There are certain advantages in being Jewish when attempting to understand
the Gospels, especially if one has been brought up in close contact with
the Jewish liturgy, the ceremonials of the Jewish religious year, the rabbinical
literature, and the general Jewish moral and cultural outlook. Many aspects
of the Gospels ... are for the Jew as familiar as the air he breathes.
When Jesus drank wine and broke bread at the Last Supper, he was doing
what a Jew does every time he performs the Kiddush ceremony before a Festival
or Sabbath meal. When Jesus began his prayer with "Our Father that
art in heaven..." he was following the pattern of Pharisee prayers
which still form part of the Jewish Daily Prayer Book. When he spoke in
parables and used startling phrases (such as "swallow a camel"
or "the beam in thine own eye") he was using methods of expression
familiar to any student of the Talmudic writings.
At the same time, a Jew reading the Gospels is
immediately aware of aspects which do not seem authentic; for example,
the accounts of Pharisees wanting to kill Jesus because he healed on the
Sabbath. The Pharisees never included healing in their list of activities
forbidden on the Sabbath; and Jesus's methods of healing did not involve
any of the activities that were forbidden. It is unlikely that they
would have disapproved, even mildly, of Jesus's Sabbath-healing. Moreover,
the picture of bloodthirsty, murderous Pharisees given in the Gospels contradicts
everything known about them from Josephus, from their own writings, and
from the Judaism, still living today, which they created.
So here we have a contradiction in the Gospels between those passages
which seem authentic and those which do not. To a Jew studying the Gospels
the contradiction is manifest, and ... the issue widens as he considers
the religion based upon the Gospels, Christianity itself, with its mixture
of Jewish, non-Jewish, and anti-Jewish elements.
How does it come about that a religion which borrows so heavily from
Judaism has, for the major part of its history, regarded the Jews as pariahs
and outcasts? In a civilization based on the Hebrew Scriptures, a civilization
whose languages are permeated with Hebrew idioms, the Jews have been treated
with extraordinary hate, culminating in the Holocaust of 6,000,000 European
Jews during the Second World War.
Religion and Revolt: The Pharisees
The motive force behind the Jewish Resistance was the Jewish religion.
This is a difficult point for the modern reader to grasp because we are
not used to thinking of religion as a political, activist, revolutionary
force. Also, the picture of the Jewish religion given in the New Testament
is that of a rigid Establishment clinging to the status quo.... There is
no indication in the New Testament of any conflict between Jewish religion
and Roman power. In fact, the whole issue of Roman power is played down
to such an extent that there is hardly a hint of any opposition
to Rome. The aim of the Gospels is to present the revolutionary issue of
the day as between Jesus and the Jewish Establishment. The fact
that there was a Roman Establishment against which revolutionary forces
existed is veiled so that the Establishment against which Jesus rebelled
can be represented as entirely Jewish.
There was a small religious party, the Sadducees, who were collaborationists,
that supported the status quo and accepted official posts under the Romans....
The High Priest himself was a Sadducee, and it is one of the most important
points to grasp in New Testament studies that the High Priest was appointed
by the Romans. As a member of a quisling minority group he was regarded
with contempt by the great mass of the nation. Religious authority lay
not with the priests but with an entirely different body of people called
the Rabbis, the leaders of the Pharisees.
Thus the picture given in the Gospels of a Jewish religious Establishment
which supported the status quo is true insofar as it relates to the Sadducees,
who were ... established by the Romans. As far as the mass of Jewish people
were concerned the true Establishment was the dispossessed party of the
Pharisees who held no positions of political power and whose leaders neither
sought nor received recognition from Romans.... So from the first to the
last, the Resistance against Rome came from the Pharisee party.
This statement will come as a surprise to those whose knowledge of the
Pharisees depends on New Testament accounts. The Pharisees there are represented
as being concerned only to safeguard their own official positions.... The
Romans are such shadowy figures in the Gospels that the question of whether
to resist or collaborate with them hardly arises. The powers-that-be are
the Jews; Pilate the Roman appears only as a background figure on whom
the Jews call in their vendetta against Jesus and whom they have to manipulate
and mislead in various ways in order to wreak their vengeance.
