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Was Jesus a revolutionary? The gospels may have ignored the full story

Like a modern rockstar, Jesus had to hide from his adoring fans. Life of Brian

Like a modern rockstar, Jesus had to hide from his adoring fans. Life of Brian


April 15, 2022   6 mins

Easter is the time when Jesus Christ is said to have risen from the dead, having hung on a cross for six hours between two thieves. We are told that one of the thieves was saved, which Samuel Beckett described as a reasonable percentage. It’s unlikely, however, that Jesus’s two companions were thieves at all. Not even the Romans were sadistic enough to roll out one of their most ghastly forms of punishment — crucifixion — for a couple of common-or-garden robbers.

Since the Roman state reserved this penalty almost entirely for political rebels and runaway slaves, the so-called thieves probably fell into the former category. In fact, it is quite likely that they were Zealots, members of an underground anti-imperialist movement which wanted to kick out the Romans and replace them with a purified Jewish state run by a priestly caste. The Zealots were to stage an insurrection some decades after Jesus’s death, with catastrophic results. They are memorably satirised as a kind of first-century Socialist Workers Party in Monty Python’s Life of Brian.

The point of crucifixion wasn’t so much the pain, even though we derive the word “excruciating” from the practice. It was rather to proclaim the helplessness of those who struck against Roman sovereignty, hence discouraging others from doing the same. Their mutilated bodies were turned into advertisements for the power of Rome, pinned up in public humiliation on the edge of the city. Even so, Jesus himself got off fairly lightly.

I once made the mistake of pointing this out in a talk on BBC radio, and was the recipient of a shedload of outraged letters from Evangelical Christians who promised to pray for my soul while deeply doubting that I was in possession of one. But it’s true: Jesus seems to have been on the cross for only six hours, whereas there were other victims who thrashed around for days. It could be that the scourging they gave him helped to speed him on his way. If you are about to be crucified, lose as much blood as you can.

If the so-called thieves were revolutionaries, was Jesus one as well? It’s possible that the gospel-writers edited out some politically explosive stuff in order to cosy up to the authorities. Christians at the time were being savagely persecuted, and for them to portray their leader as a prototype for Lenin would scarcely have appealed to those in power. It’s true that a lot of what Jesus said might have sounded to a casual bystander like good Zealot stuff. He certainly would have had Zealots in his entourage. Judas Iscariot may have been one of them. Perhaps he sold his master out because he had expected him to lead the Jewish people against the occupying forces and was bitterly disenchanted when he didn’t. Jesus’s right-hand man Peter carried a sword, an odd thing for a Galilean fisherman to do.

On the other hand, Jesus supported paying taxes to Caesar, which the Zealots didn’t. He also called down some frightful curses on the heads of the Pharisees, who were more or less the Zealots’ theological wing, perhaps in order to put some daylight between the militants and himself.

The Pharisees, incidentally, have had a particularly bad press. They were admired by most Jews for their piety and good works, but are vilified in the New Testament as legalists and hypocrites. Some modern Christians think that Judaism is about the external and collective, while Christianity is about the inward and individual. Jews are devotees of Law, while Christians are disciples of Love. The gospel-writers, who were of course Jews themselves, wouldn’t have believed any such theological nonsense, and neither would Jesus himself. But the seeds of Christian anti-Semitism can already be detected in the smearing of the Pharisees.

Jesus tries to overturn what might be called the Satanic image of God. This is the idea of God as Patriarch, Big Daddy, Judge and Superego, with whom you have to bargain your way to heaven by being exceptionally righteous and respectable. On this theory, if you’re going to have a God at all, you might as well have a big nasty bastard of one who will relieve you of your guilt by clobbering you at regular intervals — not some gentle, Guardian-reading deity who lets us murder his own child without even a struggle. Jesus’s God, by contrast, is not a judge but a counsel for the defence. You can’t make graven images of this God because the only image of him is flesh and blood.

The real Big Daddy was not the Jewish Yahweh but the imperial state, of which the local representative at the time was Pontius Pilate. The Roman governor is presented in the gospels as a vacillating, well-meaning, rather spineless liberal with a metaphysical turn of mind (“What is truth?” he inquires of Jesus), the kind of man you could imagine doing moderately well in the BBC. Being a decent sort of chap, he doesn’t want to come down too hard on this enigmatic young holy man, one of a whole pack of hairy prophets, freaks, hippies and charlatans thronging the streets of Jerusalem for the feast of Passover. The place must have looked a bit like Woodstock. In the end, however, Pilate can’t resist the pleas of the Jewish rabble and reluctantly packs Jesus off to his death.

None of this is likely to be true. For one thing, Jesus was wildly popular with the common people, who would never have called for his crucifixion. Like a modern rock star, he actually has to hide from his adoring fans. For another thing, Pilate was by no means the decent chap the gospels make him out to be. We happen to know from other sources that he was a ruthless despot who murdered prisoners, executed at the drop of a hat, and already stood accused of bribery, cruelty and illegal execution when Jesus appeared before him. He would never have got past his first interview at the BBC. In fact, he was finally dismissed from the imperial service for dishonourable conduct, and you had to be spectacularly dishonourable to be kicked out by the Romans. He would certainly have condemned Jesus, not to speak of his own grandmother, without a qualm, and without needing to believe that he was guilty.

