Jesus: a revolutionary and a communist
Mel Gibson’s recent film, The passion of the christ, has generated a lot of moral anguish and outrage, in particular amongst liberal and Jewish circles. Basically they charge him with consciously or unconsciously fanning the flames of anti-semitism by reviving the hoary old idea that the Jews bear collective responsibility for killing the man-god Jesus.
Eg, in The Guardian rabbi Julia Neuberger complains: “This movie could lead people taking on Gibson’s simplistic, uneducated, uncritical and anti-semitic message: the Jews are the Christ-killers - the baddies; the Romans did not want to do it - they are the goodies” (March 19). A month earlier the Anti-Defamation League, based in the United States, argued along exactly the same lines. Many people will use the film “as the very basis of hatred towards Jews” (The Independent February 5).
Gibson undoubtedly has some very funny ideas. Like his father he belongs to a small sect of catholic dissidents. They reject the ‘modernisation’ brought about by Vatican II and peddle a late 19th century-type catholic anti-semitism (not that Gibson junior repeats Gibson senior’s outright denial of the Nazi holocaust). Moreover, it is true that in response to accusations of anti-semitism, Gibson quietly removed the infamous “His blood be on us and on our children” lines of Caiaphas, the Jewish high priest. Apparently they did “not work” in focus screenings and might be “hurtful” and even “misused”. Yet, though the English subtitles have been exorcised, the loaded words themselves, albeit in Aramaic, still come forth from Caiaphas’s mouth.
Meanwhile pope John Paul II welcomed the film and dismissed critics: “It is as it was,” he reportedly proclaimed. Christian fundamentalists in the US have been positively enthusiastic too. Over many years they have been urging Hollywood to make Jesus a top movie star and since the launch of The passion over Easter they have energetically been using it as a god-given recruiting vehicle.
Quite frankly Gibson’s Jewish and liberal critics are misguided. His “message” is neither “simplistic” nor “uneducated”. They also lack courage. Gibson’s film more or less faithfully reproduces the Jesus story, as told in the New testament of the bible. Here, in this account, Jesus was a sacrificial man-god betrayed by the Jewish people - yes the “baddies” - who masochistically suffered an agonising execution at the hands of the unknowing Romans - not quite the “goodies”, but nearly so - in order to redeem a sinful humanity. Gibson is maybe or maybe not an anti-semite in terms of his personal relations and inner demons (he does though happily mix and socialise with the filmocracy in Hollywood and Malibu beach which includes many Jews).
But if Gibson is judged and found guilty on the basis of his film then it is definitely a case of shooting the messenger. Christianity, in terms of its key foundational texts and historical practices, oozes anti-semitism from every pore (indeed this religious anti-semitism, which was revived in the late 19th century by catholic and orthodox church reactionaries, paved the way and provided fertile ideological conditions for the pseudo-scientific racial anti-semitism of the Nazi kind). Attacking a film director for anti-semitism is, of course, easy. Attacking a whole religion in such terms is another matter entirely. (Incidentally islam echoes the accusation that collectively the Jews tried to kill god’s “messenger” - of course, in this tradition Jesus does not die but is raised directly to heaven through divine intervention - AJ Arberry [trans] The Koran Oxford 1998, p95.)
My intention here is not to review Gibson’s film. Rather it is to reveal Jesus, the man, and the revolutionary origins of the christian religion itself. Why bother with such an exercise? Many comrades I come across on the left adopt a crudely dismissive attitude. Christianity, along with every religious manifestation, is bunk - to paraphrase a supercilious 20th century American capitalist. But such atheist economism is profoundly mistaken. It owes everything to vulgar materialism and nothing to authentic Marxism, which considers religion to be a specific form of social consciousness reflecting the alienated human condition.
A communist like myself - whose Party was only established in 1920 and is now reviving slowly after nearly being completely destroyed from within by Marxism Today, Straight Left and Morning Star traitors - must respect, albeit grudgingly, the longevity of christianity and its enormous contemporary authority. There are at least a billion christians in the world today. And, whatever the proponents of multiculturalism maintain, Britain in not yet post-christian.
