Where Gibson Is Wrong

By Joseph Puder
Executive Director, American Jewish Congress
September, 2003

Mel Gibson's "Passion of the Christ" Film is not strictly anti-Semitic nor is Mel Gibson an anti-Semite. That said: let us describe what the film is: it is an attempt to provide moviegoers with a verbatim account of the gospels with added gore, and innuendo. Taken at face value Gibson should be commended for producing a film that is authentic to the detail of the gospels including the Aramaic spoken at the time of Jesus by Jews and the Latin spoken by the Roman occupational forces.

What the film lacks however is historical context, veracity and truth, and most of all, the political background of the drama known as "The Passion of Jesus." The gospels were not written by G-d, or by scribes who recorded the Jesus' words in real time and place. The earliest Christian Scriptures are Paul's Letters written in 50 CE, that is almost a generation after the demise and crucifixion of Jesus. The two never met, nor was Paul familiar first hand with Jesus' sayings, miracles, or vision. Paul is nevertheless the founder of Christianity, while Jesus is the product.

Paul, a former Pharisee becomes a bitter opponent of the Pharisaic or traditional-normative Judaism. Paul's 14 letters become articles of faith for the nascent Christian church. Still, in his lifetime, Paul is an emissary for the Jewish Church of the Notzrim (Nazarenes) headed by James-the brother of Jesus. Paul finds his fame and fortune in the Hellenistic world, in which he grew up prior to his arrival in Jerusalem. He is concocting a religion based on faith in Jesus, Greek philosophy, and his ancestral Judaism.

In his travels throughout the Roman Empire, Paul seeks to influence Jewish congregation to join his reformed Judaism's church, based on the above elements. As the Jews reject his ideas, he found ready converts among the Gentiles, who appreciate his faith-based religion, which unlike normative Judaism rescinds the requirement of circumcision and the observance of Kashrus. By the end of the First Century CE, the Gentile members of the new church outnumber the Jews.

The single most dramatic event that influenced the growth of Christianity as a separate and distinct religion was the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE. To the contemporaries in the Roman Empire the destruction of the Temple meant that G-d has abandoned His People. It was easy to sell the new covenant through Jesus since the old was now seemingly revoked. If prior to 70CE, Judaism enjoyed a privileged status in Roman society and under Roman law, after 70CE Judaism attracted less and less converts. Conversely, the new Christian church enjoyed resurgence as it increasingly disassociated itself from Judaism.

The most conspicuous passage in the New Testament that has brought countless torture and death to Jews in countless generations is found in the gospel according to Matthew Chapter 27:25 "Then answered all the people, and said, His blood be on us, and on our children." This comes after the betrayal of Jesus by Judas Iscariot (Matthew 26:14-15)
"Then one of the Twelve, called Judas Iscariot, went into the chief priests, And said unto them, what will ye give me, and I will deliver him (Jesus) unto you? And they covenanted with him for thirty pieces of silver." This last passage became a stereotype for anti-Semites in which to characterize the Jew.

The Matthew gospel portrays Pontius Pilate as innocent in the death of Jesus. Here is the story in Mt 27:23-24
"And the governor said, why, what evil hath he done? But they cried out the more, saying, let him be crucified. When Pilate saw that he could not prevail, but that rather a tumult was made, he took water, and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, I am innocent of the blood of this person. See ye to it."

Let's begin by providing historical and political context. The chief priests that Judas goes to are Sadducees - or the Temple bureaucracy. A fortnight earlier Jesus had overturned the stalls at the Temple courtyard, an area from which the Temple bureaucracy profited. This limited group of people had a grudge against Jesus for derailing their business. They (Sadducees) had an ideological problem with Jesus as well.

In the Jerusalem of the First century CE, Judea was divided into multiple political/religious parties.

The Pharisee party was probably the largest and most popular among the people. They too split into two schools: Shamai and Hillel. Jesus would undoubtedly have been a Hillite teacher/rabbi, given his more moderate interpretation of the Torah. The Pharisees were Jewish Particularists.

