Your RDA of Irony

Epistle From the Hebrews

“It’s funny that people are freaking out about how the Jews are portrayed. If you believe or even look at the Bible as a history book, it’s not like Mel Gibson changed the story. The Jews were responsible for Christ’s death.”

So, according to the Gospel of a college-educated 30 year-old, I am guilty of deicide.   My friend probably would give me the benefit of the Statute of Limitations.   As I informed her, the Jews did not kill Jesus but we do make wonderful scapegoats.

Now beginneth my sermon. The Four Gospels should not be viewed as histories but as advertisements, a potent mix of marketing and polemics that sold a new theology. They were written in a period from 40 to 70 years after the death of Jesus, and their text and tone reflect the conflicts and challenges of the early Church. Christianity had begun and was floundering as a Jewish movement. The Acts of the Apostles admits as much. The Church hierarchy was in Jerusalem, led by Jesus’ relatives and the Apostles, and adamantly directing its message solely to a Jewish audience. Any interested Gentile was first obliged to become a Jew in order to be a Christian.

The prospect of 100 dietary laws and circumcision certainly deterred conversion. St. Paul was the first to challenge this approach, proposing to market Christianity as Judaism-Lite: morality, salvation and pork. In hindsight, we can see that Paul’s interpretation was the more appealing; yet, in his lifetime, he had limited success. The Church was still in essence “Jews for Jesus.”

Then Rome determined the future of both Judaism and Christianity. The Emperors showed a consistent sadism in choosing brutal, greedy governors to control Judea. (On a comparative scale, Herod the Great was one of the more charming rulers.) In A.D. 66, after 12 years of Nero’s appointees, Judea rose in rebellion and put up a ferocious resistance. It took the Empire four years to crush the rebellion but the outcome should have been obvious. Imagine one Richard Dreyfuss fighting twenty Sylvester Stallones. My ancestors evidently were expecting a miracle…and our lease with the Landlord practically guaranteed it. I suppose the miracle was that anyone survived. However, one third of the population did not, and Jerusalem was destroyed. While the Romans were slaughtering the Judeans, they did not distinguish the various theological divisions among their victims. The “Jews for Jesus” were just as dead as the rest.

Without the constraints of the Jerusalem hierarchy, the surviving Christians were now free to drop the Jewish aspects of their religion and make the Church more appealing to Gentiles. The Gospels of Mark and Matthew still adhered to the original Jewish orientation, preaching that Jesus was indeed the promised fulfillment of Judaism. Of course, they weren’t having much success with a Jewish audience; wouldn’t a real Messiah have provided better protection against Romans? The rebuffed Matthew retorted that the Jews had suffered divine retribution for rejecting Jesus and would continue to suffer until they converted. “His blood be on us and on our children.” The frustration of rejection and Matthew’s dyspeptic nature are also evident in his denunciations of the Pharisees, lumping them with the High Priests as Jesus’ killers. In reality, the Pharisees were the long-standing opponents of the Temple Hierarchy, denouncing its politics and venality. The Pharisees had no power in Jerusalem and no culpability in Jesus’ death. However, in the aftermath of the War, their rabbinical, communal approach to worship became the prevalent practice of Judaism. They were succeeding where “Jews for Jesus” was failing, and Matthew hated them for that.

The Gospels of Luke and John were written for a Gentile audience. (It was effortless for Luke; he was the only one of the Gospel writers with a foreskin.) To do so, the authors had to address and surmount the Jewish origins of their religion. In the Hellenized world of the 1st century, Jews were unpopular. We were regarded as obnoxious, crude troublemakers, and we had yet to develop our disarming sense of humor. The Greeks-those cultural snobs–had despised us for centuries, and no one ever accused us of killing Apollo. The Christian Evangelists had to ingratiate themselves with the pagan public, and they had to divorce themselves from Judaism to do so. In a brilliant marketing campaign, the Church reinvented and repositioned itself. It was no longer “Jews for Jesus” or even St. Paul’s Judaism-Lite but a completely different, competitive and hostile religion.

