Thursday, April 06, 2017

"He's a very naughty boy! Now, piss off!"

Pilate has had enough of this wowdy webel, 
so we've added updates and corrections!

I was going to leave this alone....

PBS ran a two hour "documentary" about "The Last Days of Jesus," which pretty much put the lie to the idea a documentary documents anything but what the film-makers want to document.  I thought it might be interesting, especially since PBS did a fine job with "From Jesus to Christ," deriving all the material there from Biblical scholars whose work I was familiar with or I had actually met (yes, the most significant experience in my life is being introduced to a Biblical scholar who was in a PBS documentary.  I can die happy now.).  This one, on the other hand, blew chunks.

It was brave enough to include comments from some real Biblical scholars, including one (safely ensconced across the Pond in Oxford) who allowed that Jesus was a Jewish prophet.  !!!!!!!!!  Jesus was Jewish!!!!!!  and JUST a  prophet!!!!!!!!!!

I'm imagining the fits that is giving some member of the viewing audience.  But the shame was, legitimate Biblical scholars were woven into a story told by two fools:  Simcha Jacobovici and Barri Wilson.  Wilson is actually a professor at York University (of what I haven't tried to divine).  Jacobovici is a "documentary film-maker" who actually thinks that because he has no training in Biblical studies, archaeology, history, sociology, etc., he knows more than the people who do:

“Someone might say to me, why are you finding so many great things, why nobody else? I tell you why. Because I’m Jewish, I’m not Pauline—I don’t think inside a Christian box… I’m not a theologian, I’m not a Christian, and I see that in this world you can look at texts with fresh eyes and see new things.”

If you changed the topic to cosmology, and said on the basis of "fresh eyes" you know more than Stephen Hawking, what kind of reception would you get?  Besides, there are a lot of Biblical scholars who are Jewish, or not Christian, and not theologians; so nothing he mentions amounts to a qualification.

I will give the film this much credit:  the actor playing Jesus looks Arab, not Aryan, and speaks with an Arabic accent, not a BBC one.  Beyond that, it's crap.  Jacobovici shows up throughout the film, explaining how Jesus was actually part of a plot by Herod Antipas to make nice with Lucius Sejanus, who ran Rome when Tiberius withdrew to Capri for a time.  Somehow, the theory goes, Herod was going to convince Sejanus that he could get Jesus on board to quell the John the Baptizer movement, give religious power to Jesus and the Pharisees (taking it away from the Sadducees), and in return Sejanus would make Herod ruler of Judea, not just a few piddling square miles which was all he got when Herod the Great divided his kingdom into threes before departing for the Great Beyond.

The linchpin of this "theory" is that Jesus rode into Jerusalem 6 months earlier than the week before Passover, showing up in time for everybody to have palm fronds ready to wave because of the Festival of Tabernacles.  Jacobovici goes into great detail about how hard it is to cut palm fronds, and the only time to do it is for Tabernacles, so Jesus arrived for Tabernacles, not Passover.

Except the only gospel that gives us Jesus and the Palms is the Gospel of John, written some 70 years after the crucifixion.  Matthew and Mark mention "tree branches" (in the NRSV, anyway), and Luke mentions only people throwing their cloaks on the ground.  The palm fronds were a symbol of Jewish nationalism, just as Passover was.  In fact, most Biblical scholars say it's likely Jesus was arrested for threatening Rome's political power, an image underlined by John's picture of Jesus entering to Hosannas and palms lining the road.  It's a lovely image that John creates, and obviously it resonates with Christians today despite the fact only John presents it (his other great story, of foot-washing the disciples, never quite caught on as strongly).  It's also probably about as historical as the resurrection of Lazarus.  Because, frankly, if that had happened, Jesus would have been brought before Pilate instanter, and not the morning after the Last Supper.

Which is to say, let's not confuse history and the gospels.  Toward the end of the documentary, the real Biblical scholars point out that the gospels were polemical in nature, not historical.  They are described as recruitment literature, not as historical accounts a la Josephus, the Jewish historian for Rome.

Jacobovici needs Jesus in Jerusalem for 6 months, and in jail most of that time, to make the connection between Herod and Sejanus work, because Tiberius denounced Sejanus and had him executed sometime before Passover that year, and the only way Sejanus can affect Herod can affect the fate of a peasant from Nazareth is if that peasant in already in jail awaiting sentence or release, and Pilate fears a harsh punishment will upset Sejanus (who want to pacify Judea diplomatically).  Pilate fears, says Jacobovici, so he dithers on what to do with this political prisoner from Nazareth. Tiberius makes some announcement to that effect (be nicer to local religions, one element of Roman rule), but this clutters the "theory" so it is passed over until it becomes a reason to remove Pilate from Judea.  It is true Pilate was removed because he was too cruel in his enforcement of Roman rule (and that's a high bar of cruelty), but the crucifixion of Jesus was likely to have added to his list of bad calls, not to have escaped it.  So why Pilate would wait to execute Jesus, then decide to execute him once Sejanus was executed, doesn't really make a lot of sense.

