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Notes from Limmud 2008

How to respond to blame for Jesus' Death

Rabbi Dr Michael J. Cook

[Standard disclaimer: All views not in square brackets are those of the speaker, not myself. (Obviously, knowledge of Christianity is not my forte!) Accuracy of transcription is not guaranteed.]

The issue discussed here has made the Jews the chosen people—but not in the way the Jews want to be chosen! It has changed Jewish history in courses that Jews could not have predicted. Anyone who ever believes that antisemitism is gone and is never coming back should consider that there has never been a generation of the Jewish people in history who said that that was right. Antisemitism always comes back for different reasons; it never comes back the same way twice. Today it's not about a world without Jews, but a world without a Jewish state. One way or another, the blame of Jews for the death of Jesus is central for this, even in the Middle East.

The name of the Passion narrative comes from the Latin word for suffering. It refers to the period of time of the last week of Jesus' ministry, in Jerusalem, usually beginning with his arrest.

First there was a conspiracy: Two days before Passover and the feast of Unleavened Bread, Jewish officials seek to arrest Jesus. If the arrest of Jesus was explicitly to be before Pesach, how come the Last Supper is portrayed as being the Pesach meal? It's a misreading of the Gospels. [There was a further talk about this, which I did not attend, but will be in the presenter's book, Modern Jews Engage the New Testament: Enhancing Jewish Well-Being in a Christian Environment.]

Judas furnishes the Jewish officials an opportunity to capture Jesus. Judas' betrayal of Jesus could very well be an analogy of the Jews' betrayal of Jesus—"Judas" and "Jew" are [all bar] the same word in Hebrew. The author thinks that Judas did not betray [the historical] Jesus at all—this account was written after the First Roman Revolt, which it took Rome years to crush, most embarrassingly for Rome, and the writers of the Gospels might have wanted to distance Christianity from Judaism by using such a portrait.

After the Last Supper, Jesus adjourns to the Garden of Gethsemane—his betrayer comes with a Jewish party who seize Jesus.

Jesus undergoes a night-time Sanhedrin trial headed by the high priest and composed of the chief priests, elders, and scribes. When Jesus affirms that he is "the Christ, the Son of the Blessed," the high priest decries this "blasphemy". The Sanhedrin condemns Jesus as deserving death. In the courtyard, Peter—identified as Jesus' follower, given away by his Galilean accent—denies association.

Now the Pope is supposed to be the spiritual successor of Peter. How can the Pope be descended spiritually from someone who denied Jesus!? Again, the stories about Peter were written when Rome was persecuting Jews and Christians were confused with Jews. Many Christians were defecting from the ranks. Peter is a symbol of this. If even Peter denied him, no Christian can be secure in their confidence that they will be able to stay to their religious word, under all possible conditions.

With morning, Jesus is brought before the Roman prefect who asks "Are you the King of the Jews". Now, this is not a crime. The Jewish people wanted to have a king. The expression "king of the Jews" is written from the perspective of Rome. (Compare how, today, the Vietnamese refer not to the Vietnamese war but the American war.) The Jews would say "our king" or "The King of Israel" or "the Hebrew King". "King of the Jews" is a Gentile term. This also shows that such aspiration is a crime in the eyes of Rome. Why was this so? Because for Rome the Emperor was king of the Jews! Hence Jesus was put to death by the Roman method of execution of crucifixion. This was almost certainly not a Jewish means of execution [which are listed in the Talmud as stoning, burning, beheading and strangulation].

The whole point about crucifixion is that it's a highly visible form of execution: pour encourager les autres.

The story continues with the prisoner release. This is the single most anti-Jewish passage in the NT. (Note: anti-Jewish, not antisemitic. The term "antisemitism" was coined by Wilhelm Marr in Germany, and is a racial term. The NT is not biased against Jews racially; only religiously.)

Pilate offers the Jewish crowd release of a criminal; either Jesus or Barabbas (an insurrectionist: a murderer). Any decent people would naturally pick Jesus. Exhorted by their priests, the Jews opt for Barabbas and demand that Pilate crucify Jesus. Disposed to free him, but wishing to appease the crowd, Pilate consigns him to the cross.

Barabbas of course is Aramaic for son of the father. This is what Jesus calls himself too [and indeed, later Christian legend furnished Barabbas with the first name Joshua, which is the same (barring being dragged through a linguistic hedge backwards) as Jesus]. Were Jesus and Barabbas at one point the same person, and later divided in two? This could be the case if the origins of Jesus were not clearly known; that he was the son of a father as all people are.* Did Barabbas mean son of an unknown father; is this why he has no first name? At the time of the Gospel writers, was there escalating concern about Jesus' origins?