Christianity had to be made more Gentile, and the Church had to avoid any semblance to challenging Rome. Since Nero, Christians were mindful of the lions’ feeding times at the local arena. Jesus had been crucified by the Romans, but the Church seemed willing to forgive a powerful enemy. All the Gospels bestow Pontius Pilate with a tact and sensitivity that his mother wouldn’t have believed. If the crucifixion required a villain, the Jews would be a safer choice. The Church could demonstrate its independence from the other monotheism and assimilate itself in the popular prejudice. The later Gospels reflected this pragmatism. While Mark and Matthew say a crowd called for the death of Jesus, Luke incriminates “the people” and John spells it out: “the Jews.” The Gospels present Pontius Pilate as yet another victim of the Jews, a philosophical but weak soul bullied into ordering the crucifixion. The notion seems more appropriate for satire than scripture. Even by Roman standards, Pilate was a brutal thug. Historians of the period recount his casual use of massacres to ensure quiet. Furthermore, as the Governor of Judea, Pilate had complete power over the Temple Hierarchy, including the right to hire and fire the High Priest. When Pilate was recalled in A.D. 37, his acting successor Lucius Vitellius replaced two High Priests in a three-month period. In A.D. 70, in the aftermath of the Rebellion, the Romans finally abolished the High Priesthood for having failed to reconcile the Jews to servitude. Yet, the Gospels blame the Priesthood instead of the Romans, condemning the dummy rather than the ventriloquist.


The question remains: Why did Pilate kill Jesus? Despite their enthusiasm for violence, the Romans were not in the habit of executing philosophers. Otherwise, Athens would have been depopulated. Furthermore, the Romans had a variety of tortures and executions to punish an itinerant preacher for practicing medicine without a license. The agony and spectacle of crucifixion was reserved for one crime alone: insurrection. Jesus was condemned as a Zealot. Pilate certainly had reasons to suspect it. Jesus and many of his followers were from Galilee, a chronic site of rebellion against Rome. Worse, the Galileans tended to incite the rest of the populace. The Romans had recently crushed an uprising in Jerusalem by “the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices.(Luke 13; 1)” Now Pilate had to deal with another Galilean mob, one with a charismatic leader promising a coming kingdom that apparently would supersede Rome. It may have only been a metaphysical threat but Pilate wouldn’t chance the distinction.


Pilate also might have heard a very interesting allegory. Mark recounts it; none of the later Gospels dared. In Mark 5, Jesus meets a possessed man. Addressing the demons Jesus asks, “What is your name?” The demons respond, “My name is Legion, for we are many.” Jesus then exorcises the demons, casting them into a conveniently close herd of swine. The afflicted animals then are driven into the sea. Of course, Legion was more than just an arbitrary choice of names; it was the principal unit of the Roman army. And what was a herd of swine doing in a nice Jewish neighborhood? It either was the property of an unwelcome Roman garrison or-more likely-it was a metaphor for that garrison. So, to summarize the story, Jesus confronts a legion of demons-a herd of swine-and drives them into the sea. Pilate would have gotten the message, and Jesus evidently got Pilate’s response.


Rome definitely killed Jesus, but that brutal power made it too dangerous to challenge. Mark and Matthew blamed their Jewish rivals. Luke and John incriminated an entire nation. Yet, the Evangelists would never have imagined that their literary license would incite centuries of persecution and massacres. Nor would they have been acquiescent or indifferent to Anti-Semitism. Mark, Matthew and John would have died in the Crusades, the pogroms and the Holocaust. So would Jesus. The Gospels did blame Jews for the death of Jesus, but they really didn’t mean it. “They knew not what they do.”

  1. Rey Hinckley says:

    As Christians approach “Good” Friday, I would like to offer this to my fellow Christians. Jesus was a Jew who was killed by some of his own, who were looking to silence Jesus, because his teachings energized the lower classes more than the synagogue going Jew.
    Jesus had been teaching nonviolence and tbe only way that his followers could belive him would have been for him to follow his own teachings even if it meant death.
    Constantine the great convinced the Roman Christian segment of Jews to require that Roman and Greek Catholics require their followers to believe that Jesus was God so that the masses of Roman and Greek “Christians” could be members of these disciplines without taking Jesus’ teachings as “gospel” and so that Rome would not be called into question for participating in something that God would not have approved of.
    Because Christians have not stood behind the teachings of Jesus and condemned tbe treatment tbat Jesus was subjected to, Christianity, as a whole, can not claim to believe Jesus’ teachings or as being Jesus’ “church”.

