Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ is not a historical documentary but a presentation of Jesus’ suffering, as he sees it.
[The word passion stems from the Latin word passus or passio which means “having suffered” or “having undergone.” Hence, “the Passion” refers to the sufferings of Jesus after the Last Supper.]
Gibson begins with a version of Is 53 3-5 He bore our infirmities; he was crushed for our iniquities in which Isaiah prophesies the coming, suffering and death of Jesus.
3 He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account. 4 Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. 5 But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.
Gibson then quickly moves into his dramatization of the suffering of Jesus, a suffering that was an expression of God’s love and forgiveness for us. To Gibson, the more terrible the suffering of Jesus, the more he expressed his love. His movie presents the cosmic battle between good and evil, between God and Satan, being played out behind earthly scene of violence against the innocent Jesus.
I suspect Gibson was wanting to show us the profound price that Jesus paid to atone for our sins something which, arguably, is lost on many who call themselves Christian. But here, again, our posture should always be fides quaerens intellectum (faith seeking understanding), to borrow a phrase from Augustine and Anselm, for we all have deficiencies in our belief systems and understandings.
Gibson designed the movie to bring to vivid life the nature and magnitude of Jesus’s sacrifice based on his very traditionalistic, pre-Vatican II, Roman Catholic background. He does this using scenes corresponding to the stations of the cross and the five sorrowful mysteries of the rosary. He also uses other extra-biblical sources – for example, the visions of Catholic mystics such as those of Sister Anne Catherine Emmerich, a nineteenth century Augustinian nun from Westphalia, France who wrote the very mystical The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, published after her death in 1824. He also uses the mystical visions of a seventeenth century nun from Spain, Maria of Agreda, who wrote Mystical City of God, a Divine History of the Virgin Mother of God.
[Obviously, scripture doesn’t record every second of Jesus’ life and death which has allowed for artistic and mystical interpretation ever since the first Easter.] Notably, in using these other sources and in harmonizing aspects from all four of the gospels – instead of just using one of the four gospels – Gibson actually deflates his argument that his movie is a historically accurate version of the passion straight out of the Bible.
It is because of Gibson’s Traditionalist (as they like to call themselves) Catholic faith, for example, that the movie will also seem so Marian, especially to Protestants and others who don’t hold Mary at the level she has risen to over the centuries in the Roman Catholic Church.
The details of Roman crucifixions as discussed in JAMA’s 1986 clinical investigation of crucifixion, On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ, were also used in his movie.
Unfortunately, the symbolism of the cross has become so watered down over the centuries that many have grown up with a version of the passion that will make watching The Passion very difficult. Look at all who wear the cross and yet who have little, if any, clue as to what it represents to those who know its full meaning – an observation that applies to us Lutherans as well! Few modern day Christians fully comprehend the brutality of crucifixion but be assured, to the people of the early church, crucifixion evoked a horrifying image and one they never forgot.
The Romans crucified thousands of mostly Jewish people – not just Jesus and the two insurgents on his left and right. It would have been almost impossible to have grown up in the first century and not have witnessed a crucifixion.
So was it necessary to show so much of the detail regarding scourging and crucifixion? That’s for each of us to answer for ourselves.
Ultimately, Gibson took his Hollywood artistic license where his 25 million saw fit. He can hardly be expected to provide centuries of background in a two-hour movie or for that matter to provide all the scholarship that deals with it. Therefore, he puts things in, or leaves things out, that we, were we to be in a position to make our own movie, would have otherwise approached differently.
Most Lutherans would have, for instance, included much more of the triumph of the resurrection because of the centrality of that event in our faith lives. As Lutherans we do not see the resurrection as a brief flash of light at the end of the story but as the vantage point from which the whole story is told. Also, life is stronger than death and love is more powerful than hatred. These are biblical truths which Christianity owes to Judaism with its memory of the exodus and the return from exile and its longing for Shalom. For Christians this same profound conviction is embodied in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and thereby becomes the pattern for authentic life in the world and the basis for hope beyond.
These same Lutherans are also necessarily concerned that much of what the movie depicts has no basis in scripture, something which goes back to the reformation of the 1500s and which is very central to our faith. Most of the movie covers the last approximately 15 hours of Jesus’ life – from Gethsemane to his death on the cross – with a snippet of the resurrection at the end. Interestingly, most of the authors, whose commentary on the movie I have read, say the movie covers the last 12 hours of Jesus’ earthly life, something which may indicate that they were all copying from whomever said “12 hours” first, or, that they just had not researched their topic sufficiently because – their math is definitely in error. Gethsemane to three in the afternoon of Good Friday is not 12 hours.
Further complicating matters for Gibson is the fact that the gospels were written in the latter third of the first century when there was growing tension between the emerging Christian church and the other Jewish community. The Christian church was beginning to move in a different direction from its exclusively Jewish-Christian origins, and the emerging post-70 Jewish community was also forced to redefine itself in the wake of the catastrophe of the Roman destruction of the Temple in 70. Therefore, the gospels that we have portray the Jewish leaders as viewed through a late first century lens which was formed out of the disputes among Jesus and some of his contemporaries but also, most certainly, out of the disputes and tensions between the communities at the time the gospels were being composed.
We know Mk was written down around the year 65, more than thirty years after Jesus’ crucifixion, and Mt and Lk around 85. Jn was written in the 90’s. At the end of Jn it says that a person who is referred to as the beloved disciple, the disciple Jesus loved, wrote down things that he saw and witnessed and that that has been put into this book. [So even though Jn is the last of the gospels written, it actually claims to have incorporated into it some material that was written by someone who was actually an eyewitness to Jesus.] That is to say, at least Mk, Mt and Lk, although rooted in historical tradition, are not eyewitness accounts. Rather, our gospels are, in part, interpretations of history fueled by, among other things, profound theological convictions and religious experience, that is, by the many things the early church experienced in the decades immediately following the crucifixion up through the time they were finally written down 30-60 years later.
Also, towards the end of the first century the Christian church more and more took on a gentile look. That, coupled with the danger of association with Jewish rebels of any kind in the aftermath of the insurrection (that was so massively squelched by the Romans in 66-74) brought a convergence of motivations for Christian authors to possibly torque the telling of the classic event of their faith. Blame shifted away from the Romans and onto Jews and Judaism who, in turn, became more and more viewed as the enemy, and, inevitably, with catastrophic consequences. However, scripture only supports the culpability of the Jewish leaders and not Jews as a whole.
We know the Gospel authors progressively rewrite in this direction. Our first extant Gospel, Mk, a customarily sparse account by comparison with the other gospels, more or less balanced Jewish and Roman trials of Jesus to demonstrate an equally ironic misunderstanding of Jesus’ identity from both Jewish and gentile perspectives. That is, neither the Jews or the gentiles fully understood who Jesus was during his ministry, and Mk in his Gospel bears this out. Mk was copied by the evangelists Mt and Lk who, in turn, added scenes, motifs and dialogue specifically for their respective communities. A small amount of this added Matthean and Lukan material accented Jewish culpability for the death of Jesus.
