WeeklyWorker

19.12.2019
Matthia Stomer: ‘Adoration of the shepherds’ (1635-40)

An apocalyptic revolutionary

According to official Christian doctrine, Jesus was a man-god, born in a stable to a virgin mother. His first worshippers were three humble shepherds, followed by three kings from the east bearing fabulous gifts. As an adult Jesus performed serial miracles. Misunderstood by his closest disciples, betrayed by Judas Iscariot, the Jewish people collectively sought his death. Crucified by the innocent Romans, Jesus is entombed, but after three days rises from the dead. Finally, he ascends into heaven to sit on god’s right side. Jack Conrad offers a more probable version of the man and his times.

Palestine lay at the crossroads of Middle Eastern civilisations. This made it a land of milk and honey for the superpowers of the ancient world and that is why one foreign invasion followed another: Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians; after them the Macedonian Greeks and finally in the 1st century BCE the Romans. Between these seismic events there were occasional power vacuums and, given decisive action, brief interludes of Judean independence. Eg, the guerrilla leader, Judah Maccabee, led a revolt against the Syrian-based Seleucid empire and their Hellenised allies, which saw him seize power in 164 BCE.* Independence was not only fleeting, but often purely notional. All in all, the Jews became an oppressed nationality, which, given the dominant ideology of the time, bred “national fanaticism to the highest degree”.2

Adherence to Judean ethnic purity, the Ezraite historical outlook, the sexual taboos, the dietary stipulations and intolerant Yahweh monotheism had over the span of a couple of centuries become something entirely different. What was originally designed to cohere the elite and exclude the people of the land had been progressively taken over - colonised - by the people of the land themselves. The lower classes - in part instinctively, in part cunningly, in part goadingly - wielded the holy texts against their oppressors. The rallying slogan of the “downtrodden and disaffected” in 1st century BCE Palestine was loyalty to god and his law.3 It was, after all, the rich and powerful who were now the ones happily mixing with ritualistically unclean foreigners and who aped their abominable heathen ways. They became the heretics, the law-breakers, the outsiders. Their wanton ungodliness was blamed for bringing defeat and humiliation down upon Israel.

Literacy was no longer the exclusive preserve of the upper classes. Villagers and humble townspeople had their own teachers (rabbis). They scoured the established canon for guidance. The books of Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Micah, etc were read as if they contained hidden codes of class and national liberation. Whole passages were committed to memory. Commentaries, inspired readings and interpretations were also carefully written down and circulated; new, dissident, holy books were thereby created. Prophesy and sects flourished.

With the coming of the Romans, there was a widespread feeling that the last times had arrived. Family and everyday social relations were lived under the palpable idea of an impending apocalypse. Soon the dead will rise from their graves and face Yahweh’s judgement. A new, communistic world was ready to be born. The poor will inherit the earth and be avenged. Jewish eschatology (the lore of the last times) taught that Yahweh would destroy all earthly powers and institute his divine rule on earth. Naturally, god will rescue his chosen people and bring terrible retribution against foreign oppressors and their quislings: namely the Herodians. The royal household and its parasitic circle were virtually alone amongst the Jews in being positively pro-Roman. Not that the Sadducees, the conservative priest-caste, would be spared.

Three schools

A range of religious/political factions existed. Flavius Josephus lists what he calls the three schools of thought: Sadducees, Pharisees and Essenes. Nowadays the Sadducee party would be described as hidebound, self-interested, cowardly, rightwing, but relatively rational. Being worldly-wise and educated, the Sadducees could not believe in the resurrection of the dead, angels or predestination. They must be distinguished from the Herodian royal family and the internationalised Jewish aristocracy - who proudly adopted Greek customs and served as client-state agents of Roman exploitation. Sadducee is virtually synonymous with the caste of temple high priests and those who were related to them.

According to Josephus, 1,500 priests received tithes and religiously served the community. However, a rapid class differentiation took place. Half a dozen families elevated themselves above the common priesthood and secured a tight grip over key appointments. Disdainful of their social ‘inferiors’, the high priests had no compunction about stealing the tithes allocated to other, less grand, priests. Occasionally violence erupted. It was, though, mostly an uneven contest. High priests had temple guards, many servants and other such dependants and hangers-on. They could also afford to hire baying mobs and gangs of heavies.

