Monday, 22 April 2013


Palm Sunday

Then the whole company of them arose, and brought him before Pilate. And they began to accuse him, saying, ‘We found this man perverting our nation …’ Luke 23 v1-2a

Following Jesus’s very public entry into Jerusalem, plans are being made. In the Jewish Council, the Sanhedrin, there are debates as to whether it’s worth bothering with getting rid of Jesus through a judicial murder. ‘Will enough people give us the necessary support? What political credit will we need to expend to get the procurator, Pontius Pilate, to go along with it? If the plot succeeds, what reaction might there be from the people or from the Romans? And, in the end, is Jesus and his message really such a threat or irritant that getting rid of him permanently is worth the hassle and risk?’ If the Jesus you imagine would not have been worth the Sanhedrin making this effort and taking this risk, you must’ve got the wrong Jesus – because in the end they did think it was worth it.
                But who were ‘they’, and what would have been likely to worry them about Jesus? They mostly weren’t Pharisees, those joylessly fanatical keepers of every yodh and tittle of the Jewish law who believed in a life after death where their virtue could be rewarded. Their leaders were the rather more worldly Sadducees, for whom traditional religious observance in the Temple was as much about holding the Jewish people together under Roman occupation as anything else. They would have had little time for the piety of the Pharisees, let alone for the even more extreme piety of the Essenes or the Qumran sect. Such religious enthusiasts wouldn’t have seemed to the Sadducees to be much of a problem; their piety, however over-the-top, helped to foster the sense of chosen-ness that was key to maintaining Jewish consciousness under occupation.
                By contrast, they clearly did see Jesus as a problem. Why? The cheap possible reason is that the Jewish leadership thought that Jesus might somehow challenge their social and political supremacy. But it’s unlikely that they were so insecure that they feared that an ill-educated provincial labourer without powerful social connections might topple them in the esteem of either the Romans or the common Jewish people. Then again, Jesus might have sympathised with the Zealots, whose terrorist acts against the Roman occupation occasionally led to crack-downs on the Jewish people as a whole. But if he’d been a Zealot, there would have been no need to pressurise the Romans to kill him – they’d have been only too pleased to do so. He seems to have been executed as a kind of zealot, under the accusation ‘This is the king of the Jews’, but that was simply because it was only by making this patently false accusation that the Sanhedrin was able to persuade Pilate to have Jesus executed.
Perhaps they wanted to punish Jesus as a heretic. But our distinction between a heretic and a traitor was not one the Sanhedrin would have recognised. To challenge Jewish religion was to challenge Jewish identity, because that identity was intertwined with religion and the sense of uniqueness that it gave to the Chosen People. That sense of uniqueness had enabled the Jewish community to survive invasion, exile, occupation and persecution. If it were to be undermined, Jewish identity would be hard to maintain. Over the previous few centuries this had repeatedly been a major issue. The Hellenistic empire of Alexander the Great and his successors had expanded eastwards from Macedonia as far as India, swallowing up Jerusalem in the process. Many Jews had been attracted to Hellenism: with its art and literature and luxury, it offered a form of civilisation far in advance of anything that traditional Jewish culture had known. Enjoying this civilisation however raised in a peculiarly intimate form the issue of the indelible different-ness of being a Jew: when a Jewish man stripped off at the public gymnasium, he revealed his Jewishness at once. Longing to be free of this mark of difference and to be seen as a man like any other, some Jews took steps to disguise their circumcision. Others felt differently of course: there were many Jews who were intensely proud of being different, and under the Maccabees they fought valiantly to regain some independence. Yet even independence was clouded by Hellenism: much of the Jewish religious literature of the period, which we have as a kind of appendix to our bible in the Apocrypha, shows unmistakable signs of Hellenistic influence. And when a little later, under the Romans, Herod the Great – the King Herod of the nativity stories – built the Second Temple to please the Jews by symbolising their specialness in stone, he was himself only half-Jewish by descent. Jewish exceptionalism was very much an issue for the Sanhedrin as it considered what to do about Jesus.  
                At first sight, it’s not obvious from the gospel account that Jesus threatened Jewish specialness. For one thing, he didn’t preach to Gentiles, and he explicitly denied that he had anything to say to them, though maybe that was simply because his message was intended to free Jews from the burdens of Jewishness. Yet it’s striking that without any explicit authority from Jesus, his very early, pre-Pauline, followers seem to have rejected the Jewish food taboos, downgraded circumcision and begun to admit Gentiles to their company; clearly, it would seem that they felt that these developments did not betray the thrust of the Jesus teaching even if they went further than he himself had explicitly gone. And his saying about the impossibility of putting new wine in old wine-skins implies that he envisaged some pretty decisive change, not just a bit of gentle modernisation; he appears to have been more of a revolutionary than an evolutionary, even if he wasn’t explicit about the details and largely left it to his hearers to draw their own conclusions from his elliptical parables and sayings.
                His hearers among the Sanhedrin did indeed draw their own conclusions, and they didn’t much like them. They realised that if the logic of the Jesus teaching were to become accepted, there wouldn’t be any Jewish specialness to defend; anything that the long tradition of Jewish thought had to offer would be irretrievably mixed up with Hellenistic and other non-Jewish influences; Jews would be just like everyone else and would be merged into the rest of humanity just as the ten lost tribes of Israel had been. They probably didn’t foresee, and in any case wouldn’t have cared about, the disasters that rejecting this logic would bring upon their descendants. All they knew was that Jesus must be stopped. Now. Certainly by the end of the week.

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