Jesus on Forgiveness: Looking at Luke 23:34

A reading to accompany New Testament 2019: Come, Follow Me—For Individuals and Families, December 31-January 6. “We are responsible for our own learning: To truly learn from the Savior, I must accept His invitation, ‘Come, follow me.'” 

Excerpted from The Testimony of Luke, New Testament Commentary, by S. Kent Brown, pages 1077, 1081, 316, 338-39.

Let’s look in depth at the text of Luke 23:34: “Then said Jesus, Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (KJV).

Notes

23:34 Then said Jesus: The earliest text (75) and many other manuscripts omit the first part of this verse, leaving only the portion that begins with “And they parted his raiment.” Such evidence seemingly points away from the following saying as originally belonging to Luke’s record. But the saying fits Luke’s language. And Stephen’s prayer in Acts 7:60 seems to draw its inspiration from the words of Jesus reported here, thus buttressing its genuineness as a saying of Jesus, whether or not it originally stands in Luke’s record. Significantly, the imperfect tense of the verb implies that Jesus repeats his request again and again, pleading with his Father to forgive these unknowing men. Incidentally, the Joseph Smith Translation preserves these words, with a clarifying insertion.

Father, forgive them: The placement of Jesus’ words directly after writing about the crucifixion (see 23:33) may signal that Luke is stressing, first, Jesus’ control of the whole situation, though his enemies do not know it, and second, Jesus’ control of his pain-filled body. Jesus addresses God as “Father” previously. Here he plainly makes intercession for others.

they know not: Jesus’ expression about his executioners’ ignorance mirrors Peter’s later remark about the Jewish rulers’ “ignorance” (Acts 3:17; see JST 13:27), thus pointing to the genuineness of Jesus’ prayer. The Joseph Smith Translation adds a surprising, clarifying explanation of Jesus’ meaning: “they know not what they do. (Meaning the soldiers who crucified him,)” (JST 23:35). Hence, Jesus’ forgiveness extends to the soldiers alone, not yet to “the rulers” (Luke 23:35; compare Acts 3:14–19; 7:60).

Analysis

The Joseph Smith Translation’s stunning addition to the Savior’s plea for forgiveness in 23:34, which forms the heart of these verses because of the abuse that he receives—“Meaning the soldiers who crucified him” (JST 23:35)—pushes forward the issue whether certain wicked acts can be forgiven. To be sure, some cannot, such as blasphemy against the Holy Ghost (see Luke 12:10; D&C 132:27). But what about other serious sins? Are there limits to divine mercy? Are there bounds to celestial clemency? In response, we notice that, in the only existing sample of the Savior’s intercessional language in modern scripture, he limits his appeal to his Father, seeking the Father’s graciousness only for those who “believe on my name,” begging him to “spare these . . . that they may . . . have everlasting life” (D&C 45:5). This engaging framework fits snugly with other passages from latter-day scripture that set out a limit to salvation—only for those who believe and repent (see 2 Ne. 2:6–7; Mosiah 3:17–19; Alma 12:15; D&C 29:43–44; etc.). Why? Because saving the wicked, particularly those who “have willfully rebelled against God . . . and would not keep [the commandments of God]” cuts across God’s justice: “salvation cometh to none such; for the Lord hath redeemed none such; yea, neither can the Lord redeem such” (Mosiah 15:26–27).

From a different angle comes God’s mercy for those swallowed up in the days of the Flood. After God says to Enoch that “a prison have I prepared for them,” that is, for those who will perish in the Flood, he then goes on to declare about the Savior: “That which I have chosen hath pled before my face [for these people]. Wherefore, he suffereth for their sins.” More than this, God holds out the possibility that they can repent and receive forgiveness: “inasmuch as they will repent in the day that my Chosen shall return unto me.” In a word, after the Savior’s ministry, after he endures mocking and mistreatment, after he suffers for the sins of all, he returns to his Father with the power and right to plead for the forgiveness of those who will repent, in the next life, even though “they shall be in torment” in that “prison” until “that day” (Moses 7:38–39; also Moses 7:57; compare the distant “times of refreshing” in Acts 3:19). Might Jesus’ accusers receive forgiveness? Only he knows. Scripture shows us a door (see 13:24; also 12:48; Moses 7:39—“he hath suffered for their sins”). They need to turn the lock.

Compare also Jesus’ actions in Luke 6:12:

Why does Jesus go away to pray? The next scene will show that Jesus is praying for and about the Twelve whom he will choose (see 6:13–16). But it is probable that he is also distraught when foreseeing the horrible wrath that these opponents, also children of God, will pull down on themselves by pursuing their conspiracy against him. On this view, it seems that Jesus prays for these men and is reflecting on them and their actions when he utters instructions about how one is to respond to enemies (see 6:27–36). That Jesus does pray in this manner appears later in his words from the cross: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (23:34; also Acts 7:60).

