Sunday, February 1, 2009

Hugh J. Schonfield’s "The Passover Plot": Blaming the Victim

The rock face of Golgotha, the hill of skulls where Christ was crucified. See the eyes? Isn't it creepy?

Hugh J. Schonfield’s The Passover Plot: Blaming the Victim

Dr. Hugh J. Schonfield

Get set to be shocked. In the Sixties, Dr. Hugh J. Schonfield’s Bantam Books paperback edition of his bestseller The Passover Plot was, without question, the most famous book of popular Biblical scholarship at the time. As a teenager back then, I remember it was supposed to contain The Big Secret About Christianity that everyone was slavering for, and like everyone else, I was intensely curious about it.

The ossurary of Herod

As readers of my essay “The American Apocalypse” know, the two real Big Secrets about Christianity are that 1) John the Baptist, an Essene, was real founder of Christianity; he was Christ’s mentor, and therefore Christianity is really an Essene religion, and 2) St. Paul corrupted the young Jesus religion by injecting sexual guilt into it where none existed before, making the sins of the flesh more important than the sins of the spirit.

Imagine my surprise when I finally read The Passover Plot as a junior at Princeton in 1976—and learned that Schonfield was merely Mel Gibson in reverse. Read on and you’ll see.

* * * * *

Hugh J. Schonfield’s The Passover Plot: Blaming the Victim

Albert Schweitzer remarked in The Quest for the Historical Jesus that nothing reveals a man so much as his interpretation of the life of Jesus. If it is true—and it probably is—then in his bestselling so-called "New Light on the History of Jesus," The Passover Plot, Dr. Hugh J. Schonfield certainly exposes the predilections of his personality, asserting that Jesus planned his own martyrdom deliberately with the help of his disciples.

Schonfield goes to great and unrealistic lengths to assert that a very few members of the Jewish leadership in Jerusalemthe Pharisees priesthood, particularly Caiphashad no role whatsoever in Christ’s death. While there’s no questions that the vicious Roman occupiers must bear the ultimate blame for Christ’s death, there’s also no question that certain members of the Jewish leadership in Jerusalem, terrified of their brutal occupiers, played some role in helping the Romans eliminate an innocent man that nearly everyone regarded as a dangerous heretic and a potential political revolutionary. You just didn’t go around saying, “I’m the King—yes, I’m more important than the Emperor—and by the way, I happen to be the Son of God too.” It would be like a radical today say, “Yeah, I’m the real President of the United States, so let's overthrow the government—and by the way, I’m God too.” From their points of view, both the Pharisees and the Romans were understandably shocked by Christ’s assertions. But that doesn’t excuse the murder of an innocent, peaceloving man.

Let me make it very clear: I am not endorsing the vicious medieval blood-libel canard of Mel Gilson and his ilk that “the Jews killed Jesus.” But it’s also an irrefutable historical fact that a tiny minority of the Jewish priesthood in Jerusalem played a minor administrative role in Christ’s death by handing him over to the Romans to placate the unforgiving foreign occupiers.

A contemporary depiction of Herod Agrippa

Herod, the ranting tyrant

No, the Jews most definitely didn't kill Jesus. But for God's sake, Mr. Schonfield, don't say Jesus had himself killed!

Schonfield declares, "We must never let theology entice us away from the historical circumstances, so that we lose contact with the factors which Jesus had to take into account." Yet through his avowed purpose, stated publicly before he deals with the facts, and through his selection of evidence, he quite clearly reveals his own prejudices. In the process he commits such grave errors of inobjectivity that he renders his own interpretation useless.

Giotto's Christ Before Caiaiphas (1304-6)

For one hundred and thirty pages, Schonfield hems and haws through the accumulation of evidence he attempts to build up to bolster his theory that Jesus, seized with a violent messianic complex, plotted his own martyrdom and carefully planned to insure his crucifixion in order to guarantee his place in history. Up until page 130, Schonfield maintains a veneer of reasonability; while much of his evidence is tangential, not to say circumstantial, and while much of his hypothesis is questionable, still, he does not rave like a zealot.

