Freethought Archives > Baron D'Holbach > Ecce Homo (1769)

CHAPTER XV.

TRIAL AND CONDEMNATION OF JESUS.—HIS PUNISHMENT AND DEATH.

When the enemies of Jesus saw him in their hands, they were not less embarrassed than before. From the time the Romans had subdued the Jewish nation, they had no longer the power of the sword. To punish those who had sinned against religion, it was sufficient at any former period, that the high priest pronounced sentence on the culprit. The Romans, more tolerant, rarely punished with death; and, besides, to take away life, they required decisive proofs against the accused. Annanias, father-in-law of the high priest Caiphas, was known among the Jews for a very subtle man. It was to Annanias' house, therefore, that they first conducted Jesus. We are ignorant of what passed in this first scene of the bloody tragedy. It is to be presumed, that the prisoner underwent an examination which proved no way favorable to him.

From the house of Annanias they conducted Jesus to that of Caiphas. He was the man most interested by his office in the ruin of every innovator in matters of religion; yet we do not find this pontiff speaking with anger: he conducted himself according to law, and as a man who understood his profession. "Who," said he to Jesus, "are your disciples, their number and names?" Jesus made no answer. "But at least," continued Caiphas, "explain to me your doctrine. What end does it propose? You must have a system. Tell us then what it is." At last the messiah condescended to say, "I spoke openly to the world; it is not I, but those who have heard me, that ought to be interrogated." Here one of the officers of the high priest gave Jesus a blow on the[Pg 159] ear, saying, "Answerest thou the high priest so!" The reprimand was harsh, but it must be owned, that the answer of Jesus was disrespectful to a man invested with authority, and with the right of putting questions, in order to discover the truth from the mouth of the accused. Jesus ought to have been better acquainted with his own doctrine than the peasants of Galilee or Judea, before whom he had through preference affected to preach in an unintelligible manner. It was therefore just and natural to suppose, that Jesus could give a better account of his sentiments and parables, than an ignorant multitude who had listened without being able to comprehend him. He alone could be supposed to possess the secret of forming into a system the scattered and unconnected principles of his heavenly doctrine.

Caiphas, unable to draw any thing from the accused, waited till next morning, when the council would assemble in order to continue the inquest. Jesus appeared before the Sanhedrim, the most respectable tribunal in the nation. The gospel represents the priests and chiefs of the Jews occupied during the whole night that Jesus was arrested, in searching for and suborning false witnesses against him. They produced two persons, on whom they very unjustly bestowed this epithet. These witnesses deposed to a fact verified by the gospel itself.—"We heard him say that he would destroy the temple, and rebuild it in three days." It is certain that Jesus had uttered these words, "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up." But the poor witnesses knew not that he then spoke in his figurative style. Their mistake was pardonable, for, according to the gospel, the apostles themselves did not discover the true sense of these words till after the resurrection of their master.

This evidence was not sufficient to condemn Jesus. The Jews, however iniquitous we may suppose them to have been, did not sentence fools to die; and these words of their prisoner must have appeared to them the effect of delirium. Accordingly the high priest contented himself with asking[Pg 160] what he had to answer? and as the accused refused to speak, he did not further insist on that point. He proceeded to questions more serious: "Are you the Christ?" said he to Jesus. How did the messiah answer this question? "If I tell it, you will not believe me, nor suffer me to depart. But hereafter the Son of man shall sit on the right hand of God." "You are then the Son of God?" continued the priest.—"You have said it," replied the accused. "But it is not sufficient that we should say it; it is you who are to answer: once more, are you the Christ? I conjure you by the living God tell us if you are his Son?"—"You have said it," answered Jesus: "the Son of man shall one day come in the clouds of heaven." Notwithstanding these perplexing answers, the judges imagined they understood the meaning of his words: they plainly perceived that he wished to give himself out for the Son of God. "He hath spoken blasphemy," said they; and immediately concluded that he deserved death—a judgment which was valid according to the law of the Jews, and which must also appear so to Christians whose sanguinary laws punish capitally those whom the clergy accuse of blasphemy. They have, therefore, no right to blame the conduct of the Jews, so often imitated by ecclesiastical and secular tribunals.

