The release of Mel Gibson’s controversial The Passion of the Christ has certainly taken the box offices by storm. In the opening weekend in the US it took in $76.2 million alone. This Hollywood epic, a gruesome and vivid account of Jesus Christ’s final hours of suffering and execution, stays more or less true to the Gospels, which in turn, lays the blame for Christ’s crucifixion at the feet of the Jews. This was clearly Gibson’s intention, a man who prides himself on being a staunch Catholic and Christian Fundamentalist. We say that he remains more or less true to the Gospels, because in actual fact Gibson allows himself quite a lot of “licence” in developing his version of the Passion.
The scenes in the film of excruciating violence against Christ perpetrated by the Roman soldiers in particular are breathtaking. You wince with every blood-drenched lash. You cringe with every flesh-ripping flagellation. The violence reaches a crescendo in the horror of crucifixion, its preparation and execution. The use of Aramaic and Latin language throughout the film adds dramatically to the authenticity of the vivid images. Although it must be said that it was unlikely that all the Roman soldiers spoke Latin, especially in that part of the world. Greek would more likely have been the language they used. Furthermore it is highly unlikely that Jesus would have spoken Latin to Pontius Pilate. His language would have been Aramaic.
As we said, Gibson is a staunch Catholic. He has been undoubtedly influenced by his father, who has defined the present Pope (one of the most reactionary on record!) as a “Koran-hugging” conspirator. His father has even denied the fact that 6 million Jews were slaughtered by the Nazis during the Holocaust. Apparently all those millions of Jews living mainly in Poland had simply “emigrated”! Thus blaming the Jews is clearly part of his anti-semitic education. Therefore the version of the Passion that Gibson presents to us can be of no surprise.
Many devout Catholics have emerged from the cinemas “uplifted” at what this single man “did for them”. Many will accept Gibson’s version of the events that are supposed to have taken place nearly two thousand years ago. We will deal later with the question of what Christianity really was, [and Kautsky in his book The Foundations of Christianity, deals at length with the question of whether Jesus actually ever existed] but before going on to that it would be worth reminding people of what the Gospels actually recount.
The whole story of the Passion, from the garden of Gethsemane to actual crucifixion is described in two pages. The scourging of Christ is mentioned in passing in just a few words. A few lines are dedicated to describing the moment Jesus is taken away to the actual moment of his death. According to three of the Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) Jesus never carried the cross. Instead Simon of Cyrene carries it for him. It is only the Gospel of St. John that says that Jesus went out “bearing his own cross.” None of the Gospels mentions Jesus falling, not once! In the film Jesus falls about ten times, almost crawling along! According to Gibson’s version Satan follows Jesus throughout the walk, but in the Gospels the devil never appears. Also Mary only appears at the end, at the actual crucifixion, according to the Gospels, but in Gibson’s story she also follows Jesus throughout.
So where does Gibson get his story from? He bases his whole story on the visions of the German mystic, Anna Katharina Emmerick (1774-1824). In her visions she sees the devil. But Gibson even goes beyond the visions of this mystic. Emmerick had a vision in which the angles helped Jesus to carry the cross. Gibson ignores this. So what Gibson has done is to take the story of a woman who lived 1800 years after the Passion is supposed to have taken place and embellishes it further. He makes the suffering of Jesus a thousand times worse than it actually was in the Gospels.
The purpose of all this is quite clear. It plays on the Catholic myth about the terrible suffering of this man, “Gods’ son” who had come down to clean away all our sins, who died “for us”. It really does follow in the long tradition of re-writing and falsification of what actually happened. If Gibson had been alive in the first few centuries after Jesus he could have been employed in one of the monasteries where the falsifications and later additions to the story took place!
There is one concession that Gibson makes to the protests of people from the Jewish community. In Matthew 27, 25 the Jews who were baying for Jesus’ blood are supposed to have said, “His blood be on us and on our children!” Why they should say that is anyone’s guess. In reality it was inserted into the text by later copiers to emphasise how evil the Jews were, and to show that even their descendants carry the blame for killing Jesus. A useful tool in the hands of today’s anti-semites! In the film these words are uttered in Aramaic, but are not translated in the English subtitles. Nonetheless, the blame on the Jews remains in the eyes of Gibson.
In spite of this Gibsonian interpretation of the Gospels, there remains a powerful imagery. The man portrayed in the film suffers terribly. However, despite all this you will learn nothing about early Christianity from this film. It is not just an exaggerated version of the Gospels. It also ignores what actually was happening at the time in Jewish society and in the Roman Empire as a whole. And it does not really explain how and why Christianity developed into the powerful force that it did become. The social forces that lie behind this earth-shattering movement of millions are absent. The film is totally devoid of the hows and whys, and reduces everything to the suffering of one man. It is a simple carbon copy of the tale – largely false – as told by the evangelists of the betrayal of Christ, his crucifixion and resurrection.
