Letter to the editor published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 6 April 1988
No-one can object to your Easter Saturday issue (April 2) carrying an article on the trial of Jesus. But when responsible scholarship on the subject is available, it is surprising that you reprint material by Gordon Thomas that is careless, unobjective and tendentious, and that you apparently endorse his provocative views in your introductory note.
One could of course treat, and dismiss, Thomas as a novelist, short on scholarship and long on adjectives and imagination. But the subject is far too delicate for that easy way out. It is an insult to Christianity for him to portray its origins with the use of material which scholars have largely repudiated. It is offensive to Jews to regurgitate slogans and stereotypes which have been condemned by the Vatican and all the Protestant churches in clear terms rejecting Jewish culpability for the crucifixion of Jesus. It is a grave disservice to the cause of inter-religious and inter-community harmony to stir up again the old exploded prejudices that made oceans of innocent blood flow.
The only time in his whole article that Thomas quotes a source he gets it wrong. The tractate Pesahim does not record a Jewish custom of releasing a prisoner at Passover time. There is no evidence that such a custom existed. Even if it did, Pilate would not have dared to release Barabbas, who seems to have been a political prisoner. Nor indeed is modern scholarship satisfied to paint Pilate as a compassionate official who would really have preferred to let Jesus go, or to regard Jesus’ fellow-Jews as vicious and brutalized. The stories were mostly written after the event and the facts were recast to accommodate the prejudices of a later age.
The vast literature of ancient Jewish law totally rules out the possibility of judges assaulting an accused person, instituting proceedings without witnesses, and deciding in advance on a show trial that would be a travesty of all the principles of justice.
The most we can say is that Jesus’ interrogation was not a formal trial by a regular court of law, but an encounter with an ad-hoc political body (the term Sanhedrin can be used in this sense too). Probably the high priest, responsible to the Romans for the good behavior of the populace, regarded Jesus as a dangerous insurrectionist and, with a council of other collaborators with Rome, officially declared him as such. Neither the regular courts, the official religious authorities, nor the populace had any hand in events.
But even if the high priest and his associates were determined to denounce Jesus, there is no evidence of their manhandling him with the brutality which Thomas delights to describe, nor would Jewish ethics have permitted them to go totally beserk in the last stages before the crucifixion at all.
The tragedy of your Easter Saturday article is that, compared with the real scholars, Gordon Thomas has not helped us at all to find any of the answers to the Roman procurator’s own words – “’What is truth?’ asked jesting Pilate”.
(Rabbi) Raymond Apple
The Great Synagogue,