The functions of the priesthood centred on ritual, collecting the obligatory religious taxes and the sacrifice of animals. The Jerusalem temple was in fact a giant slaughterhouse. Anyhow, though the Sadducees occupied the top tier of the Jewish social hierarchy, they, like the post-Babylon priesthood, lacked anything that could reasonably be called state power. The returning priests substituted moral authority for commanding physical force. Needless to say, by the 1st century CE this method of social control was a busted flush.

Sadducees resented the prerogatives over the temple secured by the Herodian kings and the Roman procurators. They could, though, do little about it. Herod ruthlessly purged the priesthood of Maccabees (Hasmoneans) and made the high priests into his subordinates. As for the Romans, they even took charge of the sacred vestments used on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). Hiring and firing became their preserve too. Eg, Valerius Gratus, predecessor of Pontius Pilate, deposed and appointed four high priests. One consequence of such cavalier interference was that the popular esteem of the priesthood plummeted to less than zero. Temple ceremony was not invalidated as such, but the high priests as individuals were widely viewed as frauds - polluted and even outright enemy agents.

Sadducees, for their part, felt themselves to be conducting a rearguard battle on two fronts. Roman interference and the founding and growth of Greek cities in Palestine - along with their gymnasiums, athletic contests and polytheistic temples - must have been hated. Yet, being aristocratic and in possession of large landed estates, they also loathed notions of democracy and feared the common people more. With their sober-minded understanding of the geo-political realities of the eastern Mediterranean, the Sadducees rejected all notions of actively resisting the Romans. Broadly speaking, therefore, they fall into the category of unwilling collaborators.

Judaism defined itself as a religion of the book. The age of prophesy was formally closed with Persian domination. With a few notable exceptions the Hebrew canon was finalised by the time of Ezra (the writer, Edras, in the Bible) and Nehemiah (the first governor of Judea, appointed by Cyrus). In religious terms, that froze the meaning of the past from the time of creation to the building of the ‘second temple’. However, future generations of priests are thereby condemned to merely preside over forms which inevitably lose their content. The medium therefore becomes the message. They can neither reinterpret text nor initiate.

But life moves on and constantly creates new needs. Between the written word and the changing requirements of the everyday stepped the Pharisees. A religious intelligentsia, expert in the obscure methods of scholastic dispute and adept at bending the law, the Pharisees formed a party which not only rivalled the discredited temple priesthood, but sunk far deeper organisational roots amongst the masses. Josephus writes glowingly about the Pharisees being the “most authoritative exponents of the law”. He also credits them as the “leading sect”4 - a widely accepted designation. From Karl Kautsky to Hyam Maccoby, the Pharisees are held to be the popular party of the 1st century.

Robert Eisenman disagrees. For him the Pharisees were part of the establishment and had a programme of accommodation with both the Herodian state and its Roman sponsor. As evidence he cites countless passages in the Dead Sea scrolls against “seekers after smooth things” and the historic fact that the Pharisee party nowhere led the way against foreign occupation, but everywhere sought compromise. Pharisaic Judaism emerged as the dominant school of thought only after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans.**

Finally, going down the threefold list given by Josephus, we arrive at the Essenes. Interestingly, where he gives the Sadducees and Pharisees a rather pinched treatment, the Essenes are afforded considerable space. In part this is no doubt due to a desire to entertain high-class Roman readers with their unusual monastic lifestyle and strange doctrines - of which Josephus had first-hand knowledge. He spent a year as an initiate. According to Josephus, the Essenes rejected slavery. More than that, maintaining a strict discipline in their isolated, but “large” communities, they “eschew pleasure-seeking”. Sexual intercourse was outlawed, it seems. Despite that they are “peculiarly attached to each other”.5 Josephus does, though, report that one branch allowed marital relations between men and women, albeit purely for reasons of procreation.