If the longing for the Messiah had been no more than a desire for political
independence it would not have had the power to inspire such extraordinary
resistance. In other countries patriotism had produced great heroism against
Rome but nothing so prolonged and determined as the Jewish efforts which
by this obstinacy and courage aroused the wonder, fear, and hatred of Roman
historians. The Messianic ideal arose from the whole "weltanschauung"
of the Jewish people which was unique in the ancient world. The Messianic
ideal arose out of monotheism.
Monotheism unified human history into a single process tending towards
one final aim, the fulfilling of the purposes of God in creating the world.
The idea of a Messianic age providing the dénouement of the cosmic
drama is inherent in monotheism. Polytheism, on the other hand, provided
no such cosmic drama. Each nation had its own gods and there was no overriding
purpose for mankind. History, in polytheistic cultures, was regarded as
cyclic. Nations like individuals had their life-cycles of youth, maturity,
and decline. Even the gods had these life-cycles; and above both gods and
men was an inexorable, indifferent Fate. Only the Jews claimed to be in
contact with this supreme immortal Fate, claiming also that it was not
indifferent to mankind but a loving Father who molded the process of history.
This concept of progress in history towards a final Utopia has been the
inspiration of the progressive and utopian tradition in Western culture
-- so much so that it is difficult nowadays to visualize the uniqueness
of this idea in the ancient world.
As well as being a source of unquenchable optimism, Monotheism was unable
to acknowledge defeat. Polytheistic nations could admit that their gods
had proved weaker than those of Rome; or could succumb to Roman syncretism
by which the undefeated gods were identified with the gods of Rome
(e.g., Jupiter/Zeus/Ammon). The Jewish God, the creator of Heaven
and Earth, could not submit to such annexation.... When the Jews were in
fact defeated it meant not that God had been defeated but that God's people
had failed in their mission and must re-dedicate themselves by repentance.
This is the meaning of the campaigns of repentance ... which accompanied
a Messianic movement.... Monotheism began as the religion of a band of
runaway slaves; and it expressed their determination not to submit to any
oppressive individual or class again.
The King of the Jews
The Gospels show Jesus ... repeatedly prophesying his own death in Jerusalem
and subsequent resurrection. The disciples are shown as failing to understand
these prophesies, and at one point there is even a serious quarrel between
Jesus and Peter on this very issue. While we may reject the idea that Jesus
expected his own death in Jerusalem, it is quite possible that there was
at this time some dissension between Jesus and his chief followers, the
Twelve. The subject of dissention, most probably, was the plan of resistance
to be followed against the Romans. Jesus's disciples, with their Zealot
background, may have wished to organize a full-scale resistance. The country-wide
enthusiasm for the advent of Jesus as Prophet-King must have seemed an
ideal opportunity for mobilizing a large army to engage the Romans in battle.
Jesus, on the other hand, was a convinced apocalyptist, who considered
that the fight against Rome would be won largely by miraculous means, and
therefore made no serious military preparations.... Jesus was no political
or military opportunist. He was prepared to stake his life on his belief
that his mission was of cosmic proportions. To drive out the Romans by
force of arms, as Judas Maccabaeus had driven out the Greeks, was not his
purpose; such success would only lead to the founding of one more dynasty
like the Hasmoneans. Jesus would inaugurate the kingdom of God, a new era
in world history, or nothing....
The Triumphal Entry was the high point of Jesus's political career.
The apocalyptic hopes which had centered around him, first as a Prophet
and then as a Prophet-King, burst into an ecstatic welcome as the teeming
crowds of Jerusalem ... hailed him with the cry, "Hosanna! Save us!"
What was the date of Jesus's Triumphal Entry? According to the Gospels,
it was at the time of the Feast of Passover, i.e., in the spring. However,
there are many indications that this was not so, and that the Triumphal
Entry in fact occurred in the autumn, the time of the Jewish festival known
as the Feast of Tabernacles.
The whole series of events from the Triumphal Entry to Jesus's crucifixion
(including the enquiry by the High Priest, a trial before the Sanhedrin,
a trial before Herod Antipas, and a trial before Pilate, not to mention
various previous activities such as the Cleansing of the Temple, the preaching
in the Temple, and the Last Supper) is supposed to have taken six days
... This is an impossible speeding-up of human political and judicial proceedings
... The history to be argued here is that Jesus's Triumphal Entry took
place just before the Feast of Tabernacles, and his execution took place
on the Feast of Passover, about six months later.
