Department of English, University of Illinois at Chicago
Dear Ms. Havrelock:
Last night the Hero’s channel or whatever it is called now, ran a rerun of “Who Was Jesus?” You were of course prominent in the program. I have no doubt you and the producers have heard from many of us with an entirely different take on the subject not to mention the “documentary” in its entirety. After seeing it, I thought to read a little about you and while you are undoubtedly accomplished, there are issues on which your conclusions relative to Jesus and Christianity should be considered more opinion than fact based on historical evidence you seem to reinterpret or misinterpret and information which the Discovery people intentionally left out of this rather “as seen on TV” production. This is not to criticize your opinion as much as it is setting the stage for another based on the program and your interview with Jennifer Viegas of Discovery News on April 3, 2009.
First, the portrayal of Jesus as a human being interested in the downtrodden as a function of the economic disparities of the time relegates him to the status of an instigator with a bone to pick. For two thousand years we have been debating the distinction between the human Jesus and the Godhead. Only lately have we begun to identify him as a political person with a somewhat leftist agenda. That attempt to humanize Jesus by making him a rebel with a cause is specious at best. To understand Jesus is to understand he had no such ambitions. Of course he pointed to the predicament of the poor, but it was to set in contrast the hypocrisy of the Jewish elite. He scolds the aristocratic Jews for their foppery and their shallowness, not for purposes of declaring the existence of social injustice, everyone already knew there was social injustice. Indeed, the society was built on the premise of social injustice. It would have been ridiculous for the Son of God to come to earth with the intention of changing the entire sociopolitical structure so as to urge egalitarianism. The purpose for Jesus’ existence is evidenced by his sermons. He appealed to the heart of man in man’s relationship with God. That was the totality of his mission.
In your interview with Ms. Viegas you conclude that 2,000 years of New Testament scholarship has missed the point, that John, “a lesser figure” baptized Jesus to make a political statement in line with Jesus’ “radical social idea”. It is patently absurd to make such a statement without your tongue being firmly embedded in your cheek. John’s baptizing Jesus had everything to do with the core of Jesus’ message, humility and subjection to the will of his Father. It is beyond belief that you and other scholars would or could so purposely misinterpret what is so obvious unless you had an agenda of your own, a conclusion I’ve come to after reading the interview with Ms. Viegas.
You mention “idealized notions of a Messiah” without explaining what they might be. While Jewish tradition identified the Messiah as a king with the rudest interpretation implying a new David, Zechariah’s declaration seems the starkest clarification of who he would be: “Behold, your king is coming to you; He is just and endowed with salvation, Humble, and mounted on a donkey…”
A warrior king, however understandable, is mankind’s vision. Jesus’ life, ministry, death and resurrection are the manifestation God’s will if you choose to believe. It is laughable to offer a human vision or “notion” however “idealized” which supersedes God’s will. Is it not the mystery of faith in a Supreme Being that we cannot know his mind? How presumptuous, arrogant and illogical would we be to assume we can?
You would be correct if you said the Old Testament in places reflects a mistaken notion of Israel’s new king, but Jesus definitively corrects it in the New Testament when he responded to Pilate’s inquiry, “My kingdom is not of this world”. Those are not the words of some common revolutionary or someone in rebellion against the Roman authorities as you and your Discovery colleagues argue. To conclude otherwise is to completely ignore Jesus’ response to the Pharisees when shown a Roman coin, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” And it also flies in the face of St. Paul’s admonition to his followers, “Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God.”
To extrapolate from Jesus’ words and deeds that he disagreed with Paul is to egregiously rewrite history so that a political agenda can be ascribed to him thus making the Messiah more man than God, more revolutionary than savior.
Jesus was not a political being. To suggest otherwise is another attempt to humanize him into being a first century Karl Marx, something Christians find not only reprehensible and blasphemous, but typical of what comes from modern academia and the mainstream media whenever the subject of Jesus comes up.
In a strictly historical sense, the documentary was factually inaccurate on several levels including the rank omissions which skew the story of Jesus such that it may as well be the story of a minor figure of no real significance. Take for example, the effort to show that the Romans, specifically Pontius Pilate were viciously determined to crucify Jesus when in fact it was the Jewish elite led by Joseph Caiaphas who not only brought Jesus to him, but subtly threatened riots if Jesus was not ordered crucified.
The fact is Pilate feared the Jewish leaders would whip up the mob to a riotous frenzy and as such was hesitant in putting someone as popular as Jesus to death over what appeared to be a disagreement over Jewish religious beliefs, involvement in which the Romans, especially Pilate desired to avoid. Your producers and researchers failed to make mention of the fact that prior to Pilate’s assignment to the region he was warned by Tiberius it would be his last if he failed to maintain order in Palestine. You know and so did your producers that Pilate did not want to put Jesus to death, that in Matthew’s account even Pilate’s wife, Claudia Procula became involved as she begged him to avoid condemning Jesus. All four evangelists imply that Pilate hesitated condemning Jesus going so far as to engage him in conversation in hopes Jesus would defend himself and thereby give Pilate reason to set him free. Such an intentional omission is tantamount to academic dishonesty. It is expected of the media, but not historians.
Finally, they were not Roman soldiers who crucified Jesus, but indigenous auxiliaries. This is evidenced by extant Roman records they scrupulously kept of their legions, where they were at any given time, their strength, even their names for purposes of payroll, testament to Roman military efficiency not to mention the regard in which the Emperor held his troops.
Note there were no legions stationed in and around Jerusalem at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion for several reasons, not the least being the relationship between Tiberius and the tetrarchs which was if not friendly, tolerable to the extent Tiberius honored his predecessor Augustus’ allowance of some Jewish autonomy. But Tiberius also required peace in the region, something he guaranteed with the threat of Roman troops. Those Roman troops were not stationed in or even near Jerusalem however. The closest Roman legion was Legio XII Fulminata in Raphanae, Syria some 135 miles away, a distance not likely to be undertaken by a commander for purposes of policing a series of Jewish festivals when there was real trouble on the eastern border with the Parthians.
Moreover, the Romans rarely detached soldiers from a legion and they most certainly would not have detached any to serve with Pilate for both political and practical reasons. Assigning regular Roman troops to Pilate’s command would have been a gauntlet to the Jews and a signal to Pilate that Rome would approve of his using them. It is far more likely that auxiliaries were attached to Pontius Pilate making them if not agreeable to the Jewish people at least less of a stick in their eye. As you know, auxiliaries were used extensively by the Romans in that region. Service was a means of becoming a Roman citizen, something highly coveted as can be attested to by St. Paul’s pride in being born one.
In the final analysis, history be damned when it comes to the historical Jesus, it must be. After all, the only substantive material we have relating to Jesus aside from the Gospels is scant mention by Josephus and Tacitus. St. Paul, perhaps the greatest apologist for Christianity tells us it’s all a matter of faith, that without it, there can be no belief in Christ as God or God himself which makes the entire historicity discussion about as useful as a discussion on the varieties of infinity. Against that background, whenever I read or see various offerings which purport to “reveal” something new about Jesus, I am not only suspect, but greatly amused since it seems to me a little like the argument concerning the origins of the universe. If you believe it was a big bang, then you are invariably left with the uncomfortable follow-up question, “Where did the big bang come from?” If you believe in Jesus as the Son of God, wonderful. If you don’t, you are left with a nagging question as to what all the fuss is about.
And by the way, I surely wish I had teachers that looked like you when I was a student.
Peter J. Fusco