Two Millennia Later, It Doesn't Matter Who Killed Jesus

Wednesday, February 18, 2004

Like many American Jews, I've been wondering how to respond to Mel Gibson's movie about the death of Jesus Christ. To gain some fresh insight on Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ," which will open in theaters on Feb. 25, I decided to turn to a Jewish prophet who lived and died nearly 2,000 years after Jesus.

I speak, of course, of Lenny Bruce.

New York Gov. George Pataki recently awarded a posthumous pardon to Bruce, whose comic routines about fornication and homosexuality often ran afoul of state obscenity laws. Yet Bruce's most famous riff focused not upon sex but on the very subject of Mel Gibson's film -- that is, the Crucifixion.

"Alright, I'll clear the air once and for all, and confess," joked Bruce, who died of a heroin overdose in 1966. "Yes, we did it. I did it, my family. I found a note in my basement. It said: 'We killed him, signed, Morty.' "

Bruce well understood the hate and violence that Jews had incurred -- not just in Europe but in the United States -- for their supposed murder of Jesus.

Instead of denying the charge, however, he pleaded guilty to it, night after night. And his audiences laughed, every time.

Why? Because, in their guts, they grasped Bruce's point: For present-day purposes, it does not matter who killed Jesus. By refuting the charge or shifting blame to the Romans, modern Jews appeared to admit they would be responsible if our foreparents in Israel had murdered Christ. But nobody today, and that means nobody, can or should be held culpable for an act that occurred two millennia ago.

Let's be clear: The movie is chock-full of historical distortions and fabrications. To make the film "as truthful as possible," Gibson says, he shot most of it in Aramaic, the daily language of the ancient Jews. But he also depicts soldiers conversing in Latin, which is well-nigh impossible: Rome's Middle Eastern legions were local gentiles, not "Romans," and they spoke in Greek.

Most of all, there is no historical evidence of any kind that the Jews killed Christ. Gibson's "history" comes mainly from the four Gospels, which were all written decades after Christ's death and differed significantly on its details. As Boston University historian Paula Fredricksen recently wrote, the very fact that Christ was crucified -- a highly ritualized and public form of punishment -- shows that Rome wanted him dead; and only Rome had the power to crucify.

But why should any of this affect Jewish guilt today? I am grateful for the efforts of Fredricksen and eight other Biblical scholars, who produced a withering 18-page report last June denouncing the many inaccuracies in Gibson's script. By hinging our response to the film on that history, however, I also worry that we concede too much to anti-Semites. As Lenny Bruce realized, the very act of denying the Jews' murder of Christ seems to acknowledge that Jewish people today bear responsibility for Jewish deeds and misdeeds in the distant past.

I first encountered this pernicious idea in Nepal, of all places, where I served as a Peace Corps volunteer in the early '80s. A fellow volunteer and I were sitting in a tea shop, admiring the colorful calendar on its wall. Each month of the calendar bore a drawing of a different Hindu god except for December, which featured a bearded, scantily clad man on a cross. "Hey look," the proprietor said. "It's your God."

No, I told him in my broken Nepali, it isn't. You know how Buddha was a Hindu, but he started his own religion? Well, Jesus was a Jew, like me, and he started his own religion ... "Oh, you're the guys who killed him!" the shop owner exclaimed.

No, I told him, we didn't. I was astonished that a minimally educated man in very rural Nepal had even heard of Jews, let alone of the Christ-killing libel against them. But my biggest shock came a moment later, when my Peace Corps companion turned blankly to me and said, "Funny, I always thought you Jews killed Christ."

You Jews. I paused for a moment, dumbstruck, and then I denied it again.

Today, though, I'd take a different approach. I'd say yes, you bet, we did it! And we're all guilty, every single one of us. I even found a confession, signed by some guy named Morty.

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history at New York University's Steinhardt School of Education. He is the author of "Whose America? Culture Wars in the Public Schools" (Harvard, 2002).

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