Judaism in the Year 27
One of the curious things about Mel Gibson's Jesus movie, The Passion of the Christ, is the part the Jewish priestly establishment, headquartered in the Jerusalem Temple, plays in arresting Jesus and turning him over to the Romans. As viewers, we are supposed to be moved by this to personal repentance, recognizing our own sinfulness in the act of betrayal and violence. But the villainy of Gibson's Jews is hard to recognize because it makes no obvious sense. We are intended to believe the Temple priests are after Jesus because of a big dangerous following that's going to crown him Messiah, but nowhere in the film do these massively numbered followers ever make an appearance. From all the evidence of The Passion, you would think Jesus had about ten disciples, twenty maximum. So why were certain Jews so intent on seeing him dead? Gibson leaves us with no clear idea.
Much the same difficulty is posed by the Gospels themselves. From a straightforward contemplation of the text, it is not immediately clear what gets the Jews who object to Jesus so worked up. If we try to read the Gospels together, imagining them as forming a single integrated story (to the extent possible, since they are marked by disagreements as to narrative detail), we find the Jews mounting an emotional staircase leading from initial warmth, to puzzlement and perplexity, to distress, to self-righteous annoyance, and finally to a murderous rage.
When Jesus begins his ministry around the year 28, teaching in the synagogue of his hometown, Nazareth, the congregation at first "spoke well of him, and wondered at the gracious words which proceeded from out of his mouth."(1) Then, on hearing more of his preaching, "all in the synagogue were filled with wrath."(2) Other Jews, however, were moved to follow him, and on one occasion his disciples and others stood about as he sat on a mountain—the Sermon on the Mount—at which "the crowds were astonished . . . for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes."(3) The Pharisees, a Jewish faction whom we'll meet shortly, get wind of the interest and controversy Jesus is stirring up. They "murmur against his disciples," who are judged to be morally unsuitable.(4) When these self-righteous Jews find him overseeing the disciples, who are plucking grain in seeming violation of the Sabbath, "the Pharisees went out and took counsel against him, how to destroy him."(5) When Jesus heals a man on a Sabbath, the same Jews again "went out, and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him."(6) When Jesus seeks to justify himself, citing the authority of God, his "Father," then "the Jews sought all the more to kill him, because he not only broke the Sabbath but also called God his own Father, making himself equal with God."(7)
We need to step back from our assumptions about the Gospel text. Through familiarity with the general story line—we all know Jesus had detractors among his fellow Jews—we tend to assume it was only natural that small-minded bigots would take offense at this spiritually uplifted, transcendent being. But if you try to imagine reading about the Jewish reaction to Jesus without bringing to bear the cultural background of Christianity, you'll see that, as one might say of characters in a novel, the outrage of Jesus's fellow Jews seems distinctly undermotivated. They want to kill him because he healed a man by faith on the Sabbath—something in itself that Jewish law does not forbid? Or because he called God his "Father"—when God is called "Father" of the Jewish people and of their kings many times in scripture and liturgy? What's the big deal?
In the next chapter, we'll see what reasons the Jews would really have had for turning away from, or against, Jesus. In the chapter after that, we'll address the question of whether or not they can be justly accused of having him killed. For now, we need to understand who those Jews actually were. Pharisees? Herodians? What do these names denote? When "the Jews" finally succeed in having Jesus arrested and brought to trial, his persecutors are described as priests and elders. It's impossible to understand how, at this initial stage, the Jews would actually have perceived Jesus without first having a sense of their context--historical and religious. We need to clarify how, historically, the Jewish people got to where they were in the year 27, the year before Jesus started his preaching career. And we need to know what their religion taught them to believe on four key points of special relevance to Jesus and his teachings.
The overall reception of Jesus among those who knew of him—doubt turning to outright hostility—was only in keeping with a general Jewish tendency evident in the nation's past. The Jews are an acidic people, inclined to debate and question. Their inherent, inherited skepticism may account for the fact that among ancient peoples they were the first to successfully critique and forever pull away from the dominant polytheism of their world. Jewish literature, preeminently the Bible, scorns the inadequate beliefs and customs of other peoples, though not limiting its thoroughgoing critique to non-Jews. On the contrary, in Hebrew scripture, the Jews themselves come in for the roughest treatment—their moral and other intellectual failings are held up for withering scrutiny. In short, as Jesus discovered if he didn't already know it, any claim you place before the Jews will be savagely critiqued. Of all the insults that their enemies through the millennia have leveled at the Jews, one thing they have never been accused of being is credulous.