Seeking once more to keep the ruling powers sweet, the gospel-writers tried to shift the blame for Jesus’s death from Pilate himself to the Jewish people. But why was he killed in the first place? It’s true that his life-style might have been offensive to the Jewish Establishment. He was homeless, vagrant, without property, celibate, a scourge of the rich and powerful, a champion of the dispossessed, remarkably laid-back about sex, averse to material goods and hostile to the family (almost every reference to the family in the New Testament is resoundingly negative). He also laid claim to an extraordinary authority, surprisingly for someone from a rural backwater like Galilee.

None of this would have got him into rabbinical school, but none of it would have got him topped either. He doesn’t directly claim to be Son of God, and even if he had it wouldn’t necessarily have landed him in trouble. All Jews were sons and daughters of God. He doesn’t claim to be the Messiah either. Instead, in carnivalesque spirit, he sends up the whole notion of kingship by riding into the capital on the back of a donkey. Besides, Messiahs don’t get themselves crucified. The very idea of a crucified Messiah would have struck the Jews of the time as a moral obscenity. In any case, the Romans wouldn’t have given a toss about the theological squabbles of their colonial underlings. They didn’t get out the hammer and nails for that.

They might well have done so, however, had they thought that the Jesus movement was seditious. And the people most likely to have sown that suspicion in their minds were the Jewish priestly caste or Sanhedrin. Maybe the priests didn’t believe that Jesus was a would-be insurrectionist, but it might have been convenient for them to pretend that they did. The political atmosphere in the capital at Passover would have been extremely tense, and Jesus could have provided the spark that sent the place up in flames. The Sanhedrin knew that any such uprising would bring the full force of Roman power down on the backs of their hapless people, and would have been properly fearful on their behalf. They were out to prevent a disaster, and Jesus was to be the scapegoat. So it may be that Jesus was sent to his death as a political agitator without either the Jewish or Roman leaders believing that he was — or in the case of the Romans, really caring.

The first person to discover that Jesus’s tomb is empty was Mary Magdalen, which means that the news of his resurrection was broken to the world by what used to be known as a fallen woman. She was in the company of other women, all of whom testified that Jesus had risen from the dead. This must have proved an embarrassment for the early Christians — not because Mary was of dubious moral character, but because the testimony of a woman was regarded as worthless. What the Christian community viewed as the most momentous event in human history rested on notoriously unreliable witnesses. Just for this reason, however, the women would seem to be vindicated. If the gospel-writers could have passed over this awkward episode, they might well have done so; but the fact that they don’t suggests that it was so widely believed that it would have been odd to leave it out.

Jesus warns his followers that if they speak out for justice and friendship as he did, then they, too, will be done away with by the state. There are plenty of latter-day Zealots who have learnt this lesson the hard way. The message of the gospels is that if you love in a certain way, you are likely to be killed. There’s your pie in the sky for you. But as long as we see love mostly as an erotic and Romantic affair, rather than a matter of, say, toppling dictators, this needn’t disturb us unduly. One of the biggest mistakes of the modern era is to see love only as interpersonal. The authors of the New Testament can’t be accused of that, whatever their other shortcomings.


Terry Eagleton is a critic, literary theorist, and UnHerd columnist.


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Jason Highley
Jason Highley
2 years ago

Didn’t claim to be the Messiah, eh? That’s news to John’s gospel.
Mary Magdelene wasn’t the only fallen human. The whole point of the gospel message is that we are equally fallen and just as unworthy as her. The beauty is in the way that God chose people like her, and the apostles, and the uncounted martyrs, to be messengers and a testament to God’s love for us in Christ Jesus.
This reminds me of the time I read Flusser’s biography of Jesus right after Crossan’s “The Historical Jesus”. Crossan – like you – was convinced that Jesus was a revolutionary whose most fervent message had to be whitewashed by the authors for it to be accepted. Flusser was convinced that no Jewish son of a carpenter could have possibly been accepted into the Talmudic school to learn to speak about scripture the way Jesus is quoted as doing, and therefore all of the gospel history about his family and genealogy and exceptional origins was made up. Neither seems to even admit the possibility that what Christians believe – that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God, and that his death on the cross has made atonement for the sins of all who believe in him – is true. All of it.

Last edited 2 years ago by Jason Highley
Terry M
Terry M
2 years ago
Reply to  Jason Highley

Crossan’s multiple, exquisitely researched works present Jesus as a ‘philosophical revolutionary’, not political. His enormous following and unconventional rhetoric put him in opposition to Roman oppression that they could not tolerate. Crossan understands that the Bible stories are largely propaganda from his few literate followers, so must be interpreted through that lens. His is the most reasonable of the numerous Jesus biographies I have encountered.

Dave Corby
Dave Corby
2 years ago

I don’t see the point of this essay.
If you don’t believe in the Jesus of the Bible then everything written here is nonsense.
If you believe the Bible is the inspired Word of God then this essay is equally all nonsense.
Who was it aimed at?