Christianity constituted one of the most powerful movements in human history. Supposedly based upon the revolutionary teachings of one man, Jesus Christ, it has managed to survive, adapting itself to different class societies and interests, for more than 2,000 years.
Today, despite the deepening of our knowledge of this epoch, we are no nearer resolving the enigma of Christ as a person. While Christianity certainly existed at the time of the Roman Empire under the emperor Tiberius, there is precious little evidence of the existence of Jesus of Nazareth. Although he is supposed to have accomplished astonishing feats, incredibly none of his contemporaries mentions him. At the time of Jesus’s death, according to Christian tradition, the earth was in darkness for three hours. And yet this occurrence, which supposedly took place at the time of the elder Pliny, who devoted a special chapter on eclipses in his Natural History, gets no mention.
In fact, the only contemporary non-Christian sources of Christ the man, Flavius Josephus, a Jewish historian, and Tacitus and Pliny, both Romans, are either recognised forgeries introduced by later Christian scholars, or are deadly silent about Christ’s work or doctrine. Josephus relates so many trivialities, that the sensation around Jesus Christ would certainly have been reported.
Of the Christian sources, there are many, but they cannot be trusted for historical accuracy. Karl Kautsky, in a brilliant book entitled ‘Foundations of Christianity’, written nearly 100 years ago, dissects the early Christian writings from a materialist perspective.
“It is certain that almost none of the early Christian writings are by the authors whose names they bear; that most of them were written in later times than the dates given them; and that their original text was often distorted in the crudest way by later revisions and additions”, writes Kautsky. “Finally, it is certain that none of the Gospels or other early Christian writings comes from a contemporary of Jesus.”
For example, the Gospel according to Mark is regarded as the oldest account, probably written 50 years after the death of Christ. “What we see is thus the product of half a century of legend-making.”
Mark is followed by Luke, then Matthew, and lastly by John, some 100 years after Christ’s recorded death. The later we get, the more exaggerated and fantastic the miracle stories become. The Gospels are full of inaccuracies and contradictions, where ideas are twisted to fit a particular version of the story. According to Luke for instance, Joseph and Mary have to leave Nazareth to go to Bethlehem on account of a Roman census. In fact there was no such census under Augustus. Also Judea became a Roman province only after the date given for Christ’s birth. A census was made in 7 AD, but was carried out in the place where people lived.
A Roman census was for taxation purposes. They wanted to know where you lived, what property you had, etc. Only the head of the family was required to present himself in his town or village of residence. Instead we have Joseph travelling to Bethlehem with the pregnant Mary, because Bethlehem was the town of his forefathers. It would be like filling in census form today not where you live but in the town of your great-great-grandfather! In other words, there was no reason to travel to Bethlehem. But if Jesus was supposed to be the Messiah, then he had to be born in Bethlehem. That is what the prophets in the Old Testament had predicted. The story of travelling to Bethlehem was clearly written in later to prove that Jesus was the Messiah.
Thus, while there are certain elements of truth contained in the Gospels, they have been written, re-written and edited at the hands of later Christian scholars, to the edification of the faithful. Each revision was made according to the social needs of the time, and the adaptation of the Christian church to class society. The process has parallels with the Stalinist School of Falsification of the twentieth century.
Christianity was formed in the four centuries from the beginning of the Imperial age of Augustus to the barbarian invasions and the fall of the Roman Empire. The conquest of the Mediterranean and the subjugation of Judea created great social turmoil. The Empire plundered the regions under its domination serving to sharpen all social and class antagonisms between patricians and plebeians, rich and poor. There was a growing hatred of foreign domination. The Aramaic-speaking Galileans, of whom Jesus was one, were also often in dispute with Jewish authorities in Jerusalem. Given the social conditions, there was no shortage of Messiahs at this time, where leaders of revolutionary bands and prophets were continually springing up to challenge the existing order of things. This was part of a general rise in Messianic movements and the search for miracles among the lower classes.
Christianity was only one of such sects, based originally on the most downtrodden and oppressed layers of society. Christ, the Greek word for “the anointed”, is the Greek translation of the Hebrew word “Messiah”. The Christian sect in Jerusalem, like the rest of the Jews, expected the coming of the Messiah. Christianity was a movement of the oppressed, and for that very reason, hated the rich, rejected private property, embraced primitive communism, and sought to establish such a “kingdom of God” on earth.
