• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as preparation for a future work on Straub/Huillet's Moses und Aron and a few bits and pieces on biblical studies.

    Matt Page


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    Friday, September 12, 2008

    Who Really Killed Jesus?

    Hot on the heels of last week's Channel 5 documentary The Secrets of the Jesus Tomb (my review) comes Who Really Killed Jesus, the second in a series of four films collectively titled Secrets of the Cross. On paper this looks likely to be the most serious of the four. Instead of paranoid claims about conspiracy theories that rock Christianity to the core we get a thoughtful investigation as to how to interpret the Bible in the light of historical research.

    The Gospels, we're told, paint Pilate as an "indecisive and weak" ruler bullied into crucifying Jesus by the Jewish people and their Chief Priests. History suggests otherwise and that the 2000 years of Christian anti-Semitism which followed as a result were based on a piece of spin by the gospel writers.

    Of course the premise is a little too black and white. The historical evidence carries a good deal of weight - Philo and Josephus both criticise Pilate's brutality; Roman soldiers were battle hardened such that one man's death would be highly unlikely to trouble someone such as Pilate; and crucifixion was incredibly commonplace, particularly around religious festivals - but the evidence the programme omits polarises "what the Bible says" and "what history says" unnecessarily. After all the Bible itself records an example of Pilate's viciousness. Luke 13:1 tells us about the "Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices". And the Nicene Creed holds Pilate, rather than any of his Jewish counterparts, responsible for Jesus's death.

    The historical case is presented very strongly here. Starting off in the Caesarean amphitheatre with the stone carrying an engraving of Pilate's name which was discovered in 1961, the programme quickly moves on to Rome to trace his background in the context of the empire's politics. He would have nepotised his way to an army commission and ended up being sent to Judea in 26 AD as its prefect. His 3000 troops were based at Caesarea and had to keep the peace amongst perhaps 160,000 natives desperate to throw off their Roman oppressors. His response was to rule with such brutality that ultimately he was recalled to Rome in disgrace.Whilst academics may quibble with some of the details, as they do with each other's arguments whenever they engage in serious discussion, it's a detailed presentation of the facts and leading interpretations that's fairly unexpected for a documentary on Channel 5. There were a number of things which, I am semi-embarrassed to admit, were new to me, even if the thrust of the overall argument was very much familiar.

    This is down, in part, to the strength of the team of experts that Channel 5 assembled to tell their story. 3-4 years ago this documentary would have found Mark Goodacre popping up with insightful contributions. This time around we get Helen Bond, James Tabor, Yosef Porath, Alexander Yakobson, and biographer Anne Wroe. Even Shimon Gibson pops up having seemingly got lost on his way back from the Jesus Tomb feature. The emphasis is clearly more on archaeologists than textual scholars, but when three of a documentary's team of experts have been involved in excavating key Judean locations it gives it real credibility.

    There's also some good use of location shooting. Whilst documentaries cannot match the depth that a book can provide they can illustrate things more powerfully in a single shot than a written work can ever hope to achieve. As there's a good deal of archaeology being discussed it helps to see the locations in question. Twice, James Tabor is able to turn and use the topography in the background to make his point. And the shot from the top of a watchtower in Jerusalem perfectly illustrates the way Pilate's men would have been able to keep an eye on the city during busy periods.

    The film's other strength is its desire to remain level headed. There's the odd spurious claim ("extraordinarily there's no hard evidence any of it happened"), but generally it lets the experts speak and resists the temptation to crank things up into a scandal.

    That said, many will disagree with the film's conclusions, not least in evangelical circles. Whilst most accept that the gospels recontextualise the story to appeal to their specific audiences, the suggestion that they did it out of a desire to appeal to Rome and distance themselves from the Jews will be too much for some. Likewise with the suggestion that the passover amnesty was simply a "literary device". To a certain extent they have my sympathy, but the problem is that failing to read the gospels in this context has led to centuries of anti-Semitism culminating in the Holocaust. While it's uncomfortable for some to wrestle with the issue of the historicity of the gospels, it's an essential task. It's simply not good enough to say that the perpetrators of anti-Semitism over the years were just not following Jesus's example.

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    • At 12:36 pm, September 12, 2008, Blogger Mark Goodacre said…

      Thanks for the thorough and interesting review, Matt. I haven't watched it yet, but hope to get to a chance this weekend, and then I'll blog a response too.

    • At 1:30 pm, September 12, 2008, Blogger Matt Page said…

      I look forward to it.


    • At 2:49 am, September 15, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said…

      Is "recontextualise" the newest euphemism for embellish? The null hypothesis on the authority of the Bible for a long time was that the Bible was the inerrant 'word of God', i.e. that the writers had been divinely inspired. The authors of this website
      express it in no unclear terms:

      "Upon the foundation of the Divine inspiration of the Bible stands or falls the entire edifice of Christian truth.--"If the foundations be destroyed, what can the righteous do?" (Ps. 11:3). Surrender the dogma of verbal inspiration and you are left like a rudderless ship on a stormy sea--at the mercy of every wind that blows. Deny that the Bible is, without any qualifications, the very Word of God, and you are left without any ultimate standard of measurement and without any supreme authority."