In this respect Mt added
Pilate’s wife’s dream and the begging to her husband not to harm Jesus in 27 19,
Pilate’s washing of his hands to show his own innocence of the blood of Jesus in 27 24, and
“the [Jewish] people’s” infamous reply, “his blood be on us and on our children” in 27 25.
Also, in this respect Lk added Pilate’s threefold pronouncement of his verdict of Jesus’ innocence in 23 4, 13-14, 22 and rather than having Jewish authorities hand Jesus over to Pilate, Pilate in effect hands Jesus over “to their will” in 23 25.
Two basic questions that many people ask about Gibson’s movie are:
1. “Is the movie accurate in terms of what we know from the Bible and from history?”
A. What is Accurate
The film offers a brutally accurate depiction of crucifixion and all that went with it (scourging, humiliation, etc.). You can refer to the JAMA’s 1986 article for a better understanding of just what crucifixion actually entailed. Jesus and the two thieves are not crucified naked in the film (as they would have been in real life) but that is about the only detail on which Gibson has flinched from showing us what the torture and crucifixion of condemned prisoners typically involved. “It is as it was,” the Pope is reported to have said. If you want to know what the Romans did to Jesus (and, of course, to thousands of other people) this film will show you that. These depictions go well beyond what is actually in the Bible but they do so in historically responsible ways, filling out what is mentioned in the Bible with details derived from reliable historical research.
For example, a crow lands on the cross of one of the two thieves crucified with Jesus and plucks out his eye. This is not in the Bible but, historically, it was the sort of thing that did happen to victims of crucifixion. Please refer to my definiti.ons\crucifix.ion.hen handout.
[The Gospel authors did not go into the details of crucifixion because that wasn’t the point of their Gospel and beside everyone in the first century who would have been the first to hear Mt’s Gospel would have known what crucifixion entailed.] In short, crucifixion paints a picture worth a million words to first century hearers and readers.
B. What is Inaccurate
There are numerous nonbiblical moments derived from Catholic tradition (Mary Magdalene as an adulteress/prostitute; Veronica blotting the face of Jesus with her veil) or from Gibson’s own imagination (Pilate’s wife bringing towels to Jesus’ mother for her to mop up the blood from Jesus’ scourging), but I did not think any of these distracted from the basically biblical line of the story. In my opinion they fall into the category of responsible artistic license. You may feel otherwise, and that is OK.
Also, Jesus is far more brutalized than the other two men being crucified.
Jesus is scourged and tortured, and then you have the two thieves. Jesus is nailed to the cross while the two thieves are tied to the cross with ropes and they have not been beaten or whipped or anything. For some reason Gibson wants to make it out as if Jesus suffering far worse than anyone else. Historically, that is simply not true. Historically the crucifixion of Jesus was in no way exceptional, and, in fact, if anything, Jesus did not suffer as much as crucifixion victims normally did because he died early.
They were surprised that he died so soon. Typically they could be dying on a cross for as many as five days before they finally died but for Jesus it was a matter of hours. Still, in pious sermons you’ll hear that “Jesus suffered more than any human being ever before.” That’s just not true; don’t go there; that’s not the point that needs to be made. You don’t want to lessen the brutality of Christ’s suffering, but indeed Jesus suffered in a way that was typical for Jewish victims of injustice. Jesus was literally one of thousands. In dying by crucifixion Jesus had a certain solidarity with those who had experienced the worse the world has to offer.
When the movie came out there was this idea that the suffering of Jesus was something that was uniquely horrible. On a historical level the Bible does not portray Jesus’ suffering as being uniquely horrible. It portrays the suffering of Jesus as being typical of many people’s sufferings. Jesus became one of the tens of thousands of victims of injustice. We miss the point when we try to make Jesus’ suffering extraordinary . We can understand the piety that motivates that but it’s misplaced. The Bible doesn’t do that. There is nothing in the Bible that shows that when they crucified Jesus, they were somehow more brutal, more cruel, more terrible.
The most glaring and obvious inaccuracy comes in the portrayal of Pilate.
Gibson’s movie sanitizes the portrait of Pilate and “let’s him off the hook” by portraying him as a somewhat benign figure, a nice guy, when, in fact, Pilate was a sadistic, cruel and terrible person.
Worse still, at the same time the movie seems to emphasize the involvement of the Temple priesthood.
According to Roman historians – such as Josephus – who if anything would not want to make Pilate look bad, Pilate crucified thousands of Jews – including women and children.
Pilate is the only known Roman who crucified children!
Pilate went down in Roman history as a sadist and it took a lot to be a sadist for Rome.
Pilate was deposed by Caesar for unwarranted cruelty and too many unnecessary executions.
So Pilate was really over the top.
We know from Philo of Alexandria that Pilate was inflexible, stubborn and cruel and that he routinely ordered executions without trial.
He was a notoriously harsh prefect, quick to crucify even potential political rebels.
The Bible does not go into a detailed characterization regarding his personality or motivations, but it offers nothing to contradict the portrait that we gain from other historical sources.
Jews know this about Pilate because Jewish children learn in synagogue schools about Antiochus Epiphanes IV, Pontius Pilate and Adolf Hitler. Pilate was not a nice guy!
They learn about Pilate as one of the all-time worst Roman governors who tortured and crucified thousands of Jewish people, and then they go to see The Passion of the Christ and Pilate is portrayed as a nice guy!
So the movie totally misses it on that one because his movie portrays Pilate as a kind and just ruler whose hand is forced by bloodthirsty Jewish priests.
However, the facts are that Pilate was not a weakling nor a pawn of the high priest. Pilate, in fact, represented the brutal Roman occupation in a harsh way.
I suspect that Gibson would defend such a portrayal by saying that he wanted to stick to what is in the Bible, which does indeed say that Pilate knew Jesus was innocent yet Pilate sentenced him to death to appease the Jewish priests.
In response, however, I would want to note that this is not what Gibson does in the rest of the movie.
That is, if he “fills in” the depiction of the crucifixion with details known from history, why not also allow details known from history to provide some kind of context for presenting the character of Pilate?
At the very least, I would ask, why interpret the limited biblical information about Pilate in exactly the opposite manner that history requires?
Most people in our churches, I presume, will not care much about this because they will evaluate the film in terms of what they learn about the crucifixion and the suffering of Jesus – not for what they learn about Pilate.
But there are some people (including Jewish people) who will care very deeply about such matters.
In this regard it should speak volumes to realize that Pilate is the only person specifically mentioned regarding the death of Jesus in the Apostle’s and Nicene Creeds. “He suffered under Pontius Pilate, died and was buried.”
For close to 2000 years Christians all over the world have believed in and have been reciting these creeds.
Very clearly in these creeds it never says Jesus suffered under the Jews.
Officially, these creeds affirm what Christians believe.
Also, Pilate was governor of Judea for ten years and is to our knowledge the only Roman governor who was deposed by Caesar for excessive cruelty.
In summary, Pilate was a monster who would crucify people on a whim – a very different man than Gibson depicts.
Next, normally those being crucified would carry only the horizontal beam (patibulum) and not the entire cross.
