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The Trial and Death of Jesus

(according to the biblical accounts,  compared with the versions in the Gospel of Peter and the Gospel of Nicodemus (Acts of Pilate)

Readers of the Bible will be familiar (to an extent!) with the accounts of the trial and crucifixion  of Jesus, as given in the gospels of Matthew, Mark , Luke and John, although minor differing details are encountered.  It must be said at the outset that it is by no means certain that these gospels were written by the people ascribed and that we do not know exactly when they were written. It is also highly unlikely that any of the writers were actual eyewitnesses of the events they describe, since the best estimates put the authorship to about 50 to 80 years after Christ`s death. It also does seem as if Mark and Luke took their cue from Matthew (if indeed he was the first to write) and to a large extent John followed although he is different and more original.

It might be useful at this juncture to look at the accounts in the four major gospels. We can take them in biblical order: first, therefore, Matthew, 27 and 28. In summary, Jesus is brought before Pilate, and although believing  Jesus was innocent, gave way to Jewish clamour and sent him to be crucified. with two criminals. As Jesus` end drew near, darkness descended and Jesus cried out My God, my God why hast thou forsaken me?  At the hour of his death, Mary Magdalen and Mary, mother of Jesus remained . The body was entombed  and so we are told a great stone sealed it off. Mary Magdalen and the other Mary witnessed the burial. A guard was placed round the tomb to prevent the seizure of the body. Next day Mary Magdalene and Jesus` mother came to the tomb and were met by an angel who told them that Jesus had risen. The women then ran away to report their experience to the disciples but before they could report they met Jesus who told them to inform the disciples . Meanwhile the disappearance of the body had been discovered and the chief priests  determined to cover up the actual occurrence by bribery.  Later on the disciples saw Jesus who spoke words of encouragement to them and instructed them to go and  “teach all nations”.

Mark`s version of the trial and death are largely similar to Matthew`s, with Mary Magdalene playing the same part. The day following, the two Mary`s visited the tomb and saw “a young man” sitting inside who told the frightened women to seek out the disciples.  At this point, Mark`s gospel differs somewhat from Matthew`s: a day later, Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene who then went and reported to the disciples. Later Jesus “in another form” appeared to two of them who then went and spoke with the other disciples, Afterwards, he met with the eleven apostles and ate a meal with them. Jesus told them to go and preach the gospel to the world. After more words of encouragement , Jesus as it were disappeared and was “received up into heaven” ; then the disciples went forth and discharged their master`s instructions.

Up to the reporting of the news concerning the empty tomb (by Mary Magdalene to the disciples) Luke`s version is similar to that of Matthew and Mark. From this point, the narrative differs somewhat. A certain two (believers?)  were walking to the village of Emmaus when Christ, unrecognised by the two, joined them and asked them what they were discussing.  They replied that they were talking about the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. They related the events of the weekend, the empty tomb and the role of the women attendants. That evening the “stranger” had a meal with them and broke bread, blessing it and gave to his companions. At that moment they realised who their guest was  – but Christ  then “vanished”.  They then returned to Jerusalem, where they found the eleven apostles, declaring that the Lord had indeed risen, As they were discussing the news, Jesus suddenly appeared, and spoke to them, asking them why they were troubled. Christ said to them, Feel my wounds. After this, Jesus asked if there was anything to eat.  They gave him some fish which he ate. Jesus then spoke concerning the scriptures; that all must be fulfilled according to the prophets. It is written

that Christ must suffer and will  rise from the dead. This event will bring repentance and remission of sins. You are the witnesses., Jesus said. I send the promise of my father and you will be endowed with power from on high. Then they all went towards Bethaney. and there he blessed them . After the blessing was over, Jesus was “carried up into heaven”. Then all the apostles were joyful and returned to Jerusalem, praising and blessing God.