On the other hand, if it was necessary that Jesus should die; if he wished it; if the reprobation of the Jews was resolved on, he acted very properly in keeping them in error. But if this was the intention of providence, why preach to them? Why perform miracles before a whole people whilst a small number were only to profit by it? Did Jesus wish to save them? In that case why not convince the whole Sanhedrim of his power? Why did he not burst his bonds? Why did he not by a single word change their obstinate hearts? Did he wish to destroy them? Why not then strike them dead? Why not instantly precipitate them into hell?

The judges could not comprehend why the accused, who could not extricate himself from their hands, could be the[Pg 161] Son of God. They accordingly declared him worthy of death; but not definitely, as it was requisite that the sentence should be approved of and executed by the Romans, sovereigns of the nation. During these transactions, Jesus was treated in the cruelest manner by the Jews, whom, as well as Christians, their zeal permitted, or rather enjoined, to be savage.

It is during this night, and the morning of the following day, so fatal to the Saviour of the world, that we must place the three denials of Peter, the chief of the apostles. His master had prayed for him. His comrades, seized with dismay, had dispersed themselves in Jerusalem and its neighborhood. Several among them would have acted like Peter if they had found themselves in a similar situation. He had at least the merit of keeping near his master; he abjured him, it is true; but would it have been of more avail if, by acknowledging him openly, he should have entangled himself in a very awkward affair, without being able to relieve the Saviour.

The Sanhedrim repaired to the palace of Pilate the Roman governor, in order to get the sentence confirmed. Jesus was conducted thither. Pilate instantly perceived that it was an affair in which fanaticism and folly had the greatest share. Filled with contempt for so ridiculous a motive, he was at first unwilling to interfere. Judge him yourselves, said he to the magistrates. On this the latter became false witnesses. Zeal, no doubt, made them imagine that every thing was allowable against an enemy of religion. They interested the sovereign power in their quarrel—They accused Jesus of wishing "to make himself king of the Jews," and of having maintained, that "they ought not to pay tribute to Casar." We recognize here the genius of the clergy, who, to ruin their enemies, are never very fastidious in the choice of means. They especially strive to render the latter suspected by the temporal power, in order to engage it, through motives of self-interest, to satiate their revenge.[Pg 162]

Pilate could not avoid paying attention to accusations of so serious a nature. Unable to persuade himself that the man he beheld could have conceived projects so ridiculous, he interrogated him:—"Are you the king of the Jews?" On which Jesus demanded of Pilate—"Say you this of yourself, or have others told it you?"—"Of what consequence is it to me," returned Pilate, "that you pretend to be the king of the Jews? You do not appear a man much to be dreaded by the Emperor my master—I am not of your nation; I concern myself very little with your silly quarrels. Your priests are your accusers—I have my own opinion of them—but they accuse you; they deliver you into my hands—Tell me then, what have you done?" Jesus might very easily have got off; but in his distress his judgment failed; and, far from penetrating the favorable disposition of Pilate, who wished to save him, he replied, "that his kingdom was not of this world—that he was the truth," &c. On this the Governor asked him "What is the truth?" But the Saviour made no reply, though the question well deserved a categorical answer.

Pilate, a little alarmed on account of Jesus, declared, that he "found nothing in him worthy of death." But this redoubled the cries of his enemies. Having learned that the accused was a Galilean, he, to get quit of the ridiculous business, seized the opportunity to send him to Herod, to whose tetrarchate Jesus originally belonged. We have said elsewhere, that this prince had desired to see our hero, and his desire was now gratified. But on perceiving his obstinacy and constant refusal to answer the questions put to him, he conceived a sovereign contempt for him. To Pilate therefore he sent him back clothed in a white robe by way of derision. The governor, however, saw no capital crime in Jesus, and wished to save him; besides, his superstitious wife had a dream, that interested her in favor of our missionary. Pilate then said to the Jews, that he could find nothing in the man which rendered him worthy of death. But the peo[Pg 163]ple misled, and wishing him to be crucified, cried out Tolle, Tolle; away, away with him. The Governor now devised another plan to save him. "I release," said he, "every year a criminal; supposing that Jesus may be culpable, I am going to set him free." The cries were redoubled, and the Jews demanded, that a robber called Barabbas should profit of this mercy in preference to Jesus, whose punishment they persisted to urge.

