Erich Lessing

An anguished Jesus beseeches his heavenly father, “All things are possible to you; take this cup [of suffering] from me” (Mark 14:36), while Peter, James and John slumber nearby, in this 14th-century painting by the Czech artist known as the Master of Vysûsûí Brod from the National Gallery in Prague. Jesus’ agonized prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane is one of many scenes in the Bible that, although moving, could not possibly have been actually witnessed by anyone. In this case, all the witnesses were asleep! Similarly, when describing Jesus’ trial, Mark claims to report Pilate’s actual thoughts and opinions—such as: “He [Pilate] perceived that it was out of envy that the chief priests had betrayed him [Jesus]” (Mark 15:10). How could Mark have known what Pilate was thinking?

According to author Stephen Patterson, when gospel writers narrate the private thoughts of characters like Pilate—or Jesus—they are expressing aspects of their own faith, not historical fact. Writing around the time of the fall of Jerusalem in 70 C.E., when followers of Jesus were increasingly at odds with other Jews, Mark whitewashed Pilate and exaggerated the culpability of Jesus’ Jewish accusers to express his own belief that the Romans were God’s instruments, punishing Mark’s Jewish contemporaries for having rejected Jesus over three decades earlier.