The True Jesus of the Gospels (Part 3)

Commentary by Father Raniero Cantalamessa


VATICAN CITY, MAY 16, 2007 ( Here is a translation of the Italian-language commentary by Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, preacher of the Pontifical Household, on the book “Inchiesta su Gesù” (An Investigation on Jesus) by Corrado Augias and Mauro Pesce.


Part 1

Part 2


5. Who is responsible for his death: the Sanhedrin, Pilate, or both?


The chapter of Corrado Augias’ and Mauro Pesce’s book on the trial and condemnation of Christ deserves a special discussion. The central thesis is not new; it began to be circulated after the tragedy of the Shoah and it was adopted by those who in the ’60s and ’70s proposed the thesis of Jesus who was a Zealot and a revolutionary.


On this view, the responsibility for Christ’s death falls principally, indeed exclusively, on the shoulders of Pilate and the Roman administration, which indicates that the motive of Christ’s condemnation was more political than religious. The Gospels acquitted Pilate and accused the Jewish leaders so as to pacify the Roman authorities in their regard and make friends with them.


This thesis was born from a just concern that today all of us share: To cut off at the root every pretext for anti-Semitism, which has procured for the Jewish people much evil at the hands of Christians. But the gravest mistake that can be made for the sake of a just cause is to defend it with erroneous arguments.


The struggle against anti-Semitism should be put on a firmer basis than that of a questionable (and questioned) interpretation of the Passion narratives. The innocence of the Jewish people, as such, of responsibility for the death of Christ rests on a biblical certainty that Christians have in common with Jews, but which, unfortunately, for many centuries has been strangely forgotten: “Only the one who sins shall die. The son shall not be charged with the guilt of his father, nor shall the father be charged with the guilt of his son” (Ezekiel 18:20). The doctrine of the Church knows only one sin that is transmitted by heredity from father to son, original sin, no other.


With this rejection of all anti-Semitism in place I would like to explain why the thesis about the complete innocence of the Jewish authorities of Christ’s death and the essentially political nature of this death cannot be accepted. Paul, in the earliest of his letters, written around the year 50, gives the same fundamental account of Christ’s death as the Gospels. He says that “the Jews have put Jesus to death” (1 Thessalonians 2:15), and he must have been better informed than we moderns about what took place in Jerusalem shortly before his arrival in the city, having once approved and “doggedly” defended the condemnation of the Nazarene.


During this earliest phase Christianity considered itself to be directed principally to Israel; converted Jews made up the majority membership in those communities in which the first oral traditions that came together later in the Gospels were formed; Matthew, as Augias and Pesce note, is concerned to show that Jesus came to fulfill, not abolish, the law. If there had been an apologetic worry, it would have been to present the condemnation of Jesus as the work of the pagans rather than the Jewish authorities with the scope of reassuring the Jews of Palestine and the Diaspora about the Christians.


On the other hand, when Mark, and certainly the other Evangelists, write their Gospel, Nero’s persecution had already happened; this would have made Jesus appear to be the first victim of Roman power and the Christian martyrs as sharing in the fate of the Master.


We have a confirmation of this in the Book of Revelation, written after the persecution under Domitian, where Rome is the object of a ferocious invective (“Babylon,” the “Beast,” the “prostitute”) because of the blood of the martyrs (cf. Revelations 13ff.). Pesce is right to perceive an “anti-Roman tendency” in John’s Gospel (p. 156), but John is also the one who more accentuates the responsibility of the Sanhedrin and of the Jewish leaders in Christ’s trial: How do we reconcile these things?


We cannot read the accounts of the Passion while ignoring everything that precedes them. The four Gospels attest, we can say on every page, to a growing religious contrast between Jesus and an influential group of Jews (Pharisees, doctors of the law, scribes) on the observance of the Sabbath, on the attitude toward sinners and publicans, on the clean and unclean.


Joachim Jeremias has shown the anti-Pharisaic motivation present in almost all of Jesus’ parables. The Gospel data is just that much more credible insofar as the contrast with the Pharisees is not at all prejudicial or general. Jesus has friends among them (Nicodemus is one of them); we find him at dinner in one of their houses; they are willing at least to dispute with him and to take him seriously, unlike the Sadducees.


Without denying therefore that the later situation did something to further the contrast, it is impossible to eliminate every opposition between Jesus and an influential part of the Jewish leadership without completely unraveling the Gospels and making them historically incomprehensible. The ill will that the Pharisee Saul bore against the Christians did not come from nowhere and he did not bring it from Tarsus!


Once the existence of this contrast has been demonstrated, how can it be thought that it did not play any role at the moment of the final rendering of accounts and that the Jewish authorities, almost against their will, decided to denounce Jesus to Pilate only because of their fear of a Roman military intervention.


Of course Pilate was not so sensitive to the demands of justice to be worried about the fate of an unknown Jew; he was a hard and cruel type, ready to suppress with blood the tiniest hint of rebellion. All of that is true enough. However, he did not try to save Jesus out of compassion for the victim but only to score a point against his accusers with whom he had been in a cold war since his arrival in Judea. Naturally, this does not at all diminish Pilate’s responsibility in Christ’s condemnation. He was just as responsible as the Jewish leaders.


