The Passion narratives in the Gospels are very familiar at this time of year, read in church and featuring in the Passion oratorios of JS Bach. A key figure, apart from Jesus of course, is Pontius Pilate. We know him, if we still remember the accounts, as the man who 'washed his hands' of responsibility for Jesus' death, personifying this continuing expression of avoidance. Yet, we don't challenge these stories.
Pilate was a brutal man, even by Roman standards, famously, if you know his story, he was recalled to Rome and disciplined for excessively unnecessary brutality, he was executing, and killing, too many Roman subjects. We get the impression from the Gospels that he was weak, dithering about releasing Jesus, seeking to persuade the crowd that he was one of them. We even read in one account that he was afraid, this was a man who was definitely not afraid, if he had a problem with the people he killed them.
In today's society, long after we thought it was over, anti-Semitism is on the rise. Many of us know that the Gospels have a case to answer for lighting the blue touch paper on Christian anti-Semitism, though you're not likely to hear this in church. It's hard to take seriously that an oppressed people at a particularly nationalistic and meaningful time of year - Passover, commemorating the Exodus from slavery in Egypt - would be supporting the Roman Emperor - 'If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar.' This is a script which is unbelievable.
When we think about it, it is all too obvious what is happening in the story, what happened when it was written, still under Roman occupation. The Roman governor is painted in a good light, unrealistically. His eagerness to kill the innocent is highlighted elsewhere in the story of Jesus when there is mention of pilgrims to Jerusalem whose blood was mixed with their sacrifices. This reaches its culmination in a literally unbelievable shout from the crowd. There is no way that a restless, patriotic group of pilgrims, remembering the suffering and escape from previous oppression would voice these words, 'The only king we have is Caesar'. The Romans had such trouble in Judaea because the people would never accept them as rulers.
And if the Romans are presented in a good light, particularly Pilate as the reluctant judge, it is the Jews who are tragically and unfairly presented as the bad guys. The legacy of the convenient, but unconvincing, cry, 'We and our children will be responsible for his death,' is all too apparent. If only these words had never been written, how many atrocities have they led to? It's too late to unwrite them but we can unread and unremember then, they are not what happened. They are too convenient in their paralleling of religious outlooks of an earlier era and in laying blame that ought not to have been laid. Yet, they are read unquestioningly and without comment. Much time and money has been invested in understanding the time of the Bible and in searches for the 'Historical Jesus', but without challenging biased and propagandist texts. Almost all historical anti-semitism, pogroms and the Holocaust ultimately point back to these accounts.
We can, perhaps, hope that if the Gospel writers had been aware what might happen as a result of their words they would have rethought and rewrote. It is dangerous when ideology and theology take over the telling of important stories and even of truth. We can do better though, without speculating what could have been done instead or what the original intentions were. We can recognise 'texts of terror', whether they are ours or not, and call them out. Just because a text is 'Gospel' it does not mean that it cannot be challenged. If we are willing, open and honest enough in the churches to be critical of our own tradition and foundational texts we can make a more robust challenge of anti-semitism wherever it is, because the Bible proves, in this instance, that we are a long way from taking it seriously enough. If we repent comprehensively of historical and scriptural anti-semitism we would also be in a better place to realise that Islamophobia has no place in Christianity either.