Workers' Liberty #59


The death of Jesus

There are indeed a few things that may be pointed out in the Gospels with a certain degree of plausibility as actual facts in the life of Christ: his birth and his death; two facts which indeed, if they can be proved, would show that Jesus actually lived and was not merely a mythical figure, but which throw no light whatever upon the most important elements in a historical personality: namely, the activities in which this person engages between birth and death. The hodgepodge of moral maxims and miraculous deeds which is offered by the Gospels as a report on these activities is so full of impossible and obviously fabricated material, and has so little that can be borne out by other evidence, that it cannot be used as a source.

By Karl Kautsky

Not much different is the case with the testimony as to the birth and death of Christ. Yet we have here a few indications that an actual nucleus of fact lies hidden under the mass of fabrications. We may infer the existence of some such basic facts if only from the circumstance that these stories contain communications that were extremely embarrassing for Christianity, which Christianity had surely not invented, but which were obviously too well-known and accepted among its adherents to have enabled the authors of the Gospels to substitute their own inventions for them, which they often did without hesitation in other cases.

One of these facts is the Galilean origin of Jesus, which was very inconvenient in view of his claims to be a Messiah of the line of David. For the Messiah had to come from the city of David. We have seen what peculiar subterfuges were required in order to connect the Galilean with this city. If Jesus had been merely a product of the imagination of some congregation with an exaggerated messianic vision, such a congregation would never have thought of making a Galilean of him. We may therefore at least accept his Galilean origin, and with it his existence, as extremely probable. Also, we may accept his death on the cross. We have seen that the Gospels still contain passages which permit us to assume that Jesus had planned an insurrection by the use of force, and had been crucified for this attempt. This also is such an embarrassing situation that it can hardly be based on invention. It is too sharply in contrast with the spirit prevailing in Christianity at the time when it was beginning to reflect on its past and to record the history of its origin. Not - be it remembered - for historical purposes, but for polemical and propaganda purposes.

The death of the Messiah himself by crucifixion was an idea so foreign to Jewish thought, which always represented the Messiah with the splendour of a victorious hero, that only a real event, the martyrdom of the champion of the good cause, producing an ineffaceable impression on his adherents, could have created the proper soil for the idea of the crucified Messiah.

When the pagan Christians accepted the tradition of this crucifixion, they soon discovered that it had a drawback: tradition declared that the Romans had crucified Jesus as a Jewish Messiah, a king of the Jews, in other words, a champion of Jewish independence, a traitor to Roman rule. After the fall of Jerusalem this tradition became doubly embarrassing.

Christianity was now in open opposition to the Jews, and wished to be on good terms with the Roman authorities. It was now important to distort the tradition in such a manner as to shift the blame for the crucifixion of Christ from the shoulders of the Romans to those of the Jews, and to cleanse Christ not only from every appearance of the use of force, but also from every expression of any pro-Jewish, anti-Roman ideas.

But as the evangelists were just as ignorant as the great mass of the lower classes in those days, they produced the most remarkable mixtures of colours in their retouching of the original picture.

Probably nowhere in the Gospels can we find more contradictions and absurdities than in the portion which for nearly 2000 years has always made the profoundest impression on the Christian world and stimulated its imagination most powerfully. Probably no other subject has been so frequently painted as the sufferings and the death of Christ. And yet this tale will bear no sober investigation, and is an aggregation of the most inartistic and crude devices.

It was only the power of habit which caused even the finest spirits of Christendom to remain obtuse to the incredible interpolations made by the authors of the Gospels, so that the elemental pathos involved in the crucifixion of Jesus, as well as in any martyrdom for a great cause, had its effect in spite of this mass of detail and imparted a brighter halo even to the ridiculous and absurd elements of the story.

The story of the Passion begins with Jesus's entrance into Jerusalem. This is a king's triumphal procession. The population comes out to greet him, some spread their clothes before him on the road, others chop down branches from the trees, in order to strew them on his path, and all shout to him with jubilation: "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 xi, 9).

Kings were received thus among the Jews (cf. Kings ix, 13, speaking of Jehu). The common people are attached to Jesus; only the aristocracy and bourgeoisie, "the high priests and scribes", are hostile to him. Jesus conducts himself as a dictator. He has sufficient strength to drive the sellers and bankers out of the Temple, without encountering the slightest resistance. He appears to have absolute control of this citadel of Judaism.