The most obvious feature that points to autumn as the date of the Triumphal
Entry is the palms which were in evidence on Palm Sunday. At Passover time,
there are no palm branches in the region, and it is unlikely that Jesus's
admirers would have greeted him with withered palm branches left over from
the previous autumn. Furthermore, palm branches played (and still play
today) an essential part in the rites of the Festival of Tabernacles. The
"branches of trees" mentioned in the Triumphal Entry accounts
are also important in these rites, being used in profusion to roof over
the "tabernacles" or booths which give the festival its name,
and to accompany the use of the palms (see Leviticus xxii. 40).
A curious confirmation of autumn being the time of the Triumphal Entry
can be found in the story of Jesus cursing the fig tree, which happened
immediately after his Entry. Jesus, apparently, came across a fig tree
without fruit, and said, "Let no fruit grow on thee henceforth for
ever"... Now this must have occurred in the autumn, as no one would
expect to find a fig tree bearing fruit in the spring. The reason for Jesus's
angry reaction is probably this: the Hebrew Prophets had foretold that
the time of the Messiah would be one of unprecedented fertility of plants
and animals (Joel ii. 22: "...the fig tree and the vine do yield their
strength"). Jesus, with his Galilean belief in evil spirits, may have
thought that the fig tree contained an evil spirit that was fighting against
the kingdom of God.
Use of the cry "Hosanna" by the crowd (Hebrew, "hosha-na,"
meaning "save, please") also confirms an autumn date for Jesus's
Entry. This cry has a special liturgical use in the rites of Tabernacles,
and in no other festival. The cry was addressed to God, not to Jesus, and
meant something like "Save us, God, through your Messiah." The
word "save" is especially associated, throughout the Hebrew Scriptures,
with God's mercies through rulers and fighters who protected Israel against
their enemies. A prayer for such salvation was offered up in the Feast
of Tabernacles and would have been especially fitting as an accompaniment
to Jesus's Entry on a mission of salvation.
This leads us to an even more important point: that the Feast of Tabernacles
was in a special sense a Royal festival. In general, the Jewish royal family
had little part to play in the ceremonials of the Jewish religion; but
the exception was the Feast of Tabernacles. In this festival, the King
actually entered the Temple Court and read aloud "the paragraph of
the King," i.e., the portion of the Mosaic Law relating to his duties
(Deut. xvii. 14-20)....
The Reading of the Law by the King was performed every seven years.
No doubt Jesus timed his Entry to coincide with the end of the Year of
Release, on the expiry of which the King's Reading of the Law took place.
He would have carefully planned the timing of his Coronation and his Royal
Progress so that he arrived in Jerusalem just in time for the Festival.
He would then enter the Temple Court as King and renew the rite performed
by his great predecessors on the Jewish throne. This act more than any
other would signalize his accession to the throne and his intention to
carry out the duties of king and savior.
One particular figure must have been in Jesus's mind, namely his great
ancestor, King Solomon.... It was on the Feast of Tabernacles that Solomon
performed the Dedication of the First Temple, offering a long, moving prayer
to God, standing on a platform specially built in the Temple Court.
We can see now why Jesus's first action on entering Jerusalem was the
Cleansing of the Temple. This action has been much trivialized by the Gospel
writers, who have presented it as an individual demonstration in which
Jesus chased out the money changers with a whip. The action was far more
important than this: Jesus, as rightful King, carried out a thorough-going
reform of the Temple, cleansing it from the corruptions of its venal Sadducean
High-Priesthood. Jesus was at the height of power. Though he had no organized
army, the Jewish masses applauded his every move. The Temple police, who
would have acted sharply against mere individual violence, were powerless
to hinder Jesus's reforms. He may have even appointed a new High Priest,
which as King he was entitled to do. (This is the first thing that the
insurgents did in the Jewish War of 66 A.D.).
Having cleansed the temple administration, Jesus must have carried through
his plan of re-dedicating the Temple for the Messianic age by appearing
in the Temple Court, like Solomon at the Dedication of the First Temple,
to read "the paragraph of the King." No doubt, like Solomon too,
he took the occasion to address a prayer to God for his new regime, and
perhaps to give a prophetic message to the people. So much we can gather
from a confused and garbled account, found only in the Gospel according
to John, of a visit by Jesus to the Temple on the Feast of Tabernacles
-- though John represents this visit as being a distinct occasion from
the Triumphal Entry.
