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.

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.”

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?

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