Stations of the Cross at Barangaroo during World Youth Day Sydney 2008

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Revisiting the crucifixion

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Two thousand years of retelling the Easter story may have obscured some fascinating details. Is it time to reassess the archvillains of the crucifixion and see Jesus’ women followers as the key to this pivotal historical event?

Easter is the cornerstone of Christianity. Out of the dramatic events in first century Jerusalem came its universal motif, the cross, and its foundational belief, Jesus raising from the dead. Without Easter, the world’s biggest religion would not exist.

The details of what happened two thousand years ago are familiar even to non-believers. Jesus’ triumphant entry into the city, his final meal with his disciples followed by his betrayal, trial, death and alleged resurrection have been central to Western culture ever since.

Many Biblical scholars argue, however, that thousands of years of retelling this well-drilled narrative have smoothed over many gnarly, fascinating details. It is a gripping tale, full of heroes, villains and an actual Messiah. But what lies beyond the archetypes?

Helen Bond, Professor of Christian Origins, has spent decades investigating the events of Easter, casting a historian’s eye over what happened in dusty, first century Judea.

Through numerous books and TV documentaries which have been read and watched by millions, Professor Bond – who is also Head of the School of Divinity at the University of Edinburgh – has peeled back the Sunday School lacquer of Easter and tried to reveal the politics, ancient traditions and fallible humans behind Jesus’ death – and how its selective retelling has led to the marginalisation of women and persecution of Jews.

Resurveying the cross

One of the first things that people do not realise about the Easter story, says Prof Bond, is that there isn’t one version in The Bible, but four – one in each of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

Professor Helen Bond delivering a talk at St Paul's Cathedral
Professor Helen Bond delivering a talk at St Paul’s Cathedral

For example, the picture of the Roman governor Pontius Pilate washing his hands is only in Matthew. The account of Jesus being tried in front of King Herod is only in Luke. There are differences in the time of Jesus’ crucifixion – according to Mark it was 9am, but John says Jesus was still on trial at noon. Even the days are different – it is the day of Preparation in John, but the Passover in Mark. And only in Matthew do we get the curious detail that at the moment Jesus dies on the cross, tombs of his pious followers are opened and their previously dead inhabitants walk into the city.

“Most people have a harmonized view where all of these things happen but that’s not like any of the Gospels,” says Prof Bond. “When you see them as four separate stories you realise there has been a huge amount of embellishment here. Actually, we have very little idea about what happened apart from the bare bones of the story, which is that Jesus was put to death by a Roman governor. So much of the detail is elaboration by the gospel writers in the pursuit of particular aims to show something about Jesus, his relationship with the Jewish authorities, or Rome.”

Dark roots

In these embellishments lie the roots of Christian antisemitism, Prof Bond says. The culpability placed on the Jewish authorities and the Jewish people for Jesus’ execution – in Matthew, for example, the bloodthirsty crowd shout that his death should be on them and their children – was a marketing tactic for the earliest followers of Jesus.

“Early Christians were trying to put as much blame as possible on the Jewish authorities and trying to take it off the Romans, because they knew the people they were trying to convert to Christianity would be Romans,” she says. “It’s not a great story to say, come and believe in this figure who was put to death by a Roman governor.”

This anti-Jewish narrative is personified in Caiaphas, the Jewish high priest at the time and a man apparently on a singular mission to destroy Jesus. In paintings, literature and films ever since he is a shadowy, slippery figure. Dante places Caiaphas in the eighth level of hell in his ‘Inferno’.

Jesus' Trial Before Caiaphas, engraving by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld (March 26, 1794 - May 24, 1872)
Jesus’ Trial Before Caiaphas, engraving by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld (March 26, 1794 – May 24, 1872)

In 2004, Prof Bond wrote a book about the high priest, ‘Caiaphas: Friend of Rome and Judge of Jesus?’, and brought this one-dimensional character out of the murk to shine a more understanding light on him.

In first century Jerusalem, the high priest was the head of the Jewish faith and the head of the Temple, but he was also a Roman appointment. Caiaphas’ power was conditional on the favour of the occupying empire, Prof Bond explains.

“This is a world where politics and religion are completely entwined,” says Prof Bond. “It’s a very fragile relationship. He knows his place. His room for manoeuvre is quite narrow.”

During Passover, with Jerusalem packed with Jewish pilgrims, Caiaphas was charged with keeping the peace for his political overlords and the Temple unsullied by non-Jews for the devout.

In John’s gospel, Caiaphas weighs up the price of keeping both constituencies happy. The death of Jesus, a known troublemaker in the estimation of the authorities, could prevent riots and Roman retribution on the whole city, including the Temple. He explains his grim calculus to fellow members of the Sanhedrin, the supreme Jewish council: “It is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish.”

