The True Horror In The Death Of Jesus

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.

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