The communist structure of the early Christian communities is described at some length in the Acts of the Apostles: "And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship [communism, koinonia], and in breaking of bread, and in prayers... And all that believed were together, and had all things common; And sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need." (2, verses 42 f.). "And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul: neither said any of them that ought of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things common.... Neither was there any among them that lacked: for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold, And laid them down at the apostles' feet, and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need." (4, verse 32 f.).
A later Christian scholar, Saint John, called Chrysostom (347 to 407 AD), attached to the above description of primitive Christian communism a discussion of its advantages. This is in his eleventh homily (sermon) on the Acts of the Apostles:
"Grace was among them, since nobody suffered want, that is, since they gave so willingly that no one remained poor. For they did not give a part, keeping another part for themselves; they gave everything in their possession. They did away with inequality and lived in great abundance; and this they did in the most praiseworthy fashion. They did not dare to put their offering into the hands of the needy, nor give it with lofty condescension, but they laid it at the feet of the apostles and made them the masters and distributors of the gifts. What a man needed was then taken from the treasure of the community, not from the private property of individuals. Thereby the givers did not become arrogant.
"Should we do as much today, we should all live much more happily, rich as well as poor; and the poor would not be more the gainers than the rich ... for those who gave did not thereby become poor, but made the poor also rich.
"Let us imagine things as happening in this way: All give all that they have into a common fund. No one would have to concern himself about it, neither the rich nor the poor. How much money do you think would be collected? I infer - for it cannot be said with certainty - that if every individual contributed all his money, his lands, his estates, his houses (I will not speak of slaves, for the first Christians had none, probably giving them their freedom), then a million pounds of gold would be obtained, and most likely two or three times that amount. Then tell me how many people our city [Constantinople] contains? How many Christians? Will it not come to a hundred thousand? And how many pagans and Jews! How many thousands of pounds of gold would be gathered in? And how many of the poor do we have? I doubt that there are more than fifty thousand. How much would be required to feed them daily? If they all ate at a common table, the cost could not be very great. What could we not undertake with our huge treasure! Do you believe it could ever be exhausted? And will not the blessing of God pour down on us a thousand-fold richer? Will we not make a heaven on earth? If this turned out so brilliantly for three or five thousand [the first Christians] and none of them was in want, how much more would this be so with such a great quantity? Will not each newcomer add something more?
"The dispersion of property is the cause of greater expenditure and so of poverty. Consider a household with man and wife and ten children. She does weaving and he goes to the market to make a living; will they need more if they live in a single house or when they live separately? Clearly, when they live separately. If the ten sons each go his own way, they need ten houses, ten tables, ten servants and everything else in proportion. And how of the mass of slaves? Are these not fed at a single table, in order to save money? Dispersion regularly leads to waste, bringing together leads to economy. That is how people now live in monasteries and how the faithful once lived. Who died of hunger then? Who was not fully satisfied? And yet men are more afraid of this way of life than of a leap into the endless sea. If only we made the attempt and took bold hold of the situation! How great a blessing there would be as a result! For if at that time, when there were so few faithful, only three to five thousand, if at that time, when the whole world was hostile to us and there was no comfort anywhere, our predecessors were so resolute in this, how much more confidence should we have today, when by God's grace the faithful are everywhere! Who would still remain a heathen? Nobody, I believe. Every one would come to us and be friendly.”
This was written at a time when the early “Communism” of the Christian communities had become a distant memory, and Christianity was becoming the accepted religion of the state.
As Kautsky point out, the problem with the early Christian was that they had a “communism of consumption” and not of production. They consumed all their wealth in common, but there was no communist economic system whereby the material needs of society could be produced. Thus every time a wealthy Roman was converted to Christianity he would be required to bring his wealth with him. In this lay the basis for the corruption of the early Christian communities. They were pushed into adapting their religion to the needs of the wealthy. As we will see later, with this went a re-writing of the story of Jesus. Instead of being an anti-imperialist who was crucified by the Romans, the story had to be changed. The Romans were no longer to blame for the killing of Jesus. Now it became the hated Jews who killed Jesus, a much more acceptable version to the wealthy Romans who were being won over. It was no doubt in this period that Matthew’s phrase (27, 25) was inserted into the story.
The Temple of Jehovah at Jerusalem, rebuilt by Herod, was the appointed place of worship for Jews. The Temple was not simply a church, but had huge warehouses, where vast amounts of goods, gold and silver were stored. It was here that the moneylenders went about their daily business. The Temple became a centre of struggle between the corrupt Temple hierarchy, the Sadducees, and the majority of the people led by the Pharisees. The Sadducees represented the priestly nobility, dominated the Temple and received all its taxes. As its wealth grew, the priesthood set itself above the mass of the people. However, the Pharisees were also divided on class lines, between rich and poor. The wealthier Pharisees constituted the moderate, more timid wing. Those on the extreme left were the Millenary sects, most notably the Zealots and Essenes, a communistic order, which based themselves on the propertyless of Jerusalem and Galilee.