John`s gospel follows the same line as the other three writers but deviates somewhat at the point where Mary Magdalene discovers the empty tomb and meets what she initially thought was the gardener. When Christ calls her name she realises instantly that it is Jesus before her. She tries to touch him but Jesus tells her not to as he had not yet “ascended to my Father”. Mary then went and told the disciples that she had seen and spoken to the Lord. That same evening Jesus appeared  to the disciples in a room where they were gathered, and showed them his wounds. My father, he said, has sent me; he breathed on them, and said Receive the Holy Ghost. As it happened. one of the apostles, Thomas , was not present and when told of the happenings, refused to believe, unless he felt Jesus` wounds. About a week later, when the apostles including Thomas were gathered together, Jesus appeared in their midst ,telling

Thomas  to touch his wounds. Then  Thomas believed, but Jesus mildly berated him for his unbelief. John then speaks about many other things which Jesus did in this place which he (John) did not write down. Later on Jesus showed himself again to his disciples near Tiberias. Some of the disciples went fishing, but caught nothing. A man stood on the shore, but the fishers did not recognise Christ. He called out to the men to cast their nets on the right side of the ship and immediately their nets were heavy with fish. When it was pointed out to Peter that indeed it was the Lord, he flung himself into the sea to greet Jesus. When Peter and the others reached the shore they found a fire already kindled and some fish cooking. Come and dine, said Jesus, but none dare ask who he was, knowing it was the Lord. As John says, this was the third time Christ had shown himself. After this, Jesus spoke to Peter, asking him if he loved him (Jesus) more than others. Three times Jesus asked this question of Peter and three times Peter answered Yes, and each time  Jesus tells Peter to  “feed his sheep.” Jesus then delivers a type of short homily, saying that when one is young one helps others, but when old, help is sought from others, The disciples took this as referring to their master`s death, At this point, Peter thought it opportune to ask Christ who would betray him (Christ). Jesus replied What is that to you? This reply caused some consternation among the faithful, as it seemed to denote that the betrayer might escape retribution. John concludes that all he has written down is true, but that there are many other things Jesus did and said, too many to write down.

 

As we can see, the four gospel writers differ somewhat in their accounts of the final days of Jesus. Instances of the meetings with Jesus, their circumstances, the role of the women, especially of Mary Magdalene, the actual words spoken by Jesus, the importance of the tomb, the angel or angels as messengers, are some of the differences. Is one version more credible than the other/s? And does it matter if the significant fact is that Jesus rose from the dead, and this belief is basically all that counts? For two thousand years the differences have been minimised and the main fact acknowledged. But is this the correct path to take? Surely the accounts of the major apostles should be largely consonant . One difficulty about resolving this is the fact that probably  none of the four gospel writers was an  eye-witness of the events he  was  describing. Furthermore we do not know for sure who the writers (ascribed) actually were; also we are  not sure when the documents were written. Faced with these differences, it is possible to conclude that the writers vied with each other`s version to make theirs different, and that the corollary of this was/is that some (much?) of the version is untrue.. Whether this is too strong a statement, it is incontrovertible that all four writers do differ in their accounts of the most significant events in Jesus` life: his trial and death and especially his appearances later.

Apart from the caveats I have entered above regarding the authenticity and reliabilityof the four versions, it must be remembered that they were selected as appropriate for the “canon” by people, Jews and Christians, who chose them as agreeing most with current  religious dogma. They are therefore not necessarily the most veracious accounts. There are many more documents not included in the biblical canon than there are in it. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the bible is only a selection of the multifarious texts written on our subject at approximately the same time. Other (differing) texts have been excluded, or suppressed, or altered in translation over centuries and others have been discovered, often contrasting with the “official” version.

In any case there is no such thing as “the “ bible; different religions have different versions, some including  texts where others exclude .

Let us look at some “non-canonical” texts which differ significantly from the official versions in the bible. I must state at the outset that these versions are no more to be regarded as a true relation of events, any more than those contained in the accepted sc riptures. But they are different and presented as documents containing an alternative view of events. They may be believed or accepted according to the individual . However as they are not generally encountered, I believe it is only fitting that they are given due attention.

There are several documents which could be cited  whose contents are significantly different from the biblical versions. Let us take one: the Gospel of Peter.