The official religion of the United Kingdom remains a nationalised form of christianity and, of course, Elizabeth Windsor, head of state, is also head of the established church. Yes, over the last 50 years or so regular church attendance by the mass of the population has plummeted. Nevertheless, top politicians still find it advantageous to parade their christian affiliations.
Regrettably religion is not just a high establishment affliction. The christian cult has unmistakably shaped the development of our working class movement and national social psychology. “There is no country in Europe,” remarked Leon Trotsky in 1921, “where church influence in political, social and family life is so great as in Great Britain” (L Trotsky Writings on Britain London 1974, p19). What characterised the past still applies to the present. Prominent leftwingers, such as Tony Benn, Jimmy Reid, Arthur Scargill and George Galloway, when pushed, readily pronounce upon their christian ideals and their inspirational value.
Christianity is thereby still used as a vehicle for just about every contending viewpoint in society. We have a tough but caring New Labour christianity, which tells the socially excluded, the unemployed and single parents that they are obliged to work for miserable wages so as to benefit their souls; a Conservative christianity, urging the rich to get richer in order that they have the wherewithal for giving to charity; an old Labour christianity, preaching social justice within the cage of wage-slavery; and a Respect christianity, which bizarrely holds out the virtues of saying as little as possible in order to revive hope for those who have become disillusioned. The historic Jesus is of no concern. Nor is are real origins of the christian religion - except, it seems, for us Marxists.
Jesus was a Jew. To know the real man one must get to know the Jewish people and the Jewish religion.
It was only after the Babylonian exile that the Jewish religion took anything like the form we would recognise today. When the priesthood came back from their 50-year enforced absence in 538 BC, they carried with them a higher, more abstract sense of the divine - monotheism borrowed and inspired by their hosts. Being artificial, their new religion had to rely on deception and falsification. The old sacred texts were “rewritten, codified, expurgated, annotated and completed” (I Halevi A history of the Jews London 1987, p29).
To establish ideological hegemony and acceptance of the Jewish elite, the old tribal polytheism was ruthlessly purged. Apart from the temple at Jerusalem all other centres of popular worship, along with their fetishes, were forcibly put down as pagan abominations. The bible does not deny the existence nor the power of other gods, but it demands loyalty to one god: “I am the Lord; that is my name; and my glory will I not give to another, neither my praise to graven images” (Isaiah xiii, 8). The Jewish god therefore did not arise from philosophy, from the emergence of one god beyond all existing gods, but the triumph of the god of Jerusalem (who was equated with the god of Moses) over rivals. Consequently Jehovah - or more correctly Yahweh - was the god of all humanity (creation) and yet was also claimed as the ancestral and national god of the Jews.
As will be readily appreciated, that does not mean the rewritten Old testament was simply crude falsehood. It reflected, in no matter how distorted a manner, the class antagonism between the returning elite and the masses: ie, the domination of social forces or history over humanity. Religion is a social product. As Persian vassals, the elite had no army - only a religious police. They had to rely on remaking and then maintaining the Jews as a sect-people. Fear of god was employed to impose obedience. The evolution of Jehovah was therefore bound up with military weakness and class struggle. Those peasants who had married ‘foreign women’ were initially excluded from the ‘assembly of Israel’. Priests formed themselves into an hereditary theocracy which extracted tribute (surplus product) through the system of compulsory pilgrimage, sacrifice and offering - the dominant social relationship. Temple taxes brought enormous wealth to Jerusalem and “kept large numbers profitably employed” (K Kautsky Foundations of christianity New York 1972, p271).
Hence in the god Jehovah we can gain an insight into the Jewish people and the evolution of their real life processes. The same applies to christianity and Jesus; only with the proviso that besides the New testament (written in its present form between 80 and 150 AD), we have relatively abundant literary records, not least those of the Romans.
