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.

Methodology provides the criteria by which these issues may be settled. Methodology is on two levels: that of overall heuristic judgments, and that of minute examination of texts. On the microscopic level, modern New Testament study offers form-criticism, source-criticism and redaction-criticism. K. Schubert, in a valuable critique of exaggeratedly sceptical trends that could make a decision between the political and the non-political Jesus impossible, provides some opposition to form-criticism (the analysis of passages in terms of their function in the religious practice of the early Church). Source-criticism and redaction-criticism (establishing the authenticity of passages by tracing them to an early source, or proving them free of editorial interference) are, however, much in evidence. These minute methods give the book its air of formidable expertise – the programme is to substitute professional standards of research for the allegedly amateurish theorisings of the ‘political Jesus’ school. But these methods are often only apparently objective, since they are based on undeclared presuppositions of doubtful validity. In particular, there is a pervasive assumption of ‘re-Judaisation’. Wherever Jesus talks like a typical Jewish teacher, this is assumed to be an inauthentic addition made by the early Church in neurotic flight back to its Jewish roots. The approach of the ‘political Jesus’ school is just the opposite: that since the tendenz of the Gospels as a whole is anti-Jewish, any unexpected occurrences of typically Jewish material are especially authentic, being survivals of the process of censorship. Which of these two general approaches is correct is not a matter of minute scholarship but of overall judgment. In the introductory chapter, J.P.M. Sweet goes to the heart of the matter when he says that the final judgment is a matter of the ‘balance of probabilities’. Which is more probable, then: that Jesus was a Jewish teacher and messiah figure, or that he was a kind of visitor from outer space, the authenticity of whose utterances is in direct ratio to their un-Jewishness?

Where microscopic methods are not vitiated by a wrong assumption, everything depends on the accuracy with which they are pursued. This makes it all the more important to have a command of the idiom and content of the Jewish materials, and here the contributors to this volume, despite their pretensions, leave much to be desired. Helmut Merkel’s chapter, ‘The Opposition between Jesus and Judaism’, is a case in point. If a real opposition could be established between the teaching of Jesus and that of the Pharisees, this would go a long way to substantiating the Gospel thesis that Jesus fell foul of Jewish religion and not Roman imperialism. The contributors to this volume at least know enough not to cite the High Priest as representative of Jewish religion. He was a political appointee of the Romans, and his opposition to Jesus confirms rather than disproves the ‘political Jesus’ thesis. Merkel’s arguments, however, are as unsatisfactory as all the others that have been adduced to prove conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees. Merkel urges that Jesus had unusual views – for example, when he said ‘Let the dead bury their dead,’ and in his rejection of fasting. But this is to ignore the established Pharisee concept of sha ’at ha-dehaq, the ‘time of emergency’, when normal patterns of behaviour could be temporarily suspended (as in Elijah’s irregular performance of a sacrifice on Mount Carmel). The advent of the messianic age, announced by Jesus, would be expected to suspend certain normal patterns appropriate to settled times, and Jesus’s messianic claim, as Gamaliel’s speech in Acts 5 shows, would be treated with cautious sympathy. This speech of Gamaliel’s, and other indications of Pharisee friendliness to Jesus, such as their timely warning against Herod Antipas, are regarded in the ‘political Jesus’ theory as important survivals of an earlier story in which there was no conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees. Merkel has nothing to say about these passages.

As for Jesus’s consorting with tax-gatherers, this was for the purpose of bringing them to repentance for their gangster activities, and would be approved by the Pharisees for this purpose (cf. instructions in the Tosefta for the implementation of repentance by tax-gatherers). Jesus, contrary to Merkel’s presentation, would expect tax-gatherers to cease to be tax-gatherers as a result of his intervention (see the case of Zacchaeus). Merkel’s idea of Jesus being seen by the Pharisees as a ‘stubborn and rebellious son’ is ridiculous, as any informed reading of the Biblical and Mishnaic passages concerned to define this category will show. About the Sabbath, Merkel does not even know that Jesus’s saying, ‘The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath’ (which Merkel quotes as evidence of Jesus’s heretical originality) was a Pharisaic motto. He quotes Jesus’s disapproval of hand-washing as proof of his opposition to ritual purity, ignoring Jesus’s injunction to the leper to perform the Mosaic ablutions. In the handwashing incident, Jesus was disapproving not of ritual purity (for ritual handwashing had not yet been instituted) but of hygienic precautions which he thought showed lack of faith in God’s arrangements for the self-purging of the body. This was a view typical of the Hasidic wing of the Pharisees.

