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Life Arts    H4'ed 11/3/15

A Psychologist Replays the Trials of Jesus and Paul, and Uncovers Surprising Revelations

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Jesus and Paul to Sanhedrin: "If I'm not a Jew you can stew but not pursue or sue."

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 offer 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."

Hallucination aside, many believe that Jesus rejected Judaism (his criticisms of the Sanhedrin) and launched a new religion. This is a popular belief throughout history and even today; listen to Bill O'Reilly's attack on my assertion that Jesus didn't start a new religion.

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Bernard Starr, PhD, is the author of The Crucifixion of Truth, a drama about historical antisemitism set in 16th-century Italy and Spain. Starr is a psychologist, journalist, and professor emeritus at CUNY, Brooklyn College. At Brooklyn College (more...)

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