Then comes the bombshell. On page 130, he steps forward and exposes himself. What we see is a shock, and yet we must thank him for being so forthright. Otherwise we might mistake him for a serious Biblical scholar, if he did not unashamedly declare the rationale for his argument. His revelation is so astounding, and its implications so disturbing, that it deserves to be quoted in full here:

We have evidence that the chief priests at the time were arrogant and high-handed, loving wealth and power and position. This has been true of hierarchies of different lands at many periods. But in Palestine just now they were responsible in the difficult conditions of alien domination for the maintenance of public order, for assuring the continuity of national existence and the survival of the Temple as the world-centre of Jewish faith. Their present fears were by no means ill-founded, as Jewish history of the following decades abundantly confirmed. Better that one man should die than multitudes, including innocent women and children. The liquidation of individuals was commonplace in those days, and notorious during the closing years of the reign of Tiberius. It is still tolerated two thousand years later with all our vaunted concern for human rights. We must beware of judging what happened in light of what Christians believe about Jesus. We have to see him as he appeared to the Council in their grave predicament. From their point of view the decision they arrived at was fully justified, and Jesus, well knowing what he was doing, had quite deliberately forced them to take it by his skillfully planned and calculated activities. If he had not presented himself as a claimant of the throne of Israel and a menace to national security he would have been completely ignored by the Sanhedrin. He had himself made doubly sure that they would proceed to extremes against him by goading them with his words and behaviour, so that any possible mitigation of their severity would be offset by the personal animus he had intentionally created. The Council might imagine they were exercising their own free will in determining to destroy Jesus, and Judas Iscariot might believe the same in betraying him; but in fact the comprehensive engineer of the Passover Plot was Jesus himself. Their responses were governed by his ability to assess their reactions when he applied appropriate stimuli. Thus it was assured that the Scriptures would be fulfilled. (2) [Regarding spelling and punctuation, Schonfield is British.]

"I have frequently been urged by numerous readers to set down my convictions about Jesus," Schonfield informs us in his introduction. "They were persuaded that, in my unusual position as a Jew who has devoted a lifetime to the sympathetic elucidation of Christian Origins and is not connected with any section of the Church, I ought to have seen things which have escaped the observation of those more directly involved." (3) "Here Schonfield reveals the reason for his peculiar (to say the least) view of the Passion. It is understandable why he as a Jew would resent the blame Christians have placed on Jews for the Crucifixion as an excuse for anti-Semitism (when the scapegoating is only a transference of guilt felt by Christians for the death of Jesus). As Schonfield himself says:

The calumny that the Jewish people were responsible for the death of Jesus has all along been an antisemitic fraud perpetrated by the Church when it became paganised, and has been a direct cause of untold suffering and persecution inflicted on the Jews down the centuries. The present-day qualified second-thoughts of the Roman Church on the subject of Jewish 'deicide' has come very belatedly and is a totally inadequate retraction. (4)

Yet however understandable Schonfield's anger is, it is not excusable that he rationalize the murder of a being who, if nothing else, was a totally innocent man. What compounds Schonfield's crime is that he shows an awareness of the moral questions at stake and then he chooses to ignore them. He admits that "the liquidation of individuals" "is still tolerated two thousand years later with all our vaunted concern for human rights," and yet he refuses to apply that principle in the case of Jesus, because Jesus, as a holy man so obscure that our knowledge of him is almost totally limited to the adulatory writings of his disciples, posed a lethal threat to the integrity of the Jewish state.

A "battlefield Christ" scarecrow from the hellish trenches of World War One

Schonfield justifies Christ's execution in terms of his "menace to national security," through what even Schonfield admits was a kangaroo court. But by doing so, ironically enough, he is invoking the same brand of paranoid hysteria that drove George W. Bush to invade Iraq, murder a million innocent people, and torture countless others.

Critic Dwight MacDonald once wrote that a true liberal or a true conservative supports a cause that conforms to his principles even if it contradicts with his personal feelings. By seeking to rationalize the murder of an innocent man, Schonfield is revealing the lack of integrity of his principles. When he asserts of the Pharisees, "From their point of view the decision they arrived at was fully justified," he does not seem to realize that Hitler acted out of the same sincerity in slaughtering six million Jews; at the bottom of his heart he believed he was defending the West from a pernicious threat. The best Schonfield can do is parrot (unconsciously, I hope) Caiaphas: "Better that one man should die than multitudes, including innocent women and children." Or as Caiaphas said, "For the sake of the nation, Jesus must die."