And compare Luke 6:28:

Bless them that curse you: Jesus begins to spell out what it means to “do good” (6:27). A subtle link to Jesus’ Atonement may lie in these words because he is seen as cursed owing to the manner of his death, a form of executing criminals (see Deut. 21:22–23; 1 Cor. 12:3; Gal. 3:13).

pray for them which despitefully use you: Jesus spends the night in prayer (see 6:12). What does he pray for? One obvious answer is that he prays for and about the Twelve. Moreover, knowing that he will not ask followers to do something that he is unwilling to do, we can reasonably conclude that he prays for his enemies who find one another and enter into a conspiracy the prior day. In a related vein, the Joseph Smith Translation broadens the group who are to receive the benefits of a disciple’s prayers by adding “and persecute you” to the end of this verse, bringing the saying close to that in Matthew (JST 6:28; see Matt. 5:44).

6:29 unto him that smiteth thee: Jesus’ instruction shows a progression from attitude (love) to words (bless, curse) to deeds. In offering the other cheek, the disciple demonstrates his genuine love for an enemy. At this point, the Joseph Smith Translation adds, “or, in other words, it is better to offer the other [cheek], than to revile again,” a statement that both clarifies and interprets Jesus’ peaceful intent (JST 6:29; see D&C 98:23–27).

smiteth thee on the one cheek: The Greek verb tuptō points to a hard blow to the jaw with the fist, not merely a slap.99

cloke: This outer garment (Greek himation) is the most valuable piece of clothing that a person may own and hence is of value to thieves and others.

forbid not to take thy coat also: To willingly surrender one’s clothing to an adversary is to show in a dramatic, palpable way one’s love. Such human acts, which brim with mercy, mirror God’s mercy (see Luke 3:11; 6:36).

BYU NTC Conference Saturday, January 26, 2019

“In the Beginning Were the Words: A Closer Look at Key New Testament Terms”

The BYU New Testament Commentary committee announces that on Saturday, January 26, 2019, they will present a conference at the Gordon B. Hinckley Alumni Center at BYU in Provo, Utah. The conference is free and open to the public and will be held from 9 am until 4 pm. No registration is required. A detailed schedule with times of presentations will be posted here in coming days. A video will be made of the presentations and posted on the NTC website.

Virginia Pearce will conduct the conference.  Presenters and their topics are:

Julie M. Smith, Wayhodos (ὁδός) One of the earliest designations for the community of those who followed Jesus was “The Way.” The Greek word translated as “way,” hodos, exhibits a rich, multi-layered presence in the New Testament. In this presentation, we’ll examine the literal and figurative interplay of this word in order to gain insight into Jesus’ ministry and message.

Brent Schmidt, Gracecharis (χάρις) and Faithpistis (πίστις) My earlier study of the term grace, published under the title Relational Grace, demonstrated that the original field of meaning was distorted as soon as it fell into the hands of the Christian fathers of the third and fourth centuries AD. Rather than describing a reciprocal relationship between God and believers that was undergirded by covenants, it became “cheap grace” that only depended on a passive, neo-Platonic and mysterious belief.     In a forthcoming publication, I will demonstrate that the earliest occurrences of the word “faith” embrace meanings such as knowledge, faithfulness, trust, and loyalty to covenants, all concepts that involve action on the part of the possessor. But in the third century AD, all this changed. From that point on, faith was seen as an inner, passive acceptance of whatever the early church taught termed “the Rule of Faith,” which later became the authoritative and solitary sola fide.

John W. Welch, Blessed, Happymakarios (μακάριος)  Building on the treatment of the adored Beatitudes in chapter 3 of my book titled The Sermon on the Mount in the Light of the Temple (Ashgate, 2009), I shall examine how this term played a perhaps unsung but indispensable role in the Gospel of John, the book of Acts, Paul’s epistles to the Romans, Corinthians, and Galatians, as well as in Revelation and elsewhere.

Richard D. Draper, Loveagapē (ἀγάπη) Of the words discussed today, the term agapē may be the most important. On it, Jesus affirmed, “hang all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22:40). In his turn, Paul treated this intriguing term in the moving, beloved hymn to Charity (1 Corinthians 13). We shall probe these sources and more.

Eric D. Huntsman, Disciplemathētēs (μαθητής) Mathētēs is a word that John appeals to much more often than do the Synoptic Gospels. In particular, I will be stressing how John uses it for a much wider group than the Twelve, and how the different characters represent different walks of faith and different types of discipleship.

Michael D. Rhodes, Mysterymystērion (μυστήριον)  A word that is found 28 times in the New Testament, the overall general sense is “secret knowledge revealed by God.” The term  mystērion occurs in a single significant setting in the synoptic Gospels when Christ explains to his disciples why he taught in parables. The remaining 25 occurrences are in the book of Revelation and the writings of Paul. I will examine the various nuanced meanings found in all 28 cases.

John Gee, Scribegrammateus (γραμμματεύς) By New Testament times, the scribes had become a major force in the world of Jewish law, taking over a responsibility held by Levites early on. They formed part of the opposition to Jesus during his ministry. But this is not the whole story, as we shall discover.

