The double-standard of evidence in the trial of Jesus

If you spend a lot of time over on the exmo side of the Internet, you’ve probably heard all sorts unflattering stories about Joseph Smith, and you probably have a good idea of what kind of evidence these stories have to back them up. (My own most famous family history as church history figure — cousin Philastus Hurlbut — collected affidavits from people Joseph Smith knew…)

One time I read a passing remark on an exmo site about how the evidence clearly shows that Joseph Smith was a criminal — unlike Jesus, for whom there is no corresponding body of evidence against him. My immediate reaction was surprise at the absurdity of the point: there’s no unbiased contemporary evidence of Jesus at all. One is hard pressed to find conclusive evidence that he even existed, notably that means we don’t have access to his criminal record.

I don’t mean to come off as attacking a straw man by wasting time disputing this one foolish remark, but thing is that it got me thinking about the parallels between Jesus and Joseph Smith.

Let’s assume (for the sake of argument) that Jesus was a real person and the four canonical gospels tell us what his followers remembered about him a few decades after his death. From our knowledge of human nature we can start to make educated guesses about which parts of the story probably actually happened. For example, I would guess that Jesus probably really was tried and executed by the Romans since that is a pretty memorable event, and his followers wouldn’t have much reason to make that up. And I’d be willing to believe that an angry mob wanted him dead — that sort of thing happens. My suspension of disbelief starts getting a little shaky around the part where they say “Then answered all the people, and said, His blood be on us, and on our children.” Um… yeah, right. Sure they said that..

Anyway, the comparison with Joseph Smith makes me wonder what crime Jesus was really executed for. According to the Bible it was something like claiming to be king. But somehow I don’t trust his followers to report on something like that accurately. When Joseph Smith was killed by an angry mob while trapped in jail, what was he in for? From what I hear, the official church materials tend to make some vague mention of “persecution.”  If nothing had been written down during Joseph Smith’s lifetime, I doubt we would ever have heard one word from his followers about the destruction of the press of the Nauvoo Expositor.

Even if it turns out the Bible story is wrong on this point — and Jesus was actually executed for a serious crime such as murder — that doesn’t necessarily mean he was guilty. There are plenty of cases of people being executed on questionable evidence for political reasons (one famous example that comes to mind would be Joe Hill — killed by a firing squad in Salt Lake City, Utah, of all places).

Still I can’t help but wonder if the great teacher Jesus — revered by billions — was actually a criminal. I know that to many it is blasphemy to even suggest such a thing. But what if we had those court records? Or affidavits from people from his home town or from people in the angry mob who wanted him dead? Would they be very different from the evidence against Joseph Smith? I have no particular reason to believe they would be.

It’s one of the great mysteries that can probably never be solved since the evidence no longer exists…

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chanson

C. L. Hanson is the friendly American ExMormon atheist mom living in Switzerland! See "letters from a broad" and the novel ExMormon for further adventures!!

22 thoughts on “The double-standard of evidence in the trial of Jesus

  1. Interesting questons CL. I guess one would have to determine if he would be a criminal TODAY versus his time. Of course, Bush would make sure that Jesus was a criminal today with all of his assets (some leather sandals and a toga) seized because old JC would probably have been totally anti-war, and he wouldn’t be real quiet about it.

    Back then, maybe the paranoia of the government (hm, sounds familiar) made anyone who questioned the status quo a criminal? (This is getting eerie as I write it…) I mean, who knows everything Jesus said? Maybe he was the first one to coin the phrase “make love not war”? That would have been pretty scandalous at the time, eh? It’s all conjecture, but I am betting my two cents that, at the time, Jesus fit, under the laws of the time, as a criminal–maybe not worthy of death, but a criminal nonetheless.
    So many of the free-thinking world-changing people were considered outside the laww in their own time. This may be sacriligious to some, but I look at Jesus and John Lennon as guys made from the same stuff. Both are and were amazing teachers for their generation.
    Just conjecture, but fun stuff on which to cogitate. Thanks, Carol, for the great post!

  2. Well, Jesus did commit blasphemy when he claimed to be the son of God. Technically, he was guilty under Jewish law.

    Today, of course, our standards have shifted. We consider religious belief a private matter and the requirement for tolerance constrains the ability of the state to regulate religion.

    With respect to Joseph Smith, he was guilty of suppressing free speech, polygamy, and a number of other crimes. That’s no excuse, however, for lynching him. He should have been tried and sentenced.

  3. Thanks for your post chanson.

    I think it is likely that christ (assuming such a person existed) may have been executed for political or religious reasons. I thought (not too long ago) that in Afganistan someone was about to go on trial for converting from Islam to Christianity. I believe that it was a capital case. I followed it because personally I think that any human should have the right to leave membership in any religion at any time. I believe the person escaped their country and thereby avoided the trial. Even still, I was disappointed that we are still at this stage with some religions in different parts of the world.

    Given that this occurred recently, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect that someone who has just appeared on the scene, spouting contraversial rhetoric would be unpopular. Advocating not following Judaic law, not tithing publically, etc. could hurt the Judaic leaders at that time. If you think about all the wars in Europe during the reformation – there was a great deal of money, land and education within the Roman Catholic church.