J Bryant
J Bryant
2 years ago
Reply to  Dave Corby

Who was it aimed at?
I would suggest it’s aimed at, and of interest to, people like me who are willing to admit that the core message of the Gospels might be the word of God, but the text itself is not transcription from the mouth of the deity; it’s an historical construction that’s a legitimate subject of analysis.
The tone of the article is certainly flippant but the author’s conclusions seem to be that the resurrection was widely viewed, among Jesus’s contemporaries, as having truly happened, and that the Gospels teach love of humanity on a grand scale: love thy neighbor as thyself where your neighbor is pretty much everyone. To that extent, despite its tone, this piece is not anti-Gospel or anti-Christianity.
I was intrigued by the author’s statement that, “as long as we see love mostly as an erotic and Romantic affair, rather than a matter of, say, toppling dictators, this [the possibility of being killed for speaking out for justice] needn’t disturb us unduly.
I wonder if that’s a sly reference to the situation in Ukraine. Is it an act of Christian love to topple Putin given the suffering he’s inflicting on others?

Brian Villanueva
Brian Villanueva
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

I also felt like Dave when I first read this, but I can really see your point. However, there are real problems with this piece.

“Even so, Jesus himself got off fairly lightly.”
This is objectively true. Although the Bible accounts attribute this not to the scourging but to Jesus’ voluntary choice. You either believe that or you don’t; no evidence one way or the other applies. However, all evidence is that the early church nearly universally (save the Gnostics) did believe in Jesus’ voluntary death.

I also think the author misses the mark by being so focused on the details at the expense of the whole. “They wouldn’t have been thieves”? Really? Isn’t that picking at minutiae? Overall, this is a very fundamentalist / Protestant way of seeing the faith, one that the Orthodox and even most Catholics would almost certainly not recognize. He almost seems surprised that early Christians believed the gospel accounts, and yet there are numerous extracanonical writings from the early 2nd century (Ignatius, Clement, Didache, among others) that attest to these as widespread views among the early Church.

The Bible is a series of letters written to particular audiences. The first of these is from Jews in Jerusalem around 40 AD, and the last from John on Patmos at about 95 AD. Over that time, Jews are banished from Rome, Jerusalem is besieged, the Temple is destroyed, the Sanhedrin disbanded, and the high priests convert the Jewish people to rabbinic Judaism. The entire idea that over these 50 years, there is some unified political agenda or a Jewish elite to suck up to is absurd. Rome was the elite, and they wanted nothing to do with Jews or Christians, who they viewed as a Jewish splinter sect like the zealots but possibly cannibalistic and incestuous (no, I’m not kidding).

I also thought the “as long as we see love mostly as an erotic and Romantic affair, rather than a matter of, say, toppling dictators” was a little odd, but for the reverse reason — it’s a postmodernist mapping of current viewpoints into ancient texts. Neither the tradition of the church or the NT itself says anything remotely like this. While the zealots certainly would have accepted such a statement, among the bishops of the early church it would have been treated as heretical. “As long as we see love as a mostly erotic affair, rather than a matter of truly loving and living on communion with our fellow believers” — that would be accurate. The early church did practice a radical communal living style, although again, that’s a far cry from being the “ancient Socialist Workers Party” out to “overthrow dictators”. Good Lord — why don’t we throw imperialistic capitalism in there too? Talk about reading modern politics into ancient authors.

In the end, none of us knows definitively what happened to Jesus in Jerusalem 1990 years ago or so. But we do know that within a decade of those events, people throughout the Roman empire were proclaiming him as a god who had risen from the dead. Even taking only well corroborated accounts, nearly all of his closest friends would die horrible painful deaths which they could have avoided merely by recanting that belief. In the end, that may be the best evidence for the faith. To be honest, it was the evidence that convinced me 25 years ago.

Last edited 2 years ago by Brian Villanueva
ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
2 years ago

Thanks to the humanity of the Roman Prefect, Pontius Pilate, Christ was crucified on a Friday which reduced his suffering to a matter of hours rather than days, as was the normal policy.
He also appears to have permitted burial which was also very unusual, but does demonstrate the extraordinary empathy of Roman rule when required.

Francis MacGabhann
Francis MacGabhann
2 years ago
Reply to  ARNAUD ALMARIC

Either that or he got bunged.

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
2 years ago

I was apprehensive about mentioning that due to the recent policy of intolerance that now pervades UnHerd.

Jerry Carroll
Jerry Carroll
2 years ago

Are you this disgusting in your private life? No, don’t answer. We’ll take it for granted.

Wilfred Davis
Wilfred Davis
2 years ago
Reply to  ARNAUD ALMARIC

The question remains, as pointed out by the author, whether the portrayal of Pilate in the gospels represents the Pilate of history. Not very likely.

Judy Johnson
Judy Johnson
2 years ago
Reply to  Wilfred Davis

Why?

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
2 years ago
Reply to  Wilfred Davis

He does get a fleeting mention from other non biblical sources, but not enough to make a firm judgement.

David Simpson
David Simpson
2 years ago
Reply to  Wilfred Davis

Excuse me, how the f—k do you know?

Wilfred Davis
Wilfred Davis
2 years ago
Reply to  David Simpson

What makes you think that I know? My opening words are: ‘The question remains…’ As with all historical accounts, the evidence has to be examined and weighed. The outcome will often be a balance of probabilities. Hence my closing words: ‘Not likely.’

On the historical evidence – and the author outlines this – Pilate was a ruthless man, even by the standards of the day.

Brian Villanueva
Brian Villanueva
2 years ago
Reply to  Wilfred Davis

All historical documents have biases (the victor writes the history), but considering the long time period of Biblical authorship and the changing Jewish political situation over that time, the Bible portrait of Pilate is likely at least as accurate as any other we have from history (which as Arnaud said, it pretty limited) and may be far more accurate. Any other account would be written by Roman sources, who would obviously have their own biases.

