David Klinghoffer: Mel Gibson's Controversial Film Coincides Closely with Ancient Jewish Writings

Roundup: Historians' Take

David Klinghoffer, a columnist for the Jewish Forward and author of the forthcoming Why the Jews Rejected Christ: In Search of the Turning Point in Western History, writing in the LAT (Jan. 1, 2004):

Mel Gibson's forthcoming movie about the death of Jesus, "The Passion," has created an angry standoff between the filmmaker and Jewish critics who charge him with anti-Semitism. It's a controversy that will continue to affect relations between Christians and Jews unless some way to cool it can be found. One possible cooling agent is an honest look at how ancient Jewish sources portrayed the Crucifixion.

According to those who have seen a rough cut, Gibson's film depicts the death of Christ as occurring at the hands of the Romans but at the instigation of Jewish leaders, the priests of the Jerusalem Temple . The Anti-Defamation League charges that this recklessly stirs anti-Jewish hatred and demands that the film be edited to eliminate any suggestion of Jewish deicide.

But like the Christian Gospels that form the basis of Gibson's screenplay, Jewish tradition acknowledges that our leaders in 1st century Palestine played a role in Jesus' execution. If Gibson is an anti-Semite, so is the Talmud and so is the greatest Jewish sage of the past 1,000 years, Maimonides.

We will never know for certain what happened in Roman Palestine around the year 30, but we do know what Jews who lived soon afterward said about Jesus' execution.

The Talmud was compiled in about the year 500, drawing on rabbinic material that had been transmitted orally for centuries. From the 16th century on, the text was censored and passages about Jesus and his execution were erased to evade Christian wrath. But the full text was preserved in older manuscripts, and today the censored parts may be found in minuscule type, as an appendix at the back of some Talmud editions.

A relevant example comes from the Talmudic division known as Sanhedrin, which deals with procedures of the Jewish high court: "On the eve of Passover they hung Jesus of Nazareth. And the herald went out before him for 40 days [saying, 'Jesus] goes forth to be stoned, because he has practiced magic, enticed and led astray Israel . Anyone who knows anything in his favor, let him come and declare concerning him.' And they found nothing in his favor."

The passage indicates that Jesus' fate was entirely in the hands of the Jewish court. The last two of the three items on Jesus' rap sheet, that he "enticed and led astray" fellow Jews, are terms from Jewish biblical law for an individual who influenced others to serve false gods, a crime punishable by being stoned, then hung on a wooden gallows. In the Mishnah, the rabbinic work on which the Talmud is based, compiled about the year 200, Rabbi Eliezer explains that anyone who was stoned to death would then be hung by his hands from two pieces of wood shaped like a capital letter T -- in other words, a cross (Sanhedrin 6:4).

These texts convey religious beliefs, not necessarily historical facts. The Talmud elsewhere agrees with the Gospel of John that Jews at the time of the Crucifixion did not have the power to carry out the death penalty. Also, other Talmudic passages place Jesus 100 years before or after his actual lifetime. Some Jewish apologists argue that these must therefore deal with a different Jesus of Nazareth. But this is not how the most authoritative rabbinic interpreters, medieval sages like Nachmanides, Rashi and the Tosaphists, saw the matter.

Maimonides, writing in 12th century Egypt , made clear that the Talmud's Jesus is the one who founded Christianity. In his great summation of Jewish law and belief, the Mishneh Torah, he wrote of "Jesus of Nazareth, who imagined that he was the Messiah, but was put to death by the court." In his "Epistle to Yemen ," Maimonides states that "Jesus of Nazareth ... interpreted the Torah and its precepts in such a fashion as to lead to their total annulment. The sages, of blessed memory, having become aware of his plans before his reputation spread among our people, meted out fitting punishment to him."

