By Richard Edmondson
Day after tomorrow is the Christian holiday “Good Friday.” People all around the world will be reflecting upon the life—and death—of what arguably was one of the greatest spiritual teachers that ever lived. In a post several days ago, I argued that one of Christ’s most basic and fundamental teachings was the equality of all peoples—and that in the final years of his life he went about preaching this message amongst a population that was virulently racist and convinced of its own “chosenness.” (see Jewish Racism: Some Thoughts on Palm Sunday ) I also argued that the racism of the Jews of the first century seems to perpetuate itself in the framework of a number of extremely racist rabbis that we see in Israel today, and I gave examples of such.
In response, a reader posted a comment pointing out that Pontius Pilate, the governor of Judea at the time, was a cruel individual. This in fact is correct. In a letter to the Emperor Caligula, Agrippa I called Pilate a purveyor of “graft, insults, robberies, assaults, wanton abuse, constant executions without trial, unending grievous cruelty.” In evaluating this letter, it’s important to keep in mind that Agrippa was a highly ambitious man who had a history of backstabbing his own benefactors, and that he eventually managed to have himself named “king” over most of Israel and was awarded dominion over Pilate’s former territory in the process. Nonetheless, there is likely to be a certain amount of truth to what he says. But, and this is very important to keep in mind, Pilate’s brutality is not the only issue to be considered. At least as important, if not more so, is Jewish racism.
Jesus had a message, a very important one: that we are all equal in the eyes of God. It is a message that resonated with a good many Jews, who in fact became his followers; yet it also clearly aroused many other Jews to fury. Parables like that of the “Good Samaritan” were a sacrilege to such Jews, for it violated their sense of being “God’s chosen.” This fury, this outrage, must be evaluated when we examine the events which led to Christ’s death. To fail to take it into consideration is to close one’s eyes to the full picture. Yet in debates on the matter, the racism factor is often excluded from discussion. Take the YouTube video here, for example. In addition to making a number of plainly false statements, the blusterous rabbi that we see in the clip waxes at considerable length on Pilate’s despotism…while acknowledging not even word number 1 about Jewish racism.
So how did Pilate end up being portrayed in the gospels as a mostly-benevolent buck passer? In answering this, we have to keep in mind that Rome was the imperial occupation power. Nobody, but nobody, wanted to get on their bad side. Telling the story of the crucifixion and the Roman governor’s role in it would have been a dicey proposition, and no doubt the gospel writers were acutely aware of this. My own take on the execution of Jesus is that it was instigated by Pilate, with the willing cooperation of the Jewish collaborators on the Sanhedrin. Both Pilate and the Sanhedrin would have viewed Jesus as a threat because of his large following. And his following was quite large. At the same time, however, by preaching equality instead of chosenness, Jesus made numerous enemies. This is abundantly clear, and the depiction in the gospels of large crowds of Jews standing upon the paved Gabbatha cheering and applauding the decision to crucify him is probably for the most part accurate. So who killed Jesus, the Romans or the Jews? In my view, while Pilate played a key, perhaps even pivotal, role, large numbers of Jews also bore an enormous share of the responsibility. The critical factor here was Jewish racism, the sense of “chosenness.”
It is this same racism that we see perpetuating the conflict in the Middle East today.