April 12, 2009


Who Killed Jesus?: After centuries of censure, Jews have been relieved of general responsibility for the death of Jesus. Now who gets the blame? (Paul L. Maier, April 9, 1990, Christianity Today)

"In its effect upon the life of the Jewish people," declares Jerusalem rabbi Eliezar Berkovits, "Christianity's New Testament has been the most dangerous anti-Semitic tract in history." His opinion is shared by a growing number of Christian theologians, many of whom are calling for editorial exclusion of all "anti-Jewish" sections of the New Testament, particularly in John's gospel. The publicity-conscious group of scholars known as the Jesus Seminar now declares that all passages in the Gospels that claim the Jews were at least partly responsible for the Crucifixion are not authentic and should be removed from the New Testament.

Such revisionism reached a new extreme at a conference held at Oxford in September 1989, when A. Roy Eckardt, emeritus professor at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, suggested that Christians ought to abandon the resurrection of Jesus, since it "remains a primordial and unceasing source of the Christian world's anti-Judaism."

Strangely, too many Christian theologians seem silent in the face of such broadsides against the faith. It is high time to return to the historical record.

The question of Jewish involvement in the arrest and judicial process against Jesus of Nazareth in that first "Holy Week" continues to percolate through many strata in the debate between Christians, Jews, and New Testament scholars. Probably no issue in the history of religion has elicited more blind partisanship, misinterpretation, faulty logic, hostility, or fad following. [...]

Just what is historical?

Both interpretations above of the Jewish role on Good Friday are grossly mistaken. To deny any Jewish prosecution may be almost normative in current revisionist theology, but it flies in the face of historical fact. Quite apart from the New Testament accounts, the traditions in the Babylonian Talmud about Yeshu Hannozri, Jesus the Nazarene (Sanhedrin 43a), and the minim ("heretics," particularly Christians) are very negative, an attitude fully congruent with the opposition portrayed in the Gospels. The traditions are negative also toward the house of Annas, incidentally, so any attempted rehabilitation of that priestly family must fail (Pesachim 57a).

From the earliest records, the hostility between synagogue and church is well attested, and much of the apostle Paul's life and theology would have no meaning if this were not the case. Again, quite apart from the New Testament epistles and Acts, the testimony of the first-century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus demonstrates early Sanhedral opposition to Christianity in a remarkable incident that has so many startling parallels to Good Friday that it might well be styled "Good Friday II." This incident involved James, the half-brother of Jesus, and presiding authority at the Apostolic Council (Acts 15). Josephus reports that the high priest Ananus... indicted James during the interim between the administrations of Festus and Albinus as governors of Judea:

Ananus thought that with Festus dead and Albinus still on the way, he would have his opportunity. Convening the judges of the Sanhedrin, he brought before them a man named James, the brother of Jesus who was called the Christ, and certain others. He accused them of having transgressed the law, and condemned them to be stoned to death. (Antiquities, xx, 197)

That Christianity was the charge on this occasion is confirmed by Hegesippus, the earliest of the church chroniclers, who was quoted by the early church historian Eusebius in his Ecclesiastical History (ii, 23). The comparison, then, is conclusive.

Pilate's defensive posture vis-à-vis Jesus, as portrayed in the Gospels, also finds dramatic resonance in the attitude of a later successor, Albinus, who was so angry that Ananus had incited the stoning of James that, upon his arrival, he arranged for the deposition of the high priest.

The high-priestly and Sanhedral opposition to Jesus in the Gospels, then, is dramatically reflected just a generation later in the case of his half-brother James, who was executed by the brother-in-law of Caiaphas. This report, it should again be emphasized, comes from a Jewish (that is, non-Christian) source.

As for Pilate himself, that he had ultimate legal responsibility in Jesus' case is beyond debate. That he could have been subject to the pressures portrayed in the Gospels also appears highly credible. Riot control in Jerusalem was not the simple matter claimed by revisionist critics, and Pilate's Jerusalem cohort of Samaritan and Syrian mercenaries would have been hard pressed to handle thousands of angry demonstrators. According to Josephus's Jewish War (ii, 538f.), a later Roman governor named Cestius Gallus of Syria commanded no less than a legion (several thousand soldiers), but he and his men were chased out of Jerusalem by the riots that sparked the Jewish rebellion in A.D. 66.

Pilate was probably under further pressure from the Roman imperial government in the so-called Episode of the Golden Shields in Jerusalem, according to the first-century Alexandrian Jewish philosopher Philo (Embassy to Gaius 38ff.). Months earlier, Pilate had received a truculent letter from the emperor Tiberius, ordering him to remove shields that he had hung in his praetorium, which Herod Antipas and his brothers had found offensive. The imperial directive also warned Pilate to uphold all Jewish religious customs henceforth. Clearly, then, Pilate was in no position to disregard the wishes of the crowd by setting Jesus free, as critics claim he could so easily have done.

Furthermore, the earliest church fathers, especially Polycarp in Martyrdom of Polycarp (13f.) and Justin in Dialogue with Trypho (17), are virtually unanimous in finding the attitude reflected by the prosecution on Good Friday endorsed by many in the synagogues of their own day. Indeed, some of these opponents were active in harassing them personally for their Christianity. [...]

Logic and extrabiblical sources...offer a better solution to the tangled problem of the prosecution on Good Friday, one that does no violence to the New Testament sources or to historical fact. Both Christians and Jews should find it not only accurate but also congenial. Perhaps, then, they will abandon arbitrary, indeed illogical, excesses of interpretation whenever they discuss the events of Good Friday.

As Father Richard John Neuhaus has written:
In the shadow of the Holocaust, it is both morally imperative and good manners to emphasize the linkage between Judaism and Christianity. But much more is involved than a moral imperative, and certainly much more than good manners. It simply is not possible to understand the Christian story apart from its placement in the Jewish story.

Unfortunately though, this inextricability must lead to enduring, often horrific, tension. Whatever else may be true of Mel Gibson's forthcoming movie then, it affords the opportunity for a discussion of what the passion mystery means to Christians and what its misuse over the centuries has meant for Jews. Even Entertainment Weekly has a long article about the issues surrounding the film this week--a salutary change from our usual cultural obsessions, like the Super Bowl halftime show or whatever.

The passion over the Passion: Mel Gibson has done the unthinkable. He's made a non-English film that is poised to become the most popular film in America. Oh yeah, and it's about some guy named Jesus. (Benyamin Cohen, February 16, 2004, Jewsweek)

[Originally posted: February 18, 2004]

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Posted by Orrin Judd at April 12, 2009 12:53 AM
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