Karl Kautsky

Foundations of Christianity

Book Four: The Beginnings of Christianity

IV. The Story of Christ’s Passion

THE GOSPELS give us uncommonly little that we can establish with any probability as actual facts in the life of Jesus: his birth and his death; two facts that could prove at least, if they can be verified, that Jesus really lived and was not a mere mythological figure, but that do not cast any light on the most important thing about a historical personage: the activity in which he engaged in between his birth and his death. The farrago of moral maxims and miracles supplied by the Gospels by way of an account of his activity contains so much that is impossible and demonstrably fabricated, and so little that is confirmed by any other evidence, that it can not be considered a factual source.

Matters are not much better with respect to the evidence on Jesus’ birth and death. We do however have some reason here for holding that these accounts have a kernel of fact hidden under a tangle of concoctions. Some of these enable us to draw the conclusion that the stories contain data that were very inconvenient for Christianity, but that were obviously too well known and accepted among its supporters for the writers of the Gospels to dare to replace them by fabrications of their own, as they so often did without any compunction.

One of these facts is Jesus’ Galilean origin. This was highly inconvenient for his Davidian-Messianic pretensions. The Messiah had at least to come from David’s city. We have seen what strange subterfuges were resorted to in order to assign this birthplace to the Galilean. If Jesus had been nothing more than the product of the imagination of a community bemused by the Messiah belief, they would never have thought of making a Galilean of him. His Galilean origin and hence his existence may therefore be taken as at least highly probable. His death on the cross, too. We have seen that passages may still be found in the Gospels that suggest the belief that he had planned an armed uprising and had been crucified for it. This too was so embarrassing a fact that it could hardly have been invented. It was too strongly in contradiction to the spirit that prevailed in Christianity at the time when it began to reflect upon itself and write the history of its origin, though not for historical purposes to be sure, but for polemical and propaganda purposes.

The crucifixion of the Messiah was an idea so alien to Jewish thought, which could only imagine the Messiah in all the glory of a conquering hero, that it would require an actual occurrence, the martyrdom of a champion of the good cause, who had made an indelible impression on his supporters, to make the idea of the crucified Messiah at all acceptable.

When the Gentile Christians took over the tradition of this death on the cross, they soon found a fly in the ointment: the tradition said that Jesus had been crucified by the Romans as a Jewish Messiah, as king of the Jews, that is, as a defender of Jewish independence and a traitor to Roman authority. After the fall of Jerusalem this tradition became doubly awkward. Christianity had come into complete opposition to Judaism, and in addition wanted to be on good terms with the Roman power. The trick was now to give the tradition such a twist that the guilt of Christ’s crucifixion should be shifted on to the Jews and Christ himself cleared not merely of any violence, but of any feelings of Jewish patriotism or enmity to Rome.

However, since the evangelists were almost as ignorant as the masses of ignorant folk in that period, their recoloring of the original picture produced the strangest mixtures.

Nowhere perhaps in the Gospels do we find more contradictions and absurdities than in the part that for almost two thousand years has always made the greatest impression on the Christian world and most inspired its imagination. There is hardly another subject that has been so frequently painted as the Passion and death of Christ. And yet this story will not stand any serious examination and is a heap of crude inartistic effects.

It was only the power of habit that made even the greatest minds of Christendom insensible to the incredible additions of the authors of the Gospels, so that despite all this farrago the original tragedy that lies in the crucifixion of Jesus as in every martyrdom for a great cause still produced its effect and lent a higher glory even to things that were ridiculous and nonsensical.

The story of the Passion begins with the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. It is the triumphal procession of a king. [13] The populace comes to meet him, some spread their garments in the road before him, others cut branches from the trees to strew his way, and all exult to him:

“Hosanna [help us]; Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord: Blessed be the kingdom of our father David, that cometh in the name of the Lord” (Mark II, verse 9f.).

This was how kings were received among the Jews (compare Jehu in II Kings 9, verse 13).

