In his book The Messiah Confrontation, Israel Knohl of Hebrew University argues, firstly, for the Jewish origins of Christian ideas about the nature of the messiah and, secondly, that the execution of Jesus must be understood through the lens of the dispute between the two major Jewish sects of his time: the Pharisees and the Sadducees. John J. Collins explains how Knohl brings these two lines of though together:
He argues that the basic conflict over the nature of the messiah was originally an intra-Jewish one between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, which predated Jesus. The Sadducees, who [according to Knohl] initially condemned Jesus to death, were a small anti-messianic group that disappeared from history a generation later. For other Jews, notably the Pharisees, arguing about who was or was not the messiah was nothing out of the ordinary. They did not condemn other messianic pretenders to death, and they would not have condemned Jesus.
To Collins, this is an “engaging, provocative book” that gets much correct, but that also relies heavily on unconvincing readings of certain Dead Seas Scrolls. Collins also disputes Knohl’s specific conclusions regarding Jesus’ death:
According to this story [in the Gospel of Mark], the high priest asked Jesus directly, “Are you the messiah, the son of the Blessed One?” He answers, “I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power and coming with the clouds of heaven.” . . . Knohl argues persuasively that Jesus’ answer would not have been judged as blasphemy by the Pharisees. Only the Sadducees, who held to the anti-messianic ideology of the Torah, would have regarded it as such. But ultimately, Jesus was not crucified because Sadducean judges convicted him of blasphemy. He was executed by the Romans on a political charge, because some people were saying that he would restore the kingdom of Israel.
From the viewpoint of a Christian scholar, Knohl’s willingness to take the portrayal of Jesus in the Gospels at face value seems a little naïve, although it also bespeaks a generous respect for Christian tradition.