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THE PASSOVER PLOT
By HUGH J. SCHONFIELD
The Disinformation Company Ltd.Copyright © 1965 Hugh J. Schonfield
All rights reserved.
The Last Times
Christianity is rooted in Palestine in a Jewish environment and in the historical circumstances of a plainly dated period. This assuredly requires no argument. To this time and place we are therefore bound to go for the elucidation of Christian Origins.
But it is by no means easy to relate the life of Jesus and the activities of his original followers, known as Nazoreans (Nazarenes), to the contemporary situation. This is largely due to the character of the New Testament and the paucity of external evidences about the beginnings of Christianity. To reach conclusions which can fairly be regarded as corresponding as nearly as possible to the reality entails a vast amount of analysis and comparison, the patient piecing together of a host of hints and scraps of tradition, and in particular a sympathetic involvement in the affairs of the Jewish people and detachment from considerations of Christian theology.
Because of what the Church has taught for so many centuries it has been extremely difficult for Christian scholars to undertake such an investigation objectively. Those who have embarked upon it and produced most valuable results merit the highest praise. One pioneer, Professor F. C. Burkitt of Cambridge, whom the writer was privileged to know personally, advisedly used these cautionary words: 'We must be prepared to find the whole drama of the rise of Christianity more confused, more secular, in a word more appropriate to the limitations of its own age, than we should gather from the epic selectiveness of the Creeds and the theological manuals.' Such language is necessary, and should be heeded by those theologians who feel quite at liberty to expound Christianity as if it owed little or nothing to its original background of thought. The Bishop of Woolwich, to quote a recent instance, can freely employ keywords like Christ and Gospel without apparent concern for their primary meaning and implications. Christ is the Greek translation of the Hebrew term Messiah, meaning the Anointed One, and the Gospel, from the Greek Evangel, translating the Hebrew word for Good News, was initially the information that the Messiah expected by the Jews had appeared.
It makes all the difference to our understanding of Christianity if we are enabled to apprehend that it did not begin as a new religion but as a movement of monotheistic Jews who held Jesus to betheir God-sent king and deliverer. Here, in a sentence, is what it is imperative to know about the origins of Christianity. Here we have the essential clue to the activities of Jesus and his first followers which helps to compensate for many material facts which are beyond recovery. Armed with this information we can get Christianity in correct perspective, and trace clearly and simply in the light of what is ascertainable how it was transformed into what it afterwards became.
It is often said that Christianity is founded upon a person. That is true. But it is only part of the historical truth. What, so to speak, was the person founded upon? The answer is that he was founded upon an idea, a strange idea current among the Jews of his time, an idea alien to Westem thought which many non Jewish theologians still find very inconvenient, the idea of Messianism. It was Messianism which made the life of Jesus what it was and so brought Christianity into being. It was Messianism, as accepted by Gentile believers, which contributed towards making the deification of Jesus inevitable. It was Messianism which provided the spiritual impulse behind the Jewish war with Rome which broke out in A.D. 66, resulting in the destruction of much authoritative testimony about Jesus and the substantial separation of Gentile from Jewish Christianity.
The fundamental teaching of Christianity, then, was that in Jesus the Messiah (the Christ) had come. There can be not the shadow of a doubt about this. It is the ultimate conviction on which the whole edifice of Christianity rests, the historical fact on which all the Gospels are agreed. This teaching was the gospel, underlying all the Gospels, the one thing which gave them the right to be so called. The faith of the earliest believers in Jesus was that which voiced itself in the declaration of Peter, as recorded in Mark, 'You are the Messiah', simply this without any qualification. The persuasion they had was built upon what Jesus had said and done. It was he who had given them cause to conclude that he was the Messiah, and he had done so quite deliberately. But what the Gospels do not tell us is what in the first instance had persuaded him. Unless we can discover why Jesus held himself to be the Messiah, what current teaching about the Messiah he applied to himself we are not in possession of the key to the mystery of his life and death.
We have no right to say that while Jesus accepted the designation of Messiah he did so in a sense quite different from any expectations entertained in his time. It would be unthinkable for him to do this, firstly because being the Messiah meant answering to certain prophetic requirements which for him were divinely inspired, and secondly because he would consciously have been depriving his people of any possibility of acknowledging him: he would be inviting them to reject him as a false Messiah.
We have to take the view that Jesus believed it to be his calling and destiny to fulfil the Messianic Hope, and to do so in a manner which would conform with the predictions he accepted as authoritative. Our business is to find out the conditions with which Jesus felt he had to comply, and on this basis to follow the course of his actions. Obviously we have to divorce the issue altogether from the paganised doctrine of the incarnation of the Godhead with which for Christians it has become intermingled, since expectation did not identify the Messiah with God, and, indeed, the nature of Jewish monotheism wholly excluded such an idea. Jesus as much as any other Jew would have regarded as blasphemous the manner in which he is depicted, for instance, in the Fourth Gospel.
