|Jan/Feb 2004 • Miscellaneous|
Not many films had such a pernicious and insidious impact upon the understanding of history and race relations as D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation. This film popularized a potted version of Reconstruction in which Northern carpetbaggers and their brutish and stupid former slave allies plunder a defeated South and pursue every available white woman in existence. It perpetuated and nurtured evil and vicious portrayals of black males that haunt us to this day. Its glorification of the Reconstruction Era Ku Klux Klan inspired the founding of its descendent in 1915. This "second Klan" became a powerful force in the America of the 1920's.
While it may seem premature to conclude that Mel Gibson's movie will do the same to Jews as D.W. Griffith's film did to blacks, there are frightful parallels that cannot be ignored. Only by exploring these themes early on can their impact be alleviated. For this reason, I feel it necessary to attempt a preemptive strike before the release of Gibson's Passion during the 2004 season of Lent.
David Wark Griffith was the son of a Confederate Lieutenant Colonel who later became the most prominent director of silent films with his pioneering cinematic techniques. With his artistic skill, he caused a paradigm shift in film making worldwide. Birth of a Nation was the very first full length feature film, surpassing anything that came before it in technical and artistic quality, reaching some 200 million people between 1915 and 1946. While the South lost the Civil War, it won the battle for how the War and Reconstruction would be remembered into the second half of the twentieth century.
It appears as though a similar situation reigns with regard to the hard won gains provided to the Jews through the agency of Vatican II. In 1965, this pioneering Roman Catholic conference absolved Jews of collective guilt for the death of Jesus. Gibson's film reverses that. His vision of the Passion is that of the medieval passion play. Such a frightening vision must be countered with historical truth.
Is it artistically fair to criticize a movie before it comes out? I would venture to say yes when we've already seen the script. Passion plays and the presentation of the Jews in the Gospels themselves are inherently antisemitic. While the opportunity was lost in the case of Birth of a Nation, if progressive forces act now, perhaps a similar situation can be prevented in the present in the case of Gibson's movie. Perhaps this present season of Lent can begin differently than the season did during the Middle Ages and without pogroms aimed against the Jewish community in our midst. For this to happen, we must go back to beginnings of the Christian movement, when it was simply another sect of Judaism.
An Ancient Revolutionary Idea
For almost two centuries, historians have attempted to "find" the historical Jesus behind the gospels, with minimal results. This reality can be most closely grasped by embracing a Zealot model. While tantalizing glimpses of this initial, suppressed reality are left, they are unintelligible unless examined this way. Especially troubling was Jesus' advocacy of militant philosophies of millennial revolution. Modern historical/critical scholarship has shown that Jesus was anything but the meek Lamb of God. Especially militant are images created by verses such as Matthew 10:14, where Jesus says he has come not to bring peace but a sword, betraying a considerable seditious following and sympathies. To understand this Jesus, we have to recapture his militant Zealot roots, specifically by examining the uncensored material available in the Gospel of Peter.
The Gospel of Peter
On the Upper Nile River valley's eastern bank is the ancient Egyptian site of Akhmimin. The lost Gospel of Peter was found in a Monk's tomb in 1884 and contains an account of disciples suspected of some strange crimes:
And I and my companions were grieved; and being wounded in mind we hid ourselves: for we were being sought for by them as malefactors, and as wishing to set fire to the temple.
As portrayed by the Gospel writer, he and his companion were in the eyes of the Roman occupiers in the same class as the men who were crucified with the Messiah. Given the stridently anti-Jewish tone of the Gospel, this would seem at first out of place. In general, this Gospel absolves Pilate of guilt for the crucifixion, placing the blame squarely upon the Jews. However, this Freudian slip takes on new meaning when examined against the canonical Gospels and similar statements that they make about Jesus and his followers.
What is amazing is the reference to a plan to burn the Temple. It would seem difficult, even impossible to believe that any rational Jewish person would ever contemplate this. Unfortunately, fanaticism can drive people to do savage things, even to their sacred places. We will see how this fanaticism of Jesus and the Zealots eventually culminated in the destruction of the entire country and the Temple complex itself in 70 CE.
