Hugh J. Schonfield’s The Passover Plot: Blaming the Victim
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
"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
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.
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)
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.
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
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.
- Dr. Hugh J. Schonfield, The Passover Plot (New York, 1966), p. 93.
- Ibid., pp. 130-1.
- Ibid., p. 2.
- Ibid., p. 142.
- Ibid., pp. 142-5.
- Ibid., p. 37.
Schonfield, Dr. Hugh J. The Passover Plot. Bantam Books,
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.
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.”