Refuting the Passover Plot

By Neil Earle
(Excerpt from unpublished manuscript)

In 1966 Herbert Armstrong learned just how widespread the influence of The Plain Truth was becoming in the popular religious culture of the 1960s. The 1960s, the radicalized, religion-challenging “God-is-dead” decade, saw the emergence of a trend that would continue into the new 21st century. The first blockbuster best-seller of the 21st century was Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. This explosive novel was a religious-type thriller built around the postulate of a love relationship between Mary Magdalene and Jesus Christ. Though most didn’t seem to notice in all the excitement, Brown was following trails blazed by the noted director Martin Scorsese’s 1988 movie The Last Temptation of Christ. Scorsese’s cinematic exploration of the man from Nazareth was based in turn on a serious novel by Nikos Kazantzakis. In this retelling, Jesus is tempted on the cross to escape the pervasive suffering and run off with Mary Magdalene. The movie version of The Last Temptation recalled for many Norman Jewison’s controversial 1974 movie, Jesus Christ Superstar, a remake of a 1971 Broadway rock opera by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber.14 Before all those pop culture excursions, however, came a controversial best selling 1965 book by British biblical scholar Hugh J. Schonfield titled The Passover Plot.

Coming just two years after Bishop John Robinson’s Honest to God, Schonfield’s Passover Plot upped the ante quite a bit. Schonfield, a serious scholar, asserted that Jesus became convinced of his role as the Jewish Messiah because of his descent from the royal bloodline of King David. Growing up, he noticed everyone was expecting a Messiah to appear. According to Schonfield, Jesus planned to fake his death on the cross and then reappear as the resurrected earthly Messiah – the King of the Jews. The story drew on some biblical details – the sponge offered for his thirst was a drug to render him unconscious (Matthew 27:48); Joseph of Arimethea was his well-connected insider with enough clout to get the severely beaten Jesus off the cross before rigor mortis set in (Matthew 27:57). According to Schonfield’s reconstruction, the plan backfired when a Roman soldier unexpectedly dispatched Jesus with a spear thrust (John 19:34). His supporters tried to rally him from this mortal thrust but to no avail. Thus, concludes The Passover Plot, the Gospel accounts of the post-resurrection appearances were made up later to keep the hopeful myth of the Messiah alive.15

Ideas similar to Schonfield’s had been extant for generations. Skepticism about the essential truths of the Gospel accounts traced back at least to the English deists of the 1600s.16 Coming in the feverish, newly-connected media culture of the 1960s, however, Schonfield’s book fell like sparks on dry tinder. Was Jesus divine or an imposter? The January, 1966 Plain Truth answered a letter from a reader in Gary, Indiana about the claims made by The Passover Plot. The “Short Questions” column took vigorous exception with Schonfield’s book without the PT staffer, it turned out, having read Schonfield’s book. The author took exception mostly to the retorts: “What kind of mind worked forty years to come to the conclusion that all this could have been a massive plot – the greatest trick in history” and “Who could possibly believe such a preposterous book? Probably not even its own author!”

That did it. Hugh Schonfield fired off a nasty letter to The Plain Truth.17 Herbert Armstrong was forced to address the issue in the April, 1966 Plain Truth. The careful and effective apology, however, revealed a side of HWA that few except close friends and very careful readers got to see – a confident, measured tone; a calm and reasonable demeanor, a refusal to be rattled. It was not a new role for HWA and yet, he could glow all over people when he wanted to turn on the charm. Yet, coming the same year as Time magazine’s notorious “Is God Dead?” cover, it revealed just how Christ-focused and Christ-involved Herbert Armstrong was at rock bottom. HWA placed the apology in his “Personal,” the page three slot in the magazine where he often took a more philosophical, almost detached and often insightful view of the goings on in the world.