To draw another contemporary example, it might be pleasant to shoot Osama Bin Laden in the head. I’m sure Bin Laden wouldn’t object, since he doesn’t seem to mind killing people very much. The only problem is, then you’re adopting the same principles as Bin Laden, that is, killing for peace, and then your action entirely justifies the suppositions of moral intellects like your homicidal murder victim. By acting in such a fashion, you cancel out your moral imperative. We only hope Schonfield will someday understand.

This is unfortunate, because he has some interesting things to say. Jesus is quoted as having made some remarks that are very much in keeping with Schonfield's theory, that he knew of his approaching martyrdom and death. The problem here is these remarks could have been added later by adherents who realized that if Jesus indeed had been omnipotent and all-knowing, then of course he must have foreseen his coming end.


In this matter, Schonfield is in a dilemma, although he doesn’t understand it, for he cannot bring himself to decide whether he accepts the veracity of the New Testament. He often contradicts himself, but here I will only provide two outstanding examples.

The tomb of Herod

Many times Schonfield relies heavily on the literal wording of the New Testament, taking them to recount the exact truth of what Jesus did, particularly when Jesus is making statements alluding to the coming end of his ministry; for instance, "My hour is not yet come," which Schonfield takes at face value. (6) Yet on the same page he lambasts two Biblical scholars who hold an orthodox view of the divinity of Jesus, because their view "transfers judgement to the New Testament, whose views reflecting subsequent Christian opinion we are invited to endorse as the truth." (7)

The ancient ossuary that was recently thought to be "the tomb of Jesus"

He readily admits that one must judge "allowing for the exaggeration in the Gospel tradition," (8) and of the Apostles he writes, "In their zeal they even amplified and supplemented the account of his experiences, as certain texts appeared to require additional incidents which could fulfill them." (9) Yet he never questions the incidents in the Gospels that support his convictions.

The garden tomb of Jesus

Why do the Gospel accounts of the Last Supper, with their explicit message that Jesus had foreknowledge of his betrayal, death, and resurrection, necessarily have to be true, when the Synoptic Apostles even have difficulty agreeing on which night this incredibly important event in their lives took place? Who says Jesus rose from the tomb and talked to them? Considering the large number of religious experiences and visions experienced by the disciples, why could Jesus' ghost not have been a hallucination, a wish-fulfillment, if not an outright lie?

The supposed tomb of Jesus

Schonfield does not bother to ask these questions; he dare not doubt the hypothesis he has erected; and as a result of his lack of intellectual integrity, a serious reader cannot even begin to take his position seriously. The only regret I have is that his facile interpretation has reached an extraordinary audience, even for a popular religious work, and I fear that too many uncritical readers will accept his views without thinking. Such shoddy thinking, in a matter of such importance to the West as the life and death of Jesus, has no excuse.

* * * * *

The brooding skull of Golgotha: notice how the eyes never leave you


  1. Dr. Hugh J. Schonfield, The Passover Plot (New York, 1966), p. 93.
  2. Ibid., pp. 130-1.
  3. Ibid., p. 2.
  4. Ibid., p. 142.
  5. Ibid., pp. 142-5.
  6. Ibid., p. 37.
  7. Ibid.


Schonfield, Dr. Hugh J. The Passover Plot. Bantam Books, New York, 1966.

A fascinating Maori Christ


In 1976, at the same time I originally wrote this academic paper, fascinatingly enough, the Israeli film company Golan-Globus released a film version of The Passover Plot, directed by Michael Campus and starring Zalman King as Yeshua (Jesus), Donald Pleasence as Pontius Pilate, Harry Andrews, Scott Wilson, Dan Hedaya, and Hugh Griffith. Because of heretical nature of the film, it was allegedly suppressed (or deliberately ignored), and today it’s available by download from the Internet.

Zalman King as Jesus in the film The Passover Plot (1976)

Incidentally, I originally wrote this essay as an academic paper for a Princeton Religion course on “The Origins of Christianity” while a junior in May 1976 for the esteemed religious scholar Dr. Phillip Ashby. He praised the paper, commenting: “Very insightful critical analysis of Schonfield.”

A coin of the Knights Templar

1 comment:

Itamar Bernstein said...