“This is realpolitik,” says Prof Bond. “It is a negotiation all the time. Nobody wants to give over one of their own nation to a Roman governor, but, on the other hand, from Caiaphas’s point of view the most important thing is to make sure the feast runs smoothly in the Temple and there’s no chance of riots. Nothing gets in the way of the feast.

“You can see from Caiaphas’ perspective, Jesus is a nobody. It is better to get rid of him. And if he hands Jesus over, maybe the Romans will do something for the Jewish authorities at some time. It’s a Mediterranean world of honour, shame and male negotiation.”

Sympathy for a devil?

Judas is another figure for whom Prof Bond has sympathy.

In Christianity’s prophetic tradition, it was necessary for someone to betray Jesus for all of humanity to be saved: no crucifixion, no resurrection. Judas, by this logic, is a vital cog in the intricate workings of Christianity’s salvation narrative. His reward? Becoming a byword for the worst kind of insidious treachery. Just ask any footballer that joins a crosstown rival, a politician who crosses the floor or the electrified Bob Dylan.

Judas kissing Jesus, by Ignazio Jacometti (1854)
Judas kissing Jesus, by Ignazio Jacometti (1854), Church of San Salvatore alla Scala Santa, Rome

Prof Bond’s take on the forces that motivated Judas in her 2012 book, The Historical Jesus: A Guide for the Perplexed, was informed by her conversations with Gerry Adams, the Sinn Feinn leader, while making a Channel 4 documentary about The Bible.

“Straight away Gerry Adams said, ‘They got to him’,” says Prof Bond. She found this idea compelling that Jesus’ inner group had been infiltrated by the authorities. And, for her, Judas’ vulnerability and lack of education makes more sense than the Gospels’ various reasons for Judas’ betrayal – money and Satanic possession.

“Judas may have been the only disciple from the south [of Palestine, close to Jerusalem], the rest were from the north,” she says. “If so, maybe the chief priests were in a position to get to his family. The Jewish authorities held all the cards in this culture. They might not even have used physical threats. They could have just persuaded him what Jesus was doing and saying was wrong.”

Jesus’ female disciples

And then there are the women. By the time of the crucifixion, the male disciples have either betrayed Jesus, denied knowing him, or fled. Suddenly, the writers of the Gospels reveal that at the cross are a group of female followers. They are the only ones who stand by Jesus to the end and see where he is buried.

All four Gospels agree that these women were first to see the empty tomb and encounter the resurrected Jesus. It is women, then, who were the first people in Christianity to proclaim the faith’s central belief – that Jesus rose from the grave. “Women are key to the Easter story,” says Prof Bond.

Mary at Jesus' feet
Detail of Mary Magdalen in ‘Deposition of the Cross’ by P. Verkade found in John of the Cross side altar in the Dobling Carmelite Monastery in Vienna

And yet Christianity has had a rather mixed relationship with women ever since. Some church traditions still forbid women from holding positions of leadership or from preaching. This is completely out of step with the early church and, as the Easter story shows, the dynamics of Jesus’ own group, Prof Bond says.

“The traditional idea of Jesus travelling with 12 male disciples is all wrong,” she says. “The Jesus movement was really egalitarian early on, partly because they think the world is ending and you have to get ready. If that is the case you want the women working as well as the men to get the word out to as many people as possible. In a really gendered society, these men couldn’t just go off and evangelise women. You would need women to go to the women by the river washing clothes, or go into women’s houses.”

This is why Prof Bond believes Mary Magdalene to have been an important leader of female disciples, and her central role in the Easter story. All four Gospels place her at the empty tomb.

So what changed? What moved this egalitarian movement into one whose power structures were based on gender? The lack of an apocalypse, explains Prof Bond.

“When Christians realised the end wasn’t coming soon and they had to be in the world a bit longer, they started to develop leadership structures and looked to the patriarchal world around them.”

A woman takes Jesus down from the cross
A female follower takes Jesus down from the cross. A detail from ‘Deposition of the Cross’ by P. Verkade.

Early critics of Christianity, such as the second century Greek writer Celsus, mocked the new faith for its inclusion of ‘women, beggars and slaves’. This stinging critique from the ancient world led to women being side-lined in the church and “consciously or not, quietly dropped” from narratives such as the Easter story, says Prof Bond.

Her recent work has been, in part, to rebalance things. In 2018 she wrote and co-presented ‘Jesus’s Female Disciples’ on Channel 4, which was watched by more than 1.4 million people, and in March 2022 published ‘Women Remembered’.

“We have had 2000 years of interpreting these texts about Easter in a way that doesn’t hear the women’s voices so much, or treats their testimony as lightweight,” says Bond. “Yet, in many ways they have the most important role of all.”

Picture credits: passion play – World Youth Day via Getty Images; Caiaphas – ivan-96/Getty; Judas – HaigiLeal/Getty; Mary and female follower – sedmak – Getty