    Happy Easter!

  2. Ben Wiles says:

    A wise man once said, “One man’s polemic is another man’s gospel.” True indeed.

    I come not to challenge facts in “The Epistle to the Hebrews,” but to add to them. Perhaps with a more complete understanding of the situation different conclusions might be called for.

    Fact: The Gospels are not histories as we generally understand the term. Such dispassionate recordkeeping as modern historiography demands is exactly that – a modern demand. “Histories” as written in that era were written with an agenda, for which the Gospels do not apologize. “These things are written that you might believe.” Some historians (Josephus, for instance) are much more discreet about their agendas, attempting to pass their propaganda off as authority. The function of history as written in the Ancient Near East was to tell as much of the story as would make the patron and historian look good. Perhaps on that note not much has changed.

    Fact: Christianity began as a Jewish movement, but was hardly floundering. Within 15 years of Pentecost (yes, that one), Claudius expelled all Jews from Jerusalem over what Tacitus called “The Chrestus Controversy.” If anything, Christianity was taking Judaism by storm, and the old guard was envious of its success. Romans being as fond of religious conflict in the imperial capital as they were, they threw everybody out. If Christianity was “floundering” so as to need a “repackaging,” there would never have been such a level of discord to require Imperial attention.

    Fact: There were those who demanded that a gentile must become Jewish before he (or more usually she) could wear the name Christian. But those elements of Judaism that were lifted from gentile Christians were only those parts that identified a person as an ethnic Jew – circumcision, dietary laws, sacrifice, certain holidays, and a political allegiance to the people “back home” under occupation. Call that “Judaism Lite” if you wish, but I prefer the phrase “separation of church and state.”

    Fact: Nero, Vespasian, and Domitian combined did not have the impact on Christianity and Judaism that Constantine had. As painful as the loss of homeland and temple might have been to both Christian and non-Christian Jews, it had very little if any impact on Christian theology. Jesus instruction in Matthew 24 (“When you see trouble coming, run”) doesn’t even have to be seen as prophetic to make sense. Constantine, on the other hand, infected Christianity with the worst possible pathogen – power. While Christianity and Judaism had gone their separate ways by the second century (at the insistence of the Pharisees, by the way), the relationship did not become openly hostile until Constantine took a side. At that point – and not before – Christianity came to look less and less like religion and more and more like an empire.

    Fact: Rome killed Jesus, and that for insurrection. They did, however, have the approval of both Sadducees and Pharisees in their actions. While Pilate was not one to shy away from a killing spree, he was not inclined to start one at random. After all, we all know how Galilee can be. Most of Pilate’s brutality was in response to Jews having the gall to (usually) peaceably petition for redress of grievances. What the Sadducees offered Pilate – with the approval of the Pharisees in the Sanhedrin – was a compromise. Chop off the head, and let the body rot. Without that approval, Pilate probably kills a bunch of other people in the process. Likewise, if the Sadducees acted without the Pharisees approval, the Galilean power base vacated by the removal of Jesus could easily fall into other, less desirable hands. Consider what Gamaliel said in Acts 5:35-39. If this is from men, it will come to nothing. But if it is from God, who are we to resist?

    Fact: All four gospels draw a sharp contrast between the people themselves and their leadership. Those Jews Jesus referred to as “vipers” and “whitewashed tombs” were the “scribes and Pharisees,” namely, those in charge of teaching in the synagogue. The irony is that those who spent their days arguing with the Sadducees about whether or not the supernatural (prophecy, demons, resurrection, etc.) even existed were themselves unable to see its fulfillment before their very eyes. Those who could (or would) see are hailed as the heroes of the gospels, while those who chose for whatever reason not to believe in Jesus are vilified. Fortunately, the gospel of Jesus is a doctrine of grace and forgiveness, as many of the earliest Christians were the very Pharisees who resisted him during his lifetime.