Peter of course was one of the (major) apostles, but like the other writers penned  “his” gospel about 100 years or more after Christ`s crucifixion. (It is probably the case therefore that this gospel was one of the pseudonymous documents of the time).Peter`s gospel is unfortunately fragmentary as we have it now. In the early years of Christianity the gospel was well known and acceptable to clergy. It does however contrast in many respects with the accounts given in the four major gospels in its describing of the final events in Jesus` life. Probably the main feature which differentiates Peter`s gospel from the others is in its veiled attack on the Jews of the time as being responsible for Jesus crucifixion rather than the Romans. Thus Herod is blamed while in contrast, Pontius Pilate is absolved. Why this attitude was adopted we are not quite sure, except that “Peter” , the author, was clearly intent on blaming his fellow countrymen for their lack of support for Jesus at the so-called trial.  This opinion may have been acceptable to the nascent Church and early believers, but what was not acceptable and led to the demise or disuse of the Peter gospel was the view that Christ did not suffer and did not die on the cross – a point of view known as the docetic heresy. Herein lies the other main difference between the major four and Peter. The gospel was therefore eventually seen as heretical. Why this heresy? Simplistically it may be replied that as God made man, Jesus could not possibly suffer;  or even more radically that the figure on the cross was  not the real Christ, but maybe some sort of chimera. According to this philosophy, a distinction was made between the material and the spiritual, thus denying that Christ assumed human form. This view was also in essence a denial of the incarnation and the corollary was that Christ could not have suffered and died on the cross. There are other differences but they are minor compared with the two mentioned.

One notable feature of the gospel is the use of the word “I” and reference to companions which suggests that the document was indeed actually written by Peter. But as we have seen, this is unlikely. It may be as Wikipedia points out , that the gospel may not have actually been written by Peter but may have been “circulated under the authority of the apostle Peter”. It is a moot question whether the gospel has as its source the canonical gospels or whether it was actually written by a witness of early Christianity. One difficulty with the theory that the Peter gospel may have some antecedents contained in the Synoptic gospels (those of Matthew, Mark and Luke) lies in the fact that the Peter gospel does not seem to have used any distinctive material in the gospels of these three writers. Of course the Peter writer may still have been  familiar with the synoptic gospels and unwittingly employed some of their material. Also Peter does not seem to be concerned with prophetic predictions re the fate of Jesus. It does seem however that the Peter gospel had been deliberately written in sympathy with the docetic philosophy.

Be that as it may, the salient feature of Peter is the note of anti-judaism, whereby Herod as we said is not blamed for Jesus` crucifixion whereas Pilate is. Also there is the docetic approach to the subject and other details in Peter which are different from those seen in the canonical gospels. One of the main features different in Peter is the claim that Christ apparently did not suffer on the cross, probably did not die, and was immediately “taken up” . There is also some debate about the translation of Christ`s words on the cross, usually given as “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” but given in Peter as “My power, my power, thou hast forsaken me”.   Another striking deviant from the version seen in the four gospels, lies in the fact that the detailed descriptions of the resurrection and ascension in Peter are seen to happen on the same day, not, as we gather from the synoptic gospels, separate events occurring on different days. There are also minor differences such as in Peter alluding to the cross (in the tomb) as speaking and moving, and three beings emerging from the tomb with presumably very tall bodies as their heads reached the heavens, or reached towards the heavens, as we are told. The gospel then ends with the disciples leaving Jerusalem, and no mention of a physical,  resurrected Jesus.

`           As we have mentioned, the Gospel of Peter is in fragmentary form. The version we shall study in this article is the Akhmin (a city in Egypt) text, discovered in 1886. The opening pages are missing so the narrative begins somewhat abruptly at the trial of Jesus before Pilate. The first few words are some of the most significant as they set the tone of the Peter gospel , reading “none of the Jews washed their hands. Neither Herod nor his judges. Since they did not want to wash, Pilate stood up….” This of course indicates that the Jews did not regard Jesus as an innocent man, while absolving Pilate, the Roman, from blame for Christ`s eventual crucifixion.

