Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Why Was Jesus Blindfolded?

This was a post I wanted to write during Holy Week but never got around to it.

It's often overlooked because there's so much else in the Passion narrative to think about, but there's a reference to the fact that Jesus was blindfolded by the guards. Here's what Luke says:
Luke 22:63-65: Now the men who were holding Jesus mocked him and beat him; 64 they also blindfolded him and asked him, “Prophesy! Who is it that struck you?” 65 And they spoke many other words against him, reviling him.
Why did they blindfold Jesus and mock him about prophesying?

I would like to suggest that it had to do with an ancient interpretation of Isaiah's description of the messiah.

In Isaiah 11 we read a description of a coming Davidic king whom ancient Jews understood as the Messiah, as, for example, the Dead Sea Scrolls attest (cf. e.g., 1Q28b 5).
Isa 11:1-4: There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. 2 And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. 3 And his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; 4 but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; and he shall smite the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked.
The prophecy is very clear that the Messiah will not judge by what he sees or by what he hears. It also describes the Messiah as having powerful breath--it slays the wicked.

That this passage played a key role in ancient Jewish expectations about the coming Messiah is clear from the accounts of Simon bar Kokhba, a Jewish revolutionary of the early second century. Simon convinced many that he was the Messiah and drew quite a following. The Temple had been destroyed, but Simon seems to have promised that he would liberate Jerusalem from the Romans and even get it rebuilt. In fact, the famous Rabbi Aqiba was even counted as one of his followers.

Why was he so popular?

Well, for one thing, according to rabbinic tradition, the famous Aqiba held Simon to be the messiah because he believed Bar Kohkba was able to perform miraculous signs (cf. y. Ta‘an. 68d; also cf. Mishneh Torah, Melakhim 11:3).

Like what?

Jerome would later testimony that Simon “fanned a lighted blade of straw in his mouth with puffs of breath so as to give the impression that he was spewing out flames” (Rufinus 3.31; PL 23.480). This certainly seems to tap into Isaiah's vision of a Messiah with powerful breath.
What happened to Bar Kohkba? Well, he was eventually revealed as a fraud. Here's the story:
“Bar [Kokhba] reigned two and a half years, and then said to the Rabbis, ‘I am the Messiah.’ They answered, ‘Of Messiah it is written that he smells and judges: let us see whether he [Bar Kokhba] can do so.’ When they saw that he was unable to judge by the scent, they slew him” (cf. also m. Ta‘an. 4:6; b. Git. 57a-b; Lam. Rab. 2:2 §4).
Where did the rabbis get the idea that the Messiah would judge by scent and not by seeing or hearing? The most likely answer is that this idea emerged out of Isaiah's prophecy: "he shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear… .”

So why was it that Jesus was blindfolded? I would suggest that the Jewish guards were likely mocking Jesus, who refused to give them a spectacle of his power for their amusement. Note by the way that the blindfolded beating of Jesus is closely associated with his standing before Caiaphas who asks him about his messianic identity, which follows next in Luke 22:66-71.

8 comments:

Brant Pitre said...

Awesome post, Michael!!
These Rabbinic parallels are mysterious and striking, and really provide the only good explanation for why Jesus is blindfolded and why it plays such a prominent role in the accounts of his Passion.

If you don't get this published as a short article, I'm going to steal it from you...!

Steven Carr said...

The author of Matthew forgot to mention that Jesus had been blindfolded resulting in a continuiy error in his story, when Jesus is asked who struck him.

Steven Carr said...

Why would Bar Kochbka die for a lie?

He must have known he wasn't the Messiah.

Richard Fellows said...

Fascinating, Michael. I am not a gospels specialist, and I hope you get feedback on this hypothesis from people with more expertise then me.

I have one thought though. If you are right, the men holding Jesus may have considered their action to be legitimate. They may have considered it to be a legitimate test of Jesus's claim to messiahship and therefore part of an initial judicial investigation. Those holding Jesus are not described as guards and they may have been the chief priests and elders of 22:52. If the beating was legitimate from the perspective of the beaters, this might help explain how Luke got to hear this story: the beaters would not have been ashamed to talk about the episode. The fact that the story has come down to us is evidence that it was not just a case of police brutality by two or three guards behind closed doors, for such cases are normally hushed up.

The chief priests and elders are more likely than guards to have been familiar with messianic texts in Isaiah.

Richard.

Michael Barber said...

Brant,

Thanks for the comment! Yes, eventually I will publish something on this.

Steven,

Thanks for dropping by, though it seems you had a number of other things on your mind!

Richard,

Thanks for your comments as well. I liked the line about "polic brutality".

Jeremy Priest said...

Michael,
It seems like you've got good wood on this one.

I'm wondering, why does Luke use the word, "prophesy," instead of "judge"? In the Bar Kokhba story the word "judge" is used and it clearly bespeaks the Isaiah reference. Obviously the allusion still draws us toward the Isaiah reference, especially when we see that in Matthew they use the term, "Christ" when they command him to prophesy.

When John references this in 7:24 and 8:15-16 he uses the word, "judge." Obviously John usually makes explicit what the Synoptics only hint at or assume. Yet, I'm curious if there's another purpose to the use of the word, "prophesy," in the Synoptics.

Thoughts?



Richard,

It seems like the command for Jesus to tell them who it is that struck him might still work if by 'who' we conclude that they are asking for Jesus to give them a name.

Celucien L. Joseph said...

This post fascinates me Michael. Good parallel.

kentuckyliz said...

I always assumed that he was blindfolded so he could not assume any defensive posture or steeling his nerve, staying soft and vulnerable to the blows, increasing the cruelty.

Why do executioners put hoods on the heads of those about to be hung, or blindfold those in the firing line? The cruelty of anticipation?

It also makes me think of Jesus Christ Superstar...Pilate says, You Jews produce Messiahs by the sackful. Yes, a time of high Messianic expectation; the guards are scoffing the whole Messiah concept and the concept of prophesying. Assuming they're Roman guards.

Your points are interesting!