05 / 06

Jesus’ Passion: Hype or History?

William Lane Craig responds to movie

Time : 00:33:24

A response to Mel Gibson's surprise blockbuster 'The Passion of the Christ' exploring the claim of revisionist biblical critics such as John Dominic Crossan, Marcus Borg, and Paula Frederickson that the actual events of Jesus' Passion were significantly different than those portrayed in Gibson's movie. Dr. Craig explains that the revisionists' account of the Passion is just a part of a wider revisionist view of Jesus himself aimed at radically re-interpreting Jesus.


INTRODUCTION: Dr. Craig is a Professor of Philosophy at the Talbot School of Theology and has written a number of books, some of which you may be familiar with. The place where you are most likely to have encountered his name is because I know so many of you have read the book is in the book The Case for Christ – Lee Strobel’s series of interviews with different experts in various fields. Dr. Craig was one of those interviewed.

I have personally benefited greatly from Dr. Craig’s ministry. He is somebody who is one of our nation’s leading experts in defending the truth claims of the Christian faith. He has done so with great effectiveness, especially for me it was in listening to a series of tapes called “A Reasonable Faith” that Dr. Craig developed that I found that I was made far more effective in knowing how best to engage the unbelieving world around me and to respond to some of the concerns that people brought to me as people outside of the faith exploring what it would mean to become a follower of Christ. While I have just had the opportunity to meet Dr. Craig for the first time this morning, I have benefited from his ministry and his serving of the Lord for the last fifteen years.

This morning, we’ve asked Dr. Craig if he would bring to us remarks that tie in with some of his area of expertise which has to do with the historical reliability of the Christian faith claims with some of where we’ve been walking on the crossroads, making our way to Jerusalem with Jesus in his passionate pursuit of the cross. We’ve asked Dr. Craig if he would address the question of whether or not the Gospel accounts are reliable and he is going to do that, especially focusing this morning on Jesus’ Passion. “Jesus’ Passion, Hype or History?” is what Dr. Craig will be addressing this morning. Bill, it is a pleasure for us to welcome you here to our pulpit.

DR. CRAIG: Good morning. It is a delight to be with you this morning. If I may pay you a compliment, you folks sing wonderfully! My heart was just lifted as I sat and listened to you as a congregation sing. It is just wonderful to be with you this morning.

I hope you will take advantage of the debate that is occurring tomorrow night at Purdue University on the existence of God by seeing that as an evangelistic opportunity. Something to which you can bring a non-believing family member or friend or colleague because it is going to be a level playing field. Dr. Dacey is an eminent, bright young philosopher and an atheist. I will be presenting the Christian view and both sides will be given an equal shot. So you can invite your non-believing friend to come knowing that both sides will be fairly represented. Afterward, perhaps this will be an occasion for further conversation about your faith. So that is tomorrow night at the university – “Does God Exist,” a debate with Austin Dacey. [1]

Today I want to talk about Jesus’ Passion – is it hype or history? Twenty centuries after Jesus’ death, Jesus of Nazareth continues to fascinate the minds of thinking men and women. As Easter approaches, his face will doubtlessly appear on the cover of many of the major newsweeklies. The number one best-seller for many weeks now on the New Your Times Best Seller List has been a book predicated upon a novel reinterpretation of the historical Jesus. Two major films about Jesus have been released recently – the Gospel According to John and of course Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. This latter film has raised a storm of controversy that has issued in the airwaves being filled with interviews, talk shows, and documentaries about the historical Jesus. For centuries, Jesus of Nazareth has been the most influential person in the history of the human race and he refuses to go away.

All of this furor arises the question: who was Jesus of Nazareth really? Was he God incarnate as Christians believe? Or could certain contemporary radical critics be right, that Jesus was just a sort of social critic, the Jewish equivalent of a Greek cynic philosopher?

Revisionist biblical critics like John Dominic Crossan, Marcus Borg, and Paula Frederickson, who were interviewed on the NBC special “The Last Days of Jesus,” argued that the actual events of Jesus’ Passion were significantly different from those portrayed in Mel Gibson’s movie. In one sense, that is doubtlessly true – Gibson added to his film not only a great deal of artistic interpretation, but also a good deal of Catholic tradition, which goes beyond the bounds of history. [2] For example, the veil of Veronica, Mary’s participation in the events of the Passion, the pieta-like scene when Jesus’ body is take down from the cross.