*[I'm minded of the way how in Arthurian legend, Vortigern, in seeking to understand why the citadel he was building kept collapsing, was told to see a child born without a father. After much searching, the king's agents hear a boy being taunted as "boy with no father". The mother, when questioned, denies that the boy, Ambrosius, had a father, but, further down the line, Ambrosius confesses, in Nennius' Historia Brittanorum, that his father was a Roman consul. By the time of Geoffrey of Monmouth, however, the boy (now called Merlin) is truly fatherless, being sired upon his mother by an incubus.]

No such custom existed of a Roman governor asking a captive people to choose the release of a prisoner. Rome stood for the maintenance of law and order; and indeed Pontius Pilate was so cruel he was removed from office because his rule was counterproductive. If he was so popular that people turned up on Palm Sunday to greet him, what's the point of arresting Jesus if there was going to be a chance a short while later to free him? This is an fiction taken by the Gospel writers to vilify the Jews, for the same reason already mentioned earlier.

Finally, Jesus undergoes crucifixion between two thieves; the inscription above him reads: "The King of the Jews". Josephus tells us the word was actually seditionist; the word לִסְטִים acquired a later connotation of theft. [Klein disagrees; he says the word derives from Greek lestes, "robber".]

The speaker presented a conceptualisation of Judaea in Jesus' day, which you can see in graphical form in his book. In the middle a moat divides society into two segments: on the right, the Jewish system of life, on the left the Roman. In Judaea at the time, Rome was the ruling power; it let Jews alone so long as they let Rome alone. Society was compartmentalised.

Within the Jewish system, there was the Temple, where could be found the "Chief Priests", from the ranks of the Sadducees. The Gospels also talk about the "Scribes", who are essentially the same as the Pharisees. (Most scholars don't realise this.) They Gospels also talk about the Elders. We don't know who these were.

A fourth group is the Apocalyptists; these people get on a boat to cross the moat, but it goes nowhere. This symbolises their belief that the Roman system would be overthrown—as if they are going to go across the moat. The author considers Jesus an Apocalyptic Pharisee. They were cheering for the overthrow of Rome, but were not going to do it themselves. They were of no danger unless you listened to their preaching.

A more dangerous group is the Fourth Philosophy, or the sicarii. They are prepared to fight Rome. These are those from whom derived those groups who waged war on Rome in the sixties. The banner of the Apocalyptists was "The coming of the Kingdom of G-d"; that of the activists is "Only G-d is King". These sound similar, but are quite different: the latter implies you're not going to recognise the Emperor.

The Essenes are a fifth group, on the periphery of this story.

There is only one Jew who is allowed to cross the moat, from the Roman point of view. That is the High Priest, who stands on the bridge across the moat. He's the head of the Jewish system; but he's also in the Roman system because he's appointed by the Roman governor, and is responsible to the Roman governor.

Roman spies are looking across the moat to see that nobody is going anywhere. They see the second boat trying to cross the moat, and assume the first boat is going with them. They arrest everybody on both sides, and send them out to be crucified for sedition. This is how Jesus was crucified.

So who [turned in Jesus]? Maybe the spies saw him? Or maybe the High Priest had to report on troublemakers, in order to keep his job. Pilate ould then say to dispose of him.

What about the court system? The Sanhedrin is on the Roman side of the moat; there is no court system in the Jewish system . The author is of the opinion that the Sanhedrin in the Talmud was not in existence at the time of Jesus' execution. There was no Talmudic Sanhedrin in Jesus' day. Every law in the Talmud about the Sanhedrin, which that in the NT does not match, is irrelevant here. This Sanhedrin was convened only on a temporary basis, by the High Priests on the request of the Roman governor, as is made clear in Josephus.

How did the names become confused? In 66 CE, when the Temple was destroyed, the High Priest went out of existence. There was no need now for the Sanhedrin on the Roman side. It ceased to exist, but the word continued to exist, and became attached to the beit din in the Talmud.

The word used in Tractate Sanhedrin in the Mishna to describe the Jewish court system is, by a ratio of four or five to one, "Beth Din", not "Sanhedrin". (The tractate itself is titled "Sanhedrin" because the title is the last thing put in the tractate, [long after its content was written].)

Now, consider the following passage:

Long ago, there lived a righteous Jew who spoke for G-d. Defying the religious establishment, he aroused enmity from Jewish priests. Demanding they amend their ways, he threatened destruction of the Temple ("a den of robbers")! The priests threatened him with death. He warned that they could bring innocent blood upon themselves. The vacillating civil authority summoned and pronounced him innocent, expressing reluctance to heed his accusers' demands. As the just man warned, the Temple was later destroyed.

This sounds like a description of Jesus, but in fact it is describing Jeremiah! (Who may well have been executed at the end of his life: we don't know, but he got into tremendous trouble.)

