I was asked to summarize my views on the events from Jesus’ arrest onwards. It was originally going to be a phone conversation but that didn’t work out, and so I thought that if I was going to write about this, I should do it on the blog as well. I will be leaving for Israel and the West Bank tomorrow and so will be revisiting these very locations that I mention, and so it is more than appropriate to spell out some thoughts on this subject.
I think that, as the Gospels depict, Jesus was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives. It is not a location otherwise mentioned in ancient sources and so probably not simply borrowed from local geography, and several embarrassing events – Judas’ betrayal and the attempt to defend Jesus with a sword, to say nothing of Jesus own prayer to not have to go through with what was to follow (despite Christian theology turning it into God’s plan for saving humankind). And so I view this as based on something historical.
The denial of Jesus by Peter is also unlikely to have been invented, and so its setting is likely historical, with Jesus being taken to the high priest’s residence. We have no reason to think that any of Jesus’ followers were party to what actually was discussed there. It is usually assumed that the depiction of a trial and antagonism from the Jewish leaders was part of an effort to shift blame from the Romans, and there is probably some truth in that. But it may also be that Christians were seeking to shift blame from Peter (or whoever else it might have been, if not him) who drew a sword and injured someone in the high priest’s retinue. Had this not been done, perhaps the Jewish leadership would have tried to simply keep Jesus locked away until after the feast, hoping that this might be enough to pacify the Romans. But with evidence of a willingness of his followers to use violence, they probably had no choice but to hand Jesus over. And the haste with which they do so makes clear that it was the Romans who ultimately were pressing for Jesus to be dealt with, or at least, pressing for the Jewish authorities to take measures to ensure stability at Passover.
From there, Jesus presumably was indeed taken before Pilate, as many sources indicate. Whether there was any conversation we cannot know, and it may be that Jesus never formally appeared before Pilate, but was merely dispatched on Pilate’s orders.
I have explained elsewhere why I think that the Church of the Holy Sepulcher marks the site of Jesus’ execution and burial. It is the kind of location that local Christians would have preserved. It was outside the city walls in the time of Jesus, but not in that of Constantine when the church was built. There were tombs there, and evidence that it was an abandoned limestone quarry. The overall impression the site gives matches historians’ understanding of Mark, rather than the trajectory of the later Gospel tradition.
There is no historicity to the route followed today as the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem – although my students and I will still walk the route nonetheless. But the broad outline of events in the Gospel passion narratives – the bullet points, as it were – are likely, in my opinion, to be based in history.