Through this period, a series of insurrections against Roman rule were savagely suppressed. It is no accident that their leaders described themselves as Kings of the Jews, that is, the Messiah. Jesus’s crucifixion, if historical, was a by-product of the struggles between the revolutionary mass, the church hierarchy, and the appointees of the Roman authority; by 73 AD the Romans had destroyed the Temple - its Western Wall is its only surviving section.
The Jews had spread out around the Mediterranean and many had become Hellenised. Greek was the language of the educated classes, and Alexandria an important centre of Jewish intellectual life. Nevertheless, Judea and Jerusalem remained the cornerstone of the Jewish nation, the capital of Judaism. It became the eye of the storm that gathered against Rome.
In 1947, the first of the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in a cave in Qumran, which cast light on the period of early Christianity. Initially, the Catholic Church saw in them proof of Christ’s existence, but they were sorely disappointed. Consequently, they remained under lock and key and only made available by the Vatican in 1991. Until this find, barely a scrap of papyrus existed from the two centuries immediately preceding the birth of Christ. The scrolls are the documents of the Essenes sect, who lived near Qumran about 250 BC, based upon a revolutionary communist doctrine and an ascetic piety as they waited for the end of days. The Essenes were one of the forerunners or roots of early Christianity, some 250 years before the birth of Christ! The evidence of the Scrolls confirmed the analysis of Karl Kautsky, made some 50 years before their discovery.
“Their documents were copies of the Bible, by 500 years the earliest known Hebrew copies”, explains Justin Cartwright, an authority on the Scrolls. “There are also pesharim, or Bible commentaries, rules of the community, laws for admission, orders of service and hymns, a (probably) allegorical guide to hidden treasures, and an account of the war between the sons of light and darkness. There are 50,000 fragments and many have phrases which resonate through the New Testament, which led to rumours that these were early Christian documents and that the sect leader, the ‘Teacher of Righteousness’, was Jesus.”
In other words, the Scrolls contained similar thoughts and stories, earlier versions if you like, that were contained in the New Testament, written more than 300 years later. The basis of the Gospels, the threads of which are present in the Scrolls, pre-dated the supposed birth of Christ by 250 years.
The sect of the Essenes had been chronicled by Pliny, Philo and Josephus. Josephus, writing only a few years after the destruction of the Temple, described their habits in detail. The rules of the community in the Dead Sea Scrolls were identical to those described by Josephus. The Essenes had come to life, and a whole branch of Judaism had been disinterred. Pliny described the location of the Essene settlement (and mentions the unpleasant smell of the Dead Sea), and Josephus appeared to make Qumran prime candidate for the sect’s revolutionary centre. Inkwells were found there and rooms which, were possibly a library and a refectory, were excavated. Not far away, scrolls and leather workshops were found in the surrounding caves.
The fact is that the Essenes were not alone. There were a number of Jewish sects, including the Essenes. Christianity was originally no more than a Jewish sect, turning to the scriptures for justification, looking for a Messiah, hopeful of a new order on earth. The revolutionary standpoint of these early Christian sects appears as a thread running through the New Testament, but distorted and concealed by later revisions.
The original class hatred of the early Christians pours out for instance in Luke’s early version of the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed be ye poor: for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are ye that hunger now: for ye shall be filled. Blessed are ye that weep now: for ye shall laugh… But woe unto you that are rich! for ye have received your consolation. Woe unto you that are full! for ye shall hunger. Woe unto you that laugh now! for ye shall mourn and weep.” But compare this to the later version of the revisionist Matthew where Jesus is made to say: “Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven… Blessed are they, which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.”
In Matthew it is the poor “in spirit” (covering all social classes) that are blessed. The Church had become more respectable and accommodated itself to slavery, and wanted now to renounce its earlier class-war language. It wanted to break from its proletarian origins.
The early message comes through clearly in the Gospel according to Luke, especially in the story of Lazarus, the rich are damned for being rich. Here Jesus says: “How hardly shall they that have riches enter into the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to go through a needle’s eye, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God” (18, verses 24 f.)