All the common people follow Jesus; only the aristocracy and bourgeoisie, the “chief priests and scribes”, are hostile to him. Jesus behaves like a dictator. He is strong enough to drive the sellers and moneychangers from the temple without meeting with any resistance. In this citadel of Judaism he rules supreme.

Of course this is just tall talk on the part of the evangelists. If Jesus had ever had such power, it would not have gone unnoticed. An author like Josephus, who recounts the most insignificant details, would have had to mention it. Moreover, the proletarian elements in Jerusalem, like the Zealots, were never strong enough to rule the city uncontested. They kept meeting with resistance. If Jesus intended to enter Jerusalem in opposition to the Sadducees and the Pharisees, and clean out the temple, he would first have to win in a street battle. Street fighting among the various factions in Judaism were every day occurrences in Jerusalem at that time.

A noteworthy aspect of the account of his entrance is that the story has the populace greet Jesus as bringer of the “kingdom of our father David”, that is, as the restorer of the independence of the Jewish kingdom. That shows Jesus not merely as an opponent of the ruling classes in Judaism, but as opposing the Romans as well. In this opposition there is obviously not Christian imagination, but Jewish reality.

The gospels now relate those events we have already dealt with: the call to the disciples to arm themselves, Judas’ betrayal, the armed conflict on the Mount of Olives. We have already seen that these are remnants of the old tradition, that were not acceptable later and refurbished to give an air of peaceable submission.

Jesus is taken, led to the palace of the high priest and tried there:

“And the chief priests and all the council sought for witness against Jesus to put him to death; and found none. For many bare false witness against him, but their witness agreed not together ... And the high priest stood up in the midst, and asked Jesus, saying, Answerest thou nothing? what is it which these witness against thee? But he held his peace, and answered nothing. Again the high priest asked him, and said unto him, Art thou the Christ, the Son of the Blessed? And Jesus said, I am: and ye shall see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of power, and coming in the clouds of heaven. Then the high priest rent his clothes, and saith, What need we any further witnesses? Ye have heard the blasphemy: what think ye? And they all condemned him to be guilty of death” (Mark 14, verses 55f.).

A strange sort of trial procedure, indeed! The court convenes immediately after the arrest of the prisoner, in the night time, and not in the court building, which apparently was on the Temple hill [14], but in the palace of the high priest! Imagine the trustworthiness of a report of a trial for high treason in Germany that has the court sitting in the royal palace in Berlin! Now false witnesses testify against Jesus, but although nobody cross-examines them, and Jesus is silent at their charges, they produce no evidence that incriminates him. Jesus is the first to incriminate himself by acknowledging that he is the Messiah. Now what is the purpose of all the apparatus of the false witnesses if this admission is enough to condemn Jesus? Their only purpose is to show the wickedness of the Jews. The death sentence is immediately pronounced. This is a violation of the prescribed forms to which the Jews of that time adhered most scrupulously. The court was allowed to bring in only a verdict of acquittal at once; a verdict of guilty had to wait until the day after the trial.

Was the Sanhedrin still allowed to pronounce death sentences at that time? The Talmud says: “Forty years before the destruction of the Temple the power of life and death was taken from Israel.”

A confirmation of this is to be found in the fact that the Sanhedrin does not inflict the punishment of Jesus, but after finishing his trial turns him over to Pilate for a new trial, this time on the charge of high treason towards the Romans, the charge that he had tried to make himself king of the Jews, that is, free Judea from the Roman rule. A fine accusation on the part of a court of Jewish patriots!

It is possible that the Sanhedrin did have the right to pass sentence of death, but that such sentences needed the sanction of the procurator.

Now what happens before the Roman governor?