The next passage in the Peter gospel tells of Pilate giving permission for Jesus body (after it was crucified!) to be given to Joseph but it was Herod who handed over Jesus to the Jewish people for their judgement and persecution,

The next section is given to the abuse which Jesus then had to suffer: mockery, crowning with thorns, scourging, and so on. On the cross, According to Peter, Jesus appeared not to show pain – another docetic feature of this account.  A few sentences later we read that the Lord cried out “My power, my power, you have forsaken me” and that then he was “taken up” , while he was on the cross –  but what this really means is not clear as Jesus body was later handed over to Joseph of Arimathea for burial.

At this juncture, the writer of the gospel says “I was grieving with my friends” which seems to be Peter identifying himself  (as the author). After this the Peter gospel follows accepted lines:  the guards set before the tomb, the stone rolled across the entrance.  The next piece of narration however differs from the synoptic versions when we are told that a great voice came from heaven which opened and two men descended. At their approach the great stone rolled away and the two men entered . The soldiers saw three men coming out of the tomb, two supporting a third and the cross following. Here is the puzzling reference to the heads reaching the “heavens” and a voice asking “Did you preach to those who sleep?” The cross replied: “Yes”. A very strange episode indeed.

(In an attempt at elucidation, it may very well be said that the “heavens” may  not have a modern connotation, but merely is a way of stating that the “bodies” that emerged were upright and pointing towards the sky/heavens or indeed were not actually on the earth, but were seemingly “floating” above the ground. Presumably the voice from above is the voice of God, asking if Jesus at his death so influenced the crowd (and the soldiers) gathered round about his dying form that all unbelief turned into deep belief that he indeed was the Saviour. )

Naturally all that had happened was reported to Pilate. At this time according to the Peter Gospel,  a man came down from the “heavens” and entered the tomb. (We are told no more about this in the text.) Pilate,  we read,  adjudged it politic not to reveal the circumstances and to swear the soldiers to secrecy.

The next day, Mary Magdalene and other women went to the tomb and found it was empty. They entered and saw a “beautiful” man in the tomb who asked them why they had come; he said,  the one you seek is risen and has gone “out there where he was sent”. The women were terrified and fled.

Towards the conclusion of the gospel,  Peter refers to “we, the twelve disciples of the Lord”  grieving and departing each  to his own house. But , he goes on to relate, “I, Simon Peter and my brother Andrew took our nets and went out to the sea…”

The fragmentary gospel ends abruptly here. However it can readily be seen that this Peter gospel is very different , at least in its emphasis and general approach, to the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John in their versions of the trial and crucifixion of Jesus. Which one of the five is to be given most credence?

But before we consider this question let us look at yet another version of the trial, death and above all, resurrection and appearance of Jesus as narrated in the so-called Gospel of Nicodemus (or Acts of Pilate, as it is otherwise known). There are two versions of this gospel: Greek 1 and Greek 2.  Greek 1 largely is along the same lines as the four major gospels, at least until the accounts   of the trial, torture and crucifixion of Jesus; but becomes different from the four in its subsequent details. For example, Mary Magdalene in not mentioned, and the risen Christ appears first to Joseph (of Arimethea) and to three (unnamed) men. The tone of anti-semitism is clear however.

Whether this (or these) “gospels” are genuinely written by ancient scholars whose aim is purely to set the facts right is ,like so much in this field debatable.The gospel of Nicodemus , Greek version 1, as we have said. is largely similar to the four gospels in narrating Jesus` trial and death though the parts dealing with the phenomenon of the resurrection do differ. Greek version 2, however differs quite substantially from the four and also from Greek 1, especially lines dealing with the appearances of Jesus, after his crucifixion. It does for example mention Mary Magdalene. Let us have a quick look at the gospel of Nicodemus – purported to be by him but highly unlikely. Nicodemus gains a place in biblical accounts as a friend of Joseph of  Arimethea who we are told placed with Nicodemus` help Jesus body in the tomb. Nicodemus was a member of the Sanhedrin, the ruling class at that time of the Jews, History teaches that at Jesus trial he spoke up for him, “His” gospel certainly portrays Nicodemus as a believer and supporter of Jesus at his trial. The story goes that Nicodemus was later converted to Christianity and ultimately because of this he died a martyr`s death.