But that is not what revisionist critics are so worked up about. Rather, they claim that the Gospel accounts themselves are historically inaccurate because they portray Jesus’ crucifixion as instigated by the Jewish chief priests and merely carried out by the Roman military authorities. The revisionist critics claim that ultimately it is the Roman authorities, rather than the Jewish authorities, who are to blame for Jesus’ crucifixion. In support of their view, they point out that there was great unrest in Palestine under Roman rule and that, with hundreds of thousands of visitors in Jerusalem for the feast of the Passover, the Romans must have been anxious to maintain the peace. Nerves must have been on edge. Extra-biblical sources portray Pilate as a ruthless and cruel man who would not hesitate to bring down Roman soldiers on the people in order to keep order. The temple priesthood were collaborators with Rome and were basically in cahoots with Pilate in order to keep things under control.

Revisionist critics interpret Jesus’ cleansing of the temple as actually a symbolic attack upon the institution of the temple itself. Thus, not only was Jesus disturbing the peace, but the Jewish priesthood felt their authority threatened by Jesus’ actions. Revisionist critics believe that Pilate was about to bring his fist down hard upon the people in order to maintain the public peace and this would have resulted in a great loss of innocent life. So the chief priest, Caiaphas, who felt threatened by Jesus anyway, decided to deliver Jesus over to the Roman authorities in order to avoid a Roman crackdown on the people. Caiaphas was basically willing to sacrifice one man’s life in order to save many lives. Therefore, the responsibility for Jesus’ crucifixion really lay at the feet of the Roman authorities, not the Jewish authorities as the Gospels claim.

In assessing the claims of these revisionist critics, it is important that we not miss the forest for the trees. What is remarkable here is the degree of agreement among all the critics concerning the basic events of Jesus’ Passion. Even the skeptical critics affirm the central events of Jesus’ Passion: his triumphal entry into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey as a herald of the Kingdom of God in fulfillment of Zechariah’s prophecy, Jesus’ disruptive action in the temple driving out the money-changers and their animals, the involvement of the Jewish authorities in the arrest and trial (or at least hearing) of Jesus before them, Jesus being delivered over to Pilate on charges of sedition, and Pilate’s condemning Jesus to crucifixion as a pretended King of the Jews. It is stunning testimony to the historical credibility of the Gospels that even skeptical critics find themselves compelled by the evidence to admit the historicity of the central outline of Jesus’ Passion and death. Their main point of contention has to do with whether it was Jewish or Roman authorities that were chiefly responsible for Jesus’ death.

Some of you maybe thinking at this point: who cares? After all, traditionalist and revisionist critics alike agree on the central events of the Passion. It is pointless to play the blame game now. In fact, you might suspect that this whole debate is really spurred on by little more than political correctness. After all, there is a very strong motivation toward the revisionist view; namely, a wholly commendable desire to repudiate the ugly history of anti-Semitism that has too often characterized the Christian church. So there is a strong suspicion, I think, to see all of this revisionism as simply borne out of a politically correct desire to exonerate the Jewish authorities as far as possible. The Romans become the obvious scapegoat – after all, there aren’t any Romans alive today in order to be offended when they are blamed for the crucifixion. [3] Thus, we see even a conservative scholar like Craig Evans in the NBC special saying, “The Romans crucified Jesus.” What? The Romans crucified Jesus? Are all Romans to blame for the crucifixion of Jesus? Did Cicero crucify Jesus? Did Tacitus crucify Jesus? To say the Romans crucified Jesus is painting with as broad a brush as someone who incautiously says “The Jews killed Jesus.” But because there aren’t any Romans around anymore, no voice of protest is raised and the Romans quietly take the fall.