The parallel between Jesus and Solomon throws light on a charge that
was later made against Jesus: that he threatened to destroy the Temple
and rebuild it ... It is quite possible that Jesus did declare an intention
to destroy and rebuild the Temple, once his Kingdom was fully established.
The Temple which Jesus now ruled had been built by Herod the Great, known
to the Pharisees as Herod the Wicked. The Pharisees had given their reluctant
consent to Herod's rebuilding of the Temple, but despite its superb beauty,
they never expected his Temple to last into the reign of the Messiah. If
Jesus had indeed proved himself to be the King-Messiah by expelling the
Romans, the Pharisees would not have objected to his destroying Herod's
Temple and building another; they would have expected him to do so....
Why should the purified and re-dedicated Jewish people, restored to freedom,
worship God in a temple built by the corrupt Herod? There is nothing here
that the Pharisees would have regarded as blasphemous, or that would have
frightened anyone except the High Priest, Caiaphas, and his clique....
The charge of planning to destroy and rebuild the Temple was part of the
indictment against Jesus, not as a blasphemer or rebel against Judaism,
but as a rebel against the quisling regime of the High Priest.
Thus the dating of the Triumphal Entry in the autumn, rather than the
spring, makes much more sense of the whole series of events; this is just
the time that someone putting himself forward as the Messiah would have
chosen to enter Jerusalem. One more important argument has not yet been
mentioned. The prophesy of Zechariah says that the great battle of the
Last Days would take place in the autumn, at the time of the Feast of Tabernacles.
On the anniversary of this great event, all the nations of the earth would
be required to come to Jerusalem to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles
in Messianic times (Zech. xiv. 16). When Jesus entered Jerusalem riding
on the colt of an ass, he was committing himself to Zechariah's concept
of the Last Days. Those who knew thier Scripture (and many did) would know
from Jesus's manner of entry what his intentions were -- to engage the
Romans in battle before the Feast of Tabernacles came to an end.
Why then did the Gospel writers (probably following an already established
Gentile-Church tradition) place the Triumphal Entry in the spring? The
most likely reason is that to the Gentile-Christians the important event
in Jesus's life was his death by crucifixion, which they came to
regard as the real point of the story. It seemed more dramatic therefore
to telescope events, subordinating them all to the Crucifixion and crowding
them all into the last scene of the play. The Crucifixion took place in
the spring; this, therefore, became the time of all the culminating events
of Jesus's life.
In the resurrection cults of Adonis, Attis, and Osiris, the death and
resurrection of the Young God took place in the spring. The Triumphal Entry,
therefore, would accord with the feting of the Young God before his sacrifice
in these cults; and it would therefore be felt right to move the Triumphal
Entry much closer to the Sacrifice to which it was now merely the preliminary.
The appeal of Christianity to the ancient world depended a good deal on
To Jesus, however, who expected success, not failure, and who would
not have understood the romantic apotheosis of failure, the natural time
for his arrival in Jerusalem was the autumn, the time of the harvest-rejoicing.
Many of Jesus's parables compare the coming of the kingdom of God to the
harvest time. This was the most joyous time of the Jewish year, when the
New Year period of purification was over, the harvest was secure, and the
time for thanksgiving had arrived. The Feast of Tabernacles is the only
one of which Scripture says "And you shall be wholly joyful."
Passover, the spring festival, was the time of beginning salvation, the
anniversary of the Exodus from Egypt, the beginning of the Jewish story.
But the triumphant end of the story could be expected to occur in the autumn;
just as King Solomon celebrated in the autumn the end of a long period
of tribulation and the inauguration of a Messianic Reign....
