Some forty years ago, a great sabot was thrown into the theological machinery of the day upon the publication of The Passover Plot, by Hugh J. Schonfield. Schonfield, a respected biblical scholar and translator of The Authentic New Testament, contended that Jesus truly believed that he was the foretold Messiah, and provoked his own crucifixion the day before Passover so that he would be taken down from the cross after only three hours -- before the onset of the Sabbath in accordance with Jewish law. Schonfield speculates that the sponge soaked in vinegar that was given Jesus just before he died actually contained a soporific that would make him appear dead. Brought off in this way, the Resurrection would have had an entirely earthly and humanist explanation: He woke up.
My thoughts turn to The Passover Plot not only because today is Good Friday and Judas is riding the zeitgeist. The incident last week when a friend sent me a link to the radio-scan of New York stations the night John Lennon was murdered sent me (after I recovered from the newly gashed-open wound, the grief, the nostalgia) to my collection of Beatle-books, where I pulled out The Lennon Companion, a compendium of primary-source articles, essays and critical reviews about Lennon and the Beatles.
This anthology contains the famous Evening Standard article by Maureen Cleave in which John, in a casual 1966 interview, lets slip his notorious comment:
Experience has sown few seeds of doubt in [Lennon]: not that his mind is closed, but it's closed round whatever he believes at the time. "Christanity will go," he said. It will vanish and shrink. I needn't argue about that and I will be proved right. We're more popular than Jesus now; I don't know which will go first -- rock 'n' roll or Christianity. Jesus was all right but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It's them twisting it that ruins it for me."The paragraph concludes, "He is reading extensively about religion."
A later biographer would reveal that the book he was reading that particular day -- a day on which he inadvertently managed to provoke a Golgotha of his very own -- was in fact The Passover Plot. It was in many ways the Da Vinci Code of its day -- although any comparison ends there, as it was a scrupulously sourced general-interest work of nonfiction by a revered biblical scholar and not a sniveling hack.
I've found a riveting essay by Matthew Schneider of the Department of English and Comparative Literature at Chapman University about the influence that The Passover Plot had on Lennon in the mid-Sixties. Schneider makes the point that "The uproar that erupted over John Lennon's statement that the Beatles were "more popular than Jesus" demonstrated for [Lennon] that outbursts of hysterical celebrity worship -- like the Beatlemania that greeted the group around the world from 1964-66 -- originated in the same psychic and cultural forces that in the past had produced periods of mass religious fervor."
About The Passover Plot's relevance to the Sixties, Schneider says this:
As Christianity spread after about 300 C.E. to an increasingly educated and intellectually sophisticated populace, the need for a stable originary narrative--capable of withstanding the skepticism of friend and foe alike--became more urgent. Schonfield argues that the early church stabilized the myth of Jesus' life and worked first by obliterating any lingering traces of the Passover Plot, and finally by mining the Old Testament for every possible prophetic detail until the two parts of the Bible, taken together, constituted a seamless cosmological narrative. To Schonfield, though, in the end this is just a story, carefully and tendentiously abstracted from a chaos of events related only by their having occurred in roughly the same region at about the same time. Those events are capable of being woven into a different narrative, and this is precisely what Schonfield did.Lennon rather famously came quite unhinged during the breakup of the Beatles -- we're informed by more than one biographer that he revealed to the other Beatles that he believed he in fact was Christ during one of their ugly breakup meetings in 1969. Yet given that he and his bandmates were the subject of the most tumultuous outpouring of adulation the newly established Global Village had ever seen, and given the myths and conspiracy theories that grew up around the band -- the "Paul Is Dead" legend being the most potently suggestive of religious overtones -- is this such a mad idea after all? When you see your own life "seized upon, scrutinized, and analyzed, to discover how and in what way it represented a Sign of the Times," what would you conclude?
This is what struck Lennon more than anything else in Schonfield's book. The insights John took from The Passover Plot were more cognitive and historiographic than theological: at no time did Lennon state that he believed Schonfield's hypothesis in all its particulars. Rather, as the Evening Standard interview suggests, reading the book seems to have impelled Lennon to consider his own fame and the phenomenon of Beatlemania in their broader cultural and historic contexts, and to conclude that the psychic, political, and cultural forces that went into the making of Christianity had been revived by Beatlemania. The world of Jesus' birth was characterized, in Schonfield's words, by "an extraordinary fervour and religiosity in which almost every event, political, social, and economic, was seized upon, scrutinized, and analyzed, to discover how and in what way it represented a Sign of the Times and threw light on the approach of the End of The Days. The whole condition of the Jewish people was psychologically abnormal. . . . People were on edge, neurotic. There were hot disputes, rivalries and recriminations".... George Harrison has said that in the 1960s, "the world used [the Beatles] as an excuse to go mad, and then blamed us for their madness."