Jesus of Nazareth, Guilty or Not Guilty

Jesus of Nazareth, Guilty or Not Guilty

His Honour Anthony Seys Llewellyn QC looks at the judge’s perspective on the evidence for Jesus’ actions in his last days, and indeed for his very existence as an historical figure.

The gospels relate the figure of Jesus as drawing crowds and on this occasion, tumult: he was a figure who had expressed himself radically, and confrontationally, against the religious establishment. He was a threat.

In secular terms, you could allege that he was guilty of offences of theft (the donkey/colt); of threatening words and behaviour (physically throwing the money changers and the like out of the Temple); and most ominously, of sedition – later agreeing that he was the “King of the Jews”.

To judge upon evidence, there are first two preliminary questions: (i) to what extent can we rely on the gospels, given differences between them and when the accounts were first recorded? (ii) since some people deny it, did a historical figure of Jesus ever exist?

As to dating the Gospels, and Acts of the Apostles, we may start with full texts only in the fourth century AD; but the evidence has accumulated from texts and papyri of much earlier origins; these and the Acts of the Apostles at the hands of Luke are at latest in the late 1st century AD within two generations of the asserted life of Jesus, and I would conclude that it was earlier than this, given the independently verifiable dates of Paul’s ministry, and the absence of any reference in the Gospels to the factual destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem having yet taken place, although as is documented independently this in fact occurred in AD 70.

As to whether Jesus ever existed, it is not only the Christian accounts, but independent sources which lead me to the conclusion without doubt that a historical figure Jesus existed.

My own judgment is that it is reasonable to rely on evidence in the gospels – what they relate may differ in detail, and sometimes as to content, but it is consistent in essence. Was Jesus guilty of the secular charges which might arguably have been brought against him? Theft, pretty quickly No. As to threatening words and behaviour, no suggestion against him by the religious authorities, even if they were in pursuit of a more grave charge.  As to sedition, yes in the course of his teachings he was on occasion willing to acknowledge that he was the Messiah, but – even if he was not the “Jesus meek and mild” of the hymn – he clearly did not concern himself with temporal power, but rather spiritual matters.

Was he guilty of blasphemy? To the Jews of the time, clearly Yes, since he agreed at trial that he was the “Son of God”; but No, this is a matter of faith…

Click Listen to hear a recording of the entire lecture or Save and choose PDF to download the full transcript.

Anthony Seys Llewellyn

His Honour Anthony Seys Llewellyn, QC was a barrister, QC, and then full time judge. As a barrister and QC, he appeared in many high-profile trials and inquiries, including the King’s Cross Fire Inquiry, the Paddington Ladbroke Grove rail disaster Inquiry, and the Hatfield rail disaster criminal trial. He sat dealing with cases as a Recorder in the Crown Court and the County Court from 1986 to 2008. As a judge, he was the Designated Civil Judge for Wales from 2008 until his retirement as a full time judge in 2016, and was the senior civil judge resident in Wales and responsible for the work of all the civil courts and the work of the judiciary in civil cases throughout Wales. He was authorised to and did sit in the High Court in the Queen’s Bench Division, the Chancery Division, and the Administrative Court dealing with judicial review of the decisions of local authorities, the Government and other bodies.