Kent Brown, Inheritance: Who Owns All That Land? — klēronomia (κληρονομία)  One of the most important terms in scripture that dates from Abraham’s era, the word “inheritance” and associated terms underwent an important change in New Testament times, moving from a transfer of real estate and other property to the reception of a spiritual home in heaven.

 

S. Kent Brown Interview

S. Kent Brown was recently interviewed by Kurt Manwaring about his publications on the period between the Old and New Testaments.

Read the full interview here: http://fromthedesk.org/10-questions-s-kent-brown/

When Kurt asked how his research affected his feelings about the Savior, Dr. Brown replied, “I gained a deeper appreciation for what challenges Jesus was facing when trying to bring gospel truth to his hearers because I came to a firmer grasp of the often misguided traditions of his people and how those traditions gripped them.”

 

Los Angeles presentations October 2017

There will be two events in the Los Angeles area:

Friday, October 27, 7 pm, Saugus Building, 27405 Bouquet Canyon Rd., Saugus, CA 91350. There will be a lecture by two of our BYU New Testament Commentary committee. Richard Draper will present “Paul’s Testimony of the Living Christ.” Dr Draper is a co-author of our newest volume, Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians. John Welch will present “Chiasmus in Scripture.”

Sunday, October 29, 7 pm, Los Angeles Temple visitors center, Richard Draper will give the same presentation, “Paul’s Testimony of the Living Christ.” 

 

Review of The Revelation of John the Apostle

We were pleased to receive this review by Duane S. Crowther, author of many books delving into LDS scriptures. You can find Crowther’s books on his website, Horizon Publishers.  

The Revelation of John the Apostle, by Richard D. Draper and Michael D. Rhodes, is an excellently prepared work, written and produced at a very high level of professionalism and scholarship. The 918-page book is comprehensive—it covers all the key themes of the biblical book of Revelation phrase by phrase, and when necessary, word by word. It also treats numerous pertinent details with careful explanations. The documentation is extensive, thorough and precise. Of particular value is the incorporation of pertinent historical information that adds meaning and aids the reader’s understanding of what the apostle John has written. While presenting numerous additional insights which have been made known to Latter-day Saints, the book also points out the viewpoints, finding and alternate interpretations of scholars from other faiths.

After providing the Greek text for each chapter or section of Revelation being considered, the authors cite the King James Translation and then add a “New Rendition” of each passage which restates the King James Version with additional clarity. The meaningful “Translation Notes and Comments” provide historical clues and explanations which help the reader grasp the passages’ backgrounds and allusions. Each subsection ends with an “Analysis and Summary” that clarifies what has been written from an overall perspective.

The Revelation of John the Apostle, one of the Brigham Young University’s New Testament Commentary series, is more than equal to almost all other treatises on the book of Revelation available. It’s a masterful work which deserves a place in libraries and scholars’ bookshelves worldwide.

Open House to celebrate the arrival of our First Corinthians volume

On Wednesday, Aug. 23, from 5:30 to 7:00 pm, come visit with New Testament Commentary authors Richard Draper, Michael Rhodes, Julie Smith, John Welch, S. Kent Brown, and Eric Huntsman. Help us celebrate the arrival of our latest volume, Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians, by Richard Draper and Michael Rhodes. Location: the Joseph F. Smith Building (JFSB) in the Education in Zion Gallery, ground floor lobby on the east side of the building, by the spiral staircase. Light refreshments. For parking, this map shows several lots that are open to the public starting at 4 pm: http://map.byu.edu/ [select “Parking”]. We recommend the lot close by at the N. Eldon Tanner Building, Lots 40A and 40G. You do not need to be registered for Education Week to attend the open house. Authors Eric Huntsman, Julie Smith, and Richard Draper will be present Education Week classes on their books. Visit the Class Schedule for times and locations.

First Corinthians

The hardcover print version of Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians is now available from our publisher, BYU Studies, at https://byustudies.byu.edu/content/pauls-first-epistle-corinthians. Ebook versions are available too. The book is xvii + 908 pages, with bibliography and notes.  Click to see sample pages of the book discussion of 1 Corinthians 2, the table of contents, and the bibliography, scripture index, and general index. Questions? Call BYU Studies at 801-422-6691 or email byustudies.byu.edu. 

The Legal Cause of Action against Jesus in John 18:29-30

By John W. Welch

Published in Celebrating Easter, eds. Thomas A. Wayment and Keith J. Wilson, 157–76. Provo, Utah: BYU, Religious Studies Center, 2007.

It is a joy to ponder and appreciate the eternal importance of Easter. On the day before Easter, the body of the Lord lay in the tomb while his spirit inaugurated his redemptive work among the throngs in the spirit world. What a thrilling day it must have been for them to receive that visit from him. I imagine that the timing caught them by surprise, as it did among the Nephites. How much joy and excitement there must have been on this day before Easter on the other side of the veil.

