Sent: Wednesday, January 24, 2001 8:52 PM
January 16, 2001
Ashcroft & Anti-Semitism
By Robert Parry
When John Ashcroft addressed an audience at Bob Jones University on May 8,
1999, the man who is now George W. Bush’s nominee to be attorney general
cited – and exaggerated – a passage from the Book of John that has
contributed to the persecution of Jews for the past two millennia.
Ashcroft, then a Republican senator from Missouri, ventured into this
controversial doctrinal terrain with an argument that "a slogan of the
American Revolution" was a declaration that the colonists recognized only
Jesus as their king.
To an appreciative audience at the conservative Christian school in
Greenville, S.C., Ashcroft asserted that angry American colonists frequently
rebuffed British authorities trying to enforce the laws of the British king
with the response, “We have no king but Jesus.”
But Ashcroft went further. He reached back to antiquity to what he saw as the
antithesis of this founding American belief. Ashcroft counterpoised the
phrase, “We have no king but Jesus,” against an alleged declaration by the
Jews of Jerusalem seeking the execution of Jesus for sedition.
According to a transcript of his speech released last week, Ashcroft offered
the following rendition of the Biblical passage:
“My mind thinking about that [phrase, “no king but Jesus”] once raced back a
couple of thousand years when [Roman governor Pontius] Pilate stepped before
the people of Jerusalem and said, ‘Whom would ye that I release unto you?
Barabbas? Or Jesus, which is called the Christ?’ And when they said,
‘Barabbas,’ he [Pilate] said, ‘But what about Jesus? King of the Jews?’ And
the outcry was, ‘We have no king but Caesar’.”
In the Bob Jones speech, Ashcroft then contrasted this supposed outcry of the
Jews of Jerusalem with the supposed principle behind the American Revolution.
“There’s a difference between a culture that has no king but Caesar, no
standard but the civil authority, and a culture that has no king but Jesus,
no standard but the eternal authority. When you have no king but Caesar, you
release Barabbas – criminality, destruction, thievery, the lowest and the
least. When you have no king but Jesus, you release the eternal, you release
the highest and the best.”
To suggest that America's Founding Fathers envisioned a society built on the
premise that “We have no king but Jesus” is challenged by many scholars.
According to historians of the revolutionary era, many of the Founding
Fathers staunchly opposed any sectarian creed as the basis for the new
country, as is reflected in the First Amendment and in the public statements
and writings of Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, Tom Paine
“Their prevailing faith was deism, a belief that God presided over the
universe and had a providential interest in mankind,” wrote historian Thomas
Fleming. “But He was not a personal God in the vivid way Jesus is presented
in the Gospels.” [See American Dispatches, Feb. 2000, or TomPaine.com's
The notion that the rebellious Jews of ancient Jerusalem eagerly announced
their submission to “no king but Caesar” also clashes with the historical
record and reflects some dubious scholarship on Ashcroft’s part.
The alleged quote is not mentioned in the three earliest Biblical accounts of
Jesus’s life and death, in Matthew, Mark and Luke. The quote only appears in
the version believed to be the most distant in time from the actual events,
the Book of John.
Some Biblical scholars believe that the Book of John – apparently written
near the end of the First Century – reflected a political need of the early
Christian church to shift the primary blame for Jesus’s death away from Rome
and on to the Jews. By then, Rome had crushed Jewish resistance in Israel,
destroyed Jerusalem (in 70 A.D.), and scattered many Jews to other parts of
the Roman Empire.
Over nearly the next 2,000 years, Jews faced systematic repression justified
in large part by their supposed collective “guilt” in the crucifixion of
Jesus. That repression included early pogroms during the first centuries
after Christianity merged with the power of Rome, into the Middle Ages, on
through the 20th Century and Adolf Hitler’s “final solution” to the “Jewish
Given that history, some Americans might find the use of these Biblical
claims about Jews condemning Jesus questionable from any government official
and especially someone responsible for enforcing the laws of the United
Also objectionable to many could be Ashcroft’s suggestion that Jews favored a
culture of “criminality, destruction, thievery, the lowest and the least, ”
while Christians chose a culture that released “the highest and the best.”
Blaming the Jews
But Ashcroft’s speech even broadened the supposed guilt of the Jews beyond
what appears in the Book of John.
In the Bible, the quote – “We have no king but Caesar” – is not attributed
to “the people of Jerusalem” as Ashcroft told the audience at Bob Jones
University. The Book of John attributes the quote to “the chief priests,” a
small group of rival religious leaders opposed to Jesus.
“Shall I crucify your King?” asks Pontius Pilate, according to John, 19:15.
“The chief priests answered, We have no king but Caesar.”
Indeed, the earlier gospel, the Book of Mark, states that the rival priests
had to convince the Jews to pick Barabbas over Jesus. “The chief priests and
elders persuaded the multitude that they should ask Barabbas, and destroy
Jesus,” according to Mark 27:20.
Much of the criticism of the Ashcroft nomination has focused on his professed
admiration for leaders of the Confederacy and his opposition to President
Clinton’s appointment of an African-American to the federal bench in
Missouri. There have been other questions about whether his extreme
anti-abortion views would stop him from protecting abortion clinics from
With the release of the Bob Jones text, another troubling facet of the
nomination could be Ashcroft’s apparent comfort with anti-Semitic canards
dating back nearly 2,000 years.
Robert Parry's latest book is Lost History, an account of how the Cold War
influenced American perceptions of recent history.
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