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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. Ashcroft said:

“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.”

Ashcroft's Scholarship

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 and others.

“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's archives.]

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 question.”

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 States.

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 violence.

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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