The name of the evil villain in the Purim story? That’s an easy one. Haman, of course — the guy who nearly persuaded King Ahasuerus of Persia to kill off every last Jew in his vast empire.
To put events in context, Haman died at the gallows four centuries before the son of a certain carpenter was born in the town of Bethlehem.
Yet according to a prominent Israeli scholar, it is that very Nazarene whom the Jews are thinking of when they vent their anger through various rituals during the Purim holiday.
“When the Jews say Haman, they are also thinking deep down about Jesus,” says Israel Yuval, a professor of Jewish history at the Hebrew University. “Our hatred of him is actually a projection — or maybe sublimation is a better word — of our feelings for Jesus.”
It could explain, he says, the age-old Purim tradition of drowning out the name of Haman with noisemakers during the megillah readings. “Nobody really knows where this custom originated,” he says. “But that’s my interpretation of it. It’s the quiet understanding that Haman refers to Jesus. In this way, the anti-Christian sentiment of Jews finds an internal expression — noisy but hidden.”
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Yuval presented his theory on the Haman-Jesus connection at a gathering of Jewish and Christian liturgists earlier this month at the Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem.
Titled “Jokes and Jests in Religious Rituals,” it was the first time this annual event was dedicated to Purim and what many see as its Christian counterpart — Carnival.
As evidence that Jews have long drawn parallels between Haman and Jesus, Yuval cites a decree issued by Emperor Theodosius II in the fifth century prohibiting Jews from burning effigies of Haman. “Clearly, such a ban wouldn’t have been issued if there wasn’t good reason to believe that it was really Jesus who was being targeted,” says Yuval.
Ask most Jews, Yuval continues, and they’ll tell you that Haman was hanged in the Jewish month of Adar — around the time that Purim falls. But he says that’s a widely held misconception. In fact, he says, calculations based on approximate dates provided in the Book of Esther reveal he was hanged 11 months earlier, during the Passover holiday. “Exactly the same time that Jesus was crucified,” he adds.
Purim derives its names from the Hebrew word for lots — a reference to the lots Haman drew, according to the Book of Esther, to determine on which day to carry out his plot against the Jews. The theme of lots resurfaces in the New Testament, notes Yuval, in the following verse about Jesus’ death on the cross: “Then they crucified Him, and divided His garments, casting lots.” (Matthew 27:35). Yuval does not think this “Purim” connection is a coincidence.
It wasn’t only the Jews who tended to equate Haman with Jesus; so did the Christians. Michelangelo’s painting of a crucified Haman, found in the Sistine Chapel in Rome, is “a famous demonstration of this understanding,” Yuval says.
He adds that despite its anti-Christian subtext, the Jewish holiday also borrowed from Christianity. The earliest evidence that Jews wore costumes on Purim, for example, dates back to 15th century Rhineland, where, to this day, the Carnival festival — known for its masquerading and revelry — is a major event.
Rabbi Dalia Marx, a professor of liturgy and Midrash at Hebrew Union College who will be moderating Tuesday’s event, sees other similarities between the two religious celebrations.
“It’s that one time of year you’re allowed and encouraged to let go — precisely in order to keep you in check for the rest of the year,” she says.
Carnival precedes Lent, a 40-day period of repentance and self-denial. Does the period that follows Purim bring the same stark contrast in mood? Maybe not to the same extent, says Marx, but there is at least one parallel.
“Let’s not forget,” she says, “that after Purim is when we start the big job of cleaning up for Pesach.”