On Religion: “On the night he was betrayed”: Why Antisemitism Characterizes Many of the Most Destructive Contemporary Conspiracy Theories

Roy Herndon Smith

In this piece, I trace the antisemitism that characterizes many of the most virulent contemporary Western conspiracy theories to its origin in the gospel Passion narrative, the founding story of Christianity, which blames the Jews for the crucifixion of Jesus. 

The Conspiracy Chart, by the student of climate science, Abbie Richards (https://www.instagram.com/p/CF5Kh57Aw5L/?hl=en), ranks conspiracy theories on a scale between those that are “grounded in reality” and those that are “detached from reality.” A line Richards names, “the antisemitic point of no return,” divides, from all the theories below it on the chart, the most plentiful number of conspiracy theories that are most detached from reality and most destructive. Richards observes that these radically counterfactual conspiracy theories posit that the “world is ruled by shadow [and most often Jewish] elites” (https://twitter.com/abbieasr/status/132300305464868046). The chart raises the question of why antisemitism tends to characterize these dangerous conspiracy theories.

The answer begins with the origins of Christianity. According to the biblical scholar, Burton Mack (A Myth of Innocence: Mark and Christian Origins, Fortress Press, 1988), a few years after Romans destroyed the Second Temple in 70 ACE and expelled from Jerusalem the Jews they did not massacre, Mark, a scribe in a community of followers of Jesus, wrote his gospel, which, for the first time, imagined the communities of Jesus people as having their own religious identity, separate from and, more importantly for this discussion, over against the dominant strands of Judaism at the time. Up until this time, most of the groups of followers of Jesus, although they had different beliefs about who Jesus was, identified themselves and were identified either as members of larger Jewish communities or, in the case of the Pauline communities that formed the Christ cult, Jewish mission communities that included gentiles. 

Mack describes how, after Rome’s genocidal attacks on Jews, the traumatized surviving Jews, including the followers of Jesus and Jewish members of the Christ cult, struggled to understand why God had allowed these events to happen. The leaders of a number of Jewish synagogues, including Mark’s, claimed that God was punishing the Jews because the Jews associated with Jesus were openly disobeying many of the Jewish purity laws; these synagogues expelled the Jesus people from the synagogues. The members of Mark’s community and other groups associated with Jesus thus suffered three traumas. First, as Jews or associates of Jews, they suffered the Roman attack on them. Second, they suffered being cast out of their religious communities, stripped of their religious identity, and blamed for the evil that Rome had inflicted on the Jews, including them. The third trauma arises from the fact that, even after the destruction of the Second Temple, the Roman authorities still allowed Jews to worship in their own way. When the synagogues cast out the groups associated with Jesus, these groups lost the sanction to worship as they willed and became vulnerable to Roman persecution for their now unlawful religious practices. 

Mack observes that these traumatized groups, especially those made up primarily of Jews, desperately needed a new understanding of themselves that would give them the strength to survive. A scribe, named Mark, in one of these groups that had been associated, before being cast out, with a synagogue, probably in what is now southern Syria, created what many gospel scholars have concluded, based on the historical and textual evidence, was the first unified, seemingly historical, written narrative that explained who Jesus was and who his true followers were to be. 

According to Mack (pp. 288-312), Mark gathered a number of oral and written collections of stories about and sayings of Jesus that presented different images of him. Most of these images focused on what he was purported to have said and done during his life, as, for instance, a teacher of wisdom, the last of the prophets, or a miracle worker. Paul’s groups, which, together, constituted the Christ cult, likely begun about twenty years after Jesus’ death, organized around a myth of Jesus’s death and resurrection as the cosmic Christ, who descends from heaven to save his followers, gives his life for his cause, and ascends back into heaven. Paul’s account was “mythical”, in that it was about a spiritual event that, repeated in the communal ritual of the supper, provided the way for the members of the Christ cult to become spiritually one with Christ. Paul included few purported historical details in his account: the Romans executed Jesus; the Jews were involved in some way, as they had been in the deaths of prophets who preceded Jesus; and the suggestion that Jesus’s spiritual resurrection occurred three days after his death. Paul did not consider himself and the other members of the Christ cult to be categorically different from or over against the Jews who rejected Jesus; to the contrary, Paul identified himself as a Jew who had, before his sudden conversion to being a follower of Christ, persecuted followers of Jesus. All, according to Paul, Jews and gentiles alike, are sinners who are guilty of Christ’s death; and all, again Jews and gentiles alike, who partake of His spiritual body, die to this and all sin and are spiritually resurrected with Christ by His grace into eternal life. 

