Greg Gutfeld’s recent comments on Fox News in which he compared Bret Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee to the crucifixion of Christ continues a long tradition of blaming a mob to mask the true perpetrators of a crime. His allegorical mash-up has a dark history.
The brute historical fact about the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth is that Rome bore ultimate responsibility. He was crucified; that form of punishment was reserved for Roman execution of non-Romans. Masking that responsibility and shifting the blame somewhere else became a major driver in the development of the Christian tradition.
Paul, as usual our earliest evidence, faces the crucifixion head on and describes the cross as a skandalon, a stumbling block (1 Cor 1:23). Why? Because Rome’s crucifixion of Jesus makes a mockery of the claim that he was the messiah, the anointed, of God. The messiah should defeat his enemies, not be defeated by them. Paul places this oxymoron at the heart of his gospel.
Considering how the tradition develops after Paul, it is important to notice what Paul does not say. There is no mention, much less blame, of Jewish authorities or the Jews. Paul is completely silent on this. In his scenario, Rome alone is to blame. Jesus’ crucifixion is proof of Rome’s idolatry. They killed the messiah because they worshiped a false god, namely Rome.
Methodologically, we should test later accounts by what is and is not in Paul. The gospel accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion took shape after 70 ce, Rome’s destruction of Jerusalem, and during the long reign of the Flavian emperors (69–96 ce), whose policy of anti-Judaism is best represented in Domitian’s monument to his brother’s destruction of the temple, the Arch of Titus. The Flavian anti-Jewish policy is the context in which the gospels were written.
Mark’s gospel, the earliest extant gospel account, written sometime after 70 ce (how long after is anyone’s guess), is the source on which all other gospel accounts rely. No real evidence exists that the other gospel writers have independent evidence about the crucifixion of Jesus.
Mark’s gospel introduces the involvement of the Jewish authorities into the death of Jesus. They recruit Judas (Mark 14:10). The author introduces (fabricates?) a trial before the Jewish authorities. “And they brought Jesus before the chief priest, and all the chief priests and elders and scholars assemble” (14:53). Generations of scholars have tried to explain away all the problems inherent in this verse. How can you have a chief priest and chief priests? This trial scene, however improbable it is, serves to blame the Jewish authorities for Jesus’ death. It becomes something they sought. They charge Jesus with blasphemy (14:64) and seek his death.
Judas is first introduced in Mark’s gospel at the end of the list of the twelve as “Judas Iscariot who betrayed him” (3:19). Judas goes to the chief priests (again in the impossible plural) and they agree to pay him to betray Jesus (14:10). No amount is specified. Finally, Judas leads “a crowd, dispatched by the chief priests and the scholars and the elders, wielding swords and clubs” (14:43) to arrest him. Again, the Jewish authorities are the responsible agents.
Judas’ name is intriguing. While for us it is a proper name, in Greek Ioudas means “the Jew.” While it is a common name, is using it a coincidence or part of Mark’s strategy of shifting the blame for Jesus’ crucifixion to the Jews? Here begins the sleight of hand that shifts blame for Jesus’ death away from his actual Roman executioners to the Jewish people. Mark’s narrative sustains this strategy.
Mark envisions Pilate’s role in Jesus death almost as a neutral, inquiring bystander. After minimally questioning Jesus, the narrator reports: “Jesus still did not respond, so Pilate was astonished” (15:5). The Greek thaumazein means to marvel or wonder.
The Barabbas story adds another element to Mark’s strategy. There is no historical evidence for the custom of releasing a prisoner. Why would Rome release someone accused of insurrection, i.e., rebelling against Rome? The name Barabbas is intriguing. Bar Abba means “son of the father.” Abba, probably Jesus’ normal way of referring to God, was used by Jesus in his prayer in Gethsemane (14:36). Like the use of the name of Judas, is this a happy coincidence or Mark’s creation? My vote would favor Mark’s invention in both cases.
Pilate can find no evil that Jesus has done, but the chief priests continue to stir up the crowd. Mark writes, “[B]ecause Pilate was always looking to satisfy the crowd, he set Barabbas free for them, had Jesus flogged, and then turned him over to be crucified” (15:15). But Josephus’ picture of Pilate does not suggest that he would give in easily to the authorities or the crowd. Pilate was deposed by the consul Lucius Vitellius on the charge of cruelty.
The flogging or scourging is easily overlooked, but is the ancient equivalent of waterboarding, torture. Mark’s conclusion of Pilate’s story is telling: Pilate “turned him over to be crucified.” The passive description relieves Pilate of the responsibility and shifts it to others.
In Mark the crowd are not independent operators but are stirred up by the chief priests. Mark places the onus on the Jewish authorities, impossibly named “chief priests.”
The other three gospels are all variations or riffs on Mark’s narrative. While basically following Mark’s narrative, Matthew makes several innovations. The first is the elaboration of Judas’ story. Matthew introduces the note about thirty pieces of silver (26:14) and most significantly the grizzly suicide of Judas (27:3–10).
