Friday, April 22, 2011

Good Friday, Depending on Perspective

The Judenplatz (Jewish Square) in Vienna was the heart of the Jewish ghetto from the 13th to the 15th centuries.
While I wish to take nothing away from Christian observance of a central holiday, I also hope to remember how a dubious story has been used to sanction very real bloodshed. The lesson here is not about the blood. Neither is it about the sins of the past. Rather, the lesson is about dangerous credulity and literalness. It's about adulation of the absent. It's about the desperate wish to make nature hear, if not obey, our cries. Perhaps we today are relatively safe from religious warriors. Perhaps not.

Today is called "Good Friday" by some. The story goes that a controversial, itinerant Jewish preacher was tortured and executed by the Roman authorities. What's more, this was no mere man but the Jewish god incarnate, born to sacrifice himself for the sins of a humanity he had created long before. Some traditions maintain that through this sacrifice, the god-incarnate-as-man thereafter allowed those who believed in him to gain entry into an eternal afterlife of happiness--provided those people also performed the proper sacraments.

I cannot hide my skepticism toward the story. I have no reason to doubt that anyone was murdered, but I'll need more solid evidence on the man-is-god, died-for-sins, and eternal afterlife parts. Nevertheless, I am not alone in questioning the story's veracity. Plenty of others have found ample reason to think the written accounts and subsequent traditions were somehow different from what might have actually happened. To illustrate, I want to quote two paragraphs from Colin J. Humphreys, a physicist at the University of Cambridge:
Bible scholars have puzzled for centuries over apparent discrepancies in the Gospel accounts of the last week of Jesus, and this often leads people to question the Bible’s veracity entirely. For example, Matthew, Mark and Luke all state the Last Supper was a Passover meal. John, by contrast, says that it took place before the Passover began. Whatever you think about the Bible, the fact is that Jewish people would never mistake the Passover meal for another meal, so for the Gospels to contradict themselves about this is really hard to understand. The eminent biblical scholar, F. F. Bruce, once described this problem as “the thorniest problem in the New Testament.”

The Gospels also do not seem to allow enough time for all the events they record between the Last Supper and the Crucifixion, whilst indicating that Wednesday was a “missing day” on which Jesus did nothing. Scholars have literally rushed around Jerusalem with a stop-watch to see how the large number of events recorded in the Gospels could have occurred between the Last Supper on Thursday night and the Crucifixion on Friday morning. Most conclude that it is impossible. In addition, the Mishnah (a compendium of regulations attributed to about 150 rabbis who lived from about 50 BC to about AD 200) states that the Jewish Court called the Sanhedrin, which tried Jesus, must not meet at night, on a feast day or on the eve of a feast day, and in capital cases a verdict of conviction must be reached the day after the main trial. If these rules applied at the time of Jesus then the trials reported in the Gospels blatantly flout Jewish legal proceedings, yet although the gospels claim there were many false witnesses they implicitly accept the legality of the trials. However, it turns out that there is a very simple solution to these problems: if you move the Last Supper to Wednesday, instead of Thursday, the Gospels are actually in remarkable agreement. In addition, the Bible nowhere states that the Last Supper was on the evening before the Crucifixion, contrary to the claims in many biblical commentaries that it does!
Now, Humphreys believes that the inconsistencies in the Gospels are apparent rather than real--which of course puts him in a long, long line of scholars and theologians who have sought to reconcile believers with a collection of narratives that often violate both one another and common sense.

However, while it's fun to argue over the story's historicity, we know that the story has had real consequences in history. Today, the Christian world sees the death of Jesus as something to be commemorated, if not celebrated. But the Jewish world sees the story in the way it often acted in Europe: as a pretext for pogroms against Jewish communities. From the High Middle Ages through the mid-20th century--roughly 900 years--Holy Week could be a dangerous time for European Jews. Here is but one example, from the Austrian city of Vienna:
The Easter 1420 pogrom, during which Jews from throughout Austria were rounded up and imprisoned, was sanctioned by Duke Albrecht V, a member of the Hapsburg dynasty and then-leader of Austria, who was heavily indebted to Jewish money lenders. Many Jews committed suicide while in captivity and their children were forcibly converted to Catholicism. The remainder were burned alongside the river outside Vienna.
Over 200 people were burned at the stake because unfounded rumors circulated that Jews had desecrated Eucharist wafers.

But these incidents--the violence, accusations, and destruction--were not just local in time and space. Jews could not just settle back into "normalcy" and security following a pogrom:
For years after the medieval pogrom, those Jews who managed to escape and resettle in other areas of Central Europe sang a lamentation recounting the obliteration of a once proud Jewish center. This elegy referred to Vienna as the "city of blood." It wasn't until the early 1600s that Jews were allowed to return there in significant numbers, only to face another expulsion in 1669.
Following the 1420 incident, the Jewish synagogue was destroyed in 1421, with its stones used to help build the University of Vienna.

