Why was Jesus called the King of the Jews, a claim he never made for himself? A mythicist ponders a second intriguing biblical mystery.
When you look at a crucifix above a church altar, or at an old master’s painting of the Crucifixion, you will usually see a sign affixed to the cross above Jesus’ head reading ‘INRI’. ‘INRI’ stands for the Latin phrase Iesus Nazarenus, Rex Iudaeorum, which translates into English as ‘Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Jews’.
This inscription derives from the description of the crucifixion in the Gospel of John:
Pilate had a notice prepared and fastened to the cross. It read: JESUS OF NAZARETH, THE KING OF THE JEWS. [John 19:19]
That short phrase seems simple enough, but in fact it embodies two intriguing mysteries about the gospel narratives. Did Jesus really come from Nazareth? And why was Jesus called the King of the Jews, a claim he never made for himself? These questions present a challenge to historicists, but are not so daunting when approached from a mythicist point of view.
In the first part of this post, we looked at the first question. We’ll look at the second question in this post. (See INRI: Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews? Part 1)
The King of the Jews
If one were to read the Gospel of Mark without any preconceptions about Jesus, you would be struck by Pontius Pilate’s first question when Jesus is brought before him:
‘Are you the king of the Jews?’ asked Pilate. ‘You have said so,’ Jesus replied. The chief priests accused him of many things. So again Pilate asked him, ‘Aren’t you going to answer? See how many things they are accusing you of.’ But Jesus still made no reply, and Pilate was amazed. [Mark 15: 2–5]
This is the first reference to Jesus as King of the Jews in the Gospel of Mark. Jesus never makes this claim for himself, and neither confesses nor denies it before Pilate. Yet, as we have seen from the notice Pilate orders, it is for being, or claiming to be, the King of the Jews that Jesus is condemned.
The other three gospels follow suit. In none of them does Jesus himself claim to be an earthly king. When he speaks of a Kingdom it is always about the Kingdom of God, or of Heaven. Some of his followers do call him King, but Jesus always lets it pass without comment. Jesus’ only claim to a throne is one in Heaven.
In his book, Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible, popular American Biblical scholar, Bart Ehrman, ponders this conundrum and comes up with an ingenious solution: Jesus has been teaching his disciples in private that when the End of Days comes, and God has overthrown the forces of evil, He will appoint Jesus king. It is this that Judas tells the chief priests, and it is reason enough for Pilate to condemn Jesus to death.
However, if this is the case, the chief priests do not find Judas’s information particularly compelling evidence against Jesus, since, when they question him themselves before taking him to Pilate, they are still looking for more.
The chief priests and the whole Sanhedrin were looking for evidence against Jesus so that they could put him to death, but they did not find any. Many testified falsely against him, but their statements did not agree…[Finally] the high priest asked him, ‘Are you the Messiah, 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. ‘Why do we need any more witnesses?’ he asked. ‘You have heard the blasphemy.’ [Mark 14:55–64]
Despite their own feelings about blasphemy, it seems the chief priests know that the Roman governor would not be interested in Jesus’ offence against their religious sensibilities. Mark does not say so, but he allows the reader to infer that the chief priests massage the facts when they hand Jesus over to Pilate, leading him to believe that Jesus is claiming an earthly throne that would challenge Rome’s authority.
Just as the chief priests do not actually need Judas to locate or identify Jesus, (See Passion Play: Mark’s Passion Narrative as Allegory) neither do they need his information to condemn him, so Ehrman’s attempt to fill in this plot hole falls short. Ehrman’s mistake is to expect logical cause and effect in a story that is neither history nor naturalistic fiction. Mark is writing allegory, so the rules of allegory must apply.
Mark has an endpoint in mind. Jesus must be crucified in order to act out the teachings of Paul: that Jesus was handed over to ‘the rulers of the age’ [1 Cor 2:8] and was put to death, thus becoming the ultimate sacrificial offering. Mark has no great need for consistent characters or logical cause and effect to achieve his goal. However, he does need some excuse for Jesus to be condemned while still being an innocent man. What better than a false accusation, but an accusation that allows Jesus to fulfil his two roles in Mark’s allegory, one on the spiritual plane and the other on the material plane.