I agree that there is a good deal of political correctness that is motivating this debate. But, if you think that that is the whole story, then you are seriously mistaken. There is a lot more at stake here than at first meets the eye. What most people don’t realize is that the revisionist account of Jesus’ Passion is just a part of a broader revisionist picture of Jesus of Nazareth that the skeptical critics are trying to put through. You see, the skeptical critics reject the Gospel portrait of Jesus as a man who claimed to be the Son of God and the divine Son of Man and who saw himself as the promised Jewish Messiah. According to John Dominic Crossan, Jesus was just a kind of social gadfly on the collective rump of Jewish society. The Jewish equivalent of a Greek cynic philosopher. Marcus Borg says that Jesus was a cross-cultural religious mystic who championed the rights of women and the poor against an oppressive religious establishment. The supernatural Jesus that you read about in the Gospels is a myth. The result of legend and theology.

Now, one of the greatest problems for this revisionist portrait of Jesus is the fact of his crucifixion. Everybody agrees that Jesus of Nazareth died by crucifixion. In fact, the revisionist critic Paula Frederickson says that the crucifixion of Jesus is the “single strongest fact we have about Jesus.” But, if Jesus was just a peasant cynic philosopher, just a liberal social gadfly, as revisionists claim, then his crucifixion becomes inexplicable. As Professor Leander Keck of Yale University has put it,

The idea that this Jewish cynic (and his dozen hippies) with his demeanor and aphorisms was a serious threat to society sounds more like a conceit of alienated academics than sound historical judgment. [4]

New Testament scholar John Meier is equally direct. He says, “such a Jesus would threaten no one, just as the university professors who create him threaten no one.” [5]  Revisionist critics have thus created a Jesus who threatens to be incompatible with the single indisputable fact about him, namely, his crucifixion.

Now, it is in light of this problem that revisionist accounts of Jesus’ Passion must be seen. Basically, these revisionist accounts of the Passion are an attempt to explain how you get a non-Messianic, non-divine Jesus to the cross, which is where everybody admits he wound up. The way you do it is this: you imagine a scenario according to which there was a hair-trigger tension in Jerusalem during Passover that year. The least disturbance could set things off. Pilate is ready to come down and come down hard on anyone disturbing the peace. That is what Jesus did and that is what got him handed over to the Roman authorities who crucified him as a public example of what happens to trouble-makers.

Now, at first blush, I think this sounds like a plausible scenario. But, plausible scenarios must always be tested by the evidence. And when we ask about the evidence for the revisionist scenario, what is striking is the almost complete absence of evidence for it. It is based almost entirely on hunches and conjectures about what one would likely expect to happen. Thus, in that NBC special, we hear Paula Frederickson talking about what she “in my historian’s imagination” thinks must have happened. [6] Crossan says, “I can imagine there was a standing order between Pilate and Caiaphas to arrest anyone who got out of line.” And so we are treated to all sorts of imaginative speculations about tensions in the crowd, about Pilate’s mood that day, even about what Caiaphas is thinking.!

Now, this is really extraordinary! This isn’t the way you do history. If history could be written on the basis of hunches and conjectures, then historians would be out of a job. Life is often not neat and tidy, the course of events will often swing in unexpected directions, and people surprise us by sometimes acting seemingly out of character. That is why the historian’s picture of the past must always be tested by the evidence, not by what we think should have happened. Certainly, imagination plays an important role in historical reconstruction. But imagination must always be tested by the evidence.

So, how does the revisionist scenario match up with the evidence? Well, not too well.

Take, for example, the crucial conjecture of a hair-trigger situation in Jerusalem during Passover that year, so that the least disturbance would bring down the Roman authorities on even innocent parties. John Dominic Crossan says, “Anything could cause a revolution. You could imagine Pilate saying: ‘If anything moves, crucify him!’” But does the evidence bear out this speculation? To the contrary, Jesus’ provocative triumphal entry into Jerusalem early in the week in fulfillment of the Zechariah’s Messianic prophecy [7] , during which he was hailed by the crowd as inaugurating the coming King of David, didn’t elicit a peep from the Roman authorities. After coming into the city, Jesus looked around, and walked back out to Bethany, where he spent the night with his disciples. On the following day when Jesus disrupted the commerce in the Temple, no Roman troops sprang into action, no one arrested him. Nor in the following days did the Roman authorities seize him. He continued to teach daily in the Temple and returned each evening, unmolested, to Bethany where he stayed with his disciples. The idea that the Roman authorities saw Jesus as a significant threat to the peace, so that they would move against him, contradicts their actual behavior. Indeed, meddling in Jewish affairs by arresting a popular teacher ran the risk or creating more unrest than simply leaving him alone, as they did.

