Off the Beaten Track: The Passion and the Jews

Travel expert Joe Yudin guides Christians along the path of Jesus's crucifixion.

Dome of the rock 311 (photo credit: Joe Yudin)
Dome of the rock 311
(photo credit: Joe Yudin)
Joe Yudin owns Touring Israel, a company that specializes in “Lifestyle” tours of Israel.
Guiding Christians along the traditional path leading to the crucifixion of Jesus is a bit tricky. I am a Jew (as most Israeli tour guides are) and I do not believe that Jesus is God. So how do I guide Christians here without disrupting their spiritual experience? How do I walk devout Christians through "The Passion" of Jesus while reading through the Gospel accounts that don't always paint a pretty picture of the Jews? I try and put Jesus' story into its proper context of the times using other sources and archaeological evidence. There is no better place than on Jerusalem's Via Dolorosa, the traditional "Way of Suffering".
Enter the Old City from the east as Jesus did. Today that is possible from Lion's (St. Stephen's) Gate. Pass St. Anne's Church on your right and the Temple Mount entrances for Muslims only on your left until you get to the first two "Stations of the Cross". Most of Station I, Antonio's Fortress, has been destroyed and the Omariya School in an old Ottoman barracks for soldiers has been built on top of the ruins. For a small fee you can go inside the school and glimpse the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount. Then cross the street and enter the grounds between the Chapel of the Flagellation and Church of the Condemnation.
RELATED:Herod began building the western wallThe new biblical archeologyIn search of Herod's tombSo what exactly was going on in Judea during the first centuries BC and AD? Well, the Jews had been living in the Land of Israel, including Judea & Samaria, for roughly 1,200 years continuously. Even during the Babylonian Exile there were Jews living in southern Israel: Judea. In 164 BC the Jews began their campaign for independence against the Syrian-Greeks. That long fought war, the first war for religious freedom in history, is celebrated by the holiday Hanukah. After about 100 years of freedom, the Jews apparently had become too assimilated into the surrounding culture. A certain sect of Jews called the Sadducees, had become very Greek and had aligned themselves with the Greeks and then later the Romans. Other Jews tried to distance themselves from the Greeks, they were called Pharisees.
Herod the Great was installed by Marc Anthony as King of the Jews, and Herod would later build the fortress, named after Anthony, here at Station I in order to guard the Temple Mount against attack from the north as well as to oversee the Jews during their religious rights at the Temple. You see, most Jews absolutely hated Herod. Even though Herod married into the Maccabean family, which was his only real claim to the throne, he would eventually murder his royal wife and her entire family, including his own sons. The Pharisees saw Herod as the enemy, whereas the Sadducees aligned themselves with Herod and his Roman protectors in order to protect the Temple. The Sadducees would do anything to keep the general peace in order to continue the Temple practices. This included appeasing the Romans by paying them off in gold and silver and turning over Jews instigating movements, sometimes violent, towards an independent kingdom. The best way to do this thought the Sadducees was to be upstanding Roman citizens. The High Priest was the leader of the Sadducees.
The Pharisees on the other hand were worried that the pilgrims going up to the Temple were just going through the sacrificial motions and were forgetting about the other hundreds of good deeds (mitzvoth) that they were supposed to practice and internalize on a daily basis. The Pharisees would preach in the local synagogues and come out to the courts in and around the Temple on the holidays and discuss, argue and preach the spiritual and legal side of Judaism. The leaders of the Pharisees were called Rabbis. They didn't refer to themselves as "Pharisees" as that term had negative connotations similar to the word 'hypocrites', but since the Jewish-Roman historian Josephus uses that word that's what we call them today. It's fair to say that each of the four major Jewish sects of the time had its share of hypocrites, as we do today.
Other Jewish sects spouted up as well. The Zealots, believed that the Romans should be defeated militarily and expelled from the Land of Israel, just as the Maccabees had done to the Greeks. They eventually lead the Jews into war with Rome culminating in the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem. They meet their fate at Masada. One important fact that is often overlooked by when dealing with this era is that Herod murdered most of the Jewish council called the Sanhedrin and probably stacked the body with his cronies. The Talmud on the other hand talks about the Sanhedrin of this time being led by Hillel, Shammai and their disciples. I personally believe that there were two Sanhedrin's: Herod's officially sanctioned one, a political rubber stamp for Herod and later the Roman governors, and Hillel the Elder's secret Sanhedrin. So what happens here at Stations I & II? While reading the story of the Passion, you must keep in mind four things:
1. Pontius Pilate was a brutal ruler who used military tactics to slaughter thousands of unarmed Jews.2. The Sadducees do not believe in an afterlife, rewards in heaven or the Talmudic teachings (oral traditions) including those regarding a 'Messiah'.3. To the Pharisees and Zealots the 'Messiah" will be a man who will lead the Jews into a war against their oppressors and reign in an era of 1,000 years of peace and enlightenment4. At the Last Supper, Jesus tells his disciples to arm themselves (Luke 22:36).
If you do not have a New Testament Bible with you, between the two churches on a post just inside the courtyard, is a framed reading of a portion of Matthew 27, but it helps to read the entire chapters 26 & 27 as well as Mark 14-15 and John 18-19. For the purpose of this discussion we will take a look at Matthew 27:15-26:
Now it was the governor’s custom at the festival to release a prisoner chosen by the crowd. At that time they had a well-known prisoner whose name was Barabbas. So when the crowd had gathered, Pilate asked them, “Which one do you want me to release to you: Barabbas, or Jesus who is called the Messiah?” For he knew it was out of self-interest that they had handed Jesus over to him.
While Pilate was sitting on the judge’s seat, his wife sent him this message: “Don’t have anything to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him.”
But the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus executed.
“Which of the two do you want me to release to you?” asked the governor.
“Barabbas,” they answered.
“What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called the Messiah?” Pilate asked.
They all answered, “Crucify him!” “Why? What crime has he committed?” asked Pilate.
But they shouted all the louder, “Crucify him!”
When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he said. “It is your responsibility!”
All the people answered, “His blood is on us and on our children!”
Then he released Barabbas to them. But he had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified.
I think the key to this passage rests in this minor character Barabbas. Anyone with just a little knowledge of Hebrew and Aramaic knows that Barabbas is probably not a name but a title, a title for the "well known prisoner". Bar-Abba means simply Son of the Father. Barabbas was probably a Zealot, a killer of Romans, perhaps believed by certain Zealots to be the Messiah. They would have wanted him freed. Meanwhile the Sadducees would have Jesus dead. After all he had turned over their money changing tables, the same tables that supplied the Sadducees with the gold and silver to pay off the Romans. He had called himself "king", a title only bestowed upon Caesar himself, a very treasonous act. Jesus had no sympathizers in this crowd. Those who did want him freed were too scared for their lives to speak up.
Check out the churches, and especially the stone pavement inside the Church of the Condemnation. Check out the ruins along the way. There is a Roman game carved in a stone by the wall. Could this have been where Jesus was beaten by the Roman soldiers? Maybe.
Joe Yudin became a licensed tour guide in 1999. He completed his Master’s degree at the University of Haifa in the Land of Israel Studies and is currently studying toward a PhD.