When historical evidence contradicts biblical accounts. What is a teacher to do?

I never tell my students the Bible is not true. Never. However, I do tell them historical evidence often contradicts biblical stories.  As a public school teacher I feel it is my responsibility to bring students up to speed on historical research, data, current evidence, and scholarly arguments pertaining to religion and social studies. The crucifixion of Jesus is one example, specifically the question “who killed Jesus?”  This question has been a cultural hot potato for hundreds of years. It is also a subject that has generated anti-Semitic feelings and attitudes. And I feel it is my duty to help my high school students understand this issue.

who killed jesus

Most of my Christian students are fully aware of the Easter story, and they generally place the blame for Jesus’ death on the Jews. This is understandable. The Bible clearly paints a picture of Pontius Pilate, the man who ordered the crucifixion of Jesus, as a sympathetic man wanting to spare Jesus’ life. The biblical account has Pilate reluctantly giving in to a hostile Jewish crowd demanding that Jesus be put to death. This biblical image of Pilate is considered pure fiction by most historians. Yet, it is a story that continues to fuel anti-Semitic feeling and rage against Jews, the “Christ killers.”

anti semetism

So why is the Biblical account of Jesus’ trial and execution in direct opposition to historical records and evidence?  More importantly, why would one of Jesus’ biographers want to direct the blame away from Rome and onto the Jews?  These questions greatly pique the curiosity of all my students.

I make it clear to my students that I am not an expert in Roman, Jewish, or Christian history. I tell them that my job is to expose them to scholarly research, evidence, and arguments made by experts.  One expert is Joseph Telushkin. His explanation about the falsehood of the Biblical account of Pontius Pilate is widely accepted among scholars and historians. It is as follows (I read this out loud to my students and project it on my screen for them to see and read):

Concerning Jesus’ executioner, Pontius Pilate, we have a considerable body of data that contradicts the largely sympathetic portrayal of him in the New Testament. Even among the long line of cruel procurators who ruled Judea, Pilate stood out as a notoriously vicious man. He eventually was replaced after murdering a group of Samaritans. The Romans realized that keeping him in power would only provoke continual rebellions. The gentle, kindhearted Pilate of the New Testament – who in his “heart of hearts” really did not want to harm Jesus – is fictional. Like most fictions, the story was created with a purpose.

When the New Testament was written, Christianity was banned by Roman law. The Romans, well aware that they had executed Christianity’s founder – indeed the reference to Jesus’ crucifixion by the Roman historian Tacitus is among the earliest allusions to him outside the New Testament – had no reason to rescind their anti-Christian legislation. Christianity’s only hope for gaining legitimacy was to “prove” to Rome that its crucifixion of Jesus had been a terrible error, and had only come about because the Jews forced Pilate to do it. Thus, the New Testament depicts Pilate as wishing to spare Jesus from punishment, only to be stymied by a large Jewish mob yelling, “Crucify him.” The account ignores one simple fact. Pilate’s power in Judea was absolute. Had he wanted to absolve Jesus, he would have done so. He certainly would not have allowed a mob of Jews, whom he detested, to force him into killing someone whom he admired.

This kind of critical examination and discussion of the Bible is offensive to some of my conservative Christian students. To them I am “bashing the Bible” by calling into question the historical accuracy of any biblical story. And, consequently, I have been accused of “disrespecting Christianity” in my classroom, an accusation that led to threats of lawsuits against the school back in 1996.

Here is my question: Is it really disrespectful to a religion to teach about historical perspectives, evidence, and research to high school students that calls into question the literal and historical validity of stories in a holy book such as the Bible?

 

9 thoughts on “When historical evidence contradicts biblical accounts. What is a teacher to do?

  1. Brian totally agrees. There is a series of lectures from a professor at Chapel Hill about “the historical Jesus” fascinating. Quotes Josefis aa lot. Brian also says to remember that the Romans killed up to 10,000 Jews over the years.
    If you are up on the city, let us know and we can get together.