Taking the Gospels together, and these are the chief source of our information about Jesus, we have in them an epitome of the process by which the traditions about him grew and expanded with the changing needs and fortunes of succeeding generations of believers, Jewish and Gentile, so that Jesus as he appears in them is a composite and somewhat contradictory figure. His image is like the idol of Nebuchadnezzar's dream in the book of Daniel, part gold, part silver, part bronze, part iron and part clay. The gold is there to be extracted, but we cannot take hold of it unalloyed without knowledge of the influences and circumstances to which Jesus himself had responded. It is not enough to look back to him through the minds of much later believers not of Jewish origin: we have imperatively to look forward to him through the pre-Christian development of Messianism.
The coming of the Messiah was not something fortuitous: it was closely linked with a period of history prophetically anticipated, the Last Times or End of the Days, which would precede the inauguration of the Kingdom of God. The Messiah could not appear at any time, but only at the End of the Days, at a time of testing and great tribulation for Israel.
The conception of the Last Times drew upon Biblical predictions relating to the Latter Days and the Day of the Lord, which became combined with Babylonian and Persian ideas of a succession of Ages. During the Ages the forces of Good and Evil would contend with one another, and the struggle would reach its climax in the penultimate Age, being followed by the final Age of peace and bliss, the Kingdom of God. The Last Times would thus be the closing period of the old order, when the assaults of Evil would reach their most malevolent intensity, bringing great misery to humanity and persecution and suffering to the Elect of Israel. When these signs appeared then the Messiah was to be expected.
According to those who studied these matters, it could not be known how long the Last Times would endure, but it could be known approximately when they would begin. For this a basis of calculation had to be available, and it was found in the book of Daniel in the prophecy of the Seventy Weeks, later understood to mean seventy weeks of years (490 years). The Last Times could be expected to begin after the lapse of 490 years 'from the going forth of the commandment [of Cyrus] to restore and build Jerusalem', that is to say, after about 46 B.C. Those who believed in this interpretation, and were living in the reign of Herod the Great (37–4 B.C.), could accept that the Last Times had now begun, and that therefore before very long the coming of the Messiah was to be expected. This explains why a strong messianic excitement manifested itself among the Jews from this time onward, and why no one before this had claimed to be the Messiah.
The part of the book of Daniel in which the prophecy occurs has been dated about 164 B.C. The author is assuming the name of a man supposed to be living near the end of the sixth century B.C. From other visions of his he appears to have expected the Era of Righteousness would come not very long after his actual time. Some thought it had come in the reign of John Hyrcanus I (137–3 B.C.). We do not know much about earlier calculations, and the one to which we have referred was worked out later when the hopes entertained of the Hasmoneans had been grievously disappointed. It is after 100 B.C. that the literature we have reveals a mounting interest in the Last Times and in the advent of messianic personalities. By the first century of our era it had become quite feverish, and had engendered a state of near hysteria among the people. It was wholly in keeping with the circumstances that a figure like John the Baptist should now appear proclaiming that the Kingdom of God was at hand, and calling upon the people to repent and save themselves from the Wrath to Come. It was no less appropriate that a man like Jesus should be convinced he was the Messiah and announce that 'the Time is fulfilled'. The calculations of pious scribes confirmed the time, but what was more the conditions of the time reinforced the calculations.
Messianism was a product of the Jewish spirit. It was inspired by the Hebrew reading of the riddle of the creation and destiny of mankind. Though some of its features did not originate with the Hebrews, they absorbed them and brought them into relationship with a great vision of the ultimate Brotherhood of Man under the rule of the One God and Father of all men. The vision was not simply a cherished ideal: it was associated with a plan for its realisation. According to this plan God had chosen and set apart one nation among the nations of the world, neither numerous nor powerful, to be the recipient of his laws, and by observing them to offer a universal example. The Theocracy of Israel would be the persuasive illustration of a Warld Theocracy: it would be 'a kingdom of priests and a holy nation' witnessing to all nations. Manifestly, according to this view, the redemption of humanity waited upon the attainment by Israel of a state of perfect obedience to the will of God. By so much as Israel failed to meet the Divine requirements, by so much was the peace and well-being of mankind retarded.
The history of Israel, seen in this light, was a prolonged schooling, national disposition to go astray having to be corrected by the infliction of appropriate punishments, conquest and oppression by foreigners, pestilence and famine, exile. Internally much depended on the guidance of rulers, priests and kings. These too were judged by whether they 'did right in the sight of the Lord'. Their failures called for an additional activity by messengers of God in a succession of prophets.