Wilfred Davis
Wilfred Davis
2 years ago

Thank you, but I’m not sure that this is right.

A significant source on Pilate was Jewish: Josephus. He describes Pilate as harsh, insensitive and cruel, fully earning his dismissal by the Roman governor of Syria. He so offended the Jewish population that they rioted, some being slaughtered by Roman soldiers on Pilate’s orders.

Philo, another Jewish source, refers to a letter of King Agrippa I, including: inflexibility, stubbornness, insults, robberies, outrages, wanton injuries, executions without trial [!], numerous acts of grievous cruelty. And so on.

(Source: Who’s Who in the Age of Jesus, 2005, by leading NT scholar Geza Vermes.)

Martin Terrell
Martin Terrell
2 years ago
Reply to  ARNAUD ALMARIC

Also likely that the authorities wanted to get it over with quickly, just in case of unrest.

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
2 years ago
Reply to  Martin Terrell

Yes indeed, probably the correct answer I agree.

Warren T
Warren T
2 years ago

As further evidence, it would be difficult to argue that the sheer number of breathtaking basilica’s and churches that were build in His name, and the extraordinary number of artwork dedicated to Him, were completed in honor of a myth. The fact that we are even still taking about Jesus and celebrating his birth and death is additional evidence of His impact on our world. Oh, and I forgot the date on every newspaper, magazine and blog post contain the year of our Lord. Hard to conjure another “historical figure” with that sort of impact on the world.

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
2 years ago
Reply to  Warren T

Buddha,Mohammed, Augustus?

Chris Eaton
Chris Eaton
2 years ago
Reply to  ARNAUD ALMARIC

Nope.

Brian Villanueva
Brian Villanueva
2 years ago
Reply to  Warren T

Pope Benedict once was asked what the best evidence for the truth of the Church’s claims was. His answer (paraphrasing): “the art she has produced and the lives of the saints themselves.” I agree with both him and you, but that came after I was convinced. I was convinced by Lewis. Christianity is “the myth that really happened.”

J Bryant
J Bryant
2 years ago

Thank you for the very thoughtful response.

Gayle Rosenthal
Gayle Rosenthal
1 year ago

That Jesus was a revolutionary has always been in the theoretical wind. And exactly what kind of revolutionary has also been a part of that question. Was he revolting against the Romans or against Jewish Law or both ? He certainly got into the crosshairs of both. And apparently his was an interesting and enigmatic life. Whatever the facts, my personal interpretation of his mission was to invive the gentile into Jacob’s tent. And I guess I took him him up on it. Evangelicals are still working on the pitch.
I recently argued long and hard with my Christian friends about upcoming Easter services that touch on the Jewish role in Jesus’s death. It’s true that the priests would not have been too happy about the Sermon on the Mount. Mass conversion isn’t a Jewish thing. Neither is rabble-rousing when the safety of the community is being compromised. But the evidence that the Sanhedrin actually conducted a trial is scant to nonexistent. On that note I would beseech all Christian services to completely eliminate that slander. Even pointing the finger at Judas Iscariot is bearing false witness. Whether voluntary or not, Jesus’s death was God’s will. Why not say just that and stop blaming Romans OR Jews. It feeds anti semitism. And if the Christians stop blaming Jews maybe the Muslims would follow suit and clean up their act too. Jews are honored to be chosen and tired of being the scapegoats for holding the honor.
As a Jew I am now solidly in the Covenant. I crossed the bridge and all those technical details become simpler. Rabbi Hillel, predecessor to Jesus, taught that you can learn Torah standing on one foot – “Do not unto your neighbor that which is hateful to you. The rest is commentary.” Jesus was simply doing what Jews do – being a light unto the nations. His mission is 2,000 years old and …. correct … we are all still talking about it so it must be unfinished.

chris sullivan
chris sullivan
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Tis obvious it is a very clear reference to Ukraine and that ‘love’ is, in fact, caring for one’s fellow human being in the face of evil. Evil being the opposite of love ie actively pursuing the detriment of one’s fellow.. Jesus would have marched up to Putin and told him that was gonna burn in hell for being an evil b*****d – and , of course, gotten crucified again. However , maybe, the spirit of Jesus might challenge this evil in more practical ways – possibly in a more ‘damn the torpedoes’ fashion. Jesus obviously had pretty big testicles but does ‘modern’ man have those in the face of evil – when there is nothing tangible to gain in the way of oil etc – just plain old love and justice………..(this of course IS a sly reference to NATO/the west. Tragically it seems that Jesus would have been crucified every other day during the last 2000 years because humans are generally too selfish and cowardly to stand up to evil -or at least not until it is a mess and too late for sensible containment – and yes it does look as if the planet DOES actually need a policeman with a big stick !

Eric Mycroft
Eric Mycroft
2 years ago
Reply to  Dave Corby

It’s aimed at people who don’t believe in God, but do believe that history is very interesting. Jesus was a historical figure.

Warren T
Warren T
2 years ago
Reply to  Dave Corby

Agreed. Pure drivel. If he doesn’t even understand why Jesus and the Gospel writers pointed out the utter hypocrisy of the Pharisees, in those days, then why even read him?

