I’m a psychologist, so when I explored the New Testament to gain a better understanding of Jewish-Christian relations, I naturally drew on familiar psychological principles and tools for understanding human behavior.
Studies of false memories, distorted memories, totally fabricated memories, and pathologies affecting memory have been instructive in examining issues of reproduction of bibles from oral traditions. The psychology of perception, which probes how beliefs and views of “reality” are shaped, has also proven extremely useful, especially in my work on the absence of Jesus’ Jewish identity and heritage in Renaissance artworks, in defiance of the depictions of the thoroughly Jewish Jesus in the Gospels.
But what I found most valuable in questioning the truth or logic of events reported in the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament is the psychological technique of role-playing. To illustrate how role-playing can expose faulty perceptions, consider a counseling situation in which an employer and an employee take on each other’s role in staged confrontations to better understand their abrasive relationship. In playing the employee, the boss might grasp the feeling of being put down and abused. And the employee playing boss might see the pressures and tension of running a business. Often what comes out of role-playing sessions is the realization by the role-players of their perceptual distortions — what earlier seemed to make sense but now doesn’t.
That’s precisely what I discovered when I considered role-playing in the trials of Jesus and Paul reported in the New Testament. Both were executed for the primary charge of blasphemy against Judaism, even though some biblical scholars claim that the charges were bogus — not blasphemous by Jewish law and tradition. In both instances, the charges were made by the Sanhedrin, the ruling body of Judaism. The Roman authorities referred both cases to the Jewish authorities because “the charges were Jewish matters.”
What if we were to re-examine these trials from the perspective of role-playing? I previously used role-playing effectively in a mock trial in which Jesus testified against popes, monarchs and others throughout history who committed heinous acts in his name.
For the trials of Jesus and Paul I introduce a role-playing attorney who advises them on defense strategies. In each case the attorney’s observations and advice offers strong evidence of the improbability of the story as told in the New Testament. Keep in mind that these narratives have shaped Christian-Jewish relations for over two thousand years.
First let’s visit the trial of Jesus and the back-story.
After the Passover Seder with his disciples, Jesus is seized at nighttime in Gethsemane Garden by Jewish Temple police. Judas, one of Jesus’ twelve disciples, had earlier tipped off the Jewish authorities about the location of Jesus’ meeting. Prisoner Jesus is brought to Caiaphas, the head of the Sanhedrin. He is charged with blasphemy against Judaism. The punishment is execution.
Only the Romans can carry out an execution. So early the following morning Jesus is brought before the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate for questioning. Pilate confirms that the charges are a Jewish matter (Matthew 27:24): “I am innocent of the blood of this just person.” Pilate then introduces the last chance to save Jesus from crucifixion. Every Passover the governor releases one convicted criminal. Pilate turns to the multitude of Jews assembled outside his Jerusalem residence (some say praetorium or palace): “Should I free Barabbas or Jesus?” The overwhelming response is: Crucify Jesus (Mark 15:12-13). This theme will be played and replayed for two thousand years in narratives, Passion Plays, and Passion Oratorios.
But what if we bring Jesus’ role-playing attorney into the mix?
The attorney hears Pilate report that the Jews cry out “crucify Jesus.” The attorney thinks to himself, “Is Pilate hallucinating? There can’t be a multitude of Jews out there. The capture of Jesus last night was secretive — no one but the Jewish authorities knew about it. And it’s Passover; the Jews are assembled here in tent cities preparing for the sacrifice of lambs and other Passover rituals. The Roman troops are out in force to prevent or intercede in the deadly riots and attacks on Roman soldiers that frequently erupt at the Passover celebration. The Romans would surely not allow any mobs to march to Pilate’s residence. Also, Jews would not come there because it is impure and would therefore require seven days of purification before they could celebrate Passover. Even the members of the Sanhedrin refused to enter Pilate’s residence for the same reason (John 18:28). There can only be a handful of Sanhedrin stooges out there.”
If Jesus believed that he started a new religion, the role-playing attorney might advise him: “Tell Pilate that he should release you because he said he had no argument with you and that the Sanhedrin has no authority to indict you because you are no longer a Jew. Say you have left Judaism and have started a new religion. Insist that the Sanhedrin only has jurisdiction over Jewish affairs.”
Of course, that’s not what happened. Jesus never used the argument “I’m not a Jew any longer.” Those who believe that Jesus started a new religion must explain why he never said that and, moreover, didn’t use it in defense of a deadly indictment.