“And Pilate asked him, Art thou the King of the Jews? And he answering said unto him, Thou sayest it. And the chief priests accused him of many things: but he answered nothing. And Pilate asked him again, saying, Answerest thou nothing? behold how many things they witness against thee. But Jesus yet answered nothing; so that Pilate marvelled. Now at that feast he released unto them one prisoner, whomsoever they desired. And there was one named Barabbas, which lay bound with them that had made insurrection with him, who had committed murder in the insurrection. And the multitude crying aloud began to desire him to do as he had ever done unto them. But Pilate answered them, saying, Will ye that I release unto you the King of the Jews? For he knew. that the chief priests had delivered him for envy. But the chief priests moved the people, that he should rather release Barabbas unto them. And Pilate answered and said again unto them, What will ye then that I shall do unto him whom ye call the King of the Jews? And they cried out again, Crucify him. Then Pilate said unto them, Why, what evil hath he done? And they cried out the more exceedingly, Crucify him. And so Pilate, willing to content the people, released Barabbas unto them, and delivered Jesus, when he had scourged him, to be crucified.” (Mark 15, 2f.).

In Matthew Pilate goes so far as to wash his hands before the multitude and declare, “I am innocent of the blood of this just person: see ye to it.” And all the people declare, “His blood be on us, and on our children.”

Luke says nothing to the effect that the Sanhedrin sentences Jesus; they appear merely as complainants before Pilate.

“And the whole multitude of them arose, and led him unto Pilate. And they began to accuse him, saying, We found this fellow perverting the nation, and forbidding to give tribute to Caesar, saying that he himself is Christ a King. And Pilate asked him, saying, Art thou the King of the Jews? And he answered him and said, Thou sayest it. Then said Pilate to the chief priests and to the people, I find no fault in this man. And they were the more fierce, saying, He stirreth up the people, teaching throughout all Jewry, beginning from Galilee to this place” (Luke 28, verse 1f.).

Luke must come closest to the truth. Here Jesus is directly accused of high treason before Pilate, and with proud courage does not deny his guilt. Asked by Pilate whether he is the king of the Jews, that is, their leader in their fight for independence, Jesus declares, “Thou sayest it.” The Gospel according to St. John feels how embarrassing this remnant of Jewish patriotism is, and therefore makes Jesus answer, “My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight.” Now John is the latest gospel; and so it took a fairly long time for the Christian writers to make up their minds to commit this falsification of the original facts.

The matter before Pilate was obviously a very simple one. In having the rebel Jesus executed he was merely doing his duty as representative of Roman authority.

The masses of Jews, on the contrary, had not the slightest reason to be angry at a man who wanted none of the Roman rule and called for refusing to pay taxes to the Emperor. If Jesus really did that, he was acting entirely in accord with the Zealots, the dominating trend among the population of Jerusalem at that time.

If we take the accusation given in the Gospels as authentic, the natural thing to expect would be that the Jews should be sympathetic to Jesus and that Pilate should condemn him.

What do the Gospels tell us? Pilate does not find the slightest guilt in Jesus, although Jesus admits it himself. The governor keeps repeating that the accused is innocent, and asking what evil he has committed?

This is strange enough. But still stranger, although Pilate does not admit the guilt of Jesus, he still does not set him free.

Now it happened now and then that a procurator found a political case too complicated to decide by himself. But it is unheard of that an official of the Roman Emperor should try to get out of his uncertainty by asking the mass of the people what should be done with the accused. If he did not himself want to condemn a traitor, he would have to send him to the Emperor in Rome. For instance, this was done by the procurator Antonius Felix (52 to 60). He enticed the head of the Zealots of Jerusalem, the guerilla chief Eleazar who had kept the land unsafe for twenty years, by a promise of safe-conduct, took him prisoner and sent him to Rome. He had many of his followers crucified, however.

Pilate too could have sent Jesus to Rome; but the role that Matthew has him playing is simply ridiculous: a Roman judge, a representative of the Emperor Tiberius, with power of life and death, begging an assembly of the people to Jerusalem to allow him to set the accused man free and answering their shouts of refusal by saying, “Well, put him to death, I am innocent in the matter!”

This was not the way the historical Pilate acted. Agrippa I, in a letter to Philo, calls Pilate “an inflexible and ruthless character”, and reproaches him for “bribetaking, acts of violence, robberies, misdeeds, offences, constant executions without trials, endless and intolerable brutalities”.