We have to state at the outset that the gospel (or gospels) of Nicodemus are much later than the gospels mentioned above: about 300 AD. As we are aware this fact does not make documents any less credible – but maybe give us pause. Apart from exhibiting prejudice towards Jews, it is clear that the author meant to give evidence as regards Jesus resurrection –virtual proof we might say. As Nicodemus himself writes, “These be the things which after the cross and passion of the Lord, Nicodemus recorded and delivered unto the high priest and the rest of the Jews: and the same Nicodemus set them forth in Hebrew.” Clearly Nicodemus could not have written the “gospel” adjudged to be from about 300 AD ! (BUT perhaps there was an earlier version of this gospel – or the dating is erroneous!) Either way , the gospel is interesting in its insights into biblical history and particularly into probably the most important event of Christianity: the truth of the Resurrection. Much of the narration is taken up with matters relating to Jesus` trial, and then we get a mention of Nicodemus who it appears pleaded with Pilate for the innocence of Jesus; other witnesses came forward testifying to Christ`s powers and goodness.. As we know, the Jews clamoured for Jesus` death, while Pilate believing in his innocence “Washed his hands” of the matter, but felt he had to bow to pressure and finally handed Jesus over to the populace

`           Seemingly at the time of Jesus death, the twelve disciples were not to be found, and only to be mentioned were Joseph and Nicodemus , and “the women….from Galilee” among whom we suppose were the two Marys. Undoubtedly the Jews were castigated in the gospel, clamouring for Jesus crucifixion and then afterwards bribing the guard of the tomb not to say anything about the circumstances of Jesus resurrection. Then we are told of a “certain priest” who with hi s two companions revealed he had seen Jesus and the disciples in a mountainous area near Galilee. This priest also told of Jesus being “taken up into heaven”  – after he had finished speaking to his disciples. .However, the elders of the Jewish priests refused to believe this news , calling it “an idle tale” and banishing the priest and his companions, so to prevent the news from spreading. When the Jewish leaders were discussing these events, Nicodemus again appears addressing the council telling them to believe the news of a resurrected Jesus. A search was then organised to find Jesus throughout Israel but to no purpose.

The next passages are mostly concerning the activities of Joseph and Nicodemus , not of any great moment, until  Joseph speaks of having met the Lord.

He felt “a flashing of light”, and greatly afraid fell to the ground, but someone took him by the hand , wiped his face and said the words “Fear not, Joseph.” He looked up and “saw Jesus” Joseph then prayed mistrusting his sight , and asked “the spirit” who he was: “I am Jesus” was the reply. Joseph continues by saying that the Lord kissed him, telling him that he (Jesus) was to go to Galilee to meet up with his “brethren”.

On hearing of this the high priests were greatly troubled and perplexed The rulers of the synagogue decided to meet with the priest and his two companions (who had seen Jesus with his disciples) to interrogate them. They verified what they had seen and witnessed Jesus ascent into heaven, Much discussion then arose among the Jewish  leaders. Greatly fearing what might happen next, the Jewish leaders  “admonished all Israel” virtually forbidding anyone to believe in the resurrection The people after this praised the one true Lord (discounting Jesus as Messiah) and made mention of “his people” (the Jewish nation) , rejoicing in the fact.

`           The gospel closes with a mention of a letter which Pilate sent to the Emperor Claudius in which he related the events of the trial and execution of  Jesus, whose tone exculpates the author. (The gist of the letter is therefore given at the end of Nicodemus gospel, but the actual letter itself is lost).

Quite obviously the appearances of Jesus after the crucifixion are very different from those related in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John and also in the gospel of Peter, discussed above. However the differences are even more marked in the second Greek form which we shall now consider,

`           This narrative was ,we read, translated by Nicodemus into the Hebrew tongue (the original was as we know in Greek)  – so says the introduction. Whether this should be given credence is another matter.

The account given in this gospel2 of the trial is in the main consonant with those related in the gospels mentioned above – but in more detail. As in Greek version1 Nicodemus attempts a few mitigating words on Jesus behalf and other witnesses similar to those in the first version, also speak. It is clear that Pilate was mystified by the animosity of the Jews to Jesus. However Pilate does eventually hand over Jesus into the jurisdiction of the Jews.