The same goes for the epistle of James: “Go to now, ye rich men, weep and howl for your miseries that shall come upon you. Your riches are corrupted, and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver is cankered: and the rust of them shall be a witness against you, and shall eat your flesh as it were fire. Ye have heaped treasure together for the last days. Behold, the hire of the labourers who have reaped down your fields, which is of you kept back by fraud, crieth: and the cries of them which have reaped are entered into the ears of the Lord of sabaoth. Ye have lived in pleasure on the earth, and been wanton; ye have nourished your hearts, as in a day of slaughter. Ye have condemned and killed the just; and he doth not resist you. Be patient therefore, brethren, unto the coming of the Lord.” (5, verse 1 f.).
Mel Gibson’s film of Christ’s Passion peddles the stories of the Gospels at face value. Yet they are full of contradictions.
The original story that Jesus was crucified by the Romans as a Jewish Messiah, as king of the Jews, that is a defender of Jewish independence and a traitor to Roman rule, presented some difficulty to later Christian scribes, eager to ingratiate themselves with the powers that be. Firstly, by this time Christianity had come into conflict with Judaism, and secondly, the Christian church wanted to be on good terms with Roman power. The ‘difficulty’ was resolved by shifting the blame for the crucifixion on to the Jews and hatred of Rome left out altogether. The Passion was therefore rewritten to satisfy the new orthodoxy.
Kautsky demolishes these falsifications in the chapter of his book entitled, ‘The Story of Christ’s Passion’:
“The story of the Passion begins with the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. It is the triumphal procession of a king. The populace comes to meet him, some spread their garments in the road before him, others cut branches from the trees to strew his way, and all exult to him:
“ ‘Hosanna [help us]; Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord: Blessed be the kingdom of our father David, that cometh in the name of the Lord’ (Mark II, verse 9 f.).
“This was how kings were received among the Jews (compare Jehu in II Kings 9, verse 13).
“All the common people follow Jesus; only the aristocracy and bourgeoisie, the ‘chief priests and scribes,’ are hostile to him. Jesus behaves like a dictator. He is strong enough to drive the sellers and moneychangers from the temple without meeting with any resistance. In this citadel of Judaism he rules supreme.
“Of course this is just tall talk on the part of the evangelists. If Jesus had ever had such power, it would not have gone unnoticed. An author like Josephus, who recounts the most insignificant details, would have had to mention it. Moreover, the proletarian elements in Jerusalem, like the Zealots, were never strong enough to rule the city uncontested. They kept meeting with resistance. If Jesus intended to enter Jerusalem in opposition to the Sadducees and the Pharisees, and clean out the temple, he would first have to win in a street battle. Street fighting among the various factions in Judaism were every day occurrences in Jerusalem at that time.
“A noteworthy aspect of the account of his entrance is that the story has the populace greet Jesus as bringer of the ‘kingdom of our father David,’ that is, as the restorer of the independence of the Jewish kingdom. That shows Jesus not merely as an opponent of the ruling classes in Judaism, but as opposing the Romans as well. In this opposition there is obviously not Christian imagination, but Jewish reality.
“The gospels now relate those events we have already dealt with: the call to the disciples to arm themselves, Judas' betrayal, the armed conflict on the Mount of Olives. We have already seen that these are remnants of the old tradition, that were not acceptable later and refurbished to give an air of peaceable submission.
Jesus is taken, led to the palace of the high priest and tried there:
“ ‘And the chief priests and all the council sought for witness against Jesus to put him to death; and found none. For many bare false witness against him, but their witness agreed not together. ... And the high priest stood up in the midst, and asked Jesus, saying, Answerest thou nothing? what is it which these witness against thee? But he held his peace, and answered nothing. Again the high priest asked him, and said unto him, Art thou the Christ, the Son of the Blessed? And Jesus said, I am: and ye shall see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of power, and coming in the clouds of heaven. Then the high priest rent his clothes, and saith, What need we any further witnesses? Ye have heard the blasphemy: what think ye? And they all condemned him to be guilty of death.’ (Mark 14, verses 55 f.).
“A strange sort of trial procedure, indeed! The court convenes immediately after the arrest of the prisoner, in the night time, and not in the court building, which apparently was on the Temple hill, but in the palace of the high priest! Imagine the trustworthiness of a report of a trial for high treason in Germany that has the court sitting in the royal palace in Berlin! Now false witnesses testify against Jesus, but although nobody cross-examines them, and Jesus is silent at their charges, they produce no evidence that incriminates him. Jesus is the first to incriminate himself by acknowledging that he is the Messiah. Now what is the purpose of all the apparatus of the false witnesses if this admission is enough to condemn Jesus? Their only purpose is to show the wickedness of the Jews. The death sentence is immediately pronounced. This is a violation of the prescribed forms to which the Jews of that time adhered most scrupulously. The court was allowed to bring in only a verdict of acquittal at once; a verdict of guilty had to wait until the day after the trial.
