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. Bob Kincaid says:

    It’s highly likely that Yeshua, once grown, entered into the day laborer market like his Dad Yusuf (“teknon” being much closer to the type of work done by folks who gather in the mornings at Home Depot to be hired for work than to “carpenter,” as the word is more frequently translated) in a town named Sephora. That local population center was quite cosmopolitan, quite Hellenic, really, and it is no great stretch to imagine a young Yeshua with a working knowledge of spoken Greek similar to the English spoken by our aforementioned Home Depot labor hopefuls.

    What did Greeks of the era talk about? Why, Truth, Beauty, Justice! All the time, even. So here’s a young, impressionable Yeshua (the First Century A.D. had “emo,” too, but no glib Hollywood name for it), already imbued with 18 or so years of reasonably moral instruction in Torah and concrete laws about not mistreating other people, and what does he hear? Greeks of all stripe had a passion for Platon, and by extension, Socrates. Even a nice Jewish mama’s boy’s ears perk up when they hear stories of men telling tales about what constitutes “true love.” At 18, Yeshua wasn’t even married, and that most assuredly was of concern to the family “Why can’t you find a NICE girl? That Maryam Magdalena’s no match for you! She’s ten years older!” And thus it is, while trimming the hedge or raking the sand, or whatever one does for a widows-mite-a-day, our young-and-earnest lad hears “Socrates says here to love our enemies.”

    “Huh?” thinks Yeshua? “Whaaaaa….?!?!”

    And a couple of hundred years later, Augustine has to declare Socrates a “homo christianus naturaliter” because he couldn’t credit Socrates with coming up with the idea BEFORE the Son of the LIVING GOD came up with it.

    All I can say is I’m glad the Boss’ wife wasn’t reading Ayn Rand or Milton Friedman.

    • Eugene Finerman says:

      Dear Bob,

      Even if Yeshua had been exposed to any Greek (that is not meant to be prurient), it would not have been a discussion of Aristotle or Euripides. He would have learned the words for “do this”, “clean up” and “use the servants’ entrance.”


      • Bob Kincaid says:


        “Lupe, donde esta la Margarita mix?”

        Absolutely. But there’s always the matter of what the staff “overhears.” Moliere made a career out of that premise, and he was taking off from a concept origniated by the Greek comedians. Moliere just had a better costume for the upstairs maid.

  2. Rafferty Barnes says:

    Wow, a third of the country was killed? Its amazing that any Jewish people have survived to this day.

    • Eugene Finerman says:

      Dear Megan,

      And the surviving two-thirds didn’t take the hint. They revolted again in 132; the war lasted until 136 and with the same catastrophic consequences. In fact, after that second war, the Jews no longer were the majority in Judea. The deaths and expulsions had reduced them to a minority in their own country. As a further insult to any lingering Jewish nationalism, the Romans renamed the province–changing it to Palestina.


  3. Kate says:

    Thanks for the historical perspective. It somewhat clarifies my confusion as to what the fuss is all about, and how silly the irony (well, maybe not silly to most folks)

    Tis the season of suffering and celebration: Memories of my first pair of nylon stockings w/ garter belt (no panty hose in ’55, stuffed in an ill fitting dress that made me look like a sweet little colored egg, topped off by a ridiculous little white hat. All the mothers in my small hometown in Montana dressed their daughters that way every Easter Sunday.

    I don’t know how this contributed to my eventual spirituality, but way back then I couldn’t understand why the Christians didn’t like the Jews, why the Baptists didn’t like the Catholics. In Montana in the 50s we didn’t know about Islam.

    It was confusing as to why everyone took the bible so seriously. After all, it was full of contradictions, violence and mayhem, to say nothing about misogyny (they really expected me to sit down and shut, to submit and to be subservient!!) I was only 10 and very concerned about some character flaw that I needed to overcome.

    A devout heathen, a pagan in from the country, a believer of none of the usual gods, I have long since realized that it is not a character flaw, but rather my DNA. While the rest of the world is celebrating their religious holidays (even taking a day off from killing to celebrate the birth of a Palestinian radical socialist) I often smile at the irony, or grimace at the pomposity. Most all of those rituals are rooted in the Goddess culture, the culture of the Heath(ans) and the Pagans.

    So the commercialization of Spring Rites continues: fancy hats, colored eggs in plastic baskets made in China, and rabbits made from non-Fair Trade chocolate. In the meantime, the wars go on: Who killed Jesus and why? The wars mayhem and terror go on to prove who has the biggest, most powerful cloud being.

    And the debate still rages: who has the best macaroni and cheese, the tastiest potato salad at the church supper potlucks. The Methodists or the Baptists?

    Down here in the deep south, those are not trivial issues.

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