Another title that is attributed to Jesus is ‘Son of David’, a title that would apply to both the Messiah whom many Jews thought would be descended from King David, and to an earthly king of Judea who would need to be descended from David in order to have a legitimate claim to the throne. Both gospel nativity stories include genealogies for Jesus tracing his ancestry back to David and through him all the way back to Abraham in Matthew’s gospel, and to Adam in Luke’s gospel. However, even though both gospels claim that Jesus was not Joseph’s biological son, but conceived on Mary by the Holy Spirit, both trace Jesus’ ancestry not through Mary, but through Joseph, a glaring anomaly that has never been adequately explained by biblical scholars.
Could it be that this genealogy originated in a form of Christianity that believed that Jesus was Jospeh’s natural son and therefore could claim descent from King David through his father?
The Nazarene Jesus
As we saw in the first part of this post, (See INRI: Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews? Part 1) Nazarene (or ‘Nazoraean’, ‘Nazorian’ or ‘Nazarean’) was the name applied to the earliest, Torah-observant Christians who kept to the Jewish law, but also believed that Jesus was the Son of God who died and was resurrected. However, where some, particularly the Ebionites, differed from proto-orthodox Christians was that they did not believe in the virgin birth, but that Jesus was Joseph’s natural son who was adopted by God as his own son for his obedience to God’s will. They also placed Jesus’ life and death in a different time.
According to the canonical gospels, Jesus was born during the reign of Augustus (27BCE – 14CE) and was executed under Pontius Pilot (26–36CE) in the reign of Tiberius (14–37CE). However, many early Christians believed otherwise. Irenaeus, the author of Against All Heresies, for example, believed that Jesus must have died in his 40s, and therefore in the reign of Emperor Claudius (41–54CE). In his description of the Nazarenes, the fourth century heresy hunter, Epiphanius of Salamis, tells us that they placed Jesus during the reign of King Alexander Jannaeus, the last independent king of the Jews who died in 76BCE.
For with the advent of the Christ, the succession of the princes from Judah, who reigned until the Christ Himself, ceased …The order failed and stopped at the time when He was born in Bethlehem of Judaea, in the days of Alexander, who was of high-priestly and royal race … And this Alexander, one of the anointed and ruling princes placed the crown on his own head … After this a foreign king, Herod, and those who were no longer of the family of David, assumed the crown. [Panarion 29]
The fact that these early Christians placed the life, and therefore death, of the founder of their sect much earlier than the canonical gospels, suggests that they believed that their sect dated back to an earlier time, in fact a hundred years earlier than the generally accepted dating.
This agrees with the theory put forward by Michael Lawrence in his book, The Seventy-Year Reverse Construction Thesis and Christianity Before Jesus, that Christianity long predated the first century, that Paul was preaching as early as the 60sBCE. Furthermore, Paul’s form of Christianity was not the first and the churches he wrote to were not those he founded himself, but existing congregations that he had converted to his Christology. (See In the Beginning: When did Christianity Begin?)
Who was Alexander Jannaeus?
Alexander Jannaeus, of the Hasmonean dynasty, ruled as High Priest and King of Judea from 103–76BCE. His father, John Hyrcanus, succeeded the Maccabees and ruled as High Priest with civil powers. Alexander succeeded his elder brother, Aristobulus I, on his death, and married his brother’s highly respected widow, Salome Alexandra, with whom he had two sons.
On his ascension, Alexander inherited opposition to his dynasty from the Pharisees who were against combining the two roles of High Priest and King which they believed should be kept separate. They also believed the Hasmoneans to be unqualified to be kings as they were not of the Davidic line. For his part, while his wife was from a Pharisaic family and protected the Pharisees as best she could, Alexander favoured the aristocratic Sadducees and was willing to disregard Jewish religious law and sensibilities for the sake of political expediency.
Alexander’s main interest throughout his reign was to expand the borders of his kingdom and so pursued numerous wars against the surrounding powers during which thousands of lives were lost. The suffering this brought on his people only exacerbated internal opposition to the point where civil war broke out under the leadership of the Pharisees. The war raged for six years during which tens of thousands more Jewish lives were lost. After finally defeating them, Alexander captured and then crucified 800 Pharisees after executing their wives and children before their eyes. Legend has it that Alexander feasted with his courtiers as he watched them die.