In this gospel, John alone  of the disciples followed after Jesus. He meets Mary, the mother of Jesus, who weeping is accompanied by Mary Magdalene and other women. Seeing the great grief of Mary the crowd tried to drive her from the road, but Mary was steadfast, crying out , “Kill me first, ye lawless Jews”. Later at the foot of the cross, Mary laments passionately. Jesus` last words are as reported in the previous gospels as is the darkness that comes upon  the scene,

Joseph and Nicodemus beg of Pilate the body of Christ and place the body in a tomb while the two Marys and others anoint the body and wrap it in white linen. Mary Magdalene and Joseph lament aloud virtually addressing the people who  remained: “Hear ,o peoples, learn to what death the lawless Jews have delivered him who did them ten thousand good deeds”. Later Joseph was put in prison for his part in the final moments of Jesus.

The next day, the guard went to the prison but there was no sign of Joseph. They also found the tomb of Jesus empty. The soldiers` account was that an angel came down from heaven and rolled away the stone, The women saw the angel who spoke to them  saying He is risen and gone into Galilee.

After this , the Jews instituted a search for Joseph and the risen Jesus, bribing the guard to say nothing about their experience. “Up to this day, this same lying tale is told among the Jews” – a significant sentence!

Later on, three men came from Galilee to Jerusalem, saying  to the chief priests and the people, that they had seen Jesus “Whom you crucified” with his eleven apostles upon the Mount of Olives.. Jesus it appears was instructing the disciples and when he had finished “he went up into heaven”. The chief priests called the testimony “lies” and also bribed the men not to talk further of the matter. Naturally, however, the people of the land heard the story which caused “great commotion” but the leaders of the community told the populace not to believe the story of the three men.

The next item in the gospel tells of Nicodemus addressing the inhabitants of Jerusalem, about Jesus, saying it is not incredible for Jesus to have risen as several others have done before him, Elijah, for example. Therefore it is advisable to search Galilee for the resurrected Jesus. It appears that this they did but to no avail as they did not find Jesus, but did locate Joseph in Arimathea. The chief priests then decided to send a letter to Joseph entreating him to meet them and confessing the wrong they had done to Jesus.

The next day Joseph returned to Jerusalem where the chief priests asked Joseph to tell the “ truth” regarding the burial of Christ and about his (Joseph`s) strange escape from imprisonment. Joseph then spoke the following words –(possibly the most important part of the gospel and differing significantly from the versions in the five gospels above),

 

While I was imprisoned, I prayed and at midnight I saw four angels holding my prison

House by its four corners. Then Jesus suddenly appeared, I fell to the ground with fright but Jesus raised me and told me not to fear, and told me to turn around to see who it was. I am Jesus,  he said . Show me the tomb, I said, then I shall believe. He took me by the hand and led me to the tomb which was empty. I immediately fell to adoring him. Then once again he took me by the hand and brought me to my house in Arimathea, instructing me to remain there for forty days, saying that he had to go to his disciples who would proclaim his resurrection.

 

The chief priests of course did not believe him,  saying to the people that Jesus was a mortal man of mortal parents. They decided to summon the three men who had met Jesus, to question them. The three were found and brought before the council: in reply to questioning, they said , We saw Jesus alive on the Mount of Olives and going up to heaven. The leaders of the Jews believed the statement of the men as it was reiterated by all three. Joseph, they said, with Nicodemus attended to Jesus` body , buried him, and therefore it is the truth that he has risen.

 

(Here ends the gospel of Nicodemus)

 

It can readily be seen that in outline the six gospels we have briefly looked at are

similar to each other in the substance of the trials. The death scenarios do differ somewhat, but it is in those sections dealing with the resurrection and appearances of Jesus that most differences are seen  All are intent on establishing the truth of Jesus resurrection and his appearances. Read any one of the six gospels and that is the impression one has. It maybe that some of the gospels are briefer than others in this respect, maybe not as detailed. It could be said that the gospel of Nicodemus dwells longest on the appearances and may have been written expressly to leave no doubt that Jesus did rise from the dead and subsequently appeared to several people.