After all we should not aim at being “more Jewish than the Jews.” From the accounts of Jesus’ death present in the Talmud and in other Jewish sources (however late and historically contradictory they may be) one thing emerges: The Jewish tradition has never denied the participation of the religious leadership of the time in Christ’s condemnation.


It has never defended itself by denying the fact but rather by denying that the fact constituted a crime and that it was an unjust condemnation: A version compatible with that of the New Testament sources which on the one hand highlight the participation of the Jewish authorities (of the Sadducees more than the Pharisees) in the Christ’s condemnation, and on the other hand often excuse them, attributing their actions to ignorance (cf. Luke 23:34; Acts 3:17; 1 Corinthians 2:8). Raymond Brown also comes to this conclusion in his 1608 page book on “The Death of the Messiah.”


A marginal note, but one that touches on a very delicate issue: According to Augias, Luke attributes to Jesus the following words: “And my enemies who did not want me to be king, bring them in and slaughter them before me” (Luke 19:27). Augias says of this line that “it is with such passages that the supporters of ‘holy war’ and armed struggle against unjust regimes seek to legitimate their actions.”


It must be pointed out that Luke does not attribute these words to Jesus but to the king in the parable he is telling and we know that we cannot transfer the burden of the parable in all its details to reality, and in any case the parables must be transferred from the material plane to the spiritual plane. The metaphorical sense of those words is that accepting or rejecting Jesus has its consequences; it is a question of life or death, but spiritual life and death, not physical. Holy war has no place at all here.


6. A balance


It is time to end my critical reading with some concluding reflections. I do not share many of Pesce’s views, but I respect them, recognizing their full right to citizenship in historical research. Many of them (on Jesus’ attitude toward politics, the poor, children, the importance of prayer in his life) are indeed illuminating. Some of the problems raised — Jesus’ place of birth, the question of his brothers and sisters, the virgin birth — are objective and are likewise discussed by some believing historians, but these are not problems with which the Christ of the Church stands or falls.


In regard to the place of birth, however, it seems strange to me to recognize that Mary constituted “for some early Christian writers, and Luke in particular, an important source of information” (p. 122) and then to deny Luke’s report that Jesus was born in Bethlehem (p. 10). Mary should have known where her son was born!


Less justified it seems to me in a historical investigation of Jesus is the care with which Augias gathers all the insinuations about presumed homosexual relationships existing among the disciples, or between Jesus himself and “the disciple he loved” (was he not supposed to have been in love with Mary Magdalene?), and the detailed description of the scandalous incidents involving some of the women present in Christ’s genealogy.


It seems we move sometimes from the investigation of Jesus to gossip about Jesus. However, there is an explanation for this phenomenon. There has always been the tendency to clothe Jesus in the garb of one’s own epoch or ideology. In the past, though questionable, they were serious and relevant causes: Christ the idealist, socialist, revolutionary. … Our time, obsessed with sex, cannot think of him except in connection with certain emotional problems.


I think that this putting together of a consciously alternative vision of a journalistic bent with a historical vision that is also radical and minimalist has led to a result that is on the whole unacceptable, not just for the man of faith but also for the historian. The claim according to which there is no relationship between the Jesus of the Gospels and the Jesus of the Church arises because of a failure to take account of the idea of development which should be familiar to the historian.


To confront the Christianity of the Gospels with that of later times and to conclude that they are two completely different things is to ignore that Christianity is life and that life is subject to growth. If we compare the photograph of an embryo in the maternal womb with the one of the ten-year-old child who has come from it, they will appear as two totally different realities, and yet everything that the person has become was contained and programmed in the embryo.


In the end one must ask the question: How did Jesus, who did not bring anything at all new to Judaism, who did not want to start any religion, who did not perform any miracle, and who is not risen save in the altered mind of his followers, how did he, I repeat, become “the man who changed the world,” as the subtitle of the book defines him? A certain type of criticism begins with the intention of wiping away the veneer with which the ecclesiastical tradition has covered Jesus of Nazareth, but in the end the treatment reveals itself to be so corrosive as to dissolve the person beneath as well.


In trying to clear up the “mysteries” about Jesus to reduce him to an ordinary man, we end by creating a still more unexplainable mystery. A great English exegete, speaking of the resurrection of Christ, says: “The idea that the imposing edifice of the history of Christianity is like an enormous pyramid balanced upon an insignificant fact is certainly less credible than the assertion that the entire event — that is, the event plus the meaning attributed to it — really did occupy a place in history comparable to the one that the New Testament attributes to it” (C.H. Dodd).


Does faith condition historical research? Undeniably, at least to a certain extent. But I think that unbelief conditions it a great deal more. If one comes to the figure of Christ and to the Gospels as a non-believer (this is the case, as I understand it, of Augias at least) the essential is already decided: The virgin birth can only be a myth, the miracles are the result of suggestion, the resurrection is the product of an “altered state of consciousness,” and so on.


One thing, nevertheless, consoles us and allows us to continue to respect each other and pursue dialogue: If the faith divides us, we are compensated by having “good faith” in common. Augias and Pesce claim to have written the book in good faith and I have certainly read and discussed it in good faith.


  1. 1 Catholic Faith « Catholic Analysis

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