So, while I wish to take nothing away from Christian observance of a central holiday, I also hope to remember how a dubious story has been used to sanction very real bloodshed. The lesson here is not about the blood. Neither is it about the sins of the past. Rather, the lesson is about dangerous credulity and literalness. It's about adulation of the absent. It's about the desperate wish to make nature hear, if not obey, our cries. Perhaps Jewish and other communities today are relatively safe from religious warriors. Perhaps not.


  1. Anonymous8:22 AM

    You point your finger to the good friday. But jewish were enslaved by the egiptians and the babiloneses, destroyed and dispersed by the romans, persecuted by cristians and muslims, expelled from spain, nazis tried to annihilate them, Hamas, Hezbollah Iran want to destroy them No people was persecuted as the Jewish. Why? Nothing in your side? Maybe jewish need to stop point fingers and to tell stories and look for facts. For example after they went expelled from spain where they go to live?
    To the catholic Polland. Where they were living from XVII and XIX century? Almost 80 % of the Jewish were living in the catholic polland, the ortodox Russia and the catolic Sacre Roman Empire (Austria-Hungarian Empire), all countries where Good Friday were a big celebration. Why they didn`t go to the calvinist Switzerland, the lutherans Nederland and Germany or theanglican United Kingdom where Good Friday almost do not exits? Did the Jewish live better in Amsterdan and London than in the Roman and Venice Gettos?

  2. Anonymous,

    The occasion for the post was Good Friday. That's why the topic is narrowed.

    You say, "Maybe jewish need to stop point fingers and to tell stories and look for facts."

    Facts are nice. I believe my post offers some.

    Your comment is a nice example of "blame the victim." Expelled communities of Jews moved all over the place in Europe. In the late Middle Ages and pre-modern era, Eastern Europe was far more hospitable to Jews than the Western part. Over the centuries, this dynamic would change, almost reverse.

    But back to the matter at hand. From a Jewish perspective, Good Friday has never been so good. Christian animosity and even violence have historically accompanied the annual event in many communities across the Christian world. These are facts, regardless of how you wish to dismiss or submerge them.

  3. Anonymous7:51 AM

    "Your comment is a nice example of "blame the victim."

    No, it is looking both arguments, you are so blind that put jewish as the only victim whem Iran, Hamas and Hezbolla claims to be victims of Israel, Hitler claimed Germany was victim of jewish, spaniards claimed the jewish always agreed with muslims against christians, early christians claimed to be persecuted by jewish, romans dispersed jewish after 150 years trying to get an agreement to live in the empire as they did with almost all other conquered communities. From egiptians and babilonians we do not have their versions about what happened but I guess they had thir reasons.

    "Eastern Europe was far more hospitable to Jews than the Western part"

    You are circular reasoning, they live there because were more hospitable, and as there were more hospitable they live there. The question is why they found more hospitable catholic and ortodox countries where Good Friday was by far more celebrated than in other western non catholics countries?

  4. Anon.,

    Victimhood is nothing to be proud of. Besides, anyone can claim to be a victim. However, let's try to look at real events, and please recall that I am talking about history, not current events.

    In my post, I talk about one such event--the Vienna pogrom. There were many such pogroms in Western Europe and Eastern Europe from the High Middle Ages onward. This is a matter of the historical record. What's also a matter of the record is that Jewish communities by and large did nothing to warrant such attacks on their communities. They did not stage political or social rebellions, they did not antagonize neighbors, they did not proselytize. Often, they were accused without sufficient cause of "blood libel" or desecration of the host.

    The historicized point that I am making in my post is that for those who do not belong to Christian religious tradition yet who do belong to European cultural tradition, the Christian holiday called Good Friday is not so good. The religious reasons supporting its celebration are historically tied to brutal acts of inhumanity. These are facts.

    In the High and Late Middle Ages, Western Europe became ever less hospitable to Jewish communities. This, too, is a matter of the historical record. The Jews were famously expelled from Spain in 1492, but this was in some regards a surprise because there had been several prominent Jews in the administrative structure of Ferdinand and Isabella. Perhaps it was end-times sentiment or influential local monks and preachers. Perhaps it was economic, as one good way for a ruler to get cash quick was to expel the Jewish community and take over their lands and possessions.

    Eastern Europe slowly became as inhospitable over the course of centuries--from the Later Middle Ages onward. There's a reason many Jews immigrated to America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

    In any case, Anon., please don't think that I excuse injustices against any people. Please don't you excuse injustices against Jews.

    My larger aims in the original post are to illustrate the dangers of religious fervor and to promote the remembrance of the historical in these religious celebrations.


Feel free to comment if you have something substantial and substantiated to say.