Mel Gibson has produced and directed a movie about the death of Jesus.
Called ''The Passion,'' it is scheduled to be released next year. ''I think
that the true horror of the Passion will surprise people,'' Gibson told the
National Catholic Register recently. He was referring to the graphic violence
with which the film renders the crucifixion, but no matter how grotesque the
murder of Jesus was, its ''true horror'' lies in the way this event became
the source of hatred and murder aimed at the Jewish people. Gibson's film is
anticipated with a certain skeptical concern, for despite what might seem to
be only good intentions, a literal rendering of the Passion story can
resuscitate the old ''Christ-killer'' charge from which so much evil has
sprung. Judging from press accounts that have already appeared, the problem
is far more complex than Gibson seems to realize.
Even a faithful repetition of the Gospel stories of the death of Jesus can
do damage exactly because those sacred texts themselves carry the virus of
Jew hatred. ''Crucify him! Crucify him!'' Matthew has the Jewish crowd
shouting. ''Let his blood be upon us, and upon our children!'' The murderous
Jews force the hand of a compassionately reluctant Pontius Pilate, who then,
famously, washes his hands, saying, ''I am innocent of this man's blood. It
is your concern.'' (Matthew 27: 23-26).
A momentous challenge confronts the Christian conscience faced with what
scholars now assert with near unanimity -- that the death of Jesus did not
happen as the Passion narratives recount. ''The Jews'' did not sponsor the
death of Jesus. The dramatic trials are unlikely to have occurred.
Control-obsessed Romans would have instantly smashed anyone drawing restive
crowds in the volatile Passover season. Pilate, no humanitarian, was noted in
non-Christian sources for brutality surpassing even the Roman standard. The
Gospels tell the story as if Jesus, in conflict with ''the Jews,'' was not
himself a Jew. The Gospel of John goes so far as to characterize the Jewish
people as allies of Satan, a slander to which Jesus of Nazareth could have in
no way given his assent.
In Holy Week, it is important that Christians recall how their foundational
texts came to enshrine such misrepresentations. A review of the chronology
may help. Jesus died in the year 30 or so. His grief-struck followers, all
Jews, began to meet for prayer, scripture readings, and the exchange of
stories about him. Oral traditions began, but they did not take the form of
written accounts until decades later. The earliest Gospel, Mark, is dated to
around 70, with Matthew and Luke dated to the 80s, and John to around 100.
This is the exact period of the Roman War -- a paroxysm of violence that led
to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Jews, the destruction of the Temple
in 70, and, finally, the leveling of Jerusalem in 135. A massive identity
crisis for all Jews resulted: What is it to be a Jew without the Temple?
Some Jews answered by asserting the primacy of Torah, and others by
asserting the centrality of Jesus. The conflict between these groups shows up
in the Gospels, which were being written only then, as conflict between ''the
Pharisees'' and Jesus. The conflict belonged not to the time of Jesus, but to
the traumatized later period. The Gospels record one side of a heated dispute
among Jews; of the other side we know little.
That groups of Jews should have argued over what it is to be a Jew is not,
perhaps, unusual. Such disputes occur today. Two things made this particular
argument deadly. First, the Jesus movement, especially after the destruction
of Jerusalem, became increasingly dominated by non-Jews who knew nothing of
how Gospel texts were written, or even of the Jewishness of Jesus.
Second, the Jesus movement became the Church of the Empire, with the power t
o press its argument against ''the Jews'' with real force. By the Age of
Constantine, Christians had ''misremembered'' their own origins. The Passion
narrative, instead of being taken as an argument within the Jewish community,
was read as an argument against it.
The ''Christ-killer'' lie has been exposed by modern scholarship -- and by
modern history. The religious anti-Judaism of the Gospels provided soil out
of which grew the racial anti-Semitism of the Holocaust. Once Christians know
where the falsely anti-Jewish Passion story led, it is criminal for them to
repeat it naively -- whether from a pulpit or on a movie screen. The texts
must be preached against themselves -- as the original blood libel.
Christians must measure this story against the primal fact of their own
faith -- that Jesus of Nazareth was a firmly committed Jew until the day he
died. A victim himself, Jesus would have sponsored nothing that made victims
of his own beloved people.