In this paper, I will focus on only one aspect of the trial of Jesus, drawing more attention particularly to John 18:29-30 and articulating more clearly to an LDS audience why the accusation in that verse holds a key for understanding the legal cause of action and strategy of the chief priests before Pilate at that stage in the proceedings against Jesus. The focus here is only on John 18:29-30; this is not an attempt to give a complete account of the entire episode. For a more complete and fully footnoted presentation of my approach to this subject, my longer study has recently been published in a major volume edited by James H. Charlesworth, entitled Jesus and Archaeology.[1] A shorter version of that paper, without discussion of John 18:29-30, previously appeared in the BYU Religious Studies Center volume, Jesus Christ Son of God Savior.[2]

People have long questioned, Why was Jesus executed? Was he put to death by Romans or by Jews? Was it on political charges or for religious offenses? Were the proceedings legal or illegal? Answers to such questions have proven extremely evasive and have generated a vast body of scholarly analysis and amateur literature,[3] for the trial of Jesus is an extremely complicated legal subject. It is easily one of the most difficult and controversial legal subject in the history of the world. Thus, caution is in order whenever one embarks on the study of this topic.

Many legal issues immediately confront anyone approaching the trial of Jesus, but none is more fundamental than determining which legal rules applied to such as case in Jerusalem in the first part of the first century? Consider, for example, the commonly asserted prohibition that Jewish trials could not be conducted at night. This rule is found in the Talmud, but the Talmud was not written until many years after the destruction of Jerusalem a generation after the death of Jesus. Moreover, the Talmud was written by the religious descendants of the Pharisees and thus represents the views of the Pharisees. In first-century Jerusalem, however, the Pharisees and the Sadducees disagreed on many legal technicalities, and it is unknown what the Sadducees thought about trials at night. So, it is quite unclear whether the Sadducees, the lay nobility who were the leaders of the Sanhedrin,[4] would have had any legal objections to a nighttime arrest, hearing and conviction. Similar legal problems are encountered at just about every turn in pondering the Jewish and Roman trials of Jesus.

Several factual perplexities also hinder our understanding. For example, was the trial actually held at night? It is clear that Jesus was arrested at night, but perhaps that happened well into the night and near the pre-dawn hours. Luke, in fact, says that it was day before the trials actually began (Luke 22:66), although it must have been very early in the morning, since many things happened between the time Jesus was arrested and when he was taken to Golgatha about 9 am (Mark 15:25). It is worth noting that it was customary among the Romans to be at work before daybreak, but without knowing when the trial actually began or ended, it is hard to know whether the rule against nighttime trials was violated, even assuming that there was a prevailing law against such proceedings at the time of Jesus.

Moreover, verbal ambiguities make legal analysis in many cases quite difficult. For instance, Jesus is accused of “deceiving” the people. Does this mean that his accusers thought he fooled them maliciously, carelessly, or perhaps even unwittingly? Did they think that he was deceptively encouraging them to commit sin, or erroneously teaching them to think incorrectly, or tricking them into apostasy? Did they think that his deception was simple antisocial misrepresentation, or was it illegal fraud? Without knowing more about what his accusers meant, it is hard to know why they thought his words or doings were deceptive in such a way as to warrant the death penalty.

But most of all, one wonders how the general concerns of the chief priests and the Romans might have been translated into a specific legal cause of action against Jesus.[5] Was he accused of blasphemy? Yes (Matthew 26:65-66; Mark 14:63-64), but there must have been more to the case than this (and often legal causes of action were added, one on top of the other, in ancient trials). If blasphemy alone had been the issue, one would expect that Jesus would have been stoned by the Jews,[6] which was the usual, biblically prescribed mode of execution for blasphemy (Leviticus 24:16; Acts 6:11; 7:59). And because Pilate and the Romans would have cared very little about a Jewish accusation of blasphemy, scholars have often concluded that Jesus must have been executed for some other reason, perhaps on charges of treason against Rome, since he was accused of having called himself the king of the Jews and this appellation ended up on the placard placed by Pilate above Jesus on the cross. But, it is very hard to see any substance to a claim of treason against Jesus. He was an unarmed pacifist, a Galilean peasant who said, “All they who take the sword shall perish with the sword” (Matthew 26:52). When asked by Pilate about his kingship, Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36), and it appears that Pilate was satisfied that Jesus posed little, if any, threat to Rome or to the Emperor Tiberias: “I find in him no fault” (John 18:38). Such considerations lead to the persistent question: What might have been the main legal cause of action that carried the most weight against Jesus and lead to his crucifixion?