The Douay Bible (The Douay Bible – Douay Version or DV – an English translation of the Latin Vulgate Bible made by a group of Roman Catholic scholars. The NT was published at Reims in 1582 and the OT at Douay (now Douai), France in 1609. It’s used by English-speaking Roman Catholics.) used by Roman Catholics says that Judas hung himself with a halter but that word, or anything like it, is not in the any Greek New Testament.
Aramaic was the daily language of Jews in Palestine, not Latin as we know it and certainly not the “street Latin” which was used in the movie. Please refer to my handout, Languages of the NT.
The Jewish high priest and the Roman prefect Pilate would have conversed in koine Greek, not Latin.
Pilate’s troops were invariably not Romans but employees of Rome and, as such, were Greek-speaking local gentiles on the imperial payroll.
Those from Rome would probably have conversed amongst themselves in Latin – possibly in Greek.
Next, we need to look at the churches of our day and age for further context. We have a tremendous variety of “Christianities” in the world.
For example, some Christians read the Bible literally without any need for interpretation. What the Bible says, it says!
On the other hand, some Christians view the 4 gospels as 4 different narratives that are loosely based on historical events.
These Christians acknowledge that the gospels we have were not written by the immediate eyewitnesses to those events; they are written decades later and they are written in ways that address the needs of the people at the time when they were writing.
Also, the Jews of today have been raised in an understanding of their history and they tend to know and understand their faith better than the Christians know and understand Christianity.
So Christians and Jews are going to react differently to the movie and within Christianity, the different varieties of Christians will also react differently to the movie.
Another inaccuracy involves Gibson’s conflation the gospel accounts into one story, something I would hope a Lutheran movie maker would never do.
Our Bible comes to us with four Gospel accounts covering the life of Jesus, and, at least, I think that we have these four accounts for good reasons. I don’t think the Spirit intended for us to have just one account of the life of Jesus to read and study. (If you want to argue against this assertion, you’re fighting a losing battle.)
We have four accounts, four passion stories in the Christian NT.
We keep those four accounts separate from each other – so much so that we use only one Gospel account a year in our lectionary. Each of the four accounts gets read in its own lectionary year.
That way we focus on one version of the passion story each year.
Gibson kind of weaves the four stories into one story and then presents it as literal history. That approach to the Gospel message would be controversial in modern Christianity. That said, there are Christian sects in America that would think that is exactly the right thing to do. And there are many Christian sects, for example, the ELCA, who would say that’s the wrong way to do it.
So, with that background and explanation, if Gibson really wanted to make a movie that is faithful to the gospels, as he has repeatedly said he was doing, then he would have had to make four movies, for example, The Passion of the Christ According to Luke. And if that went over, he still had three he could make! Just imagine the amount of material available to you to make your own movie – that is, if you only had a loose 25 million to do so!
So Lutherans, in part, object to this movie because it confuses the Gospel accounts in trying to harmonize them.
Putting the four gospels in a blender produces a pureed version of the Gospel that none of the four authors of the gospels ever wanted to tell.
The fact is that the evangelists who wrote the gospels told the story they felt called to tell to their audience.
Each evangelist came with a different background, call and set of circumstances.
Most Lutheran scholars agree the blended story is unfaithful to scripture because the fact of the matter is that we don’t find that (blended) story anywhere in scripture.
We find the elements that went into that story in scripture but we don’t find that story in scripture.
There are many Christians – including Lutherans – who just won’t get this conflation thing that Gibson has done with the four gospels. They will wonder what is wrong with conflating the four gospels because that has been the accepted practice where they worship. Anyway, I see Gibson’s harmonizing of the Gospel accounts in the movie as one of its many inaccuracies.
2. “Does the movie exhibit or encourage antiSemitism?”
[Actually, anti-Judaistic would be a more precise term for this context since other “Semites” are not in view.]
When Christians and Jews see this movie, they see two different films. Some Christians very much like the movie and some don’t. There are Christians who ask the question, “What’s this anti-Semitism thing? I just don’t get it. I didn’t see anything that made Jews look bad in the movie.”
The Jews more often than not don’t like it although there are some important exceptions. So we hear words like hypersensitive, paranoid and the like.
I wonder if Christians, Jews and Egyptians see two or three different movies with the movie The Prince of Egypt. The Egyptians were portrayed as bungling and stupid so how would Egyptians view this movie? Does a movie like that incite Jewish violence against Egyptians? To many that is a ludicrous thought.
Many Christians ask how anyone seeing Gibson’s movie would think that it’s anti-Semitic. The Passion shows Jesus being tortured and killed by Roman soldiers with the involvement of a handful of high ranking Jewish priests. Why would anyone think that has anything to do with modern Jews today? At some level many people just don’t get what the issue is.
First of all we need to be aware of three factors that have contributed to Jewish discomfort with The Passion.
1. We live in a time of rising anti-Semitism in all parts of the world.
2. Gibson is an outspoken Catholic Traditionalist who rejects many of the reforms of Vatican II.
3. Many Jews have a visceral fear of intense Christian religiosity based on a long history of anti-Semitic depredations.
That said, whether or not this movie exhibits or encourages anti-Semitism is a matter of perception – not intention.
To me, Mel Gibson has not done anything in this film that implies he intended to exhibit or encourage antiSemitism.
To the contrary, he seems to have made deliberate moves that he hopes will quell such sentiments.
I don’t know Gibson’s heart and who am I to judge anyway? I don’t see any sound reason to doubt that however mixed one’s motives might be, Gibson has had genuine spiritual intent in making this movie, an intent that stems from Is 53 and his own personal faith journey.
Still, those who have been worried about anti-Semitism may conclude that the film is indeed insensitive in ways that they find objectionable. For example, there is no escaping the fact that the “bad guys” in this movie are the Jewish priests who orchestrate Jesus’ arrest, sentencing, and execution.
In biblical times the Middle East contained a Jewish community which was occupied against its will by the Roman Empire. Jesus’ message was equally threatening to both sides. To the Romans Jesus was a potential revolutionary who threatened the Pax Romana. To the establishment of Jewish priests Jesus threatened the status quo with his preaching of a new covenant.
Also, we must always remember that the roots of Christian anti-Semitism lie in overly literal readings, which are, in fact, misreadings, of may NT texts. The gospels can be read in many ways but if you read them literally – without knowledge of what they describe in terms of institutions and politics – then the Jews can become the enemies, the opposition. NT scholars have long understood that we must not take these passages at face value – as fully reliable reports of recent events. The passages must be situated, instead, in their historical context of when the events occurred and when the events were written about.
As such, the gospels cannot be used as a pretext for anti-Jewish sentiment. The NT polemical texts, even those expressed in general terms, have to do with concrete historical contexts and were never meant to be applied to Jews of all times and all places merely because they are Jews.
[Characteristics of polemical language throughout antiquity include the tendency to speak in general terms, to accentuate the adversaries’ negative side and to pass over the positive in silence, and failure to consider their motivations and their ultimate good faith.] These characteristics are no less evident in Judaism and primitive Christianity against all kinds of dissidents.