The Romans, desirous to calm the rage of a fanatical people, caused Jesus to be whipped; dressed him in a ridiculous manner, crowned him with thorns, and made him hold a reed instead of a sceptre. Thus decorated, Pilate showed him to the people, saying, "Behold your king! are you not yet satisfied? See how to please you I have bedecked him. Be then less cruel: do not carry your indignation further; he ought no longer to give you umbrage."

The priests, whose maxim it is "never to forgive," were not moved by this spectacle; nothing short of the death of their enemy could satisfy them. They changed their ground, and, to intimidate the governor, told him that by suffering the accused to live he betrayed the interests of his master. It was then that Pilate, fearing the effects of the malice of the clergy, consigned Jesus to the Jews, that they might satiate their rage on him; declaring, however, that "he washed his hands of it," and that it was against his opinion if they put him to death. We cannot well conceive how a Roman governor, who exercised sovereign power in Judea, could yield so easily to the wishes of the Jews: but we cannot more easily conceive how God permitted this honest governor to become an accomplice in the death of his dear Son.

Jesus, abandoned to the rage of devotees, again suffered the cruellest treatment. Pilate, to humble those barbarians, wished the label affixed to the upper part of the cross to bear, that he was their king; and nothing could induce him to recede from this resolution. "What is written is written,"[Pg 164] said he to those who requested him to alter an inscription dishonorable to their nation. It is also proper to observe, that this inscription is differently expressed by the four evangelists.

The Jews treated Jesus as a dethroned king, and made him experience the most bloody outrages. Though he had said that he could make legions of angels come to his protection, yet the Jews, notwithstanding their natural credulity, paid no credit to his assertion, and nothing could stop their religious cruelty, excited by the priests. They made him take the road to Calvary. He sunk under the weight of his cross, but they loaded Simon with it, who was more vigorous. The unfortunate Jesus must have been indeed much enfeebled by what he had suffered during both the night and the morning. At last he was placed on the cross, the usual punishment of slaves. He did not suffer long under the agonies of crucifixion: after invoking his Father, and lamenting his being so shamefully abandoned, he expired, it is said, between two thieves. It is said that Jesus when dying exclaimed, "Eli! Eli! lamma sabbactani!" (My God! my God! why hast thou forsaken me!) This complaint was very ridiculous in the mouth of Jesus, if, as is pretended, the part he acted was agreed on with his father from all eternity. Matthew and Mark tells us, that both the thieves insulted him with abusive language; while Luke assures us, that one only of the two abused the Saviour, and that the other reprimanded his comrade for his insolence, and besought Jesus "to remember him when he should come to his kingdom." But our interpreters have a thousand ways of proving that the Holy Spirit never contradicts himself, even when he speaks in the most contradictory manner. Those who have faith are satisfied with their arguments, but they do not so powerfully impress freethinkers, who have the misfortune to reason.

The remorse of Judas soon revenged Jesus on this traitor. He restored to the priests the thirty pieces he had re[Pg 165]ceived from them, and went forthwith to hang himself. This is what Matthew says, in opposition to the writer of the Acts of the Apostles, (Luke) who tells us, that Judas "purchased a field with the reward of iniquity; and falling headlong he burst asunder in the midst." Mark and John are silent respecting this memorable event. According to Matthew, the selling of Jesus for thirty pieces had been foretold by Jeremiah. The prediction, however, does not appear in the writings of this prophet, which would create a suspicion that the evangelists, little satisfied with applying to Jesus some prophecies, such as are extant in the Old Testament, have drawn from their own store, or forged them when in need. But our able interpreters are not at all embarrassed with this; and a holy blindness will always prevent these trifles from being perceived.

The gospel informs us, that at the death of Jesus all Nature seemed to take part in the grand event. At the moment he expired there was a total eclipse; a frightful shaking of the earth was felt, and several holy personages came out of their tombs to take a walk on the streets of Jerusalem. The Jews alone had the misfortune to see nothing of all this; it appears, that these wonders were performed only in the fancy of the disciples of Jesus. As for the eclipse, it was, doubtless, an inconceivable prodigy which could not have taken place without a total derangement in the machine of the world. A total eclipse of the sun during full moon, the time at which the celebration of the passover was fixed by the Jews, is of all miracles the most impossible. No contemporary author has mentioned it, though this phenomenon well merited to be transmitted to posterity. The incredulous therefore maintain, that there was no other eclipse on this occasion but of the common sense of those who saw all these marvels, or of the good faith of the writers who have attested them. With respect to the shaking of the earth, they suspect that the apostles of Jesus, agitated with fear at the sight of their divine master's fate, were the only per[Pg 166]sons who felt it. In this way indeed the thing becomes very probable. If the punishment of Jesus is proved by the gospel, some circumstances may create a doubt whether he died immediately. We are told, that they did not, according to custom, break his legs. His friends had the liberty of taking away his body, and they might dress his wounds on finding that he was not dead, and in this manner bring him back to life, at least for some time.

