|The Judenplatz (Jewish Square) in Vienna was the heart of the Jewish ghetto from the 13th to the 15th centuries.|
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.”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.
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!
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.