Jesus may have been crucified because his followers were carrying weapons, according to a scholarly analysis of New Testament books.
Dale Martin, a professor of religious studies at Yale University, says that this aspect of stories about Jesus, as told in the gospels, has received too little attention, but could alone explain Jesus’s execution and also show that the man from Nazareth was not the pacifist he’s usually made out to be.
The biblical books of Mark and Luke both state that at least one (and probably two or more) of Jesus’s followers was carrying a sword when Jesus was arrested shortly after the Last Supper, at the time of the Jewish festival of Passover. One disciple, Simon Peter, even used his sword to cut off the ear of one of those arresting Jesus, according to the Gospel of John.
This militant behavior almost certainly wouldn’t have been tolerated by the Romans, led by the prefect Pontius Pilate, Martin tells Newsweek. For example, historical documents show that it was illegal at the time to walk about armed in Rome and in some other Roman cities. Although no legal records survive from Jerusalem, it stands to reason, based on a knowledge of Roman history, that the region’s rulers would have frowned upon the carrying of swords, and especially wouldn’t have tolerated an armed band of Jews roaming the city during Passover, an often turbulent festival, Martin says.
“Just as you could be arrested in Rome for even having a dagger, if Jesus’s followers were armed, that would be reason enough to crucify him,” says Martin, whose analysis was published this month in the Journal for the Study of the New Testament.
Harold Attridge, a former dean of the Yale Divinity School who wasn’t involved with the paper, tells Newsweek that Martin’s analysis is sound and that “likely the Romans would have been severe against someone seen as a political threat,” as almost certainly would have been the case with Jesus.
The paper “reminds us that the early followers of Jesus and perhaps Jesus himself were inevitably thrown into conflict with arbitrary state terrorism by the Roman Empire [in which] Romans practiced both random and intentional violence against populations they had conquered, killing tens of thousands by crucifixion,” says New Testament scholar Hal Taussig, who is with the Union Theological Seminary in New York.
Martin’s paper addresses an even more important question, says Bart Ehrman, a professor at the University of North Carolina: Why were Jesus’s followers armed at all, especially during a religious festival?
Martin makes the case that Jesus and his followers were likely expecting that an apocalyptic showdown was on the horizon, one in which divine forces (in the form of angels) would destroy Rome and Herod’s temple and usher in a holy reign. And this might require some fighting by Jesus’s disciples, he adds.
It sounds pretty far-out, but a similar scenario is described in parts of the Book of Revelation. And this scenario of “heavenly forces joined by human forces...was an expectation in a central document of the Dead Sea Scrolls,” a group of texts that shed light on the thinking of various Jewish peoples around the time of Jesus, Martin adds.
Indeed, many academics who study the historicity of the Bible believe “that Jesus was an apocalyptic Jewish prophet who was expecting an imminent arrival of the kingdom of God on Earth,” Martin says.
The paper also suggests that Jesus may have been in favor of fighting, at least in this apocalyptic instance, Ehrman tells Newsweek.
“It’s making me rethink my view that Jesus was a complete pacifist,” he says. “And it takes a lot for me to change my views about Jesus.”
But not everybody agreed with Martin’s points. While the paper is an “extraordinary contribution,” Taussig says, it’s “almost impossible for us to know many of the things professor Martin proposes—whether they are historically valid or not.”
Establishing the real history behind the books of the Bible is what this branch of scholarship is all about, and it’s no easy task, considering that the Gospels were written 40 to 60 years after the life of Jesus, by people who didn’t witness the events firsthand. And as you might imagine, there is much disagreement amongst scholars.
Paula Fredriksen, a historian of ancient Christianity at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, says Martin’s paper has several holes “that you could drive trucks through.”
For one, she doesn’t think it’s legitimate to assume that since carrying arms was illegal in the city of Rome, the same laws necessarily applied in Jerusalem. Control of the city wasn’t too tight, she argues, and the Roman prefect visited only during Passover, to help keep the peace. And during this time it probably would’ve been impossible to police the thousands of Jews that spilled into Jerusalem.
“I can’t even imagine what a mess it was,” she says.
Furthermore, she says, the Greek word used in the Gospels that Martin interprets as sword really means something more akin to knife. And these could be easily concealed, she adds. “Only professionals,” like soldiers, “carried swords,” she says.
But she appreciates Martin for “working his argument,” as that’s what people who study the history of the Bible do. The inevitable controversy and argument is “fun,” Fredriksen says. “It’s a contact sport.”