By Robert Russell Smith
In 2010 I wrote a play, The Inquiry: A Story of the Passion of Jesus, to resolve some of the conflicts between the Gospels and modern biblical scholarship. I resolved that it would not reenact the Passion Narratives but would be a dramatic reconstruction based upon my years of study of circumstantial though compelling evidence.
I wrote from this perspective: there was a death threat against the Jews by Pontius Pilate, which he would rescind only if the Jewish leaders delivered Jesus to him, which they did. However, there was an effort by the Jewish leaders to save all lives under threat, including that of Jesus.
The Gospels depict Jewish leaders acting unlawfully. In handing over Jesus to Pilate, the Jewish leaders were in violation of the laws against Mesira (literally “handing over”). The Mesira laws state that the most odious crime is for a Jew to betray a fellow Jew (Jesus) to a gentile oppressor (Pilate). These laws are still in effect among the Jewish people as they were centuries before the time of Jesus.
There is one exception to the Mesira laws, which explains the actions of the Jewish leaders: a fellow Jew may be handed over to a gentile oppressor if the gentile has threatened to kill other Jews if a specific individual is not handed over.
Evidence of a threat by Pilate is at John 11:50. Caiaphas says, “It is expedient for you that one man should die for the people than to have the whole nation perish.” These words of Caiaphas are taken to be the first action in the plot to kill Jesus. They are, however, a reaction to a threat by Pilate. The corroborating evidence is in Genesis Rabba 94.
This Rabbinical source tells of a late second-century incident of a revolutionary, Ulla the son of Qoshev, who had taken refuge in Lydda with Rabbi Joshua ben Levi. A gentile army surrounded Lydda and threatened to destroy it if Ulla was not handed over to them. Rabbi Joshua ben Levi urged Ulla to surrender himself to the gentiles in a speech that parallels the speech of Caiaphas in John 11:50: “Better that you should be executed rather than that the whole community should be punished on account of you.” As a result, Ulla surrendered himself to the gentiles.
Genesis Rabba 94 is evidence that a threat of a gentile oppressor spurred the moral predicament and the actions of Rabbi Joshua ben Levi with Ulla and is the probable cause of the parallel situation of Caiaphas with Jesus.
There is an added ethical demand, the Mishnat Hasidim, “the teaching of the pious.” The Mishnat Hasidim would call for the Jewish leaders to go before Pilate and plead for all lives to be spared, including the life of Jesus — as some Pharisees had earlier attempted (Luke 13:31). (An earlier attempt to save the life of Jesus is found in Luke 13:31, in which some Pharisees warn Jesus to flee because Herod wants to kill him.)
Those under Pilate’s death threat were the rebels in his prison, including Barabbas (Mark 15:7). The release of only Barabbas in a Passover pardon is a relic of what was the release of all the prisoners according to the Mishnat Hasidim, which Pilate calls a Jewish custom (only in John 18:39).
Jesus was the ransom of the prisoners under Pilate’s death threat. This is the genesis of the ransom theory of the atonement (Mark 10:45; Matt. 20:28). Jesus also died as a martyr for the nation and people of Israel at the hands of the Romans.
The Rev. Robert Russell Smith, rector of St. Mark’s, Perryville, Maryland, is writing a book about his theory. The Inquiry will be performed August 9 at St. Peter’s Church, Lewes, Delaware.
Image: Ecce homo! by Antonio Ciseri (Wikimedia Commons)
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