This is not a book review, per se, however it is a response to a book I got for Christmas from my parents. Amy-Jill Levine’s The Misunderstood Jew (The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus) starts off on very familiar ground for me, as I have spent more than two decades reading scholarly works dealing with the history of religions, Jesus of Nazareth and the founding of Christianity in particular. Jesus was, of course, Jewish, not Christian, and this can pose a problem for anyone giving the New Testament solely a Christianity-based treatment.
This blog post is not about that. For more on that, read Levine’s book, which can be found here (not a paid endorsement).
In the third chapter of Levine’s book, entitled “The New Testament and Anti-Judaism,” the author digs into the great lengths the NT writers went to in their efforts to essentially blame the Jews for the death of Jesus. The most egregious episode, of course, is when Pontius Pilate presents both Jesus and a murderer named Barabbas to the gathered Jewish crowd and invites them to release one. According to the story, the crowd was unanimous in calling for the release of Barabbas and even went so far as to declare: “(Jesus’) blood is on us and on our children!” (Matthew 27:25 NIV).
There is one thing about this passage that has always struck me as odd, namely the fact that the name of Barabbas translates to “Son of God,” which might have confused the gathered crowd. I mean, if Jesus was the Son of God and Barabbas was named “Son of God,” are we sure Pilate understood which prisoner the Jews were referring to and released the right man?
Ok, I got that off my chest.
I’ve read many books by Biblical scholars suggesting that this entire scene is a fiction, told to create a narrative rather than to relate something that actually happened. This is true of many of the stories in the Bible, and UNC Chapel Hill Biblical scholar Bart Ehrman has done exhaustive work on the subject. Consider the following excerpt from his blog on this passage:
For starters, what evidence is there that Pilate ever released a prisoner to the Jewish crowd because they wanted him to do so, or because he wanted to behave kindly toward them during their festival? Apart from the Gospels, there is none at all. In part that is because we do not have a huge number of sources for the governorship of Pilate over Judea, just some highly negative remarks in the writings of a Jewish intellectual of his day, Philo of Alexandria, and a couple of stories in the writings of the Jewish historian, Josephus. These are enough, though, to show us the basic character of Pilate, his attitude to the Jews that he ruled, and his basic approach to Jewish sensitivities. The short story is that he was a brutal, ruthless ruler with no concerns at all for what the people he governed thought about him or his policies. He was violent, mean-spirited, and hard-headed. He used his soldiers as thugs to beat the people into submission, and he ruled Judea with an iron fist.
Is Pilate the sort of person who would kindly accede to the requests of his Jewish subjects in light of their religious sensitivities? In fact he was just the opposite kind of person. Not only do we have no record of him releasing prisoners to them once a year, or ever. Knowing what we know about him, it seems completely implausible. I should point out that we don’t have any evidence of any Roman governor, anywhere, in any of the provinces, having any such policy.
Ok, so it’s most likely not a true account. Levine agrees with Ehrman’s assessment and uses the story to illustrate the extent to which the New Testament authors were trying to incriminate and even demonize the Jews in the case of the death of Jesus. “From this verse,” writes Levin, referring to Matthew 27:25, “generations of Christians over hundreds of years concluded that all Jews for all times, and not just those present that fateful day, bore special responsibility for the death of Jesus.”
Mission accomplished! Well, at least until historians dissected the passages and saw the subterfuge at work.
Ok, so what’s the exciting news about Heaven, Bill?
Yes, yes, I am coming to that.
In her discussion of this episode of the Jesus story, Levine does what all good scholars do and considers the original Greek text and subsequent translations, and in so doing she gives a wonderful example of the challenges therein. Many words in Greek lack a direct English translation, or can be translated in different ways that yield very different meanings. It was often left up to the monks doing the original English translations to decide which word to use in these instances. In the case of the Pearly Gates, where St. Peter awaits our arrival in Heaven (according to legend), we are presented with a wonderful opportunity to consider a slight alternative to the traditional story. The Greek word for “pearl” is “margarita,” giving the entire concept of arriving in Heaven a wonderful new connotation!
In my mind, St. Peter is now the world’s most distinguished bartender, happily doling out margaritas to celebrate the arrival of each new soul. Rocks or blended? Strawberry, lime, peach, watermelon? Salt or no salt? Of course, it’s Heaven, so whatever you order will be top shelf!
After you’ve had a few, it won’t matter much whether your fellow Heaven-dwellers are Christians, Jews, Muslims, or anything else. You’ll just enjoy being together in the presence of God…and isn’t that the point?