Antonio Ciseri (1871)
I wish to apologize to my readers and followers if I have been posting almost every day of this week, and I want to assure them that this series of posts were supposed to occur in a longer period of time; however, since this is Easter Week and today is Good Friday, I wanted to make this post coincide with this major date. After all, Christmas and Easter are two milestones of Christianity, albeit trivialized by commercialism. Suffice to say that Christmas is important because it celebrates the important event of the Word made flesh or incarnation and Easter represents the cusp of God’s redemptory plan: the death and resurrection of His only-begotten Son to save the sins of mankind. I wish to provide you today with a Passion Play based on Reza Aslan’s view of the Gospels, i.e. that it is all fiction surrounding a real event.
A Passion Play would not be complete without a dramatis personae:
- Jesus of Nazareth: Central to the story, as He is the one who is arrested, tried and crucified in accordance with all four Gospels.
- Joseph Caiaphas: Jewish High Priest; according to Flavius Josephus, he was High priest from 18 through 36 AD, and was the son in law of another powerful High Priest, Annas; Annas was the real “power behind the throne” (Antiquities XX, 9.1).
- Pontius Pilate: Prefect (military rank) of Judea from 26-36 AD; he was under the administration of the legate of Syria Lucius Pomponius Flaccus.
- Herod Antipas: Tetrarch of Galilee and Perea, reigned from 6 through 39 AD. Son of Herod the Great, was in charge of the jurisdiction of Galilee.
- Judas Iscariot: one of the Twelve Apostles, betrayed and gave away Jesus. Died the same day as Jesus on 33 AD; cause of death: suicide by hanging.
- The Apostles
- The Jews: A disclaimer should be made here. Some people have read into this (wrongly) as a justification for antisemitism, the singling out of a whole nation and the claim of “blood libel”. We must read this as it was understood in the 1st century: this is not a racial distinction, but a provincial one. The Jews (Jehudim) were initially the descendants of the tribe of Judah, the residents of the Kingdom of Judah, and also the residents of the Roman province of Judea in general and Jerusalem in particular, as such distinguished from Galileans, Samaritans, Pereans and Idumeans. The inhabitants of Judea and Jerusalem were proud of and benefitted greatly from the presence of the Temple in Jerusalem and were shocked by Jesus’ claims that he would destroy the Temple, which by the way was the charge by which the Sanhedrin accused Jesus.
In the Passover festival of 33 AD, Jesus of Nazareth came to Jerusalem on the first day of the week (i.e. Sunday); upon arrival, he consciously reenacted the prophecy of Zechariah 9:9 and entered the city sitting on a donkey as the King of the Jews was expected to do. This message did not escape the spectators who acclaimed him as King as well as the Temple leaders and Roman authorities. During the days that followed, Jesus increased the gap between Him and the Temple authorities by attacking the hypocrisy of the Temple elite, disrupting their business model (the system in place in the Temple was that no foreign monies could be accepted when giving an offering, but that currency had to be exchanged with the prutah or the Tyre shekel, with very advantageous prices); in this aspect, I agree with Mr. Aslan’s claims that the fees required to comply with all aspects of Judaism were prohibitive for most people. What topped the hostility was Jesus’ claim that He would destroy the Temple and rebuild it in three days (nowhere else is this more poignant than in the debate initiated in John 2:12-22). Radical action was required from the elites to end this possible ferment of revolt (in their view); John 11:48-49 translates that disquiet “If we allow him to go in this way, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away our sanctuary and our nation.” Then one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said, “You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is more to our advantage to have one man die for the people than for the whole nation to perish.”” Judas Iscariot becomes a pivotal part in this event: Judas became increasingly disenchanted and disgruntled with Jesus most likely when the latter refused to become King by popular acclamation after the miracle of the multiplication of the bread. Judas was a member, along with the other apostle Simon (not Peter) of the Zealot movement, and believed in the radical messianic view of kicking the foreign occupier off the land of Judea. His possible association of Jesus with those views and Jesus disengagement from them led to Judas’ disenchantment. In light of this, it became easier for him to betray Jesus to the Temple elite. It must be highlighted, however, that Judas may not have expected the final outcome.
