The Passing Parade: Cheap Shots from a Drive By Mind

"...difficile est saturam non scribere. Nam quis iniquae tam patiens urbis, tam ferreus, ut teneat se..." " is hard not to write Satire. For who is so tolerant of the unjust City, so steeled, that he can restrain himself... Juvenal, The Satires (1.30-32)

Saturday, August 30, 2003

JOHN 11:46—53 “But some of them went their ways to the Pharisees, and told them what things Jesus had done.
Then gathered the chief priests and the Pharisees a council, and said, What do we? for this man doeth many miracles.
If we let him thus alone, all men will believe on him: and the Romans shall come and take away both our place and nation.
And one of them, named Caiaphas, being the high priest that same year, said unto them, Ye know nothing at all,
Nor consider that it is expedient for us, that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not.
And this spake he not of himself: but being high priest that year, he prophesied that Jesus should die for that nation;
And not for that nation only, but that also he should gather together in one the children of God that were scattered abroad.
Then from that day forth they took counsel together for to put him to death.”

Since everyone else is commenting on a movie they haven’t seen yet, I thought it only fair that I get to opine on the subject without seeing the movie either. I have read the book, though, and I will do my best not to give away the ending.

One of the complaints that I’ve seen the most is that the film makes the Jewish leadership of the time look bad. Michael Novak, in the August 25th issue of The Weekly Standard writes, “In the first part of the gospels' account of the Passion, the high priests of Jerusalem standing before Pilate are, painfully no doubt to contemporary Jews, the voice for the prosecution. During the early scenes of the movie, which I tried to watch as if I were Jewish or seated alongside a Jewish colleague, I thought: This is too painful. Having sat through many analogous moments as a Catholic, I did not like the experience.” Very few people do and if you read the section from John’s Gospel above the high priests come off very badly. The worst miscarriages of justice invariably occur when an elite determines that its political power and status are more important than individual justice. The Dreyfus case of a century ago is a perfect example of this. It’s one of the reasons why cops dislike politically sensitive cases; the agendas of everyone involved in the case keep getting in the way of finding out what happened.

But before we start the pogrom, let’s take a look at Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin. Caiaphas is the leader of a totally powerless people, living in a country occupied by the Romans, and the Romans are a seriously scary set of occupiers. Caiaphas’ country is occupied by people who think that gladiatorial combat and public executions, the more grisly the better, are family entertainment, and whose idea of riot control is to kill as many of the rioters as possible and then crucify the survivors along the roads so anyone who might take to disturbing the peace will think twice before trying anything.

So for Caiaphas there are few palatable political options. Supporting Jesus might work for him, unless the crowd crowns Jesus King of the Jews, whereupon the Romans will see a threat to their hold on Judea and start massacring people left and right, and possibly destroy the Temple and organized Jewish life as it had been known for centuries (which is exactly what happened forty years later.) He can do nothing, but that means allowing events dictate his responses, and if things go wrong then he won’t be able to control what happens next, and that means accepting responsibility for a whole slew of very bad outcomes. Or Jesus can die and things can go on as before until the next crisis occurs, which, while unsatisfactory, is the outcome with the fewest undesirable consequences. Granted, delivering a Jew to the Romans is not a good thing, but the concept that the needs of the many outweigh those of the few, or the one, is familiar to every Star Trek fan.

On top of all of this, Jesus makes as triumphal an entrance as one can make on a donkey into Jerusalem just in time for the Passover holiday, a holiday that celebrates the liberation of the Jewish people from bitter bondage. The symbolism could not have been lost on either the Jewish elite or the Romans, and from Caiaphas’ point of view Jesus must have been out of his mind to come to Jerusalem at this time; it would seem to Caiaphas and the Jewish elite a deliberate attempt to set off the highly volatile mix of nationalism and religious fervor that existed in the city at that time. People who think their backs are to the wall do not make the wisest of decisions, and Caiaphas and his backers in the Sanhedrin may well have felt that Jesus was giving them no choice. Faced with a Roman army that would not hesitate to use massive force against anyone perceived as even vaguely rebellious and no real way to resist such power, Caiaphas and his backers took what they thought was the lesser of two evils. It is not heroic, to be sure, but sometimes Shakespeare’s Falstaff is right when he says that discretion is the better part of valor; the Jewish Zealots were valorous forty years after the Crucifixion, and the price of their valor was the destruction of Jerusalem. So before people go on about what lousy bastards the Jewish leadership were remember what the world looked like to them, remember that no one in history knows how it will all come out, and that in the same situation you might have done the same thing.



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