Of course this is a slight exaggeration on the part of the evangelist. If Jesus had ever possessed such great strength, it would not have failed to attract considerable notice. An author like Josephus, who relates the most insignificant details, surely would have had something to say on the subject. Besides, even the proletarian elements in Jerusalem, the Zealots, for instance, were never strong enough to govern the city without opposition. They encountered resistance again and again. If Jesus had been attempting to enter Jerusalem and purify the temple against the opposition of the Sadducees and Pharisees, it would have been necessary for him first to fight a victorious battle in the streets. Such street battles between the various Jewish factions were everyday events in Jerusalem at that time.

It is worthy of note, however, in the tale of his entrance, that the population is represented as greeting Jesus as the bringer of "the kingdom of our father David", in other words, as the restorer of the Jewish kingdom. This shows Jesus not only in the light of an opponent of the ruling class among the Jews, but also as opposing the ruling classes of the Romans. This hostility is surely not the product of a Christian imagination, but of the Jewish reality.

There now follow in the report of the Gospels the events that we have already treated: the order that the disciples obtain arms, the treason of Judas, the armed conflict on the Mount of Olives. We have already seen that these are remnants of an ancient tradition that later were no longer felt to be appropriate and were retouched to make them more peaceful and submissive in tone.

Jesus is taken prisoner, led to the high priest's palace and there tried: "And the chief priests, and all the council sought for witnesses against Jesus to put him to death; and found none. For many bore 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 xiv, 55, 56, 60-64).

Truly a remarkable form of court procedure. The court assembles immediately after the arrest of the prisoner, the same night, and not in the courthouse, which was probably on the Mount of the Temple, but in the palace of the high priest. What would we think in Germany of the reliability of an account of a trial for high treason, with the court reported as sitting in the Royal Palace in Berlin? False witnesses now appear against Jesus, but in spite of the fact that no one cross-examines them, and that Jesus makes no reply to their accusations, they can adduce nothing to incriminate him. Jesus is the first to incriminate himself by declaring that he is the Messiah. Wherefore all this apparatus of false witnesses if this admission is sufficient to condemn Jesus? Their object is solely to demonstrate the wickedness of the Jews. The death sentence is immediately imposed. This is a violation of the prescribed forms, on which the Jews at that time laid very careful stress. Only a sentence of acquittal could be pronounced by the court without delay; a condemnation could only be pronounced on the day following the trial.

But did the council at that time have the right to impose sentence of death at all? The Sanhedrin says: "Forty years before the destruction of the Temple Israel was deprived of the right to pronounce judgment of life and death."

We find this confirmed in the fact that the council does not execute the punishment of Jesus, but hands him over, after having tried him, to be tried again by Pilate, this time under the accusation of high treason against the Romans, the accusation that Jesus had intended to make himself king of the Jews and thus free Judea from the Roman rule. An excellent indictment to be drawn by a court of Jewish patriots!

It is quite possible, however, that the council had the right to pronounce sentences of death which required the approval of the Procurator for their execution.

Now what course does the trial take before the Roman potentate? "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 priest 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 xv, 2-15).

In Matthew, Pilate goes so far as to wash his hands in the presence of the multitude and to declare: "I am innocent of the blood of this just person: see ye to it. Then answered all the people, and said: his blood be on us, and on our children" (Matthew xxvii, 24, 25).

Luke does not tell us that the council condemned Jesus to death; the council simply denounced Jesus to 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 xxiii, 1-5) .

Luke is probably closest to the truth. Jesus is here accused of treason in the presence of Pilate and with courageous pride he does not deny his guilt. When asked by Pilate whether he is the king of Jews, in other words, their leader in the struggle for independence, Jesus declares: "Thou hast said it." The Gospel of Saint John is aware how awkward it would be to retain this remnant of Jewish patriotism, and therefore has Jesus reply: "My kingdom is not of this world," meaning: if it had been of this world, my subordinates would have fought. The Gospel of Saint John is the youngest; it therefore took a long time for the Christian writers to make up their minds thus to distort the original facts.

The case for Pilate was very clear. As a representative of the Roman power, he was merely doing his duty in having the rebel Jesus executed. But the great mass of the Jews had not the slightest cause to be indignant at a man who wished to have nothing to do with Roman rule and summoned them to refuse to pay taxes to the emperor. If Jesus really did so, he was acting in full accord with the spirit of Zealotism, then dominant in the Jerusalem population. It therefore follows from the nature of the case, if we assume the accusation in the Gospel to be true, that the Jews sympathised with Jesus, while Pilate was obliged to condemn him.