The solution to this problem that I have found most satisfying is found in the Gospel of John. All readers of the New Testament must chose between (a) relying primarily on John and then secondarily on the Synoptics to fill in the gaps, or (b) primarily on the Synoptics and then secondarily on John. For the following reasons, I prefer the former. Besides the fact that John’s report makes impeccable legal sense, John can be trusted as a witness of these proceedings. He was one of the leading apostles, with Peter and James. John was at Golgatha and would have known as much as possible about what was happening and why. John 18:15 tells us that “another disciple went in” to Annas’s house. Was this Judas? Or Nicodemus? More likely, it was the apostle John himself, who was thus an eye witness of these legal proceedings. While John is the most theological of the gospels, also in many ways the most authentic historically; his account is especially in touch with Galilean and Jewish backgrounds of the life of Jesus in ways that relate to the earliest circumstances of Jesus’s ministry.

In particular, for present purposes, John 18:29-30 most significantly reports the verbal exchange between Pilate and the chief priests as they brought Jesus to the Praetorium: “Pilate then went out unto them, and said, What accusation bring ye against this man? They answered and said unto him, If he were not a malefactor, we would not have delivered him up unto thee” (emphasis added). The critical question then becomes, what did the chief priests mean by “malefactor”? Here lies the key to understanding the legal cause of action that they lodged against Jesus as they brought him to Pilate.

A bit of background becomes important here, for the English word malefactor is the translation of the Greek work kakopoios, which (like its closely related Latin word, maleficus) in legal contexts can mean “magician” or “sorcerer.” To understand how ancient people generally, and the leaders of the Jewish establishment in particular, would have reacted to Jesus and his miracles, modern readers must understand the positive and negative attitudes of ancient Jews and Romans toward magic. In certain cases, both Jews and Romans had strict laws that punished magicians, sorcerers, fortune tellers, diviners, those in contact with spirits, and miracle workers.

Most relevant to the trial of Jesus is the biblical law that makes it a capital offense to use miracles (signs or wonders) to lead people into apostasy (to go after other gods): “If there arise among you a prophet, or a dreamer of dreams, and giveth thee a sign or a wonder, and the sign or the wonder come to pass, whereof he spake unto thee, saying, Let us go after other gods . . . that prophet or that dreamer of dreams shall be put to death” (Deuteronomy 13:1-2, 5; compare also Leviticus 20:27). Of course, Jewish law recognized that there were good uses of supernatural powers as well as bad. Jewish attitudes toward magic mixed. Witness the contest between Moses and Pharoah’s magicians. King Saul visited the witch of Endore, but Exodus 22:18 commands, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch [either male or female] to live.” The Jews took magic seriously enough that one of the qualification requirements to be a member of the Sanhedrin was the ability to differentiate good miracle working from trafficing with the evil spirits.[7]

But equally interesting here is the fact that Roman law also proscribed certain uses of magic and divination. Empire-wide decrees adopted in A.D. 11 and 16, during Jesus’s own lifetime, elevated suspicions and sensitivities about any rogue or irregular invocations of supernatural powers. Roman law and society at that time considered magicians, along with brigands, pirates, astrologers, philosophers, and prophets, as enemies of the Roman order. For these people, gods were everywhere, good and evil; and thus unseen spirits and demons were taken seriously as a constant potential threat. Especially when combined with maiestas (anything that insulted, suborned or threatened the Emperor), condoning any such use of supernatural powers would easily make a person no friend of Caesar (John 19:12). Here is a Roman concern that the chief priests could have waved before Pilate to try to capture his attention.

All this becomes relevant to the trial of Jesus in light of his miracle working. Above all, it seems clear to me that miracle working got Jesus in a great deal of trouble with those Jewish leaders who rejected him. We know that he never used his powers to harm anyone, but people at the time did not know where he would stop. If he could still the storm, then he could cause earthquakes (the most likely way in which could instantly destroy the temple), and his words to this effect so were alleged (however wrongly) as a serious threat to the temple: “We heard him say, I will destroy this temple” (Mark 14:58).

Legal debates had in fact ensued over the miracles of Jesus. People must have queried: By whose power does he do this? (compare Acts 4:7). In Mark 3:22, scribes (legal officials) were brought all the way to Galilee from Jerusalem to give their legal opinion in this case. Their determination was: “He hath Beelzebub [Satan], and by the prince of the devils casteth he out devils.” What was going on there was not a theological debate, but a legal investigation resulting in an allegation with dire legal implications.

This same debate continued in Jerusalem. In John 10:19-21, we learn that “There was a division therefore again among the Jews for these sayings. And many of them said, He hath a devil, and is mad; why hear ye him? Others said, These are not the words of him that hath a devil. Can a devil open the eyes of the blind?”

As Jesus came to Jerusalem for the very last time, one final miracle tipped the scales against him—the raising of Lazarus. A miracle of this magnitude and notoriety, in Bethany just over the hill from the Temple in Jerusalem, raised legal issues that could not be ignored. After this miracle, “from that day forth they took counsel together for to put him to death” (John 11:53). The equivalent of a warrant for the arrest of Jesus was issued: “Now both the chief priests and the Pharisees had given a commandment [a legal order] that if any man knew where he were, he should shew it, that they might take him” (John 11:57).  And one should note that Lazarus also was also listed as a wanted man: “The chief priests consulted that they might put Lazarus to death also, because by reason of him many of the Jews went away and believed on Jesus” (John 12:10-11). In their mind, Lazarus too was leading people into apostasy by colluding with Jesus.

