Men Killed Jesus
To the Fray Writing Group,
The piece below is the second draft of a piece that I'm co-writing with a sociologist colleague. I wrote up the first draft and posted it on Slate as "Did "Men" Kill Jesus." This draft is a rewrite by my sociologist colleague who writes much more easily than me. This is a very early draft. We agreed that this was a piece that we would want to do a couple of weeks ago and we know that we've got a lot of research to do in the New Testament and historical literature of biblical times before this paper will be ready for press.
Men Killed Jesus
In this religiously conservative time, when the radical Christian right are making a shameless grab for converts, and Mel Gibson’s film, The Passion of the Christ grossed $370 million in 2004, and fear of terrorism, hurricanes, rising gas prices, and gay marriage fuel a rising cultural hysteria, let us explore a question that emerged again in the public discourse with the press and popularity of the Passion of the Christ: Who killed Jesus?
Rather than the reactionary Anti-Semitic response that “the Jews” killed Jesus, we will demonstrate in this paper that there is a much more visible group to whom we might intellectually and morally assign the blame for Christ’s death. Indeed it was while watching the Passion itself on video, and fast-forwarding through the most gory scenes, that a more empirically plausible answer to the question of Christ-killing forcibly struck us.
Men killed Jesus.
A male betrayed him (Judas), a man sentenced him (Pontius Pilate), men tortured him (Roman soldiers), men denied him (Peter and), and men executed him (more Roman soldiers). Watching the Passion, it was obviously all men, all the time when it came to the brutal torture and murder of Jesus.
Drawing on a combination of biblical and historical references, and feminist theory, in this paper we will explore the role men played in the death of Jesus and argue that, in doing so, Jewish men, Roman men, rulers, soldiers, religious leaders, farmers and fishermen all participated in suppressing the socially aware, feminist activism that Jesus promoted. The ministry of Jesus challenged the patriarchal super structure of the time, assaulting male (as well as class) identity and privilege. Thus, it is logical that Jesus made enemies of those men whose privileges he attacked or mocked. This includes the Pharisees whose efforts to enforce religious laws he defied, then the fathers of his disciples he recruited away from family businesses. As his ministry developed, Jesus attracted the attention of Roman imperial authorities with his message that everything in God’s world belonged to God, i.e. don’t pay those exploitative taxes to the Romans. Some of his closest male followers were willing to betray him. Indeed, according to the New Testament, even God the Father participated in the betrayal and death of Jesus. Perhaps the men who killed him did so in the name of all men. Hence, we will examine the murder of Jesus in the framework of how a dominant group responds to a threat to its dominance by exploring the role each of these groups or individuals played in Jesus’ death in the paragraphs that follow.
To understand the potential for tension between Jesus and men, the following questions are most salient. Was there anything about the person, bearing, message, or actions of Jesus that would provoke men in general? Conversely, what psychological qualities, customs, interests, education, and sexuality of the period might encourage men to be hostile to the message of Jesus and therefore predisposed to kill Jesus or a figure like Jesus? Stated more simply,“What is it about men which would make them Christ-killers?”
Jesus did not explicitly critique patriarchy. He did, however, radically devalue aspects of material life that bolstered the interests and values of males on several levels. Among the first Biblical illustrations of this occurred when Jesus encountered James and John fishing on their father’s boat. Jesus called for the young men to leave their nets and follow him, which, according to scripture, they promptly did. Jesus persuaded James and John to abandon their earthly father for “God the father.” By doing this, Jesus disrupted the male privileges, interests and authority of fathers over their sons. If the father of James and John had been skeptical of Jesus’ claim to authority – as the son of God- he might have sought to revenge himself on Jesus. At the very least, it is easy to imagine the father of these disciples bitterly complaining about the cavalier actions of his sons, and the instigator of such a betrayal, to family and friends.
