As I write, I have not yet decided if I will publish this. Some people will be upset that I question the core of their faith. Hopefully this does not incite the very hatred I am trying to counter. If you are reading this, it is because I have decided there is hope that there are those who will take this as an opportunity for reflection, with a willingness to revisit a vicious common belief from a different perspective.
In 1965, Curtis Knight recorded a song, based on Bob Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone (with Jimi Hendrix playing uncredited guitar), “that asks a question; and if you listen I think you’ll get the message:”
How would you feel, if I told you that your ancestors were responsible for the torture and death of one of their own great prophets? How would you feel if I told you that the blood of that prophet, who came to be called the Son of God was still on YOU, as one of their descendants, millennia later?
That is what I have to endure again and again, when the Passion Play is recited in churches, of all ethnicities, all around the world. What I will share was my first personal experience with racism.
Although I was raised with my grandparents’ stories of persecution, and the stories of how the family left in Europe were nearly all murdered because of their “race,” I never experienced it myself, until we moved to Kansas.
There was only one other Jew in the entire high school. Just before Easter, we were taken out of class to attend a mandatory assembly. There, we had to listen to a lecture about how my ancestors were responsible for the execution of one of our own, the one the others in the audience considered to be the Son of God. The words of that lecture were taken right from the New Testament itself:
When the morning was come, all the chief priests and elders of the people took counsel against Jesus to put him to death:
But the chief priests and elders persuaded the multitude that they should ask Barabbas, and destroy Jesus.
Pilate saith unto them, What shall I do then with Jesus which is called Christ? They all say unto him, Let him be crucified. And the governor said, Why, what evil hath he done? But they cried out the more, saying, Let him be crucified. When Pilate saw that he could prevail nothing, but that rather a tumult was made, he took water, and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, I am innocent of the blood of this just person: see ye to it. Then answered all the people, and said, His blood be on us, and on our children.
To some Christians, these are considered words of truth, literally the “gospel.” For me and others of Jewish ancestry, they are the reason my family was murdered. This is not just a matter of interpretation. History is written by the victors. So too was the New Testament. The words fixed in what is now known as the New Testament was decided by those who won the internal struggle of early Christianity. These words were fixed, for the specific purpose of moving the blame for the crucifixion from the Romans (who actually did it) to Jesus’ fellow Jews who looked on with horror.
There is no doubt that Jesus really walked on and preached in the land the Romans called “Palestine” during their occupation. Jesus and his disciples were but one of many sects which arose among the Jews during their occupation by Roman forces. See Josephus, The Antiquities of the Jews, written shortly after that time, and Robert Eisenman, James The Brother of Jesus: The Key to Unlocking the Secrets of Early Christianity and the Dead Sea Scrolls (Penguin 1997). From what we know of the original Jesus and his followers, they seem to be closest to the Essenes, who were responsible for much of the Dead Sea Scrolls, living a communal existence. The Pharisees, who Christians misunderstand as enemies of Jesus, were another sect. What some Christians do not understand is the tradition of argument among Jews. It is even in our name — Jacob was renamed Israel, which means “the one who struggles with God.” Genesis 32:29. In the context of that time, the various sects constantly argued as a way to establish and test their ideas, and to differentiate one group from another. The Pharisees were the precursors of modern rabbinic Judaism, whose beliefs were not that different from those of Jesus. On the other hand, the Sadducees (or priestly sect) were viewed by all the other groups as puppets of the Romans, who profited from the Roman occupation.
Jesus had become popular among the Jews suffering under Roman oppression, made clear by the crowds greeting him on what is now known as Palm Sunday. See Matthew 21. This popularity among the Jews is the reason the Romans executed him on the charge of being “King of the Jews.” Crucifixion was a Roman, not Jewish, form of execution, which they reserved for what they — the Romans — considered the worst offenses: sedition against the rule of Rome itself. Pontius Pilate could not “wash his hands” of it, because only he had the authority to impose crucifixion, as the representative of Cesar in Judea. Nor was he the type of person who would shy away from such cruelty. Just before Jesus’ crucifixion, Pontius Pilate had his soldiers infiltrate a group of Jews who had come to petition him, and had them massacred at his signal during their audience. Josephus, Antiquities 18.3.2. In his Legatio ad Gaium (Embassy to Gaius), Philo complained bitterly of Pilate’s cruelty, even compared to other Roman officials, and asked that a different governor be appointed. So the story of Pilate “washing his hands” is at complete odds with historical fact.