      Is it not true that the very fact that the gospels can be 'peeled off' from Mark (paraphrasing James Tabor) with embellishments in each of the gospels refutes at least this hypothesis? It does not refute the resurrection itself but it does suggest the authors of the gospels were mere human beings.
      Or have the goalposts now been moved so that within the context of Divine inspiration the authors are allowed to include certain aspects that did not really happen?
      Your use of the word 'recontextualise' at least suggest you have accepted that position. What intrigues me is that Biblical scholars, the Christians among them that is, are much more open to this idea than the average church-going Christian and their leaders. It seems like a dangerous idea for the un-educated.

    • At 10:31 am, September 17, 2008, Blogger geoffhudson.blogspot.com said…

      The account in Mark is a garbled version of a traditional Jewish stoning.

      The 'blood of Galileans' supposedly and luridly 'mixed by Pilate with their sacrifices' was Flavian garbling of an original account about the murder of the prophets, such as Zechariah, in the temple, by the priests. I think we can look to the priests as being responsible for the death of the prophet. Pilate was probably back in Rome at the time the prophet's death. There would then have been a window of opportunity for the priests before the appointment of Agrippa I.

      James Tabor's involvement with the so-called Jesus Tomb reporting or 'Essene toilets' at Qumran, mark him as biased in the extreme. He looks for the sensational or what he wants to see.

    • At 10:59 am, September 22, 2008, Blogger Matt Page said…

      Thanks for your post Tico, and sorry for the slow reply.

      In short, I don't think the position that that website gives relects the opinions of all Christians. They may opt for a black or white approach, but that's never been the approach of huge swathes of the church.

      I agree that the authors of the gospels were "mere human beings" (I don't think anyone disagrees with that actually), but that God was also involved. But rather than use the language of infallibility or inerrancy, I think it's more helpful to use the New Testament language of "God breathed" and "living and active" which I think is slightly broader. As for whether such an approach is dangerous, I disagree. Firstly it means that leaders have to teach their church members to think, and teach them an overall framework. Not easy, but no more dangerous than telling them to take every word literally and then wondering why they beat their children with sticks (as per Proverbs), and so on.

      I probably should flesh this out a bit, but hopefully you can catch my drift.


    • At 11:10 am, September 22, 2008, Blogger Matt Page said…

      Thanks for your comments Geoff,

      I'm not sure in which sense you mean it was "Flavian", and, as a result, I'm not entirely sure what point you are making.

      The "blood mixed with sacrifices" part is from Luke. The Zechariah that was murdered was well into the Old Testament.

      Could you clarify, and then I can respond a little better?


    • At 1:35 am, September 23, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said…

      I wondered if you took offense by my use of words ;-)

      matt page said:

      I agree that the authors of the gospels were "mere human beings" ... but that God was also involved. But rather than use the language of infallibility or inerrancy, I think it's more helpful to use the New Testament language of "God breathed" and "living and active" which I think is slightly broader.

      You have moved from a falsifiable position to what is essentially a non-falsifiable position. Many Christians seem to be convinced that the reason that Christianity is still around is related to it being true. I think it is exclusively due to the evolution towards positions that are unfalsifiable that a religion can survive.

      My question to you is: if you do not subscribe to this crystal clear all-or-nothing position as advocated on that website, on what grounds do you decide that God was still involved?

      When Christians study these issues do you believe that God is again involved in that or is it purely an academic matter? If you believe the former, then you would have to argue why God is giving you different information / divine inspiration than the Christians that maintain the dogmatic position. If you believe the latter, then, in my opinion you have only moved the goalposts to save your faith.

    • At 4:10 am, September 23, 2008, Blogger Matt Page said…

      Hi Tico,

      No offence taken, although I wasn't quite sure which angle you were coming from.

      I guess my grounds for thinking God was involved are complicated, but essentially come down to creation (thus the existence of God), resurrection (the action of God), and a combination of things to do with revelation (that the church has always attested it to be so, it's ongoing impact and a theology of a God who communicates). That's perhaps not very clear, but it's 4am so forgive me.

      But I also wanted to come back to this charge of "moving the goalposts". It seems to me that, over time, any discipline worth its salt nuances its position or to use your more pejorative phrase "moves the goalposts". So take, for example, biology. Charles Darwin discovers evolution, and the only proper response is to embrace a new position on the basis of that discovery. There's no reason to my mind why theology should not do the same. What would you prefer that it do decide that because it didn't have all the answers 50-100 years ago that it must all be incorrect?

      Hope that clarifies things a little.

    • At 11:57 pm, September 25, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said…


      Can't wait to answer this, but have got a tough deadline ahead so no further response from me until Wednesday next week.