The Essenes were “contemptuous of wealth” and “communists to perfection”. All possessions were pooled. Members gave what they had and took what they needed.6 Universal suffrage was used to elect those in authority over the community. Dietary laws were rigorous. No-one was allowed to defile themselves by eating “any creature or creeping thing”. Nor was alcohol permitted. Life was materially simple. Everyone wore the same white linen till it was threadbare with age. Ritualistic washing was performed round the clock. Josephus chuckles that they even cleaned themselves after defecating - “though emptying the bowels is quite natural”.7 The idea of a clean body had nothing to do with our modern notions of hygiene. It was to render oneself fit for god’s knowledge and purpose - something gained by painstaking study of the Bible and the special insights of the sect. Not that the community was merely contemplative. Essenes took part in the anti-Roman uprising of 66.

Despite certain differences, there is a striking parallel with the group at Qumran responsible for the Dead Sea scrolls (written between 200 BCE and 68 CE). The Qumran community likewise demands that those “entering the sect transfer their property to the order”. Extreme communism is practised. Ritual is laid down in great detail. Key decisions are taken by majority vote. Meals are eaten in common. There is an annual membership review. Clearly the Essenes and the Qumran community belong to, or stem from, the same tradition. Qumran itself seems to have been overrun by the future emperor, Vespasian, and his army in 68.

It is germane too that Qumran members living in wilderness camps are described as “volunteers” and are organised into thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens - an echo of the way the mythological Moses and Joshua marshalled the men under their command for their supposed invasion of Canaan. Elsewhere the scrolls envisage the recruitment of virtually every Jewish male over the age of 20 into the holy army. Only the very old, the mentally impaired and those deemed religiously unclean are to be excluded.

The Qumran community, and the movement of which it was a part, was made up of apocalyptic revolutionaries, or holy warriors, awaiting their predetermined fate. They fasted, prayed for and expected Yahweh’s divine intervention against the Romans and a messiah (in the Dead Sea scrolls there were to be two messiahs - one in charge of religious affairs; the other a military leader). After the hour appointed by god, there would ensue a protracted, 33-year war in what were the last days:

[Then ther]e shall be a time of salvation for the people of god, and a time of domination for all the men of his forces and eternal annihilation for all the forces of Belial [the devil]. There shall be g[reat] panic [among] the son of Japheth, Assyria shall fall with no-one to come to his aid, and the supremacy of the Kittim [Rome – JC] shall cease, that wickedness be overcome without a remnant. There shall be no survivors of [all the sons of] darkness.8

People’s party

Thankfully Josephus extends his list. He writes of a so-called ‘fourth philosophy’. Here at last we surely have a description, no matter how crude, of what must have been the highly fragmented and complex people’s party. Mostly Josephus simply writes of “bandits” and “brigands”. Clearly what he means, though, are not normal thieves who are simply out for personal gain. He is referring to what we now call the left; albeit a left that ought to be understood as an ancient cross between Black September, the Zapatistas and Shinning Path. Josephus mentions the Sicarii. A movement of urban guerrillas which “committed numerous murders in broad daylight”.9 Their preferred tactic was to “mingle with the festival crowd” in Jerusalem. Concealing razor-sharp curved daggers underneath their cloaks, they would stab to death their target. Like fish the Sicarii would then disappear in the sea of people. Evidently they enjoyed wide support amongst the Jerusalem proletariat and lumpenproletariat. One of their first victims was Jonathan, the high priest. But there were many more. Roman collaborators lived in constant fear.

During the final years of Herod there were numerous urban and rural rebellions. Riots erupted in Jerusalem and in Galilee guerrilla foci found themselves gaining enough adherents to allow regular military units to be formed. Their leaders sometimes had themselves crowned king on the messianic model - among them was Simon, a former slave of Herod and Athronges, who was once a shepherd. However, the most successful liberation fighter was Judas, whose father, Ezechias, was a well known “bandit” executed in 47 BCE. Josephus fumes that Judas “tried to stir the natives to revolt” by encouraging them not to pay taxes to the Romans. Judas “was a rabbi” (teacher), says Josephus, “with a sect of his own, and was quite unlike the others”.10 His message was republican, not monarchist. The people should have no master except god.