Jesus - of his times
Jesus, in the New testament, is credited with supernatural powers. Even the most ‘progressive’ Church of England bishop believes or pretends that he worked wonders and roused the minds of millions. Suffice to say, even before the end of the 18th century, Edward Gibbon pointed out in his Decline and fall, with deliberate irony, that, though god “suspended the laws of nature for the service of religion” (ie, “the christian church, from the time of the apostles and their first disciples”), the philosophers of Greece and Rome “rejected and derided” all such claims (E Gibbon The decline and fall of the Roman empire Ware 1998, pp275, 276). And the fact of the matter is that at the time pagan or Jewish observers devoted not even one word either to Jesus or his miracles.
The first non-christian to mention Jesus, “the king who was never king”, was said to have been Josephus Flavius, in the so-called ‘Slavonic version’ of the Jewish war and the 18th and 20th books of the Jewish antiquities (B Radice [ed], Josephus The Jewish war Harmondsworth 1981, p470). Though the words of this pro-Roman aristocratic Jew and contemporary of Jesus were much valued by christians, all serious scholars nowadays admit that they were probably a 3rd century interpolation.
One of two conclusions broadly present themselves. Either Jesus did not exist - John Allegro, fantastically in my opinion, says the whole Jesus story was a “fictional” cover for a secret drug-using cult (see JM Allegro The sacred mushroom and the cross London 1970). Or, as is the case, there were so many magic-making saviours or messiahs (ie, christs in the Greek tongue) that, while others were given passing reference, he did not rate a mention. Josephus rails against the countless “religious frauds and bandit chiefs” who joined forces in an attempt to win freedom from Rome.
Palestine was at the crossroads of Middle Eastern civilisations. That is what made it a land of milk and honey for the Hebrews and a strategic target for the superpowers of the ancient world. From the 8th century BC one invasion followed another. Assyrians, Babylonians, Medes and Persians, Macedonian Greeks and finally, in the 1st century BC, the Romans.
National feelings and class interests were mediated through the prism of religious faction. The rallying slogan of the “downtrodden and disaffected” was loyalty to god and his law (H Schonfield The pentecost revolution London 1985, p31). Those below ranged themselves not only against the Roman conquerors, but those quislings who were prepared to cooperate with them: namely the royal Herodians - who were virtually alone in being pro-Roman - and the sadducees, the conservative priest-caste and big landowners. That is not to say the masses were united behind a single party.
Let us bring into focus the main elements which made up the spectrum of political-religious life. Josephus lists what he calls three schools of thought. Sadducees, pharisees and essenes.
Nowadays the sadducee party would be described as conservative, elitist and rightwing. The sadducees must be distinguished from the Herodian royal family and the internationalised aristocracy and its immediate clientage - who proudly aped Greek ways and served as client-state agents of exploitation. The sadducees were virtually synonymous with that caste of high priests who officiated at the temple and the traditionalist aristocracy which sided with them. Used to luxury and greedy for more, the high priests had no compunction about actually stealing the tithes allocated to other, impoverished, priests. Occasionally violence erupted. It was in general an uneven contest. High priests had temple guards, many servants and other such dependants and hangers-on and could afford to pay for additional bands of heavies.
Judaism defined itself as a religion of the book. The age of prophesy was formally closed by the Persians and the return of the exiled elite. In religious terms the theocratic priesthood thereby froze the meaning of the past from the time of creation to the building of the second temple, but simultaneously condemned itself to merely preside over a fixed ritual which inevitably lost its content. They could neither interpret text nor initiate. But life moves on and constantly creates new needs. In between the innumerable contradictions of the written word and the requirements of change stepped the pharisees. The pharisees were a religious intelligentsia. Expert in the obscure methods of scholastic debate and adapt at bending the law, the pharisees formed a party which not only rivalled the discredited priesthood, but sunk far deeper organisational roots amongst the masses.