“Was the Sanhedrin still allowed to pronounce death sentences at that time? The Talmud says: ‘Forty years before the destruction of the Temple the power of life and death was taken from Israel.’
“A confirmation of this is to be found in the fact that the Sanhedrin does not inflict the punishment of Jesus, but after finishing his trial turns him over to Pilate for a new trial, this time on the charge of high treason towards the Romans, the charge that he had tried to make himself king of the Jews, that is, free Judea from the Roman rule. A fine accusation on the part of a court of Jewish patriots!
“It is possible that the Sanhedrin did have the right to pass sentence of death, but that such sentences needed the sanction of the procurator.
“Now what happens before the Roman governor?
“ ‘And Pilate asked him, Art thou the King of the Jews? And he answering said unto him, Thou sayest it. And the chief priests accused him of many things: but he answered nothing. And Pilate asked him again, saying, Answerest thou nothing? behold how many things they witness against thee. But Jesus yet answered nothing; so that Pilate marvelled. Now at that feast he released unto them one prisoner, whomsoever they desired. And there was one named Barabbas, which lay bound with them that had made insurrection with him, who had committed murder in the insurrection. And the multitude crying aloud began to desire him to do as he had ever done unto them. But Pilate answered them, saying, Will ye that I release unto you the King of the Jews? For he knew. that the chief priests had delivered him for envy. But the chief priests moved the people, that he should rather release Barabbas unto them. And Pilate answered and said again unto them, What will ye then that I shall do unto him whom ye call the King of the Jews? And they cried out again, Crucify him. Then Pilate said unto them, Why, what evil hath he done? And they cried out the more exceedingly, Crucify him. And so Pilate, willing to content the people, released Barabbas unto them, and delivered Jesus, when he had scourged him, to be crucified.’ (Mark 15, 2 f.).
“In Matthew Pilate goes so far as to wash his hands before the multitude and declare, ‘I am innocent of the blood of this just person: see ye to it.’ And all the people declare, ‘His blood be on us, and on our children.’
“Luke says nothing to the effect that the Sanhedrin sentences Jesus; they appear merely as complainants before Pilate.
“ ‘And the whole multitude of them arose, and led him unto Pilate. And they began to accuse him, saying, We found this fellow perverting the nation, and forbidding to give tribute to Caesar, saying that he himself is Christ a King. And Pilate asked him, saying, Art thou the King of the Jews? And he answered him and said, Thou sayest it. Then said Pilate to the chief priests and to the people, I find no fault in this man. And they were the more fierce, saying, He stirreth up the people, teaching throughout all Jewry, beginning from Galilee to this place.’ (Luke 28, verse 1 f.).
“Luke must come closest to the truth. Here Jesus is directly accused of high treason before Pilate, and with proud courage does not deny his guilt. Asked by Pilate whether he is the king of the Jews, that is, their leader in their fight for independence, Jesus declares, ‘Thou sayest it.’ The Gospel according to St. John feels how embarrassing this remnant of Jewish patriotism is, and therefore makes Jesus answer, ‘My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight.’ Now John is the latest gospel; and so it took a fairly long time for the Christian writers to make up their minds to commit this falsification of the original facts.
“The matter before Pilate was obviously a very simple one. In having the rebel Jesus executed he was merely doing his duty as representative of Roman authority.
“The masses of Jews, on the contrary, had not the slightest reason to be angry at a man who wanted none of the Roman rule and called for refusing to pay taxes to the Emperor. If Jesus really did that, he was acting entirely in accord with the Zealots, the dominating trend among the population of Jerusalem at that time.
“If we take the accusation given in the Gospels as authentic, the natural thing to expect would be that the Jews should be sympathetic to Jesus and that Pilate should condemn him.
“What do the Gospels tell us? Pilate does not find the slightest guilt in Jesus, although Jesus admits it himself. The governor keeps repeating that the accused is innocent, and asking what evil he has committed?
“This is strange enough. But still stranger, although Pilate does not admit the guilt of Jesus, he still does not set him free.
“Now it happened now and then that a procurator found a political case too complicated to decide by himself. But it is unheard of that an official of the Roman Emperor should try to get out of his uncertainty by asking the mass of the people what should be done with the accused. If he did not himself want to condemn a traitor, he would have to send him to the Emperor in Rome. For instance, this was done by the procurator Antonius Felix (52 to 60). He enticed the head of the Zealots of Jerusalem, the guerrilla chief Eleazar who had kept the land unsafe for twenty years, by a promise of safe-conduct, took him prisoner and sent him to Rome. He had many of his followers crucified, however.
