Jesus, Jewish Resistance, Day of the Lord

Abridged from Revolution in Judea: Jesus and the Jewish Resistance by Hyam Maccoby

Jesus's reign as King of the Jews in Jerusalem lasted for less than a week. What happened during that week? According to the Gospels, the only positive action performed by Jesus was his Cleansing of the Temple. After that, apparently, he confined himself to teaching and preaching in the Temple until the time of his arrest.

From the argument of the last chapter, we see that Jesus did much more than this. The Cleansing of the Temple was not an isolated incident but a full reform, entailing the occupation of the Temple area by Jesus and his followers. As in so many other insurrections of this kind described by Josephus, Jesus would have made himself master of part only of Jerusalem.

Most of Jerusalem would still have been held by the Roman troops of Pilate and the Jewish troops of the High Priest. From the point of view of Pilate and Caiaphas, the insurrection was not a great affair. For a few days (as they would have put it) a deluded fanatic with mob support was able to hold a limited area of Jerusalem, including the Temple grounds, thereby interrupting the jurisdiction of the High Priest temporarily.

The Temple services were not interrupted, for Jesus allowed the vast majority of the priests to remain at their posts, ejecting only those closely associated with the quisling Caiaphas.

However, for those few days, Jesus reigned supreme in the Temple area. The Gospels make it clear that the High Priest was unwilling to attempt the arrest of Jesus because of the strong popular support given him by the Festival crowd.

Caiaphas probably calculated that it would be better to wait until the first wave of enthusiasm was over and then catch Jesus off guard. He did not ask for the aid of Roman troops at this stage because he thought he would be able to handle the matter himself.

Jesus's appearances in the Temple during those few days would have been as a Prophet-King, not as the preacher portrayed in the Gospels. His performance of the Tabernacles rites of the King was a political act of great significance, consolidating his claim to the Messiahship.

His preaching was no doubt of an apocalyptic character, as the Gospels indeed show, but not prophesying his own death and the doom that would come on the Jews and the Temple; these prophesies were inserted in the Gospels after the defeat of the Jews and the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70 A.D.

Jesus did not spend all his time in the Temple area during his few days of kingship. In the evenings he went to the Mount of Olives, on the east of Jerusalem, about a mile outside the city. The prophesy of Zechariah on which Jesus was particularly relying states that the location of the miracle would be the Mount of Olives.

This mountain was of great religious significance, especially for a Messiah, for not only was it the location of the expected miracle, it was also the place where David used to pray. Moreover, it was here that the prophet Ezekiel had seen the appearance of the "glory of God" for which Jesus was waiting.

We come to the incident known as the Last Supper. It follows from the argument of the last chapter that this took place not at Passover time but during the Feast of Tabernacles.

In the Gospels the Last Supper has been overlaid with myth serving three purposes: to show that Jesus foresaw and intended his own death on the cross; to show how Judas Iscariot became ... determined to betray Jesus; and to show that Jesus instituted the rite of Communion, with its pagan symbolism of eating the flesh and drinking the blood of the god.

No trace is revealed of any of the special rites of a Passover "Seder," such as the eating of unleavened bread, the eating of the Paschal lamb, the bitter herbs, and the relating of the Exodus from Egypt. The only special rite of the Tabernacles, as regards eating, is the taking of meals in the Succah, or booth (from which the festival takes its name).

Of this there is some trace in the odd reference to an "upper room," described in Mark as "strewn over." The ritual booths or "Tabernacles" were often constructed on the flat roofs of houses, so the "upper room" may in fact have been a "tabernacle" which was "strewn over" with tree branches in the prescribed manner.

The feature of Sanctification ("Kiddush") with wine and bread is common to all Jewish festivals, and applies to Tabernacles as much as to Passover. There is no mystical symbolism of "flesh" and "blood" in the Jewish use of bread and wine in the ceremony of Kiddush. The wine is used first to pronounce a blessing on the Festival.

The bread is then used as a ceremonial beginning to the Festival. Jesus would have been appalled to know of the pagan interpretation later put on the simple Kiddush with which he began the Last Supper.

Jesus had no foreknowledge of his failure and crucifixion. The Last Supper was a celebration with his closest disciples of his appearance as King and the imminent overthrow of the Roman power.