Finally on the basic 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 readers with their unusual monastic lifestyle - of which Josephus had first-hand experience, having spent a year as an initiate. The essenes maintained a strict discipline in their isolated, but “large” communities. They “eschew pleasure-seeking and are peculiarly attached to each other” (Josephus The Jewish war Harmondsworth 1984, p133). The essenes were “contemptuous of wealth” and “communists to perfection”. All possessions were pooled. Members gave what they had and took what they needed (ibid p133). Universal suffrage was used to elect those in authority over the community.
Thankfully Josephus extends his list. He writes of a so-called ‘fourth philosophy’. Here we detect the real people’s party. During the final years of Herod there were numerous urban and rural rebellions. The most successful liberation fighter was Judas. He aligned himself with the dissident pharisee, Sadduck, whose allotted task was to rouse the people of Jerusalem. The zealot party was born. It would dominate popular politics till the fall of Jerusalem in 70 and the final heroic stand at the desert fortress of Massada in 74. Judas “was a rabbi” [teacher - JC], says Josephus, “with a sect of his own, and was quite unlike the others” (Josephus The Jewish war Harmondsworth 1984, p133). 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 the Romans was to order a census in 6 AD. (There was 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 anyway a non-Roman-administered Galilee in the north to Bethlehem, the town of David, in the south. If such a stipulation had been made, the movement of people would surely have caused complete chaos.) The census had nothing 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. As such it was deeply resented and triggered another popular rebellion.
Set against the nationalist-religious ferment we have just outlined, the New testament Jesus is therefore 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 ire and rebuke. 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 the rightness of paying the hated poll tax under Thatcher. And yet incongruously Jesus manages to gain an active, mass following among the rural and urban poor.
His birth and infancy are even harder to swallow. Even though Galileans would not have been affected and the actual census occurred six years later, Joseph, the ‘father’ of Jesus, and his heavily pregnant, but virgin, wife, trek all the way from Nazareth in the far north to Bethlehem in Judea - or so the story goes. 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 the young Jesus to outwit the temple priests in theology when he visits Jerusalem.
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 120 years after Jesus’ death - display profound ignorance of the elementary facts of Jewish life. Moreover, they become progressively anti-Jewish. In John, the last of the four main gospels, Jesus is a pro-Roman Mithras-like man-god who was put to death solely due to the collective guilt of the Jewish people. In this tradition he knowingly sacrifices himself in order to atone for the sins of humanity.
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 and well educated, Jesus was probably a pharisee (teacher and preacher). Gospel passages which show enmity to pharisees, such as sabbath-healing, have “clearly been inserted where the original story had ‘sadd-ucees’” (H Maccoby Revolution in Judea London 1973, p139).
Moreover, 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 which he certainly did not mean 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 David “14 generations” before (Matthew i, 17).
The prophet Micah had predicted that the messiah would be born in Bethlehem like the biblical David. Jesus, or his early propagandists, were proclaiming him to be the lawful king, as opposed to the Herodian upstarts. It was like some charismatic medieval peasant leader announcing themselves to be the direct heir of Harold and hence the true Saxon king of England against the Plantagenet or Angevin descendants of William of Normandy. Roman domination was initially imposed through Herodian kings, who were at most only semi-Jewish in background and religious observance.
Jesus’ claim to be ‘king of the Jews’ was political. He was proclaiming himself to be the leader of a popular revolution that would bring forth a communistic ‘kingdom of god’. This was no pie in the sky when you die. The slogan ‘kingdom of god’ was of this world and was widely used by zealot and other 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. But in the new days it will be the poor who benefit and the rich who suffer ... “Blessed be ye poor, for yours is the kingdom of god! Woe unto ye that are rich! Woe unto ye that are full, for ye shall hunger. Woe unto ye that laugh, for ye shall mourn and weep!” (Luke). This imminent class retribution was not to be confined to Israel alone.
The Jews were god’s revolutionary vanguard. Through them Jesus’ plan was for a universal utopia. From Jerusalem a new “world theocracy”, with Jesus at its head, would redeem “all nations” (H Schonfield The Passover plot London 1977, p24). From then onwards peace reigns; swords would be beaten into ploughshares and the wolf lies down with the lamb.
