Latter-day Saint Reflections on the Trial and Death of Jesus by John W. Welch

At the outset, John W. Welch signals his intention to reflect on two questions, “Why was Jesus killed?” and “Who was responsible?” [ref] .[/ref]The problem inherent with addressing these two questions is that details on the law in force at the time are sketchy at best. Talking of the so-called “trial of Jesus,” Welch quotes Elder Bruce R. McConkie, “There is no divine ipse dixit, no voice from an archangel, and as yet no revealed latter- day account of all that transpired when God’s own Son suffered himself to be judged by men so that he could voluntarily give up his life upon the cross.” [ref]Bruce R. McConkie, The Mortal Messiah (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1981), 4:142. [/ref]

Why Was Jesus Killed?

Although Rabbinic Law is well documented in the Talmud, the Talmud was written from the 2nd to 5th centuries and, according to Welch, “presumably reflects the rules preferred by the late Pharisaic movement. Moreover, the Pharisees were not in control of the Sanhedrin at the time of Jesus; the Sadducees were decidedly in the majority. And we know that the Sadducees and Pharisees differed on a number of points of law.” So did the Sanhedrin have the power to put someone to death? Welch points out that the translation of the Greek version of John 18:31 is “To us is not allowed to kill no one,” presumably without Roman authority. But apparently Jewish leaders did seem to have some authority as evidenced by the “attempts to kill Jesus in Nazareth or in the case of the woman taken in adultery, or in the deaths of Stephen or John the Baptist, none of which involved Roman authorities.”

Another problem is the differing accounts among the four Gospels that has an impact on the legality of the council’s actions, “For example, did the council meet at night, as Matthew and Mark say (which probably would have been illegal), or did they meet only when day came, as in Luke (where that alleged illegality does not arise)? Or what about John, who mentions the council only before the arrest, never after?”

Turning to the motives or justification for putting Jesus to death, Welch rehearses differing viewpoints that reflect the “angst” of the time-period they were published. These viewpoints range from terrorism, to the actions of a Communist-like Sanhedrin, to the more common hatred and envy. Another question is what was in the mind of Pilate? Welch suggests that, “Pilate may have acted out of desperation, fear for his own safety, or equally out of hope that the crowd would disperse and leave Jesus alone. In fact, in the Joseph Smith Translation, Pilate tells the Jews to leave Jesus alone.”

Welch then deals with the role that fear played in the so-called trial of Jesus: “People who were sympathetic to Jesus were afraid of the Jewish leaders. The disciples fled from the scene of the arrest out of great fear. Even the powerful Joseph of Arimathaea kept his loyalty to Jesus secret ‘for fear of the Jews’ (John 19:38).” In Mark 11:18, the chief priests “sought how they might destroy him: for they feared him.” In conclusion, “Although the factor of fear is rarely men- tioned by commentators, fear provides the driving undercurrent that best explains the irregularities and vagaries of the so- called trial of Jesus.”

In addressing what these people were afraid of, Welch highlights one aspect, the supernatural. Jesus had already and constantly demonstrated his ability to supersede natural laws through his own divine powers, including raising Lazarus from the dead. Even if the chief priests decided to attribute these powers to evil rather than good sources, they would have approached arresting Jesus with trepidation. “No wonder they needed to enlist the assistance of one of his closest followers.” Welch turns to the Book of Mormon to explain this:

In a significant revelation from the Book of Mormon, an angel announces that Jesus Christ would go about “working mighty miracles, such as healing the sick, raising the dead, [and] cast[ing] out . . . evil spirits” (Mosiah 3:5); but “even after all this they shall consider him a man, and say that he hath a devil, and shall scourge him, and shall crucify him” (Mosiah 3:9). In the Book of Mormon, this is the proximate cause of the death of Jesus: not that he was a political threat, and not that some people disagreed with his doctrines, but that certain key people considered him to be of the devil.

Who Killed Jesus? 

 Welch starts this section with a survey of the Gospel accounts, concluding that since John was the only self-declared eyewitness and the senior apostle among the Gospel writers, his account should carry the most weight. Welch finds it significant that

in John’s good news, Jesus was not convicted of anything. In John we find no mention of any Jewish court at all, let alone a verdict against him; and on this point I think John is right. Even in dis- cussing the synoptic accounts, it is some- thing of a misnomer to speak of the “trial” of Jesus. There was a hearing (maybe) or perhaps an inquiry or attempted deposition and the voicing of an opinion of how things “appeared” (as the Greek reads in Matthew 26:66 and Mark 14:64), but not a trial and verdict.

Those attendant at the events immediately leading up to Christ’s crucifixion included “not just a group of men with torches, as in the other Gospels, but a cohort of soldiers, servants of chief priests and Pharisees (see John 18:3), and the commander or chiliarchos (see John 18:12). The whole world, it seems, was symbolically there.” Which correlates with the prophecy in the Book of Mormon, “And the world, because of their iniquity, shall judge him to be a thing of naught; wherefore they scourge him, [smite him and spit upon him] and he suffereth it, . . . because of his loving kindness and his long-suffering towards [all] the children of men (1 Nephi 19:9).” But chief among Christ’s accusers, throughout the accounts are the chief priests: “Fourteen times in the Gospels and four times in Acts, the chief priests act alone against Jesus or his disciples. Eighteen other times they act together with the elders, rulers, captains, or the Sanhedrin. Twenty-one times they are associated with the scribes.”

On the other hand, Welch makes the case, documented in both the New Testament and the Book of Mormon, but especially in the Gospel of John, that

Jesus was in full control from the beginning to the end. At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus spoke of his death even to prominent Jewish leaders and others outside his circle of disciples. Speaking to Nicodemus, Jesus said, “Even so must the Son of man be lifted up (John 3:14). . . . For John, we must never forget that it is God who is voluntarily, purposefully, and knowingly dying as planned.

The setting for these pivotal events, in Welch’s view, had to be in the Jewish nation:

The Jewish legal system, however—with its prohibitions against witchcraft, necro- mancy, and idolatry—effectively made the Jews (as the Book of Mormon says) the only nation on earth in which anyone could have cared enough about such supernatural conduct to have reacted with such hostility and to have “stumbled” against the very presence of their God in their midst, as Jacob says (Jacob 4:15). 

But Welch hastens to clarify that Jesus was not a victim, and that by no means every person present at the final events in Jesus’s life was in agreement with the decisions of the Jewish leaders. In fact, “all of them knew not what they really did. As Peter said only a few weeks later to those very people in Jerusalem ‘who killed the Prince of life,’ ‘I [know] that through ignorance ye did it, as did also your rulers’ (Acts 3:15, 17).”

Finally, “God in his mercy does not come out and place blame on any single person or group of people. . . . By reflecting carefully and cautiously on the events and causes leading up to the death of Jesus, one may more surely agree that he is indeed the Son of God, of whom the Book of Mormon and all the holy prophets have ever testified.”


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