Lemons to Lemonade

“Did you ever make a mistake?” HWA began quietly, “And did you admit it? The fact is, you have done worse – you have sinned.” Very quickly the homo religiosus goes to work. All that happens in life’s passing parade is filtered through God at work in his life and the need to bend every experience back into that framework. Herbert Armstrong continued:

A mistake may harm you, another person or persons, or cause damage to some thing. But sin is against God. And all who ever lived – excepting only the man Jesus Christ – have sinned. It now comes to my attention that I have made a mistake. The matter of first importance in life is that we confess our sins, repent, and ask forgiveness through Jesus Christ. Secondary to it is to admit our mistakes and rectify them if possible.18

HWA’s skilful and dignified framing of this issue that could have been a legal embarrassment, elevating the incident into the larger context of sin and forgiveness – these tactics were by now second nature to a public figure who had lived by his wits and his typewriter for 54 years. By taking the high road in this argument, HWA was deftly refuting Dr. Schonfield’s thesis on one level and yet doing it in such tones and terms as to turn the debate into a chance to preach. This is masterful journalism. The mistake, as HWA framed it, was one of omission not commission. He had not checked and rechecked two or three sentences that appeared in the PT copy before it reached the Composing Room stage. Neither the Executive Editor (Herman Hoeh) nor those below him caught it as well.

“Nevertheless, as Editor of The Plain Truth, I am responsible for what appears in it…I say that by way of explanation. But nevertheless I am sincerely sorry that statements which Dr. Schonfield feels reflected against his personal integrity – even though his name was not mentioned – were allowed to slip into a magazine zealous of maintaining the very highest of ethical standards in every way.”

In case the point had not been made, HWA then added a further statement: “And, let me say that it is my understanding that Dr. Schonfield does have a reputation in the world as an honest, religious scholar.” Both at Ambassador College and across many church congregations, Worldwide Church of God folk had learned the value of applying Proverbs 15:1, “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” Restitution having been duly made, HWA then moved quietly but effectively over to the offensive. He began by tactfully discussing the differences in approach between the Radio Church of God and the conclusions reached in The Passover Plot. The apology then quickly but smoothly turned into a carefully reasoned explanation of real repentance, a message he had been proclaiming for forty years. “There is nothing more important to your life for eternity than what you believe about, or whether you believe in, Jesus,” Herbert Armstrong wrote. “For, as your Bible says, ‘…there is none other name under heaven given among men whereby we must be saved’ (Acts 4:12). Then he began to involve his readers in this discussion:

Your potential is to enter into the very divine Family of God – to be born as a very son of God. But you have human nature, which is self-centered in vanity, selfishness and greed…You have rebelled against God and His Law. You have sinned and brought the penalty of eternal death. But Jesus of Nazareth gave His very life for you – paying the penalty for you in your stead. If you really repent – confess your sins, admit your mistakes and your sins, the living Jesus will forgive, and put within you his vital, dynamic, eternal life-imparting Holy Spirit, making you a [converted] child of God.

The “Passover Plot” controversy soon subsided. HWA appeared at his journalistic best – serenely dignified, calm, measured, effective and, above all, uncompromisingly Christ-centered. The wider significance for the soon-to-be one million circulation PT was that here was a religious publication the same year as the “Is God Dead?” controversy sticking up for the essentials of the Christian faith. It was a message many readers could accept. HWA showed his editorial team, showed all who were learning the “Plain Truth style” how to effectively turn adversity to advantage, how to compose as well as carry a “message to Garcia.” The very necessity to answer the charges showed what a wide reach The Plain Truth was having by 1966. The Armstrong media offensive was getting harder to ignore. The Passover Plot controversy showed just how huge a part of the popular religious culture they had become.

14 Bernard Brandon Scott, Hollywood Dreams and Biblical Stories (Minneapolis: Fortress press, 1994).

15 Hugh Schonfield, The Passover Plot.

16 Alister McGrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction (Cambridge: Blackwell Publishers Inc., 1997), pages 366-367.

17 Ralph Helge, personal interview, June 11, 2006. Ralph Helge headed up the WCG’s Legal Office for much of this period.

18 Herbert Armstrong, ”Personal,” The Plain Truth (April, 1966), pages 1-2, 7-8.