Which means the palm fronds procession is John gilding the lily more likely than a clue left almost a century later that Jesus entered Jerusalem in the fall preceding the fateful spring.  It strains credulity to think John had the right calendar on that, and the other canonical writers did not.  This theory is not based on what we would call good scholarship.

Jacobovici even goes so far as to explain why Sejanus never makes it into the gospels, all four of which concern themselves with events in Judea, not in Rome.  It seems Tiberius made the name Sejanus anathema after the latter's execution, so to mention him in the gospels would bring down the wrath of Rome.  Again, the Biblical scholars (apart from Jacobovici) explain that speaking ill of Rome was a dangerous practice; and that's the usual explanation for why the Sadducees (and, ironically, the Pharisees) were blamed for the death of Jesus.  Rome had the power of crucifixion, and wielded it frequently (mention is made of some 500 Jews being crucified in a few days under Pilate, just as an example of how it was used.  This story is not connected by Jacobovici to the Pilate-Herod-Sejanus triad conspiracy theory, which means it was put in by real historians.  Much of the material in this film is as disjointed as this.).  Jacobovici argues that Jesus tore up the Temple (actually the grounds outside the Temple, but inside the walls) merchants and "got away with it" because of this deal between Herod and Sejanus (and, implicitly, Jesus).  Jesus knew he could act with impunity and he did.  Which is odd, thinking of Jesus making a deal with Herod, the executioner of John the Baptizer.

Jacobovici mentions several times that John was the cousin of Jesus; but we have only Luke for that, and most scholars think that's a narrative device, not an historical accounting.  All four gospels mention John; only one claims him as the cousin of Jesus.  It's not a hook any legitimate scholar would hang even a hat on.  Jacobovici also claims the Temple soldiers or the Romans would have intervened if there wasn't a deal to leave Jesus alone, a deal only possible by someone as highly placed as Herod, who knows this guy from a backwater like Nazareth or Galilee before he gets to Jerusalem because.....reasons.

So why did Jesus tear up the moneychangers and merchants, and get away with it?  Well, first, they were there providing a service.  People traveled from around the Empire to be in Jerusalem for Passover, and they needed animals to sacrifice there.  Hard to travel all that way with a dove or a lamb that's still alive and healthy enough to offer as a sacrifice; and coins bore the image of the Emperor, a violation of the commandment not to make graven images or images of humans, themselves made in the image of God.  Roman coins had to be changed into Temple coins suitable for offering; and animals had to be bought in order to be sacrificed.  It would have been quite a market scene, and no doubt upsetting to a peasant from Galilee coming to the Temple for the first time in his life.  So Jesus is mickle in his wroth, but why doesn't somebody arrest him?

Probably because it was one guy turning over a table or two.  The Temple grounds were large, and there would have been huge crowds there.  By the time one person had expressed his anger and frustration, the people at the table might be upset, but who would notice in time to do anything?  The Romans on Pilate's palace, looking down on the Temple grounds, might either not have noticed, or figured it was a local matter.  Besides, by the time they got there, who would they arrest?  Why inflame the crowds already knee-deep in this religious celebration of nationalist identify, the holiest time on the Jewish calendar?  One guy, some noise; let it be.  If, as I say, they noticed at all.

There are, in other words, simpler explanations than a conspiracy theory involving Rome, Jerusalem, and Galilee.  And, of course, if Jesus is in jail six months before Passover, how does he get to the Temple to overturn the tables at Passover?  The whole point of that story is the challenge Jesus presents to the reigning practices of the children of Abraham, highlighted by the most important religious event on their calendar.  Was Jesus there, or was he in jail?

This theory has more contradictions than a paradox.

It's very possible the event on the Temple grounds happened and that it marked Jesus as a dangerous rabble rouser.  Passover was the great celebration of Jewish religious and national identity.  It would be, from Rome's point of view, the most dangerous time in the year in Jerusalem.  Questions would have been asked, troublemakers identified, and word sent out to find this "Jesus of Nazareth" character.  So maybe this story is a factual remnant of what really happened to make the Roman's decide on crucifixion.  Certainly it is buried in an assault on the Temple powers, and an excuse to blame them for making the Romans do the dirty work (which is rather impossible to imagine, since Rome would have been less worried about local religious sensibilities than about maintaining its dominance).