As his ministry progressed, Jesus challenged Jewish religious leaders and law. He ignored the Sabbath injunctions and, perhaps more importantly, opposed the right of men to enforce religious law. In the famous story of Jesus’ first encounter with Mary Magdalene, he rescued her from certain death by asserting, “let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” With this action, Jesus disputed the legitimacy of the Pharisees and Sadducees to judge others and enforce sanctions. By suggesting that each person has sinned in some way at some time against God, Jesus highlighted hypocrisies in religious laws that single out the most vulnerable members of society for punishment- especially women. This social act directly undermined religious authorities and the patriarchal structure of family in Jewish society.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus proposed an alternative to the patriarchal power structure of force, violence and control. He invoked his listeners to “turn the other cheek,” give others their cloak as well as their coat, and walk two miles with those who compel them to walk one. Such instructions inhibit individuals from defending themselves and their families against the aggressions of others. Moreover, to sacrifice instead of fight, to nurture, to share are all traditionally assigned feminine traits.
Again Jesus threatened male dominance and class privilege when he explained that is was more difficult for “a rich man to enter heaven than a camel to go through the eye of a needle.” Because Jesus believed that people should rely on God to provide for them, all the machinations concerning property were tainted with impiety. When men inherited, bought, sold, maintained, and husbanded property, they were relying on themselves rather than God to rule the earth. This was the underlying doctrine behind Jesus’ condemnation of wealth in the parable of the wealthy young man and his attack on the money changers in the temple. When they bought and sold property, men were following the ways of the earthly fathers rather than the heavenly fathers. Those men then with the most property, and the greatest resources, stood the most to lose should Jesus continue to preach.
Roman and Jewish authorities choreographed the arrest of Jesus so that each could flex its dominance and secure social legitimacy. Judas betrayed Jesus with a kiss in exchange for thirty pieces of silver to give to the poor. In this sense, the death of Jesus was brought about by a series of exchanges that created alliances between the Jewish authorities, the Romans, and Jesus' own followers. In the chaos surrounding the arrest of Jesus and the efforts to round up his followers, Peter specifically denied allegiance to Jesus. Likewise, no other male followers testified his allegiance in the days leading up to, or directly after, the execution. Indeed, Jesus’ disciples hid while Jesus was being crucified. In many ways, these betrayals compromised Jesus’ teachings more than the persecution by Roman authorities and he Jewish religious hierarchy. The disciples left their families for Jesus, seen his miracles, and developed intimate relationships with him. In the moment of crisis, however, the followers of Jesus chose life in the flesh over life in Jesus. Their fear of the patriarchal fathers overwhelmed their belief in the social and spiritual activism Jesus taught.
Roman soldiers carried out the torture and execution of Jesus. It was a small thing for Rome to exchange the life of one obscure religious fanatic for a little more stability in a new province. For the soldiers, it was a crude joke to put the crown of thorns on the head of Jesus. Not being impressed by the idea of this man’s divinity, the Roman soldiers felt little compunction in using him as a pawn in maintaining imperial rule.
Finally, God the father himself is credited with orchestrating events to bring about the sacrifice of Jesus. Once again, there was a strong element of exchange. God demonstrated his love for humanity by allowing his own son Jesus to die with the purpose of relieving ‘man”kind of their sins. In return, God demanded that people believe that Jesus was god and that Jesus was resurrected from the dead. In the course of bartering his son in this way, God participated in betraying Jesus to his enemies. Jesus was “forsaken” at his moment of greatest need.
In contrast to the litany of male betrayal and murder, Jesus’ female followers stayed with him through the long hours of his interrogation and crucifixion. Neither his mother Mary, nor Mary Magdalene denied her allegiance or association with Jesus. A woman wiped his face. Women dressed his body for burial. And women were the first individuals to see his empty tomb, and then his resurrection. Tellingly, Jesus’ male disciples refused to believe the women that Jesus lived again, and would not believe until Jesus revealed himself directly to them. The contrast between the faith of the women and the skepticism of the men is striking. If refusal to believe is the inert element involved in Jesus’ murder, then the males were killing the faith Jesus preached up to the moment of direct revelation.