. What makes that important is that Pilate had the right to replace Caiaphas if he was unhappy with him. This suggests that they did have a working relationship and some type of understanding with one another, and that Caiaphas was viewed to some degree as someone who had some influence and input into Pilate and into his thinking.
So, this is a relationship that “worked,” if you will. I’m not sure they would have been best buddies or anything, but they had a working relationship, and each side was happy with what the other was bringing to the table.
Ankerberg: So, how did Caiaphas think? What did he think had to happen before he would bring Jesus to Pilate? Do you think that Pilate, from the record, knew all about Jesus? That his radar was out for Jesus? Where did this thing start and how did it hook up in terms of them cooperating in getting rid of Jesus?
Bock: I mean, it’s hard to know exactly what’s going through Pilate’s mind. We don’t know all the details of what he was aware of or when the Jewish leadership showed up with Jesus and wanted him to act. But we do know that, by the time he got into it, as he was trying to sort out what was going on, he didn’t see a threat, at least initially, in Jesus. Here was a guy teaching Jewish religious ideas and religious concepts. Now, some of them, perhaps, because of their “kingdom of God” flavor, had the potential to be trouble. But Jesus didn’t have an army; Rome had an army. There was nothing dangerous in the way Jesus was organizing Himself. And so he probably heard this Galilean teacher and said, “No real threat here. We may punish Him, we may beat Him, but He isn’t worthy of death. And I certainly don’t want to inflame the situation, the internal Jewish situation, between Jesus’ followers and the leadership. I’ll just try and keep as much distance from this as I can.” And it was only when he became very aware that this was very important to the Jewish leadership that he faced a choice. And he decided to dance with the one that he knew rather than to dance with the One that he didn’t.
Ankerberg: Yeah, let’s stop right there. The fact is that a lot of folks criticize the scene of Pilate washing his hands from Jesus. Set that one up for us, if it makes sense to you.
Bock: Yes, it does. He’s basically saying that “this is a decision I would rather have not made, but I’ve made it and I’m going to let you carry out your will.” He’s actually deferring, to some degree, to the Jewish leadership. Now, that doesn’t really absolve him of responsibility. This is really, really important. The portrait of Pilate is sympathetic at one level, and that is that Pilate looks at Jesus and looks at the charge and looks at the politics and goes, “Not worthy of death.” And at that level, he’s sympathetic. But then, when you ask what kind of a grade would you give Pilate as a judge, sitting there and saying, “This person is innocent, but we’re going to kill Him anyway”? He’d flunk. He’d flunk as a judge. And in that sense he fails, and the portrait is not flattering. The portrait is different than the Jewish leadership: The Jewish leadership has a stake in the conflict, and they want Jesus removed. Pilate is put in a situation, assesses the political realities and says, “I’m going to be comfortable with Caiaphas. I’m going to take his lead. He’s the Jewish expert here and I’m going to go with their desire to remove Jesus.” And then he pulls the trigger. He’s the last one who has the call, and even though he washes his hands, he’s responsible even though it’s in a different way than the Jewish leadership.
Ankerberg: So then, how do you technically answer the question, “Who killed Jesus?”
Bock: The most technical answer to the question is that Pilate is technically and legally responsible because he could have stopped it, and he didn’t. When you ask the larger historical question, it’s much more complex; because what he was responding to were realities that he saw around him that were moved, not by the Jewish people—it’s very, very important—not by the Jewish people, but by the Jewish leadership who wanted Jesus stopped because of the religious conflict they were engaging in with Jesus.
Ankerberg: Do you think that Mel Gibson has pulled it off, then, in accurately giving us a good sense of what the historical record of at least what Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are saying?
Bock: Yeah. I think the tenor of the film on this is on the mark. And I think that’s how you should rate a film like this.

Ankerberg: The third controversial figure in Mel Gibson’s movie is Judas. Some claim Judas is not a historical figure at all. He was just made up by the Gospel writers. I asked Dr. Darrell Bock, “Is Judas a fictional figure?” and this is what he said.

Ankerberg: Another biblical figure that is also in the movie that critics have a hard time with is Judas. And they just can’t believe that he’s a real figure; or they would say he was put in there by the Gospel writers many years later as almost an anti-Semitic move. What do you think of all that?
Bock: I can’t think of a greater fantasy. I can’t imagine the writers of the Early Church, which is what the critics are claiming, inventing a figure like Judas. This is someone Jesus picked. This makes Jesus at one level potentially look bad. He couldn’t even pick people who would be faithful. Judas, I think, is a historical figure simply because it’s very hard to believe that a church that reverenced Jesus as Son of God would create the Son of God picking someone who betrayed Him.
Ankerberg: Some of those who object to even having Mel Gibson bring this into the movie and they look at the New Testament Gospels and they said, “The story of Judas doesn’t even fit the context of history nor the Gospels.” I find that interesting. What do you think?
Bock: I think it fits the context very well. Remember that the Gospels are very honest, that originally the plan was that the Jewish leadership wasn’t going to mess with Jesus over the Passover holiday. It was going to be too controversial and they didn’t know how the crowds would react. When they got someone from the inside who was willing to say, “Jesus is dangerous and I’m not sure I believe Him anymore,” and was willing to betray Him, all that fits together suddenly. And then all the scrambling, in effect, that you see in the Gospels, fits that scenario. So, I think that the entire scene is very credible, and I think Judas being the trigger at the start for these sequence of events is also very credible.
Ankerberg: Summarize these things that we’ve talked about today and put a conclusion on it.
Bock: Well, whether you look at Pilate or you look at Judas, I think what you see is that the Gospels have the direction of the story right. Pilate was in a complex situation; that’s what you see. Judas made a call that triggered a series of events that kind of fell on top of one another once the process started, because the goal was to get things done quickly and not hold onto Jesus. That’s what we see in the Gospels. I think it fits the first century context. I think the Gospels are credible, and I think what this suggests about the film or any portrayals that portray the Gospels faithfully is that the Gospels have it right.
The second thing, I think, that strikes someone watching the film is just the power of what is taking place. This is a film unlike any other film you’ll ever sit in. You don’t eat popcorn watching this film. You sit back and you’re drawn into thinking about: Why would someone go through this for anybody? Even more so, why would someone go through this for everybody? And that’s what Jesus is doing. Someone who understands Christian theology understands that Jesus is choosing to take this painful route as a way of indicating that God loves us and has completely paid for our sin. In a first century culture in which sacrifice is an important picture and sin is viewed as a debt, the painting of God’s love even through the gruesomeness of the blood comes through.

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