The Romans felt compelled to intervene and decided to establish direct rule over Judea. Resistance was crushed. There was much bloodshed. Two thousand captives were reportedly crucified and many sold into slavery. The first measure enacted by Quirinius, the Roman legate of Syria, was to order a census in 6 CE. There was, to state the obvious, no stipulation that every adult male had to register at their place of birth - a purely literary device invented by Bible writers in order to move Joseph and the pregnant Mary from what was at the time a non-Roman-administered Galilee in the north to Bethlehem to the family town of the biblical king, David, in the south. Nor - once again, to state the obvious - was the census anything to do with the provision of public services or population projections. Like the famed Doomsday book of William I, its purpose was quite unambiguous: assessing a new acquisition for purposes of taxation (ie, surplus extraction). As such it was deeply resented and triggered another popular rebellion.

Judas in Galilee aligned himself with the dissident Pharisee, Zaddok, whose agreed task was to rouse the people of Jerusalem. What Josephus calls the fourth philosophy was born. It had many names, including ‘Sicarii’ and ‘Zealot’. Its various components and factions would dominate popular politics till the fall of Jerusalem in 70 and the final heroic stand at the desert fortress of Massada in 74 - rather than surrender to the Romans they preferred mass suicide. Despite being a member of the establishment, and someone seeking to ingratiate himself with the Romans, Josephus has to admit that these “bandits” and “false prophets” inspired the masses “to bold deeds”. Their “madness infected the entire people”, he writes sorrowfully.

Josephus exhibits mixed feelings towards this fourth party. He was upper class, but also a proud Jew. On the one hand, he indignantly attacks them as “bandits”, because they butchered “distinguished people” and because eventually they “brought about our ruin”. Supposedly due to such revolutionaries the Romans sacked Jerusalem and crucified tens of thousands - a moral stance akin to blaming the Bund for the destruction of the Warsaw ghetto rather than the Nazis. On the other hand, he cannot but admire their religious conviction and moral steadfastness. Judas and the most militant of the liberation fighters “showed a stubborn love for liberty” and would rather suffer torture than “call any human being their master”.

This party combined religious nationalism with physical force - its supporters were committed to a realistic, long-term guerrilla war against the Romans. Formally the odds were hopeless. However, their ‘zeal’ would triumph, as with Judah Maccabee, Samson, Gideon and Joshua before them. God would lend aid; but they did not expect miracles. During the 66-70 revolution in Jerusalem the zealot party emerged under Eleazar to lead the poorer quarters of the city. Together revolutionary preachers, messianic prophets and zealot guerrilla leaders turned biblical texts against the Herodian aristocracy and the Sadducee priest-caste. Their subservience to the ‘beast’ - ie, Rome - was denounced as blasphemy against god and religious law. Because of their heinous sins Yahweh no longer brought Israel victory, but punishment in the form of defeat, poverty and humiliation. To cap it all, the Romans were not averse to parading images of their god-emperor in Jerusalem - sacrilege for any Jew. They even proposed in 39-40 to erect a statue of Gaius Caligula in their temple. No wonder the Jewish populus detested the Romans, much like the Poles detested the Nazis.

For over a hundred years Palestine was a hotbed of revolt within the Roman empire - the uprisings of 6 CE and 66-74 CE and the Bar-Kokhba kingdom in the 2nd century being outstanding examples. However, if Palestine was Roman’s Ireland, Galilee in the far north, where Jesus was supposed to have grown from childhood, was its county Fermanagh.***

Fog of falsification

Set against the nationalist-religious background I have outlined above, the New Testament Jesus is a very strange person, to say the least. Nowhere does he challenge or even question the Roman occupation of Judea and indirect rule of Galilee (at the time of Jesus it was ruled by a pro-Roman Jewish satrap - Herod Antipas). Instead he appears to positively love the Roman tyrant. It is the Pharisees who earn his condemnation and rebukes. Jesus even urges fellow Jews to dutifully pay Roman taxes: “Render unto Caesar ...” Frankly that would have been akin to Tommy Sheridan telling the people of Glasgow they should pay the hated poll tax under Margaret Thatcher. And yet incongruously Jesus manages to gain an enthusiastic mass following among the rural and urban poor.