But what is the record in the Gospels? Pilate finds not the slightest guilt in Jesus, although the latter admits such guilt himself. The governor again and again declares the innocence of the accused, and asks what evil this man has done.

This alone would be peculiar. But still more peculiar is the fact that although Pilate does not recognise Jesus's guilt, he yet does not acquit him.

Now it sometimes came to pass that the Procurator found a political case too complicated to judge it himself. But it is unheard of that one of the emperor's officials should seek a solution of the difficulty by asking the masses of the people what was to be done with the accused. If he preferred not to pronounce condemnation in cases of high treason, he would have to send the accused to Rome, to the emperor. The Procurator Antonius Felix (52-60 A.D.), for example, acted thus. He enticed the head of the Jerusalem Zealots, the bandit chieftain Eleazar, who had harried the land for twenty years, to come to him, by promising him safe-conduct, then took him prisoner and sent him to Rome, besides crucifying many of his adherents.

Pilate might thus have sent Jesus to Rome. But Matthew assigns a most ridiculous role to Pilate: a Roman judge, a representative of the Emperor Tiberius, lord of life and death, begs a popular gathering in Jerusalem to permit him to acquit a prisoner, and on their deciding negatively, replies: "Well, slay him, I am innocent of this blood". But no quality could more violently contradict that of the historical Pilate than the clemency suggested in the Gospels. Agrippa I, in a letter to Philo, calls Pilate "an inexorable and ruthlessly severe character," and accuses him of "corruption, bribery, violence, theft, manhandling, insults, continuous executions without sentence, endless and intolerable cruelties."

His severity and ruthlessness produced such terrible conditions that even the Central Government at Rome became disgusted and recalled him (36 A.D).

And we are asked to believe that this man was exceptionally just and kind in the case of the proletarian seditionist Jesus, besides showing a degree of consideration for the wishes of the people that was of fatal outcome for the accused.

The evangelists were too ignorant to notice these difficulties. But they must have felt that they were assigning a peculiar role to the Roman governor. Therefore they looked for a cause that would make this role more plausible: they report that Pilate was accustomed to release a prisoner at Easter at the request of the Jews, and that when he offered to release Jesus they replied: "No, we should rather have the murderer Barabbas."

In the first place, it is peculiar that no such custom is mentioned anywhere except in the Gospels; such a custom would be contrary to the Roman practice, which did not give governors the right of pardon. And it is contrary to any orderly legal practice to assign the right of pardon to an accidental mob rather than to a responsible body. Only theologians could accept such legal conditions at their face value. But even disregarding this, even if we accept the right of pardon so peculiarly assigned to the Jewish mob that happens to be circulating in front of the Procurator's house, we must nevertheless ask what is the relation between this practice and the present case?

Jesus has not even been legally sentenced. Pontius Pilate is faced with the question: Is Jesus guilty of high treason or not? Shall I sentence him or not? And he answers with the question: Will you make use of your right of pardon in his favour or not? Pilate, instead of pronouncing judgment, appeals for pardon! If he considers Jesus innocent, has he not the right to acquit him?

Now follows a new absurdity. The Jews are supposed to have the right to pardon; how do they exercise this right? Do they content themselves with asking that Barabbas be freed? No, they also demand that Jesus be crucified! The evangelists apparently infer that the right to pardon one implies the right to condemn the other.

This insane judicial practice is paralleled by a not less insane political practice.

The evangelists depict for us a mob that hates Jesus to such an extent that it would rather pardon a murderer than him; the reader will please remember, a murderer - no more worthy object of clemency was available - and is not satisfied until Jesus is led off to crucifixion.

Remember that this is the same mob that only yesterday hailed him as a king with cries of hosanna, spread garments before his steps and greeted him jubilantly, without the slightest contradicting voice. And it was just this devotion on the part of the mob that constituted - according to the Gospels - the cause for the desire on the part of the aristocrats to take Jesus's life, also preventing them from attempting to arrest him by daylight, making them choose the night instead. And now this same mob appears to be just as unanimous in its wild, fanatical hatred against him, against the man who is accused of a crime that would make him worthy of the highest respect in the eyes of any Jewish patriot: the attempt to free the Jewish community from foreign rule.

Has anything happened to justify this astonishing mental transformation? The most powerful motives would be needed as an explanation of such a change. The evangelists merely utter a few incoherent and ridiculous phrases, if anything at all. Luke and John assign no motives; Mark says: "The high priests incited the multitude against Jesus"; Matthew: "They persuaded the multitude." These turns of phrase merely show that the Christian writers had lost even the last remnant of their political sense and political knowledge.