Notably, for example, when the Gospel writers implicated “the Jews” in Jesus’ passion story, they did not mean all Jewish people then alive, much less those then unborn.
These authors had a very specific group of Jews in mind – the Temple elite who believed Jesus might provoke Pilate.
For example, “the Jews” in Jn clearly refers to Jewish officials and not just any Jewish officials – just those connected with the Temple and not, for example, some official in a local synagogue in Galilee.
The Jews who desired Jesus’ death were in the priesthood and had political as well as theological reasons for acting.
Like today’s Catholic bishops who were slow to condemn abusive priests, protestant TV evangelists who confuse religion and politics and even Muslim clerics who are so silent on terrorism emanating from those within their faith, they all have an investment in their positions and authority.
Also, there is a pretty strong critique of the Caiaphas family in the NT but, frankly, the Jewish historian Josephus critiques the same family when he criticizes the action taken against Jesus’ brother James in the year 62, when James was martyred at the hands of the descendent of Caiaphas.
Historically, some Jewish officials played a role in handing Jesus over to Pilate, and although Pilate and his forces were responsible for the execution, this should not lead to anti-Italianism.
That said, Gibson seems to single out the high priest as the one who faces off against Jesus from beginning to end.
This figure has a part beyond the high priest in the gospels who presides over the night tribunal where he asks the definitive question of Jesus and pronounces the verdict of blasphemy.
See Mk 14 60-64, Mt 26 62-66 and Lk 22 66-71.
Given that, Gibson does make a number of moves that should not go unnoticed:
1. During the “Sanhedrin trial scene,” two priests (probably Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, though they are not named) protest the process and specifically want to know “why the entire council has not been called.”
Thus, Gibson encourages us to think that the “bad priests” represent a rogue minority, not Jewish priests as a whole.
The point is subtle and easily missed.
2. In the scene where the Jewish priests stir up the crowd to ask Pilate to release Barabbas and crucify Jesus, the priests are the only persons in the mob who are obviously Jewish. Of course, viewers may just assume that all the people in the crowd are Jewish or they may not. When asked about this scene, all of the Christians who saw the movie and who did not have close knowledge of the biblical story thought it was “a crowd of people”, not a “a crowd of Jews,” that the people were representative of “humanity” (not “Jews”).
3. In the scene just mentioned, Gibson essentially omits the line from Mt 27 25 in which the (Jewish?) people cry out “Let his blood be upon us and our children” a verse that has often been interpreted by antiSemites as explaining why Jews are “under a curse.” Actually, a few people in the crowd do say this, but they say it in Aramaic without subtitles – so for anyone who does not speak Aramaic, the line is essentially omitted.
4. Gibson plays up the sadism of the Roman soldiers so that the audience’s greatest antipathy will probably be directed at them. The priests are corrupt, but the soldiers are much worst; they are demonic and inhuman. He also portrays these despicable soldiers specifically as antiSemites. For example, in one scene, a soldier pushes Simon of Cyrene an innocent passerby and spits on him, shouting, “Jew!”
Still, the question remains whether any of this will be enough. The bad priests, dressed conspicuously in their formal robes, are the most obviously Jewish people in the story and they are a fixture throughout the film. Regarding deicide, if someone comes to the film looking for a reason to regard Jews as “Christ killers,” well, there it is.
One scene displays the dilemma of interpretation (perception) well for me. In the Bible, when the Roman soldiers nail Jesus to the cross, he prays “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
This happens in the movie as well. The Romans are directly responsible for killing Jesus and he prays for them to be forgiven. But, then, Gibson adds something not in the Bible. In the scene where the high priest taunts Jesus on the cross (see Mt 27 4143), Jesus responds by praying a second time, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
In case we don’t get it, one of the thieves shouts down to Caiaphas, “This time, he is praying for you!” What is the point?
My guess is that Gibson thinks he has gone out of his way here (even departing from the biblical account) to show that Jesus wants the Jews (as well as the Romans) to be forgiven for what they did.
But I would also guess that some viewers will take this departure from the biblical story in another way, as emphasizing that the Jews (as well as the Romans) need such forgiveness because they are (at least) as responsible as the Romans for putting Jesus to death.
Thus, the film seems to suggest that
a) the Jews do bear responsibility for playing a critical role in the crucifixion of Jesus; but
b) they should not be held accountable for this, since Jesus died willingly for the forgiveness of their sins, and indeed for the sins of all humanity.
I leave it to you to decide whether such a stance exhibits or encourages antiSemitism.
To hate Jews because they are Jews, to hate anyone for that matter, is a sin in the Christian cosmos, for Jesus commands his followers to love their neighbor as themselves.
On another level, anti-Semitism is a form of illogical and self-defeating self-loathing.
Bluntly put, Jesus had to die for the Christian story to unfold, and the proper Christian posture toward the Jewish people should be one of respect, for the man Christians choose to see as their savior came from the ancient tribe of Judah, the very name from which “Jew” is derived.
As children of Abraham, Christians and Jews are branches of the same tree, linked in the mystery of God.
To me, Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ is an audacious and artful cinematic achievement representing by far the most compelling motion picture adaptation of a biblical story ever attempted by Hollywood.
That is not to say that I agree with everything he has presented because I don’t.
I do not see The Passion of the Christ as an attempt to affix blame on any one group of people, particularly Jews, for Jesus’ death.
In some measure everyone is to blame for Jesus’ death including the disciples who deny, betray and desert.
Although the Romans are especially depicted as to blame for the sadistic treatment of Jesus, the essential Christian message is that it is human sin that killed Jesus.
It is better, to me, to talk about what, rather than who, killed Jesus from a theological point of view.
So what are some of the benefits of the movie?
stimulating thought, discussion, opportunity for evangelism, edification – a teachable moment, rethinking one’s faith life
THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST
A SURVEY IN CHRISTIAN INTERPRETATION
While it is important to remember that the Romans crucified thousands of mostly Jewish people in Palestine, in terms of historical responsibility, what is the Jewish responsibility for the crucifixion of Jesus?
Historians who have studied the crucifixion of Jesus debate the extent of Jewish involvement in the crucifixion of Jesus, but almost all of them are in unanimous agreement that the primary responsibility for the death of Jesus falls on the Roman government.
Jesus was condemned to death by a Roman governor, Pontius Pilate; he was tortured and executed by Roman soldiers.
It’s a fact of history that the Romans killed Jesus.
Jesus was crucified as a Jewish victim of Roman violence; Jesus was not crucified as a Christian victim of Jewish violence.
Jesus was not a Christian; he was a Jew.
Granted that, were there Jews involved in Jesus’ crucifixion? Were there Jews who wanted Jesus dead, who were part of the plot to have Jesus killed?
Historians differ here but some say “not at all, that this is just a smear of anti-Semitism, that, in fact, Jesus was crucified as a Jewish victim of Roman violence and that it’s the ultimate irony that Jews would be blamed for his death when he was, in fact, a Jew who was a victim of Roman death.”
This is a minority view.
