When It Comes to the Passion Story, Not All Passion is Good

As I stated in my last posting on this blog, there has arisen in my community quite a furor over whether or not it is constitutional acceptable for a city government to call a paid holiday for its employees by a religious name or a secular one.  The holiday in question is Good Friday, and the contested alternative name is the religiously neutral one of Spring Holiday.

Today, in our local newspaper, the Quad City Times, an editorial was published which was supportive of keeping our city government religiously neutral.  That is the good news.  Unfortunately, the author of the editorial chose to introduce his text by drawing the following comparison with the traditional gospel version of the Passion Story – the account of the execution of Jesus.

“Somber Christian church services today mark Good Friday, commemorating a day in 33 A.D. when government leaders in Jerusalem caved in to public pressure and executed a religious leader. In Christian churches across the Quad-Cities today, lectors will read the portion of the passion play when Pilate, a governor, then Herod, king, tried to convince the mob otherwise. But the people wouldn’t listen. “Crucify him!” the people said, according to the 15th chapter of the Gospel of Mark.

So the government leaders complied with the will of the people.”

This account was so disturbing to me that I posted the following comment on their web site and now wish to share it with my blog readers:

I do applaud the stand taken in this editorial calling for us to reconsider how governmental bodies should treat religious holidays.  Thank you!

However, I do wish to correct some historically inaccurate statements made in its introductory section.  The story of the execution of Jesus as presented here is the story as it is presented in Christian scripture, particularly the Gospel of John.  Of all the four gospels, John was written later and is clearly the most antisemitic.
The story as presented was intended to generate hatred for the Jews who, at the time, were competing heavily with the Christians for the conversion of the pagans, particularly the Romans.  They were bitter blood rivals.  Especially considering the desire of Christianity at the time to appeal to the Roman population and someday perhaps even become the official faith of the Roman empire, there was a great need to re-frame the story so as to take responsibility for Jesus’ death off of the Romans.  Transferring the responsibility to the Jews serve a double purpose for the Christians since it not only took the responsibility of “deicide” off of the Romans but it also served as a serious blow to the Christians’ Jewish competitors.  Indeed, when John has the Jewish crowd shouting to Pilate “Let his blood be upon our heads and the heads of our children,” that statement was intended to justify Christian prejudice and persecution of all Jews throughout the ages, and not just those who were contemporary with Jesus.  It takes but a short review of the history of that period to see that the Jews of the time were open to embracing any person who offered them any form of hope.  They had no reason whatsoever to denounce him and call for his execution.

As Paul Harvey, of blessed memory, used to say, “And now for the rest of the story!”  Most credible scholars today recognize that the traditional Christian account of the execution of Jesus is terribly historically flawed.  First of all, the Roman empire was a hard and ruthless ruler of its occupied provinces.  Their governors – called Procurators – ruled with iron fists, imposing Roman rule and collecting heavy taxes.  Roman rulers never were the type that would bow to the pressure of their non-Roman subject people.  This was especially true in the province of Judea.  The Judeans had been involved in anti-Roman revolutionary activities since the rebellion of Judah of Galilee in 6 B.C.E.  In fact, Galilee, where Jesus lived, was a continual hotbed of revolution.  Josephus, in his history to the period identifies these revolutionaries as on of the four sects prevalent among the Jewish people and calls them the Fourth Philosophy.  They are also known as Zealots.  Fundamental to their belief was that the Jewish people owed no allegiance to an earthly ruler but only to the Heavenly Ruler.  These Zealots conducted continual guerrilla warfare against Roman caravans in the Galilee.  The Romans called the brigands and robbers.  In the urban centers, especially Jerusalem, there was another group of revolutionaries called the Sicarii, which means “Dagger Men” in Greek (the common language of the Roman empire).  These revolutionaries were terrorists.  They would go into crowds, especially markets, with daggers under their cloaks.  They would then approach Romans or Jewish collaborators with the Romans and stab them to death and then disappear back into the crowd.  In was because of this environment that the Roman empire decided that Judea needs to be ruled with a special rigor.  Therefore they sent their worst, most corrupt soldiers there, both as punishment to these soldiers and to the Judeans.  As for their Procurators, they sent their hardest, greediest men.  A Procurator of a province received a percentage of the taxes.  The more the people were taxed, the richer the Procurator became.  In Judea, it was standard that a Procurator would rule for three to six years and amass such a fortune that they could retire to Rome and live the rest of their lives in luxury.  Enter Pontius Pilate.  Unlike the gospel descriptions of him, Pilate was anything but a gentle soul whose heart would go out to someone like Jesus.  In fact, Pilate was the ONLY Procurator in the history of Roman rule in Judea who was recalled to Rome for use of excessive violence.  He probably still holds the world’s record for number of crucifixions.  He was so harsh that the Roman senate determined that he was doing more to provoke revolution rather than suppress it.  When Jesus entered Jerusalem to observe the Passover pilgrimage festival, as far as Pilate was concerned, he had all the markings of a revolutionary or a potential revolutionary.  He came from the rebellious province of Galilee.  He was developing a significant following.  He numbered among his closest advisers (apostles) one man who was a known Zealot – Simon the Zealot – and another who might have been a member of the Sicarii – Judas Iscariot.  The name “Iscariot” is neither Hebrew nor Greek.  Monsignor S.G.F. Brandon, in his work JESUS AND THE ZEALOTS, proposes that the name is actually a combination of both languages and originally was “Ish” (which in Hebrew means “man”) “Sicarii”.  In other words, a member of the Sicarii.  Therefore, seeing Jesus as a threat, it was Pilate who had him arrested and executed.  It also should be noted that when Jesus was crucified, the two other men crucified along with him were, according to the gospels, thieves.  Crucifixion was even for a Roman like Pilate too extreme a penalty for theft.  However, if you recall, this was the term the Romans used for Zealots, revolutionaries.  It would therefore appear that Pilate viewed Jesus in the same light as he did these two rebels.
I share all this with you because it is important to understand that the Passion story, as portrayed in the beginning of this editorial is not only historically inaccurate but has stood at the very foundation of Christian based antisemitism for almost 2,000 years.  The belief that Jews were the ones directly and primarily responsible for Jesus’ death – the sin of “deicide” – the murder of God – has fueled a hatred that has resulted in the barbarous murder of literally millions of Jews throughout the ages, culminating in the Holocaust, and is still virulently alive today in the doctrines of so many of the hate groups.  When we tell this story as so presented in the editorial, whether intending to or not, we are fueling the fires of what many consider humanity’s longest hatred.
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Explore posts in the same categories: Antisemitism, Christianity, Crucifixion, Easter, Good Friday, Gospels, Interfaith Relations, Jesus, Jewish, Pontius Pilate, Quad Cities

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