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Because the accounts of Jesus' death and resurrection are central to Christian faith, they have been subjected to special challenge. Nevertheless, strong evidence supports the essential Gospel reports about Jesus' death and resurrection. Other narratives may have figured as much in early Christian ethical preaching, but early Christians probably would have told and retold the passion story, which lay at the heart of their gospel. No record remains of any form of early Christianity that lacked the basic structure of the story of Jesus' death and resurrection. Paul's sequence is similar to Mark's (1 Cor 11:23; 15:3-5; compare Jewish and Roman responsibility in 1 Cor 1:23; 1 Thess 2:14-15), and if, as is probable, John represents an independent tradition, his passion narrative again confirms the outline Mark follows, suggesting a passion narrative that existed before Mark (R. Brown 1994:53-55, 77-80).
Other evidence suggests the substantial reliability of these accounts. First of all, the basic story seems to have been established among Jerusalem Christians within a decade after the resurrection. The basic components of the story and their outline are surely earlier than Mark; Paul and John independently attest the same material. Mark himself appears to presuppose that his audience is familiar with some details of the story (especially Barabbas and other insurrectionists, despite Pilate's many confrontations with such revolutionaries; Theissen 1991:171, 182-83).
Further, the "criterion of embarrassment" makes it nearly impossible to believe that the early Christians could have invented the account. Christians would not invent one disciple's betrayal or other disciples' abandonment (both shameful in their milieu); the earliest Christians, who were Jewish, probably would not invent condemnation by the majority of their own people's leaders; Christians would never have invented shameful death by crucifixion; and they would never have invented the treason charge "King of the Jews," which would have made all Christians look seditious and invited Roman retribution.
Finally, the accounts of Jesus' arrest, trials and execution fit what we know of the period in question. Craig Evans (1995:108) accurately compares Josephus's account of Jesus ben Ananias, who similarly entered the temple area during a festival (Jos. War 6.300-301). Like Jesus, he predicted doom on Jerusalem and its sanctuary, even referring (again like Jesus) to the context of Jeremiah's prophecy of judgment against the temple (Jer 7:34 in War 6.301; compare Jer 7:11 in Mk 11:17). The Jewish authorities arrested and beat Jesus ben Ananias (War 6.302) and handed him over to the Roman governor (War 6.303), who interrogated him (War 6.305). He refused to answer the governor (War 6.305), was scourged (6.304) and--in this case unlike Jesus (though compare Mk 15:9)--was released (6.305).
The primary difference, that Jesus of Nazareth was executed whereas Jesus son of Ananias was not, also makes good sense: unlike Jesus ben Ananias, Jesus of Nazareth was not viewed as insane and already had a band of followers, plus a growing reputation that could support messianic claims (compare E. Sanders 1993:267). Jesus ben Ananias could simply be punished; Jesus of Nazareth had to be executed. The basic points of the passion story--including those most apt to be questioned--make excellent historical sense.
The Betrayal (26:1-56)