Scholar sheds ‘new light’ on the trial of Jesus

While lauding Elder James E. Talmage’s century-old classic, Jesus the Christ, doctrinal and legal scholar John W. Welch offered fresh thinking on the content of Chapter 34 pertaining to the trial and condemnation of Jesus.

Elder Talmage was a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles at the time he wrote the book in 1915, and it is still widely read and consulted today.

Brother Welch, professor of law at Brigham Young University’s J. Reuben Clark Law School and the author of a number of works regarding Church doctrine and scripture, spoke April 13 at the Church History Museum for its Evenings at the Museum series. His Eastertide lecture was titled “The Trial of Jesus: Shedding new Light, from Talmage to Today.”

“I hope to add new legal and spiritual perspectives to everyone’s appreciation of Talmage’s legacy,” he said. “At the same time, there is one place in particular where this chapter, which has become one of the most noticed and influential chapters in the book, could use some thoughtful adjustments amidst our well-deserved commendations.”

He cited four recent paradigm shifts reflected in new publications that can help readers today appreciate Elder Talmage’s work.

The first is that solid recent historical research has yielded much new information regarding details about the life and death of Jesus. “This helps us with confirmations of many basic facts, corrections of bad historical suggestions, clear thinking about puzzling situations and contributing new historical insights.”

Brother Welch noted that Elder Talmage’s final text of Jesus the Christ includes a lengthy endnote alleging numerous illegalities in the trials of Jesus as promulgated in a 1908 book by New York lawyer Walter Chandler. More recent research into the legal situation in Roman provinces suggests that Chandler’s allegations do not make good historical or legal sense, Brother Welch said.

“If the purpose of highlighting alleged illegalities is to suggest that if Jesus only had been given a fair trial He wouldn’t have been killed, where does that argument lead?” he asked. “What then would have happened to the Father’s foreordained plan of atonement and the conquest of the results of the Fall?”

Brother Welch suggested that much of what transpired in the trial of Jesus can be explained in terms of fear which is “manifested on all sides in all four of the New Testament accounts — everyone is scared; some including Pilate are exceedingly frightened. … The chief priests feared the people (Matthew 21:46), feared Jesus (Mark 11:18), and feared displeasing the Romans (John 11:48). … I may be wrong here, but the operation of fear, panic and even hysteria explains, I think, a lot, including the sense of urgency, speed, … chaos, spontaneity and, most of all, irrationality. When people are afraid, they don’t think rationally, and we can’t expect them to do so. Trying to account for their decisions rationally is thus doomed to failure. But even irrational behavior can certainly still be historical behavior.”

The second trend Brother Welch cited is that scholars now count all four New Testament gospels, including the Book of John, as being historically significant. The old preference was to count only the Synoptic gospels: Matthew Mark and Luke.

The third shift in scholarly thinking, Brother Welch said, is to recognize multiple correct answers to the questions of what Jesus was accused of, who killed Him and who is to blame.

“Elder Talmage … correctly admits the existence of a host of antagonists, both individuals and also complex groups,” he remarked. “Take the role of the so-called ‘Jews’ in the trials of Jesus. The Jews were not a monolithic group, as people now have realized. There were Galileans, Judeans, chief priests, officers, elders, Sadducees, Levites, Pharisees, Zealots, local Jews, Diasporadic Jews and many others. Some Jews loved Jesus. Many welcomed Him. … Others saw Jesus as a troublemaker.”

No one person was responsible, and all had their own agendas and concerns, Brother Welch said.

The fourth trend Brother Welch cited is the recognition that Jewish and Roman authorities shared legal concerns about miracle workers, authority and loyalty and that these dynamics figured in the trial and execution of Jesus.

“I think it is highly significant that miracle workers were counted in Jesus’ day not only as being among the leading enemies of the Roman order, but also among the most serious offenders of the Law of Moses (as in ‘thou shalt not suffer the witch to live,’ in Exodus 22:18),” he said.

Brother Welch said Elder Talmage correctly identified the trial recounted in John 11 regarding the raising of Lazarus from the dead as being “the miracle that broke the proverbial legal-camel’s back.” It was too close to Jerusalem, too powerful and too influential for the Jewish Sanhedrin to tolerate.

“Few trial-of-Jesus analysts take the trial back this far, but Talmage rightly says: ‘From the day of that memorable session of the Sanhedrin, … the rulers … issued a [legal] mandate that whosoever knew of His whereabouts should give the information to the official, that they might promptly take Him into custody’ (p. 498). What’s going on here is not the issuance of an arrest warrant for Jesus to appear for trial, but a witch-hunt (so to speak) to bring Jesus for summary sentencing and execution.”

Raising the question of why the New Testament accounts subject readers to such gore and violence, Brother Welch said it is essential to make clear that Jesus was certifiably dead and that His death was publicly known for the testimonies of His resurrection to mean anything.

“By reflecting carefully and cautiously, thinking about the many events and the complex causes that led up to the death of Jesus, and by allowing the Holy Ghost to bear witness to our hearts, minds and souls, I testify that these things are true and that one may surely know that Jesus of Nazareth is indeed the Son of God, of whom the Bible, the Book of Mormon and all the holy prophets have ever testified,” Brother Welch concluded.