Who killed Jesus?
- Jesus and the Politics of his Day edited by Ernst Bammel and C.F.D. Moule
Cambridge, 511 pp, £37.50, February 1984, ISBN 0 521 22022 X
According to the Gospels, Jesus was the victim of a frame-up. His aims were purely religious, and in pursuing them, he had fallen foul of the Jewish religious establishment, who, in order to get rid of him, concocted a political charge, and managed to hoodwink the Roman governor, Pilate, into believing it. When Pilate still showed reluctance to execute Jesus, they pressed the political charge until he was left with no option: ‘The Jews kept shouting, “If you let this man go, you are no friend to Caesar; any man who claims to be king is defying Caesar” ’ (John 19.7).
Since the 18th century, however, it has been argued that this allegation of a ‘frame-up’ is itself a frame-up – whose victims are the Jews. If Jesus, as many Gospel passages indicate, did indeed claim to be ‘King of the Jews’, is it possible that he meant this in a completely non-political sense? Why should he have chosen such a political designation if he had no political aims? Moreover, the picture of the Jews as more pro-Caesar than the Roman governor hardly rings true, given the Jewish record of resistance to the Roman occupation. The conclusion has been reached that Jesus was in fact a rebel against Rome, that the ‘manifest content’ of the story should be trusted rather than the ‘secondary elaboration’. The ‘manifest content’ is the story of a Jew who died on a Roman cross, with a Jewish rebel crucified on either side of him. The ‘secondary elaboration’, created in order to clear the early Church of the charge of disloyalty to Rome, tells a story of a man-God innocent of anti-Roman activity, whose enemies were not Romans but Jews.
Rudolph Bultmann endorsed the traditional otherworldly theology of Christianity, but severed its connection with the historical Jesus. Dissatisfaction with this severance has since expressed itself in different ways. Some have asserted the ‘political Jesus’ as the slogan of a new kind of ‘liberation’ theology. They have realised that to be political is not necessarily to be unspiritual: that, on the contrary, an otherworldly theology is, in practice, the ally of reaction and tyranny. The failure of the German Christian Churches to make any effective protest against Hitler and, on the other hand, the heroic anti-Hitler action of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (against his Lutheran conviction that politics are no part of the business of the spiritual man) brought home to many modern Christians the moral and spiritual defects of the concept of a non-political Jesus.
Others, however, have felt the need to reestablish the conviction that traditional anti-political Christian theology stems from Jesus himself. This anti-political backlash is represented, on the scholarly level, by the present volume, a collection of essays attempting to dismantle all the strong points of the ‘political Jesus’ position. These strong points are: that the term ‘messiah’ was a political one; that Jesus’s teachings were not contrary to Pharisaism; that no Roman governor would have behaved as mildly as Pilate is said to have done when told that a Jewish subject was claiming to be ‘king of the Jews’; that Jesus could not have been indifferent to the oppression of Roman rule, any more than a Frenchman during the Occupation could claim ‘spiritual’ exemption from opposition to Nazi rule; that crucifixion was a Roman, not a Jewish, punishment. Thus one essay attempts to show that the conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees is historically authentic; another that the picture of Pilate as reluctant to execute Jesus is trustworthy (evidence from non-Gospel sources that Pilate was corrupt and ruthless is explained as deriving from a Jewish-inspired campaign of vilification); another that Roman rule in Judaea during Jesus’s lifetime was mild and benevolent, so that there was no need for Jesus to have sympathy with Zealot movements of rebellion. Other essays try to divest the term ‘messiah’ of political connotations, by arguing either that Jesus claimed this title in a new non-political sense or that Jesus made no claim to messiahship at all, and that the term was applied to him only after his death by the Christian Church.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 6 No. 16 · 6 September 1984
SIR: Hyam Maccoby raised a certain innuendo against the late Professor Stauffer’s activity ‘during the war’, with reference to Ernst Bizer’s history of the Bonn University theological faculty (LRB, 19 July). If he had read the book, he could not have failed to notice the full report (p. 265) of the professor’s penalisation for having ridiculed anti-semitism in a public lecture in January 1943. So much for the accuracy of your reviewer, who, it appears, does not distinguish sufficiently between the responsible business of reviewing and the joy of composing vitriolic attacks.