“Pilate too could have sent Jesus to Rome; but the role that Matthew has him playing is simply ridiculous: a Roman judge, a representative of the Emperor Tiberius, with power of life and death, begging an assembly of the people to Jerusalem to allow him to set the accused man free and answering their shouts of refusal by saying, ‘Well, put him to death, I am innocent in the matter!’
“This was not the way the historical Pilate acted. Agrippa I, in a letter to Philo, calls Pilate ‘an inflexible and ruthless character,’ and reproaches him for ‘bribe-taking, acts of violence, robberies, misdeeds, offences, constant executions without trials, endless and intolerable brutalities.’
“His harshness and ruthlessness created such intolerable conditions that it became too much even for the central government in Rome and he was recalled (36 A.D.).
And this was the man who is supposed to have shown the proletarian traitor Jesus such extreme love of justice and mercy, exceeded only, unfortunately for the defendant, by his idiotic weakness toward the people.
“The evangelists were too ignorant to be amazed at that, and yet they might have had an inkling that they were assigning too strange a role to the Roman governor. They looked for something to make it look more credible; they report that the Jews were accustomed to having Pilate release a prisoner to them at Easter, and when he now offered them the release of Jesus, they answered, ‘No, we should rather have the murderer Barabbas.’
“It is strange that nothing is known of such a custom anywhere but in the Gospels. It is contrary to Roman institutions, which did not give governors any right to pardon. And it is contrary to any orderly law to give the right to pardon not to some responsible body but to a crowd that has happened to come together. Legal conditions of this kind can be taken at face value only by theologians.
“But even if we are willing to let that pass and accept the singular pardoning power of the Jewish crowd as it chances to congregate around the procurator's lodgings, the question still arises, what does this power to pardon have to do with the case in question?
“For Jesus has not yet been legally sentenced. Pontius Pilate is faced with the question: Is Jesus guilty of high treason or no? He answers with the question: Do you want to use your power to pardon in his favour, or no?
“Pilate has to give sentence, and instead of doing so appeals to the pardoning power! Does he not have the power to set Jesus free if he considers him innocent?
“Now a new monstrosity appears. The Jews allegedly have the right to pardon; and how do they exercise it? Are they content with asking the release of Barabbas? No, they demand the crucifixion of Jesus! The evangelists evidently imagine that the right to pardon one gives rise as well to the right to condemn the other.
“This mad kind of administration of justice is matched by an equally mad sort of politics.
“The evangelists show us a mob that hates Jesus to such a degree that it pardons a murderer rather than him; precisely a murderer--this mob found no worthier object to pardon--; and it is not quiet until Jesus is led to be crucified.
“Now consider that this is the same mob that a few days earlier had greeted him with hosannas as a king, strewing his path with garments and hailing him with one voice, without any contradiction. It was just this devotion on the part of the multitude that according to the Gospels was the reason why the aristocrats had designs on Jesus' life but dared not arrest him by day, choosing the night time instead. And now this same mob is inspired just as unanimously with the wildest, most fanatical hatred against him--against the man who was accused of a crime that in the eyes of every Jewish patriot made him worthy of the greatest honour: an attempt to free the Jewish commonwealth from foreign rule.
“What has happened to produce this astonishing change of attitude? The most powerful kind of motives would be required to make it plausible. The evangelists however stammer out a few ridiculous phrases, insofar as they say anything at all on the subject. Luke and John do not furnish any motivation. Mark says: ‘The chief priests moved the people" against Jesus, and Matthew, that they "persuaded the multitude.’
“All that these phrases prove is how badly the last shred of political feeling and political knowledge had been lost to the Christian writers.
“Now no matter how much a mass of people may be lacking in character, it will not be led into fanatical hatred without some basis. The basis may be foolish or vile, but there must be some basis. In the evangelists' account the Jewish multitude outdoes the most infamous and idiotic stage villain in idiotic infamy, for without the slightest foundation, the least motive, it rages for the blood of the same man it was worshipping only the day before. The matter becomes even more idiotic when we take the political conditions of the time into consideration. The Jewish commonwealth, unlike practically every other part of the Roman Empire, had an uncommonly vigorous political life, with all its social and political contrasts carried to their extreme. The political parties were well organized, and disciplined. Zealotism had completely won over the lower classes of Jerusalem, and they were constantly in bitter opposition to the Sadducees and Pharisees, and full of the fiercest hatred toward Rome. Their best allies were the rebellious Galileans.
“Even if the Sadducees and Pharisees had succeeded in ‘moving’ some elements of the people against Jesus, they could never have managed to get a unanimous demonstration, but at best a bitter street battle. There could hardly be a more fantastic idea than that of Zealots throwing themselves with wild screams, not on Romans and aristocrats, but on the accused rebel, whose execution they extort with fanatical rage from the Roman commander.