I've been studying the Talpiot Tomb find for years, and I believe it's a serious discovery, that warrants further study.
The critics basically argue:

1. That the Jesus family would be buried in Nazareth, not Talpiot;
2. That the 'Jesus' ossuary would have been inscribed 'of Nazareth';
3. That the Jesus family couldn't have afforded a tomb like the Talpiot tomb;
4. That the "Jesus son of Joseph" ossuary is not inscribed "Yeshua" (Jesus) at all;
5. That the names inscribed on these ossuaries were supposedly common;
6. That the "Mariamne" ossuary didn't contain the remains of Mary Magdalene, but of two other women;

I believe the first five of these allegations against the book's premise don't carry much water. The sixth argument actually supports the conclusion that this is the real thing. My comments:

1. Talpiot is the right place for Jesus' family tomb- Per Luke, 2:3-4, the family's LEGAL residence was Bethlehem, not Nazareth. The fact that Joseph and the pregnant Mary could not take the census in Nazareth but had to take it in Bethlehem indicates that Bethlehem was their DOMICILIUM under Roman Law. That basically means that they had no intention to reside in Nazareth permanently. Therefore it would have made little sense for them to have a family tomb in Nazareth, that they wouldn't be able to frequently visit at a later stage in their lives. They would have wanted a family tomb close to Bethlehem and Jerusalem, easily accessible also to future generations of the family. The fact is indeed that Mary and her children moved to Jerusalem around 30 AD.

2. The traditional name of Jesus in Hebrew, as reflected also in the Talmud, is "Yeshu Hanotzri." This appellation stems from "Netzer" (Shoot or Branch). It alludes clearly to Isaiah 11:1, indicating the Royal birth of Jesus, to substantiate his claim for Jewish messiahship. Not to indicate the place he comes from.

There's actually no evidence in Jewish sources, such as the Old Testament or the Mishna and Talmud, that a place called "Nazareth" even existed in or before the first century. I'm not disputing the evidence per the NT, that there was indeed a place called Nazareth. But to the best of my knowledge, there's no mention of Nazareth at all in any ancient writings outside the New Testament. So the place existed, but nobody knew about it. And those in close proximity in Galilee who did know about it, obviously thought derogatorily of it , cf. "can anything good come from Nazareth?" (John 1:46.) Therefore there was no reason to call Jesus "of Nazareth." Either in life or on an ossuary. He was called "Jesus the Branch" (of David) in Hebrew/Aramaic.

The line of argumentation detracting this discovery around the supposed Nazareth origin of Jesus' family may therefore be based on a very shaky foundation.

3. Talpiot is located about 2.5 miles North of Bethlehem. Jesus' family, of Davidic descent according to the New Testament, could have held the burial cave there even before it moved to Nazareth. Davidic birth was absolutely the most exalted in Judaism, always. The suggestion that any person of Davidic descent could be of the lowest social echelon, that couldn't fund or get funding for a burial cave, doesn't make much sense, if any. There's substantial evidence to the contrary, e.g. 1. Jesus had some very wealthy active supporters like Joseph of Arimatea and Nicodemus (known as Nakdimon ben Gorion in post biblical Jewish sources-one of the richest Jews in Judea;) 2. Josephus, A.J. XX, 9:1. Note the prominence of James, brother of Jesus.

4. The inscription on the Jesus ossuary does say "Yeshua bar Yehosef" ("Jesus son of Joseph")to my eye. All letters but one are quite clearly there. The only letter which is somewhat more difficult to discern at first blush is the second letter- "Shin". That's because it's written in a somewhat irregular form (in a regular Shin there are three teeth in the fork, pointing upwards. Here there are two teeth, pointing sideways to the right.) But that particular irregularity appears also on other ossuaries- notably numbers 9 (this one has two "Shin"- one with three teeth pointing to the right, and one with TWO teeth pointing to the right. Exactly like the subject inscription) and 121 in the Rahmani catalogue, which both feature also a "Yeshua."

Still, the name "Yeshua" on this ossuary is among the most, if not the most, difficult to read names of all ossuaries listed in Rahmani's catalogue of Jewish ossuaries. It is almost written as a person's complex signature on a check. Contrast that with the patronymic following the first name. This is written in a simple straightforward fashion, which is very easy to read. There's no other example in Rahmani's catalogue of a first name that has to be deciphered, and a patronymic that's so plain and clear. Is this merely a coincidence?

5. Mr. Huston on 3/13/07 made the following comment to my post:

"The inscription, Pfann said, is made up of two names inscribed by two different hands: the first, "Mariame,'' was inscribed in a formal Greek script, and later, when the bones of another woman were added to the box, another scribe using a different cursive script added the words "kai Mara,'' meaning "and Mara.'' Mara is a different form of the name Martha.