Alan Hawkes
Alan Hawkes
2 years ago
Reply to  Dave Corby

A lot depends on what you mean by, “the Jesus of the Bible..”. Do you mean the core message, or every word being divinely inspired and therefore true and beyond dispute?

Ian Burns
Ian Burns
2 years ago
Reply to  Dave Corby

It is not so much that what is written in the Bible is to be understood as literally true, as it is the way that the information has been spun successive generations to fit the geo-political reality.

James was, according to church tradition, was the ‘brother of the lord’. And what we know of James is that he was also a ‘zealot for the law’ forbidding ‘table fellowship’ with uncircumcised (gentiles). Unlike Paul of course, who took a universalist and antinomian view, at least as keeping kosher meant a mission to the gentiles was the nature of the new missionary faith.

But, if you really want to know who the historical Jesus was and what he believed, you would look to the church of Jerusalem and leader James, rather than the prince of peace that was crafted in post 2nd Temple world, most likely illustrates the how the early Christians were or became collaborators with Roman power, co-opted the message to their own beliefs and sconce-religious needs of the community, once the centre of Jewish religious life had gone, and the Jewish nation state had been erased from the map.

R Wright
R Wright
2 years ago

There’s a lot of historical nonsense in here, in particular “the Romans wouldn’t have given a toss about the theological squabbles of their colonial underlings.”
The dead Celtic druids of Anglesey and thousands of late Roman schismatics would like a word.

Sam Wilson
Sam Wilson
2 years ago

The tone and leanings of this article are difficult to pick up on. Is it strongly polemical, or just tentatively skeptical? I can’t really tell. Anyways, some thoughts:
“But we preach a Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to gentiles – 1 Corinthians 1:23″ (Italicizations mine)
“and the son of God died: we are not ashamed, because it is shameful; he was buried and rose again: I believe it because it is absurd” – Tertullian
“The blind receive sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the Good News is preached to the poor. Blessed is the one who is not offended in me.” Matthew 11:5-6
Do not think that the Gospel writers and commentators didn’t know how absurd their message was. Sure, Jesus was countercultural in the best way – he used women to deliver his messages, he rode on a donkey, and he befriended the poor. But he also flaunted logic, metaphysics, and our ideas of what makes a just king; what makes a happy ending.
Jesus was not a progressive revolutionary with a political mission situated between the fundamentalist Sanhedrin and the cynical liberal Romans. He also was not what Nietzsche called a “life-denier”, someone who recommended that his followers abstain from participating in this life and instead orient themselves entirely towards the life to come. Jesus was absorbed in this world and his children’s needs. The gospels, after all, are 2/3 about Jesus’s ministry here on this earth.

What the Christian community viewed as the most momentous event in human history rested on notoriously unreliable witnesses. Just for this reason, however, the women would seem to be vindicated. If the gospel-writers could have passed over this awkward episode, they might well have done so; but the fact that they don’t suggests that it was so widely believed that it would have been odd to leave it out.

This is to grievously miss the point. To reduce Jesus’s mission to that of a proto-progressive radical stamped on by the nasty Romans is to miss every bit of symbolism the gospel writers took the care to cram in. Those around Jesus knew what was going on transcended the petty politics at hand, even if those politics played a major role. They knew they were caught up in something enormous.

Jesus warns his followers that if they speak out for justice and friendship as he did, then they, too, will be done away with by the state. There are plenty of latter-day Zealots who have learnt this lesson the hard way. The message of the gospels is that if you love in a certain way, you are likely to be killed. There’s your pie in the sky for you. But as long as we see love mostly as an erotic and Romantic affair, rather than a matter of, say, toppling dictators, this needn’t disturb us unduly. One of the biggest mistakes of the modern era is to see love only as interpersonal.

Nevertheless, the writer is on to something here. The agape love of Jesus is not the “erotic and Romantic” of the Romans and the Epicureans. It is a commitment that can and will have you suffer enormously. Just remember that its end is not political either, not a matter of social duty. Christians are more than, to borrow a motif from Kierkegaard, an Agamemnon tragically giving up his firstborn for the good of his society. Christians are an Abraham giving up his son for nobody but God.

Last edited 2 years ago by Sam Wilson
Judy Johnson
Judy Johnson
2 years ago
Reply to  Sam Wilson

I agree with your last sentence. the author ignores the role and significance of prophecy throughout the Hebrew Scriptures.
The external rules he disparages were superseded by Jesus; only the moral law remained. The others had been to maintain the unity of Israel as a nation as they passed in time and location through nations of idol worshippers.

Mark Vernon
Mark Vernon
2 years ago

On the question of just why Jesus was executed, I find persuasive the scholarship which notes that Pilate did not round up the other rebels/disciples associated with Jesus and kill the lot, as was standard Roman practice and Pilate’s habit.

Jesus must, then, have been crucified not because he led any kind of relio-political threat but as an expediency, a casual calculation with human life, a banality of evil.

David Simpson
David Simpson
2 years ago
Reply to  Mark Vernon

or because he, peculiarly and solely, said he was the son of god, and the messiah, which neither the Sanhedrin or Pilate found acceptable.

Wilfred Davis
Wilfred Davis
2 years ago

A very interesting article.

But, if I can make a small point – especially given the author’s insistence on a properly informed reading of the gospels and the importance of historical information – what is the evidence that Mary Magdalene was a ‘fallen woman’? This has been strongly doubted by scholars.