His birth and infancy are even harder to swallow. The Roman census in what is now 1 BCE - as we said, there was one in 6 CE - unbelievably requires subjects of the empire to travel to the place of their birth! If such a stipulation had been made, the subsequent movement of people would surely have caused complete chaos. In fact all the Romans required was registration at one’s normal place of residence. Galileans incidentally would not have been affected. Anyway, or so the story goes, Joseph, the ‘father’ of Jesus, and his heavily pregnant, but virgin wife, trek all the way from a place supposedly called Nazareth in the far north to Bethlehem in Judea. There, guided by a wondrous star, shepherds and wise men shower the child with praise and gifts, just before king Herod, the father of Herod Antipas, orders the massacre of the innocents. But only after Joseph and Mary, having been warned by an angel, flee towards Egypt. All pure invention, as was the ability of Jesus to outwit the temple priests in theology when he later visits Jerusalem as a 12-year-old child.

Here, as with much else, we have the heavy hand of propaganda and later Greek rewriters. In general it has to be said that the gospels - written between 40 and 90 years after Jesus’ death - display profound ignorance of the elementary facts of Jewish life. Moreover they become progressively more hostile to Jews. To use the current phrase, they become progressively more anti-Semitic. In John, the last of the four official gospels, Jesus is a pro-Roman, Mithras-like man-god, whom the Jews collectively wish to see dead: “[Y]ou seek to kill me.” Hence the enemies of Jesus are described as “the Jews”. John associates the Jews with lies, the forces of darkness and the devil. He also has Jesus telling the ‘Samaritan woman’ that “salvation is from the Jews”.11 In this tradition Jesus knowingly sacrifices himself in order to atone for the sins of the gentiles, not the Jews.

Yet, by drawing on what we know of the Jews at the time and removing obvious invention, we can arrive at a much more probable version of events. Charismatic, fearless and well educated, Jesus was probably a rabbi (teacher and preacher). He appears to have come to believe, during the course of his ministry, that he was not only a prophet, but the messiah (or anointed one), who would deliver the Jewish people from Rome (and end the days of the robber empires). He therefore spoke of himself as the ‘Son of David’ or ‘Son of god’. By saying this, he certainly did not mean to imply that he was a man-god - a blasphemous concept for Jews. That is why two of the gospels - Matthew and Luke - are interesting, in that they leave in the great lengths earlier source accounts had gone to in order to prove that through Joseph he was biologically directly related to king David “14 generations” before12 ... and before that to Adam himself. Luke iii provides a much longer list compared with Matthew and a genealogy which also contains many different names (passages in the Old Testament, such as 1 Chronicles iii,19, contradict both Matthew and Luke - so much for the inerrancy of the Bible).

The prophet Micah had predicted that the messiah would be born in Bethlehem - the royal seat of David. By placing his birth in this town, Jesus and his early propagandists were proclaiming him to be the lawful king, as opposed to the Herodian upstarts. It was like some medieval peasant leader announcing himself to be the direct heir of Harold Godwinson and hence the true Saxon king of England against the Plantagenet or Angevine descendants of William of Normandy. Roman domination was initially imposed through Herodian kings, who were Idumean (ie, from the area to the south of Judea) and therefore at most only semi-Jewish in background and religious observance. The Dead Sea scrolls exude an uncompromising rejection, disgust and hostility for the king - presumably Herod, or one of his successors - who was appointed by the Romans. He is condemned as a “foreigner” and a “covenant breaker”.

Jesus’ claim to be king of the Jews was unmistakably political. He was proclaiming himself to be the leader of a popular revolution that would bring forth a communistic ‘kingdom of god’. No pie in the sky when you die. The slogan, ‘kingdom of god’, was of this world and was widely used by fourth-party, Zealot and other such anti-Roman forces. It conjured up for Jews an idealised vision of the old theocratic system - which could only be realised by defeating the Romans. In the new days it will be the poor who benefit and the rich who suffer:

[B]lessed be you poor, for yours is the kingdom of god .... But woe unto you that are rich ... Woe unto you that are full now, for you shall hunger. Woe unto you that laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep.13

This imminent class retribution was not to be confined to Israel alone. The Jews were Yahweh’s revolutionary vanguard. Through them Jesus’ plan was for a universal utopia. From Jerusalem a “world theocracy”, with Jesus at its head, would redeem “all nations”.14 From then onwards peace reigns; swords are beaten into ploughshares and the wolf lies down with the lamb.