The Day of the Lord
Jesus's reign as King of the Jews in Jerusalem lasted for less than
a week. What happened during that week? According to the Gospels, the only
positive action performed by Jesus was his Cleansing of the Temple. After
that, apparently, he confined
himself to teaching and preaching in the Temple until the time of his
arrest. From the argument of the last chapter, we see that Jesus did much
more than this. The Cleansing of the Temple was not an isolated incident
but a full reform, entailing the occupation of the Temple area by Jesus
and his followers. As in so many other insurrections of this kind described
by Josephus, Jesus would have made himself master of part only of
Jerusalem. Most of Jerusalem would still have been held by the Roman troops
of Pilate and the Jewish troops of the High Priest. From the point of view
of Pilate and Caiaphas, the insurrection was not a great affair. For a
few days (as they would have put it) a deluded fanatic with mob support
was able to hold a limited area of Jerusalem, including the Temple grounds,
thereby interrupting the jurisdiction of the High Priest temporarily. The
Temple services were not interrupted, for Jesus allowed the vast majority
of the priests to remain at thier posts, ejecting only those closely associated
with the quisling Caiaphas.
However, for those few days, Jesus reigned supreme in the Temple area.
The Gospels make it clear that the High Priest was unwilling to attempt
the arrest of Jesus because of the strong popular support given him by
the Festival crowd. Caiaphas probably calculated that it would be better
to wait until the first wave of enthusiasm was over and then catch Jesus
off guard. He did not ask for the aid of Roman troops at this stage because
he thought he would be able to handle the matter himself.
Jesus's appearances in the Temple during those few days would have been
as a Prophet-King, not as the preacher portrayed in the Gospels. His performance
of the Tabernacles rites of the King was a political act of great significance,
consolidating his claim to the Messiahship. His preaching was no doubt
of an apocalyptic character, as the Gospels indeed show, but not prophesying
his own death and the doom that would come on the Jews and the Temple;
these prophesies were inserted in the Gospels after the defeat of the Jews
and the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70 A.D.
Jesus did not spend all his time in the Temple area during his few days
of kingship. In the evenings he went to the Mount of Olives, on the east
of Jerusalem, about a mile outside the city. The prophesy of Zechariah
on which Jesus was particularly relying states that the location of the
miracle would be the Mount of Olives. This mountain was of great religious
significance, especially for a Messiah, for not only was it the location
of the expected miracle, it was also the place where David used to pray.
Moreover, it was here that the prophet Ezekiel had seen the appearance
of the "glory of God" for which Jesus was waiting.
We come to the incident known as the Last Supper. It follows from the
argument of the last chapter that this took place not at Passover time
but during the Feast of Tabernacles. In the Gospels the Last Supper has
been overlaid with myth serving three purposes: to show that Jesus foresaw
and intended his own death on the cross; to show how Judas Iscariot became
... determined to betray Jesus; and to show that Jesus instituted the rite
of Communion, with its pagan symbolism of eating the flesh and drinking
the blood of the god.
No trace is revealed of any of the special rites of a Passover "Seder,"
such as the eating of unleavened bread, the eating of the Paschal lamb,
the bitter herbs, and the relating of the Exodus from Egypt. The only special
rite of the Tabernacles, as regards eating, is the taking of meals in the
Succah, or booth (from which the festival takes its name). Of this there
is some trace in the odd reference to an "upper room," described
in Mark as "strewn over." The ritual booths or "Tabernacles"
were often constructed on the flat roofs of houses, so the "upper
room" may in fact have been a "tabernacle" which was "strewn
over" with tree branches in the prescribed manner.
The feature of Sanctification ("Kiddush") with wine and bread
is common to all Jewish festivals, and applies to Tabernacles as much as
to Passover. There is no mystical symbolism of "flesh" and "blood"
in the Jewish use of bread and wine in the ceremony of Kiddush. The wine
is used first to pronounce a blessing on the Festival. The bread is then
used as a ceremonial beginning to the Festival. Jesus would have been appalled
to know of the pagan interpretation later put on the simple Kiddush with
which he began the Last Supper.
Jesus had no foreknowledge of his failure and crucifixion. The Last
Supper was a celebration with his closest disciples of his appearance as
King and the imminent overthrow of the Roman power. After preparing himself
by several nights of prayer on the Mount of Olives, Jesus was convinced
that "the day of the Lord" was close at hand, and he called together
his disciples for a final strengthening of the bond between them before
their crucial testing time. The atmosphere must have been extremely tense.
They were about to embark on a great venture on which the fate of their
country and the whole world would depend. But the special poignancy and
drama of the Gospel accounts are the product of hindsight and of the myths
that grew up later to explain Jesus's failure.
