Book Review

The Passover Plot by Hugh J. Schonfield

Photo on 05-11-2013 at 14.16 #2

I had intended to spend the day writing the “dopest”* literary rap of all time, but I have instead been stricken by the vomiting bug that had previously circled around my girlfriend’s entire family. I managed to stave off the constant retching by stuffing an inch long Italian suppository up my anus**, but the nausea remained, leaving me trapped in bed and unwilling to listen to any kind of repetitive beats and unable to make up words that half-rhyme. Or occasionally rhyme. So I’ve been reading. Several books in circulation, hopefully at least a second of which I will finish before the day is out.

The first book I have finished today is the 1965 Hugh Schonfield non-fiction piece, The Passover Plot. It is a heavily researched exploration of the life of Jesus and the spread of early Christianity, offering a few interesting “conspiracy-type theories” as well as  some interesting academic essays about the politico-cultural-literary origins of the Gospels.

Schonfield’s central idea is that Jesus was a mortal man of intense faith who, reading the many signs and prophecies in existence in old Jewish scripture, decided that he was the Messiah. He then went out of his way to confirm this through enacting the other prophecies that had been made about the Anointed One, the King of the Jews, the Son of David, and the Son of Man, as his many names alternately translate as. Schonfield even posits a theory about Jesus faking his death – timing his crucifixion so that it would last only a short time due to the Sabbath, being administered a narcotic through a sponge dipped in vinegar wine – only for it to be ruined by the famous stab in the side he received from a Roman soldier. Now, all of this is fun, but what is interesting about the book is the heavy historical detail it gives about the eastern edges of the Roman Empire in the first century.

Schonfield works heavily from reputable sources, there is a lot from (for example) Josephus, a Jewish historian who wrote of the Jewish-Roman wars, albeit benefitting from patronage from the victors. (The Romans.) Schonfield writes about the spread of Christianity, why certain themes rise in certain Gospels based on when and where they were written, who plagiarised who, who had probably read what, who was trying to impress which potential converts… When Schonfield writes about history, about the war games John the Baptist (my big interest) and Jesus became involved in, about the loss of favour of Herod Antipas and Pontius Pilate, about political posturing, about literary creation, reputation, the affixing of the supernatural to the real, the book is great.

So though I enjoyed, as a cynic and as an appreciator of a well-written and well-put argument, the first part of the book, narrating Jesus’ life as Schonfield sees it, what I LOVED LOVED LOVED about this was the final hundred pages, the academic texts about a portion of history I had until recently little to no working knowledge of. The more I read about this period, and this part of the world, the more interest I have in it. This may only be my first non-fiction I’ve read as I pursue John the Baptist, but it certainly won’t be the last…

NB: I find Christianity, particularly Catholicism, very interesting. From the outside, very much not from within.


* = “best”

** Took more than one attempt, I’ll tell you for free. Kept thinking it had gone it, made it past the outer layer, whatever, but I’d remove my hand and the little moistened stick would slowly push itself back out and into my hand. To finally get it to stay I had to get the non-tapered end a good three/four centimetres into my hole. And that’s not “too much information” by the way, that’s the correct level of information when discussing the application of a suppository. Prude.

2 comments on “The Passover Plot by Hugh J. Schonfield

  1. Sabine Lechtenfeld

    Your review has been written a while ago – but thanks for the insights into this very controversial book. I picked up a used copy some time ago, and put reading off again and again. But I will take it on with renewed interest now because of your eloquent review. The most important point for me is that Hugh Schonfield is a knowledgeable scholar who can set up a valid argument for his claims.
    The historical Jesus has been lost beneath a mountain of mythmaking, and it’s a good exercise to remove as many layers as possible and see what’s left in the end. Since it’s only very little, we still won’t arrive at any definite answers, but we will be more aware of the historical context.
    I am agnostic myself, and therefore I strongly reject the idea of a resurrection of the body or other divinely aided miracle working. Several scholars have made convincing arguments that Jesus was a mainly a magician in the contemporary interpretation of this word. This doesn’t necessarily conflict with Schonfield’s point of view since working miracles decidedly helps to get noticed and get loyal followers. But surprisingly those who argue that Jesus was a magician, shy away from the hard question how exactly these miracles have been accomplished by Jesus and other contemporary magicians for that matter. Since I reject the idea that this was done by supernatural means or with direct divine help, the miracles must’ve been accomplished in the good old fashioned way of every magician worth his or her salt: with smoke and mirrors and with a good dose of psychology, which means using the contemporary belief systems. Especially the faith healings depended strongly on the belief of those who were cured. This doesn’t necessarily mean that Jesus and all other magicians were incincere frauds. He may well have believed in his divine mission and that he was the messiah who was under the special protection of his god, and he might have considered the miracles as a means for achieving his lofty and idealistic goals. In the end all religions have been based on a certain amount of smoke and mirrors. And many devout Christians close their eyes when they accuse someone like Joseph Smith of being nothing but a fraud when he claimed that he received the Book of Mormon on golden plates from an angel, but they continue to assert that everything written in the bible must be literally true.
    Hugh Schonfield doesn’t shy away from looking squarely at the greatest miracle of all, when he tackles Jesus’ physical resurrection and tries to find a natural explanation within the framework of Jesus’ goals and belief system. I don’t know yet if Schonfield will convince me. But atm I think that he went too far with this specific argument. The idea that Jesus and his followers planned the crucifixion deliberately in order to fake the subsequent resurrection, sounds unlikely and contrived. This would’ve been a high-risk endeavor where too much could go wrong or was not under the complete control of the alleged co-conspirators – although it’s possible of course that Jesus and his helpers firmly believed that their god would help them to reach their goals. IMO Schonfield’s arguments also relie too heavily on a specific time table. But we cannot even be sure of the exact historically correct schedule of the trial and the subsequent crucifixion. While Schonfield’s explanation of the alleged resurrection is certainly possible, I think that there must be other more likely explanations for the empty grave. And a critical reading of all written accounts suggests strongly that this part of the resurrection story is probably true: the grave was indeed empty, since this could’ve been easily fact checked as soon the first resurrection rumors cropped up. But there are other possible rational explanations which are not based on the assumption that the crucifixion was a deliberate goal in order to stage a subsequent resurrection.
    But enough for now – on to actually reading the book☺!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. George Howard

    Yes, but being an “agnostic” means you would likely be neutral in the case. But here you seem to have strong feelings that the miracles of Christ were all trickery. Yet, one also wonders, how a person can come to such conclusions, given that there is zero evidence that this was the case (though there is fairly strong evidence on the other side, particularly witness testimony of those at the time and down through the ages). This is the main problem with Schonefield’s book, which is better placed in the realm of fiction (in the spirit of, for example, The Davinci Code’) than non-fiction.

    Liked by 1 person

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