    With these additional facts, conclude what you will.

  3. Ben Wiles says:


    Claudius expelled the Jews — “for Jesus” and otherwise — from Rome, not Jerusalem.

    DadofTwins regrets the error.

  4. Dear Reverend Wiles,

    I wonder if I am inspiring or inciting future sermons? Would I get credit as a ghostwriter (Holy or otherwise),

    Tacitus does indeed refer to expulsion of Jews from Rome because of their public feuds over “an agitator named Chrestus.” The agitator probably was named Simon, alias Peter. Simon Peter evidently never did get your memo about preaching to Gentiles. Furthermore, Tacitus’ error demonstrates the relative insignificance of Christianity in the 2nd century Roman Empire. The Roman historian confuses “Chrestus” with his apostles.

    At the end of the first century, Christians comprised less than one percent of the Empire’s population. So apparently, Tacitus did not consider them worth proofreading his manuscript.

    As for the composition of the Sanhedrin, you have overestimated the number of place cards for the Pharisees. The Sanhedrin, a combination court and assembly, was primarily composed of Saduccees. Think of it as the House of Lords; you wouldn’t find too many Trotskyites there. The Pharisees would be just as intrusive and radical presence.

    Yes, I know what the Gospels say: all those Pharisees in the Sanhedrin. But I have told you why they said it. The Pharisees were not in power in AD 30; but by AD 80 they were getting on Matthew’s nerves. And he was not a gracious loser. In fact, he really was quite dyspeptic. Of the four Gospel writers, he alone lets his personality seep through the text, and ha has quite an irascible nature. He really was the Robert Novak of his day.


  5. Alan Perlman says:

    I just saw Brian Fleming’s documentary “The God Who Wasn’t There.” Apparently Paul had in mind mothing more than a reincarnated demigod whose life story resembles those of dozens of other Near Eastern mythigcal heroes (Mithra, Osiris). Then, because people wanted more info. about Jesus’ life, the Gospels fill in the backstory decades later, with more plagiarism. I found it amazing to learn how many of these figures came to town on a mule, were forced into exile, nailed to a cross or tree on a hill, rose after 3 days, etc., etc.

  6. Hal Gordon says:

    Eugene —

    I see that your “Epistle from the Hebrews” has sparked some lively debate on your web site. Mind if I add my own two cents’ worth?

    In general, I found little to argue with, but of course I’m not a scholar. At the same time, I belong to a men’s Bible study group in my church, and we are currently reading the Gospel of Luke. So, regarding the episode of the Gadarene swine, let me say that it is the opinion of Christian scholars that the incident took place in territory that was largely Gentile. Jesus had intentionally entered Gentile territory, on the eastern side of the Sea of Galilee, most likely to get out from under the nose of Herod Antipas, at least for a while. Notice, too, that when Jesus heals the demoniac, he tells him (Luke 8:39) to return home and show the great things that God had done for him. But, in the very next few verses, when he heals the daughter of Jairus, the ruler of the synagogue, he commands the parents to tell no one of the miracle. Apparently, Jesus wants to impress the Gentiles with the power of God, but does not want the Jewish people to identify him as the Messiah prematurely — lest they conclude that the time has come for a revolt against the Romans.

    I think it’s unlikely that Pilate had heard the story of the “Legion” of devils. What is more likely, since the Antonia fortress with its Roman garrison overlooked the courts of the Jewish Temple, is that the Romans had witnessed with their own eyes the sight of Jesus driving the money-changers out of the Temple, only days before his trial by Pilate. My own suspicion is that since Jerusalem was crowded with pilgrims at Passover time, and it would only take a spark to touch off bloody riots, Pilate and the High Priest decided together that Jesus was a troublemaker who had to be not only put out of the way, but made an example. Herod Antipas probably concurred. Luke 23 tells how once Pilate determined that Jesus was a Galilean, he sent him to be tried before Herod. Herod examined Jesus, got no answers, and then returned him to Pilate, “And on the same day, Pilate and Herod were made friends together: for before they were at enmity between themselves.”

