Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Trial of Jesus Christ and The Last Supper

Two Mysteries

The story that you have just read is the one that most people know.   It is a combination of all four of the Gospel accounts of the trial of Jesus Christ, the Gospels of Mark, Luke, Matthew, and John.  Just as in the case of many of the stories in the Bible, our imagination is stimulated by what we have read, or what we have heard from the pulpit.  We take bits of information from each of the Gospels and weave these bits into a single narrative, making that story our own.  This, then, becomes the story as we remember it.  In a sense, each of us becomes the author of the story of the trial of Jesus, and each version is unique.  Surely, we tell ourselves, this is how it really must have been. 

There are at least two mysteries here.   One is whether or not this trial of Jesus Christ really happened, and, if it happened, whether it occurred as the Gospels present it.  The second mystery is the question:  Who is responsible for the death of Jesus?  For those who believe that the trial of Jesus and his crucifixion really happened, the second mystery is of the greatest importance.  For two millenia, assigning blame has been a continuing controversy.

Unraveling these mysteries is an almost impossible task.   It is much more complicated than a single trial, a verdict, and a sentence.  As Michael Grant has written: 

Then followed the most famous trial in the history of mankind; though it may have been no trial, or trials, at all, but a series of hurried unofficial examinations.

How does one examine an event that (according to some) may or may not have actually happened, and yet two thousand years later reverberates in the lives and beliefs of countless people?   This examination that resulted in the death of Jesus of Nazareth is the turning point in the history of Christianity.  As one astute priest once observed, In order to get to Easter, you have to go through Good Friday.  And without Easter --- without the Resurrection --- there is no Christianity.

The Passion, Gibson movie still
The Passion, Gibson movie still

An illustration of the challenges faced when writing about the trial of Jesus can be found in the controversy surrounding the Mel Gibson film, The Passion.   The title is more appropriate than Gibson intended, for the very argument of the film has aroused passions of monumental scope.  Primarily, the controversy found in the advanced publicity about Gibsons film involves the role of the Jews in the condemnation and eventual execution of Jesus, an age-old problem that has plagued Jewish-Christian relationships for centuries.  Even absolution of blame by the Pope has not lessened the suspicion that some Christians have for Jews, or the indignation that some Jews have when Christians indict them.  Those who have viewed the film are firm in their responses.  The Jewish Anti-Defamation League considers the film dangerously anti-Semitic.  Billy Graham finds Gibsons efforts beautiful and moving.  The Pope himself has praised the film.  A website,, presents published criticisms of Gibsons film, and refutes each of them with (one might say) passion.

Sculpted image of Jesus
Sculpted image of Jesus
In many respects, for all of his veneration and importance to the lives of millions upon millions of people throughout the world, Jesus of Nazareth is an enigmatic figure.   Many Westerners conceive him as a tall, fair Anglo-Saxon with long hair and a neat beard, speaking in an upper-class British accent, much as the actor playing Jesus did in Franco Zefferellis film.  The argument is often that Jesus is whoever we wish him to be, which, some say, is appropriate to the nature of the Son of God.  That Man is made in the image of God carries over to how we visualize Jesus.

Any treatment of the trial of Jesus must depend on the four Gospels of Mark, Luke, Matthew, and John.   Much as we would like there to be, there are no other substantive sources.  There are passing references in the Acts of the Apostles, and in the Letters of Paul. There are some further comments from late first century and second century historians, such as Josephus, Livy, and Pliny.  However, with the exception of the writings of Paul, the works of the historians are so far removed from the events that they can be considered as mere Gospel citations, drawing on oral history in the same way that the Gospel writers did.

In examining the trial of Jesus, someones sensibilities will be offended.  No writer of these events can be completely dispassionate.  Still, it is a fascinating and fundamental event in human history, and one that has enough mystery in it to satisfy the committed, the skeptical, and the curious.

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