A Hateful View of the Jews: Gibson's Passion Play

Roundup: Talking About History

Geza Vermes, in the London Sunday Telegraph (Feb. 15, 2004):

In the storm of publicity which has preceded the release of Mel Gibson's gory film, The Passion of the Christ, its promoters have claimed (though the Vatican has denied) that the Pope gave his blessing to the movie saying: "It is as it was." This is supposed to mean that the film is historically reliable. Gibson was less reticent and suggested that it was "directed by the Holy Ghost". For students of first-century Jewish history, I am afraid things are not that simple.

The Passion story of the New Testament can be seen in three distinct ways. The theological view is that the Son of God sacrificed himself to redeem the sins of all men. Each human being should feel responsible for his death on the cross.

Next we have the literal reading of the Gospel story. There we encounter determined Jews, headed by their high priest Caiaphas, wishing to see Jesus dead, and bullying a weak Roman governor into complying with their design. This understanding of the Gospel account of the Passion was twisted into the doctrine of deicide - the notion that the Jews killed God - and to the deplorable caricature of the Jewish people as Christ-killers. The Second Vatican Council - which Mel Gibson, as an ultra-traditional Catholic, rejects - explicitly condemned and exorcised this devilish teaching.

The objective of the third approach is to uncover the true Passion story lurking beneath the text of the New Testament by determining the purpose of the narrators, the identity of its readers, the wider historical setting and the use of textual interpretation.

The four Gospels were all written after the suppression of the Jewish revolt against Rome between AD 70 and 110. By the end of the first century the very large majority of the intended readers were non-Jewish inhabitants of the Greco-Roman world. They shared the prevailing strong anti-Jewish sentiment which followed the unpopular rebellion against the empire. For the Gospel writers to have advanced the claim that a Jewish Redeemer was crucified by Pilate - that Rome was to blame - would have been wholly counterproductive.

Given this highly specific context, it is no surprise that Jesus and his followers are not really presented as Jews. By contrast, it is the Jews that the Gospels - especially Matthew - blame for the death of Jesus. (In Mark, the chief priests ask for witnesses; in Matthew for false witnesses.) Again, Matthew alone carries the fateful words, "His blood be on us and on our children" - a curse upon all Jews for the rest of time. Every effort is made, on the other hand, to excuse Pontius Pilate of complicity in the crime, short of denying that it was he who ordered the crucifixion.

About Pilate a great deal is known. All the first-century sources other than the Gospels depict him as a harsh, insensitive and cruel figure, guilty of bribery, and responsible for numerous executions without trial. He was dismissed and banished by the emperor Tiberius. The portrait in the New Testament of a vacillating weakling, troubled by his conscience but eventually yielding to the bloodthirsty Jewish mob, is quite at odds with what we know of the real Pilate.

The governors were also the absolute masters of the Jewish high priests whom they appointed and sacked at will. It is complete historical nonsense, as is apparently implied in Gibson's film, to suggest that Caiaphas bulldozed Pilate into executing Jesus. The Passion of Christ is only the latest version of the story over the centuries to present Caiaphas as the villain of the piece. In fact, he found himself in an unenviable position. As the head of the Jews in Judea, he and his council were duty-bound to keep law and order for the Romans in a troublesome country and an even more turbulent Jerusalem, filled with crowds of international pilgrims around Passover. For the Jews, Passover was the feast of liberation and the moment of the year when the Messiah was expected to appear. In the powder keg of first-century Jerusalem any disturbance would have provoked violent Roman retaliation.

Jesus was guilty of causing a commotion in the merchants' quarter in the Temple when he overturned the stalls and tables of the dealers in animals and moneychangers. From the point of view of the authorities, he was a dubious charismatic prophet, preaching a new Kingdom of God. He had a following. He and his men were Galileans, and Galilee was a hotbed of anti-Roman agitation. Some of his companions were reputed to be revolutionaries like Simon the Zealot - and maybe even Judas Iscariot, if Iscariot derives from Sicarius, a murderous dagger man. So Jesus had to be dealt with to avoid disorder in which many might have been slaughtered.

According to the Gospel writers, Caiaphas judged Jesus to be a blasphemer for calling himself the Messiah. Such an assertion did not amount to blasphemy in any Jewish law, Biblical or post-Biblical. But if Caiaphas mistakenly thought it did, he should have condemned him to die by stoning, the prescribed Jewish capital penalty for a religious crime. Yet, having declared him guilty, the court abruptly changed tack. It abandoned the religious charge for a new political one and laid it before Pilate: Jesus was a rebel. Crucifixion was the Roman penalty for sedition and Jesus, like thousands of Jewish revolutionaries, died on the cross.

Here we need to pause and reflect. Why did Caiaphas not order his henchmen to proceed with the stoning of Jesus? The first three Gospels overlook the question. Only John makes the Jews give Pilate a legal tutorial in which they claim to him that they are not authorised to carry out the death penalty. But was this, in fact, the case? There is, it is true, some evidence to show that the right to put a criminal to death was the exclusive privilege of the Roman governor. But there are arguments that appear even stronger suggesting quite otherwise.

There were, it seems, circumstances in which the Jews themselves could impose capital punishment without Rome's permission. Philo of Alexandria, an older contemporary of Jesus, attests that entry into the innermost area of the Temple was punishable by death without appeal. The Jewish historian Josephus (37-c100) and an inscription from the Temple also proclaim that any non-Jew, even a Roman citizen, risked his life if caught inside the sanctuary. In such cases, there was no need for the Roman governor's consent. We also learn from the Acts of the Apostles that when St Paul was summoned before the Sanhedrin (the supreme court in Jerusalem) on a capital charge, he was so afraid of being found guilty and put to death that he used the privilege of a Roman citizen to appeal to the emperor's tribunal.

From all this we can draw an important conclusion: the decision of Caiaphas to hand Jesus's case over to Pontius Pilate did not reflect his legal incapacity to execute him, but his unwillingness to do so. He was passing the buck - and the decision to crucify Jesus was Pilate's and Pilate's alone.

This is not pure speculation. In AD 62, some 30 years after the crucifixion of Christ, another Jesus, the son of Ananias, was brought before the Jewish high court in Jerusalem on the charge of fomenting disorder during the pilgrimage Feast of Tabernacles. The magistrates first tried to silence him by a severe beating. It did not work, so they handed him over to the Roman governor Albinus because they were worried that he might be God's prophet. He administered an even worse beating to the accused before interrogating him. This Jesus refused to reply. But this story has a happier ending than that of Jesus of Nazareth. As Jesus, son of Ananias, was without followers, the governor concluded that he was a lunatic and let him go.

I hope that, seen in their genuine historical context, the New Testament accounts of the trial and execution of Jesus will become less perplexing and less likely to feed anti-Semitism. Perhaps the Pope's alleged verdict of Gibson's film should be reformulated to read: it would be better if it were not.

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