April 20, 2014
Despite its status as the holiest day on the Christian calendar, Easter has never had an impact on American life that comes close to the annual social and economic supernova of Christmas. That’s probably because of Easter’s limited potential for commercialization. Chocolate bunnies and dyed eggs can’t match the buying and gift-giving frenzy of Yuletide.
Easter just remains so stubbornly… religious. It’s also kind of demanding. Grasping the joy, or even the concept, of resurrection takes faith. What does it mean that Jesus rose again? For that matter, why did he have to die in the first place?
Now, there’s a question even believers ask. To reply that Christ died for our sins is to express a theological insight arrived at after the fact — one which folks who have trouble making the leap to a Christian point of view find a little off-putting (“I didn’t ask him to die for my sins,” they’ll say).
But let’s go back 2,000 years. What were the conditions at the time which prompted Jesus’ execution? Or to frame the question another way: Why would anybody want to kill someone who went around preaching love and offering a lot of uplifting homilies? And healing the sick to boot!
The preeminent fact of Jewish life in first-century Palestine is that everything was religious. All questions — whether pertaining to spiritual, family or business concerns — were answered by the rabbis, the Doctors of the Law. They provided interpretations of the Law (the Torah) in response to questions submitted by people who faced vexing problems.
Along with its pervasive religious character, Jewish national life was highly unstable. A key factor in that volatility was the influence of gentile beliefs and cultural practices. God may have given the Promised Land to the Jews, but the Bible recounts how the colorful deities and strange sacrifices of the conquered groups (which didn’t just get up and go away) exerted a continual pull on the Chosen People, often with catastrophic results.
Perhaps the most powerful cultural challenge came from the Greeks, who had been a huge and constant presence since Alexander the Great added Jewish territory to his empire around 330 B.C. The Jews lived cheek by jowl with foreigners steeped in Hellenic culture. A good many of their own people became strongly Hellenized as well.
Greece was to the Jews what Hollywood is to us: a corrosive and relentless assault on morals and propriety. The dress of Greek women was considered immodest. Greek theater was seen as distraction and idleness. Greek sport was a scandal, athletes running, jumping, wrestling, and javelin or discus throwing naked as the day they were born.
Then there were the internal power struggles that had boiled up repeatedly ever since the Maccabees cleansed the Temple and invented Hanukah. After gaining independence from Alexander’s successors, the sons of Judas Maccabeus turned into a fractious lot. It was a civil war between two of his descendants that brought the Romans in to settle things. Once in, they never left. What was worse, they saddled the Children of Israel with the odious King Herod and his misbegotten offspring.
Romans — themselves deeply steeped in Greek culture — cared little about the beliefs and moral qualms of Jews, but they cared a whole lot about the Jews’ capital. Jerusalem was not a dusty frontier outpost, which is the impression you can get from watching Bible movies. It was a boomtown, a trading center bursting with goods from exotic lands as far away as China. The prophet Isaiah’s famous line about how the “wealth of nations will flow to her” was more than a metaphor.
The Caesars coveted that wealth, a goodly portion of which was confiscated through duties and tolls. They also lay heavy burdens on the people, using a network of contract agents, called publicans, the hated tax collectors, who collected the Roman levies along with fat commissions for themselves.
The one feature of Jewish religious life Rome focused on was the Temple, which Herod had expanded to world-wonder proportions. The amount of cash that flowed through the Temple in the form of corban (sacrificial giving), was staggering.
The Temple was also the place where Jewish religious enthusiasm could easily get out of hand. After Herod’s kingdom was divided and Rome took over direct administration of Judea, Caesar’s governors assumed the authority to appoint the Jews’ High Priest, but no matter how tightly they tried to regulate religious life, the risk of disorder and violence remained.
In the background was a simmering guerilla war by anti-Roman bands known as Zealots. Attacks on legion outposts and supply trains, along with occasional assassinations of locals in the service of Rome, kept people’s nerves on edge. By the time Jesus appeared with his growing band of followers and reputation for working miracles, Palestine was a land very near the tipping point. So it’s no mystery why this charismatic young preacher from Nazareth was viewed with suspicion by the Roman occupiers and Jewish religious leaders.