With this background and clear development of factors in the Gospel of John, it is hard to imagine how Jesus’s miracle working would not have been the dominant factor that galvanized the chief priests against him. However, while laws against sorcery are mentioned occasionally by commentators writing about the trial of Jesus, this underlying concern or cause of action is not usually given much attention by readers or scholars. It seems to me that the main reason for this disregard is that no formal accusation of magic or maleficium ever appears to be made in the three synoptic gospels. But in light of the foregoing discussion, a closer look at John 18:30 is required.

Recognizing that a term such as maleficus, kakopoios, or kakon poion should be understood in a general sense “save where it is qualified to take on a specific meaning,”[8] here are ten reasons why the word “malefactor” in John 18:30 is qualified to taken on a technical legal reading.[9] These linguistic or circumstantial reasons give grounds upon which I conclude that the legal cause of action brought by the chief priests against Jesus as they ushered him into Pilate’s chamber was that he was an illegal miracle worker or magician using illicit powers to threaten the public order, both Roman as well as Jewish:

  1. The legal setting. Ordinary words carry technical legal import when used in a judicial context. English words such as action, motion, bench, or arise all have regular meanings in ordinary speech, but they assume a legal meaning when we know that they are being spoken in court, as is the case here.
  2. The legal request. When Pilate asked, “What sort of accusation do you bring against this man?” he was not saying, “What’s going on here?” His words call for a specific legal response. He would expect the petitioners to formulate their words back to him in terms of cognizable causes of action under Roman law.
  3. The logic of the exchange. In the synoptic Gospels (of which John was presumably aware), Pilate was said to have asked, “What kakon has he done?” (Matt 27:23; Mark 15:14; Luke 23:22). In their discourse with Pilate, if John were to have the chief priests simply respond, “Oh, he was doing kakon,” their response would be circular, evasive, and probably insulting. Their answer is best understood as being more specific than simply a repetition of the question back to the magistrate.
  4. The strong meaning of the word. Many astrological treatises, magical papyri, and other documents use the word kakopoios to describe bad mystical agents. In an emotionally charged setting, such as the hearing before Pilate, typical speakers or writers do not use strong words in a weak sense.
  5. A legal characterization of early Christians. The early Christians themselves were seen by others as being involved in magic. Suetonius states that Christians in their first century were accused of being involved in superstitionis novae ac maleficae,[10] a label that implies charges of magic.
  6. Contemporaneous legal prosecution of other miracle-workers. Apollonius, who coincidentally was raised in Tarsus about the same time as was Saul, was another miracle-worker in the first century C.E. He was “tried for his life by Domitian,” who accused Apollonius among other things “of divination by magic for Nerva’s benefit,” and his emphasis “on supernatural revelations inevitably led to his being accused of magical practices” on other occasions as well.[11]
  7. Jesus and exorcism and wonder working. Jesus and his disciples were indisputably depicted as exorcists, the implications of which have been quite thoroughly explored in other contexts,[12] but even exorcism used for improper purposes in an open and notorious fashion would have produced legal trouble. Carl Kraeling has argued persuasively that people generally said of Jesus that he “has a demon,” meaning that he “has a demon under his control,” a concept commonly applied in the ambient culture to people having access to “the spirits of persons [such as John the Baptist] who had died a violent death.”[13] After Jesus healed a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath and was then accused by people in the synagogue, he asked them, “Is it lawful to do good on the Sabbath days, or to do evil (kakopoiēsai)” and his accusers “held their peace” (Mark 3:4). Obviously, it was not lawful any time to do evil, magical works on any day.
  8. Use in 1 Peter. The only other place where the word kakopoios appears in the New Testament is in two passages in Peter’s first epistle, where it likely refers “to an individual guilty of legally defined crimes.”[14] Peter wrote that people generally were talking about Christians as “evil makers,” but he is confident that judges and others will see their good works, glorify God, and pronounce them not “evil makers” but “good makers” (1 Peter 2:12, 14). Here the label of “evil makers” was intended by outsiders to be deeply insulting, not weakly pejorative. Even more definitively, in 1 Peter 4:13-16, Christians were exhorted to share the suffering of Christ, but not as a murderer, a thief, a kakopoios, or as a fourth kind of offender (the nature of which is more general and indeterminable). Clustered together with the first two very serious offenses in this list, the word kakopoios points to a particular crime of unacceptable magnitude.
  9. Early Christian attestations. Some early Christians, such as Lactantius in the late third or early fourth century, openly acknowledged that the Jews had accused Jesus of being a magician or sorcerer.[15] Christians did not answer by arguing that this word in John 18:30 should be understood in some weak sense. They answered by arguing that the miracles of Jesus were acceptable because the prophets had predicted them.
  10. Confirmations from early Jewish sources. Evidence of Jewish opinion at the time of Lactantius is the following passage from the Babylonian Talmud, tractate Sanhedrin 43a:

 

On the eve of the Passover Yeshu [the Nazarine] was hanged.  For forty days before the execution took place, a herald went forth and cried, “He is going forth to be stoned because he has practiced sorcery and  enticed Israel to apostasy.  Any one who can say anything in his favor, let him come forward and plead on his behalf.”  But since nothing was brought forward in his favor he was hanged on the eve of the Passover.