His harshness and ruthlessness created such intolerable conditions that it became too much even for the central government in Rome and he was recalled (36 A.D.).

And this was the man who is supposed to have shown the proletarian traitor Jesus such extreme love of justice and mercy, exceeded only, unfortunately for the defendant, by his idiotic weakness toward the people.

The evangelists were too ignorant to be amazed at that, and yet they might have had an inkling that they were assigning too strange a role to the Roman governor. They looked for something to make it look more credible; they report that the Jews were accustomed to having Pilate release a prisoner to them at Easter, and when he now offered them the release of Jesus, they answered, “No, we should rather have the murderer Barabbas.”

It is strange that nothing is known of such a custom anywhere but in the Gospels. It is contrary to Roman institutions, which did not give governors any right to pardon. And it is contrary to any orderly law to give the right to pardon not to some responsible body but to a crowd that has happened to come together. Legal conditions of this kind can be taken at face value only by theologians.

But even if we are willing to let that pass and accept the singular pardoning power of the Jewish crowd as it chances to congregate around the procurator’s lodgings, the question still arises, what does this power to pardon have to do with the case in question?

For Jesus has not yet been legally sentenced. Pontius Pilate is faced with the question: Is Jesus guilty of high treason or no? He answers with the question: Do you want to use your power to pardon in his favor, or no?

Pilate has to give sentence, and instead of doing so appeals to the pardoning power! Does he not have the power to set Jesus free if he considers him innocent?

Now a new monstrosity appears. The Jews allegedly have the right to pardon; and how do they exercise it? Are they content with asking the release of Barabbas? No, they demand the crucifixion of Jesus! The evangelists evidently imagine that the right to pardon one gives rise as well to the right to condemn the other.

This mad kind of administration of justice is matched by an equally mad sort of politics.

The evangelists show us a mob that hates Jesus to such a degree that it pardons a murderer rather than him; precisely a murderer – this mob found no worthier object to pardon – ; and it is not quiet until Jesus is led to be crucified.

Now consider that this is the same mob that a few days earlier had greeted him with hosannas as a king, strewing his path with garments and hailing him with one voice, without any contradiction. It was just this devotion on the part of the multitude that according to the Gospels was the reason why the aristocrats had designs on Jesus’ life but dared not arrest him by day, choosing the night time instead. And now this same mob is inspired just as unanimously with the wildest, most fanatical hatred against him – against the man who was accused of a crime that in the eyes of every Jewish patriot made him worthy of the greatest honor: an attempt to free the Jewish commonwealth from foreign rule.

What has happened to produce this astonishing change of attitude? The most powerful kind of motives would be required to make it plausible. The evangelists however stammer out a few ridiculous phrases, insofar as they say anything at all on the subject. Luke and John do not furnish any motivation. Mark says: “The chief priests moved the people” against Jesus, and Matthew, that they “persuaded the multitude.”

All that these phrases prove is how badly the last shred of political feeling and political knowledge had been lost to the Christian writers.

Now no matter how much a mass of people may be lacking in character, it will not be led into fanatical hatred without some basis. The basis may be foolish or vile, but there must be some basis. In the evangelists’ account the Jewish multitude outdoes the most infamous and idiotic stage villain in idiotic infamy, for without the slightest foundation, the least motive, it rages for the blood of the same man it was worshipping only the day before. The matter becomes even more idiotic when we take the political conditions of the time into consideration. The Jewish commonwealth, unlike practically every other part of the Roman Empire, had an uncommonly vigorous political life, with all its social and political contrasts carried to their extreme. The political parties were well organized, and disciplined. Zealotism had completely won over the lower classes of Jerusalem, and they were constantly in bitter opposition to the Sadducees and Pharisees, and full of the fiercest hatred toward Rome. Their best allies were the rebellious Galileans.

Even if the Sadducees and Pharisees had succeeded in “moving” some elements of the people against Jesus, they could never have managed to get a unanimous demonstration, but at best a bitter street battle. There could hardly be a more fantastic idea than that of Zealots throwing themselves with wild screams, not on Romans and aristocrats, but on the accused rebel, whose execution they extort with fanatical rage from the Roman commander.

