Baker Academic

Monday, December 23, 2013

The Misapplication of Crucifixion as a Criterion in 'Jesus the Zealot' Theories

It is my great pleasure to introduce you, gentle reader, to Brian Pounds. Brian is a Ph.D. candidate at Cambridge. His dissertation “The Criterion of Crucifiability in the Quest for the Historical Jesus” relates (as you might have guessed) to Jesus’ crucifixion, among other upbeat topics. I invited Brian to pound out a few thoughts on what can and cannot be inferred from the fact of Jesus’ execution. Here is the first of his two-parter:
Piggybacking off of Anthony's recent post concerning his lively discussion with Reza Aslan, it is noteworthy that Aslan attempts to validate his thesis of Jesus the ‘zealot’ (an anachronistic label for a rebel in Jesus' historical context, as Aslan acknowledges – begging the question of the book’s title) with the 'fact' of Jesus' crucifixion. Jesus' life is made to fit his end. He was executed in the manner reserved for violent insurrectionists; therefore, he was a violent insurrectionist. This is a basic shared line of argument for theses similar to Aslan's reaching all the way back to H. S. Reimarus. Consequently, Jesus' crucifixion is used as a criterion for eliminating 'inauthentic' gospel material that portrays Jesus as fundamentally nonviolent (e.g. Mark 14:48; Matt 5:9, 26:52; Matt 5:39-44= Luke 6:29-6:35).
This move ignores the breadth of offenses for which individuals were crucified. Not only was crucifixion carried out as a form of punishment and deterrence for violent offenses such as insurrection, banditry, and murder but also for nonviolent forms of sedition such as defamation of the emperor (e.g. Suetonius, Domitian 10.1; Quintillian, Institutio Oratoria 9.2.65), “stirring up the people” (e.g. Paulus, Sententiae 5.22.1), and military desertion (e.g. Livy, Ab urbe condita 30.43.13). Moreover, some victims were crucified for simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time as was the case with those captured while foraging for food during Titus' siege of Jerusalem (J.W. 5.447-49). One can thus imagine a number of ways that an individual may have met his or her end on a Roman cross, and there is simply too much counter-evidence and too little positive evidence to consider that participation in violent insurrection was a probable reason why Jesus was put to death.
My thanks to Brian for his time and expertise. Tune in tomorrow for more.



  1. I think I made an argument similar to Brian's in earlier comments. But if we move away from rigid requirements of "authenticity" and consider the more reasonable and flexible concept of "plausibility", can we say nothing about the plausible trajectory of Jesus' life knowing that it ended on a cross?

    Brian mentioned some possible reasons for the crucifixion. Agreed, Jesus might have ended on a cross as a wholly innocent victim of circumstance, but this runs counter to the other evidence of the Gospels, which has Jesus anticipating death and his enemies seeking his death. Ditto, Jesus might have been executed for crimes like banditry or murder, and again, we have no evidence that Jesus committed crimes like this.

    I agree with Brian that Jesus might well have been crucified for offering up nonviolent sedition. This seems highly plausible to me (whether Jesus was nonviolent in a consistent and principled way, like Gandhi or Martin Luther King, is another question, particularly given the violence of the Temple cleansing). But if it's plausible to think that Jesus was executed for sedition, doesn't that tend to validate the CAREFUL and MEASURED use of the crucifixion as a criterion of plausibility?

  2. Thanks Larry, I wholly agree with your response. I also do not think Jesus was simply a victim of circumstance. My primary point in bringing up crucifixions during Titus' siege was that if we knew nothing else about Jesus except for the 'fact' that he was crucified, we wouldn't know very much. Stay tuned for part II of the blog entry tomorrow which moves in the direction of your "careful and measured" use of the criterion of crucifiability.

  3. This is great. Thanks Brian for posting this. Also, thanks Anthony for giving him this platform.

  4. Thanks for this, Brian. I'm looking forward to hearing more!