It's unfair of Jewish critics to defame Gibson for saying what the Talmud and Maimonides say, and what many historians say. Oddly, one of the scholars who has most vigorously denounced Gibson -- Paula Fredriksen, a professor of religious studies at Boston University -- is the author of a meticulously researched book, "Jesus of Nazareth," that suggests it was the high priests who informed on Jesus to the Roman authorities.

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Adam Holland - 3/7/2006

Klinghoffer, to his discredit, is selling a distorted interpretation of some cryptic passages of the Talmud as conclusive statements of historical fact. Fact: the Talmud never mentions Jesus. Fact: the Talmud never discusses Jesus' trial or execution. Fact: antisemites have taken certain passages relating to other historical or mythic figures and interpreted them to be cryptic references to Jesus, but this is unsupported by scholarship. Klinghoffer does a terrible disservice to his readers. For an accurate interpretation, see:


Kenneth Stow - 1/10/2004

It might be recalled this this would not be the first time that a film on Jesus and his death caused Jewish reaction. The contrast is noteworthy, since in 1927, De Mille's film The King of Kings aroused debate within the Jewish Community, whether to react publicly or through quiet channels (Felicia Herman in the Venus Fly Trap. Things have clearly changed.
Klinghoffer should know, however, that interpretation of rabbinic text is not a simple matter; like all textual interpretation, one must first acquire the requisite hermeneutic skills. Later Jewish writers did speak condemningly of Jesus. One can find much more sharply worded retorts in Western European literature (as opposed to Maimonides, who lived all his life among Muslims, mostly in Fustat, Old Cairo, in Egypt). In the name of Jesus, hundreds of Jews had been killed, and all the rest lived under heavy restriction, ordained by both religious and lay rulers. The talmudic text cited, long known to moderns (see the work of David Rokeah), is really part of a discussion of bastardy, since the legend about Jesus said he was that (the fruit of an adulterous union, to be specific). When precisely the text was written, I do not know, but that it is a product of the later first century at the earliest and very likely the second century or even a tad later, there can be no doubt. By this moment, no little debate, even sharp words, had been exchanged between Jews and Christians. People did not write of the past to speak strictly of the past, but to express ideas and ideals. Especially legal midrash, or any other midrash as this. In short, the historical value of such passages in the modern sense of "accurate detail, or memory," is nil. It would be best to treat these texts as such.
Finally, the article misses the whole point. Jews and many, many Christians have been struggling in the last decades to eliminate the idea that the Jews killed Christ, with all the theological implications. A film that--in the most effective media arena around--reiterates the idea is, by its very nature, destructive. We do not censor films in an educated society. But we can--must--tell people that what they see is Gibson's fantasy, and a dangerous one at that. Anything less is to suggest that a film like Gibson's, or any statement in its support, has positive value. That would be negative in the extreme.

Roberta Seid - 1/9/2004

It is stunning to read Kilinghoffer's ahistorical and internally inconsistent argument. Even the four Gospels, written 30 to 100 years after Jesus' death, do not agree on the cirumstances surrounding his death.How much less, then, could The Talmud be accurate, given it was written down a few centuries later, when Christianity had become the religion of the Roman Empire. Klinghoffer even allows that the Talmud writings he refers to are unclear about what century the person they refer to as Jesus even lived. And to suggest that Maimonides, writing not in ancient times but in the 12th century, would somehow be historically accurate is even more ahistorical and even less convincing. During disputes about Gibson's script, scholars noted that Gibson relied primarily on the writings of Sister Anne Catherine Emmerich (1774-1824)who recorded her visions and who lived in a radically different time period and was influenced by her own cultural milieu and resurgent romantic Catholicism. Had Gibson acknowledged that his film was about the crucifixion as envisioned through the ecstatic visions of an early 19th century Catholic mystic, it would have been okay. But to have Gibson even suggest that his film is an accurate portrayal--and to have Klinghoffer bring up scattered, historically promiscuous "confirmation" of this nonsense--is disturbing to say the least and just perpetuates the woeful ignorance that seems to dominate too much of popular culture.