There was also a long discourse in the film about Pilate hemming and hawing in the trial scenes, a discourse depending heavily on taking all four gospels as rigid history rather than polemical narrative.  That's fine in a Sunday school class, but when you surround yourself with Biblical scholars they deserve better company.  The trial scenes in the gospels are completely constructed by the narrators, especially since there's no indication any of the disciples are in the room (they fled, remember?).  Pilate doesn't dither because he's afraid of what Rome will say.  News of his actions might reach Rome in 6 months, but does anyone think Rome was really concerned about the fate of an itinerant preacher in the boonies of the Empire, where such figures were a dime a dozen?  If Rome didn't flinch at Herod beheading John, why would they care if Pilate crucified a rabble rouser during Passover?  Jacobovici's idea that Jesus mattered to Herod in his plans to persuade Sejanus for a larger kingdom is absurd.

And again, there's a simple explanation; but to make it, let me bring in the case of Shakespeare.  Although he was born after the death of Henry VIII, Shakespeare's histories of English Kings never go to that now most-famous of kings until 10 years after the death of Elizabeth, and there is a simple explanation why:  Henry VIII was the father of the reigning monarch.  Shakespeare's earliest play to touch on a reigning English monarch was "Macbeth," and there the connection was to James through Duncan, not through Macbeth.  By that time Shakespeare's company was the King's Players, so it was a safe move on his part, aside from flattering the King.  Too many people under Elizabeth disappeared into the Tower via the river and turned up again, if at all, as a head on Tower Bridge.  Shakespeare knew what to kiss, and when. [I've made some corrections in this paragraph, thanks to Rick's comments below.]

And so the gospel writers, who were persecuted more often than not, or likely to be, were busy trying to show their Messiah was not a common criminal or a political danger, and certainly didn't want to annoy Rome by blaming them for the death of their spiritual leader (any more than Shakespeare wanted to annoy Elizabeth with stories about her father).  Blaming the Jews even took the form of inventing a name unknown outside the gospels, a name derived from the region itself:  Judea.  "Judas" was not a name in Judea ("Jesus" is the Greek version of "Joshua")[another correction, due to Rick's comment], but it allowed another layer of blame to fall on:  the Jews.  Along with the Jewish power structure (Herod to this day is a figure of evil), blame fell on the religious order: the Sadducees and the Pharisees.  Rome was just following their lead, according to the gospel writers.  Pilate dithers because he's not the bad guy; the Sadducees are.  The gospel writers weren't blaming Rome, who held the power of life and death, they are blaming the Sadducees, who had already lost the Temple before Mark's gospel (the earliest of the four) was written.  Their written works could not (or should not) be treated as seditious ones, especially if they removed as much attention from Rome as possible.  To this day, many think the Jews killed Christ, and coerced the Romans into doing it.  Rome crucified political prisoners, the better to maintain the Pax Romana.  The feelings of the locals in Judea would have been a small consideration.

A more straightforward explanation of the behavior of Pilate in the gospels than some conspiracy at the heart of the Empire that reached to the edges and lowest social orders of the Empire is always preferable.

I can blame PBS for running this kind of tripe, because it was clearly sold to them on the basis of "new ideas!" and "new theories!"  The only thing new here is a new level of foolishness.  PBS should have paid more attention to the scholars than to the looney documentarian with the "fresh eyes."


  1. Jacobovici, PBS is really sucking the bottom of the barrel. Why didn't they just show The Life of Brian?

  2. I didn’t see this production; I was actually totally unaware of its airing. But it seems to me that the main problem with it is that it basically takes as its premise the assumption that the Christian faith concerning Jesus is wrong, and that therefore there must somehow be some set of world-historical circumstances that caused the Christian faith to make a bigger splash than it should have.

    Not that they don’t have a perfect right to make such programs and hold such beliefs. It’s just that, if you happen to believe, as I do, that Jesus was the incarnate Word, all this speculation about Herod colluding with Sejanus seems a little extraneous.

    I’d never heard of Barri Wilson, but apparently in 2014 (thnak you, Google) he and Jacobovici published something called "The Lost Gospel: Decoding the Ancient Text that Reveals Jesus’ Marriage to Mary the Magdalene.” Not reassuring.

    Anyway, though I pretty much agree with everything you say about the implausibility of this account (including the approach so many “historical” revisions, seemingly arbitrarily dismissing some parts of the gospel accounts and accepting others as, well, “gospel truth”), it still seems to me that the main difference between you and these guys is that your skepticism is more mainstream.

    “[L]et's not confuse history and the gospels. Toward the end of the documentary, the real Biblical scholars point out that the gospels were polemical in nature, not historical. They are described as recruitment literature, not as historical accounts a la Josephus, the Jewish historian for Rome.”