David Simpson
David Simpson
2 years ago
Reply to  Wilfred Davis

None at all. Associated with a woman anointing his feet with her hair and tears, and that’s it. Described as the chief apostle, I think. The “Church”, circa 400 AD, clearly decided a woman was inappropriate. – therefore end of.

Barbara Manson
Barbara Manson
2 years ago

Dave, thanks for putting your response to the article so succinctly. This was my reaction as well.

It is full of cheap shots at the Bible account by someone who has no regard for the spiritual message it contains. Conspiracy theory…..?

BTW, Mary Magdalene isn’t the only one who saw the empty tomb that morning.

Blessed Good Friday to all!

Last edited 2 years ago by Barbara Manson
gary.frank
gary.frank
2 years ago
Reply to  Barbara Manson

Or maybe perceives the spiritual message more accurately than many.

John Ramsden
John Ramsden
2 years ago

It’s absurd to doubt or deny that a single person called Jesus of Nazareth existed. For a start, several of his reported sayings or deeds don’t, on the face of it, seem to put him in the best light, and there is no way that devout gospel writers would or could make these up. Examples include various outbursts of temper.

Also, he clearly had a sense of humour, and a subtelty and quick wittedness in disputation which again would have been far beyond the ability or inclination of fairly simple-minded gospel writers to invent.

To give just a couple of examples of his humour, he gave nicknames to many of his disciples, such as Simon “Peter” (“Petros” being Greek for “Rock”, referring to his sturdy build and/or loyalty). Some of his similes were comically exaggerated, such as “easier to thread a rope through a needle”, in which the Greek “kamilos” for rope was later mistranslated as “camel”!

As for his subtlety, when the Jerusalem priests asked him if Roman taxes should be paid, hoping to catch him out, and he held up a Roman coin and said “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar and to God what is God’s”, remember that the coin would have had an inscription reading something like “div imp Caes” or “the divine Caesar”, i.e. according to the coin Caesar was a God! So Jesus was throwing the question back in their faces, inviting them to ask in amazement if he thought Caesar was a God, to which he could simply have asked them the same, and they would thus have to incriminate themselves by denying it (not that any Jewish person believed it, but it was prudent to stay silent on the matter!)

Jesus seems to have had an ambivalent attitude to the Romans, and vice versa. Several of his recorded sayings are adaptions of and very similar to quotes from Roman authors, such as the revolutionary Sempronius Gracchus “The fox has his den, the bird has its nest, but the soldiers (retired legionaries) of Rome have nowhere to lay their heads”. C.F. Matthew Ch 8, v 20.

But he definitely fell out big time with the Jerusalem pharisees (a wealthy priestly caste), and according to the gospels it was they who pressed Pontius Pilate and Herod Antipas, both fairly indifferent to Jesus’s supposed crimes or even sympathetic, to condemn him. Besides having been a thorn in the priests’ side for some time, the “crime” for which he was nominally tried (besides claiming to be the Son of God) was of course upturning the money exchangers’ tables in the temple and assaulting them verbally and physically (the latter being yet more proof of a genuine person who existed, and not some paragon of virtue imagined by writers!)

Finally, the reason Jesus (and presumably the other condemned men crucified with him) were dispatched after only a few hours was that the Romans had agreed with the pharisees not to conduct crucifictions on the sabbath or allow these to continue into it.

Last edited 2 years ago by John Ramsden
Arnold Grutt
Arnold Grutt
2 years ago
Reply to  John Ramsden

“It’s absurd to doubt or deny that a single person called Jesus of Nazareth existed.”
There are abundant arguments, documented, which have advanced this position (e.g. books by the late G.A Wells and others). None of them are ‘absurd’. I myself, starting 40+ years ago from a position of complete indifference either way, came to believe that no such figure existed as portrayed in the NT, not from reading books but from a resultant study of the NT itself. However, there is simply no way of proving it one way or another. Those who need a ‘faith’ will believe it, those who are content to navigate life as it comes, and treat uncorroborated source documents from the distant past as often uncertain in terms of genre, accuracy and truth, probably won’t.
Every book I have read on the Gospels (several hundred by now), differs somewhat as to the nature and character of the Jesus figure and his significance (even such by those who write from a ‘confessional’ perspective).
By the way I have long thought (and I am not alone – at least one Biblical scholar has advanced this, which I was later happy to discover ) that Pontius Pilate (who has been proven to have existed from an independent source) was actually not involved with any such trial or crucifixion (leaving aside the question of what type of person he was). However the reason is again one that is a matter of suspicion and textual interpretation (of more than one seemingly unrelated text) rather than provability.
Any single book about the NT will be selective and tendentious to a degree, simply because of the vast amount of background material to be mastered.