The Zealots with Jesus
Several references are left that document conclusively that Jesus was not the meek Lamb of God portrayed in the Gospels, but a militant separatist dedicated to evicting the Romans and installing himself as the king of Israel. The most striking are to those close followers of his who were from Zealots. The "malefactors" of the Gospel of Peter have an interesting pedigree as reflected in the canonical gospels where this same term is used in translation.
Throughout the centuries, there have been problems of mistranslation. By the time a word has been translated from Hebrew and Aramaic to Greek, Latin, or some other vernacular language, it has become completely divorced from its original meaning and context. For instance, the figure of Simon Zelotes, who appears in the Gospel of Luke and in Acts is a translation of zealot, therefore, Simon the Zealot. Even attempts in later translations such as the King James reveal this individual as a militant, where in Matthew and Mark he is referred to as Simon the "Canaanite." This is a corruption of the Aramaic qannai, rendered into the Greek as kananaios, meaning simply one who is zealous for God. The Simon Bar Jonas referred to in Matthew and Luke is simply a Greek version of the Aramaic bar yonnei which means "empty ones," and refers to lawless revolutionaries who are condemned in Talmud Gittin 55B for opposing the Pharisees and causing the people to initiate their disastrous revolt against Rome.
The most famous of the many "Simons" populating the Bible is Simon Peter. This is another word for Petra or rock. Despite the peaceful image concocted in the Gospels, the reality portrayed in this story of Rocky is more militant. Peter's name that Jesus calls him is Bar Jonah in Matthew 16:17, another corruption of the bar yonnei of Gittin 55B. The fact that the "rock" upon which Jesus founded his church was a wanted terrorist makes the implications of the church's early history very different.
Even more interesting is Judas. Identified as Judas Iscariot in the synoptic Gospels, the name is clearly a Greek corruption of the Aramaic sicari or "dagger men." These most extreme of the Zealots earned their sobriquets from their long, curved daggers that they would use to assassinate Romans or sympathizers. In Luke 22:36, Jesus instructs his followers who do not have swords to buy them even if it means selling garments. This would indicate that they were not just Zealots, but extreme militants known as Sicarii who relied on the curved sica dagger for terrorist assassinations rather than the Spanish gladius sword used by the Roman Army. This movement exercised considerable influence, including the sending of embassies, recruiting missions outside of Judaea, organizing public riots and protests, and assassinations.
Jesus' family's well-documented connections with the Zealots could have developed over decades, especially with relatives and brothers of those in his inner circle. Terrorism and political activity had not just revolutionary but also dynastic features. In the Near East in the past and in the present, terrorism has usually been a family and a clan business facilitated along tribal lines. Judas of Galilee began a dynasty of Zealot leaders from his family who would lead most of the guerrilla revolts and full scale wars against the Romans for the better part of two centuries. The Romans who were not able to snuff out the rebellious spirit executed him in the year 6 C.E. His hometown of Gamla was the center of Zealot resistance during the first Jewish Revolt against Rome before it was crushed in 67 CE. Josephus in Antiquities 20, Chapter 5 says that two of Judas' sons, James and Simon, were executed when then procurator Tiberius Alexander suppressed a revolt in 46 CE. Again, the similarity to Simon and James the son of Zebedee is striking and more than a coincidence.
The "Cleansing" of the Temple
All of the four canonical gospels tie the "cleansing" of the temple to Jesus' eventual crucifixion:
And Jesus went out, and departed from the temple: and his disciples came to him for to shew him the buildings of the temple. And Jesus said unto them, See ye not all these things? Verily I say unto you, there shall not be left here one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down. (Matthew 24:1-2)
The attitude itself is amazing, but his actions in the temple itself are even more so:
And they came to Jerusalem: and Jesus went into the temple, and began to cast out them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the money-changers, and the seats of them that sold doves...(Mark 11:15)
The ensuing riot is also related in Matthew 21:12, Luke 19:45, and John 2:14-15. We are also later informed that a widespread insurrection (Mark 15:7) had taken place in the City which the "cleansing of the Temple" was probably a part of. Then, of course, Jesus would not be the only one possessing a weapon (as we have seen a whip). Most of the crowd was probably armed. If so, the insurrection, and Jesus' action in the Temple as part of it, was not spontaneous but planned as a pre-Passover "act of freedom" against the pro-Roman establishment. This is possibly the reason why Jesus chose to come to Jerusalem this particular week, looking forward to the insurrection as the spark leading to the unfolding of the Kingdom of G-d, and to his own messianic role as its leader and inaugurate.
