Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Those Passover Crowds: ‘Hosannah’ or ‘Crucify?’

I’ve done it myself in decades past: said the crowds who hailed Jesus on his entry to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday shouted “Crucify him!” by Good Friday.

Such sermonic drama has little, if any, biblical warrant. (1) There were crowds, yes; but with hundreds of thousands of people in and around Jerusalem at Passover, “the crowds” are not exactly one unified mass. One gospel says “many” greeted him as he entered Jerusalem (Mark 11:8), another “the multitude of the disciples,”(Lk 19:27) still another “crowds” (Matthew 21:8 & John 12:12). In any case, “the city was stirred” (Matthew 21:10).

Mocking or mourning?

On Good Friday, most of those jubilant crowds have turned to mourning, not mocking. Luke 23 makes clear that during Jesus crucifixion “the people stood watch." The “rulers” sneer at Jesus, not "the people," for when “all the people (Greek: multitudes) who had gathered to witness this sight saw what took place, they beat their breasts and went away.” (Luke 23:48).

Little wonder. During the preceding week, “the great crowd heard him gladly” as he taught them in the vast Temple courtyard (Mark 12:37). As Jesus carried his cross “a large number of people followed him, including women who mourned and wailed for him” (Luke 23:37). “All the people” who beat their breasts surely includes some of these folk. Their lamentation is over yet another Jew executed by the Roman Imperium in the person of Pontius Pilate, who was recalled by Rome not many years later for excessive brutality. One among hundreds, even thousands of Jews slaughtered at his command, Jesus is yet another Jewish martyr.

That other crowd

Who then makes up the “crowd” that cries “crucify”? As the story is told, this group is “all the assembly,” that is, those among the Jewish rulers who turn Jesus over to Pilate, fulfilling their duty in to suppress civil agitation lest matters get out of hand in the volatile crowds. Some curiosity seekers no doubt came along, this combined "crowd" is “stirred up” by the high priests.

Confusion about the repeated use of words for “crowd” comes easily if you don’t read the texts carefully. Out of this, a distorted, dark and anti-Jewish reading arose in which the "fickle" crowds become proof positive that Jews were Christ-killers. All Jews; for all time.

Getting the story straight matters enormously. Throughout history, Holy Week stories have been repeatedly the pretext for Christian mobs to attack Jews as “God-killers,” a term codified into Christian canon law as early as the Council of Nicea in 325 C.E.  Blessedly, the 20th century brought an end to such Holy Week violence, but it is a long, shameful, bloody history—much worse than most contemporary Christians realize.

Now, even with Vatican II’s explicit repudiation of the "God-murderer" charge, many Christians still believe the simplistic bromide that “the Jews rejected Jesus.” Some Holy Week storytelling, especially stories about the ever-so-fickle crowds, distorts the story and colors attitudes toward Jews.

“Thou shalt not bear false witness” demands we get the story straight. 

Next: Who were 'the Jews'?

(1)  I am very aware that some biblical scholars believe the Passion narratives are full of inaccurate or distorted facts. Be that as it may, the gospel text is the story enshrined in Scripture, which will pass on to future generations. It is the story the world, and especially the Jews, have had to deal with. That story, as it is told, needs to be read as carefully and accurately as possible.


No comments:

Post a Comment