Obviously 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” (H Maccoby Revolution in Judea London 1973, pp157-8). Jesus was not interested in military strategy or tactics. Rome would be beaten without conventional war. Nevertheless, though Jesus did not train his followers in the use of arms, five of his 12 disciples came from the ranks of the zealots 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 not a pacifist: “I come not to send peace but a sword” (Matthew x, 34). Liberation would have a military aspect; nevertheless, primarily it depended on supernatural intervention. There would be a decisive battle where a tiny army of the righteous overcome overwhelmingly superior forces. In the bible Gideon fought and won with only 300 men. So the methods of Jesus and the zealots differed, but were not entirely incompatible. The zealots were unlikely to have opposed Jesus. His mass movement would at the very least have been seen by them as an opportunity.
Jesus was therefore not isolated from Jewish life and the political turmoil around him. The notion that he was opposed to violence is a later christian invention designed to placate Roman hostility and overcome their fears that the followers of the dead man-god were dangerous subversives. Nor would Jesus ever have said, “Resist not evil.” The idea is a monstrosity, fit only for despairing appeasers. Jewish scripture is replete with countless examples of prophets fighting what they saw as evil - not least foreign oppressors. The real Jesus preached the ‘good news’ against evil within the Jewish tradition (and in all probability against personal vendettas and tit-for-tat revenge). He was determined to save every ‘lost sheep of Israel’, including social outcasts and reprobates such as the hated tax-collectors, for the coming apocalypse. Salvation depended on repentance.
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 ye that I am?” Jesus asks his disciples. “Though art the christ,” answers Peter. 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), but never a messiah-king: ie, the final king. In Jesus the spiritual and secular would be fully joined. The bold idea must have “aroused tremendous enthusiasm in his followers, and great hope in the country generally” (H Maccoby Revolution in Judea 1973, p163). 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. To do otherwise 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 arose from their own sacred writings and collective consciousness. Nevertheless, even in the gospels the truth occasionally juts through. Pilate, for example, has Jesus crowned with thorns and has ‘king of the Jews’ written over the top of his cross. So if we use imagination and common sense it is possible to map out the probable course of Jesus’ brief revolutionary career.
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. One seems to have crowned him while the other two acted as the prophets Moses and Elijah (Mark ix, 4). Like Saul, David and Solomon, the new king was through the ceremony “turned into another man” (I Samuel x, 6).
Having been crowned, the prophet-king began a royal progress towards his capital, Jerusalem. He has 12 close disciples accompanying him - representing the so-called 12 tribes of Israel - and sends out 70 more into “every city and place” (the Jewish law-making council, the Sanhedrin, had 70 members). From Mount Hermon the royal procession makes its way through Galilee, then to the east bank of the Jordan and Peraea, before reaching Jericho. King Jesus has a big following and is greeted by enthusiastic crowds. He preaches the coming kingdom of god and with it “eternal life” (Mark x, 30). 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” (Mark x, 25). Jesus performs many miracles. The blind are given sight, cripples walk, etc (cities and towns were teeming with professional beggars and no doubt that included the professionally crippled and blind).
Finally he triumphantly enters Jerusalem - either during the spring Passover or more likely in the autumn festival of the Tabernacles. Timing for such apocalyptic revolutionaries is crucial. He symbolically rides upon an ass’s foal (thus fulfilling the prophesy of Zechariah ix 9). There is no doubt what the masses - many of them festival pilgrims - think. They greet Jesus with unrestrained joy and as ‘Son of David’ and ‘King of Israel’ - royal titles. Palm branches are strewn before him and, showing their defiance of Rome, they cry out, ‘Hosanna’ - ‘Save us’.