It was less than a week before the Passover, which the Romans always considered a tinder dry period when anything could, and did, happen. The Jews flocked in their millions to attend this Holy Festival, for every healthy male over the age of 12 living within ninety miles of the Temple was compelled by the Law to attend his God and give an account of himself, which shows that the Jews packed a powerful 'punch' into a relatively small area. A popular uprising would involve every last Zealot in and around Jerusalem. Against these formidable forces, Rome could muster a mere five-hundred troops, while the Temple Police, responsible to the Sanhedrin, numbered only two hundred.
So why was the rebellion a failure? The beginnings of the attempted coup are described in the canonical Gospels where Jesus extremely publicly enters Jerusalem riding on an ass. This tipped off the Romans to his plans from Zechariah 9:9 which says: "Behold thy King cometh unto thee...meek...and riding upon an ass...!" Shouting his name and imploring him to rise and save them from Rome—as their King and Messiah surely would—the crowd's acclamations became one mighty, thunderous roar. Undoubtedly, the Romans used this intelligence to concentrate their forces around the Temple Mount and subdue the rebellion, executing the leader in the process.
In Jerome's Vulgate version of the Bible in John 18:3, the term cohort is used to describe the size of the military unit that came to arrest Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemanie. Such units were quite large, being 500-600 men strong, usually accompanied by generous contingents of local auxiliaries. The gospels confirm that elements of the temple guard accompanied the Roman soldiers as they came to arrest Jesus. Certainly, Pontius Pilate expected a pitched battle and took no chances by responding with overwhelming force at that spot where Jesus was most vulnerable.
The Implications of the Gospel of Peter and the First Jewish Revolt
The Gospel of Peter places the blame for the crucifixion upon the Priests and Rabbis and excuses Pontius Pilate of any culpability. Again, what is so amazing about the passage we looked at earlier is the feature about disciples being charged with plotting to burn the Temple. Even more amazing is how well it matches up with the accounts of the Roman historians who classify the early Christians as lestai (bandits, assassins).
Tacitus in his Histories portrays the early Christians as a terrorist movement. In this work, he states that the Christians were killed for allegedly committing acts of arson, starting the famous fire during the reign of Nero in 64 CE. The historian Sutonius in his history of the emperor Claudius mentions a group he impulsore chresto (messianic insurgents) who had caused rioting in Rome. Claudius redeployed thousands of Roman troops in several legions to guard facilities like the port at Ostia outside of Rome from arson and sabotage.
Roman fears were on target. The Christian individuals in the canonical gospels are closely associated with zealots, and the individuals in the Gospel of Peter are suspected of zealot-like activities. Josephus described this "philosophy" well, and by using our "Josephus Test," these individuals should be considered zealots because of the many reputable reports of their close association with and activities like those of Zealots and the Sicarii.
In a very interesting passage, the Roman Christian historian Severus quotes from volume five of Tacitus' Histories. This volume was lost, so only quotations from other extant authors who preserve sections of it exist. In his description of the siege of the Temple in 70CE, the Roman general Titus calls a staff meeting. He throws open the question of whether or not to destroy the Temple. He favored doing it and advocated this because the Temple was the ultimate source of inspiration for both the Jews and the christiani, the term that early Hebrew Christians called themselves.
Whether Titus set the fire first or the Zealots did is not completely clear. Like the Branch Davidian siege 2000 years later, the results were. The Gospel of Peter indicates that such an idea existed in Zealot theology. The destruction of the Temple severed the link between Christianity and Judaism forever, completely transforming what had been a sect of Judaism into a completely new religion.
Zealot actions not only disrupted the Romans civil authority, but also Jews. The hostility of the Zealots to established Jewish authority during the First Jewish Revolt against Rome was reflected in earlier Zealot and Sicarii guerilla actions, in this case, Jesus' Temple Intifada. The connection between Jesus and the Zealots is obvious and natural. The passage of time since the burial of the Gospel of Peter at Akmimin has not changed this. Rather, by carefully and critically examining its details, we can resurrect the historical Jesus to life again. The present zealotry of Mel Gibson's antisemitism does not help this cause.