The origins of Easter (part 3)

The books are piling up on the table beside my computer. I had thought maybe I would end this compendium with yesterday’s post, but that would have left unexplored too many fun and/or obscure facts about the origins of Easter. A couple of points with direct relevance to the via negativa need to be raised. Plus, I just remembered that my parents’ library includes, in addition to most of the Anchor Bible volumes published thus far, a complete set of the 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Have I mentioned that my father is a retired reference librarian? It’s mainly his bibliophilia that we have to thank (blame?) for the extension of this series well beyond the limits that prudence and decency would impose.

Fun fact #7: the entire account of the Passover plot in the gospels is probably fiction

Most New Testament scholars accept at least the core of the story: that Jesus was turned over to Romans for execution by Jewish religious leaders. And that may be so; who knows? But given the sort of violence and hatred this story has inspired over the centuries, I tend to agree with Willis Barnstone (The New Covenant, Commonly Called the New Testament, Volume One: The Four Gospels and Apocalypse, Penguin, 2002) that scholars and religious leaders of all stripes should strongly repudiate the entire thing. There’s simply no need for it. The Eucharist and the resurrection are already mysteries; surely an admission that the circumstances leading up to the crucifixion of the Christ are equally obscure will do no damage to the Christian faith.

Most people by now are probably already familiar with the key elements of this argument from reading numerous critiques of The Movie: that the authors of the gospels were competing with the rabbis (Pharisees) for converts, and that they were eager to curry favor with Rome. Hence the absurd and ahistorical depiction of the Roman authorities as basically blameless, and the construction of “the Jews” as somehow separate from Jesus and his small band of followers.

Barnstone’s translation is, for my money, the best and most surprising modern English version to date – better even than the Three Gospels by the novelist Reynolds Price. One of the things that makes it so surprising is Barnstone’s insistence on re-Aramaicizing names wherever possible. This seemingly minor adjustment really throws the reader off-balance, calling into question aspects of the text that had seemed most comforting and familiar. (Herein lies a most fruitful paradox: to come up with such a re-vision you probably need a professed agnostic like Barnstone. But this revisioning process, if it allows one to “read the Bible again for the first time,” ought to advance rather than threaten the faith of its Christian audience. What is the ideal balance between comforting familiarity and unsettling strangeness in a religious text, I wonder? The popular success of The Movie leads me to suppose than many more Christians want to be challenged, even shaken, than the folks in the pulpit on Sunday morning are generally willing to acknowledge.)

Here’s Barnstone: “Because the gospels arrive before us from unknown origin, we have only some ‘negative’ facts. It is certain that the authors . . . are unknown by name or person, that no alleged eyewitness accounts survive, that no intermediary texts exist in Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, Syriac, Coptic, or Latin – the languages used in areas of early Judaism and Christianity. Where did the evangelists, who were not witness to these events, obtain their information? There is no knowledge about this void. What is known is that a rabbi, whose name was probably Yeshua ben Yosef, was crucified by the Romans for the political crime of conspiring against Rome.” Barnstone insists upon a fact that should be obvious but is commonly overlooked: “Outside the gospels we have no information on the specific nature of the political crime of sedition – whether it was his actual opposition to Rome or a plot by his Jewish opponents to convince Rome of his opposition – that persuaded the prefect Pilate to make a public example through crucifixion. Scholars who routinely blame the Jews for setting up Yeshua’s death founder on [this fact], which is the unverifiable conspiracy scenario.”

Barnstone quotes E.P. Sanders (Jesus and Judaism): “It is hard to believe that a formal court actually convened on the first night of Passover, as Matthew and Mark have it. Luke, we should note, states that Yeshua was taken to the Sanhedrin only after daybreak (Luke 22:66). John does not depict a trial before the Sanhedrin at all. . . . The Gospels are all influenced by the desire to incriminate the Jews and exculpate the Romans. The insistence of the crowd that Jesus be killed, despite Pilate’s considering him innocent, shows this clearly enough.”

Barnstone concludes: “The story of the Jews at Passover, who kidnap Christian children to perform ritual murder on them to use their blood to prepare the matzoh, a tale that exists in virtually every language of Europe, is not heard today. Yet the source of the satanization of the Jews, leading to such tales, lies in the New Covenant, and . . . has not faded; and so the venom, of Jew-hating and Jew-killing, has not vanished. The Jew-hating will not disappear for a reader of the New Covenant as long as Yeshua and all his cast continue to have their true identity as Jews interacting with Jews obscured.”

Fun fact #8: the silence attributed to Yeshua during his trial reflects, among other things, an ancient Jewish rejection of civil authority

Setting aside what has just been said about the fictive qualities of the account of Yeshua’s trial, let’s look briefly at how his purported behavior accords with Jewish tradition.

On trial for his life, before the Sanhedrin and before Pilate, the eloquent rabbi is largely silent. He breaks this silence only to deflect a question; he gives no real answers. He is wordiest in John, the most prolix of the gospels. Pilate, after getting a “where did you get that question?” answer to a query about his kingship of the Jews (18:33-34), asks (18:35) “What have you done?” In the King James version: “(36) Jesus answered, My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now is my kingdom not from hence. (37) Pilate therefore said unto him, Art thou a king then? Jesus answered, Thou sayest that I am a king. To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth. Every one that is of the truth heareth my voice. (38) Pilate saith unto him, What is truth?”

To that last question, significantly, Jesus gives no reply. As Jacques Ellul points out in Anarchism and Christianity (Eerdmans, 1988), he has no teaching to impart to Pilate. However, Jesus’ silence and the riddling nature of his few replies seems consistent with the hermetic nature of his teaching, which employs parables to prevent the misuse or misconstruing of his words by those incapable of grasping them.