Even the most brainless mob cannot be talked into fanatical hatred without some motive. This motive may be foolish or base, but there must be a motive. The Jewish mob in the Gospels exceeds the most infamous and idiotic stage villain in its stupid villainy. For without the slightest reason, without the slightest cause, it clamours for the blood of him whom it venerated but yesterday.

The matter becomes still more stupid when we consider the political conditions of the time. Distinguishing itself from almost all the other portions of the Roman Empire, the Jewish community had a particularly active political life, presenting the highest extremes of all social and political oppositions. The political parties were well-organised, were by no means mobs beyond control. The lower classes of Jerusalem had been completely imbued with Zealotism, and were in constant sharp clash with the Sadducees and Pharisees, and filled with the most savage hatred against the Romans. Their best allies were the rebellious Galileans.

Even if the Sadducees and Pharisees succeeded in "inciting" certain of the people against Jesus, they could not possibly have brought about a unanimous popular demonstration, but at most a bloody street-battle. There is nothing more ridiculous than the notion that the Zealots would dash with savage cries, not against the Romans and aristocrats, but against the accused rebel whose execution they force from the jelly-fish Roman governor, in spite of the governor's strange infatuation for the traitor.

No one ever invented anything more outrageously childish. But with this effort to represent the bloody tyrant Pilate as an innocent lamb, and to make the native depravity of the Jews responsible for the crucifixion of the harmless and peaceful Messiah, the genius of the evangelists is completely exhausted. The stream of their invention runs dry for a bit and the original story again peeps through at least for a moment: After being condemned, Jesus is derided and maltreated - but not by the Jews - by the soldiers of the same Pilate who has just declared him innocent. Pilate now has his soldiers not only crucify Jesus, but first has him scourged and derided as King of the Jews; a crown of thorns is put upon his head, a purple mantle folded about him, the soldiers bend the knee before him, and then they again beat him upon the head and spit on him. Finally they place upon his cross the inscription, "Jesus, King of the Jews."

This again brings out the original nature of the dénouement.

Again the Romans appear as Jesus's bitter enemies, and the cause of their derision as well as of their hatred is his high treason, his claim to be King of the Jews, his effort to shake off the Roman yoke.

Unfortunately, the simple truth does not continue to hold the floor for long. Jesus dies, and it is now necessary to furnish proof, in the form of a number of violent theatrical effects, that a god has passed away: "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 xvii, 50-53).

The evangelists do not report what the resurrected "saints" accomplish in and after their joint outing to Jerusalem, whether they remain alive or duly lay themselves down again in their graves. In any case, one would expect that such an extraordinary event would have made a profound impression on all eye-witnesses and convinced everyone of the divinity of Jesus, but the Jews still remain obstinate; again it is only the Romans who recognise the divinity.

"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 xxvii, 54).

But the high priests and Pharisees on the other hand still declare Jesus to be an imposter (xxvii, 63), and when he is resurrected from the dead the only effect is that the Roman eyewitnesses become richer by the bribe we have already mentioned, in payment for their declaring the miracle to be an imposture.

Thus, at the end of the story of the Passion, Jewish bribery transforms the honest Roman soldiers into tools of Jewish treachery and baseness, which had shown devilish hatred in fighting the sublimest divine clemency. In this entire tale the tendency of servility toward the Romans and hatred for the Jews is laid on so thick and expressed in such an accumulation of monstrosities that one would think it could not have had the slightest influence on intelligent persons, and yet we know that this device worked very well. This tale, enhanced by the halo of divinity, ennobled by the martyrdom of the proud proclaimer of a high mission, was for many centuries one of the best means of arousing hatred and contempt for the Jews, even in the most benevolent minds of Christendom; for Judaism was nothing to them, and they kept aloof from it; they branded the Jews as the scum of humanity, as a race endowed by nature with the most wicked malice and obstinacy, that must be kept away from all human society, held down with an iron hand.

But it would have been impossible ever to secure a general acceptance of this attitude toward the Jews, if it had not arisen at a time of a universal hatred and persecution of the Jews.

Arising at a time when the Jews were outlawed, it has immensely aggravated this condition, prolonged its duration, widened its sphere. What we know as the story of the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ is in reality only an incident in the history of the sufferings of the Jewish people.

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