Based on the Gospels’ account of the crucifixion, the logical conclusion is that Jesus objected to the Sanhedrin’s emphasis on the letter of Jewish law and pretentious displays of piety while neglecting the spiritual core of the Torah. As such, Jesus died a dedicated Jew.
The trial and death of Paul raise similar questions.
At the beginning of his career as a Jewish scholar studying under famed Rabbi Gamaliel II in the Temple in Jerusalem, Paul distinguished himself by viciously persecuting Jesus’ followers after the crucifixion. No distance was too great for Paul to travel to bring back these “apostates” in chains to Jerusalem. Later Paul had an epiphany after his vision of Jesus. He then switched from persecutor to devotee. He promptly set out on a path of converting Jews, and then gentiles, to his new brand of Judaism.
On his third trip to Jerusalem, nearly thirty years after the crucifixion, Paul was still determined to convince Jesus’ disciples, who continued to practice their brand of Judaism (with Jesus at the helm), to relax the requirement of circumcision and the dietary laws in order to make Judaism a world religion open to everyone. He met with the disciples and other Jews in the Jerusalem Temple after a purification procedure before entering the Temple. If he were not a Jew or had defected from Judaism he would not have been allowed in the Temple.
At this meeting, a riot erupted when a group of Asian Jews attacked Paul (Acts 21:27-31). Roman soldiers arrived and arrested Paul, roughing him up in the process. When they realized that Paul was a Roman citizen the soldiers became frightened that they would be punished for their harsh treatment of him.
After Paul’s two-year detainment, the new Governor, Festus, wanted to turn Paul over to the Sanhedrin for trial, since the charges against him were a Jewish matter (Acts 25:2). Fearful that his fate before the Sanhedrin would be the same as Jesus’, Paul invoked his right as a Roman citizen to be tried in Rome. The governor had no choice: “Unto Cæsar shalt thou go.” (Acts 25:12).
Now let’s bring in the role-playing attorney. On the widely accepted assumption that Paul defected from Judaism and founded a new religion called Christianity (although Paul insisted to the Sanhedrin that he follows the laws of Judaism — Acts 24:14), the attorney would likely advise: “Tell the governor that you are no longer a Jew, that you are the leader of a new religion. Say, we Christians believe in Jesus Christ, whom the Sanhedrin has rejected. As a non-Jew and a Roman citizen I demand that you release me. You Sanhedrin only have jurisdiction over Jews.”
Based on Paul’s affirmation that he was not a Jew and on his status as a Roman citizen, it’s likely that the governor would have released him immediately. Even if his declaration were challenged, it would have led to a lengthy judicial debate by the Sanhedrin. It’s astonishing that the first line of defense (if Paul believed that he started a new religion) of “you don’t have jurisdiction” was never made by Paul. This defense would be obvious to attorneys just out of law school, legal aides, and even lay people who have watched Law and Order.
Paul survives a treacherous voyage with his Roman jailers and arrives in Rome, where he is put under house arrest while awaiting trial. He invites the Jewish leadership of Rome to his home and explains that the Romans have no argument with him but that the Jews have charged him with blasphemy (Acts 28:17-20).
Enter our role-playing attorney, who would give the following advice, if at this point Paul had declared himself leader of a new religion: “Paul, you now have thousands of followers or more all over Asia, Greece, Rome and elsewhere. They are called Christians. You have launched a new religion. The Sanhedrin has charged you as a Jew. But you are not a Jew any more. If you declare that you are not a Jew, the Romans will release you. As a Roman citizen, your declaration will be honored.”
Again, as obvious as this defense is, it never comes up. And Paul goes to his death as a blasphemous Jew. Why?
The only answer that makes sense is that right up until the end Paul thought of himself as a dedicated Jew who believed that his Jewish-Christianity was the new Jewish world religion. Anyone who believes that Paul, in his own mind, launched a new religion must explain why he didn’t declare that while wasting five years of his life in confinement at the height of his ministry.
If Jesus didn’t launch Christianity, if Paul didn’t, who did? More puzzling, how did Christianity get away from Judaism? Interesting questions that beg for fresh thinking. Questions that psychologists, sociologists and historians may be more suited to investigate than theologians or biblical scholars, who are mired in traditional frames of reference.
Bernard Starr, PhD, is a psychologist and Professor Emeritus at the City University of New York (Brooklyn College). His latest book is “Jesus, Jews, and Anti-Semitism in Art: How Renaissance Art Erased Jesus’ Jewish Identity and How Today’s Artists Are Restoring It.” He is also organizer of the art exhibit “Putting Judaism Back in the Picture: Toward Healing the Christian/Jewish Divide.”