  • The "den of robbers" description in Jer. 7:11 is quoted in Mark 11:17.
  • In Jeremiah 26:8, "All the people laid hold of him, saying, 'You shall die'"; in Matthew 27:25, "All the people" demanded his death. (Note: In Mark 15 it's just the Jewish crowd present at the time who do so; Matthew changes this to "all the people" (not just the Jews); but this has been interpreted later to allow for persecution of the Jews for all time.)
  • The Sanhedrin convened for Jesus (Mark 14:53) corresponds to the inquiry convened for Jeremiah (26:10).
  • Both are told they "deserve death" (Jer. 26:11; Matt 26:66) for words that "you have heard" (Mark 14:64).
  • Matt 27:25 "His blood be on us and on our children" parallels Jeremiah 26:15: "You will bring innocent blood upon yourselves."
  • Both are taken for execution by their captors to a vacillating ruler (King Zedekiah, Pontius Pilate) who replies, "He is in your hands" (Jer. 38:5)/"See to it yourselves" (Matt. 27:24).
  • Wanting private discussion, Zedekiah "sent for Jeremiah" (Jer. 38:14), and "Pilate ... called Jesus" to him (John 18:33).
  • Zedekiah and Pilate are both referred to as "afraid" (Jer. 38:19, John 19:8).

These parallels are (apparently) even more apparent in the expanded table in the book.

The entire story of Jesus' trial was taken from Jeremiah. The early Christians did not know how things played out; they didn't know who did it. They constructed a story based on Jeremiah. This is tremendously important: consider how many Jews died as a result of this—and how many were never conceived. If not for the Holocaust, we could have had 50 million Jews in the world; if not for the trial of Jesus narrative, we could have had 250 million!

The author believes the trial of Jesus never happened. It is so peculiarly worded, it appears to be a fabrication:

In Mark 14, we have a mosaic of five accruing layers:

Now the chief priests and the whole council [Sanhedrin] sought testimony against Jesus to put him to death; but they found none. For many bore false witness against him, and their witness did not agree.

The italicised words are mysteriously repeated in the next paragraph:

And some stood up and bore false witness against him, saying, "We have heard him say, 'I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with hands.'" Yet not even so did their testimony agree.

This repetition is a signal that the first paragraph is the original story; and the second an expansion of the first because people were not satisfied with it. If they bore false witness against Jesus, what did they say?

This is a phenomenon known in Biblical scholarship. Compare, for example, ch. 3 of the Book of Jonah—Jonah's prayer. We'd already been told Jonah prayed, but not what he said. This chapter was probably a later insertion to answer the question of what his prayer was.

And the high priest stood up in the midst, and asked Jesus,

"Have you no answer to make? What is it that these men testify against you? But he was silent and made no answer."

Again the high priest asked him,

"Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?" And Jesus said, "I am; and you will see the Son of man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven."

Why is Jesus silent in the first case but voluble in the second? The first question is taken from Isaiah 53, describing the suffering servant who goes to his fate quietly. The second question and answer are taken from Daniel 7. The author of the Gospel of Mark did not know what happened in the trial, so he supplied it as a midrash.

And the high priest tore his garments, and said, "Why do we still need witnesses? You have heard his blasphemy. What is your decision?" And they all condemned him as deserving death.

And some began to spit on him, and to cover his face, and to strike him, saying to him, "Prophesy!" And the guards received him with blows.

However, all of the above description of the trial is an insertion made by the author of Mark into an earlier narrative, which was Mark's source (Mark 14:53-15:1):

And they led Jesus to the high priest.

[Trial scene created and inserted belatedly here.]

And as soon as it was morning the chief priests, with the elders and scribes held a consultation; and they bound Jesus and led him away and delivered him to Pilate.

If Mark did this nowhere else, this would be a [lacuna]. But it's a tell-tale clue of Mark's editorship: he does this repeatedly. Further examples are given in the book.

The word "consultation" in the above extract was in the story Mark inherited. This is all we know of the original trial. The earlier Christians were not happy with the word "consultation". The son of G-d deserved more than a mere consultation; he deserved a full trial! So they invented one. In actuality, though, there were lots of prisoners crucified; there wasn't the time to try each and every one of them.

He then adds the new story, and adds the word "...and the whole council":

14:53; And they led Jesus to the high priest; and all the chief priests and the elders and the scribes were assembled.

[Trial scene inserted here.]

15:1 And as soon as it was morning, the chief priests, with the elders and scribes and the whole council held a consultation; and they bound Jesus and led him away and delivered him to Pilate.