Most historians acknowledge that probably there was some limited involvement of some Jews who were opposed to Jesus.
Specifically, some of the priests in Jerusalem did not like things that Jesus was saying in that Jesus opposed aristocracy and pretty much anyone in power.
Basically, Jesus made most powerful people mad and some of those powerful people were Jewish.
So there is some historical accuracy in saying that there were priests in Jerusalem at the time who – in what way we do not know – but who did not go out of their way to stick up for him, to rescue him or to spare him and who, in fact, gave the Roman authorities the “thumbs up” when it came to the execution of Jesus.
Hence, all authorities agree that Jesus was crucified as a Jewish victim of Roman violence.
The Romans get most of the blame but there were some high-ranking Jewish people in on it.
A Gentile Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, condemned him to death and had him tortured and executed by Gentile Roman soldiers.
He was, indeed, just one of thousands of Jews crucified by the Romans during this period.
All four gospels depict Pilate as finding Jesus not guilty ( Mk 15 14; Mt 27 23; Lk 23 14; Jn 18 38 ).
All four gospels depict the Jews as calling for Jesus’ crucifixion ( Mk 15 11-13; Mt 27 20-22; Lk 23 18-23; Jn 18 6, 15 ) perhaps out of jealousy or envy ( Mk 15 10; Mt 27 18 ).
Lk’s Pilate tries to evade responsibility for the situation by sending Jesus off to Herod on the grounds that the Galilean subject should be tried by the Galilean ruler in 23 6-11.
Jn has the Jews explicitly declare their desire for Jesus’ death.
When Pilate instructs them to “Take him yourselves and crucify him, for I find no crime in him,” the Jews insist “We have a law and by that law he ought to die because he has made himself the Son of God” Jn 19 6-7; 18 30-31.
This refers to the penalty for blasphemy in Le 24 16.
Perhaps the most damning and infamous passage is Mt 27 24-27: “So when Pilate saw that he was gaining nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, ‘I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.’ And all the people answered, ‘His blood be on us and on our children!’ Then he released for them Barabbas and having scourged Jesus, delivered him to be crucified.”
Bible scholars recognize that the NT gospels tend to play up the involvement of the Jews and to play down the involvement of the Romans.
This is definitely more prevalent in Mt and Jn than in Mk and Lk.
When you read Mt and Jn the involvement level seems to be the reverse of what most historians think.
The Romans are in there but it’s the Jewish priests in Jerusalem who are the bad guys in this story and who have the major responsibility for wanting to get Jesus out of the way.
Scholars note that this is the reverse of what was historically the case.
It’s not necessarily true that the gospels are reporting something that is false but their focus is wrong.
Even if everything they report is completely accurate, which is debated, it’s what they don’t report that leaves the focus much more on the Jews than on the Romans.
So why do the Gospel authors do that? A variety of explanations exist.
Some years ago the prominent theory was that they wanted to make nice with the Romans because the Romans were by now the serious threat.
As the early Christian movement expanded into the Mediterranean world, Christians did not want to offend their Hellenistic audience so they pushed more of the responsibility onto the Jewish authorities and crowds.
By the time the NT gospels were written in 85 to 90, Christians didn’t have to fear being persecuted by Jews but they had to be fear being persecuted by Romans.
It was Caesar who was feeding people to the lions and killing the Christians so the Christians thought that it would be better to tell the story in a way that didn’t make the Romans look too bad.
Then you have to have a scapegoat which fell on that handful of Jews that might have had something to do with it.
That was a prominent theory still held by some today but it is no longer the majority view.
That explanation is no longer accepted because now it’s more realistic to understand this responsibility shift toward the Jews as due more to the changes occurring within the various Judaistic sects between 65 and 85 CE than anything else.
Still, at the time of the Jesus’ crucifixion, there was a definite convergence of interest between the Jewish leaders and the Roman rulers in arranging Jesus’ death.
Jesus’ message and action most likely were a threat to the religious as well as the political authorities.
Both had something to gain with Jesus out of the picture.
Other explanations include:
emphasizing the injustice done to Jesus
He was rejected by the very persons who should have supported him
personalizing the message of his atonement for Israel
He died for our sins (not just those of gentiles).
explaining the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE
a corrupt priesthood brought this upon us
For example, Jn was written two generations after Jesus’ crucifixion in a time, the 90s, when the Roman Empire controlled Palestine and in a period of unprecedented polemic and antagonism between the emerging Christian church and the religious establishment of the Jewish people.
The majority view has now shifted more to this being a matter of internal Jewish polemic, that is, a matter of inter-Jewish discussions rather than as polemic between opposing religions.
Mt and Jn did not think of themselves as being members of a different religion.
They were ethnically Jewish; they had been brought up Jewish; they were Torah-observant.
They were some first century version of “Jews for Jesus.”
They thought of themselves as Jews who believed in Jesus.
They didn’t think that believing in Jesus as Messiah made them not Jewish.
They did not think of Christianity as a separate religion.
They knew there were different parties of Jews and they saw themselves as just one more party of Jews.
So it was not a matter of Gentile-Christians trying to blame Jews for something in their mind but it was an internal matter of one group of Jews trying to engage in polemic against another group of Jews.
Specifically why the polemic?
The Gospel authors were writing around the years 85 to 90, and Jerusalem and the Temple had been destroyed in 70. So a prominent question among Jews of any variety at that time was, “Why did God let this happen?”
Granted, everyone blamed the Romans because they destroyed Jerusalem but why did God let this happen?
A logical reason to Mt and his community was that the priests cooperated with the Romans in the execution of Jesus. The more mainstream, non-literalistic Christianity, allowed that in telling the story Mt was not simply recounting in some dispassionate way what somebody in the year 33 or 34 would have written.
You don’t have a reporter who had been on hand at the crucifixion and who was now simply recording the story.
Rather, you have the view of a Christian Jew in the year 85 who is dealing with questions like, “Why was the Temple destroyed by the Romans?”
That Jewish Christian is now reading that back into the telling of the story of the crucifixion of Jesus and playing some literary license in the telling of his story.
In many of the major Christian denominations this approach to the Bible is standard.
Seminaries teach to understand the Bible in this way – to not just take the Gospel stories as literalistic historical reports.
So among those churches, the movie that Mel Gibson made, The Passion of the Christ, is having a little bit more trouble and it is not receiving nearly an enthusiastic a reception.
Gibson seems to take the Gospel accounts as literalistic renderings of historical events without allowing for an interpretive overlay.
So you now have one group of Jews pointing the finger at another group of Jews and saying, “God is mad at us because of you.”
Since it was Jerusalem and the Temple that was destroyed, the likely fall guys were the priests in the Temple.
So a prominent theory now is that the authors of Mt and Jn are not blaming the Jewish people or the Jewish religion for the death of Jesus.
They are blaming the “bad Jews” in Jerusalem, specifically the priesthood, for doing something that made God mad and that’s why the Temple and the city got destroyed.
It was “our” Temple and “our” Jerusalem.
There is tremendous respect throughout Mt for the city of Jerusalem and for the Temple which now lay in ruins.
