Reading: The Final Days of Jesus by Mark D. Smith

SubTitle: The Thrill of Defeat, The Agony of Victory: A Classical Historian Explores Jesus’s Arrest, Trial, and Execution

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Finished: March 21, 2018





[Image from Amazon]

As the subtitle explains, this book is an historical view of Jesus’ death, not a theological one.

“… this book differs from other books. It comes from the pen of a classical historian and from the perspective of ancient Roman culture, both of which promise a different, richer, more nuanced understanding of the people and issues at play that make the Passover of AD 33 so compelling and endlessly fascinating.” [Loc 162]

In an early chapter Smith provides a short review of the scholastic historical approach. “In particular, we will discuss five [principles]: proximity [in time], corroboration, consistency, cui bono (‘to whose good’), and authorial intent” [Loc 575] He likens classical history to building a 1,000 piece jigsaw puzzle with only 100 pieces – many of which are broken and scuffed – and with no picture to guide the process. A Classical historian puts the pieces in place to his/her best ability and details the rationale.

Smith explains how three people came together over the Passover to change history: Pontius Pilate – a “marginally competent governor of an obscure Roman province: Judea”; Chanin ben Seth – known in the New Testament as Annas – “a self-made man from a minor priestly family who had risen to the position of high priest of Israel from AD 6 to 15”; and Jesus – “an obscure itinerant Jewish teacher … far from the urban bustle of Jerusalem” [ Locs 151 -156]

“Pilate appears int he pages of [the chronicles of] Josephus more a an oaf than an ogre.” [Loc 1460]. He had gotten crosswise with the Jews over three problems: “Affair of the Standards, the Aqueduct Riot, and the Affair of the Shields” [Loc 1353]. In addition, Pilate’s mentor had been executed for treason. Therefore, Pilate couldn’t afford many more problems without raising a red flag with the emperor. By AD 33 Pilate knew he needed to support the priestly families in order to have their support.

Smith – using the historical approach outlined above – pays close attention to Jesus’ cleansing of the temple. Jesus was not against animal sacrifice nor the presence of money changers “but the ruthless profiteering and exploitation perpetrated by the high-priestly establishment in the name of God.” [Loc 229] Jesus was threatening the lucrative business of the Jewish leaders. “From Jesus, perspective, if there was anything that needed cleansing (or perhaps purging is a better word), it was the leadership of the house of Annas.” [Loc 2308]

The high priestly families were cognizant of the large group that followed Jesus, so they had to act carefully. In order to prevent a scene, Annas had Jesus arrested at night and brought before a small private gathering of Annas’ loyal supporters in his home. Annas needed to share the responsibility with the Roman leadership, so he charged Jesus with “the specific charge, ‘King of the Jews’, [which] carried with it an implicit threat” against the Roman Empire. [Loc 3048]

Smith makes the point that

“for the trial under Pilate, our evidence is even stronger that the very strong evidence for the high priests’ inquest. Our evidence is early, multiple, includes both strong and weak corroboration, and provides opportunity for cross-examination. That there was a trial of Jesus before Pontius Pilate is supported by at least six different sources. It is the highest probability event of anything under consideration in this study and one of the most probable events in all ancient history.” [Loc 3337]

Pilate had learned from his earlier problems with the Jewish priestly families. He made sure that Annas and his compatriots expressed themselves clearly that they wanted Jesus to be executed. “[he] forced Annas and his supporters to declare themselves with the utmost clarity” [Loc 3581] … “For all his blunderings in this early years, from the perspective of Roman governance this was PIlate’s finest hour.” [Loc 3591]

The book is much more detailed than this (lengthy) summary provides. Smith expertly lays out his evidence in reconstructing the events.

So, of course, Jesus was crucified. Smith is an expert on Roman capital punishment and provides extensive evidence on the methods employed. He warns that this part of the book is grim. He isn’t kidding. Smith addresses the topic of whether Jesus was buried.

“[John Dominic] Crossan’s [argues] that it is unlikely that Jesus was ever buried after the Roman’s crucified him, for, he asserted, denial of burial was part of the standard punishment the Romans meted out to those they executed.”[Loc 121]

In fact, Smith argues

“According to Roman law, criminals condemned to death must be buried. Only in the case of the highest form of treason … was denial of burial permitted (but not required.”[Loc 4105

I came upon this book because the author is a history professor where I earned my B.A. – The College of Idaho. With Easter approaching and this being related to one of my areas of interest, reading it was a no-brainer. Mark D. Smith outlines the rules of classical scholarship and shows how he uses them in his study. I hope this doesn’t need to be said – but it can be a crazy word sometimes, Smith is not making the case that Jews bear the responsibility for Jesus’ crucifixion. So, let’s not go there.



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