Matthew’s next innovation is Pilate’s wife’s message to her husband. “Don’t have anything to do with that innocent man, because I have agonized a great deal today over a dream about him” (27:19). The SV translates “innocent man” but the Greek reads diakaios, righteous, one of Matthew’s favorite words. Matthew describes Joseph at the gospel’s beginning (1:19) with this exact word. It certainly has resonance in the trial story but the SV translation is not wrong. Her dream, just like Joseph’s dreams, reveals God’s will. It establishes the innocence and righteousness of Jesus and the perfidy of those involved in his death.
The author’s final innovation has had disastrous results. At the conclusion of the Barabbas story, Matthew constructs a powerful scene. The author picks up on Mark’s theme of Pilate wishing to satisfy the crowd and escalates the tension. Pilate saw that “he was getting nowhere, but that a riot was starting instead.” So, he “washed his hands in full view of the crowd and said, ‘I’m not responsible for this man’s blood. That’s your business!’” (27:24) This moves well beyond Mark. Mark sought to mitigate Pilate’s guilt. Matthew has Pilate pronounce himself innocent of Jesus’ blood and shift the blame elsewhere.
Where? To the Jewish people. “[A]ll the people said, “So, smear his blood on us and on our children” (27:25). Or in the more traditional translation of the King James Version: “His blood be on us, and on our children.”
Matthew redescribes the anonymous crowd as “all the people” (laos) and not “people” in the generic sense, but in the telling sense of “our people.” Laos is often used to refer to Israel. Jesus is described in Matthew 1:21 as the one who will “save his people (laos)” and in 2:6 Bethlehem is described as a small place from which a leader will come “who will shepherd my people (laos), Israel.” Verse 27:25, a Matthean creation, clearly calls down the blood of the innocent Jesus on the head of the people of Israel.
Matthew 27:25 is the root of the Christian charge that Jews are God killers, which has led to pogrom after pogrom and finally to the Holocaust. This is also where the mob to which Gutfeld refers is created in the passion narrative. Gutfeld shifts the blame away from Bret Kavanaugh, the guilty party, and instead slanders the opposition to Kavanaugh’s confirmation with an ancient smear, one of the oldest tricks in the book.
In the traditional trope those who are persecuted are good, while those doing the persecuting are bad. In this equation Jesus and the Christians are good and the Jews are bad. The very fact of persecution exonerates the persecuted one(s) as good. Gutfeld has slotted Bret Kavanaugh (and by implication Republicans/Christians) in the role of those unjustly persecuted and the Democrats as persecutors and therefore, by definition, evil. What a convenient allegory.
Just as we should reject the continued Christian persecution of Jews and Christian anti-Semitism and should accept our responsibility for their persecution and anti-Semitism, so too we should reject Gutfeld’s attempt to blame-shift by applying this ancient slander.
There is no evading Christianity’s responsibility for anti-Semitism and Jewish persecution that stems directly from Matthew 27:25. But there is another way to understand Matthew’s most troubling and dangerous text. One aspect of this problematic text concerns Matthew’s implied reader, the kind of reader Matthew presupposed when he composed his gospel. Actual readers from the third century on have been gentiles, i.e., non-Jewish Christians and even more Christians who were increasingly anti-Jewish. Such real readers read this text as Jews calling down eternal condemnation on their own heads, which condemnation many Christians were only too willing to carry out.
But that is not the historical situation of Matthew’s gospel. The implied reader of Matthew’s gospel is clearly Jewish. Matthew is trying to convince his community, made up of Jewish followers of Jesus who have been expelled from the synagogue, that their future is among the ethne, the nations, i.e., those other people in contrast to our people (laos). He urges them to make disciples of all nations (ethne, Matt 28:19). Viewed in this light, the implied reader of Matthew’s gospel is not a gentile reader, but a Jewish reader who accepts responsibility for Jesus’s death. Thus, Matthew is making the same point as other gospel writers, that all are guilty of Jesus’ death, that Jesus was betrayed on our behalf.
Understanding Matthew’s historical situation should in no way absolve us of our responsibility for dealing with this difficult and most dangerous text. In the same way, it cannot excuse those who continue to use it to slander others. Depicting Bret Kavanaugh as a victim of persecution and therefore righteous exhibits the injustice and danger of this blame-shifting strategy.
This post is the opinion and contribution of the author. It does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Westar or its scholars. Westar welcomes diversity of thought. If you’d like to contribute to the blog, click here.
Bernard Brandon Scott is Darbeth Distinguished Professor Emeritus of New Testament at the Phillips Theological Seminary, Tulsa, Oklahoma. He is the author and editor of many books, including The Real Paul: Recovering His Radical Challenge and The Trouble with Resurrection. A charter member of the Jesus Seminar, he is chair of Westar’s newly established Christianity Seminar. He served as chair of the Bible in Ancient and Modern Media Section of the Society of Biblical Literature, as well as a member of several SBL Seminars including the Parable Seminar and Historical Jesus Seminar. He holds an A.B. from St. Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology, an M.A. from Miami University, and a Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University.
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