    • It is facinating to watch how Pilate and Herod tried to hnladed Jesus. Jesus was like a hot potato that neither of them could handle. Luke 23:4 is clear Pilate sees no fault in Jesus. Herod wanted to see Him but could not handle Jesus Luke 23:9-11. In fact Pilate and Herod, although they were enemies forge a friendship after they tried to deal with Jesus. Why? They saw Jesus as a common threat to their authority. And they were right to be afraid! His power and authority was about to be revealed in a way they could never have imagined. His death, burial and resurrection would change the history of mankind forever thank God.

  2. I say, when historical fact clearly contradicts the historical narrative in a religious text, go with the historical evidence. Choose reality.

    I ran across your blog recently because of Atheist Revolution, I have to say, I’m really enjoying your blog.

    –Sheldon

    • Thanks Sheldon,

      I originally started this blog three months ago to give my students a way to have discussions. Not all students like to participate in class. I saw the blog approach as a means to give kids a way to debate and discuss without having to do it “on the spot.” Much to my surprise I have drawn the attention of people from all over the country! The teaching about religion in a critical way is something I believe strongly in – I feel all public schools should be doing it. Religion certainly plays a major role in history and current issues. To ignore it is to NOT prepare our kids for the “real world.” Thanks again!!

      James

  3. James,

    I really enjoy this piece and your blog in general. I found this blog because of one of your old students, my girlfriend Olivia Cyr. She knows that I have been looking for ways to do historical and critical analysis of religion for my campus ministry work, and this blog is continuing to be a fresh perspective for me.

    I have the issue in my work of building faith which is hard. Because I don’t want students (and these are college students) to have the same dogmatic, uncritical sense that they get in our diocese. However, introducing a critical approach to faith is creating issues in how it calls into question the structure of our school itself. My own personal commitment to my students is that critical thinking and engagement of many different ideas leads to a formation of a stronger conscience. I definitely try to bring in the cultural context into the texts we read in Bible study. I wanted to thank you for your contributions that help further my efforts.

    For your piece, engaging the historical inconsistencies of the Bible is difficult. Your information on Pilate is interesting. I’m intrigued to do some research as I will need it for my bible study next semester on the Gospel of Mark. It would make sense that Christians were trying to appeal to the Romans and that is why they created a nicer Pilate character. I’m sad that your school had lawsuits over disrespecting Christianity because you raised a different perspective in a world religions class. It shows how what was the majority opinion at one point in our country is struggling as they are losing favor. Thanks again for your good work!

    Peace,
    Adam Fitzpatrick

  4. I work very hard to teach this exact point to my congregation in hopes of mitigating anti-Jewish sentiment that, although not an official part of our denomination’s teachings since long before our predecessor denominations began to merge in the 1930s, still seeps in from other sources. Most of my congregation thanks me for the reminders around Easter and whenever I’m preaching on texts that present certain factions of the Jewish religious leadership of the day in bad light…especially when the Gospel of John paints with a horrifically broad brush across the whole of the Jewish people.

    As a pastor, I am thrilled to see that at least one school district in the country isn’t afraid to have an objective, scholastic course on world religions that encourages its students to think. I very much wish that it were a requirement of graduation on a national scale, along with at least a unit (if not a course) on the Bible as literature so that our youngest generations would have a better understanding of what others believe and how our own religious heritage has, for better and for worse, created our culture in the western hemisphere. I suppose it’s too much to hope for a similar course in other scriptures as literature!

    • Ruth,

      I admire your work! Thank you for adding your voice to this important discussion, and thank you for your support. It looks like we are on the same page. I too feel that students need to be taught much more than public schools are presently teaching – my class should be a requirement. I think that schools do a great disservice to kids when they try to “not rock the boat” with curriculums that intentionally leave out “controversial” issues and information. My God! The real world is loaded with controversy! Let’s talk about it, ALL of it, and let’s do it objectively and honestly for the sake of helping our children enter the real world.

      Jim

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