Friday, July 12, 2013
Against all the odds…
IT’S NOT the Jews, not even the Pharisees, not the Romans, but the closed society of temple hierarchy that is determined to be rid of the Wrong Messiah. He is not one of them. In reality, the death sentence has already been passed.
If the group before which Jesus was arraigned was in any sense a proper meeting of the Sanhedrin, of the 71 members only 23 needed to be there to pass sentence. Caiaphas would only have needed 22 of his supporters. That explains why Joseph of Arimathea, for example, could be part of the council but not part of the verdict. Mark’s account mentions scribes (required for the legal ruling) and elders, probably the city’s elder statesmen, but no Pharisees.
Jesus is charged, essentially, with planning a terrorist attack on the temple (Mark 14:56-61). Caiaphas then asks about Jesus’ messianic pretensions (Matthew 26:63-66; Mark 14:62-64), the only point where Jesus actually answers.
Jews did not view the Messiah as a divine figure, so this was less important to them. It was the claim to sit at the “right hand of the Mighty One” and “coming with the clouds of heaven” (Mark 14:61-62) which sealed it. Jesus was equating himself with God.
The verdict is given, Pilate’s involvement is sought for the death sentence. Pilate rejects the request but the temple authorities play the Galilean card. Galileans have caused trouble before. They say: “He stirs up the people with his teaching… from Galilee where he began, even to this place (Luke 23:5).
Pilate, a shrewd political player, has a score to settle with the Herodian princes after they forced him into an embarrassing climb down the previous year. So he resolves to push this on to Antipas, the Herodian ruler of Galilee. Jesus refuses to say anything to him, and he sends him back. Now Pilate has a political call to make. Does Jesus have popular support, in which case obliging the high priest would be a bad move? Offering a choice between Jesus and Barabbas would draw this out.
Among the people gathered in Jerusalem, many supported Jesus. However, this ‘all the people’ or crowd was one assembled by the temple elite, who were able to get them to do what they wanted, as Mark 15:11 states. Pilate feared a riot, and a bad report to his superiors, and the temple controlling faction plays on this by telling him: “If you release this man, you are no amicus Caesaris. Everyone who claims to be king sets himself against the Emperor” (John 19:12). Membership of the Amici Caesaris was a status award to high-ranking Romans. To lose it over a provincial riot would lead to being a political outsider. Pilate washes his hands of the incident and hands Jesus over to be flogged and then crucified.
The flogging was by soldiers who were Greek or Samaritan auxiliaries, who had their own reasons to humiliate a Jewish prisoner, and probably using the thorny parts of the date palm which grew all around, they force a headdress on him. It was the wrong crown for the wrong Messiah. What had been waved during Jesus’ entry to Jerusalem? Fronds from the same palm.
Jesus was put on a low, eye-level cross. At noon it went unnaturally dark – not an eclipse (not possible at full moon when Passover was held) followed a few hours later by something else that couldn’t happen, but did – the rending of the thick linen curtain of the inner temple. This was wrong, a sign: the end was nigh.
Jesus died, as much from the flogging as from the trauma of the cross, and was certified dead. His body was put in a cave-like tomb belonging to rich Sanhedrin member Joseph.
Forward 21 years and we have the first record that we can date exactly, Paul’s letter to the Corinthans, in which he summarises a piece of what had by now become early church doctrine:
“For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas (Peter), then to the Twelve. Then he appeared to more than 500 brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, although some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. (1 Corinthians 15:3-8)
‘All of the apostles’ is a group which would most likely have included some missionaries and teachers known to the early church and to the church in Corinth.
Something turned a huddle of frightened peasants into a world-changing phenomenon. Acts depicts the rapid growth of the church – 3000 were baptised on the day of Pentecost alone.
At the cross, Jesus’ male relatives appear to have been absent. But afterwards, according to Luke, the brothers were in Jerusalem (Acts 1:13-14).
Jesus’ brother James, who initially thought him deluded, ended up leading the first church in Jerusalem. Another of Jesus’s brothers, Jude, also became a prominent Christian.
There’s an interesting twist to the story of Jesus’ appearance to two walkers on their way to Emmaeus. One of the walkers was probably a member of Jesus’ family. Luke identified him as Cleopas (or Clopas), and a story from the early church tells how the successor to James as the leader of the Jerusalem church was a relative of Jesus, a man called Symeon son of Clopas.”He was a cousin, at any rate so it is said, of the Saviour; for indeed Hegesippus relates that Clopas was Joseph’s brother.”
Whatever we think of these accounts, including appearances to more than 500 people over a span of a few weeks, we cannot dismiss them as one or two people saying, “I saw him again, honest!” Clearly most of the people who saw Jesus were still alive at the time that Paul was writing.
There were a couple of messiah-like characters at around that time, but by contrast with Jesus, their memories were quickly forgotten. Some two years after the revolt against the Romans had erupted, a messianic movement arose among the Judaean peasantry, centred around a Davidic-style leader, Simon bar Giora, who led a successful attack on the Romans and put them out of Jerusalem for two years before being captured. The second revolt, 60 years later, was led by Simon bar Kokhba, who was overtly identified at the Messiah by Rabbi Akiba and who was also, for a time, a liberator. The first was beaten, scourged and executed, like Jesus. But neither left any lasting movement, and claims that they were the Messiah died with them.
The followers of Jesus, on the other hand, shouted it from the rooftops – and through believing, lives were demonstrably transformed. And that odd-shaped piece of rock that the builders wanted to throw in the skip, became the foundation of a radical new kind of building which is still being extended today.
Politics gets a bad name because power corrupts and politics is associated with that. Should we, based on the Sanhedrin’s poor showing, shun politics – or should we open to a leading to be ‘salt and light’ in political decision-making by engaging in ways that are open to us?
BUY THE BOOK! I hope you have enjoyed these posts edited from The Wrong Messiah by Nick Page. Nick has a rare gift of being able to combining thought-provoking scholarship with a readable, engaging style. It is really an excellent book, there is far more in it than these (mainly!) short posts and I strongly recommend that you buy a copy. You should find it in St Andrew’s or even lesser Christian bookshops – or of course on Amazon or Eden. ISBN 978 0 340 99628 7