Moreover, there is good reason to think of Jesus’ action in the Temple was not an attack on the Temple as such but rather what the Gospels portray it to be: a cleansing or a purifying of the Temple. In the days following his action Jesus did not speak out against the Temple as such but rather he continued to frequent the Temple and to teach there daily. And after his death, his followers continued to worship in the Temple just like other Jews.

What about Jesus’ arrest? The evidence unanimously supports the conclusion that Jesus was betrayed by one of his followers into the hands of the Jewish authorities. Not only is this attested in all four Gospels, but it is also alluded to in extremely early information that is transmitted by Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:23 where, in the context of handing on the traditions about the Lord’s Last Supper, Paul says, “On the night that he was betrayed, Jesus took bread,” etc. It was the Jewish authorities, not the Roman authorities, who felt threatened by Jesus’ person and teachings and therefore wanted him dead. Nor was this a last minute decision reached during Passover week. According to two independent sources, Mark and John, the plot to get rid of Jesus had been brewing among the Jewish leadership for some time. [8] Both the Jewish historian Josephus and the Babylonian Talmud testify to the Jewish authorities’ initiative in Jesus’ trial. The Talmud (in tractate Sanhedrin 43a) justifies their seeking Jesus’ execution as an appropriate action taken against a heretic. [9]

At his trial before the Sanhedrin Jesus was sentenced to death for blasphemy. I quote from Mark’s account:

Then the high priest stood up . . . and asked Jesus, . . . ‘Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?’

‘I am,’ said Jesus. ‘And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.’

The high priest tore his clothes. . . . ‘You have heard the blasphemy. What do you think?’ They all condemned him as worthy of death. [10]

In this saying Jesus claims to be both the Son of God and the apocalyptic Son of Man, coming in judgment on the clouds of heaven, a virtual quotation out of Daniel 7. Especially blasphemous in Jewish ears would have been his claim to sit at God’s right hand. Revisionists don’t like this portrait of Jesus; but as Robert Gundry, an expert in Gospel of Mark scholar, has argued, so subtle an account of a capital blasphemy case in a Jewish setting cannot be written off as a later fabrication.

Since the Sanhedrin lacked the authority to carry out capital punishment, the Roman authorities had to somehow be convinced in order to execute Jesus. To Roman ears, Jesus’ claim to be the Jewish Messiah or the King of the Jews, would come across as seditious and therefore Jesus was cast by the chief priests in the role as a political rebel before Pilate. Revisionists protests that the Gospel’s portrayal of Pilate as weak and vacillating contradicts what we know of his ruthless character from extra-biblical sources. I do think that Mel Gibson’s movie can be fairly criticized on this score but the Pilate we read about in the Gospels is not weak and vacillating. What he exhibits is not weakness but rather his characteristic stubbornness in the face of Jewish demands. If Jesus was not arrested on Roman initiative as a threat to the peace, but on Jewish initiative on concerns that were primarily Jewish, then Pilate might well resist their attempt to use the Romans to do away with him.

We know that Pilate wasn’t afraid to bump heads with the Jewish authorities – nor afraid to give in when it seemed politic. For example, Josephus tells us that when Pilate arrived in Palestine in AD 26 he deliberately provoked the chief priests by displaying Roman standards embossed with the Emperor’s image in Jerusalem, an action which his predecessors had been very careful to avoid. The outraged Jewish authorities sent a delegation to Pilate which argued for five days to have the standards taken down and removed. On the sixth day, Pilate ominously ordered a detachment of soldiers to infiltrate the crowd and upon his signal to draw their swords. At that point, the Jewish delegates bared their necks saying that they would prefer to die rather than to betray their Jewish law. There upon Pilate, realizing that he was on the verge of provoking a general uprising of the Jews, gave in and ordered the standards removed.