When Jesus was dead, or believed to be so after an incision had been made in his side, from which came blood and a whitish fluid, which they took for water, his body was embalmed and deposited in a new tomb. This was done on Friday evening. He had several times intimated that he would rise again the third day; that is, at the end of three days and three nights. Yet on the Sunday following, early in the morning, the tomb wherein he had been laid was found empty. The Jews, always opiniative, did not admit that he was risen again. They held it more natural to believe that he had failed in his word; or to suppose that his disciples had carried him off. This could easily have been executed by force; by bribing the guards, whom the priests and Pharisees had placed around his sepulchre; or by cunning. As Pilate felt but little interest in the matter, he appears not to have punished the guards for neglecting to take care of what he had confided to them. The idolatrous governor, little acquainted with the resources or designs of the apostles, never suspected they could persuade any person, that a man, whose death was well attested, could return to life. It is not surprising that a Pagan should doubt the resurrection of Jesus; from the first day of the church, several Christians have not believed it, perceiving the incongruity of supposing that the Son of God could die. They have therefore denied the death of their divine master. The followers of Basilides affirmed that Jesus at the time of his passion assumed the appearance of Simon the Cyrenean, and transferred to him his own, under which the said Simon was crucified in his[Pg 167] stead, while Jesus, who beheld this without being himself seen, laughed at their mistake. The Cerinthians, or disciples of Cerinthus, who was contemporary with the apostles; and the Carpocratians likewise denied that Jesus could have been actually crucified. Some have maintained, that the traitor Judas was punished in place of his master. These sectaries regarded Jesus as a mere man, and not as a god. Thus we find Christians contemporary with the apostles believing in Jesus and yet doubting his death. It was, however, on this marvellous notion, as we shall see, that a sect was afterwards founded, powerful enough to subject by degrees the Roman empire and a considerable portion of the globe.

The punishment of our hero must have produced very little sensation in the world, and his adventures must have been strangely unknown, since we do not find that any historian, with the exception of the evangelists, makes mention of them. In the year 1263, a conference was held in presence of Don Jaques king of Arragon, and the queen his wife, between the Rabbin Zechial, and the Dominician, Friar Paul, called Cyraic. This conference is very memorable. The two champions were well versed in the Hebrew and in antiquity. The Talmud, the Targum, the archives of the Sanhedrim were on the table. The contested passages were explained into Spanish. Zechiel maintained, that Jesus had been condemned under the king Alexander Jannaeus, (and not under Herod the Tetrarch,) agreeably to what is related in the Toldos Jaschut, and in the Talmud. "Your gospels," said he, "were not written till towards the beginning of your second century, and are not authentic like our Talmud. We could not crucify him you speak of in the time of Herod the Tetrarch, since we had not the power of life and death in our hands. We could not have crucified him, because that manner of punishment was not in use among us. Our Talmud has it, that he who perished in the time of Jannaeus was condemned to be stoned to death. We can no more believe your gospels than those pretended Letters of Pilate, which you have forged."—Letters[Pg 168] on Eminent Writers, p. 123. The illustrious and profound Freret, perpetual Secretary to the Academy of Belles Lettres at Paris, had no hesitation in avowing, that, after the closest investigation he was clearly of opinion, the account given in the Talmud respecting Jesus, was the correct one. This opinion he supported by showing, that the gospels were not written till upwards of 40 years after the period fixed for the death of Jesus; that they were composed in foreign languages, at places distant from Jerusalem, which were full of the disciples of John, called Therapeutae; of Judaites, and of Galileans, all of whom had their gospels differing from each other, which they insisted were genuine; that the four gospels now held canonical, were the last written; that there is incontestible proof of this fact arising from the circumstance, that the first fathers of the church often quote passages which are to be found only in the gospel of the Egyptians or in that of St. James; and that Justin is the first who expressly quoted the received gospels. Justin was not born till a century after the commencement of our vulgar era.


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