According to Pfann's reading, the ossuary did not house the bones of "Mary the teacher,'' but rather of two women, "Mary and Martha.'"

Here's my thought about that:
If the Mariamne ossuary indeed housed the bones of Mary and Martha, these are two sisters of NT fame. One of them could have been married to "Jesus son of Joseph." -Whether or not she was Mary Magdalene (Maybe the Mary who anointed Jesus' feet and then dried them with her hair- very intimate scene.) The other sister would than also automatically belong in the family. It still fits. Actually it increases the statistical odds that this is the real thing quite substantially.
This is a very intriguing possibility indeed, fitting perfectly with John 12:3. Intimate contact with a man, as described in this NT passage, was allowed only to a woman who was an immediate blood relative of that man, his wife (...or a working woman.) That's all. Therefore Mary of Bethany was quite possibly by elimination Jesus' wife or in the process of becoming his wife. In that context, Margaret Starbird already theorized that similar anointing with spikenard oil was part of pre marriage ritual of a Davidic king, per certain passages in the Song of Songs. Note also that intercourse by itself was sufficient under Jewish Law in certain circumstances to constitute valid marriage. That practice, termed Bi'ah marriage, was abolished in the 6th century, but it was lawful in Jesus' time.

Mary of Bethany could have become pregnant by Jesus while he stayed at her house, shortly before his crucifixion. In that case it's quite possible that she bore Jesus' son posthumously and named him "Judah." And in that case both she and her sister Martha would have become part of Jesus' family, which earned them a place in the Talpiot family tomb..

Reminds me of the reaction to this find of a BBC reporter in 1996- It seems like all balls in the national lottery coming one by one.

I have no knowledge of Greek, so I can only discuss the two propositions. Assuming that the ossuary does say "Mary and Martha", here's what I think the names are:
* 1."Jesus son of Joseph"("Yeshua bar Yehosef" in Hebrew/Aramaic script;)
* 2. "Mary" ("Marya" in Hebrew/Aramaic script);
* 3. "Joseph" ("Yose" in Hebrew/Aramaic script. Precise nickname of Jesus' second brother- cf. Mark 6:3);
* 4. "Mary and Martha" ("Mariame kai Mara" in Greek)-they must have been sisters because Jewish law didn't allow burial together of two unrelated women;
* 5. "Matthew" ("Matya" in Hebrew/Aramaic script)- Name of Jesus' first cousin, son of his father's brother Alphaeus/Clophas. As James Tabor suggests in a different context, Matya could also well have been Jesus' half brother, considering a certain specific rule of the Torah (Deuteronomy 25:5-10.) This rule was applied in Jesus time- see Matthew 22:24-28;
* 6. "Judah son of Jesus"("Yehuda bar Yeshua" in Hebrew/Aramaic script.)
* Therefore out of eight names actually inscribed on these ossuaries (including the "Joseph" father of Jesus on the first ossuary) four names undoubtedly relate to Jesus' immediate family, and three other names relate to the same with a somewhat lower probability. In any event, they all relate to Jesus' extended family. Note that first century Jewish family tombs were usually a clan thing.
* The eighth name is "Yehuda bar Yeshua"- must have been the son of Jesus and one of the sisters Mary or Martha. More likely Mary, as explained above.

6. While the full versions of all these names were indeed common in Jesus' time, the derivatives, nicknames and contractions were not. Thus "Yeshua" for Jesus was less common than "YeHOshua;" ditto "YeHOsef" instead of "Yosef" for Joseph; "Marya" for Mary was extremely rare in Hebrew/Aramaic script; "Yose" for Joseph is unique. Therefore out of these eight names, two are irregularities, one is a particularity, and one a singularity.

BOTTOM LINE- Ask yourself inversely a hypothetical question- If the Talpiot tomb hadn't yet been found, how would Jesus' family tomb have looked , which ossuaries would it have contained, to when would it have been dated and where would it have been located.

I would have thought of a tomb just like the tomb we're discussing. It fits perfectly with what I'd have expected Jesus' family tomb to be. Right place, right period, right names. I therefore believe that this matter, delicate as it obviously is, warrants further investigation. This could include opening and examination of the adjacent tomb, and forensic examination of the skeletal remains found in the Talpiot ossuaries, and apparently reburied back in 1980. These could hopefully be relocated by comparison to the mithochondrial DNA samples already taken from two of these ossuaries.