Samuel Brandon (1907-71) argued in his noted 1967 study that Jesus and the Zealots were part of the same revolutionary movement.15 But I think it is obvious now that Jesus was no Zealot. He was an apocalyptic revolutionary similar to John the Baptist. He “believed in the miraculous character of the coming salvation, as described in the writings of the scriptural prophets”.16 Jesus was not interested in military strategy or tactics. Rome would be beaten without either conventional or guerrilla war. Nevertheless, though Jesus did not train his followers in the use of arms, five of his 12 inner circle of disciples clearly came from the ranks of the revolutionary ‘bandits’ and retained guerrilla nicknames (including Peter Barjonah - ‘outlaw’; Simon - the Zealot; James and John - the ‘sons of thunder’; and Judas Iscariot - the ‘dagger-man’).

This is not surprising. Jesus was no pacifist: “I come not to send peace but a sword!”17 While liberation would have a military aspect, primarily it depended on supernatural assistance. There would be a decisive battle, where a tiny army of the righteous overcome overwhelmingly superior odds. In the Bible Gideon fought and won against the Midianites with only 300 men - he told the other 20,000 men in his army to “return home”.18 So the methods of Jesus and the guerrilla fighters differed, but were not entirely incompatible. They differed on the degree that their strategy relied on divine intervention. Either way, the Zealots were unlikely to have actively opposed Jesus. He might have been a factional opponent, but he was no enemy. His mass movement would at the very least have been seen by the Zealots as a tremendous opportunity.

Jesus was therefore not isolated from Jewish life and the political turmoil that swirled around him. On the contrary, he was its product and for a short time its personification. The notion that Jesus opposed violence is a pretty transparent Christian invention, designed to placate the Roman authorities and overcome their fears that the followers of the dead man-god were dangerous subversives. The real Jesus would never have said, “Resist not evil.” The idea is a monstrosity, fit only for despairing appeasers. Jewish scripture is packed with countless examples of prophets fighting what they saw as evil - not least foreign oppressors. The real Jesus preached the ‘good news’ within the Jewish tradition against evil. He appears determined to save every ‘lost sheep of Israel’ - including social outcasts and transgressors, such as the hated tax-collectors - for the coming apocalypse. Salvation depended on a total life change.

After the execution of John the Baptist, Jesus reveals himself to be not simply a prophetic ‘preparer of the way’, but the messiah. “Whom say you that I am?” he asks his disciples. “You are the Christ,” answers Peter.19 This was an extraordinary claim, but one fully within the Jewish thought-world. He was not and would not have been thought of as mad. In biblical tradition there had been prophets and even prophet-rulers (Moses and Samuel). Jesus was claiming to be the messiah-king: ie, the final king. In Jesus the spiritual and secular would be joined. A bold idea, which must have “aroused tremendous enthusiasm in his followers, and great hope in the country generally”.20 Perhaps this explains why after he was cruelly killed on a Roman cross the Jesus party refused to believe he had really died. His claimed status put him in terms of myth at least on a par with Elijah: he would return at the appointed hour to lead them to victory.

New Testament (re)writers are at pains to play down or deny Jesus’ assumed royal title. Claiming to be ‘King of the Jews’ was to openly rebel against Rome. Instead they concentrate on terms like ‘messiah’ or ‘christ’, which they portray as being other-worldly. The Jews, and the disciples, are shown as not understanding this concept, though it existed in their sacred writings which they had surely studied and knew all about. Nevertheless, even in the gospels, the truth occasionally flashes through the fog of falsification and makes it possible to reconstruct the probable pattern of Jesus’ brief revolutionary career.

Culmination

The account of the so-called transfiguration on Mount Hermon described in Mark was no mystical event, but the crowning (or anointing) of king Jesus by his closest disciples, Peter, James and John. Having travelled to the far-north country, one disciple seems to have crowned him, while the other two acted as the prophets, Moses and Elijah.21 Like Saul, David and Solomon, the new king was, through the ceremony, “turned into another man”.22 Having been crowned, the prophet-king began a carefully planned royal progress towards his capital city, Jerusalem (see map). The idea would have been to evangelise at each stop and build up a fervent mass movement. All the time he has 12 close disciples acting for him - their number symbolising the so-called 12 tribes of Israel. He also sends out before him 70 more into “every city and place” - a significant number in Jewish culture: the law-making council, the Sanhedrin, had 70 members, Israel’s chief polytheistic god, El, had 70 children, etc.