Pilate’s action, just four years later, in the sentencing of Jesus of Nazareth follows this same precedent. He stubbornly locks horns wit the Jewish leaders until he sees that a riot is about to break out. [11] When the chief priests make the thinly veiled threat, “If you release this man, you are no friend of Caesar” [12] then Pilate understands where his best self-interests lie. He relents and orders Jesus to be executed.

By giving the crowd a choice between Barabbas and Jesus, Pilate knows that the people will not rise up on behalf of Jesus. Revisionists sometimes claim that the crowds calling for the release of Barabbas is inconsistent with Jesus’ popularity. But, we really don’t know how many sympathizers Jesus had in Jerusalem nor which people the chief priests had selectively assembled before Pilate that morning. But in any case, Jesus had proved to be something of a disappointment to those who had earlier in the week hailed his triumphal entry into Jerusalem and expected him to restore the throne of David. [13] He hadn’t followed up on his triumphal entry or his cleansing of the temple by calling for insurrection. On the contrary, in answer to the provocative question about paying Roman taxes or not, Jesus gave the very un-revolutionary response, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” [14] The bloody and broken image of Jesus presented by Pilate to the crowd was the very antithesis of what they had learned to expect of a Jewish Messiah. And it is not at all improbable that Barabbas seemed to them a more honest to goodness Messiah than did Jesus of Nazareth.

Traditionalists and revisionists alike agree that Jesus was then crucified by Roman authority. But what happened to Jesus’ body after his death?

This question is crucial for answering the question of Jesus’ identity. When I was approached by NBC about being interviewed for the program “The Last Days of Jesus,” I said I would do it if only they were going to be discussing the resurrection of Jesus. When the producer said, “No, we’re just going to go up to the crucifixion,” I said to her, “Well, then, I guess you’re not really going to be talking about the last days of Jesus, are you?’’ She replied, “I see what you mean. If it weren’t for the resurrection, nobody would even care about the last days of Jesus, would they?” That’s absolutely correct. The resurrection of Jesus is the key to his identity.

So, what happened to Jesus’ corpse? John Dominic Crossan surmises that it was probably taken down by Roman soldiers and thrown into a shallow dirt grave where it either rotted away or was dug up and eaten by wild dogs. But, not only is there no evidence for this colorful conjecture, but Jewish burial practices and sensibilities contradict it. In opposition to Crossan’s conjecture, let me summarize four facts which are agreed upon by the majority of New Testament historians who have written on this subject.

Fact #1: After his crucifixion, Jesus was buried by Joseph of Arimathea in a tomb.

This fact is highly significant because it means that Jesus’ burial place was known in Jerusalem to both Jew and Christian alike. In that case, it becomes inexplicable how a movement founded upon belief in Jesus’ resurrection could arise and flourish in the very city where a tomb was known to contain his corpse. According to the late John A. T. Robinson of Cambridge University, the honorable burial of Jesus is one of “the earliest and best-attested facts about Jesus.” [15]

Fact #2: On the Sunday morning after the crucifixion, the tomb of Jesus was found empty by a group of his women followers.

According to Jacob Kremer, who is an Austrian specialist on the resurrection, “By far, most scholars hold firmly to the reliability of the biblical statements concerning the empty tomb.” [16] As D. H. van Daalen has pointed out, “It is extremely difficult to object to the empty tomb on historical grounds; those who deny it do so on the basis of theological or philosophical assumptions.” [17]

Fact #3: On multiple occasions and under different circumstances, various individuals and groups of people experienced appearances of Jesus alive after his death.

This is a fact which is virtually universally acknowledged among New Testament critics today. Even Gerd Lüdemann, who is perhaps the most prominent current critic of the resurrection, admits, “it may be taken as historically certain that Peter and the disciples had experiences after Jesus’ death in which Jesus appeared to them as the risen Christ.” [18]

Finally, fact #4: The original disciples believed that Jesus was risen from the dead despite their having every reason not to.

