When the Bible is wrong

Romanino, Pontius Pilate (Wikimedia Commons)

Romanino, Pontius Pilate (Wikimedia Commons)

In light of the latest anti-Semitic atrocity, at the Kansas City Jewish Community Center, it is necessary for Christians to go beyond papal and ecumenical apologies for anti-Semitism. We must boldly proclaim that our beloved Holy Scriptures are downright wrong on some points.

Plenty of Christians, especially those who have been to seminary and studied the Bible as the writings of very real people living in very real times, know this. But rarely do you hear preachers acknowledging from the pulpit the demonstrable errancy of scripture, let alone instructing congregations in how those mistakes were made, what harm they have done, and what we should do to correct them.

It is Holy Week. Instead of devotional readings I happen to be racing through Zealot, Reza Aslan’s biography of Jesus. I was looking for entertainment reading last Sunday afternoon and came across this while browsing popular selections in my local digital library. I don’t know why I thought it would be entertaining but it actually is a good read.

The story I’m thinking of is Jesus’s alleged trial before the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, in which Pilate finds Jesus relatively harmless and offers to set him free, following an alleged custom of releasing one prisoner for the holidays, but the Jewish crowd demands the release of another insurrectionist instead and screams for Jesus to be crucified. This is the basic story presented in the oldest gospel, Mark, but subsequent gospels embellish the story until, in John, Jesus himself is blaming the Jews and absolving Pilate.

Aslan points out, as others have done, that this scene conveniently slides the blame for Jesus’s crucifixion from the Romans to the Jews. Besides the gospel record there is no historical evidence for any of it except the fact of the execution itself.

What historical evidence there is would suggest that the story was fabricated. Historical evidence identifies Pontius Pilate as a particularly cruel tyrant who didn’t blink at executing Jewish troublemakers, which Jesus certainly was. Historical evidence identifies crucifixion as the favorite Roman method of execution for revolutionaries and bandits and guerrilla fighters, of which there were plenty at the time. Most important, historical evidence suggests that the audience for the gospel writers and the spreading Christian movement at the time these stories were written was Rome, the gentile world. So in fleshing out the whole Jesus story, 30 to 100 years after his death, the writers did not hesitate to spin the story in a way that would take the edge off of Roman responsibility. The Jews were, at that time, a lost cause, recently decisively crushed by Rome after a futile uprising and, besides, most of them didn’t accept Jesus as the Messiah, whatever one might mean by that.

“Thus, a story concocted by Mark strictly for evangelistic purposes to shift the blame for Jesus’s death away from Rome is stretched with the passage of time to the point of absurdity, becoming in the process the basis for two thousand years of Christian anti-Semitism,” Aslan writes.

Anti-Semitism is not Christian. As a Christian I don’t want to share any blame for evildoers like Frazier Glenn Cross/Miller or any of his ilk. I would like to wash my hands of him. But the anti-Semitism of today has its roots in the very beginnings of Christianity. Pretending this is not so is like turning away from clerical child abuse. Continuing to tell such harmful Bible stories to ourselves and our children is to perpetuate the conditions for abuse. Let’s set the record straight.


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