After preparing himself by several nights of prayer on the Mount of Olives, Jesus was convinced that "the day of the Lord" was close at hand, and he called together his disciples for a final strengthening of the bond between them before their crucial testing time.

The atmosphere must have been extremely tense. They were about to embark on a great venture on which the fate of their country and the whole world would depend. But the special poignancy and drama of the Gospel accounts are the product of hindsight and of the myths that grew up later to explain Jesus's failure.

The Last Supper would also have been regarded as a foretaste of the great Supper and Feast which would take place if Jesus were successful. Jewish legend, prophesying Messianic times, contained many details of the great Messianic Feast at which the Leviathan would be eaten and all the great heroes of Jewish history would be present.

This is no doubt what Jesus meant when he said at the Last Supper, "Verily I say unto you, I will drink no more the fruit of the vine until that day that I drink it new in the kingdom of God." Their next meal would be the Messianic Feast itself, in celebration of victory over God's enemies, the Romans.

After the Last Supper, Jesus led his disciples, as usual, to the Mount of Olives. But this time there was a difference. Jesus was convinced that this was the night on which God would appear in glory and overthrow the foreign invaders of his Holy Land. Accordingly, he required his disciples to equip themselves with swords. Two swords were produced, and Jesus said, "It is enough."

The Messiah and his followers, like Gideon and his tiny band, would be required to fight, for the prophesy of Zechariah had said, among its awesome predictions of God's intervention, "And Judah also shall fight at Jerusalem." But two swords would be enough: the miracle would be even greater than in the case of Gideon.

Only Luke...has retained the incident of the swords. He could have no possible motive in inventing it, for it goes against the whole grain of his narrative. The only possible explanation of its inclusion is that it is a survival from the original story which only Luke was not ruthless enough to excise.

The Gospel writers were following the outline of an older Gospel. To twist this Gospel to a new meaning required courage of a kind; sometimes their nerve may have failed them. This would explain why bones of the old narrative can sometimes be seen jutting out uncomfortably from the body of the new.

Jesus was now determined to put to the test his interpretation of the prophesy of Zechariah. It may be useful, therefore, to have before us this prophesy, which was of such fateful importance for Jesus:

Then shall the Lord go forth, and fight against these nations, as when he fought in the day of battle. And his feet shall stand in that day upon the mount of Olives which is before Jerusalem in the east, and the mount of Olives shall cleave in the midst thereof toward the east and toward the west, and there shall be a great valley; and half the mountain shall move toward the north, and half of it toward the south.

And ye shall flee to the valley of the mountains ... and the Lord my God shall come, and all the saints with thee. And it shall come to pass in that day, that the light shall be known to the Lord, not day nor night: but it shall come to pass that at evening time it shall be light ...

And the Lord shall be king over all the earth: in that day shall there be one Lord, and his name one ... And this shall be the plague wherewith the Lord will smite all the people that have fought against Jerusalem. Their flesh shall consume away while they stand upon their feet, and their eyes shall consume away in their holes, and their tongue shall consume away in their mouth ...

and Judah also shall fight at Jerusalem.... And everyone that is left of all the nations which came against Jerusalem shall even go up from year to year to worship the King, the Lord of hosts, and to keep the feast of tabernacles ... and in that day there shall be no more Canaanite in the house of the Lord of hosts.

The strong influence of the prophesy of Zechariah on Jesus is shown by his mode of entrance into Jerusalem riding on an ass's colt. Such deliberate fulfillment of Zechariah ix. 9 suggests that Jesus also had the rest of Zechariah's prophesies in mind.

"The people that have fought against Jerusalem" were none other than the Romans, the heathen barbarians who had united "the nations" in a great empire and had set their faces against God. He himself, Jesus of Nazareth, was the person to whom the prophet was addressing his instructions; the Messiah who would arrive in Jerusalem on an ass's colt, and would stand in "the valley of the mountains" together with a company of "saints" to witness the appearance of the glory of God on the Mount of Olives.

He would see the Romans stricken by a plague, and would lead "Judah" in fighting against them. Then, after a great victory, he would reign as King-Messiah in Jerusalem, where every year on the anniversary of his victory he would welcome representatives of every nation on earth, coming to pay homage to the Lord of Hosts in his Temple.