Mt is writing in Antioch, a Jewish community, and he’s saying the Jewish priests in Jerusalem had Jesus the Messiah put to death and that’s why our city and our Temple was destroyed.
Something like that seems to be going on from their perspective.
But the gospels were only read like that for a very short period of time because within a generation Christianity became a gentile religion.
When that happened, you now have Gentile-Christians reading Mt and Jn and they were not reading this as an intra-Jewish polemic.
They were now reading it as polemic against another foreign religion – that of the Jews.
So already by the second century we have Christians saying “the Jews killed Jesus and they have been cursed by God for doing this.”
After Christianity became a gentile religion, these Gospel accounts were often interpreted and read in ways that fostered anti-Semitism.
They have been read that way for centuries.
It’s a kind of “chicken and egg” thing. Which comes first?
Have Christian interpretations of the passion created anti-Semitism? Yes, they sometimes have.
Or, has anti-Semitism created some of the Christian interpretations of the passion of Jesus? That, too, has happened.
That is to say, do you think the Gospel stories, especially those of Mt and Jn, have caused people to become anti-Semitic or do you think Mt and Jn get read and interpreted the way they do because people are anti-Semitic?
Certainly there have been many who are not anti-Semitic who have read Mt and Jn and not read them in an anti-Semitic way.
But it’s a fact of life today that NT texts have been read in ways that have fostered anti-Semitism for centuries.
The Holocaust was a major wake-up call for Christianity with respect to the reality of anti-Semitism and the potential for Christian documents to indeed encourage and foster anti-Semitism.
While it’s true that not all of the victims of the Holocaust were Jews, all of the Jews were victims
So, the NT testifies to these basic facts, most scholars agree, allowing for Jewish involvement in Jesus’ crucifixion in two ways:
1. A few highranking Jewish authorities who owed their position and their power to the Romans conspired with the Gentile leaders to have Jesus put to death.
That is to say, there were some Jewish priests who wanted Jesus dead and who conspired with the Romans to have that brought about.
This in no way implies that this was all of the Jewish priests, Jewish religious aristocracy or hierarchy.
It was a small group of compromised Jewish priests who had sold out for their own religion, who were jealous and who wanted to cooperate with the Roman authorities because they perceived Jesus as a threat to the status quo.
2. There was an unruly, rowdy mob of people in Jerusalem who called for Jesus to be crucified similar to that of a lynch mob in the old west.
The NT doesn’t say they were Jewish people.
Although it’s usually assumed that they are Jews, the Bible itself doesn’t say they were Jews.
The number and, for that matter, ethnic identification, of persons in this “crowd” is not given, nor is any motive supplied for their action (except so say that they had been “stirred up” in Mk 15 11).
N. T. Wright says it fairly well with “I realize it’s not popular to say that historically Jewish leaders ought to be blamed for bringing about the crucifixion of Jesus. It’s currently popular to blame it on the Romans perhaps because there is no anti-defamation league operating on behalf of Romans these days.”
Most historians say that the facts seem to be that high ranking Jewish leaders wanted Jesus dead and the Romans were happy to oblige them.
Rome alone had the sovereign authority to crucify therefore it is Rome who ultimately held the decision in their hands.
Their point in these public executions, as opposed to private murder, was to send a message.
That Jesus was crucified implies that Pilate was concerned about sedition for Pilate ultimately had to answer to Rome if things didn’t go well in Palestine.
Clear evidence of the political nature of the execution – that Pilate and the high priest were ridding themselves of a “Messiah” who might disrupt society and not offer salvation – is the sign that Pilate ordered affixed to Jesus’ cross.
Pilate’s message is not from the knowing Romans to the evil Jews.
Rather, it’s a scornful signal to the crowds that this death awaits any man the people proclaim to be “the king of the Jews.”
In crucifying Jesus and placing a sign on his cross, Pilate was in effect telling the many Jews who had gathered in Jerusalem for the Passover to desist from any thought of rebellion – or this will happen to you too!
Central to Christianity is Jesus’ death and resurrection, and his passion, his trials, suffering, and crucifixion which leads up to that.
We have 4 different accounts of Jesus’ passion in which Jews play different roles.
All accounts culminate in the death and resurrection of Jesus as revealing God’s saving power available to humanity.
Much of the NT is written in polemical style which portrayed some, but not all, of the Jews and Jesus as adversaries.
The fact of the matter is that Christians were just one of the many Jewish sects in existence at that time.
We also had the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Zealots (a radical political movement) and the Essenes – along with the followers of Jesus know as The Way.
[By the time we get to the second century there are only two groups left, the Pharisees and the Christians.
The Pharisees become rabbinic Jews.
We know when the two Judaistic parties were separated by:
when the Romans saw the members of the early Jesus movement no longer as Jews but as a separate group;
when Jews saw the Jesus movement as a separate group; and
when Christians saw themselves as no longer attached to Judaism.] That is, Jesus was a first century Jew who engaged in disputes with other Jews of the first century over issues important to first century Judaism such as their interpretation of the law.
Jesus was also criticized for not adhering to a strict interpretation of Sabbath-keeping; his claim that he had the power to forgive sins was considered blasphemous; his association with “sinners” without preconditions was offensive.
There existed in Jesus’ time much theological variety within Judaism.
All Jews worshiped only one God, and all believed in the divine election of Israel, the divine origin of the law and repentance and forgiveness.
Apart from that, there were many, many different beliefs within Judaism.
Following the crucifixion the followers of Jesus, known as The Way, were just one of many branches branch within Judaism.
So the disputes between the Jesus-followers within Judaism and the other Jews in the first century was more of a family dispute within Judaism.
So when the question is asked, “Are the passion stories found in the gospels antiSemitic?” I would say that they are not because in their original context the troubling verses are seen to reflect a vigorous intraJewish debate, not firstcentury antiSemitism.
To take sound bytes from the gospels is to misuse them and to foster anti-Semitism.
In their original historical, social, and literary contexts, the verses were part of a vigorous intraJewish debate which was certainly not antiSemitic at all.
That is, Christianity started within Judaism and for the longest time these Jesus-followers did not foresee their separation from the Temple or synagogue.
Ultimately they did, in fact, move away from Judaism.
In their minds, the coming of Jesus didn’t amount to supersession of Israel but was rather the fulfillment of what God had promised Israel.
Still, there was painful conflict which led to an eventual break between the synagogue and the emerging church.
Even so, it would be wrong to think that close ties between Christians and Jews were instantly or fully severed in the early church.
For centuries, many Christians from Asia Minor to Africa continued to attend synagogue services and observe Jewish high holidays.
Fourth century gentile Christians, despite the ideology of their own bishops, kept Saturdays as their day of rest, accepted gifts of matzo from Jewish friends at Passover and indeed still celebrated Easter according to when Jews kept Passover.
With the passage of time some of these Jesus-followers, now known as Christians, tended to ignore or minimize Jesus’ Jewishness, some even denying that he was Jewish at all.
As the Roman Empire went Christian in the early third century under Constantine, Jesus was increasingly seen as the divine incarnation of the second person of the Trinity and less as a Jew from Nazareth.
