Talking To Our Children About Jesus

by Rabbi Richard A. Block
The Temple - Tifereth Israel, Cleveland, OH

Dear Parents:

Below in Q&A format is a simple guide that will give you answers to many of the questions students (especially older students)may have in regard to Jesus and the Mel Gibson film, THE PASSION, that was just released. I hope it is helpful.

Given the controversy that has surrounded the release of Mel Gibson's film, "The Passion of the Christ," and the possibility that our children may have questions, or even be accused of being a "Christ-killer," the following information may prove helpful. It is not usable, as written, for every age group, but it contains some basics that every Jew should know.

Q: Who was Jesus?
A: A Jew who lived and died in the land of Israel (Palestine) in the first century CE (nearly 2000 years ago) when the land was under Roman rule.

Q: What is meant by "Jesus Christ?"
A: "Christ" is Greek for "messiah," a Hebrew word meaning "anointed one," someone specially selected and appointed by God. A small group of followers believed that Jesus was the messiah whose coming, some believed, was predicted in the Jewish bible. Because "Jesus Christ" is a term that means one believes Jesus was the messiah, Jews do not use that term.

Q: Did the Jews of Jesus' time accept him as the Jewish messiah?
A: Only a small handful. Almost no Jews accepted Jesus as the Jewish messiah then or since.

Q: Why not?
A: According to Jewish tradition, the messiah was to accomplish certain tasks: Overthrowing Roman rule in Palestine and restoring Jewish sovereignty under a king descended from King David; bringing about peace and justice throughout the world, both among people and in nature; gathering in all Jews everywhere to the land of Israel; and the resurrection (rebirth) of all Jews who had died or, at least, the righteous among them. These, too, would be gathered into the land of Israel. Jesus lived and died without any of these things happening.

Q: What do Jews believe about Jesus?
A: That he was born, lived, and died a Jew. That he was a good, admirable person, respected as a teacher and role model, but not the messiah or "the son of God" in any way different from other human beings. Judaism teaches that all people are children of God.

Q: Who killed Jesus?
A: Jesus was executed by the Roman authorities upon the order of the Roman procurator (ruler) of Palestine, Pontius Pilate. The method of execution, crucifixion, was used exclusively by the Romans.

Q: Why would the Romans have wanted to kill Jesus?
A: Because he claimed to be, or his followers claimed him to be, the Jewish messiah, whose first goal would be overthrowing Roman rule. While Jews would have regarded that as a religious achievement, the Romans would have seen it as a political crime. The Romans routinely executed anyone who might have been a potential threat to their rule.

Q: Did Jews have anything to do with Jesus' death?
A: We cannot know for sure. The New Testament (the Christian bible) contains different versions of "the Passion," the events of the last days of Jesus' life. These accounts contain accusations that specific Jews, such as the Jewish high priest, Caiaphas, "Jewish authorities," "the [Jewish] mob, or "the Jews" had some degree of involvement in Jesus' condemnation. All the gospels agree, however, that the Romans, not the Jews, killed Jesus.

Q: Are the anti-Jewish accusations true?
A: Modern bible scholars, both Christian and Jewish, believe that some of these accusations are exaggerated and others are simply false. While the New Testament portrays Pontius Pilate as weak, afraid of a Jewish mob, and wanting to find Jesus innocent, Roman historical accounts from that period show that he was a brutal tyrant, certainly not one who was intimidated by Jews. Also, Jewish officials of the time, such as the high priest, were Roman appointees, not the chosen representatives of the Jewish community.

Q: Why would the authors of the New Testament want to put blame on Jews if they did not deserve it?
A: In the first and second centuries CE, when these accounts were written, Christians were trying to win the favor of Roman authorities. To do this, they needed to show two things: that Christians had only peaceable intentions toward Rome, unlike the Jews of Palestine who had revolted twice against Rome; and that Jesus, whom they revered as "Christ," was not a criminal, as his crucifixion would suggest, but an innocent man who was executed due to Jewish pressure, not Roman justice.

Q: If the Romans killed Jesus, why do some people accuse Jews of being "Christ-killers?"
A: People who say such things are ignorant and cruel. They are repeating lies that others have taught them. These lies come from earlier centuries when Christians were taught to hate Jews because they refused to accept Jesus as Christ. The Catholic Church and other Christian groups have apologized for this terrible history. They have made great efforts to teach others that Judaism is to be respected and that, whatever happened 2000 years ago, Jews today are not to be blamed for Jesus' death.

Q: What's the matter with Gibson's film?
A: According to Christian and Jewish scholars who have seen it in private screenings, the film portrays Jewish characters as evil, sinister, and violent people, often dressed in black, some with the stereotypical "hooked nose." In its portrayal of Jews and in its extreme violence, the film goes far beyond what is found in the New Testament and bases itself on "visions" and other sources that lack credibility.
While Christians have every right to make films about the life and death of Jesus, and Jews should be extremely respectful of Christian affirmations of their faith, those who make such films cannot responsibly ignore the history of Passion plays and presentations, which have led to hatred, persecution, and violence against Jews. Unfortunately, Gibson has shown little awareness of or sensitivity to this awful history.

Q: What should I do if a Christian friend sends me material that praises the film and denies that it is anti-Semitic?
A: You may wish to share one or more essays by Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish scholars, expressing their concerns or the letter signed by myself and two prominent local Christian clergy. See: Messages and Materials concerning Mel Gibson's film, "The Passion of Christ" found in a hyperlink at:

Emily R. Feinberg
Education Director
Congregation Etz Hayim
2920 Arlington Blvd.
Arlington VA 22204

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