The Last Supper would also have been regarded as a foretaste of the
great Supper and Feast which would take place if Jesus were successful.
Jewish legend, prophesying Messianic times, contained many details of the
great Messianic Feast at which the Leviathan would be eaten and all the
great heroes of Jewish history would be present. This is no doubt what
Jesus meant when he said at the Last Supper, "Verily I say unto you,
I will drink no more the fruit of the vine until that day that I drink
it new in the kingdom of God." Their next meal would be the Messianic
Feast itself, in celebration of victory over God's enemies, the Romans.
After the Last Supper, Jesus led his disciples, as usual, to the Mount
of Olives. But this time there was a difference. Jesus was convinced that
this was the night on which God would appear in glory and overthrow the
foreign invaders of his Holy Land. Accordingly, he required his disciples
to equip themselves with swords. Two swords were produced, and Jesus said,
"It is enough." The Messiah and his followers, like Gideon and
his tiny band, would be required to fight, for the prophesy of Zechariah
had said, among its awesome predictions of God's intervention, "And
Judah also shall fight at Jerusalem." But two swords would be enough:
the miracle would be even greater than in the case of Gideon.
Only Luke ... has retained the incident of the swords. He could have
no possible motive in inventing it, for it goes against the whole grain
of his narrative. The only possible explanation of its inclusion is that
it is a survival from the original story which only Luke was not ruthless
enough to excise. The Gospel writers were following the outline of an older
Gospel. To twist this Gospel to a new meaning required courage of a kind;
sometimes thier nerve may have failed them. This would explain why bones
of the old narrative can sometimes be seen jutting out uncomfortably from
the body of the new.
Jesus was now determined to put to the test his interpretation of the
prophesy of Zechariah. It may be useful, therefore, to have before us this
prophesy, which was of such fateful importance for Jesus:
Then shall the Lord go forth, and fight against these nations, as
when he fought in the day of battle. And his feet shall stand in that day
upon the mount of Olives which is before Jerusalem in the east, and the
mount of Olives shall cleave in the midst thereof toward the east and toward
the west, and there shall be a great valley; and half the mountain shall
move toward the north, and half of it toward the south. And ye shall flee
to the valley of the mountains ... and the Lord my God shall come, and
all the saints with thee. And it shall come to pass in that day, that the
light shall be known to the Lord, not day nor night: but it shall come
to pass that at evening time it shall be light ... And the Lord shall be
king over all the earth: in that day shall there be one Lord, and his name
one ... And this shall be the plague wherewith the Lord will smite all
the people that have fought against Jerusalem. Their flesh shall consume
away while they stand upon their feet, and their eyes shall consume away
in thier holes, and their tongue shall consume away in thier mouth ...
and Judah also shall fight at Jerusalem.... And everyone that is left of
all the nations which came against Jerusalem shall even go up from year
to year to worship the King, the Lord of hosts, and to keep the feast of
tabernacles ... and in that day there shall be no more Canaanite in the
house of the Lord of hosts.
The strong influence of the prophesy of Zechariah on Jesus is shown
by his mode of entrance into Jerusalem riding on an ass's colt. Such deliberate
fulfillment of Zechariah ix. 9 suggests that Jesus also had the rest of
Zechariah's prophesies in mind.
"The people that have fought against Jerusalem" were none
other than the Romans, the heathen barbarians who had united "the
nations" in a great empire and had set their faces against God. He
himself, Jesus of Nazareth, was the person to whom the prophet was addressing
his instructions; the Messiah who would arrive in Jerusalem on an ass's
colt, and would stand in "the valley of the mountains" together
with a company of "saints" to witness the appearance of the glory
of God on the Mount of Olives. He would see the Romans stricken by a plague,
and would lead "Judah" in fighting against them. Then, after
a great victory, he would reign as King-Messiah in Jerusalem, where every
year on the anniversary of his victory he would welcome representatives
of every nation on earth, coming to pay homage to the Lord of Hosts in
It may be objected that this account makes Jesus appear insane. Could
he really have expected the prophesies of Zechariah to be fulfilled so
literally that night on the Mount of Olives? How could he have been so
sure he knew the exact hour of the prophesies, and that it was through
him that they would be fulWlled? As a person, Jesus was what would today
be described as a "manic" character, i.e., one capable of remaining
for long periods at a high pitch of enthusiasm and euphoria. This enabled
him to impress his associates to the extent that they could not let his
memory die. He was not Judas of Galilee, or Bar Kochba, who were Messiahs
of essentially ordinary or normal temperament, men who made their bid for
power, failed, and that was that. It was no accident that Jesus gave rise
to a new world religion. Christianity was a falsification of everything
that Jesus stood for, yet every detail of this falsification was built
on something that existed in his temperament and outlook. It was only a
step for the Hellenistic Gentiles to transform Jesus's soaring conviction
of his universal mission into a dogma of his divinity; or to transform
his confidence of victory by the hand of God, rather than by guerilla methods,
into a pacifist other-worldly doctrine which transferred the concept of
victory on to a "spiritual" plane. Jesus's "manic"
temperament was the mainspring of the early Christian Church, with its
ecstatic mood, its universal ambition, and its confidence in ultimate victory.