With the help of the masses Jesus and his lightly armed band force their way to the temple. The religious police are easily dispersed. There he rededicated it, drove out the moneychangers and the venal sadducee priesthood (the majority of priests carry on with their duties). They “have made it a den of robbers” (Mark xi, 17). The Romans and their agents would have viewed these events as a nuisance rather than anything else. Rebellions at festival times were not uncommon. In possession of the temple area, he and his followers were protected by the “multitude” from the poor quarter of Jerusalem. The priesthood are said to have been “afraid of the people” (Mark xi, 32). They 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 followers ahead of “12 legions of angels” (Matthew xxvi, 53). The defiled temple was to be destroyed and then rebuilt in “three days” (Matthew xxvi, 62). The dead would rise and god, with Jesus at his right hand, would judge all the nations. Jesus waited seven days for the apocalyptic arrival of god’s kingdom. It was meant 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 - JC] until that day I drink it in the new kingdom of god”. Yet, though he prayed his heart out in Gethsemane, “the hour” did not come. A cohort of Roman soldiers (300-600 men), and officers of the Jewish high priest, did (perhaps guided by Judas, perhaps not - Kautsky says the idea that anyone in the sadducee party would not know what Jesus looked like is too fantastic).
Jesus was easily captured (a strange, naked youth narrowly escapes in Mark). It is an unequal contest. His disciples only had “two swords”. “It is enough,” Jesus had assured them (Luke xxii, 38). There was a brief skirmish, according to the biblical account. Supposedly Jesus then says, “No more of this” and rebukes the disciple who injured a “slave of the high priest”. Jesus miraculously heals him. Jesus is thus presented as being opposed to bloodshed: “for all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matthew xxvi, 52). Evidently this is an interpolation. We have already seen Jesus promising cataclysmic violence and arming his followers, albeit with only two swords (the angels, though, would have been ready for pitched battle).
Interrogated by Caiaphas the leading high priest, Jesus was quickly handed over to the Roman governor, Pilot, as a political prisoner. Without fuss or bother Jesus was found guilty of sedition - he had proclaimed himself king of the Jews and was forbidding the payment of Caesar’s taxes. Jesus had no thought or intent of delivering himself up as a sacrificial lamb. He had expected an awesome miracle and glory, not total defeat. The gospels report his dejection and refusal to “answer, not even to a single charge” (Matthew xxvii, 14). Pilate might have been besieged by the Jerusalem mob. But they would have been crying for Jesus’ freedom, not “Away with him, crucify him” (John xv, 19). There was certainly no custom in occupied Palestine whereby the population could gain the release of any “one” condemned prisoner “whom they wanted” (Matthew xxvii, 15). Pilate did not seek to “release him”, nor did the Jews demand his execution. The notion of Pilate’s “innocence” is as absurd as the blood guilt of the Jews. Obviously yet another pro-Roman insert.
Pilate had Jesus whipped, beaten and spat upon, then thrown into prison. Then, 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 show his powerlessness. Jesus is stripped and a (royal) scarlet robe is draped over his shoulders. A “crown of thorns” is mockingly planted on his head and a “reed” placed in his right hand (Matthew xxvii, 28). He is crucified along with two other rebels and derided by the Romans and their allies. Over his head they, on Pilate’s orders, “put the charge against him”. “This is the king of the Jews” (Matthew xxvii, 37). John has the high priests objecting. That has the ring of truth.
They wanted Pilate to write, “This man said he was king of the Jews.” An arrogant Pilate has none of it. John puts these blunt words in his mouth: “What I have written I have written” (John ixx, 21, 22). The last words of Jesus are heart-rendering: “Eli, eli, lama sabachthani?” (My god, my god, why hast thou forsaken me?) God had failed him. Jesus was a brave revolutionary who wrongly staked all not on the masses, but on a divine coup and supernatural intervention.
There are supposedly miraculous happenings at his moment of death. Saints rise from their graves and walk about. There are earthquakes and 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” (Matthew xxvii, 54). Actually for them it was just like any other day’s work. Executions of rebel ringleaders were a common occurrence for the Roman garrison.