April 15, 2022

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.