    Something else: I agree with you that the gospel writers showed Pilate in a more favorable light than he deserved. But I don’t think the whole story was made up. In Mark and in John in particular, Pilate refers to Jesus not as “the Christ” but as the “King of the Jews.” In both these gospels, he harps the title, deliberately stirring up the people’s anger. Finally, in John 19:15, he cunningly gets what he wants: “Pilate saith unto unto them, Shall I crucify your King? The chief priests answered, We have no king but Caesar.”

    That’s right, says Pilate, in effect. You have no king but Caesar, and you never will have any other king but Caesar. And to underscore the point, he posts a sign over Jesus’ head on the cross, “This is the King of the Jews” — in Hebrew, Greek and Latin. Too late (John 18:21-22), the chief priests complain to Pilate that he should have written, “He said, I am King of the Jews.” And Pilate replies, “What I have written, I have written.”

    All that rings true to me.

    Anyway, I compliment you on knowing the gospels better than many Christians, and I wish you a happy Passover.

    All good wishes,


  7. Ben Wiles says:

    A couple more notes of clarification:

    Less than one percent of the empire’s population was still a considerable dent in the Jewish population. A minority, to be sure, but a sizeable and growing one.

    Also, consider that Gentiles did not make up the majority of Christians until well into the second century, after the Pharisees threatened the “Jews for Jesus” with excommunication. One of the thrice-daily synagogue prayers that came out of the Council of Jamnia in 90 was “May God curse the Nazarenes.”

    It was Suetonius, not Tacitus, who placed “Chrestus” in Rome during the reign of Claudius. I know of no source connecting Suetonius’ “Chrestus” with any Simon, Peter or otherwise. Footnote?

    The Simon that Tacitus mentions was one of many Messianic pretenders in Galilee during Jesus’ childhood. Luke’s Theudas and Judas the Galillean were two others.

    While the majority of the Sanhedrin was Sadducees, the Pharisees were a singificant vocal minority. While I have no whip count, there were enough there to keep a fellow Pharisee (Paul) from being stoned as a heretic when he claimed in Acts 23, “Bretheren, I am a Pharisee and the son of a Pharisee; I am on trial for the hope and resurrection of the dead.” And note the present tense there. Paul saw obeying the doctrine of the Messiah as being a “real Pharisee.”

    Also, remember that the Pharisees’ power base was outside Jerusalem. Their power came from their control of synogauges. They may not have had the votes in the assembly, but they did preside over the court of public opinion. And since most of Jesus’ life was spent outside Jerusalem, no one should be surprised that most of his encounters would be with Pharisees. Matthew wasn’t jealous of the Pharisees; like any good accountant, he’s simply reporting who was there when Jesus said what he said. Matthew wasn’t dyspeptic. He was just anal.

    All the best this Passover. And if I use your comments in a sermon, I’ll be sure to tithe to my ghostwriter.

    -The not-quite-so-reverend Wiles

  8. Dear Frequently Reverend Wiles,

    Suetonius referred to an agitator named Chrestus. He seemed to think that there was a specific provocateur with that name who was causing a riot in Rome’s Jewish community.

    Josephus makes no mention of Christians, alias Nazarenes, in his tell-all tome “The Jewish War.” If they had been a prominent division of the Jewish community in A.D. 70, it seems likely that the diligent historian would have mentioned them. Of course, he could have been incensed that no one considered him a Messiah–other than himself.

    Some sixty years later, however, in yet another rebellion against Rome, the Jewish leader Bar Kochba did persecute Christians in Judea. The Christian community had grown over time; however, there is no census as to how many were Gentiles vs. Jews for Jesus.

    Taking a poll of foreskins would have been rather awkward.

    And, yes, the Pharisees’ power base was outside Jerusalem. If Jesus had been attacked or sued in Jaffa or Hebron, the Pharisees would have been the likeliest culprits. But in Jerusalem, the Pharisees did not have the clout to fine Jesus for camping in Gethsemane without a permit.

    Have a good holiday, too.


  9. David Traini says:

    I just saw Spamalot last night. It is clear to me that any successful religion, like any successful Broadway musical, needs some Jews!!!

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