 

Ultimately, however, Pilate found no such cause of action against Jesus and so held: “I find in him no fault,” or in other words “I recognize no legal cause of action against him” (John 18:38, author’s translation). Pilate was satisfied that Jesus of Nazareth had not broken any Roman law, even by doing what might have been seen by some as possibly threatening to use miraculous powers to commit some form of treason or sedition. Nevertheless, Pilate was apparently still fearful enough about the situation that he was willing to permit or take some action.

All of this is corroborated by the fact that seeing Jesus as a miracle worker and wonder worker was a dominant part of his public reputation in the first and second centuries. This is evident from the writings of Josephus, both in Greek and Slavonic. For example, the Slavonic Josephus states: “And [Pilate] had that wonder-worker brought up, and after instituting an inquiry concerning him he pronounced judgment: ‘He is [a benefactor, not] a malefactor, [nor] a rebel, [nor] covetous of kingship.’ [And he let him go; for he had healed his dying wife.]”[16]

The earliest extant Christian art offers further witness of the popular reputation that Jesus had as a wonder worker, not only among his detractors, but also his followers. Pre-Constantinian images of Jesus depict him as a miracle worker more often than in any other pose. The most common compositional element of these images shows Jesus holding a magic wand with which he performs his supernatural feats. It would be hundreds of years after the death of Christ before the cross or the passion narratives became main subjects of Christian art. Instead, the raising of Lazarus (John 11:1-43), the raising of Jairus’ daughter (Mark 5:22-43; Luke 8:41-56), the miracles of loaves and fishes (Mark 6:38-44; 8:5-19; Matthew 14:17-19; 15:34-36; Luke 16:9-10; John 6:9-13), and the turning water into wine (John 2:1-11) were the most popular narratives depicted in the first few centuries.[17] As one scholar has noted, “To such Christians, the life of Christ consisted simply of a series of miracles.”[18] And in depicting these miracles, Jesus touches the body of the deceased, the loaf-filled baskets, and the water-filled amphora with his magic wand. Although found in several locations, the majority of these images are found in the Christian funerary sculpture and painting in the Roman catacombs—a 12-mile underground labyrinth of niches, alcoves, and passageways beneath Rome. Here, graves were often decorated with religious motifs, sometimes quite elaborately. The resurrection of the deceased was metaphorically promised by miraculous scenes such as the miracles of Christ, Jonah and the whale, and the deliverance of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego from the fiery furnace.

Ancient artists added the detail of Jesus holding a wand to the Gospel miracle stories because of the popular correlation of a wand with magicians. In Homer’s Odyssey, for example, Circe—the magician daughter of Helios—is depicted working her magic with a wand when she transforms a group of people into pigs. In Roman mythology, Mercury was one of the gods who escorted souls to and from the afterlife. Just as Mercury is depicted holding his golden wand to lead the dead back to life, so to Jesus is shown magically bringing people back to life with a wand or staff.[19]

In conclusion, one may wonder why the fearful factor of magic has not been emphasized previously in scholarly or religious literature about the trial of Jesus. I would suggest at least three main reasons:

First, few secular scholars want to allow that the miracles of Jesus really happened. If they did not happen, of course, they could not have been a factor in the historical trials of Jesus before the Sanhedrin and Pilate. But if they did happen, it is hard to see how they could have failed to have been a dominant factor in the case of the chief priests against Jesus of Nazareth.

Second, Christians today generally do not want to associate Jesus with magic or with any suggestion that he was a trickster. But the line between good miracles and bad magic is definable by their results. Jesus himself said, “By their fruits ye shall know them” (Matthew 7:20), and asked, “How can Satan drive out Satan? And if a kingdom be divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand” (Mark 3:23-24). Christians should celebrate, not obfuscate, the miracles of Jesus.

Third, critical scholars generally give more historical weight to the accounts in Matthew, Mark and Luke than in John. But in light of the fact that all three of the synoptic gospels report that Pilate asked, What kakon has he done?” (Matt 27:23; Mark 15:14; Luke 23:22), the formulation by the chief priests of the legal cause of action against Jesus in John 18:30 becomes all the more significant. The charge that Jesus was a kakopoios (a malificus, magician, wonderworker) raises a common ground that both Jews and Romans would take seriously.