Equally unsatisfactory is G.M. Styler’s attempt to substantiate the Gospel picture of Jesus as a pacifist. He takes it for granted that it is derogatory to Jesus to say that he was not a pacifist: Bonhoeffer might never have lived or written. Styler even cites the evidence of Paul on the character of Jesus, though Paul never met Jesus, and based his idea of him on visions. Styler has to admit that the ‘pacifist’ passages are mostly not found in the earliest sources, Q and Mark, but points out that Q contains Jesus’s injunction to ‘turn the other cheek’. This is not necessarily a pacifist saying. Bonhoeffer was no doubt willing to turn his own cheek, but not that of millions of people who were being tortured and murdered by Hitler. Jesus was not a pacifist when he drove out the money-changers – but one contributor suggests that he used a twig, not a whip, and applied it only to the posteriors of the animals in the scene! To deny that Jesus was a pacifist is not to say that he was a militarist. Unlike the Zealots, who were guerilla fighters, Jesus had no military tactics. He relied, as I have argued before, on a miracle from God, like Theudas or ‘the Egyptian’ in his own day, or Gideon in Biblical times. One contributor, Matthew Black, falls out of line by admitting that Jesus may have been ‘an apocalyptic Zealot’, a formulation with which I would agree. When he found that his followers had only two swords between them, he said, ‘That is enough,’ for only a token show of fighting would be needed. A contributor, however, explains away the awkward ‘two swords’ incident: Jesus, going to his voluntary death, warned his disciples to provide for their own defence in a world hostile to post-Crucifixion belief (and even this destroys the notion of a pacifist Jesus, who would not have counselled self-defence).

The claims of this volume to definitive scholarship can be seen at their most pretentious in the contributions of one of the two co-editors, Ernst Bammel, who, with an air of detailed, patient scholarship, offers some fanciful hypothesising. His main theory is that Jesus was crucified, not by the Romans, but by the Jews. He uses recent arguments, including his own, to urge that crucifixion, previously regarded as a Roman – not a Jewish – form of execution, was practised by Jews as a judicial penalty during the Inter-Testamental period. Two Jewish scholars, Y. Yadin and D. Halperin, have gone some way to endorsing this theory. Dr Bammel either does not know or chooses to ignore the outstanding work of Joseph Baumgarten thoroughly refuting such arguments, which depend largely on the interpretation of some debatable and defective passages in the Dead Sea Scrolls, and also on a dubious philological argument that the Hebrew and Aramaic verbs meaning ‘to hang’ always denote crucifixion when used in a juridical context. Dr Bammel has also argued that a Talmudic discussion opposing crucifixion implies that crucifixion was practised before this discussion took place.

Dr Bammel’s present thesis has to cope with the difficulty that Jesus was crucified together with two rebels (lestai) in the presence of a Roman centurion. His remarkable solution is that Jesus was crucified by functionaries of the Sanhedrin on a religious charge of blasphemy, while the other two men were simultaneously crucified by the Roman authorities on a political charge of rebellion. The presence of a Roman centurion was required for the execution of the rebels, though he was perhaps asked, as a favour, to keep an eye on Jesus’s crucifixion too.