As narratives, the gospels – especially Mark – remain compelling even for non-religious readers, largely because of their abundant foreshadowing of the dramatic and tragic end. In their mastery of the narrative art, the evangelists simply imitated the Hebrew Bible – just as the eventual redactors of the New Covenant imitated the pattern of the Old in placing conflicting accounts side-by-side, trusting that the intelligent reader would be able to pick and choose among them. The text was meant be read both reverentially and critically; Jesus’ use of parables shows as well as anything how acutely aware Jewish and early Christian teachers were of the limitations of language to convey truth. The job of a well-told tale is to enchant, to draw the listener or reader into a willing suspension of disbelief, as Coleridge famously observed. But naive trust, in the Biblical worldview, is but the beginning of faith – the first step in a pilgrimage that leads one through a series of transformations in perception, behavior and understanding.

Thus, the outermost, exoteric truth of the gospels is that “Jesus died for our sins.” In this light, Jesus’ behavior at his trial seems merely fatalistic: he had to die in this way because it was foreordained, foretold, foreshadowed. The logic of the narrative – which purports to be the logic of history – demands it. But at another level, God operates apart from the mundane world, in contradiction to human expectations, outside of history. To have faith in this God is to assimilate one’s own will to His – in absolute freedom. Thus, the believer cannot escape the great paradox of human free will in a universe where all events and outcomes are ultimately up to God. According to the terms of this paradoxical reality, Jesus was killed not by the Jewish authorities and/or the Romans but by an act of his own will – and his death was ultimately illusory, because God cannot die. This is the level of the divine comedy, the passion plays annually performed by European Christian communities for hundreds of years. The self-sacrifice of God is a timeless and re-occurring act.

Another dimension of the Easter drama is more didactic. The practice of nonviolence and non-cooperation with authority constituted one of Yeshua’s core teachings. His ministry only began when he successfully resisted the temptations of the devil, which culminated in the offer of absolute, dictatorial power (Matthew 4:8-9 and Luke 4:6-7). “According to these texts,” Ellul notes, “all the power and the glory of kingdoms, all that has to do with politics and political authority, belongs to the devil. It has all been given to him and he gives it to whom[ever] he wills. Those who hold political power receive it from him and depend on him . . . This fact is no less important than the fact that Jesus rejects the devil’s offer. Jesus does not say to the devil: it is not true. You do not have power over kingdoms and states. He does not dispute this claim. He refuses the offer of power because the devil demands that he should fall down and worship him. This is the sole point when he says: ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and you shall serve him, only him’ (Matthew 4:10). We may thus say that among Jesus’ immediate followers and in the first Christian generation political authorities – what we call the state – belonged to the devil and those who held power received it from him. We have to remember this when we study the trial of Jesus.”

So the same Easter story that leads to centuries of anti-Jewish persecution also fuels the radical anti-authoritarian strain in Christian tradition – and here we can speak most truthfully about a Judeo-Christian tradition. Wrestling with authority, civil as well as divine, goes back to the very origins of Judaism as an iconoclastic cult, where at best an uneasy détente prevailed between the inspired nebiim (“prophets”), the priesthood of Aaron and the House of David. The Bible’s “historical” books describe the period before the institution of kingship as a freer, if not more God-fearing, time. When the people beg the aging religious leader Samuel to anoint a king “so we can be like other nations,” Samuel informs them that this is an act of apostasy.

Thus, even in a text from an era before the character of the devil had firmly coalesced, the desire for an earthly ruler was portrayed as irreligious, equated with the desire for idols (1 Sam 8:7-8). Speaking to the people in God’s stead, Samuel proceeds to enumerate all the evils they will suffer under a king (11-18) – the most unsparing criticism of kingship from the ancient world this side of Zhuangzi.

Yeshua’s teachings about resistance to authority are among his most subtle. Should the people pay taxes? His answer: Bring me a coin. “And they brought it. And he saith unto them, Whose is this image and superscription? And they said unto him, Caesar’s. And Jesus answering said unto them, Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s. And they marvelled at him.” (KJV, Mark 12:16-17) This follows the flattery of his insincere questioners: “You do not look at a person’s face but rather teach the way of God in accordance to truth,” in Barnstone’s translation. Yet in his response he does draw attention to the face on the coin – the preeminent sign of ownership in a largely illiterate society. The coin is already Caesar’s; give it back to him if he asks for it. But keep in mind that God retains ownership over life and death, because human beings are made in His image.

Ellul calls attention to another saying of Jesus, in Matthew 20:25-28, which builds upon the familiar “suffering servant” motif from Isaiah. Here’s Barnstone’s translation. Yeshua tells his disciples,

You know that the rulers of the gentiles
lord it over the people
and the high officials tyrannize them.
It will not be so for you,
for whoever among you wishes to be great
will be your servant,
and whoever among you wishes to be first
will be your slave.
So the earthly son [“Son of Man”] did not come to be served
but to serve
and to give his own life for the redemption
of the many.

In this teaching and others, the followers of Yeshua are urged to serve each other – to become each other’s messiah, as it were. This is the proper role for all the sons and daughters of the earth; any other form of coercive power is illegitimate. Temptations to power must be completely repudiated – including the temptation to match wits with the authorities – because power is deeply ambivalent. To take up a weapon is to subject oneself to the rule of weapons (Matt 26:52). To pass judgement on others is to condemn oneself (Matt 7:1).

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