It may be objected that this account makes Jesus appear insane. Could he really have expected the prophesies of Zechariah to be fulfilled so literally that night on the Mount of Olives? How could he have been so sure he knew the exact hour of the prophesies, and that it was through him that they would be fulfilled?

As a person, Jesus was what would today be described as a "manic" character, i.e., one capable of remaining for long periods at a high pitch of enthusiasm and euphoria.

This enabled him to impress his associates to the extent that they could not let his memory die. He was not Judas of Galilee, or Bar Kochba, who were Messiahs of essentially ordinary or normal temperament, men who made their bid for power, failed, and that was that. It was no accident that Jesus gave rise to a new world religion.

Christianity was a falsification of everything that Jesus stood for, yet every detail of this falsification was built on something that existed in his temperament and outlook. It was only a step for the Hellenistic Gentiles to transform Jesus's soaring conviction of his universal mission into a dogma of his divinity; or to transform his confidence of victory by the hand of God, rather than by guerilla methods, into a pacifist other-worldly doctrine which transferred the concept of victory on to a "spiritual" plane. Jesus's "manic" temperament was the mainspring of the early Christian Church, with its ecstatic mood, its universal ambition, and its confidence in ultimate victory.

To modern minds, it would seem insane to expect to overthrow Rome without a proper army and with only two swords, because of some obscure sentences in a book written five hundred years before.

Yet the Christian account of Jesus makes him appear even more insane. According to this account, Jesus regarded himself as one of the Three Persons of the Triune Almighty God, who had descended from the immensities of the World of Light in order to immolate himself on behalf of mankind. Such a combination of megalomania and suicidal fantasy was alien to the society of Judea and Galilee in Jesus's day.

They had their own apocalyptic extravagances, but this kind of Hellenistic schizophrenia was quite outside their experience or understanding. Jesus never regarded himself in this way. His profoundly impressive "manic" nature followed the pattern laid down for such temperaments in the Jewish prophetic tradition. His claims would have seemed, to his contemporaries, breathlessly daring but entirely reasonable.

The Jewish Resistance against Rome consisted of various groups, all of which were religious in character. They differed, however, on the question of how much could be left to the intervention of God.

The Zealots were prepared for a long, hard fight by realistic military methods. Bar Kochba, successor of the Zealots, is said to have prayed to God, "Master of the Universe, I do not ask that you should fight on my side; only that you should not fight for the Romans, and that will be enough."

Some would-be Messiahs, such as Theudas, were at the other extreme, and relied on God even more than Jesus did. The moderate Pharisees were cautious "wait-and-see" people, who like Gamaliel, thought, "If this counsel or this work be of men, it will come to naught; but if it be of God, ye cannot overthrow it."

But even they could be carried away by apocalyptic fervor at times, as was Rabbi Akiva in the days of Bar Kochba. Jesus can be placed, in the spectrum of the Jewish Resistance, as an apocalyptic Pharisee whose hopes were similar to those of Theudas, and the prophet from Egypt, mentioned by Josephus, who also centered his movement around an expected miracle on the Mount of Olives.

Having arrived at the Mount of Olives, Jesus stationed himself with his disciples in the "garden of Gethsemane." This is located traditionally at a spot at the foot of the Mount of Olives, but possibly is further away from Jerusalem in a low valley between two spurs of the mountain.

Zechariah's prophesy says that God's feet would stand on the Mount of Olives, which would split in an earthquake towards the east and west, the mass of the mountain removing towards the north and south.

The prophesy goes on, "And ye shall flee into the valley of the mountains." Jesus therefore took his disciples to the spot indicated by the prophet, where he could watch the miracle and not be overwhelmed by it. He was further assured by the prophet, "And my Lord will come, and all the saints with thee." (Alternative translation: "...if all with thee are holy.")

God Himself would join the Messiah in the valley and fight against the enemy by smiting his ranks with a plague. Other startling miracles would occur: living waters would go out from Jerusalem in two rivers; and "at evening time, it shall be light."

Once in the "valley of decision," Jesus applied himself to prayer and vigil. He told his disciples, "Watch ye and pray, lest ye enter into temptation." Jesus now experienced an Agony of sorrow about his approaching crucifixion. This, at least, is the version of Mark and Matthew. (John omits the whole incident.)

Only Luke uses the word "agony," and what he seems to describe is not an agony of sorrow but one of strenuous prayer. "And being in agony, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground."