Before his death, Alexander named his wife Salome as his successor. However, while her reign was a benign and prosperous one, after her death, her two sons fell into civil war which necessitated intervention from Rome in 63BCE and the inevitable annexation to the Roman Empire. The Romans eventually installed the Herodian dynasty, which was not ethnically Jewish, as their client rulers over the province.
An Earlier Passion Narrative?
As we saw in Passion Play: Mark’s Passion Narrative as Allegory , Mark’s narrative seems to have been based on the Romulan Passion play which tells the story of Romulus, the legendary founder of Rome. While, as Richard Carrier points out, the structure of the story remains similar to the Romulan tale, the details are derived from Jewish scripture and tradition. There is one element in particular where the gospel story differs markedly from the story of Romulus.
According to both Plutarch and Livy, at the end of his life, Romulus mysteriously and miraculously disappears and is believed to have been translated directly to heaven, while yet leaving behind the suspicion that he was torn to pieces by the Roman senate. In other words, even though there is talk that Romulus underwent a physical ordeal, this is not shown or dwelt on in the story. On the other hand, the gospels describe Jesus’ suffering and death in great detail, taking their lead from the Gospel of Mark.
According to Mark, in the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus is ‘overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death’ and begs God to save him from the coming ordeal. [Mark 14:34–36]. When Jesus is taken before the Sanhedrin, ‘some began to spit at him; they blindfolded him, struck him with their fists’ then they order the guards to take him away and beat him. [14: 65]. Even though he doubts Jesus’ guilt, Pilate has Jesus flogged before handing him over to be crucified [15:15], though before they do so, his Pretorian guard:
…put a purple robe on him, then twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on him. And they began to call out to him, ‘Hail, king of the Jews!’ Again and again, they struck him on the head with a staff and spit on him. Falling on their knees, they paid homage to him. [Mark 15:17–19]
Jesus is mocked while he hangs on the cross, as onlookers jeer at him to save himself, if he truly is the Messiah and King of Israel. Even the two rebels crucified with him ‘heaped insults on him’ [15:27–32], until at last, ‘with a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last’. [15:37]
As we can see, the mockery and much of the cruelty, focusses on Jesus’ supposed claim to be King of the Jews. In order to qualify for that title, Jesus must be descended from King David. Mark touches on Jesus’ descent from David in passing, but this lineage is reinforced by Matthew and Luke in the detailed genealogies in their gospels. According to Jewish tradition, such a lineage would give Jesus a credible claim to be king and it is telling that the Sanhedrin do not condemn him for that claim, which they would have to honour, but rather for his claim to be the Messiah and son of God.
Despite their iron grip on their territories, the Roman Empire regularly dealt with rebellions and mutinies. According to the historian Josephus, Pontius Pilate himself was faced with several uprisings led by Messianic claimants. While these events were troublesome to the regime, they were no great threat when countered by the Roman Legions. While some historicists like to claim that Jesus was a rebel who was defying the establishment, a non-violent preacher with a dozen followers, who had already been repudiated by the crowd who cheered him only a few days earlier, posed no great threat to Pilate nor to Rome.
However, if a man claiming to be of the true Davidic line had appeared during the reign of Alexander Jannaeus, he would indeed have been a threat to a man in Alexander’s position, especially if he presented himself as both rightful King and Messiah. Given how Alexander punished the Pharisee rebels, he would very likely have put such a man to death in the cruellest and most humiliating way imaginable.
So, given all these factors, could the Nazarenes, or the Ebionites, have had an earlier gospel than Mark’s, a gospel which underlies his, a gospel which he adapted to fit his theology, the times in which he was writing and the Roman audience for whom he was writing? Could this gospel have told the story of a saviour figure, not divine, but the natural son of Joseph of the House of David, who appears during the reign of King Alexander Jannaeus, and has a better claim to the throne than he? Could their gospel have detailed Alexander’s cruel treatment and execution of this contender?