To modern minds, it would seem insane to expect to overthrow Rome without
a proper army and with only two swords, because of some obscure sentences
in a book written five hundred years before. Yet the Christian account
of Jesus makes him appear even more insane. According to this account,
Jesus regarded himself as one of the Three Persons of the Triune Almighty
God, who had descended from the immensities of the World of Light in order
to immolate himself on behalf of mankind. Such a combination of megalomania
and suicidal fantasy was alien to the society of Judea and Galilee in Jesus's
day. They had their own apocalyptic extravagances, but this kind of Hellenistic
schizophrenia was quite outside their experience or understanding. Jesus
never regarded himself in this way. His profoundly impressive "manic"
nature followed the pattern laid down for such temperaments in the Jewish
prophetic tradition. His claims would have seemed, to his contemporaries,
breathlessly daring but entirely reasonable.
The Jewish Resistance against Rome consisted of various groups, all
of which were religious in character. They differed, however, on the question
of how much could be left to the intervention of God. The Zealots were
prepared for a long, hard fight by realistic military methods. Bar Kochba,
successor of the Zealots, is said to have prayed to God, "Master of
the Universe, I do not ask that you should fight on my side; only that
you should not fight for the Romans, and that will be enough." Some
would-be Messiahs, such as Theudas, were at the other extreme, and relied
on God even more than Jesus did. The moderate Pharisees were cautious "wait-and-see"
people, who like Gamaliel, thought, "If this counsel or this work
be of men, it will come to nought; but if it be of God, ye cannot overthrow
it." But even they could be carried away by apocalyptic fervor at
times, as was Rabbi Akiva in the days of Bar Kochba. Jesus can be placed,
in the spectrum of the Jewish Resistance, as an apocalyptic Pharisee whose
hopes were similar to those of Theudas, and the prophet from Egypt, mentioned
by Josephus, who also centered his movement around an expected miracle
on the Mount of Olives.
Having arrived at the Mount of Olives, Jesus stationed himself with
his disciples in the "garden of Gethsemane." This is located
traditionally at a spot at the foot of the Mount of Olives, but possibly
is further away from Jerusalem in a low valley between two spurs of the
mountain. Zechariah's prophesy says that God's feet would stand on the
Mount of Olives, which would split in an earthquake towards the east and
west, the mass of the mountain removing towards the north and south. The
prophesy goes on, "And ye shall flee into the valley of the mountains."
Jesus therefore took his disciples to the spot indicated by the prophet,
where he could watch the miracle and not be overwhelmed by it. He was further
assured by the prophet, "And my Lord will come, and all the saints
with thee." (Alternative translation: "...if all with thee are
holy.") God Himself would join the Messiah in the valley and fight
against the enemy by smiting his ranks with a plague. Other startling miracles
would occur: living waters would go out from Jerusalem in two rivers; and
"at evening time, it shall be light."
Once in the "valley of decision," Jesus applied himself to
prayer and vigil. He told his disciples, "Watch ye and pray, lest
ye enter into temptation." Jesus now experienced an Agony of sorrow
about his approaching crucifixion. This, at least, is the version of Mark
and Matthew. (John omits the whole incident.) Only Luke uses the word "agony,"
and what he seems to describe is not an agony of sorrow but one of strenuous
prayer. "And being in agony, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat
was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground." What
was Jesus praying for so earnestly at this time? Why did he instruct his
disciples to "watch and pray," an injunction he had used previously
to those waiting for the coming of the kingdom of God? Why did he warn
them against entering into temptation? If he had resigned to the Crucifixion
and was spending the night in Gethsemane waiting for Judas to arrive with
the troops to arrest him, there was no particular reason to pray or even
to stay awake. And there was no particular temptation likely to assail
the disciples while they were waiting.
