“The Passion” A Preview

by Rabbi David Zaslow
March, 2004

The paper known as Nostra Aetate issued by the Vatican in 1965 created a revolutionary shift in the attitude of the Church toward the Jewish people. Pope John XXIII wrote, “Forgive us the curse which we unjustly laid on the name of the Jews. Forgive us that, with our curse, we crucified Thee a second time.” After the reunification of Jerusalem in 1967 many Evangelical churches became Israel’s most vocal supporters, and courageously remain so today in the face of growing anti-Semitism that is sweeping across Europe. Sadly, Mel Gibson’s father is a member of a small, break-away Catholic denomination that has rejected the new position of the Church toward the Jewish people. They remain dedicated to the position that the Church has replaced Israel and that the covenantal relationship of the Jewish people to God has been severed. This replacement doctrine has been rejected by most mainstream and evangelical churches who have worked hard in recent decades to teach the spiritual validity of the Jewish covenant.

Mel Gibson’s film “The Passion” is apparently magnificent in its presentation the gospel of Christianity, yet I understand that it cleaves to the mythic depiction of the Jewish people turning Jesus over to Pilate for crucifixion. The citizens of Jerusalem are portrayed as an angry mob representing the Jewish people, and the Roman Empire is portrayed as passive, bewildered, and not primarily responsible for Jesus’ death. Historically, this is far from the truth. But just as the film has the potential to stir up old wounds, myths, and stereotypes so it also has the potential to heal old wounds if it inspires honest dialogue.

For two-thousand years translational errors, and a lack of telling the Passion story in its correct historical context have caused certain groups to blame the Jews for Jesus’ death. Today, almost every pastor I know in our Valley teach that the death of Jesus was caused “by all of humanity” and that he “willingly gave his own life.” This, of course, is a higher level, modern interpretation of the text – for most of two-thousand years it was the Jews who were blamed for the crucifixion who were labeled throughout Europe as “Christ-killers” and the traditional of European Passion plays performed before Easter often led to anti-Jewish violence.

Most of the popular English translations of Christian Scriptures do seem to place the blame for the death of Jesus on the Jews. For example if Acts 2:36 is taken out of historical context is seems clear that “all the house of Israel” was responsible for the crucifixion. Paul writes, “Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly, that God has made that same Jesus, whom you have crucified, both Lord and Christ.” The same is true with many other passages as well (i.e. Matthew 27:20 & 25, John 19:6, etc.). The uneducated reader gets the sense that the “multitude” that handed Jesus over to the Romans represented all the Jewish people rather than a tiny minority of priests who were working for the Romans, and who themselves were disliked by the general Jewish population.

An objective knowledge of first-century Judaism is also crucial for understanding the Passion story. The theology of the priests and the Sanhedrin (Jewish court) was seen by most first-century Jews as narrow minded, and serving to further the Roman occupation. According to the Talmud, the Sanhedrin at that time was “bloody,” corrupt, and despised by most of the population. The puppet judges, priests, and scribes of the Roman Empire who were threatened by Jesus were also threatened by all the authentic Jewish teachers of that period. Thankfully, most American pastors and priests ceased blaming Jews for the crucifixion decades ago. However, in Europe, Latin America, and the Middle East the historical reality of Jesus’ life is not always taken into account when the Passion story is told.

According to the Roman historian Josephus the streets of Jerusalem were lined with Jewish martyrs who were crucified during a century of Jewish revolts. Somewhere between 50,000-100,000 Jews were crucified along with Jesus during that period, and more than a million Jews died of starvation or in battle against the Romans. The New Testament was written for people who knew the historical context, but today this context is lost without the commentary and courage of our pastors. The film, I am told, may accurately portray the teachings of the gospel, but it does not do justice to historical reality. The first-century sect that opposed Jesus’ teachings were known as the Saducees. This sect, in fact, was opposed to the teachings of most of the local rabbis who represented the general population. According to Jewish records the Saducees were the Temple leaders and had been corrupted by the Roman Empire in the decades preceding Jesus’ birth. Too many people for too many centuries have been mistaught that the “some” of the Jews (the Saducees) represented “all” of the Jews.

The curse in Matthew 27:25 is especially misunderstood, and has misled readers of the Gospel accounts to believe that the Jews have been eternally cursed for the sin of killing Jesus, a sin called Diecide (the killing of God) by early Church leaders. In the second century Justin Martyr wrote, “Those who slandered Him [Jesus] should be miserable….Jews suffer because they are guilty of not having recognized the One with whom they had to do in their own history. When he appeared, they killed him. Not knowing this One, the Logos, Jews fail to know God.” In the fourth-century John Chrysostom wrote, “It is against the Jews that I wish to draw up my battle… Jews are abandoned by God and for the crime of Deicide, there is no expiation possible.”

The Roman occupation was not passive, but brutal. Yet a New Testament reader may not get this crucial fact. Thankfully, many American pastors are now including historical context and alternative translations to the Greek text of the New Testament when they deliver their Easter sermons. I pray that Christian leaders everywhere will use this opportunity to advance the truth of the gospel, but also use the film as a starting-point to discourage anti-Semitism. If this is done, I believe, God’s will can be accomplished. From the last few decades of interfaith dialogue Jews and Christians are beginning to learn to not confuse the two ways Jesus is approached – historically and theologically. The Christian teaching that Jesus died for all of humanity needs to be understood by all of us who share our love and service to God with our Christian brothers and sisters – this is the theological Jesus. Conversely, Jewish sensitivity to the way the Passion story is told needs to be understood by our Christian friends, and this is where more learning about the historical Jesus is needed. The greatest gift of the film that I anticipate is patience, compassion, dialogue, learning, and greater understanding between Christians and Jews. That certainly will be the case for Havurah members and our friends at Trinity Episcopal Church since we plan on studying the film together this month.

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