Yet at the same time, they were not nihilists or cynics. With them, certain beliefs remained constants. It has been suggested that an indication of Judaism's plausibility as an account of God and man is this fact: that a skeptical people have nevertheless retained an unbroken tradition of faith in central doctrines. Strikingly, their belief system relied on an account of mass revelation. Jewish history begins at Mount Sinai, by traditional calculation in the year 1312 BCE. At Sinai, says the Bible, God spoke to some two million Jews. There is no record of dissent among the Jews, in any generation until very recently, on this basic point. The Jewish contemporaries of Jesus agreed that Torah—a word designating the first five books of the Bible but also a vast explanatory tradition—was received at Sinai by the children of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It was this same "teaching" (which is what Torah literally means) that the Jews carried with them through history. They still possessed it in the year 27.
Let us, then, briefly review Jewish history from this perspective--as a narrative of the polarity between creed and critique, skepticism and secure knowledge.
Who were the people who gathered at Sinai to become the first Jews? Before the event of Sinai, there were no Jews per se. For it is the acceptance of the Torah that defines the Jewish people, in much the same way the publishing of the Declaration of Independence defines the American nation—so that before 1776, there were no Americans. Centuries before Sinai, God had made a covenant with Abraham, who by tradition was born in 1812 BCE. The patriarchal family under his grandson Jacob lived in the land of Canaan but went down to Pharaoh's kingdom initially to escape a famine and ended up dwelling there as slaves. After leaving Egypt and receiving the Torah at Sinai as free men, they resettled in Canaan.
There, Jacob's descendants finally established their own kingdom, that of King David and his son Solomon. The latter built God's Temple in the capital city, Jerusalem. But very quickly the kingdom split—around 900 BCE—into rival states: Israel in the north and Judah in the south, centered on Jerusalem. It was, right at the beginning of Jewish statecraft, one of the most painful instances of the people's factionalism, with both kingdoms arguing that they were the rightful inheritors of biblical tradition.
Hardly two centuries later, the northern kingdom was conquered and taken away to captivity in Assyria. These were the fabled ten lost tribes. Two centuries later, Judah was overthrown by Babylon, the Temple destroyed. The Judahites were themselves led off to captivity on the banks of the Euphrates River. Seventy years later, after Babylon was conquered by Persia under the Jewish-friendly king Cyrus, the Jews returned and built a second Temple.
In this period, from shortly before the exile of the ten tribes until shortly before the fall of the First Temple, from the eighth to the sixth century BCE, there arose the classical tradition of Hebrew prophecy. We may instinctively conceive of the prophets as men who foretold the future, but this is not really what prophecy is about. The prophets did limn future events, but they were much more concerned with self-critique: rooting out falsehood, demanding an adherence to religious truth. A modern writer, Norman Podhoretz, points out that Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, and the rest had as their overriding goal to free the Jewish people from a tendency to revert to the paganism of their ancestors or of the peoples around them. While this may make them seem bound by time and place—certainly today no one worships Ashera trees or idols to the god Baal—Podhoretz makes clear that idolatry manifests itself in every age, in one form or another. The essence of idolatry is setting up spiritual authorities in competition with, or to the negation of, God. Today, we might identify it with a strain of secularism, which has all the elements of a religion but one, a deity. The other pagan hallmarks are there: relativism, nature worship, sexual corruption, and a willingness to sacrifice children to the cause.
Jews have been fighting idolatry in its guises since their inception as a people. Typically, it was other Jews who were the advocates of spiritual deviance, and sometimes it was not at all obvious that they advocated the worship of other gods. In Jeremiah's time, in the lead-up to the destruction of the First Temple, certain false prophets took it as their main theme to assure the people that despite moral turpitude, they would enjoy peace. But a "peace" that does not satisfy God's will to see evil rooted out is not true peace. They made phony promises, saying, "'Peace! Peace!' But," declared Jeremiah, "there is no peace . . . We may hope for peace, but there is no goodness; [we hope] for a time of healing, but behold, there is terror."(8)
Terror came, the Temple fell and was rebuilt. Later, through the conquests of Alexander the Great, the new Jewish land passed from Persian overlordship to Greek. At Alexander's death, in 323 BCE, his empire was divided. Initially the Jewish land was assigned to the Greek kingdom of the relatively easygoing Ptolemies. Subsequently it changed hands, coming under the power of another inheritor of Alexander's realm, the Seleucids.