    But – I don’t think it’s out of the realm of possibility to say that JC wasn’t guilty of a different offense. Some people might claim that he supported the gov’t – the whole “render unto ceasar what is ceasars” quote – but who can say? Especially with accounts written decades afterward.

    I do agree with Hellmut though – he should have been tried and sentenced.

  4. Thanks JulieAnn!! I agree that John Lennon was another controversial figure whose life can give us some insights about what the historical Jesus might have been like. And not just because of the long hair, the beard, and the fact that he said he was more popular than Jesus… 😉

    Hellmut — Of course I agree that Joseph Smith should have been tried fairly rather than being killed by an angry mob. But the idea that Jesus was guilty of blasphemy by claiming to be the son of God? That’s exactly the point I would like to dispute.

    This claim comes only from his own followers and long after his death. I don’t think they can be remotely trusted to report on this point accurately. When someone has attained legendary/worshipful status after his death, it is far too easy for those who revere him to convince themselves that people saw him as a king or god during his lifetime, even if that wasn’t the case. Christians often claim that (given the evidence) it is ridiculous to suggest that the historical Jesus didn’t exist. However, if we are looking at the gospels as historical documents, it is ridiculous to suggest that his followers’ account of his trial would be anything other than biased to the extreme and highly suspect in nearly every detail.

    It is very possible that Jesus was convicted of a crime related to what the Biblical account would suggest: leading a rebellion or skirmish in an attempt to overthrow Roman rule, for example, or convincing others to do so. It is also very possible that it was something else entirely and his followers decided that the real charges were so spurious as to not warrant mention, and the story got passed down through the legends as his being killed for claiming to be king or God because that’s what his followers wanted to believe. His worshipful follwers’ accounts cannot be trusted on face value, and unfortunately no unbiased (or opposite bias) source exists to balance this story.

    Comparing Jesus (and his legend) to others whose lives and lore have followed a similar trajectory is the most reasonable way to try to get an idea of what might have happened way back then.

    Aerin — exactly, Jesus was surely a controversial figure: very popular with some, very unpopular with others, to the point of being revered by the former and killed by the latter. That’s why I think it’s reasonable to compare him to such figures as Joseph Smith, Joe Hill, John Lennon, etc., to try to understand his life better.

  5. The blasphemy charge makes sense when one remembers that the gospels were written in a time when it was not all that unusual to regard political leaders as Gods.

    Alexander the Great considered himself to be a son of a God. The Pharaohs were Gods. Julius Caesar claimed that tradition when he married Cleopatra. From that time, Roman emperors were Gods.

    Julius and Augustus even had months named after themselves just like Gods.

    Therefore, it seems to me that the Christ’s blasphemy charge is plausible.

  6. Of course it’s plausible. I’m not saying there’s conclusive evidence that blasphemy was not the charge. I’m saying that the evidence is inconclusive.

    The thing is that while I think it’s reasonable to believe that the gospels are based on a real person, I don’t think it’s reasonable to conclude that everything they say should be taken at face value merely because there is no other source to contradict them. So while there’s a non-trivial possibility that Jesus really was executed for claiming to be king and/or son of God, there’s also a decent chance that it was something else entirely.

  7. Chanson, I can’t even believe you brought up Joe Hill … I love that about you. He’s the man that coined the term “pie in the sky” with his song Preacher and the Slave:

    Long-haired preachers come out every night,
    Try to tell you what’s wrong and what’s right;
    But when asked how ’bout something to eat
    They will answer with voices so sweet:
    CHORUS:
    You will eat, bye and bye,
    In that glorious land above the sky;
    Work and pray, live on hay,
    You’ll get pie in the sky when you die.

    My theory is that Jesus was killed for giving little people hope … kind of like Joe Hill — sure, there may have been other charges and they may have been true, but true malice requires hatred and helping small people really pisses the powerful off.

    Of course Joe Smith was doing something similar but it seems to have been less about the little people and more about the “saints” …that kinda pissed the little people off too which explains the lack of a trial.

  8. Re: He’s the man that coined the term “pie in the sky”

    I know — I actually have a whole CD of songs by and about Joe Hill, and I listen to it every now and then. (Hope that’s not TMI 😉 but I guess people already suspect me of being kind of a liberal…)

  9. I have two CD courses by Professor Bart D. Ehrman (Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at UNC Chapel Hill): “Lost Christianities” and “From Jesus To Constantine.” I don’t remember which course it’s in, but Ehrman says that there is no evidence that Jesus ever claimed to be divine.

    Just thought I’d give a credible source on that.

    Sure, it COULD have been the charge – there’s just nothing to support the idea that Jesus ever actually said he was the son of God.

    Ehrman also says that the gospels were quite likely not even written by people who knew Jesus, since the earliest was several decades later (sorry – I don’t remember the exact number. I wrote it down, but I lost that notebook months ago).