Of course, it would help if the world accepted the Book of Mormon, which long ago revealed that even after all his mighty miracles “they shall consider him a man, and say that he hath a devil, and shall scourge him, and shall crucify him” (Mosiah 3:9). It seems to me, as the Book of Mormon makes quite clear, that these miracles lead to Jesus’s scourging and crucifixion. His mighty miracles forced the issue, then as now, namely, by what power did Jesus do these things? If by the power of God, then he should be accepted and followed; but if by the power of Beelzebub, then he should be feared and eliminated.

Jesus certainly came with power. He was the creator of the world, good enough, wise enough, and powerful enough to bring to pass the salvation, immortality and eternal life of all mankind. If he could raise Lazarus from the dead, he could control many other life and death situations, in this world and in the world to come. His powers were also sufficiently in control of all that needed to happen as he came into this world and as he went out of it (see John 10:18). He came to win the cosmic battle against death and hell, to engage the powers of evil, to drive out devils from paralytics and demoniacs, and to cast out Satan eternally. This makes one wonder: How could he do all of this and not find himself accused of dealing with the realms of the paranatural?

 

[1] John W. Welch, “Miracles, Maleficium, and Maiestas in the Trial of Jesus,” in Jesus and Archaeology, James H. Charlesworth, ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006), 349-83. A version of that paper focusing on biblical, Jewish, and Roman laws regarding magic was presented at the Biblical Law Section of the Society of Biblical Literature, annual meeting, November 2005.

[2] John W. Welch, “The Factor of Fear in the Trial of Jesus,” in Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior, Paul H. Peterson, Gary L. Hatch and Laura D. Card, eds. (Provo, Utah: BYU Religious Studies Center, 2002), 284–312.

[3] For an extensive listing of scholarly sources, see John W. Welch, Biblical Law Cumulative Bibliography (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, and Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Press, 2005), CD-Rom.

[4] Joachim Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1969), 229, 265.

[5] People ordinarily assume that the actions against Jesus were based on some colorable legal grounds, and were not just fait strokes of arbitrary discretion.

[6] In John 18:31, the Jews say to Pilate that they lack the authority to execute anyone. It is possible that the Jews were just being careful and deferential toward Pilate, or perhaps even a bit disingenuous hoping that he would take responsibility for executing Jesus. New Testament evidence (as in the attempts to stone Jesus in Nazareth or the incident of the woman taken in adultery) show that on some occasions the Jews had or took power to put people to death. In the case of Jesus, the Jews eventually received a release from Pilate to do with Jesus as they pleased (John 19:16), which—if blasphemy were the only issue—would normally have entailed stoning. But having urged Pilate to crucify Jesus, the execution went forward in that manner.

[7] b. Sanh. 17a. See further, Welch, “Miracles, Maleficium, and Maiestas in the Trial of Jesus,” 366.

[8] Graham H. Twelftree, Jesus the Exorcist: A Contribution to the Study of the Historical Jesus (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1993), 204.

[9] These reasons are detailed and footnoted in Welch, “Miracles, Maleficium, and Maiestas in the Trial of Jesus.”

[10] Seutonius, de Vita Caesarum, 6.16 (Nero).

[11] Cramer, Astrology in Roman Law and Politics, 222-23.

[12] Smith, Jesus the Magician; R. Shirock, “Whose Exorcists Are They?” JSNT 46 (1992): 41-51; C. K. Barrett, The Holy Spirit and the Gospel Tradition (London: SPCK, 1947) ch. 4.

[13] C. H. Kraeling, “Was Jesus Accused of Necromancy,” JBL 59 (1940): 153-57.

[14] J. H. Elliott, 1 Peter (New York: Doubleday, 2000), 468. When Luke calls the two other criminals crucified with Jesus “malefactors” (Luke 23:32), the Greek word he uses is kakourgos, not kakopoios. Luke’s word refers to “robbers,” and it must mean something different to Luke than kakopoios means to John, or else we must imagine that the Jews in John 18:30 were accusing Jesus of being a “robber,” an allegation that lacks any plausible basis.

[15] Lactantius, Divine Institutes, 5, 3; in Patrologia Latina 6.560-61.

[16] Josephus, War IV-VII, trans. H. St. J. Thackeray, LCL (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1928), pp. 648-50 (brackets in this translated source).

[17] See Thomas F. Matthews, The Clash of the Gods: A Reinterpretation of Early Christian Art, Rev. ed.,  (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1993), 54–91, and Robin Margaret Jensen, Understanding Early Christian Art (New York: Routledge, 2000), 64–93.

 

[18] Matthews, Clash of the Gods, 59.

 

[19] For Circe, see Odyssey 10.293, 388; Virgil Aeneid, 7.189–91; Ovid, Metamorphoses, 14.278, 413. For Mercury, see Odyssey, 24.1; Virgil, Aeneid, 4.242; and Prudentius, Contra Symachum, 1.89–91 all cited in Matthews, Clash of the Gods, 58–59. I thank Josh Probert for his research on early Christian art.