William Buckley
William Buckley
2 years ago

The author asks why Jesus was killed in the first place. The answer, to be found in the gospels, is that “he must die because he claimed to be the Son of God” (John 19:7).
The author also says that Jesus doesn’t claim to be the Messiah. In Matthew 16, Matthew records that in answer to the question “who do you say that I am?”, Simon Peter says,” you are the Messiah, the Son of the living God”. Jesus responds “ blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven”.
Jesus also DID claim to be God. He is recorded as saying, in John 8 verse 58 “before Abraham was, I am”. A very clear reference to the words spoken by Yahweh in Exodus to Moses. Moses asks God, who shall I say sent me? God replies, tell them, l am, has sent you.
I would though agree that Messiahs don’t normally get crucified. In saying this, the author makes the exact point that the Apostle Paul makes in 1 Corinthians. The cross of Christ, Paul says, is a “stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to gentiles”.
The glory and mystery of the Christian faith is that God turns our expectations on their heads. He brings us life through his sacrificial death. He defeats his enemies through mercy, love and grace. He gifts us salvation through faith in what he has done, not through what we bring.
Tomorrow I, with all my heart, will be celebrating Christ’s triumph over sin and death and hell through what he did on the cross – in the company of billions of other Christian believers around the world.
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life”. John 3:16

Francis MacGabhann
Francis MacGabhann
2 years ago

To quote a great man, opinions are like a**holes — everybody’s got one, and most of them stink. The author is, according to the blurb, a critic and literary theorist. He’s got no more qualification to speak with authority on these issues than a bin man. One extremely interesting writer who DOES have such authority is the biblical scholar Brant Pitrie. His books are fascinating and I would thoroughly recommend them to anyone with a curiosity on the scriptures.

gary.frank
gary.frank
2 years ago

Whatever else it might be, is the Bible not literature?

Andrew Lale
Andrew Lale
2 years ago

Hardy ha ha. Taking the mick out of Christianity, how terribly 20th century. Now do Islam.

JĂĄnos Klein
JĂĄnos Klein
2 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Lale

He already did – Jesus being a prophet for Islam.

Barry Stokes
Barry Stokes
2 years ago

Check out today’s Telegraph; there’s a fascinating piece on why Jesus took such a short time to die. It is written by an ex neurologist who subsequently became a priest.

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
2 years ago
Reply to  Barry Stokes

Any mention of the positioning of the nails?
The DT is currently forbidden by my Chief of Staff!

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
2 years ago
Reply to  ARNAUD ALMARIC

Nah, uses evidence of Turin shroud to reinforce biblical commentary about a dislocated shoulder from carrying the cross being exacerbated into a burst artery and huge internal bleeding – thus the purging by the soldier being so excessively bloody, and containing spinal fluid (‘water’) and accelerating death due to blood loss.

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
2 years ago
Reply to  Ian Stewart

Thank you.

Arnold Grutt
Arnold Grutt
2 years ago
Reply to  Ian Stewart

To which I can only say: LOL!

Kerry Godwin
Kerry Godwin
2 years ago

Jesus. If you only approach the god/man’s surface and attempt to dance rings around him, you will slip and land in a heap.

Nunya Business
Nunya Business
2 years ago

A simple response to this essay:

[citations needed]

AC Harper
AC Harper
2 years ago

You can make an argument that Jesus (if he existed as a single person rather than an amalgam of several) was an apocalyptic Jewish preacher whose main message was “The end of the world is coming in a few years, so get yourself right with God.” A message which might have appeared revolutionary, or at least dismissive, to the religious and secular ruling classes.
Render unto Caesar and ‘love one another’ could easily be merely memorable quotes from his preaching. Memorable quotes that made it into the Gospels and epistles that launched Christianity from the elaborations created around a Jewish preacher, preaching to the Jews, about a Jewish God.

Arnold Grutt
Arnold Grutt
2 years ago
Reply to  AC Harper

Quite. I have pointed out that the figure is portrayed as a Jew talking to other Jews about the nature of the Judaic tradition. Ironic that it has widened out in some cases to actual ‘anti-semitism’ right up to today.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
2 years ago

I knew it! Giles Fraser in fact fell for an ol’ days Corbyn! And the initials being the same is of course a dead giveaway!

Josef Oskar
Josef Oskar
2 years ago

I quite agree with the article. It brings some clarity as far as blaming the Jews for what happened 2000 years ago. The Roman rule was no cocktail party, they took over sometime around 5 BC and were deeply despising the local population. For example they were mocking the Jews for the observation of the weekly rest, the Shabbat. The Romans were accusing the Jews for lazing around for a seventh of their life.
They did not understand the sacrifices at the Main Temple which were mainly meant to provide food for the needy ones. They abolished them and the poor ones who were coming the get a piece of meat were left hungry.
The reasons for friction abounded and in the end the local population hated the Romans so much that it led to the famous revolt.
Three centuires later when Christianity became the official religion of the Empire, the Romans were in serious trouble to explain what happened.
It is also the beginning of the sistematic Jew hatred which is called antisemitism.

Last edited 2 years ago by Josef Oskar
Gareth Rees
Gareth Rees
2 years ago

That’s not Jesus! That’s Bwian, or Graham Chapman if you prefer. Very apt.

GA Woolley
GA Woolley
2 years ago

What was intended to be the most momentous event in human history, and the culmination of an almighty god’s plan for creation, had fewer witnesses than a village fete on Lundy. Bit of a PR failure, wasn’t it?

David Simpson
David Simpson
2 years ago
Reply to  GA Woolley

err, apparently not – how many billion people claim to be Christian today?

Wilfred Davis
Wilfred Davis
2 years ago
Reply to  GA Woolley

But still and all, everyone knows about it, wouldn’t you agree?

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
2 years ago
Reply to  GA Woolley

Yeah, only resulted in the Roman Empire adopting the religion a couple of centuries later. Massive failure.