From Mount Hermon the royal procession makes its way south, into Galilee, then to the east bank of the Jordan and Peraea, before reaching Jericho. King Jesus has a big entourage and is greeted by enthusiastic crowds. He preaches the coming kingdom of god and with it “eternal life”.23 The poor are to inherit the world and, unless the rich sell what they have and give to the poor, they will be damned: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of god”.24 Jesus performs many miracles. The blind are given sight, cripples walk, etc (cities and towns were teeming with professional beggars, no doubt including the professionally crippled and blind).

Finally, he triumphantly enters a swollen Jerusalem - either during the spring Passover or possibly in the autumn festival of the Tabernacles. Pilgrims could double the normal population. Then there was the additional influx produced by the Jesus movement itself. Symbolism is vital for all such apocalyptic revolutionaries. Jesus rides upon an ass’s foal (thus fulfilling the prophesy of Zechariah ix,9). There is no doubt what the masses think. They greet Jesus with unrestrained joy and proclaim him ‘Son of David’ and ‘King of Israel’ - as I have argued, both are revolutionary-royal titles. Palm branches are strewn before him and, showing their defiance of Rome, the crowd cries out, ‘Hosanna’ (Save us).

With the help of the masses Jesus and his lightly armed band of close followers force their way to the temple. Zealot and other fourth-party cadre perhaps play a decisive, if discreet, role. Suffice to say, the religious police of the high priest are easily dispersed. Jesus angrily drives out the venal Sadducee priesthood from the temple. They “have made it a den of robbers”.25 Meanwhile, the other priests carry on with their duties.

The Romans and their agents would have viewed these events as a nuisance rather than anything much else. Little rebellions at festival times were not uncommon. Nevertheless, in possession of the temple, Jesus and his followers were protected by the “multitude” from the poor quarter of the city. The priesthood is said to have been “afraid of the people”.26 It debated theology with Jesus, but could do no more.

Jesus expected a miracle. There would be a tremendous battle: on the one side, the Romans and their quislings; on the other, his disciples alongside “12 legions of angels”.27 Jesus, his disciples and his angels will assuredly win. The defiled temple will then be destroyed and rebuilt in “three days”.28 Simultaneously, the dead will rise and Yahweh, with Jesus sitting at his right hand, will judge all the nations.

Jesus waited seven days for the apocalyptic arrival of god’s kingdom. It was expected to come on the eighth. At the last supper he expectantly says: “I will drink no more of the fruit of the vine [juice, not alcohol] until that day I drink it in the new kingdom of god”. Having taken himself to the garden of Gethsemane - outside the temple complex and the city walls - Jesus prayed his heart out. But “the hour” did not arrive. A cohort of Roman soldiers (300-600 men) and the religious police did. Perhaps they were guided by Judas, perhaps not (Kautsky says the idea of anyone in the Sadducee party not knowing what Jesus looked like is just too improbable).

Jesus was easily captured. (In Mark, a naked youth narrowly escapes - frankly, I do not have a clue what this aspect of the story is about. Were Jesus and his closest lieutenants about to carry out a miracle-bringing human sacrifice?) It is a grossly unequal contest. His disciples only had “two swords”. “It is enough,” Jesus had assured them.29 There was a brief skirmish, according to the biblical account. Supposedly Jesus then says, “No more of this”, and rebukes the disciple, Simon Peter, who injured Malchus, a “slave of the high priest”. His right ear had been lopped off. Miraculously, Jesus heals him. Jesus is thus presented as being opposed to bloodshed: “for all who take the sword will perish by the sword”.30 Obviously a fabricated interpolation. We have already seen Jesus promising cataclysmic violence and arming his followers, albeit with only two swords - the angels though would have been fully equipped for the final battle.

Interrogated by the high priest, Jesus was quickly handed over to the Roman governor, Pilate, as a political prisoner. Without fuss or bother Jesus was found guilty of sedition - he was forbidding the payment of Caesar’s taxes and had proclaimed himself king of the Jews. Jesus had no thought or intent of delivering himself up as a sacrificial lamb. He had expected an awesome miracle and glory, not capture and total failure. The gospels report his dejection and refusal to “answer, not even to a single charge”.31 Pilate was doubtless confronted by Jerusalem’s revolutionary crowd. It would have been demanding Jesus’ freedom, not crying, “Away with him, crucify him”.32 There was certainly no custom in occupied Palestine whereby the population could gain the release of any condemned prisoner “whom they wanted”.33 Pilate did not seek to “release him”. The notion of Pilate’s “innocence” is as absurd as the blood guilt of the Jews. Obviously yet another later pro-Roman insert.