There is a reason for this.
The Jews had revolted against their Roman occupiers, not once, but twice (some count Kitos War of 115–117 CE to be a third). There is a theory that the original revolt of 66 CE was sparked, in part, by the stoning of James, Jesus’ brother on orders from the Roman governor. See Eisenman, supra; Josephus, Antiguities 9:1. Like the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising my cousin’s husband helped lead, the Jewish rebels of the First Revolt held out longer against the Roman occupiers than just about anyone else. See Josephus, The War of the Jews. (Josephus was a general of the Jews in that revolt; he was bribed to change sides, and helped Rome defeat his former comrades — his books on Jewish history were considered his way of atoning for his treachery). After the Second Revolt was put down, the Jewish rebels were slaughtered, the survivors either enslaved or dispersed throughout the Empire, and considered a despised race in Rome.
“No other people has ever known so long an exile, or so hard a fate. . . . Scattered into every province and beyond, condemned to poverty and humiliation, unbefriended even by philosophers and saints, . . . .” Will Durant, Caesar and Christ, The Story of Civilization Part III, p. 549 (Simon & Shuster 1944).*
[* This is not meant to be a contest of who was persecuted the most. To the contrary, as I have written elsewhere, the persecution of “our own” people should be a lesson to fight persecution of any people.]
The early Christians were among those Jews, dispersed and persecuted. From the perspective of the Romans, they were throwing Jews to the lions — they did not distinguish between Christian Jews or other Jews.
The New Testament that we know was canonized during the period following the Jewish-Roman Wars, when this persecution of Jews, including those who followed the teachings of Jesus, was prevalent. At the same time, there was an internal struggle among Christians, between women who lead many of the early congregations and men who wanted to take over, between followers of Paul and followers of James. The men following Paul won this struggle, and were the ones who collected the various writings into what we know as the New Testament. [Read the Nag Hamadi texts, to see what was edited out of the New Testament.] The winners of this internal struggle made a concerted effort to distance themselves from the other Jews, and to dampen any hostility from Rome. Thus Pilate “washes his hands” while the Jews are blamed instead for Jesus’ execution. Thus the villain of the story is named Judas, which is the name of the Tribe of Judah (Yehuda) by which “Jews” are called today. They even moved the sabbath day to make sure there would be no confusion. The Roman Council of Laodicea in 363 AD adopted Canon 29, outlawing the Sabbath observed by Jesus on the seventh day (Saturday), and moving it to the first day (Sunday) instead. See Genesis 2:2–3; Exodus 20:8–1; Mark 2:23–27; Luke 6:1–4. When Constantine adopted Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire, the circle was completed: The Jewish prophet executed for challenging Roman rule was now worshiped as a God by the Roman Empire which had crucified him. Rome had washed its hands of the blood of Jesus, and placed it on his fellow-Jews instead.
From that time forward, it was the Christian Church itself which demonized the Jews and encouraged their persecution. The Passion Play story, blaming the Jews, was the basis for the Crusades (in which the Christians killed more innocent Jewish and Muslim civilians than other soldiers), the Inquisition and the Holocaust. The Nazis did not invent anti-Semitism. They just stoked the fires which the Church had lit, and they were more efficient at killing Jews. I will not recount that sordid history, but only one story from my own family:
The Roman Catholic Church in Poland, and the Russian Orthodox Church in Russia, encouraged, organized, and sometimes even mandated the pograms against the Jews, based on the perpetuated lie of Matthew 27:25. Because of their experiences with this persecution, my grandparents were terrified of going near any Christian church, even as tourists to St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. After World War II, my Grandmother went back to Poland to see what had happened to her family there. She found that, when the Nazis occupied their town, the Poles (her former neighbors) actively helped the Nazis round up the Jews. First the Polish neighbors, who she grew up with, identified the leaders of the Jewish community, including her father and brother — They were shot. Then, they helped gather the rest of the Jews from their community, who were forced to dig their own mass grave. Gasoline was poured on them and they were burned alive. None of our family who were in that town survived.
How would you feel to be the object of this hate over the centuries?
Jesus preached a doctrine of Love, that we can all learn from. Let us follow His teachings, rather than stories of hate made up by others.