Again we see the Jewish critical habit. The story is told in the biblical section called the Apocrypha, the first and second books of Maccabees (not found in Jewish Bibles). The Greek Seleucid kingdom was headquartered in Syria under the rule of the tyrant Antiochus IV Epiphanes. A Jewish elite in Jerusalem with social-climbing ambitions, wishing to emulate the Greeks with their cosmopolitan culture (Hellenism), began introducing elements of Greek secularism in the fields of athletics and education.
At first, the rewards of Hellenism were enjoyed only by an informally organized upper class. This self-consciously sophisticated smart set exercised in the new Greek gymnasium—naked discus throwing was the sport of choice. Jewish priests abandoned their sacerdotal duties and donned the latest Greek fashions. Embarrassed by the traditional ways of their ancestors, the chic urbanites even went so far as to have their circumcisions effaced through cosmetic surgery. They ended up opening Jerusalem's gates to Antiochus, who sacked the Temple treasury (where poor Jews had their money on deposit). To the applause of the radical Hellenizers, Antiochus outlawed Judaism altogether. Books of the Torah were burned, circumcision became a capital crime, and a pig was offered on a new pagan altar in the Temple itself.
The "critique" of Jewish Hellenism came from the party of the conservatives, the Maccabees, who revolted and initiated a civil war. The conflict pitted traditional religious values against secular values (the gymnasium, immodest dress or lack of dress, and other Greek fashions). While the progressives were driven as much by social ambition as by principle, the conservatives had numbers and passion on their side. They were ready to die in defense of their tradition. It is the victory of these religious fundamentalists, their establishment of the Hasmonaean dynasty, that Judaism celebrates at the holiday of Hanukkah.
The Jews kept on guard against departures from inherited truths. The essential conservatism of the Jewish religion combined naturally with the Jewish inclination to fierce ideological combat to produce frequent disturbances of the peace.
The rule of the Hasmoneans faded into that of the brutally dysfunctional Herod family, a client regime of the now dominant power in the Mediterranean world: Rome. Gone murderously mad in his later years, Herod slaughtered his wife and two male heirs. Altogether, it would be hard to imagine a more mendacious, jealous, backbiting, paranoid family. The acidic Jews objected to Herod on a variety of grounds, one being that he wasn't, strictly speaking, considered to be a Jew himself (his mother was an Arabian, his father an Idumaean, both doubtful converts), another being that he sought to eviscerate the religious authority of the rabbis, or Pharisees, by having them all (or almost all, says the Talmud) murdered. But the Jewish critique of Herod extended to more detailed matters, like the huge figure of a golden eagle (possibly symbolizing the Roman Empire) he affixed above the Great Gate to the Temple. A couple of rabbis encouraged their students to lower themselves by ropes and cut down the offending graven image—which they did, only to be caught by the king's soldiers before finishing the task and subsequently burned alive.
At his death, King Herod left upon the throne his son Aristobulus. This king was too wicked to be tolerated even if the alternative was direct Roman rule, for which the Jews finally opted. Rome absorbed Judea as part of the province of Syria, policed by Roman centurions who kept an eye on the Jewish population, not least on their Temple, from the sinister adjoining aerie of the fortress Antonia.
The Jews, not surprisingly, were restive with this situation. For the Roman occupiers, supervising them was no easy job, not least on the three yearly pilgrimage holidays when Jews from across the country and everywhere in the Diaspora flocked to Jerusalem to offer their sacrifices in the Temple. Most of the pilgrims came armed and ready to find offense in Roman conduct. The Romans obliged. On a certain unlucky Passover, an imperial soldier mooned the assembled worshippers, showing them his rear end and making an obscene noise. The crowd went wild with indignation, the procurator sent in troops to put down the possible uprising, and a reported thirty thousand Jews died in the crush.
From the Hardcover edition.