Re: The Passion of the Christopher

From: Dace (
Date: Fri 09 Apr 2004 - 19:23:53 GMT

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    > From: (Scott Chase)
    > Ted:
    > Did the anti-Semitic blood libel have roots in the Passion story?

    Apparently so, according to Tim Callahan, biblical scholar and religion editor of Skeptic magazine. Following is an excerpt from his commentary on the execution of Christ. It's a bit long but well worth the read.

    There are two related themes that are developed to their fullest in John and Matthew in these accounts which contrast the reluctance of Pilate to crucify Jesus with the vehemence of the crowd to see him die. These are the near sanctification of Pontius Pilate, reaching its culmination in John, and the rise in anti-semitism culminating in Matthew with the people eagerly saying, "His blood be upon us and upon our children." This verse, the infamous blood libel, has, unfortunately, been the justification of much bloodshed, in that the Jews are seen as actively taking on the guilt of putting Jesus to death.

    Whence came this anti-semitism? It is likely that the earliest of the gospels, Mark, was written after the fall of Jerusalem in CE 70. In the revolt against Rome, those Jews of the Christian sect took a pacifist stance, believing no doubt that the struggle was pointless because Jesus was soon to return in glory to set up the heavenly kingdom. It was probably at this point that the other Jews completely severed relations with the Christians. Hence, increasingly the gospels show antagonism toward the Jews. In Jn. 18:36 Jesus specifically tells Pilate that, had his kingdom been of this world his servants wouldn't have allowed him to be handed over to the Jews. Here it would seem that Jesus doesn't see either himself or his followers as being Jewish. As the Jews became the villains of the piece, the Roman official in charge of sentencing Jesus to be crucified had to be increasingly rehabilitated. This also fit the Christian policy of not actively opposing the Roman state. Thus, if the Jews were the real culprits, then the Christians could say that they really didn't oppose the will of Rome.

    What the gospels needed to shift the blame to the Jews was a mechanism whereby the Romans could offer to let Jesus go free, and the Jews could refuse the offer. Enter Barabbas. In Mk. 15:7 and Lk. 23:19 he is identified as one who had committed murder and insurrection. In Mt. 27:16 he is merely referred to as a "notorious prisoner," and in Jn. 18:40 he is reduced to being a mere robber. It seems that, along with the Jews, Barabbas is successively denigrated in Matthew and John. Therefore, the question becomes: Who was Barabbas? Many Bible dictionaries translate the name as Aramaic for "son (bar) of Abba," which they say was a common enough name. According to other interpretations, he is the son of a rabbi or teacher, as in bar Rabba(n). In fact, if we also translate the last part of his name, he becomes "son (bar) of the father (abba)." That some early versions of Matthew refer to him as Jesus Barabbas helps clarify Pilate's question in Mt. 27:17: "Whom do you want me to release to you, Barabbas or Jesus who is called the Christ?" There really isn't any reason for adding "who is called the Christ" to the question unless the two men have the same name. It's simpler for Pilate to say, "Whom do you want me to release to you, Barabbas or Jesus?" But "who is called the Christ" makes sense if the question originally read, "Whom do you want me to release to you, Jesus Barabbas or Jesus who is called the Christ?" Now, however, we have a bit of an identity crisis, since one of the men is "Jesus son of the father" and the other is
    "Jesus Christ who has admitted being the Son of God." Thus, the next question that comes to mind is: Was Barabbas a real person?

    To understand the Barabbas episode one must remember that there was a Babylonian festival called Zagmuku, which was the source of the Jewish holiday Purim, and especially the source for the opposite fates of Mordecai and Haman in the Book of Esther. During Zagmuku, the king was replaced by a mock king called Zoganes, usually a condemned prisoner. He was allowed to wear the king's crown, given the king's scepter, and even free run of the royal harem. But at the end of the festival he was stripped of his royal robes and crown, scourged and put to death either by hanging or crucifixion. The gospels all record the scourging and mocking of Jesus. The graphic depiction of that event in Mt. 27:27-30 is particularly reminiscent of the end of the mock king in the Zagmuku festival:

    Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the praetorium, and they gathered the whole battalion before him. And they stripped him and put a scarlet robe upon him, and plaiting a crown of thorns, they put it on his head and put a reed in his right hand. And kneeling before him they mocked him, saying, "Hail, King of the Jews!" And they spat upon him, and took the reed and struck him on the head. And when they had mocked him, they stripped him of the robe, and put his own clothes on him, and led him away to crucify him.

    In a play given during Zagmuku, two actors portrayed characters who were the source of the roles of Mordecai and Haman in Esther, in that one expects royal honors but is put to death, while one seems destined for death but escapes with his life. This would also seem to be the source of Jesus called the Christ and Jesus Barabbas. However, given that the Romans would have been likely to first humiliate a man they perceived as raising a revolt before putting him to a protracted and painful death, how can we know whether the story of Barabbas and the mocking of Jesus are real or mythical?

    To answer that question let us ask another. What do we have to accept as true to believe the gospel accounts of the freeing of Barabbas and the scourging of Jesus? We have to accept that the Romans would acquiesce to the whims of a subject people to the degree that they would release--according to the demands of a mob--a man guilty of insurrection, precisely the crime for which Jesus was being put to death. We would also have to believe that Pilat e had so little control of the situation that the mob could force him to release a violent criminal and let someone he had found not guilty be put to death. Further, we have to believe that letting Barabbas go was somehow tied to putting Jesus to death. If such a custom as letting a condemned man go free existed, there is no reason to believe that such an action required the execution of an innocent man. However, such a symmetry would fit a work of fiction and it certainly fits the Zagmuku play. The idea that Pilate would or even could let a condemned rebel go free or that he could afford to let a mob dictate even a small part of his policy seems unlikely. The usual Roman response to a show of force on the part of a rabble would most likely have been lethal. Further, we must remember that Pilate was mentored by Lucius Aelius Sejanus, a captain of the Praetorian Guard who attempted to take over the Roman Empire during the reign of Tiberius. Sejanus was a complete scoundrel, and, as his protege, Pilate would hardly have been as saintly as he was painted in Matthew and John.


    In Book 1, chapter 15 of his Annals of Imperial Rome, Tacitus (ca 55-ca. 120 CE), says of the Christians:

    Their originator, Christ, had been executed in Tiberius' reign by the governor of Judea, Pontius Pilatus. But in spite of this temporary setback the deadly superstition had broken out afresh, not only in Judea (where the mischief had started), but even in Rome. All degraded and shameful practices collect and flourish in the capitol.

    Here Tacitus, showing the same antagonism for Christianity evidenced in the Talmudic writers, says that it was temporarily checked when Pontius Pilate--not the Jewish authorities--executed Jesus. In summation, the trial before Ciaphas, the Barabbas episode, the reluctance of Pilate to condemn Jesus, and the Jewish mob demanding his death are, like every other aspect of the Passion and Resurrection narratives, pure fiction. The bare bones of the historical core of what is essentially grand myth is that Jesus was put to death by the Romans--not the Jews--for sedition.

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