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The usual suspects

I’m writing this article the day after ‘Palm Sunday’ and last week I was looking for inspiration for a children’s address on the subject. In less than a minute I came across the following on the web page of a children’s ministry:


Jesus entered into the city of Jerusalem with the crowd cheering his arrival. It was a thrilling day! A few days later, he shared the Passover meal with his disciples. But then later that night, he was arrested, and the next day he was brought to trial. The judge, Caesar [sic!], asked the crowd what he should do with their teacher, Jesus. And the same crowd that cheered him a few days before shouted again, only this time their words were not cheerful. They were ugly and mean. ‘Crucify him!’ they shouted. ‘Crucify him!’

The perception that ‘the same crowd that cheered [Jesus]’ on Palm Sunday subsequently called for the death of Jesus is far from uncommon. Take, for example, the third verse of Samuel Crossman’s otherwise beautiful hymn, My song is love unknown:

 

Sometimes they strew His way,

And His sweet praises sing;

Resounding all the way

Hosannas to their King:

Then ‘Crucify!’ is all their breath,

And for His death they thirst and cry.

 

Until relatively recently, I had never reflected on the patent absurdity of the idea that the people who sang the praise of Jesus on ‘Palm Sunday’ would, in the early hours of the following Friday, make their way to the palace of the Roman procurator to demand the crucifixion of the man on whose every word they had hung the previous day.

It ain’t necessarily so

What strikes us when we read the Gospels without preconceptions is that none of the Evangelists record that Jerusalem ‘welcomed’ Jesus or ‘cheered’ him when he entered the city (see Mt 21:1-11; Mk 11:1-11; Lk 19:28-44; Jn 12:12-19). The Gospel writers tell us, instead, that it was the crowd of pilgrims accompanying Jesus into the city who shouted ‘Hosanna!’ and hailed him as ‘the Son of David’: ‘The multitudes who went before and those who followed cried out, saying: “Hosanna to the Son of David! ‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the LORD!’ Hosanna in the highest!” And when He had come into Jerusalem, all the city was moved, saying, “Who is this?”’ (Mt 21:9-10).

 

In Exodus 12:1-7 the Israelites were instructed to take the Passover lambs into their homes from the tenth day of the first month until the fourteenth day. By the time of Jesus, the Passover festival had become formalised and lambs were brought into Jerusalem on the 10th day of Nisan, where they were examined for imperfections to determine their fitness for sacrifice. As the Lamb of God, it is highly likely, therefore, that Jesus entered Jerusalem on that same day where, during the next four days, he would be examined by his enemies before being declared by Pontius Pilate to be free from guilt. Matthew, in particular, reveals Jesus being examined by his enemies before being offered as the great antitype of the Passover Lamb.

 

The lions and the Lamb

The examination of Jesus began in the temple courts early the day after he entered Jerusalem. To the dismay of the Sadducees, Pharisees, elders, scribes and Herodians, immense crowds gathered to hear the young Rabbi from Galilee who had entered Jerusalem in such a spectacular fashion the previous day. So popular was Jesus that the chief priests and elders dared not attempt to arrest him publicly. Therefore, in order to silence him, they conspired to discredit him thoroughly and publicly.

 

Imagine the scene. Vast numbers in the temple courts are listening to Rabbi Yeshua. The atmosphere suddenly becomes electric as the people see the chief priests and elders approaching. There’s going to be trouble.

 

In front of the thousands who were eagerly listening to Jesus, the chief priests and elders demand to know who gave him the authority to teach. Jesus calmly responds that he will answer their question on the condition that they tell him the source of John the Baptist’s baptism. Answering a question with another question was and still is a very Jewish way of conducting a disputation but Jesus’ response is not unrelated to the question the rulers put to him. John the Baptist had publicly endorsed Jesus as the Son of God (Jn 1:34). If the temple authorities were to acknowledge that John’s baptism was ‘from heaven’, they would be implicitly acknowledging the authority of the man they were now challenging.

 

The adversaries of Jesus were on a back foot. The spiritual leaders of the nation were unable to answer a simple question that on the surface required just a ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ answer! But it was a loaded question. If John’s baptism was from heaven, why had they not answered John’s call to repentance? If they were to say that John’s baptism was ‘from men’ they would anger and alienate the people. Ignominiously, before the thousands of ordinary people who had recognised John as a man sent from God, they lamely claimed that they didn’t know where John’s authority came from. In that case, said Jesus, he was under no obligation to tell them where his authority came from. Argument over. The credit rating of Jesus immediately soared as excitement and jubilation surged through the temple court.

