Monday, March 29, 2010

Is Caiphas trying to save Jesus from what seems his own folly?

We’re following the high priest Caiaphas, who finds himself in a precarious position, and choses to act in a way he hopes will bring desirable results for his nation. My thesis, stated yesterday, is that what we have here is a true tragedy involving the clash of seemingly legitimate, but irreconcilable, values and interests rather than a simple “good vs. evil” tale.

Caiphas' Dilemma: Part 2

In the face a rabble-rousing Prophet’s denunciations of the priestly caste to spell-bound Passover crowds in the Temple itself, Caiaphas decides to strike decisively to avert a possible insurrection and the resultant death of thousands in the crowded city. He is not just “serving his own interests” but those of the nation.

For this preemptive strike, Caiaphas became a centerpiece of almost 2,000 years of Christian invective, which, until recent decades, focused the blame for Jesus’ death on “the Jews” even though it was the Romans who put the Man of Nazareth to death, quite naturally, for “insurrection.” (Thank God, in the light of this, that the Creed says ‘he suffered under Pontius Pilate’ rather than ‘under the Jews.’)

Is the Passion narrative inherently anti-Judaic?

Many scholarly revisionists, Christian, Jewish and secularist, want to shift the blame over to the Romans entirely and leave the Jewish leadership out—in large part because of the horrific history of the Christian anti-semitism through the centuries which has used this tale as the occasion for repeated attacks against the ongoing Jewish religion and people. The early Christians, we are told, under suspicion themselves for being seditionists, don’t want the Romans to lump them with those truly insurrectionist Jews who led the nation into a disastrous rebellion against Rome three decades after Jesus’ execution. After the year 70 every good citizen blames the Jews for being disloyal, and Christians do not want to appear to be threats to Rome.

Perhaps. But, frankly, I don’t see the usefulness of constructing speculative alternatives to the New Testament’s four interlocking accounts of the Passion—even to achieve the highly desirable result of lessening anti-Judaic passions among Christians. Scholarly theories come and go. The New Testament goes on and on, being read and forming the attitudes of Christians.

I am not the only commentator who feels that the Passion narratives we have give a great deal of room for an historically-informed reading in which Caiaphas and his rump Sanhedrin take their place in the story without being turned into villainous Jewish stereotypes. My own thoughts on this subject have been decisively influenced by a magisterial 1963 book The Trial and Death of Jesus by Haim Cohn, a former justice of the Supreme Court of Israel (English edition: Ktav, 1980) as well as other sources.

According to Cohn’s careful review of Talmudic law (insofar as this can illumine 1st century practice) and Jewish custom, Caiphas may plausibly be seen as not only seeking to preserve the peace, but even to save Jesus from self-destruction. His evidence? When Caiaphas presses Jesus to say “yea or nay” to the allegation that he claims to be Messiah (“Are you the Christ, the Son of the Most High?”) and Jesus obliquely agrees, the high priest rips his garments. Tearing garments is an expression of grief for Jews, Cohn insists, not a reaction to “blasphemy.”

The Passion narrative does portray Caiaphas as also shouting “blasphemy” yes; but the ripped garments are about the death sentence he has brought upon himself by not refuting the messianic claim. Any claim to Messiahship (and, in the context of the trial, even the phrase “Son of God” is a messianic title, rather than implying divinity) is so fraught with political implications as to be, prima facie, evidence of intended sedition against the Roman Imperium.

Might Caiphas been trying originally to avert this outcome?

Did Caiaphas originally hope that Jesus would disown the Messianic buzz being put about by his followers? That he could diffuse the movement by imprisoning or flogging the leader without the dangerous spectacle of an execution? The “false” witnesses seem to actually report things Jesus has said, even though they present them as meaning something other than the gospels claim Jesus intended.

As Cohn points out, claiming intimate relationship with God, even mystical union, may be religiously suspect, even blasphemy in some circles, but is not a capital crime in Jewish law. Punishable, but not deserving of death. Jesus’ actual crime seems to be manifestly political. Cohn does not reject the gospel narratives, but does feel that they shift emphasis to “blasphemy” to downplay the legal reason for Jesus’ death which remains an inflammatory charge in the eyes of those who might accuse the nascent Christian community of the same crime.

The Israeli justice’s hypothesis is, of course, not provable, but it seems plausible enough to introduce what he might well call, as a lawyer, “reasonable doubt” in any rush to condemn Caiaphas outright.

Such reasonable doubt needs to inform Christian interpretation of the story. Caiaphas and his Sadducean allies are not “rejecting their messiah,” since the coming of Messiah is not even a part of their ancient Jewish belief, which is rooted in eras of Israelite history before such expectations. That expectation belongs to the Pharisees party, a minority group in the ruling council. For him, the one and only God is Lord Protector of Israel, and chiefly concerned about its survival, faithful to its ancestral customs, as a priestly nation. He must see the nation safely through this and every crisis, so that it can survive and thrive. In God’s own time, the Romans will leave, or grant the nation full self-governance again—without the help of fervent Galilean visionaries like the man standing so defiantly before him.

So, another Jewish messianic pretender (there are so many these days!) will die at Roman hands. He rips his garments over the impending death of another misguided Jewish patriot and invites the verdict: “He deserves to die.” (As to the scene before Pilate, and Caiaphas’ pressing the case for execution, we deal with that on Wednesday.)

By pursuing what seems the necessary, even just course, (even if Caiaphas has been fervently intent on gaining, by hook or by crook, either the capitulation of the Galilean or his admission of guilt) the high priest is pivotal in determining Jesus’ fate. But he acts in ignorance of who Jesus and his true aims ultimately are. And, in so doing, he becomes one of the “rulers of this age” who “did not understand,” as Paul puts it twenty years later, “for had known, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.” (1 Corinthians 2:8)

Great evils are often committed by those who honestly believe they are pursuing the good. That is part of the tragic dimension of life this Holy Week so starkly reveals.


Has Jesus deliberately brought this upon himself?

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