06 April 2012

The Conspiracy to Kill Jesus

Friday, 3 April AD 33. Jesus is tried by the Sanhedrin and sent to Pontius Pilate who asks him some questions and has Jesus beaten. The Sanhedrin does not relent. They demand Pilate execute Jesus. Pilate points to the Passover tradition of pardoning a criminal and lets the mob decide Jesus' fate and they choose to let Barabbas go free instead. Pilate washes his hands of the decision and the mob cries out that Jesus' blood will be on their hands and the hands of their descendants.

That's the story from the Gospels, but is it true? Is there really a conspiracy to kill Jesus and blame it on the Jews? The Gospel story has been used to justify antisemitism for over a thousand years, but is there a problem with the story?

To be sure the Sanhedrin wants Jesus dead. Jesus is challenging their claim to authority. The Sanhedrin wants people to believe that they are the only source of God's authority, the only mouthpiece for the Lord. They also want the vast sums of money worshipers spend at the Temple performing sacrifices and they like the cushy life they have in Rome's favour. However, as previously stated, just because the Sanhedrin wants Jesus dead does not mean the Jews want him dead. The people who benefited most from Jesus were the Jews, who had their hopes pinned to the coming Messiah. The Jews didn't like the status quo with Rome and the Sanhedrin, Rome's lapdog, keeping them under thumb.

What of Pilate? He cannot find fault in Jesus, right? Well, Pilate was a ruthless man who would find an excuse to kill Jesus if he wanted to. Pilate had no compunction killing Jews and Jesus was a Jew among many for Pilate. Worse still Jesus was a religious agitator. It didn't matter to Pilate if he was Messiah or not, as long as people believed he was that could lead to a rebellion and a rebellion would give Pilate a hard time. Pilate worked really hard rising the ranks to become prefect and he did everything he could to keep his job. Is it any wonder so many Messiah claimants ended up dead?

Didn't Pilate wash his hands of Jesus' death? Actually, no. That was a Jewish practice, not a pagan Roman practice. Pilate would not have washed his hands just like he would not have been circumcised just like he would not abstain from eating oysters (which Romans loved).

And the Passover pardon? Actually, there is no history of such a tradition outside the Gospels. Yes, a prefect did have the authority to pardon prisoners and there are sporadic examples of prefects who had pardoned prisoners, during Passover and other times throughout the year, but we have no evidence of a Passover tradition of pardoning someone. It appears nowhere in the Old Testament (so it wasn't a Jewish tradition), and it appears nowhere in Roman records, so it wasn't a Roman tradition. It's not in Josephus, or the Talmud, or in Philo. The idea of the pardon appears first in the Gospels associated with Pilate, and if we take into consideration Pilate's character we can doubt that a bloodthirsty man such as him would even consider pardoning a Jew at Passover. Remember, Pilate's job as prefect was to keep order, and part of keeping order is not to give in to the will of the mob. When there's a mob the prefect puts it down, he does not aquiesce to their demands. Pilate was recalled to Rome because of his brutality, not because he caved to the will of his subjects too often.

So Pontius Pilate does not free Barabbas and he does not wash his hands of the blood guilt, and it's not the Jews who hate Jesus but just the Sanhedrin. What in the world is going on?

We have to take two things into account, namely the time the Gospels were being written and the mindset of the Gospel writers. Mark, the first written canonical Gospel, was written in around AD 70, around the time of the Jewish revolt and the destruction of the Second Temple. Up until that time there was little difference between Jewish Christians and Christian Jews. The Gospel writers wanted to distance themselves from the Jews because the Jews were being systematically destroyed by the Romans at the time. There were far more Jews than Christians, so, as a matter of survival, the Gospel writers had to make the Jews look like the enemy and the good Roman Pontius Pilate look like he was reluctant to kill the Messiah. Jewish guilt was not created out of malice, but fear. Jesus' disciples hid and Peter in particular denied him three times out of fear of the Romans, and it was only witnessing the Resurrection that made them become fearless evangelists. The Gospel writers, living more than a generation after the Resurrection, had no such miracles to boost their confidence. Out of sheer pragmatism they tweeked the story of the trial of Jesus to try to keep Rome from lumping them in with the Jews.

Saying Pontius Pilate had much more to do with the death of Jesus and exhonorating the Jews does not mean what many people think it might mean. Saying the Gospel writers altered the true events of Jesus' life go without saying. Gospel means "good news" not "raw fact". There's no way the Gospel writers could have known what was said between Jesus and Pilate, the Sermon on the Mount is way too densely packed to have been delivered as a single sermon, and John even says at the end that he had to condense the material because Jesus did so much he couldn't fit it all. Saying that the Gospel writers were human and acted out of human motivation does not mean Jesus was fake and the Resurrection never happened - there is enough to say that the Gospels do point toward the truth, but a finger pointing toward the moon is not the moon. It also does not mean that the Gospel writers were acting sinisterly. They were making the story of the life of Jesus more accessible to a wider audience, and part of that includes maintaining the survival of the nascent movement that was Christianity in the First Century.

It is a double-edged sword. We can use the Gospels as a launching pad to grow in a relationship with Christ or we can use them to justify antisemitism. The choice, ultimately is up to us, and with the knowledge of history there is hope we can unravel the story of Jewish blood guilt and fix a wound that has festered for close to two thousand years. Then, at last, we can put this conspiracy to kill Jesus to rest.