Jesus’ rather loose approach to the particulars of the Law — Sabbath observance, dietary rules, mixing with gentiles, and the rest — raised eyebrows among the Temple elite. He didn’t soften any feelings when he leveled harsh criticisms at the “scribes and Pharisees.” Rather, this alienated an intellectual circle that might have been inclined to defend him against the priests, most of whom were of the rival Sadducee party and opposed to Pharisaical teaching (especially on the subject of the afterlife, which Sadducees rejected outright).
One wonders why he was so hard on the Pharisees, since his own teaching was very close to that of the greatest Pharisee rabbi of them all, Hillel, who ran the foremost rabbinical school in Jerusalem (and for whom today Jewish student centers are named on university campuses all over the world). Jesus’ “Golden Rule” was a virtual paraphrase of Hillel’s famous dictim, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.”
Jesus’ inclination to act on his convictions in visible and dramatic ways also stoked opposition, because it stirred people’s passions, which raised the possibility of Roman intervention. A man as bold as Jesus — who could amass as large and devoted a following as he did — was bound to make the authorities wary. The incident of the adulteress about to be stoned (“Let he who is without sin cast the first stone”) illustrates how Jesus didn’t hesitate to go up against a crowd. And his attack on the moneychangers in the Temple certainly showed he didn’t shy away from righteous indignation.
So there was a distinct air of danger around Jesus that increased along with his fame. That may account for part of the hesitation which the Gospels indicate some people felt about being identified with his movement.
It wasn’t just worry that Jesus might cause trouble which put him in the crosshairs. He presented formidable challenges, both spiritual and financial. His forgiving of sins was a galvanizing issue among the opposition, and not only because he was claiming a prerogative of God. If people could get their sins forgiven by an itinerant preacher, why bother to make sacrifice? This raised the very real prospect of a threat to Temple contributions as well as to the incomes of the bankers, who exchanged pagan currency for ritually pure coinage, and the vendors of sacrificial animals. There was real money at stake here.
But the most important challenge Jesus presented was entirely — profoundly — religious. While he insisted that he didn’t wish to change a “jot or tittle of the Law,” to many people his preaching and behavior suggested that he was questioning the very nature of Judaism and the practices by which the Jews had maintained their identity as a people through centuries of war, oppression, exile, and now occupation by Rome. Jesus was only one of many figures who started movements, gained followers, and raised hopes that Messiah had finally come. But he was unique in his emphasis on himself as the very means of salvation (“I am the way, the truth, and the life”).
This was a significant departure from Judaism, which had always seen membership in the Jewish community, living the Jewish way of life, as the path to holiness. By what authority did Jesus set forth this proposition that everything depended upon him? And if people chose to follow the course he laid out for them, if living as Jews became less important than living by his words and his example and his promises… would they still be Jews?
Today, it’s easy to get a shallow, Sunday-school impression that the people of Jesus’ time were a bunch of thin-skinned spoilsports, confused about what was really important. But there were reasons his movement was seen as so provocative. And while it’s clear from Scripture that Jesus was railroaded by a kangaroo court and that the crowd shouting to Pontius Pilate demanding crucifixion was probably a bunch of paid agitators — derelicts rounded up off the streets, most likely — what happened was all quite logical, given the religious expectations of the time, along with the economic incentives and vested interests of everyone involved.
It’s also clear that the Jews, as a people, were not responsible for Jesus’ death. This had nothing to do with “narrow-mindedness” or “obstinacy,” as has been charged down through the ages and so often used to justify anti-Semitism. On the contrary, Jesus’ movement was huge; he touched thousands of hearts. If that wasn’t the case, the situation wouldn’t have seemed so menacing to the Jewish and Roman authorities.
Neither can it be said that some people just didn’t “get” what Jesus was saying — which is a common dodge of those who wish to criticize Jewish “intransigence” without sounding judgmental. People “got” his message well enough. It’s just that some were frightened by it. In the end, it all came down to the question of whether one believed that Jesus was Messiah (or even God), the question people still debate today.
So when you listen to the passion story this year, reflect on the great and poignant drama that unfolded two millennia ago. It may help to make Jesus’ predicament more vivid, and the joy of resurrection more complete.
Then go dye some eggs, eat your chocolate bunnies, and have a happy Easter.
Bill Kassel is a writer, communications consultant, and media producer based in Michigan. His essays and random rants can be found online at www.billkassel.com. This article is derived from research for a novel about the family of Jesus currently being presented to publishers.