What was Jesus praying for so earnestly at this time? Why did he instruct his disciples to "watch and pray," an injunction he had used previously to those waiting for the coming of the kingdom of God? Why did he warn them against entering into temptation?

If he had resigned to the Crucifixion and was spending the night in Gethsemane waiting for Judas to arrive with the troops to arrest him, there was no particular reason to pray or even to stay awake. And there was no particular temptation likely to assail the disciples while they were waiting.

On the theory outlined here, however, there was great reason to pray and to stay awake, and there was great reason to avoid temptation. Jesus was not waiting passively in the Vale of Gethsemane for his arrest. He was expecting an awesome miracle and the appearance of the glory of God: but he must have felt that this manifestation would depend, to some extent, on his own worthiness and that of his disciples.

Jesus had not merely prophesied the coming of the kingdom of God; he had also prepared for it. He had campaigned among "the lost sheep of Israel," calling them to repentance, because he felt that the coming of God's kingdom was being held back by Israel's sins. Pharisee writings often stress that God's promises to Israel are not automatically fulfilled; the depend on Israel's worthiness and cooperation.

Consequently, even though Jesus felt that the time was propitious for the coming of "the day of the Lord," he could not be quite sure. What was needed now was a last great effort of prayer. The belief in the efficacy of prayer was very strong among the Pharisees, especially when the prayer came from a prophet.

What might not be accomplished by the powerful prayers of a dedicated Messiah-Prophet, supported by a band of holy men, all concentrating their thoughts toward God, at a time and place appropriate for salvation?

Only the most powerful concerted beam of holy concentration, directed from Gethsemane toward God, could obliterate the traces of the sins of Israel, and bring about the hour of redemption. Jesus alone was not sufficient, for Zechariah had said, "And my Lord will come, if all with thee are holy." This explains why Jesus narrowed his company to the Twelve on that night.

He wanted the company of those on whom he could most rely, for the power of sinless prayer would be far more important than the strength of mere numbers.

It is no wonder that Jesus gave the Messianic slogan, "Watch and pray" to his disciples, that he himself went into an agony of prayer, and that he reproved his disciples when he felt a lack of concentration and wholeheartedness in their prayer.

The story of the failure of the disciples in Gethsemane must have developed very early in the history of the Jewish-Christian Church. It was impossible to believe that Jesus himself had failed.

His disciples themselves preferred to believe that they had failed him, since by blaming themselves they could go on believing in him. He had temporarily withdrawn from the world, like Elijah when he ascended to heaven, but when they proved themselves worthy he would return and lead them to victory.

Later, in the Gentile-Christian Church, when Jesus had been turned into a god, the idea that he needed the support of his disciples to accomplish his mission became inappropriate. Jesus's injunction to his disciples in Gethsemane to watch and pray, and his own agony of prayer, became pointless and incomprehensible.

It was not difficult for the disciples, after Jesus's arrest and execution, to fall back on guilt feelings and attach the whole blame to themselves. Jesus must have made them feel guilty on many occasions by his white-hot faith and selflessness ... This may account to some extent for the many stories in the Gospels about the lapses of the disciples.

Jesus, then, stands in the Vale of Gethsemane, with the Mount of Olives looming above him. This, he fervently believes, is the valley of decision, the valley of the Lord's judgment. If he has chosen the moment well, if the hearts of his companions are pure, and if his campaign and reclamation among the "lost sheep of Israel" has been successful, the last battle will be fought.

But, as he prays, he feels a sense of struggle. He wrestles in prayer till his sweat falls like great drops of blood to the ground. The difficulty of his prayer is unpropitious, and he can see that the powers of his chosen companions are flagging. With a great sadness he realizes that the long travail of Israel has not yet come to an end.

The Arrest and Trial

The miraculous appearance of the Lord God on the Mount of Olives did not occur. Like Theudas and "the prophet from Egypt" and many other messiah-figures of the period, Jesus, despite his tremendous charisma, turned out to be deceived in his apocalyptic hopes. When the Roman troops...arrived at Gethsemane they found a handful of rebels equipped with only two swords.

A few blows were exchanged, but Jesus was soon captured. The disciples fled in dismay and the troops, who had orders to bring in the ringleader only, proceeded on their way with the prisoner.