In time, according to Professor Levine, when Jesus’ Judaism was noted, it was “only to say that he was ‘rejected by his own’ or that he came ‘to demolish the old system from within.’”
Over the centuries, a willful disregard of the Jewishness of Jesus and his teaching thereby tended to feed the flames of anti-Semitism.
The Christian scriptures were less interested in recording historical facts about Jesus’ death than in explaining the meaning of that death.
Rather, Christian theology has been interested in why this happened and has consistently explained the meaning of Jesus’ death as an atonement for sin.
That is, Christians claim that Jesus died as an atonement for sin which would quickly take us into a further discussion of substitution, punishment and propitiation, that is, of course, were we to have the time to explore this. But, we don’t right now. So …
His death is interpreted
as a “ransom” that frees people from the effects of sin (Mk 10 45),
as a sacrifice that removes the consequences of sin (Jn 1 29); and
as a loving act that reconciles humans with a forgiving God of love (Ro 5 610).
For Christians, historical responsibility for the death of Jesus is theologically irrelevant.
Who was responsible for the historical act of bringing Jesus to death is theologically irrelevant because Christians do not believe that Jesus was overpowered by hostile Romans or Jews or anyone else.
That’s not the point!
Christians believe that Jesus died because it was God’s will
That is, the passion narrative that lies at the heart of western Christianity is not about bad Jews or bad Romans.
The passion narrative is a story about sinful humanity whose religious and governmental institutions fail to bring about the justice that only God can bestow.
The passion narrative is about the depravity and injustice of human nature that is in need for God’s miraculous gift of salvation.
Christians believe that whatever the precise circumstances of his execution, Jesus died in obedience to the will of God.
Christian believe Jesus died because it was God’s will for him to give his life as an atonement for the sins of the world.
So Jesus was, in fact, obedient to this purpose (Pp 2 8).
It would be hard to find a more basic, confession of the Christian faith than “Christ died for our sins.”
In other words, Christian theology has never viewed Jesus as a murder victim.
Christians do not believe Jesus was crucified because the Romans or the Jews or anyone else somehow overpowered him and put him to death.
Christians believe that Jesus was crucified because God sent him to die, and Jesus in obedience to the will of God accepted this and gave his life willingly to die for our sins.
If Jesus came and in accord with scriptures and in accord with the will of God voluntarily and willingly gave his life as an atonement for our sin, it doesn’t any difference whether it was Jews or Romans involved.
It is surprising how few of the Jewish people know and understand this. Few of them get that.
So although there might be Christians who believe that historically there were high-ranking Jews involved in bringing about the death of Jesus, in terms of our religion, we don’t believe that’s significant.
So whatever the players might have been – Roman soldiers, Roman governor, Jewish priests, unruly mob – they were just pawns in the playing out of what was indeed the will of God, Jesus dying as an atonement for sin.
So Christian theologians have never claimed that Jesus was killed by the Jews or by the Romans but that God gave his son to die for our sins and that Jesus as the obedient Son of God went willingly to death, that the forces had no power over him but rather that he gave himself as a sacrifice to pay for our sins.
So who really killed Jesus?
As a matter of history, the Roman Empire did but as a matter of theology, the sins of the world – you and me – took Jesus to the cross.
Jesus underwent his passion and death freely because of sins of all men for all times and out of infinite love in order that all may reach salvation.
As to suffering, if Jesus had not suffered all the indignities he went through before the crucifixion, but had still died and rose for our sins, our sins would still have been atoned for.
It is in the death and resurrection of Christ, and not the degree or length of his suffering, that atones for sin.
It is the death and resurrection that matters.
Christians who liked the movie seem to do so because they think it is either educational or inspirational in its portrayal of the suffering and crucifixion of Jesus.
To them the movie did not seem to be touting itself as educational or inspirational in its portrayal of the Jews or the Romans.
Others say of the movie that there is plenty of agony and graphic violence but not much ecstasy.
In this regard see note about Mel’s millions above.
Another viewpoint would be that of Martin Marty: “The humanistic and theological point: pain is pain, suffering is suffering, torture is torture, and horrible pain-suffering-torture is horrible … The point now is not to accept grace because we saw gore. The issue is not, were his the worst wounds ever, but, as the gospels show, the issue was, and is, who was suffering and to what end (my emphasis). Christians believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Anointed, and they are to find meaning in his sacrificial love and death, not to crawl in close to be sure they get the sign of the worst physical suffering.”
After Christianity became a gentile religion, the Gospel accounts were often interpreted in anti-Semitic cultures as justifying persecution and oppression of Jewish people who were said to be cursed by God for killing the Christ.
The history of anti-Semitic interpretations of the passion story and of anti-Semitic presentations of passion plays (see below) continues to fuel the pronounced concern in modern Jewish communities over these presentations, including Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ.
One must understand that history in order to understand and appreciate the level of concern on the part of the Jewish community.
Christians have a hard time understanding the level of the concern in the Jewish community.
The difference between these anti-Semitic interpretations and other situations involving the Japanese at Pearl Harbor or the Mexicans at the Alamo is that, for instance, we have not had hundreds of years of Texans persecuting, marginalizing and oppressing Mexicans because of what they did at the Alamo. Don’t the Egyptians look pretty bad when they watch The Ten Commandments? Why aren’t the Jews accused of anti-Egyptianism?
Whatever happens there is on a different level. They just don’t get the level of concern.
If you had hundreds of years of Jews being in power and doing to the Egyptians what has been done to them, then you would attain that level of concern.
But there has been hundreds of years of persecution of Jewish people in officially Christian nations that was justified because the Jews killed Jesus and are therefore accursed of God – Christ killers.
However, that hardly gives either community free rein to say and do as they see fit without regard for the facts.
So how does this work itself out in the pulpit of most Christian congregations of almost any denomination?
Whether you are talking with Roman Catholics or Lutherans or Baptists or almost any variety of Christianity, preaching has tried to drive home, to proclaim the relevance of Jesus’ atoning death to their immediate audience.
It is not something that happened long ago and far away but it is relevant to us today.
They do not just preach general theology (“Christ died for the sins of the whole world”) but specific application of that theology (“Christ died for our sins!”).
Christian preachers do not usually dwell on the literal historical responsibility for the death of Jesus such as “The Romans killed Jesus” or “The Jews killed Jesus”.
Rather, Christian preachers emphasize a nonliteral, personal responsibility for the death of Jesus: “We crucified Jesus you and I; his blood was shed on our account.”
That’s been my experience in growing up in the Lutheran church. You don’t hear “the Jews killed Jesus and therefore they are accursed of God” but what you hear is “Jesus died for our sins.”
Yet, why did Jesus die? It wasn’t because of the tricky Jews or the sadistic Romans. It was because you and I are such miserable sinners that our sins demanded a costly sacrifice. That’s what we hear in the church; that’s what they preach.
“We are responsible for the death of Christ.” Preachers find different ways of trying to drive home the message that we, as individual Christians, must take personal responsibility because Christ died for us, one way or the other.
