David Novak: The Origins of Jewish-Christian Animosity

Roundup: Talking About History

[David Novak is a professor of Jewish studies at the University of Toronto and the author of Natural Law in Judaism (Cambridge University Press).]

When The Passion of the Christ elicited such great public controversy a few years ago, it raised once again the old question of how Jews and Judaism are portrayed in classical Christian sources, first and foremost in the New Testament. And it raised the new question as to how accurately Mel Gibson's film represented that portrayal. From at least a cursory reading of the New Testament accounts of Jesus's relations with his fellow Jews and with Judaism, the image one retains seems to be largely a negative one (although we are now aware that the picture of Jews and Judaism in the Qur'an is far more negative, and far more dangerous). And in the minds of many people, certainly in the minds of many Jews, Gibson's film made a bad image even worse.

Gibson, whether he knew it or not, drew upon a long history of Christian anti-Judaism in developing his own picture of how badly the Jews treated Jesus, even adding some points not found in the New Testament. Those Christians who are earnest in their desire to have a new and more positive relationship with Jews and with Judaism were embarrassed by Gibson's film and sought to dismiss it, while trying to show more positive Christian precedents for a better Christian-Jewish dispensation. This effort of getting Christians to examine Christian anti- Judaism candidly and critically has been, to a certain extent, the result of the goading of Jewish scholars of Christianity, such as Marcel Simon and Jules Isaac, whose works laid out the evidence of Christian anti-Judaism. It results also from the influence of great Christian scholars such as Edward Flannery and Malcolm Hay, who, after World War II and its devastation of European Jewry, began to respond to this challenge with scholarly acumen. This response requires not least that pro-Jewish Christian scholars learn more about Judaism than anti-Jewish Christian scholars in the past knew (or wanted to know), if they are to develop a new and better Christian picture of Judaism as it really is.

Both Christian and Jewish texts have had to be re-examined with the greatest care, so that this rethinking not become an apologetic whitewash of embarrassing traditions rather than an honest, and often painful, re-assessment of them. This process of re-examination and reconstruction has been salutary for both Jews and Christians--for Jews because it has led to a great decrease in Christian contempt for them and for Judaism (and not only from scholars of religion), and for Christians because it has better enabled them to avoid the temptation of modern anti-Semitism, which often turns out to be as anti-Christian as it is anti-Jewish. For this reason, the new rigor and the new candor have great political significance....

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