 

Between a rock and a hard place

In Matthew 22:15-22, Jesus is tested by some Pharisees who ask him whether it is right to pay taxes to Caesar. The Pharisees are attempting to force Jesus into the same position he had placed the priests and elders earlier. They know the multitude will not settle for an ‘I-don’t-know’ answer. Jesus will be damned whatever he answers. If he says no, the Pharisees will report him to Caesar’s representative Pontius Pilate, who will arrest Jesus and probably have him executed. If Jesus says yes, or if he pleads ignorance, the crowds will desert him en masse and look for another rabbi.

 

First of all, Jesus asks them to show him a coin. He forces them to produce a dinar, the coin used to pay the hated tax to Caesar. What were Torah-observant Jews who rejected graven images doing with a Roman coin on which was not only the image of Caesar but also the words ‘Son of God’? When they show him the coin, Jesus simply says to go and give to the Roman emperor what belongs to him and to God what belongs to God. End of argument.

 

The questions come thick and fast and, to first century Jews, each question is harder than the ones before. The battle between Jesus and his opponents reminds me of those martial arts movies in which one fighter after another takes on the hero until he walks away leaving a trail of groaning bodies behind. The Sadducees now size up to Jesus with a question about Scripture. The materialist Sadducees who rejected all Scripture except the five books of Moses, ask Jesus a question about the resurrection (which they did not believe in). They will accept no proof texts from any books other than those of the Torah and, as everyone knew, there were no references to an afterlife or the resurrection in the Torah. You can almost hear the cheers from the crowd as Jesus informs the Sadducees that they don’t know the Scriptures they claim to believe, or the power of God; the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is not the God of the dead but of the living.

 

The people who heard Jesus that week would have been talking far into the night about the way Jesus took on all comers and beat them. Yet we are expected to believe that those same people went to Pilate’s residence early on Friday morning to demand that the Roman governor crucify their hero!

 

The power of myth

Jesus was arrested and tried late at night precisely because if the people had had any inkling of what was going on, there would have been an outcry. The people loved Jesus. They believed him to be a prophet. They hung on every word he uttered. Luke records in chapter 23 of his Gospel that ‘a great multitude of the people followed Him, and women who also mourned and lamented Him.’ This great multitude of people, who no doubt sat at his feet in the temple, was not cursing Jesus but grieving for him.

 

Why does all this matter? Why is it important for us to recognise that the Jewish people as a whole did not crucify Jesus? First of all, because truth is important. We should all be concerned about truth.

 

Secondly, falsehood has malign consequences. The myth that ‘the Jews’ were –and still are – ‘Christ-killers’ has resulted in the deaths of millions of Jewish people through the centuries. After all, a people so malignant that they would – and could – kill God must have a limitless capacity for wickedness. Hence, in the Middle Ages, a crude and horrifying rumour spread across Europe that at Passover the Jews kidnapped and killed Christian children for the purpose of mixing their blood with the festival matzot (unleavened bread). Some anti-Semites continue to promote that lie and over the centuries the myth has mutated into various strains, including a modern day Islamic form.

 

Strip away the layers from every conspiracy theory and at the heart of it you will find ‘the Jews,’ whether those ‘Jews’ be ‘The Elders of Zion,’ the ‘Illuminati,’ or Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet. The ‘men in the shadows,’ in whose hands the rest of us are no more than puppets, are always ‘Jews.’ A people wicked and clever enough to kill the Creator of the Universe should have no difficulty pulling the wool over the eyes of mere mortals.

 

One of the biggest hindrances to Jewish mission is the Jewish perception that all Christians hold them uniquely responsible for the death of the Messiah. So long as the ‘Church’ continues to proclaim the mythic uniqueness of Jewish evil, why should the Jewish people listen to us when we speak to them of their Messiah? Jesus was tried in secret and handed over to the Roman governor by a small group of men whose only motive was self interest. The nation as a whole suffered the consequences of the actions of their leaders, as does any nation governed by knaves and fools, but the people themselves held Jesus and the apostles in high regard.

 

The Jewish people are sinners like the rest of us but they are not uniquely evil. On the contrary, they have contributed and continue to contribute to the world’s good in a unique way. And when, as a nation, they embrace Messiah, God’s word promises us that they will bless the nations as never before.

This article first appeared in the summer Herald 2014

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