“A more childish monstrosity has never been dreamed up.
“After the evangelists have succeeded in this brilliant way in presenting the bloody Pilate as an innocent lamb, and the innate depravity of Judaism as the real cause of the crucifixion of the harmless and peaceful Messiah, they are exhausted. Their vein of invention gives out for the moment and the old account comes into its own temporarily. Jesus is mocked at and mistreated after his condemnation, but not by the Jews, but by the soldiers of that very Pilate who had just declared him guiltless. Now he has his soldiers not only crucify him but first scourge him and mock him for his Jewish kingdom: a crown of thorns is put on his head, a purple cloak set on him, and then they strike him in the face and spit at him. Finally they fasten to his cross the inscription: Jesus, King of the Jews.
“In this the original character of the catastrophe appears clearly once more. Here the Romans are the bitter enemies of Jesus, and the basis of their hatred as of their mockery is his high treason, his aspiring to the Jewish throne, his effort to shake off the alien domination of the Romans.
“Unfortunately this glimmering of the simple truth does not last long.
“Jesus dies, and the task is now to prove by a series of stage effects that a god had died:
"'Jesus, when he had cried again with a loud voice, yielded up the ghost. And, behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom; and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent; And the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose, And came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many'" (Matthew 27, verses 50 f.).
“The evangelists do not report what the resurrected ‘saints’ did during and after their group excursion to Jerusalem, whether they remained alive or decently lay down again in their graves. In any case it would be expected that such an extraordinary event would have an overpowering effect on all who witnessed it and convince everybody of the divinity of Jesus. But the Jews remain obdurate even now. It is still only the Romans who bow down before the deity.
“ ‘Now when the centurion, and they that were with him, watching Jesus, saw the earthquake, and those things that were done, they feared greatly, saying, Truly this was the Son of God.’ (Matthew 27, verse 54).
“The chief priests and Pharisees however, declare Jesus a deceiver, despite everything (Matthew 27, verse 63), and when he rises from the dead, that has no effect beyond the bribe we spoke of before, given to the Roman eyewitnesses to make them brand the miracle as a deception.
“Thus at the end of the Passion story we still have Jewish corruption turning the honest Roman soldiers into tools of Jewish trickery and baseness, which opposes devilish rage to the noblest divine forgiveness.
“All through this story the trend to servility toward the Romans and hatred toward the Jews is laid on so thick and described with such a mass of nonsense that one should think it would not have the slightest influence on thinking men. And yet we know that it was only too successful in accomplishing its ends. This tale, illuminated by the glorious light of divinity, ennobled by the martyrdom of the proud confessor of a high mission, was for many centuries one of the most effective means of arousing hatred and contempt for Jews even among very kindly spirits in Christendom. This story served to brand Jews as the scum of mankind, as a race naturally wicked and obdurate, which must be kept away from all human association and kept down with an iron hand.
“But it would have been impossible for this conception of Judaism ever to have gained currency if it had not arisen in a period of general hatred and persecution of the Jews.
“Born of the outlawry of the Jews, it infinitely reinforced, prolonged and extended that outlawry.
“What was presented as the story of the Passion of the Lord Jesus Christ is nothing more than evidence of the suffering of the Jewish people.”
Today, the hierarchies of the Christian Churches have long ago made their peace with capitalism. The Catholic Church in particular, has always supported the most reactionary forces in society. It resisted the bourgeois revolutions and sided with the landed aristocracy. Only once capitalism had become an established fact did it decide that its fortunes were best protected by siding with the new power.
Now George Bush and Tony Blair, the modern-day Sadducees and Pharisees, use their Christianity as moral justification for war and conquest, in much the same way as the Christian Emperors of Rome and the Absolute Monarchies of Feudal society.
The communism of the early Christians, as expressed in the Acts of the Apostles, has been all but buried. This was inevitable, given the limited development of the means of production.
The idea of an egalitarian society now falls not to religion, but to the struggles of the modern proletariat. Capitalism has now created the material basis upon which a genuine Communist society can rest. Only a socialist revolution can bring about such a society, where the fruits of our labour will be common property. The dreams of more than two millennia will be realised in the world socialist society of the twenty-first century, on the principle of from each according to his ability to each according to his need. Through common effort, we shall create such a Paradise on Earth for our children and grandchildren for all eternity!
April 18, 2004
- Foundations of Christianity by Karl Kautsky (1908)
- Socialism and The Churches by Rosa Luxemburg
- Marxism and Religion by Alan Woods (July 2001)