The culmination of Mark’s gospel is the Passion narrative, which, according to Mack (pp. 288-312), transforms the Christ myth into a seemingly historical, but actually fictional (in that none of the key elements of the story exist in earlier collections of stories about Jesus and of his purported sayings, but appear to be Mark’s creations), account of the events of the last days of Jesus’ life, his crucifixion, and his bodily resurrection. 

According to Mack (pp. 288-312), Mark constructed and added to the Pauline Christ myth five key elements that were not in any of the earlier sources of stories about and sayings of Jesus. The first is the “anti-Temple theme,” in which Mark constructs Jesus as a wholly innocent messiah who opposes a corrupt Jewish hierarchy; Jesus drives moneylenders and merchants out of the Temple and calls the Temple, which should be “a house of prayer,” “a den of robbers”; the Temple hierarchy responds by plotting, in secret, to destroy him, has him arrested, tries and condemns him, and sends him to the Roman governor, who has the power to carry out his execution. The second, related, element not present in the earlier materials about Jesus is the betrayal motif, in which Jesus predicts his betrayal, Judas betrays Jesus to the Temple authorities, and Jesus’s friends, associates, and family members abandon him. The third element is the recounting of the seemingly historical details (again, few of these details appear in any pre-Markan sources) of the crucifixion of Jesus. The fourth element is a sequence that includes Jesus’s prophesy of the destruction of the Second Temple, as a sign of the imminent apocalyptic end of this world, and a description of a portent of this end, the rending of the Temple curtain at the time of Jesus’s death. The fifth element is the description of the women visiting the tomb of Jesus on the third day after his death and finding it empty. “A young man” tells them Jesus has been resurrected and has gone “ahead of them into Galilee.” 

Mack (pp. 315-331 353-376) observes that Mark’s addition of these elements turned the Christ myth into a myth about the historical origin of Mark’s and the other communities associated with Jesus. This myth provided these traumatized communities with: 

  1. A God-given identity, as the followers of an apocalyptic Jesus, the divine judge and savior, who brings to an end the world opposed to God and establishes the new world ruled by God. As the followers of Jesus, they, not those who had cast them out of the synagogues, were the true Jews, the true children of God.
  2. An explanation for the traumas they suffered: as followers of Jesus, they, like Jesus, suffered betrayal by those closest to them and abuse, judgement, and rejection by the corrupt and greedy Jewish authorities, who claimed to be faithful to God, but who, in fact, opposed His rule. These corrupt officials handed them, as they did Jesus, over to the Romans for punishment and execution. The affliction of Mark’s and other Jesus communities was like that of Jesus, not punishment for sinning against God; rather, it was the proof of their innocence, of their willingness to suffer unto death for their loyalty to God.
  3. And the promise that these traumas were the birth pangs of God’s coming kingdom, over which the risen Jesus would rule. The destruction of the Second Temple, which Jesus predicted, was the sign of His omnipotence; He used the supreme power of that time, the Roman Empire, to punish the corrupt Jews who had rejected Him. As His true and loyal followers, the members of the Jesus communities would participate in His Divine Rule. 

This myth implicitly purifies absolute power. As Mack (pp. 353-376) points out, Mark’s myth of historical origins is also a “myth of innocence.” Mark’s Jesus is the model for a new, purified, community that is set over against the old sinful humanity, epitomized by the synagogue Jews who cast out the Jesus people. In Paul’s Christ cult, redemption and rebirth are ritually repeated acts of spiritual death to the life of sin and spiritual rebirth into eternal life; in contrast, in Mark’s myth, Jesus’s and the Jesus communities’ deaths and rebirths are singular and historical; just as, in three days in history, the wholly innocent Jesus dies out of the sinful world and is resurrected into the Kingdom of God, so Mark’s innocent community’s expulsion from The Temple is its historical death, as part of the larger Jewish synagogue, and the beginning of the death of the sinful world, and Mark’s community’s historical rebirth as a rejected and independent community that remained true to Jesus and God, is, like Jesus’s resurrection, the leading edge of the divine rebirth of reality, now purified of sin. Like the wholly innocent Jesus, who is one with God, and therefore one with His absolute goodness and power, Mark’s and the other communities of Jesus people, whose suffering has proved their innocence and, thus, goodness, participate in the exercise of God’s absolute power to purify the world of sin and bring about the wholly peaceable Kingdom. 