    Also, I think there was something about how anyone who knew Jesus would probably have been writing in Aramaic (or something like that???), but the gospels were written in Greek. Don’t take my word for that part, though – I’m fuzzy on the details.

  10. Just a clarification here. Joseph Smith was not lynched. He was shot. The mob showed up at the jail. They were outside yelling. They weren’t trying to break in, according to various journal accounts of people who were there. I believe it was John Taylor who had come to see Joseph, he had a gun on him. Joseph took Taylor’s gun and he fired the first shots out the window down at the mob. The mob then returned fire and Joseph and his brother were shot. Smith wasn’t “martyred”, he started the gun fight.

  11. Bart Ehrman has written quite a few well researched and well written books, in my opinion. You can easily find a list at somewhere like Amazon or Barnes and Noble. I believe they contain all the same info as the CD courses.

  12. Good to meet you, INTJ. I don’t know who shot first but even if it was Smith, I would be inclined to conclude that he was justified. When a mob assembles in front of one’s cell, one can be reasonably afraid for one’s life.

    Reasonable fear for one’s life is all it takes to establish self-defense.

  13. Hellmut said: Today, of course, our standards have shifted. We consider religious belief a private matter and the requirement for tolerance constrains the ability of the state to regulate religion.

    We do? Last I checked, religious belief was very much in the public square and trotted out as a political weapon to determine if we’re siding with the good guys or the bad guys. I beg to argue the religious belief is a private matter in the U.S., at least, where you have a president who trots out his ‘personal relationship with Jesus Christ’, claims he believes God called him to be president, and who uses god language in his speeches (that last one isn’t necessarily germane to him alone. Lots of politicians pull out the god talk when it behooves their cause. W just seems to do it with a certain smugness and self-righteousness that sets my teeth on edge.) Oh, sure, we can each pick our own religion from a dictionary of faiths from A-Z, I’d hardly call us a secular nation.

    As for the prevalence of tolerance versus the regulation of religion by the state, we continue to flatter ourselves that the two are separate. Compared to our European and Middle Eastern counterparts, they are. But realistically and socially speaking, most policy issues in this country are held up to the mirror of the much-lauded ‘Judeo-Christian tradition’ that so many tout as the foundation of this country. Whether the issue is marriage rights or immigration, abortion or labor laws, education or foreign relations, somewhere in all of that, religion plays a role and is used as a measuring rod to determine just how crucial an issue is. I’d hardly call that private, separate, or tolerant.

  14. Well I have to disagree with you, Hellmut. He very well might have survived if he hadn’t grabbed the gun and shot first down into the crowd. The crowd wasn’t right in front of his cell, they were downstairs OUTSIDE the jail – OUTDOORS. He was INSIDE and up on the 2nd floor.

    He had swindled some of those people, so sure they were pissed off, but we don’t know that they would have tried to break into the jail.

    Now, if they HAD broke into the jail and ran upstairs and actually were in front of his cell, well yes that could be self defense if he shot at them. But firing a gun down into a crowd from a 2nd story floor, while the crowd is OUTSIDE the building? Sorry, that’s not self defense. That’s starting a fight.

  15. chanson: for all we know, if the Jesus stories were based on a real person, that person could have been a political activist. He could have been encouraging people to revolt against the Romans. I read a theory that he was a combination rabbi/political activist and it was probably his political activism that got him arrested and killed by the Romans. The Romans didn’t tolerate any kind of local insurrections against their empire, but they were supposedly very tolerant of local religions. I think it’s The Jesus Mysteries by Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy that talks about this and has numerous footnotes to documented historical research.

  16. INTJ-Mom,

    *Joseph Smith* started the gunfight? It wasn’t the hundreds who stormed the jail with guns–with the obvious intent of killing Smith, ran off the guards, and began firing through the door?

    I suppose you also believe the Polish began their war with the Nazis?

    Don

  17. I think I agree with Don on this question. When a mob rushes the jail then it is immaterial if the inmates open fire. It would still be self-defense.

  18. Yes, I confused some details with some other deaths. I apologize here: http://intj-mom.livejournal.com/2177.html, but some other readings I’ve done have raised some other questions about Smith’s death.

    And the Jesus Mysteries theory purports that Jesus was an entirely mythological figure, as opposed to the stories being loosely based on a real person. It may be Bart Ehrman’s works that talk about the stories being loosely based on a real person, I’ll have to double check.

  19. I’ve looked over some of the arguments about whether Jesus was based on a real person or not, and actually it looks like there’s a pretty stong case demonstrating how and why he might have been entirely made up. This is an interesting point because many Christians probably think that doubting that Jesus existed at all is just a question of idle pot-shots when in reality there is legitimate scholarly doubt on the subject.

    Ultimately I feel like the Jesus character probably was based on a real person just because his existence and ministry seems plausible. But it’s partially because of questions about his very existence that I wrote this post. Even if you grant that he probably existed, that’s not a reason to take everything the gospels say at face value and assume that their story is an accurate description of the life of the person they were originally based on. So it’s an amusing intellectual exercise to compare him to similar figures to try to guess what the real story might have been. 😀

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