On the theory outlined here, however, there was great reason to pray
and to stay awake, and there was great reason to avoid temptation. Jesus
was not waiting passively in the Vale of Gethsemane for his arrest. He
was expecting an awesome miracle and the appearance of the glory of God:
but he must have felt that this manifestation would depend, to some extent,
on his own worthiness and that of his disciples.
Jesus had not merely prophesied the coming of the kingdom of God; he
had also prepared for it. He had campaigned among "the lost sheep
of Israel," calling them to repentance, because he felt that the coming
of God's kingdom was being held back by Israel's sins. Pharisee writings
often stress that God's promises to Israel are not automatically fulfilled;
the depend on Israel's worthiness and coöperation. Consequently, even
though Jesus felt that the time was propitious for the coming of "the
day of the Lord," he could not be quite sure. What was needed now
was a last great effort of prayer. The belief in the efficacy of prayer
was very strong among the Pharisees, especially when the prayer came from
a prophet. What might not be accomplished by the powerful prayers of a
dedicated Messiah-Prophet, supported by a band of holy men, all concentrating
their thoughts toward God, at a time and place appropriate for salvation?
Only the most powerful concerted beam of holy concentration, directed
from Gethsemane toward God, could obliterate the traces of the sins of
Israel, and bring about the hour of redemption. Jesus alone was not sufficient,
for Zechariah had said, "And my Lord will come, if all with thee are
holy." This explains why Jesus narrowed his company to the Twelve
on that night. He wanted the company of those on whom he could most rely,
for the power of sinless prayer would be far more important than the strength
of mere numbers.
It is no wonder that Jesus gave the Messianic slogan, "Watch and
pray" to his disciples, that he himself went into an agony of prayer,
and that he reproved his disciples when he felt a lack of concentration
and wholeheartedness in their prayer.
The story of the failure of the disciples in Gethsemane must have developed
very early in the history of the Jewish-Christian Church. It was impossible
to believe that Jesus himself had failed. His disciples themselves preferred
to believe that they had failed him, since by blaming themselves they could
go on believing in him. He had temporarily withdrawn from the world, like
Elijah when he ascended to heaven, but when they proved themselves worthy
he would return and lead them to victory.
Later, in the Gentile-Christian Church, when Jesus had been turned into
a god, the idea that he needed the support of his disciples to accomplish
his mission became inappropriate. Jesus's injunction to his disciples in
Gethsemane to watch and pray, and his own agony of prayer, became pointless
It was not difficult for the disciples, after Jesus's arrest and execution,
to fall back on guilt feelings and attach the whole blame to themselves.
Jesus must have made them feel guilty on many occasions by his white-hot
faith and selflessness ... This may account to some extent for the many
stories in the Gospels about the lapses of the disciples.
Jesus, then, stands in the Vale of Gethsemane, with the Mount of Olives
looming above him. This, he fervently believes, is the valley of decision,
the valley of the Lord's judgement. If he has chosen the moment well, if
the hearts of his companions are pure, and if his campaign and reclamation
among the "lost sheep of Israel" has been successful, the last
battle will be fought. But, as he prays, he feels a sense of struggle.
He wrestles in prayer till his sweat falls like great drops of blood to
the ground. The difficulty of his prayer is unpropitious, and he can see
that the powers of his chosen companions are flagging. With a great sadness
he realizes that the long travail of Israel has not yet come to an end.
The Arrest and Trial
The miraculous appearance of the Lord God on the Mount of Olives did
not occur. Like Theudas and "the prophet from Egypt" and many
other messiah-figures of the period, Jesus, despite his tremendous charisma,
turned out to be deceived in his apocalyptic hopes. When the Roman troops
... arrived at Gethsemane they found a handful of rebels equipped with
only two swords. A few blows were exchanged, but Jesus was soon captured.
The disciples fled in dismay and the troops, who had orders to bring in
the ringleader only, proceeded on their way with the prisoner.