The Greatest Tragedy of Human History Was that We Christians Used the Story of Jesus to Hurt Jews

Roundup: Talking About History

Roy Peter Clark, senior scholar at the Poynter Institute, in the St. Petersburg Times (March 7, 2004)::

To me, the greatest tragedy of human history is not the crucifixion of Jesus. (His death, after all, is a Divine Comedy for us believers.) The tragedy lies in how we Christians have used the story of Jesus to hurt the Jews. This injustice will be visited upon our Jewish brothers and sisters with each viewing of The Passion of the Christ, not because the film is a hyperviolent distortion of the Gospels, but because it is a mostly accurate meditation on the central story of Christianity.

Let me state my thesis more boldly: Every time we Christians tell the story of our salvation, we hurt the Jews. As Catholic author and historian James Carroll argues, it did not have to be this way. A truer story of the Jewish rabbi named Yeshua - we call him Jesus - could have emerged over the centuries and millennia. There is still time for this truer story to be told. Given the revival of anti-Semitism around the world, we'd better get to it.

The old story, the one I was taught as a child, goes like this: About 2,000 years ago, Jesus, the Son of God, was born in Bethlehem. He was the Messiah the Jews had been waiting for, the savior of mankind. Although he was Jewish, his life, death and resurrection paved the way for a new religion and a new ethic. The New Law of Christianity would "supersede" the Torah. "Love thy neighbor" would replace "an eye for an eye." But the Jews were "stubborn," and did not accept the teaching of the Christ, the anointed one. In fact, their leaders conspired to kill him, collaborating with the sadistic Romans to do their dirty work for them.

Matthew's version of the Gospel puts it this way: "Now Pilate, seeing that he was doing no good, but rather that a riot was breaking out, took water and washed his hands in the sight of the crowd, saying, "I am innocent of the blood of this just man; see to it yourselves.' And all the people answered and said, "His blood be on us and on our children.' "

And so it came to pass. A profound misunderstanding of the essential Jewishness of Jesus led to a distorted religious vision of faith and history, expressed in the early days of Christianity as an anti-Judaism, then throughout European history as anti-Semitism, and finally, in the 20th century, as the Holocaust, the genocide that Hutton Gibson in a recent radio interview dismissed as mostly "fiction."

There's another way the story of Jesus can, and should, be told. Papal leadership and post-Holocaust theology since John XXIII have paved the way for the telling of this version. As we enter the Lenten season, and teach and preach our way to Good Friday and Easter Sunday, what would happen if we told the story this way?

Jesus was born a Jew and died a Jew. His beloved friends and followers were Jews. He was circumcised into the Jewish religion and named Yeshua. He had a good Jewish mother and father. He studied in the Temple and was precocious in his love and knowledge of the Jewish Scriptures. The young carpenter became a rabbi, a teacher. He never renounced Jewish law or the Jewish people. His teaching always drew upon the Torah and often sought to extend the influence of the Law beyond its letter and toward its spirit. When he said "Love thy neighbor as thyself," he was not creating a new ethic, just shining a light on the Jewish law as stated in Leviticus.

The teaching of the Torah also emphasized love for the stranger, much harder than simple love for family or neighbor, a point that Jesus dramatizes in the parable of the Good Samaritan. On the night before his crucifixion, Jesus celebrated Passover with his followers, and after his death was buried in a manner adherent to Jewish custom and law.

There it is. Jesus was born, lived his life, and died a Jew.

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