After whipping, beating and spitting upon him, Pilate had Jesus thrown into prison. Then, perhaps straight away, perhaps after a number of months, had him sent to an agonising death (Pilate may well have waited till the spring Passover festival, so he could make Jesus an example before as many Jews as possible). Jesus was paraded through the streets, guarded by a “whole battalion”. Pilate’s plan was to humiliate the ‘King of the Jews’ and demonstrate his powerlessness. Jesus is stripped and a (royal) scarlet robe is draped over his shoulders. To complete the picture, a “crown of thorns” is mockingly planted on his head and a “reed” placed in his right hand.34 He is crucified along with two other rebels and derided by the Romans and their collaborating allies. Over his head they, on Pilate’s orders, “put the charge against him” - “This is the king of the Jews”.35 John has the chief priests objecting - that has a ring of truth. They wanted Pilate to write, “This man said he was king of the Jews”. A headstrong Pilate has none of it. John puts these blunt words in his mouth: “What I have written I have written”.36 The last words of Jesus also ring true: ‘Eli, eli, lama sabachthani?’ (My god, my god, why hast thou forsaken me?). Yahweh had not acted. There were no angels, no last battle. Jesus was a brave revolutionary who wrongly staked all - not on the masses, but on a coup and divine intervention.

There are supposedly miraculous happenings at his moment of death, however. Saints rise from their graves and walk about. There are earthquakes. The curtain in the temple is torn in two. Even more fanciful, the Bible has it that it is the Roman centurion and guard who are first to declare that the man they have just killed is “Truly son of god”.37 Actually for them it was just like any other day’s work. The execution of rebel ringleaders was a common occurrence for the Roman garrison.


  1.  This article is taken from Jack Conrad’s book Fantastic reality (2012). The text has been slightly edited.↩︎

  2.  K Kautsky Foundations of Christianity New York NY 1972, p227.↩︎

  3.  H Schonfield The Pentecost revolution London 1985, p31.↩︎

  4.  Josephus The Jewish war (translated by GA Williams) Harmondsworth 1984, p137.↩︎

  5.  Ibid p133.↩︎

  6.  Ibid p133.↩︎

  7.  Ibid p136.↩︎

  8.  M Wise, M Abegg and E Cook (eds) The Dead Sea scrolls London 1996, pp151-52.↩︎

  9.  Josephus The Jewish war (translated by GA Williams) Harmondsworth 1984, p147.↩︎

  10.  Ibid p133.↩︎

  11.  John iv,4-26.↩︎

  12.  Matthew i,17.↩︎

  13.  Luke vi,20-25.↩︎

  14.  H Schonfield The Passover plot London 1977, p24.↩︎

  15.  See SGF Brandon Jesus and the zealots Manchester 1967.↩︎

  16.  H Maccoby Revolution in Judea London 1973, pp157-58.↩︎

  17.  Matthew x,34.↩︎

  18.  Judges vii,2.↩︎

  19.  Mark viii:29.↩︎

  20.  H Maccoby Revolution in Judea London 1973, p163.↩︎

  21.  Mark ix,4.↩︎

  22.  I Samuel x,6.↩︎

  23.  Mark x,30.↩︎

  24.  Mark x,25.↩︎

  25.  Mark xi,17.↩︎

  26.  Mark xi,32.↩︎

  27.  Matthew xxvi,53.↩︎

  28.  Matthew xxvi,62.↩︎

  29.  Luke xxii,38.↩︎

  30.  Matthew xxvi,52.↩︎

  31.  Matthew xxvii,14.↩︎

  32.  John xv,19.↩︎

  33.  Matthew xxvii,15.↩︎

  34.  Matthew xxvii,28.↩︎

  35.  Matthew xxvii,37.↩︎

  36.  John ixx,21,22.↩︎

  37.  Matthew xxvii,54.↩︎