A more childish monstrosity has never been dreamed up.

After the evangelists have succeeded in this brilliant way in presenting the bloody Pilate as an innocent lamb, and the innate depravity of Judaism as the real cause of the crucifixion of the harmless and peaceful Messiah, they are exhausted. Their vein of invention gives out for the moment and the old account comes into its own temporarily. Jesus is mocked at and mistreated after his condemnation, but not by the Jews, but by the soldiers of that very Pilate who had just declared him guiltless. Now he has his soldiers not only crucify him but first scourge him and mock him for his Jewish kingdom: a crown of thorns is put on his head, a purple cloak set on him, and then they strike him in the face and spit at him. Finally they fasten to his cross the inscription: Jesus, King of the Jews.

In this the original character of the catastrophe appears clearly once more. Here the Romans are the bitter enemies of Jesus, and the basis of their hatred as of their mockery is his high treason, his aspiring to the Jewish throne, his effort to shake off the alien domination of the Romans.

Unfortunately this glimmering of the simple truth does not last long.

Jesus dies, and the task is now to prove by a series of stage effects that a god had died:

“Jesus, when he had cried again with a loud voice, yielded up the ghost. And, behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom; and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent; And the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose, And came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many” (Matthew 27, verses 50f.).

The evangelists do not report what the resurrected “saints” did during and after their group excursion to Jerusalem, whether they remained alive or decently lay down again in their graves. In any case it would be expected that such an extraordinary event would have an overpowering effect on all who witnessed it and convince everybody of the divinity of Jesus. But the Jews remain obdurate even now. It is still only the Romans who bow down before the deity.

“Now when the centurion, and they that were with him, watching Jesus, saw the earthquake, and those things that were done, they feared greatly, saying, Truly this was the Son of God” (Matthew 27, verse 54).

The chief priests and Pharisees however, declare Jesus a deceiver, despite everything (Matthew 27, verse 63), and when he rises from the dead, that has no effect beyond the bribe we spoke of before, given to the Roman eyewitnesses to make them brand the miracle as a deception.

Thus at the end of the Passion story we still have Jewish corruption turning the honest Roman soldiers into tools of Jewish trickery and baseness, which opposes devilish rage to the noblest divine forgiveness.

All through this story the trend to servility toward the Romans and hatred toward the Jews is laid on so thick and described with such a mass of nonsense that one should think it would not have the slightest influence on thinking men. And yet we know that it was only too successful in accomplishing its ends. This tale, illuminated by the glorious light of divinity, ennobled by the martyrdom of the proud confessor of a high mission, was for many centuries one of the most effective means of arousing hatred and contempt for Jews even among very kindly spirits in Christendom. This story served to brand Jews as the scum of mankind, as a race naturally wicked and obdurate, which must be kept away from all human association and kept down with an iron hand.

But it would have been impossible for this conception of Judaism ever to have gained currency if it had not arisen in a period of general hatred and persecution of the Jews.

Born of the outlawry of the Jews, it infinitely reinforced, prolonged and extended that outlawry.

What was presented as the story of the Passion of the Lord Jesus Christ is nothing more than evidence of the suffering of the Jewish people.




[13] “As a curiosity we may point to the literary miracle that Matthew accomplishes by having Jesus make his entry riding on two animals at once” (Bruno Bauer, Kritik der Evangelien, III, p.114). The traditional translations mask this miracle. Thus the Authorized Version runs (Matthew 21, verse 7), “And brought the ass, and the colt, and put on them their clothes, and they set him thereon.” The original says, however: “And they brought the ass, and the colt, and put their clothes on them (ep’ auton) and set him on them (epano auton).”

And for all the liberties taken in falsification, this was transcribed over the centuries by one copyist after another, a proof of the thoughtlessness and emptiness of the compilers of the Gospels.

[14] Schürer, Geschichte des jüdischen Volkes, II, p.211.


Last updated on 24.12.2003