Faculty of Divinity, University of Cambridge
Vol. 6 No. 18 · 4 October 1984
SIR: Ernst Bammel (Letters, 6 September) makes no attempt to counter the arguments of my review. Instead, he seeks to convict me of false ‘innuendo’ against Ethelbert Stauffer, and questions whether I have read Ernst Bizer’s account of the matter. I made no ‘innuendo’, but stated very plainly that Stauffer was a strong supporter of Nazism. The full facts can be checked in Ernst Bizer’s ‘Zur Geschichte der Evangelische Theologie Fakultät von 1919 bis 1945’, in Bonner Gelehrte, Bonn, 1968. I assure Dr Bammel that I have read this with great care. It is a long and damning account of Stauffer’s association with Nazism, from which Dr Bammel quotes only one equivocal incident. Dr Bammel’s interpretation of Bizer is even more selective and misleading than his interpretations of the Talmud.
Bizer’s account shows that Stauffer first came to prominence when he led an agitation at Bonn University in 1933 against Karl Barth, who had refused to take an oath of allegiance to Hitler. Stauffer then received rapid promotion to a professorship, in which, to quote Bizer, ‘he seems to have seen his chief task … as polemic against Barth.’ Stauffer’s endeavours bore fruit when Karl Barth was expelled from Bonn University in 1934. In 1933, Stauffer published a pro-Nazi book, Unser Glaube und unsere Geschichte. Zur Begegnung zwischen Kreuz und Hakenkreuz (‘Our Faith and our History. Towards a Meeting between Cross and Swastika’). As Bizer points out, Stauffer suppressed the subtitle of this work when he submitted a list of his publications to the Allied authorities after the war. Also in 1933, Stauffer joined the Deutsche Christen, whose proclaimed policies were to support Hitler’s racialist campaign against the Jews, and to call for the dismissal of Christian clergy of Jewish extraction. He became a prominent and active member of this organisation. As Bizer documents in detail, Stauffer, as professor in Bonn University, actively supported all measures to suppress anti-Nazi opinion.
He retained his professorship for nine years, until 1943, when he got into difficulties with the Gestapo (this is the incident to which Dr Bammel refers). In a lecture on ‘Augustus and Cleopatra’, he was alleged by police informers to have quoted Nazi slogans in a sarcastic tone, causing laughter in his audience. For example, he quoted Cleopatra as saying, at the time of her disaster: ‘The Jews are to blame.’ The Gestapo evidently did not take the matter too seriously, as they left it to the University to punish him. The Dean, Anton Jirku (who had previously quarrelled with Stauffer), demanded that he should be deprived of his professorship and sent to the Army. The highest University authorities, however, ‘took a more lenient view’. His professorship was taken away, but he continued to teach at the University. Even if Stauffer did actually mean to satirise Nazism in his lecture, this would have been an astute and timely move, when the tide of war had turned decisively against Germany in North Africa and Russia. Certainly, at his hearing before the Allied authorities after the war, Stauffer made the most of the incident. He claimed that he had been in trouble with the Nazi authorities since 1936. This was a lie: he had been on excellent terms with them for ten years, and had played a despicable role during a period when distinguished academics, including Karl Barth and K.L. Schmidt, were hounded out of Bonn University because they refused to show subservience to Hitler.
When Stauffer is quoted in support of the theory that crucifixion was a Jewish punishment, many people suppose him to have been a reputable scholar of high academic standing, putting forward objective views. Of course, every argument must be considered on its merits. But the opinions of a person with Stauffer’s record should be scrutinised with particular care, especially when they touch on Jews and Judaism.
Leo Baeck College, London N3