This "and the whole council" is a mistake: a telltale clue Mark made in his editing. The Sanhedrin was made up of only the chief priests, the elders and the scribes. There is nobody else to be "and the whole council"! He also took the [phrase] from Friday morning and moved it back to Thursday night because you can't [lacuna].

The role of blasphemy was very important. It was an embarrassment that the early Christians' founder died on the cross. It didn't bode well that they were associated with a seditionist when they were supposed to be pacifists!

If you want Romans to believe that Rome was not going to be repsonsible for the death of Jesus—so the Christians and the Romans would get on—you had to find a substitute. This was the early Christians' enemy, the Jews. And you need a charge for them to lay against Jesus. This was blasphemy, which appears only two times in Mark: in the trial, above, and much earlier in Chapter 2:

...He returned to Capernaum... and was reported ... at home. ... They came, bringing him a paralytic... When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic,

"...Your sins are forgiven." ... Some ... scribes ... questioned ... "Why does this man speak thus? It is blasphemy! ..." ... Jesus ... said .... "Which is easier, to say ..., 'Your sins are forgiven,' or ... 'Rise, take up your pallet and walk'? But that you may kow that the Son of man has authority... to forgive sins", he said to the paralytic:

"I say to you, rise, take up your pallet and go home." And he... took up the pallet and went...

Back in the 1920s, Christian scholars noted that this story is too long. It's twelve verses, which is too long to be conveyed orally, as these stories were at the start. Scholars then noticed that the paragraph in the dotted box was put in to the original story. Take it out again and look how simple it becomes!

This was the originally story; Christian scholars all agree with this, but don't realise why the extra bit was put in. It was put in as a literary device to introduce the reader to blasphemy. The Scribes, who belong to the Sanhedrin, accuse him of blasphemy here, setting up his charge in ch. 14. It's a foreshadowing. (Note that what Jesus says here has no bearing on the rabbinic concept of blasphemy.)

If the Gospel traditions alone had not been embellished, they may not have been so dangerous for the Jewish people:

Mark 14:55fMatthew 25:59f, revising Mark
The chief priests and the whole council sought testimony against Jesus to put him to death, but they found none. For many bore false witness against him, and their witness did not agree. The chief priests and the whole council sought false testimony against Jesus to put him to death, but they found none. For many bore false witness against him, and their witness did not agree.

Matthew's adding the word "false" before "testimony" makes the Jews come across as much more sinister.

Consider also the following:

Mark 15:15Matthew 27:24, revising Mark
So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd




released... Barrabas; and having scourged Jesus... delivered him to be crucified.
So when Pilate saw that... a riot was beginning,

he... washed his hands before the crowd, saying, "I am innocent of this man's blood, see to it yourselves." And all the people answered, "His blood be on us and on our children!"

Then he released... Barrabas; and having scourged Jesus... delivered him to be crucified.

Matthew puts in here, out of nothing, one of the worst passages in the NT. This terrible paragraph, when the Jews took upon themselves responsibility for Jesus' death, not only is fictional, but Matthew stuck it into a passage that never originally had it.

[Further, the hand-washing refers to a slightly obscure Jewish ritual (Deuteronomy 21): would Pilate even have known of this?]

As a whole, it's a very sad story, and one reason why the Jews are the chosen people, perhaps against their own choice.


Audience questions

Why is the theme of betrayal so prevalent in the Gospels?

This is the number one question asked by Jews. It's a hybrid riddle: If Jesus had to die for the salvation of humanity, and the Jews were the vital cog in bringing about the death of Jesus, then why shouldn't the Jews be praised for their role in Jesus' death rather than blamed?

The same thing could be said for Judas. Why is he a villain?

The answer is in Mark 14: Jesus said the Son of Man goes as it is written of him, But woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed; it would have better for him if he had never been born.

(In Nostra Aetate, the hybrid riddle is in the text, but nobody notices it! The delegates to the Second Vatican Council would not have known how to solve it, in a way that the Catholics would have liked. The Jews are still blamed, just not the Jews of today.)

How come Jesus only once in one of the Gospels admits to being the Messiah?

Caiaphas's questions are lifted from Pilate's. There therefore are not four questions in Mark; there are only two. This is a reflection of the development of Christian theology. It would never have done for Christians to have admitted to Jesus being Messiah in the time of Mark. But by the time of John Christianity was more widespread and more confident.

Jewish learning notes index

Date: 2009-01-30 12:31 am (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
I like to point out that the halacha is that the testimony of the witnesses, who are to be examined separately, must agree in particulars. Even if the accounts of the first three gospels (the "synoptics") can be reconciled with each other, the fourth (John) cannot be reconciled with them, given its toto caelo different chronology. If the gospels are to be brought as witnesses against the Jews, they would have to agree; but they don't; hence you must return a verdict of NOT GUILTY.

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