It took almost two and a half centuries after Mark wrote his gospel before the Roman emperor Constantine consciously or unconsciously recognized just how useful to the empire this myth of innocence and justification of absolute power could be. An expansion of Mark’s innocent community, a Christian empire, could present itself as the wholly innocent and, thus, purely good communal agent of God’s absolute power to establish the universal peaceable Kingdom. Those who resisted or rebelled against the empire’s absolute rule condemned themselves, as did the Jews who rejected Jesus, as the enemies of the Source of all Goodness and thus deserved the annihilation the empire visited on them. 

Mark’s myth of innocence also provided other, related, means such a Christian empire could use to splinter and defeat rebellious movements of suffering and oppressed people. Spread conspiracy theories that split these resistant communities into factions that blamed each other, rather than the empire, for their affliction and believed that the empire’s atrocities against them were divine punishment meant to purify them of the evil faction’s sin. Even better, convince one faction that the other faction secretly ruled the forces of evil that afflicted the world and that the good faction was, in fact, one with the omnipotent God Who used the empire to rid the world of suffering by annihilating the evil faction. 

Constantine convened the Council of Nicaea in 325 ACE; it established a Christian orthodoxy backed by the Roman Empire. The Council produced the Nicene Creed, a statement of the beliefs people must publicly hold in order to be considered Christians. While Paul’s understanding of the cosmic, spiritual Christ clearly influenced much of this creed, it also includes, in three lines, Mark’s vision of the apocalyptic, bodily-resurrected Jesus who intervenes in history in order to end it and begins the new eternal kingdom by separating the sheep, those faithful believers, who may enter His kingdom, from the goats, those corrupt and evil unbelievers who may not enter the kingdom: “He will come again in glory/ to judge the living and the dead / and his kingdom will have no end” (the Nicene Creed).

In 380 ACE, the emperor Theodosius named Christianity, as defined by the Council of Nicaea, the official religion of the Roman Empire. From 380 ACE to the present, the Nicene Creed and variations of or derivatives from it have defined, for the vast majority of Christian churches, what a person must believe in order to be considered Christian. 

Like Paul’s letters, the Nicene Creed does not explicitly refer to the betrayal of Jesus, although Christ’s negative judgment is implicitly of the Jews who reject Jesus and His positive judgment is of the Christians who accept Jesus as the apocalyptic savior. Two other pieces of historical evidence indicate that, by the early fourth century ACE, most Christians, even though, prior to the Council of Nicaea, they had different beliefs about Jesus, Christ, God, and the relationship between the faithful communities and others in the world, shared an assumption that Mark’s story of Jesus, including his betrayal, was true. The first piece of evidence is that, by the time of the Council of Nicaea, most Christians accepted what became the New Testament as the exclusive source of the truth about who Jesus was and what he said and did. This canon opened with the authorized gospels, all four of which culminated in variations of Mark’s version of the Passion, including the betrayal of Jesus. Ever since the fourth century, this canon, and especially the four gospels, and, in these gospels, especially the Passion narrative, including the betrayal motif, have functioned as the divinely authorized constitution of almost all Christian churches. 

This widespread acceptance of Mark’s Passion narrative as the founding story of Christianity likely shaped a change in the understanding, by many of these groups, of the first of the words of institution that many Christian communities likely repeated at the beginning of the ritual meal around which they organized. According to Mack (pp. 298-300), the earliest written version of the words of institution is in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 10:16, 11:23-26), which opens with, “On the night he was handed over” (emphasis mine). The Greek work for “handed over” does not, in and of itself, connote betrayal; the word simply refers, according to Mack (p. 299), to “the martyr’s fate. Nowhere in Paul is a third party involved in the ‘handing over,’ the subjects being either Jesus himself (cf. Gal 1:4; 2:20), or God (explicitly in Rom 8:32; understood as subject of the passive in Rom 4:25).” Mark replaces these opening words with Jesus’s prediction that one of the disciples will betray him (Mark 14: 17-21). Sometime, perhaps around the beginning of the fourth century ACE, most Christians began to follow Mark; they interpreted “handed over” to mean betrayed. This understanding persists to the present, when, for instance, in the vast majority of English speaking churches that continue to organize around the ritual meal (or “Eucharist” or “communion”), the translation of Paul’s words of institution begins with, “On the night he was betrayed.” 

By 380 ACE, the Roman Empire, the dominant and, for most people in Europe, North Africa, and the Middle-East, sole military, political, and economic power for four centuries, had officially adopted Christianity, and, with it, Mark’s myth of innocence, as the imperial religion. By this time, the Empire was already in decline and beyond the power of a new justifying myth to save it. The Eastern Roman Empire fell in 453 ACE, the Western Roman Empire fell in 476 ACE. 