    The gospels are certainly not history in the sense of being the product of a 21st century academic history department. But of course neither was Josephus, who was writing with as much of a “non-historical” purpose as the Evangelists—to convince the Romans that Jews, after the revolt, could still be loyal citizens of the empire. Plutarch’s Lives, contemporary with the gospels, are not “history” in the exact modern sense either. Their aim is to convince their readers of a certain parallel between Greek and Roman greatness and to inculcate lessons addressing of political virtue.

    Nevertheless we are perfectly justified in looking to Josephus or Plutarch to figure out what was happening.
    Neither do I think that we have confuse history and the gospels to conclude that the gospels are capable of giving us a good sense of what happened, or conveying the impression that Jesus’ words and actions left on his contemporaries.


  3. It’s funny that you mention Shakespeare, since he did write (or co-write) a play called “Henry VIII.” I’ve never read it, and assume it pretty much pulls its punches, but what interests me more is Shakespeare’s participation in “Sir Thomas More.” (I picked up the “Arden Shakespeare” version last year.) There he seems to be skating on thin ice choosing as his protagonist a man executed by Henry for treason. The play was heavily censored, and it may well not have ever been publicly performed, and, in any case, the manuscript as we have it has More executed without giving the audience a clue about why. “A very learned worthy gentleman/Seals error with his blood.” And yes, Shakespeare’s participation was very limited (and still contested by some), but I’ll give him some credit for going out on a limb.

    One other quibble:

    “"Judas" was not a name in Judea ("Jesus" is the Greek version of "Joseph"), but it allowed another layer of blame to fall on: the Jews.”

    Wasn’t Judas Maccabeus the great hero of the Jewish revolt against the Hellenists? I think the name in the Septuagint is the same as the name in the Greek New Testament. And “Jesus” is the Hebrew to Aramaic to Greek to Latin to English of “Y’hoshua/Joshua,” not “Ioseph/Joseph.”

    But, quibbling aside, your point is well taken. These kinds of reconstructions basically seem put together to solve problems that a Christian doesn’t necessarily see as problems.

    A few years back I read Michael Bulgakov’s "The Master and Margarita." It was written in Russia under Stalin, and set at that time, but it includes a subordinate story line involving the condemnation of Jesus by Pilate. It deviates rather significantly from the gospel accounts—I think Pilate ends up killing Judas himself. But it didn’t purport to be arguing that its account of events was the way things really were. In fact, the last time we see Pilate, he’s talking with Jesus while they’re both walking on a moonbeam. Not to be confused with History! Or a PBS documentary!

  4. You're right, Willie the Shake did write a play about Henry VIII. But it was written and performed in 1613, 10 years after the death of Elizabeth. Like I say, he knew how to not attract trouble.

    I'm no more skeptical, actually, than any good Catholic Biblical scholar, like, say, Fr. Raymond Brown (I'm an admirer of his work on the nativity stories). I respect the scriptures too much as religious documents to distort them as historical ones; and reading them as if they were accounts from the New York Times of 1st century Palestine is such a distortion.

    Which is what Jacobovici and Wilson do.

    The PBS show ended with a credit to "The Lost Gospel." There's a link in my blather to a Daily Beast article about it, and yeah, it sounds like a real stinker. My complaint with the two is not what they want to do to Christianity (it's far too big for them to disrupt it), but what they do to Biblical scholarship. As I say, Jacobovici's quote about his "new eyes" would be considered arrant nonsense in most circles where special knowledge is admired. In Biblical scholarship, lay people are mostly ignorant (by "lay" I mean non-academics, not non-priestly class) of the field, and accept any nonsense as wisdom. It makes Donald Trump's of us all.

    I would not, for a moment, say my knowledge or understanding of God (i.e., my theology) is superior to yours, or anyone else's; and I don't foist it on you merely by explaining what I think and have learned. It is this errant and dangerous stupidity I rise to counter. If they want to play on that field, play by the rules of the game.

    This ain't Calvinball, after all.

    The Judas stuff I remember, vaguely, from some of Cross's work. I should know better than to cite things I haven't researched again, but close enough was good enough. The point is the scapegoating of the Jews (who weren't quite yet "Jews" then) in the gospels, which has echoed down to the present day.

    Oh, and my point about the gospels being polemical is not meant to be dismissive but, again, to understand why they were written. There's a reason John has no "acts of power" but instead, his "miracles" are "signs." And why his Lazarus is resurrected, rather than resting on the bosom of Abraham for eternity. Or why Jesus changes water to wine at the wedding in Cana, but not in the canonicals. Or why Luke insists Joseph was a carpenter (a man without a patron; one step up from a beggar, in 1st century Palestine), or why John is Jesus' cousin, etc. etc., etc. Knowing these things does not make me a skeptic, it makes me understand the gospels more deeply as human responses to the divine.

    And yeah, Jesus=Joshua; I'm getting old and forgetful.