The Passover Plot - Hugh J. Schonfield
Hugh J. Schonfield.
Hugh J. Schonfield

Forty years ago, while living in the city of Linköping, I came across an unusual book. It was written by the distinguished biblical scholar Hugh Schonfield but it read like a thriller. The central premise of "The Passover Plot" was that Jesus had meticulously planned and engineered his own death and resurrection. The author, himself a Jewish theologian, pointed out that Jesus was thoroughly familiar with the Hebrew Bible. Schonfield believed that his ambition was to strengthen faith and observance of religious teachings by offering himself as the Messiah.

I have not re-read the book since my first reading in the 1960s, so I have some difficulty recalling the details of Schonfield's scenario, but I think that he agreed with the traditional view that Jesus did not seek secular power, nor was he out to overthrow the Romans: "My kingdom is not of this world." On the other hand, Schonfield did not think that Jesus saw himself as the founder of a new religion; all Jesus wanted to do was to bring the Jewish people back to a more faithful observance of their traditional religion. In his opinion, a lot of what we associate with the Christian faith was actually developed by Paul and the other early church fathers.

However, the discussion of Jesus' faith and objectives was not what made the book controversial. The part that created an uproar was Schonfield's claim that Jesus painstakingly built his own legend without actually performing any miracles. In particular, the greatest miracle of all: resurrection after death, had been carefully staged.

Jesus had examined all those prophecies of the Bible that seemed pertinent to his vision of the Messiah, and decided to make them come true. Schonfield goes on to examine them one by one. I remember one example: When Jesus entered Jerusalem riding on a donkey (Matthew 21:7), this was a deliberate act designed to fulfill a prophecy (Zechariah 9:9), as evidenced by the preparations he seemed to have made beforehand (Matthew 21:2) without informing his disciples. In this and other instances it was probable that he had assistants. I think that Schonfield hypothesized that John, the disciple "whom he loved" (John 13:23), might have been such an assistant.

According to Schonfield, the central mystery of Jesus' death and resurrection was carefully planned to fulfill biblical prophecies. His crucifixion was targeted for the day before the Jewish Passover in the knowledge that the bodies would be taken down before the sabbath. A drug administered to Jesus, perhaps in the sponge mentioned in John 19:29, slowed his heartbeat and put him in a state of suspended animation. Friends and disciples had arranged to recover his body and start reanimation efforts as soon as possible. - The plan failed when a Roman soldier ran a spear into his side (John 19:34). The aftermath had to be improvised.

Of course, much of this requires some mental gymnastics, but just as in reading science fiction, it sometimes pays to "suspend disbelief".

What I find particularly interesting is the discussion that has ensued about whether Jesus was just an impostor and a cheat (assuming that Schonfield's scenario has some validity). To me, this does not follow at all. It seems perfectly plausible, that someone who has genuinely come to believe that he is "The Chosen One", would also feel a duty to make any divine prophecies with regard to his mission come true. - This brings to mind a parallel in Isaac Asimov's novel "The End of Eternity", where time travel has been invented. But someone has to go back from the future to teach the Inventor the basic principles of time travel - otherwise time travel will not be invented! This task is assigned to a young scientist, who is carefully briefed about exactly what needs to be taught to enable the Inventor to make the first crucial experiments. The scientist is catapulted back in time and makes contact, but fails to educate the Inventor despite his best efforts. Then the Inventor falls off a cliff and dies! In desperation, the scientist assumes the identity of the Inventor and carries on the experiments on his own. Then it hits him: He is not just a substitute - he is the Inventor! - In a similar way, there is not necessarily a contradiction between "I am the Messiah!" and "I will do whatever it takes to make the prophecies about the Messiah come true!"

There is a further twist to the plot. Just recently a "gospel according to Judas Iscariot", the man who is said to have betrayed Jesus, has been published and attracted a lot of attention both among scholars and the general public. It seems that the manuscript may well be authentic. It claims that Judas acted in accordance with specific instructions from Jesus when he "betrayed" him. - This obviously adds credibility to Schonfield's thesis, something that has not been lost upon his readers (as a quick web search will show).

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    Last edited or checked June 20, 2006.  

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