And I expect they thought they were terribly clever. And terribly funny. And, better than that, terribly justified. This man who had gone round saying he was going to destroy the temple had ended up being destroyed himself. How ironic, the Jerusalem wits must have thought to themselves as they pointed this out to him.
The mockers are there in all the gospels. All the accounts include a group walking past the scene of the Crucifixion, coming up with one-liners about the plight of the man being executed. Two thousand years ago someone thought this was rather good: 'He saved others. But he cannot save himself.'
Whenever I read the story of the Passion I pause at the mockers and wonder whether I would have been one of them. I don't know. I have been accused of blasphemy in this life a few times but I remain uneasy about it. Not about the criticism of the organised Church or the follies of vicars or the absurdities of doctrine. Not about using the imagery or the language of the religion in order to comment on it. But uneasy about the mockery of the person of Christ. On a television panel game recently in which I took part one of the pictures to be identified was a famous mosaic of Christ Pantocrator. Someone said that he looked as if he was sucking on a lemon. And he did and it was quite funny and quite innocuous. But I still winced. The mockers in the story still worry me.
So does Peter denying Christ in the courtyard. One of the first times I ever appeared on radio I got into a discussion about whether being rude to people was a very Christian activity. 'But you're not a Christian,' said the presenter. 'No,' I laughed. The cocks did not crow and even the pips did not go for a time check but I felt curiously disappointed by myself. At the time I was not sure whether I could be classified as a Christian or not. I did not really believe but I did not really not believe. I suppose I believed in belief. I feel much the same now. Robert Browning put the dilemma perfectly in his poem 'Bishop Blougram's Apology':
All we have gained then by our unbelief
Is a life of doubt diversified by faith
For one of faith diversified by doubt
We call the chessboard white - we call it black
A life of doubt diversified by faith is roughly as far as I have got now that I have reached the age that Christ died. I don't know which colour the chessboard is. When I was younger I went through periods of strong belief. At school we had a charismatic revival, which was quite something for a traditional public school. And it was on a massive scale. Out of a school of 300 boys the membership of the Christian Union reached 150. That is half the school singing choruses and attending Bible meetings and saying 'praise the Lord' to each other in the dining room.
What started as a fairly routine mission by two old boys to try and liven up the chapel services for a week ended in a full-scale evangelical renewal.
It meant 15-year-olds during morning service giving personal witness instead of reading the lesson as scheduled. Boys telling the school they had renounced their former life and had accepted Jesus as their personal saviour. It meant lessons in every subject turning into a verbal battle between the evangelists and the heathen. An extraordinary fervour swept through an enclosed adolescent community. People spoke in tongues or said they did. And the staff were petrified because they did not know whether what was happening was the real thing. It was a Christian school, many of them were devout Christians and this was exactly the sort of thing that they were meant to believe in. And yet it was exactly the sort of thing that they suspected was wrong and dangerous. I still think of them when I read about the religious authorities in the Passion narratives. They were meant to believe in the Messiah, meant to believe in God's mission to them, meant to believe in the coming of a new Kingdom. But what if the Messiah looked as unlikely and as threatening as Christ did to the Jews of the time? How were they, how is anyone to tell if the religious article is genuine?
The staff at my school acted in the end not with Pharisaical rigour but with fine Church of England delaying tactics. They waited for the whole thing to subside. And it did. A few terms after the Mission the school had returned to a more normal level of Anglican devotion, that is, not very much. My 30- year-old self approves. The self who now believes in the prayerbook as much as in prayer. Who prefers Handel to hand-clapping. And who is more worried about the King James Version than in the Kingdom arriving at any minute feels more comfortable. My 14- year-old self, however, was terribly disappointed.
The fire just died down. What we had imagined were pentecostal tongues of flame were quenched by things as mundane as exams that needed to be passed and girls that needed to be approached clumsily at school dances. Seeking first the Kingdom of God got relegated to second place. And then lower. And yet . . . and yet . . . Amidst all the hysteria and the released repression and the indulgent theatricality of it all there had been a glimpse of something. A sort of anarchic clarity of vision. Most of me cringes at the thought of these priggish schoolboys imagining that they were recreating the early church in their earnest cell-groups. But a bit of me remembers. Remembers what seemed like a whiff of divine subversion.
And that is what strikes me about reading the Passion narratives again. The genuinely subversive nature of the central figure. Over 30, unmarried and unemployed. Roaming around with a band of followers preaching against the Pharisees and the other religious authorities. All the adjectives that get applied to 30-year-old men too often really did apply to him. Anti-establishment. Radical. Alternative.
And that is why he died. It is all there in the picture of Christ, seemingly at his weakest, before his enemies at their strongest. Yet they were afraid of him and his higher claim: 'My Kingdom is not of this world.' The phrase turned all their structures and their beliefs on their heads. So they killed him. At the age I am now Jesus's life was finished. He had either completed an extraordinary mission or had been pointlessly and tragically executed.
The end is either Christ's last cry of desolation in Luke: 'My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?' Or it is the certainty of the words in Luke: 'Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.'
I don't know. I've sat in churches thinking this is all rubbish. I've thought the mocker's thoughts. And at other times I have felt that this is all there is. I don't know. I don't know.
This is an edited version of Ian Hislop's contribution to Radio 4's 'Lent Talks: Contemporaries of Christ'.
Neal Ascherson is on holiday.Reuse content