    • At 5:12 pm, October 19, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said…


      You give an analogy between Science (Charles Darwin) and Theology and imply that both disciplines necessarily have to move the goalposts given increased knowledge and understanding. Scientists put forward hypotheses and reject these later if sufficient evidence becomes available that refutes the hypotheses. I do not accept this as falling under the definition of 'moving the goalposts'. I think theological questions could be approached in a scientific way but only when the hypothesis or premise can be falsified through research. The hypothesis:

      “The Bible is the inerrant word of God, i.e. the authors were divinely inspired”

      is falsifiable given the following premise:

      • God himself is the ultimate source of Truth and any divine inspiration that derives from Him therefore must be the Truth

      As soon as evidence, be it archaeological, linguistic or otherwise, comes available that shows beyond reasonable doubt that (some) Biblical scriptures are contradictory or historically false, then the ‘divine inspiration’ hypothesis has been falsified. For a secular theologian this should be enough to drop the hypothesis altogether although he could for example put forward the next hypothesis:

      “All the New Testamental books are divinely inspired”

      This is what you referred to as “nuancing it’s position”. There is no problem with that because the new hypothesis can be tested and falsified again. However, when the new hypothesis becomes:

      “Some information in the Bible is the result of divine inspiration”

      that is scientifically unacceptable, as this is an equivocal, unfalsifiable position. I would argue that the only aim of this new hypothesis is, whether consciously realised or not, to maintain one’s position in the face of refuting evidence. That is moving the goalposts. Regardless of whether this happens in theology, in evolutionary biology or in any other science it is unacceptable.

    • At 5:14 pm, October 19, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said…

      You no longer choose to use the term ‘divine inspiration’ because it has the connotation of complete inerrancy. You now choose the term ‘God is involved’ which is as equivocal as the hypothesis “Some information …. divine inspiration”. Some of the reasons you give for this are completely unrelated and are subject to dispute themselves: creation and resurrection.
      The argument “the church has always attested it to be so” is, without further evidence, a very weak argument that could be cast as an argument from authority.
      If with “it’s ongoing impact” you mean the influence of the Bible and Christianity in this world, I do not accept this as enough evidence for divine inspiration. The books of many religions are having, or have had in the past, an impact on humankind. The passionate evangelising of Mormons in Asia is a direct result of the doctrines and traditions within the LDS. Is that evidence of divine inspiration in ‘The Book of Mormon’ or merely a self-fulfilling prophecy once the LDS religion is accepted as the Truth?

      Lastly you put forward that “a theology of a God who communicates”, points toward the divine inspiration of the Bible. The apocryphal books were rejected from the start and that must have been based on the belief that these books were NOT divinely inspired. The decision taking of which books were and were not divinely inspired, surely must have been itself a divinely inspired process to secure a divinely inspired Bible. Given that you are no longer happy to talk about it in these absolute terms, you have to conclude that the decision itself was NOT divinely inspired. In other words, given the knowledge that we have now, perhaps some parts would have to be purged from the Bible. It is not a slippery slope fallacy to suggest that if we can not be 100% sure of the divine inspiration of the complete Bible that a lot of other events become suspicious as well.

      With regards to the general concept of “a theology of a God who communicates”, I don’t see evidence of a communicating God at all. I have been a Christian and used to pray when I was young. I have never experienced him beyond the phenomena of confirmation bias that occur within any religion (e.g. the Muslims who find the name Allah on a fish or vegetable). Fife years ago, very close relatives of mine (they are Christians) fell foul to the nonsense of fully believing that God were to raise a deceased relative from the dead. When it didn’t happen they took ‘a time-out’ to pray to God to understand why the event did not happen. Then God ‘communicated’ to them that when he saw their absolute faith that He changed his mind. Needless to say this has had some impact in my lapsing to atheism. I only wish it was enough for the relatives who now reject this kind of ‘extreme’ Christianity but are still quite comfortable in ‘Christianity-lite’. The power of religion is phenomenal.
      Secondly, within “a theology of a God who communicates” (and certainly when this concerns a religion which claims to be the one and only True religion) I would expect less diversification than in other religions, but this is absolutely not the case. All the schisms that have occurred within the Christian church since its inception, point towards two options: at best God hides in the background or otherwise God is absent.

    • At 10:08 am, October 20, 2008, Blogger Matt Page said…

      Hi Tico,

      Many thanks for your two detailed responses, which have given me a deal to think on. At this point I don't entirely buy it, but I'm open to the possibility that this could just be because I'm trying to substantiate my own beliefs. Something for me to think on.

      Unfortunately, I simply don't have the time, or typing speed (!) to be able to respond to your post more fully. I know that probably sounds like a cop-out, and perhaps it is, but at the end of the day I don't really have much of a passion for engaging in extended debates with those with whom I disagree. I am, however, sorry to hear of the situation your family was put in. Sounds pretty awful. FWIW it's not too dissimilar from a situation that part of my own family is in at the moment.

      Sorry if this feels like a brush off. I genuinely do appreciate the time you have spent posting here, I'm just not presently in a situation to be able to do them justice.

      Thank you


    • At 2:55 pm, October 20, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said…


      I am pleasantly surprised to see you have already responded, compared to my lengthy time-out.

      It was not my intention to overwhelm you and expect an immediate reply at the same time. I am always curious and interested to discuss theists, but understand that these discussions take time that we can not always afford. I will be checking in now and then to see if you responded anyway.

      Regards and take care with the family issues, Tico

    • At 5:54 pm, October 20, 2008, Blogger Matt Page said…

      Thanks Tico


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