Many, many Christian hymns bring this out as well.
Therefore, Christian theology is in no way anti-Semitic. It seems that probably the historical facts are that some Jews were involved in instigating and bringing about the death of Jesus, but it doesn’t make any difference if they were or not. So you could lay that aside. Look at the hymns we sing about this such as the second verse of Ahithophel, Holy Jesus:
Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon thee? Alas my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee. ‘Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee; I crucified thee.
We have never had to purge our hymn books of hymns about how the Jews are to be accursed for killing Jesus. We don’t have hymns like that; it’s not a part of Christian theology. There’s nothing like that in any of the confessions or creeds of the historic Christian church. There is nothing in the Augsburg Confession or the Westminster Confession or the Thirty-Nine Articles. There is nothing in Christian theology about that.
Another example would be Were You There? in which we hear Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble, …
This is where our piety and our preaching and our theology is.
Many NT scholars agree that the earliest NT writings were written by Jews who wanted to emphasize what our role was in Jesus’ death. For example, a Jewish writer such as Paul was saying that Jesus died for us, because of our sins. We can’t just blame his death on the Romans. We must take responsibility for it. So Jewish writers were blaming themselves for the death of Jesus. It’s no difference than the Baptist preacher pointing to his congregation and saying “It’s your fault that Jesus went to the cross. You were to blame.” That’s what Paul was doing except that he had a Jewish congregation. Paul was not saying those Jews killed Jesus; Paul was saying we Jews killed Jesus. We must take responsibility for our sins that brought him to the cross.
So when that stuff got written down and Christianity became a gentile religion, it didn’t read the same. And then when you have anti-Semitic people read these documents in which Jewish writers were saying that we Jews killed Jesus, they were reading them as those Jews killed Jesus which led to all sorts of things. Passion plays were some of the worst examples of this, plays which played up on all kinds of ethnic prejudices against Jews and still sometimes do today.
So in summary all agree that the gospels, especially Mt and Jn, tell us that Jesus was a Jesus victim of Roman violence, that Christian theology has always claimed that Jesus came and gave his life willingly and died for us, for our sins, and that Christian preachers have always tried to impress upon their congregation that we, that you individually, every Christian believer takes responsibility for Jesus’ death.
INTERPRETATION OF THE DEATH OF JESUS
IN AN ANTISEMITIC WORLD
Without a doubt anti-Semitism is real historically in many cultures.
In gentile parts of the world in which anti-Semitism has flourished, the NT gospels have been read and interpreted in anti-Semitic ways.
Church fathers – such as Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, John Chrysostom – popes, Luther, and many, many others have been responsible for anti-Semitic comments and writings.
A history of anti-Semitic interpretations of the passion story and of anti-Semitic presentations of passion plays fuels a pronounced concern in modern Jewish communities over Gibson’s movie.
There is much concern over this movie because the Christian gospels have been read and interpreted in ways that produce anti-Semitism and that has never been more true than with regard to the passion story.
There are other things in Mt and Jn but it really comes to a head when you get the story of the passion.
Then the elements of anti-Semitism and interpretation have often come to the fore and this has been especially played out in the passion plays.
Passion Plays – the interpretation of the death of Jesus in an anti-Semitic world
Presentations of the Passion of Jesus in Christian history have sometimes moved from preaching to polemics.
In cultures where antiSemitism runs high, Jewish involvement in the death of Jesus has been emphasized, and reinterpreted as conveying blame rather than conveying atonement.
Such interpretations of the passion have rarely (if ever) found official acceptance among Christian theologians, but they would flourish at a popular level and would serve to justify centuries of discrimination and persecution of Jewish people.
Thus, Matthew’s Gospel and similar texts would come to be read by Gentile Christians not as saying, “we crucified Jesus” but as saying “they crucified Jesus.”
The essential theological meaning of the story was lost, replaced by a political and social interpretation that explained why Jewish people ought to be despised by Gentiles.
Jews were routinely condemned in such cultures as “Christkillers” and the misfortunes of Jewish people were explained as a consequence of having been cursed by God for their involvement in the crucifixion of Jesus the Messiah.
The most visible representations of these antiSemitic interpretations of the passion were the passion plays that date from the twelfth century and which have been performed in many European communities as well as in other Western Christian countries.
Between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries more than 300 villages in Germany and Austria re-enacted the passion in plays – annually and for hundreds of years.
In an era before television and cinema, such plays were a principal form of entertainment and were performed annually, opening each year on Ash Wednesday and running throughout the Lenten season (that is, until Easter), literally for 40 days not counting Sundays.
They weren’t done on Sundays because they weren’t done in churches.
They were often produced and performed by secular troupes apart from any official sanction of the church.
Over the past several centuries lethal bloody reactions have occurred against Jews following passion play performances.
In 1338 Freiburg banned the performance of anti-Jewish scenes in that town’s play and similar protective measures had to be taken in other towns as well.
It was in these passion plays that Jesus became a Christian victim of Jewish violence rather than a Jewish victim of Roman violence.
Part of the entertainment value of the plays is that you had to have good guys and bad guys.
The plays were presented in such a way that Jesus and the rest of the good guys were not shown to be Jewish too, just as the bad guys were Jewish.
Only the bad people looked and sounded like Jews.
Features of the passion plays that exhibited and encouraged AntiSemitism include:
the Jewishness of Jesus and his disciples was minimized or completely ignored;
the only characters who appeared Jewish were the “bad Jews” who conspired to kill Christ;
the characterization of these “bad Jews” tended to be melodramatic they were presented as sinister and demonic figures whose opposition to Jesus lacked any reasonable motive;
actors playing these supposedly firstcentury Jews would portray them in ways associated with contemporary Jewish figures dressing in garb worn by Jews of the current day, speaking with affected Jewish accents, and drawing for comic effect on negative stereotypes associated with Jewish people in the culture where the play was performed;
the role of the (Gentile) Roman government in Jesus’ execution was greatly minimized.
Pilate was presented as a sympathetic figure, forced to sentence Jesus by the hostile Jews.
In short, Jesus became a Christian victim of Jewish violence rather than a Jewish victim of Roman violence.
In recent years (especially since the Holocaust of the Nazi era), virtually all Christian churches have repudiated the production of such inaccurate and culturally insensitive passion plays.
In 1988 the Roman Catholic Church, in particular, issued guidelines for dramatic presentations of Christ’s passion, in hope that mistakes of the past could be avoided.
Those guidelines appear in National Conference of Catholic Bishops’ 15 page document Criteria for the Evaluation of Dramatizations of the Passion.
The play is to make absolutely clear that if the involvement of the Jewish priest is a part of the play, it is to be made abundantly clear to the audience that this is a small minority of corrupt priests rather than the Jewish priests as a whole.
Accountability for the death of Jesus is to be laid primarily on the Romans.
The Romans are not to be exonerated but the passion play is to make obvious the Roman involvement as being first and foremost in the death of Jesus.
Passion plays are to make clear to the audience that Jesus suffered under Pontius Pilate and that Jesus was crucified under the Romans as a Jewish victim of Roman violence.