Despite having every predisposition to the contrary, it is an undeniable fact of history that the original disciples suddenly came to believe in, proclaimed, and were willing to go to their deaths for the fact of Jesus’ resurrection. [19] C. F. D. Moule of Cambridge University concludes that we have here a belief which nothing in terms of prior historical influences can account for—apart from the resurrection itself. [20]

Any responsible historian, then, who seeks to given an account of the matter must deal with these four independently established facts: Jesus’ honorable burial, the discovery of his empty tomb, his postmortem appearances, and the very origin of the disciples’ belief in his resurrection. I want to emphasize that these represent the conclusions, not of conservative scholars or evangelical historians, but rather the majority view of New Testament scholarship today. The only question is: how do you best explain these facts?

Well, at this point, the skeptical critic faces a somewhat awkward situation. For example, a few years ago I had a debate on the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus with a professor at the University of California, Irvine. Now this man had written his doctoral dissertation on the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus and he could not deny the facts of the honorable burial, the empty tomb, the postmortem appearances, and the origin of the disciples’ belief in Jesus’ resurrection. So, his only recourse was to come up with some alternative explanation of those four facts. And so, he argued that Jesus of Nazareth must have had an unknown, identical twin brother who was separated from him at birth, who came back to Jerusalem just at the time of the crucifixion, stole his brother’s body out of the grave, and presented himself to the disciples who mistakenly inferred that Jesus was risen from the dead. [21] Now, I am not going to go into how I went about refuting this theory but nevertheless I think that it is instructive because it shows to what desperate lengths skepticism must go in order to explain away the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. In fact, did you know that the evidence is so good that one of the world’s leading Jewish theologians – Jewish! theologians – the late Pinchas Lapide who taught at Hebrew University in Tel Aviv declared himself convinced on the basis of the evidence that the God of Israel raised Jesus of Nazareth from the dead. [22]

So, in summary, the evidence does not support the claims of the revisionist historians. On the contrary, we have solid grounds for thinking that Jesus of Nazareth not only claimed to be the divine Son of Man and the Son of God and the promised Jewish Messiah, claims which provoked his arrest and trial by the Jewish court, and led ultimately to his crucifixion, but also that those claims were true because God raised him from the dead. As the early apostles preached, God would not allow his Holy One to see corruption. God has acted in history and we can know it. [23] 

  • [1]

    A video of this debate is available at (accessed August 16, 2013).

  • [2]


  • [3]


  • [4]

    Leander Keck, "The Second Coming of the Liberal Jesus?" Christian Century (August, 1994), p. 786.

  • [5]

    John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew, vol. 1: The Roots of the Problem and the Person, Anchor Bible Reference Library (New York: Doubleday, 1991), p. 177.

  • [6]


  • [7]

     Zechariah 9.9

  • [8]

    cf. Mark 3.6; John 5.18

  • [9]


  • [10]

    Mark 14:60-64

  • [11]

    cf. Matthew 27:24

  • [12]

    cf. John 19:12

  • [13]


  • [14]

    Mark 12:17

  • [15]

    John A. T. Robinson, The Human Face of God (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1973), p. 131.

  • [16]

    Jakob Kremer, Die Osterevangelien--Geschichten um Geschichte (Stuttgart: Katholisches Bibelwerk, 1977), pp. 49-50.

  • [17]

    D. H. Van Daalen, The Real Resurrection (London: Collins, 1972), p. 41.

  • [18]

    Gerd Lüdemann, What Really Happened to Jesus?, trans. John Bowden (Louisville, Kent.: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995), p. 80.

  • [19]


  • [20]

    C. F. D. Moule and Don Cupitt, “The Resurrection: a Disagreement,” Theology 75 (1972): pp. 507-19.

  • [21]

    This was a 1995 debate with R. Gregory Cavin titled “Dead or Alive?” Audio of this debate (minus the Q&A session) can be found at (accessed August 17, 2013) or you can purchase an audio CD of this debate at

  • [22]

    Pinchas Lapide, The Resurrection of Jesus, trans. Wilhelm C. Linss (London: SPCK, 1983).

  • [23]

    Total Running Time: 33:24 (Copyright © William Lane Craig 2013)