Who killed Jesus?

Hyam Maccoby

  • 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.

You are not logged in