After having his last Passover meal and instituted the Lord’s Supper, Jesus went away with the disciples to Mt. Olivet or the Gethsemane; there, he was arrested by guards sent by Caiaphas and led by Judas Iscariot. Two things must be said about this: a) The Temple authorities did not arrest Jesus in broad daylight because there were riot possibilities (tempers flew high during Festivals) and; b) Jerusalem being jam-packed with pilgrims coming to the Festival, the authorities did not know for sure where Jesus could be; people stayed in hostels and synagogues who provided shelter during the holidays. Judas was privvy to the place where Jesus would be. This is where the confusion starts for many people and have led many scholars to dismiss the Gospels as fiction: true, the Sanhedrin never convened by night; however, the Gospels never claimed that the trial at the Sanhedrin occurred by night. A closer read of the Gospels indicates that there were two phases in the trial: a prosecutorial meeting with Annas, Caiaphas and their cronies at the former’s house, where the witnesses were doctored and charges forged and then a formal Sanhedrin trial at dawn, where the whole Council was misled into believing the charges and issue a formal condemnation. Matthew, Mark and John mix up both events, because in reality they form one, the second being just a formality, while the first being the real trial. Luke makes the distinction very clearly in chapter 22 verse 66 of his Gospel. In the end, whether the trial occurred at night or in the morning it is a testimony to the deviousness of the cutthroats that constituted the Temple elite, which, if we are to accept Josephus’ accounts, were not that far removed from Herod’s own antics.
Now comes the most controversial part of the Gospel narrative of the Passion: Pilate’s own conduct. The charge that has been leveled at the Gospels and Christians is that Pilate’s actions are uncharacteristic of him. Those who point out these inconsistencies are keen to speculate that the Gospels meant to differentiate Christians from Jews in the eyes of the Roman authorities, who saw the Judeans as a seditious lot, and present a kinder profile of Pilate vis-a-vis the perfidy of the Jews. We’ll clear out the 3,000 lbs elephant from the room: Pilate was not a nice guy, period. I do not think either that the Gospels excuse his behavior, quite contrarily. I will concede that Pilate acted uncharacteristically because what was occurring was unusual; however, he would not be the first tyrant to have done so and certainly not the last. This does not make the events described in the Gospel implausible. The events unfolding in front of him are unusual for the following reasons:
a) It was unusual for Jews to hand out other Jews to the Gentiles to be killed. The Romans usually killed wholesale or found dead bodies, because of what has been known as the “Masada complex” (better dead than surrender). Judas Iscariot’s fatal scruples were spurred because of that fact (Matthew 27:3-4 “Then he who had betrayed Him, seeing that He was condemned, sorrowing, Judas returned the thirty pieces of silver again to the chief priests and elders, (4) saying, I have sinned, betraying innocent blood. And they said, What is that to us? You see to that.”)
b) The plight of the accusers that Jesus pretended to be the King of the Jews and that they were giving him away for that, accepting Caesar instead as king made it even stranger. Even if the High Priests were cronies of the Romans, they had an uneasy relationship with them. An occupier is always an occupier.
c) Many commenters, including Mr. Aslan, indicate that Pilate’s interrogation of Jesus is a ludicrous detail. I daresay that precisely because of all of the above, Pilate was intrigued and did indeed question Jesus. In turn, Jesus’ answers most likely convinced him that Jesus was nothing else but a mentally ill person.
d) The practice of releasing one criminal for the holidays is not mentioned anywhere else (and by that, I mean Josephus and Philo, the only other historian who focused on Jewish history), but we also must point out that the sources on that time and place are scarce and that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Thus, the benefit of the doubt must be given to the Gospels.
e) Pilate had had to face riots before and, according to Philo of Alexandria, had been warned by Tiberius concerning his brash behavior with the Jews (Philo, On the Embassy of Gaius Book XXXVIII 299–305); so while Pilate was somehow uneasy, he sacrificed Jesus on the altar of political expediency, showing more his ruthlessness than his softness. Moreover, his gesture of deference towards Herod became advantageous for himself, thus effectively “killing two birds with one shot”.
Once Pilate made his decision, he did not back up and proceeded to punish Jesus with all the rigors of Roman capital punishment. The story of the Crucifixion is known enough to be retold here; however two details deserve mention:
a) The titulum on Jesus’ cross was not meant to be a mockery but a sign of Pilate’s warning to this and any future pretender to the throne: Rome would be ruthless.
b) The fact that he conceded the body to Joseph of Arimathea does not mean that he was soft, but rather that he ceded to the latter’s influence (or maybe even a bribe, the only thing that moved cogwheels in Roman governors’ decisions).
The rest of the story is known to everybody. You can read it here. On my next (and last) post in this series, I will be discussing Mr. Aslan’s take on the further evolution of Christianity after the Resurrection of Jesus. I wish to all my readers a Happy Easter.
He is risen indeed!