Fortress Press has done scholars and students a real service in making available a new edition of Sloyan’s judiciously argued 1973 work on the still-timely topic of who killed Jesus and why they did so. Proceeding through a careful review of the findings of Biblical source criticism, Sloyan attempts to discern the historical likelihood of the events of Jesus’ trial as variously reported in the Christian Gospel. Cautioning the reader against both the Scylla of presuming the Gospels are historic chronicles and the Charybdis of skepticism about any historic basis for these accounts, Sloyan takes the middle path of judging that details found in more than one of the sources used by the evangelists have historical likelihood on their side. Sifting through the various conclusions of source critics on each of the four Gospels, supplemented with some appeal to what is otherwise known about this time period, Sloyan concludes that Pilate reluctantly crucified Jesus in accordance with the wishes of the Temple priestly leadership.
The reader might question whether historical memory is the most likely reason that separate sources point to the temple authorities as the source of Jesus’ trouble with Rome, but one cannot doubt the calm integrity of Sloyan’s thorough analysis. Given his interest (here and elsewhere) in reducing anti-Semitism, it is perhaps more to the point to ask how this book will serve that goal. After all, Sloyan defends as historically likely that Jewish religious leaders conspired to have Jesus put to death, and then persuaded Pilate to sentence and to crucify him. Nevertheless, Sloyan contends that more careful teaching and preaching about the nature of the Gospels as a form of persuasive story-telling rather than historical chronicle would help much, as would a better explanation of Christian faith claims about the significance of Jesus’ death-resurrection for the sins of all.
While its thorough assessment of source criticism make this book of interest primarily to those with a keen interest in the historical critical method, Sloyan’s delightfully clear, jargon-free prose renders this book accessible to any educated person willing to follow the detailed analysis. It is a wonderful resource for ministers, preachers, and religious educators who will have much the same concern that Sloyan has for the meaning of the Gospel texts, the history behind them, and their implications for today. It would also work very well for upper level undergraduates in a course on Biblical scholarship, though the extent of the detailed biblical criticism on such a small portion of the Gospels would make this a less likely book to be used in its entirety for an introductory course. However, a chapter or two could profitably be studied by early undergraduates as an example of source criticism and of its theological significance.
Those most interested in the theological issues at stake in the tradition of Christian thought on the death of Jesus (including the problematic charge of deicide against Jews) will be better served by Sloyan’s 1995 The Crucifixion of Jesus. While his Jesus on Trial focuses on historical criticism in a manner that only briefly indicates the theological significance of this Biblical scholarship, The Crucifixion of Jesus provides a more developed analysis of the theological tradition’s claims about the meaning of Jesus’ death and of the contempt for the Jews that has unfortunately been fostered by parts of this tradition. The Crucifixion of Jesus is also the more accessible book for a general audience or for an introductory course. However, these two books make excellent companion works: read together, they provide a wonderful opportunity for students at all levels to engage in a thorough study of this very important biblical and theological topic, with the help of an extraordinarily learned and thoughtful guide.