Other parties included the Zealots (Nationalists), who sought to end Roman occupation and bring back full sovereignty to Judea.

The Essenes, an ascetic sect of minor priests that split away from the Sadducees. Hellenists, who imported the habits, philosophy and way of life of the Greco-Roman world (Universalists). Finally, there was the new party of the Nazarenes, who took Jesus to be the Messiah of Israel.

Contrary to the Matthew gospel, the Pharisees were not the enemies of Jesus; yet, it is the Pharisees who are called by Matthew "hypocrites, snakes and vipers." The Sadducees, if anything, believed in the literal interpretation of the Torah, considering it written by God. The Pharisees believed the Torah was inspired by God. Jesus' actions, such as plucking a cornhusk on the Sabbath offended the Sadducees far more than the Hillelite school of Pharisees. Jesus conformed to their belief that the Shabbat was made for man rather than man was made for the Sabbath.

More importantly however, by the First Century CE, Rome sold the High Priesthood to the highest bidder. And the Temple bureaucracy led by the high priest, were beholden to the Romans. And, Jesus threatened the Romans (who feared insurrection by a popular figure such as Jesus) and the high priest Caiaphas, who saw in Jesus a rabble-rouser, and a trouble maker (overturning the stalls at the Temple courtyard).

Matthew, the Jewish gospel writer from Antioch, whose gospel is alleged by most experts to have been written between 80-90 CE, has clearly a score to settle with normative (Pharisaic) Judaism. It is apparent however that even Matthew could not have meant in (Mt.27: 25) "All the people." Moreover, in the process of translation from oral Aramaic and Hebrew to Greek and Latin, something got lost in process and other things were neatly rearranged. This is without a doubt a post-Nicaean redaction. Consider moreover, that Roman Emperor Constantine in 325CE sought to consolidate all the diverse gospel texts and Christian writings. He sought a single version, a uniformed religion of the Empire, and a text that exonerated Rome from killing the God/messiah or Jesus Christ, the redeemer. Matthew 27:25 is clearly an odd insertion into the text, which does not make much sense in the context of people crying "his blood be on us" when at the same time we are told of Jesus' popularity with the people of Jerusalem. Even if Matthew sought a Torah related parallel, such an oddity as Mt. 27:25 could hardly have been his choice.

The church fathers in the 4th Century CE were now in a position to impose at will the text of their choice. Christianity became the state religion with Constantine, and Canonization of the New Testament scripture proceeded. Clearly, the church fathers were not inclined to malign Pilate, a brutal killer of Jews, as the crucifier of Jesus. Instead, "he took water and washed his hands" (Mt.27: 24). Pilate was in fact recalled to Rome and demoted because of his brutality.

Judaism was seen by the church fathers as competing for the hearts and minds of people in the Roman Empire. Paul resented that competition, and now when the opportunity arose with Christianity as the exclusive religion of the Empire, why not malign the crucifixion on a people whose Temple was destroyed, their sovereignty demolished, and its citizens dispersed among the nations? A perfect script for church triumphalism.

Matthew had indeed a score to settle. Following the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE, Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakki escaped from the besieged city to form a learning center in Yavne. There, to protect the remnant of the Jewish People he inserted a prayer/curse on the "minim" alien people of the nations outside Israel. Matthew, living in Antioch at the same time perceived it as an attack on the Christian community and thus, launched a bitter attack in his gospels against the Pharisees/rabbis.

It is now apparent that a cursory reading of the gospel of Matthew, the only one to contain the passage "His blood be on us, and on our children" would bring about hostility against Jews. The tradition of passion plays in the past elicited emotions on a small scale. Now in motion pictures seen by millions, the impact of the visual without the historical and political context might be devastating. It will unleash a torrent of anti-Semitic hate, directed at Jews worldwide, and the Jewish State in particular.

It will provide the racist and anti-Semitic Arab world with ready to fire ammunition.

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