However, the fusion of Mark’s apocalyptic myth, what Mack calls “the Christian gospel,” with imperial ideology continued to dominate the social, cultural, intellectual, and political worlds of not only explicitly Christian societies and nations, but also, implicitly, the secular descendants of these Christian societies and nations. Mack observes, “The Christian Gospel is the lens through which Western culture has viewed the world” (p. 368). It establishes the “self-evident” sense of reality underlying Western assumptions about nature, society, self, history, time, and space (p. 368). 

In this explicitly or implicitly Christian sense, reality originates in a “momentous” and “transformative event” (Mack, p. 369). Before this event, depending who is telling the story to what audience in what context, there is unformed being, the primitive, chaos, evil, suffering, or ignorance. Something other and new—formed being, the developed, order, goodness, freedom, or knowledge—is born into this primal matter. True history begins as this new reality struggles to encompass in its being, to develop, to order, to save, to heal, or to enlighten reality. Because the new being, developed wisdom, order, goodness, freedom, or knowledge is actually a manifestation of the omnipotent Creator (named God, Father, Law, Love, Liberator, or Reason), it will, in time, inevitably triumph over the old; and, in the end, all will be eternally well. 

In this sense of reality, all presently exists between the beginning and end, in the apocalyptic struggle between the innocent and omnipotent, but not yet triumphant, new and the currently ruling primitive or evil old. As Mack observes (pp. 368-376), this sense underlies much of what we in the West tend to take for granted, at least in the stories we tell ourselves and our ideologies (although we also contradict these messages). We often tend, even in our scientific speculations, to assume that a dramatic, originating, singular event, the bigger the better—for instance, the Big Bang, the origins of life, the birth of humanity, the birth of culture, the birth of Christ, the discovery of the new world, the American revolution, the Enlightenment, or the Industrial Revolution—makes a new reality with a new and unique essence that, unless another big event—a rebirth, conversion, or revolution—occurs, determines the course of the development of the new creation. As a corollary, we often tend to think that big and singular turning points—births, rebirths, conversions, and enlightenments–rather than continual, small, everyday interactions, and events, define the meaning and purpose of our lives. 

The resulting (1) rejection of the ambiguous mixes of suffering and joy, cruelty and love, and order and disorder and the messy compromises that characterize our daily lives, (2) construal of suffering as either afflicted on us by primitive or evil ruling powers or as a sign of our being weapons the innocent power for good uses in the war against the evil or indifferent powers of this world, (3) and belief that this omnipotent power will, in the end, free us from suffering leave us longing for and ready to imagine and believe dramatic conspiracy theories that follow the model of Mark’s myth of innocence and confirm this sense of reality.

Mack (p. 373) observes that, in this sense of reality, any other person or group with a different sense of reality is either an ignorant or misguided primitive we should, in our benevolence as agents of the pure and innocent good, educate and convert, so that they can join the company of the saved, or a willing and lying agent of the evil powers that currently rule the world. This sense allows for no respect for different others with plural senses of reality, with whom we continually work out ways of living well. 

Mack (p. 375) also observes that, in the West, this sense of reality produces new conspiracy theories that continually reenact implicit versions of Mark’s myth of innocence by designating or alluding to the Jews as the archetypal evil powers who afflict us and from whom the innocent omnipotent Messiah will save us. For instance, the newest of these conspiracy theories, QAnon, is a deliberately composed fiction, presented to and accepted by followers as historically true, about a hidden cabal of obscenely wealthy, corrupt, explicit and implicit Jews, who form a deep state that secretly runs the American and other governments, and who are pedophiles who seek to lengthen their lives by extracting a chemical from the blood of their child victims. According to QAnon, Donald Trump is the divinely appointed savior, who will use the power of the American government and military to save the world from this Jewish evil. 

In summary, many of the most destructive and counter-factual contemporary Western conspiracy theories are antisemitic because they are new versions of Mark’s apocalyptic myth of innocence, otherwise known as the Christian Gospel, that has, since the fourth century ACE, shaped Westerners’ assumptions about reality as a struggle between a wholly innocent, betrayed, and afflicted, but ultimately omnipotent and triumphant, power and the evil, but ultimately doomed, rulers of this world. In this reality, as a Catholic priest once said, “there has to be a betrayer.” And, throughout Western history, not only conspiracy theories, but dominant ideologies of both ruling institutions and revolutionary powers have followed Mark in naming the Jews as the guilty betrayers and cruel persecutors and murderers not only of saviors, but innocence itself.