Apart from many weaknesses in the details of his argument (some of which are noted by J.A.T. Robinson in a posthumous essay included here), Bammel fails to notice an obvious objection. If the Jews, not the Romans, carried out the crucifixion of Jesus, what inducement did the Gospel editors have to conceal this fact? Even John, who goes furthest towards attributing the actual crucifixion to the Jews, uses an ambiguous expression. The other Gospels plainly describe a Roman crucifixion. In view of the clear intention of the Gospels to blame the Jews primarily for the death of Jesus, it is incredible that editorial activity would have been directed towards involving the Romans in the execution. The trend is precisely in the opposite direction, towards exonerating the Romans. Where is the ‘balance of probability’ here?

According to Dr Bammel, that the Jews executed Jesus is ‘only what the Jews themselves have always said’. This is Bammel’s theory and he makes a great deal of it. The evidence for it is a passage in the Babylonian Talmud (the basis of the Medieval Toledot Yeshu literature) which says that Jesus was executed (not crucified) by order of the Sanhedrin. This passage, as almost all scholars other than Dr Bammel have pointed out, was composed as a counter to Christian missionary activity in the third century AD. Its import is: ‘If Jesus really claimed to be God, as you missionaries say, he deserved to be executed as a “seducer to idolatry”.’ At this time, no Jewish records of the historical Jesus existed. He had been forgotten as just another failed messiah figure, like Judas of Galilee, whose name appears nowhere in rabbinic literature. It was not until the Middle Ages, when Jewish scholars began to study the New Testament, thereby laying the foundations of New Testament science, that they realised that Jesus had never claimed to be God, and that the hostile Talmudic reaction was therefore unnecessary.

Apart from such large-scale errors, Dr Bammel’s work contains startling blunders even in the minute details of which he makes such an array. For example, when arguing that the Zealot movement had no social aims (and therefore had no claim on Jesus’s sympathy), he says, in a supporting footnote, that the Aramaic word MSKNWT’ means ‘serfdom’, not ‘poverty’. In fact, it is the regular Targumic word for ‘poverty’. Equally typical is Dr Bammel’s categorical statement that the Talmud says that Jesus was put to death by Phineas the robber (interpreted by Bammel to mean a Zealot – this is supposed to show that Jesus’s movement was opposed to and by Zealotism). The Talmudic passage in question does not in fact mention Jesus. It concerns the Old Testament character Balaam, and it is only an unconvincing scholarly theory that in this instance ‘Balaam’ is a code-name for Jesus. The name ‘Phineas’ is that of the Old Testament Phineas, son of Aaron, and he is called a ‘robber’ here because this is a purported quotation from a non-Jewish archive.

Bammel’s views on ‘Jewish crucifixion’ are based on the writings of Ethelbert Stauffer, a constant presence in the footnotes of this volume, who first argued that crucifixion was a Jewish punishment and pointed to the conclusion later elaborated by Dr Bammel, who was in fact Stauffer’s pupil and his co-researcher after the war. Stauffer’s work is full of blunders, some of which were pointed out by Paul Winter, and he cannot be regarded as objective in this matter, given his well-documented pro-Nazi record before and during the war (see Ernst Bizer’s account in his history of the Bonn University theological faculty, which cites Stauffer’s pro-Nazi publications).

Dr Bammel revealingly remarks, in a comment on the work of Jewish authors, including myself: ‘The Zealot theory is never far away from the Jewish mind when approaching Jesus. It is the approach which is the supreme achievement of making him equal to oneself.’ A footnote adds: ‘It enables the Jew thereby to shake off a certain cultural inferiority complex, which was apparent in former generations.’ The meaning appears to be that the Jew is never happier than when bringing Jesus down to his own materialistic, political level; otherwise, the Jew remains vaguely uneasy at the thought of spiritual heights beyond his own capacity – an uneasiness even more apparent in ‘former generations’ before Jews aspired to write books about Jesus. I do not know of any evidence of this Jewish ‘inferiority complex’. I do know that despite a constant campaign against them in Christendom of persecution and contempt, culminating in the Holocaust, the Jews have held fast to a world-view in which spiritual liberation has political implications, a view deriving from Moses and the Exodus from Egypt. That Jesus held the same view is in accordance with the ‘balance of probabilities’.