Eventually, it began to be despaired of that the whole people could be brought to the necessary state of perfection. Hopes were pinned on an elect remnant of faithful souls, by whose obedience the redemption would be hastened. They would be the elite of the final World Order, entitled to its highest honours by their loyalty and by their sufferings in this present world. The Messianic Hope became concentrated upon the determined efforts of the pious, the Saints, to observe the Law, thus justifying God in acting speedily. If the time was greatly prolonged even the Elect might prove unequal to the strain. It was imperative for the pious themselves to search out what Divine guidance had been given to set a term to their endurance, what signs were to be expected to intimate that the End of the Days had arrived. The last stage of the evolution of the Messianic Hope envisaged the intervention of God by means of the Anointed Ones, ideal figures, a Prophet like Moses, a perfect Priest, a righteous King of the line of David. These would come in the End of the Days as God's highest appointed representatives to transform the whole world scene and usher in the Kingdom of God.
The scheme of the Messianic Hope, as outlined here, must be understood to be composite and not fully comprehensive. Many ingredients went into the framing of the Hope. Different aspects were emphasised at different times and by different groups. It was accentuated as certain historical situations arose, particularly after the return from the Babylonian Exile, and was not consciously present in the thinking of the Jewish people all the time. Concern with the coming of messianic persons was part of the later expression of the Hope, especially from the second century B.C. onward, though it was nourished on ideas and predictions hundreds of years older, not excluding popular folklore and mythology.
We may select three circumstances as contributing importantly to making the Messianic Hope the powerful influence it became in the first century B.C. One of these was a change in attitude towards the Bible. The Hebrew Bible consists of three divisions; the Law, the Prophets (Joshua to Malachi), and the Writings (beginning with the Psalms and including the book of Daniel). The divisions represent stages of acceptance into canonicity. The Law, as consisting of the five books of Moses, had binding force by the fifth century B.C., or not much later. The Prophets did not acquire their force until about the third century B.C. The Psalms and some other books soon formed the basis of the third division, which was finally settled at the end of the first century A.D. The effects of the recognition of the Law and the Prophets, with the Psalms, as a corpus of sacred Scriptures were far-reaching. It opened the way for a new development, the treatment of these books as the Oracles of God. They became subject to all kinds of interpretation to draw out of them hidden meanings and prognostications.
A second circumstance was the worst calamity which had be-fallen the Jews since the destruction of the Kingdom of Judah and the loss of the Temple at the beginning of the sixth century B.C. The new calamity was seen by pious Jews to be impending as a consequence of the attractions of Hellenism, which since the time of Alexander the Great had made increasing inroads into Jewish life and thought, fostering moral laxity and apostacy. The judgement of God must surely fall upon the nation as it had done in the past. It fully confirmed this opinion when the Seleucid king Antiochus Epiphanes (175–62 B.C.) decreed the abolition of the Jewish religion and converted the Temple at Jerusalem into a shrine of Zeus Olympius. Throughout the country there was great persecution, until resistance was organised by the sons of the aged priest Mattathias of Modim. One son, Judas Maccabaeus, led the revolt in the name of God, and after a series of remarkable successes cleansed and rededicated the defiled Temple. One of the products of this testing time was the book of Daniel. Its apocalyptic dreams and visions were to exercise a major influence on messianic thinking and prediction.
The third circumstance to which we must draw attention is Jewish sectarianism. The experiences of the nation in the time of Antiochus and his immediate successors had administered a severe shock. The people became much more devout. There was revived in them a sense of destiny, of belonging to God in a special way, which demanded faithfulness to the Law revealed to them through Moses. They saw in the victories of the Maccabees the hand of God, outstretched for their deliverance when they were obedient to his commandments. The Messianic Hope comes out strongly in Daniel, where the people of the Saints of the Most High (likened to a Son of Man compared with the Beast figures representing the predatory heathen Empires) are entrusted with God's everlasting kingdom, when all rulers will serve and obey him. It began to matter very much to the more spiritually sensitive that the Divine laws should be observed meticulously, and this inevitably gave rise to sectarianism, to competition in holiness. From this period three ways of life in particular are made known to us, those of the Sadducees, Pharisees and Essenes. They were minority movements, numbering only a few thousands in each case, but they were nevertheless extremely influential and gave impetus to the exposition of the Messianic Hope. Unfortunately, as regards the first two, they were also involved in a power-struggle for control of the political affairs of the nation.
Excerpted from THE PASSOVER PLOT by HUGH J. SCHONFIELD. Copyright © 1965 Hugh J. Schonfield. Excerpted by permission of The Disinformation Company Ltd..
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