To the editors:
In crossing the minefields of biblical scholarship, Thomas Sheehan (in your April 21 cover story) has taken a few missteps–not serious enough to get blown up but bad enough to call for some corrections on the minefield maps.
For example, he talks about Christians abandoning the holy city just before the Romans destroyed the temple of Jerusalem in 70 c.e. It’s true that the followers of Jesus did leave Judea–but they weren’t Christians. They were the Nazarenes. And, even though they believed that Jesus was the messiah, they were still practicing Jews, and accepted as such. It wasn’t until 132 c.e., when Rabbi Akiba proclaimed Bar Kochba as the messiah to lead the Jews against the Romans, that the Nazarenes fled to Pella across the Jordan. They still believed Jesus would return to lead the battle against the Romans. They weren’t about to accept a “false” messiah.
When Dr. Sheehan lists the things “everyone agrees on” about the historical Jesus, he mentions the burial “in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea.” There’s a name that not everyone agrees on. In fact, there is considerable doubt that Joseph ever existed–just as there is about the name Barabbas and Judas. Each served specific “propaganda” purposes. Historical accuracy was not one of those purposes.
Where Dr. Sheehan falls short is in not putting the creation of the gospels into their historical context. While the gospels were formulated at the end of the first century and into the second, they were for many years transmitted orally to various Christian congregations, copied by scribes who were either careless or had their own axes to grind, and were rewritten, amended, and tailored to the specific needs of a particular time and audience.
The need in the third century and into the fourth was to win the hearts and minds of Roman citizens and rulers in the face of some stiff competition from the god-savior cults, but mainly from Mithraism.
It was necessary, first of all, to absolve the Romans of any blame for the death of Jesus. The gospel story of his trial and crucifixion served that purpose by placing the blame squarely on the Jews, who had stubbornly refused to enlist in the cause in any great numbers. It worked so well that Pontius Pilate, a tough hard-nosed colonial boss, was later made a saint in the Ethiopian church.
Because the story was several centuries removed from the actual events, the writers got a little careless. For example, the functions, the procedures, and the makeup of the Jewish court, the Sanhedrin, are carefully detailed in Jewish law. There is no way that court would have met when the gospels say it did. At no time in Roman colonial rule was a mob allowed to say who would die and who wouldn’t. And Pilate would not have risen so far in the Roman hierarchy by washing his hands of potentially-explosive problems. Crucify first and ask questions later was more his style.
To the cynical old Romans at the top, Christianity offered something that the other cults didn’t. That something was expressed by Saul of Tarsus, now known as St. Paul:
“Servants,” he wrote, “be obedient to them that are your masters. . . . Whoever is a slave, let him remain a slave. Let as many servants as are under the yoke count their own masters worthy of all honor that the name of God and his doctrine be not blasphemed.”
What Christianity offered was better social control.
Finally, I would remind Dr. Sheehan that millions through the ages have been killed for expressing heresies less strong than what I read in the Reader interview.
Sam P. Karr