Such a story could have indeed been plausible and such a gospel possible, but do we have any other evidence for it?
The Wise King
Apart from the gospels themselves, there is another source which may be evidence for this earlier version of the Passion narrative: a letter written in Syriac by a certain Mara bar Serapion to his son, in which he urges his son to turn to philosophy in the face of suffering brought about by war, exile, imprisonment and separation. The letter is not dated, but it refers to refugees recently fleeing the city of Samosata (Samsat in modern day Turkey) which was destroyed by the Romans and annexed to their empire around 73CE.
One theme Mara touches on in the letter is that when the wise are oppressed, not only does their wisdom triumph in the end, but God also punishes their oppressors.
What are we to say, when the wise are dragged by force by the hands of tyrants, and their wisdom is deprived of its freedom by slander, and they are plundered for their superior intelligence, without the opportunity of making a defence? They are not wholly to be pitied. For what benefit did the Athenians obtain by putting Socrates to death, seeing that they received as retribution for it famine and pestilence? Or the people of Samos by the burning of Pythagoras, seeing that in one hour the whole of their country was covered with sand? Or the Jews by the murder of their Wise King, seeing that from that very time their kingdom was driven away from them? For with justice did God grant a recompense to the wisdom of all three of them. For the Athenians died by famine; and the people of Samos were covered by the sea without remedy; and the Jews, brought to desolation and expelled from their kingdom, are driven away into every land. Nay, Socrates did “not” die, because of Plato; nor yet Pythagoras, because of the statue of Hera; nor yet the Wise King, because of the new laws which he enacted. (See Wikisource)
This brief reference is, of course, claimed by historicists as evidence of the existence of Jesus and the rapid spread of Christianity through Syria. However, Mara does not advocate Christianity to his son, nor give any great prominence to this Jewish ‘Wise King’. Neither does he name him Jesus, nor refer to him in Christian terms, remembering him for his ‘new laws’ rather than his resurrection or divinity. It is unlikely, therefore, that Mara is referring to the Jesus of the canonical gospels.
Alternatively, since Mara groups the Wise King with Socrates and Pythagoras, who lived hundreds of years before his time, this Wise King might also date to the distant past. In his book, Jesus: Neither God nor Man – The Case for the Mythical Jesus. Earl Doherty suggests that Mara is referring to the Jewish king Josiah whose reign from 639–609 BCE was followed only two decades later by the Babylonian conquest and subsequent Jewish exile.
However, it is notable that while Mara uses the past tense when talking about the fate of the Athenians and the people of Samos, he uses the present tense regarding the Jewish people who ‘are driven away into every land,’ a phrase that best describes what happened to the Jewish people after each of the three Jewish-Roman Wars between 66 and 136 CE. Furthermore, Mara states that soon after the Jews murdered their Wise King ‘their kingdom was driven away from them’ just as the Kingdom of Judea was annexed to the Roman Empire only a few years after the reign of Alexander Jannaeus.
It is also notable that the stories Mara refers to regarding Socrates and Pythagoras, are not those known from Western literature. Doherty believes that Mara has just been ‘slipshod’ and misremembered these stories, but a serious student of philosophy, as Mara claims to be, would not make such a mistake. Nor would he have reason to make them up as his son cannot grasp the meaning of these examples unless he is familiar with the stories his father is referring to. I would suggest that Mara is citing an alternative literature, a literature that circulated in the Middle East, a literature that included the story of the murder of the Wise King of the Jews, a literature that has since been lost, just as the Gospel of the Nazarenes has been lost.
Mara bar Serapion’s letter can give us no more than a glimpse into an alternative narrative, but given the fact that the Christian Church, both Catholic and Orthodox, had control over all literature within their jurisdictions, and thus over what would survive and what would be lost, for more than a thousand years, such glimpses are all we have to go on.
Pauline Montagna © 2023
Dr Richard Carrier, On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt, Sheffield Phoenix Press (2014)
Earl Doherty, Jesus Neither God nor Man: The Case for a Mythical Jesus, Age of Reason Publications (2009)
Bart Ehrman, Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible, HarperOne (2009)