Arnold Grutt
Arnold Grutt
2 years ago
Reply to  Ian Stewart

That’s the kind of ‘success’ that one earnestly wishes had never happened. It turned a basically fringe communist (in the proper sense) movement into an armed, state Church, with ‘soldiers’ for the faith. ‘Christus Imperator’ indeed.

Konstantinos Stavropoulos
Konstantinos Stavropoulos
2 years ago

Mayby the most biased article I have read in Unherd so far.

David Simpson
David Simpson
2 years ago

Sorry – biased against what?

David Simpson
David Simpson
2 years ago

And they say you’re an atheist

Antony Hirst
Antony Hirst
2 years ago

I’ll admit it, I didn’t bother reading the article. But to understand the full force of the Christian revolution, read Tom Holland’s absolute masterpiece “Dominion”.

Nicholas Taylor
Nicholas Taylor
2 years ago

Instead, in carnivalesque spirit, he sends up the whole notion of kingship by riding into the capital on the back of a donkey.” Really? According to Zechariah 9, v9: ‘Behold O Jerusalem of Zion, the King comes unto you meek and lowly riding upon a donkey.’ So was Jesus claiming to be the true King (secular Messiah), or was the whole story fabricated along with other ‘fulfilments’ of Old Testament prophesies necessary to give credibility to the Christian movement within its Jewish context? When I was at school, being spoonfed with gospel soup and cherrypicked tableaux from it, it would not have occurred to either children or teachers to ask whether thieves really could be crucified. I doubt that there is much more critical analysis at that level today. I think a safe starting point is to assume that the whole thing was fabricated by interested parties like Saul/Paul. Incidentally, that leaves little reason to accept the historical claims of any religion, even leaving out those that are obviously fantastic. Ancient religions just don’t observe the standards we expect today, and it is foolish to pretend that anything they say can be taken at face value.

Jerry Carroll
Jerry Carroll
2 years ago

The writer came up with a bucketful of filth from the polluted well he descended to in some dark corner of his imagination. How much longer will the ironic tone of the modern age continue to beguile us?

Gayle Rosenthal
Gayle Rosenthal
3 months ago

Jesus is the most famous Jew in history. In my personal view, his mission was to offer a Jewish identity to the Gentile by crystallization the heart of Judaism into a lifestyle that any human, circumcised or not, kosher or not, could adopt – to follow most of the Torah and to discover how God wanted us to live. In this way, YES, he was a revolutionary. His life is still a topic of conversation for historians, theologians, scientists, politicians, Jews and Christians alike. Jesus was a Hellenized Jew. The Greeks were overlords just before the Romans arrived. Jesus was from the Galilee whose governor was Herod, a political rival of Pilate. Herod was a great builder but was brutal and part Jew. Jesus was a political figure, and there were periods when the Kingdom of Israel was divided. The lines of division weren’t ideological but they were regional in a human way that humans are political animals.
Pilate was a slimy b*****d …. Who was he to mockingly ascribe Jesus as the “King of the Jews”? The Sanhedrin didn’t meet to vote on Jesus’s fate. Jesus was taken to Caiaphas’ home in the night where he was interrogated but not put on trial; this would not have been in his home. The Sanhedrin met in a public building. I repeat – Pilate was a slimy b*****d.
God does work in mysterious ways. Even though Jesus didn’t set out to form a new religion, but to welcome the Gentile into Jacob’s tent, over the past 2,000+ years, Christians think they have subsumed Judaism, but really they are now just scratching the surface. They haven’t replaced Jews, they just cooperated in killing off half the population of Jews in the Holocaust, and now they set their sites against the homeland of national identity for Jews, which is Israel. The Covenant was with Abraham. God killing his only son was not a kinder act than the binding of Isaac.
The more the non-Jew fights against and slanders the Jews and their peoplehood, the more they come to realize that they are a holy ghost away from actual membership in the tribe. I have always predicted that Christians will fulfill Jesus’s mission when they complete their conversions to Judaism. It became for me a personal prophecy when two Baptist teenagers came to my door 25 years ago to invite me to their church. When I explained the mezuzah on my doorway, the girl said to me …. “We are Baptist AND JEWISH ! ” My impulse to tutelage was stemmed by my realization that they were halfway to where Jesus wanted them. Most of her identity had already entered Jacob’s tent.
Jesus was the first sacrificial lamb to God’s experiment with the fallible humans. Six million were the next sacrifice to the lessons of humanity to the world. The 1,200 to 1,500 Jewish and non Jewish victims of the October 7 massacre, might teach the Islamic world a thing or two about their own foul religion.
I recently toured Tikal (Guatemala). I was there 45 years ago and toured the actual site of ancient human sacrifice to “gods”. Molech was the Middle Eastern and Canaanite god who “wanted” human sacrifice. Today’s version of human sacrifice is the use of human shields and suicide bombings. Islam is irredeemable. God has a very big hurdle to surmount with the Ishmaelites.

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
2 years ago

Of course whilst in Europe, Jesus is mere Signore, here he is an ariistocrat Lord Jesus…. educated at Eden College, and former Calvary Officer ….

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
1 year ago

a joke… I am a practising Roman Catholic!!!

baedwards1988
baedwards1988
2 years ago

Impressive writing, and convincing theory. Plenty of political zealots among us today that could be Jesus in the flesh.