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Is the Gospel anti-Semitic?

Published March 7, 2004

I am a lifelong Catholic with a Jewish grandmother. It is from that vantage point that I venture into the debate surrounding Mel Gibson's movie, The Passion of the Christ, a film that depicts in agonizing detail the torture and crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth.

In order to see the movie, I had to overcome my biases against its creator. Popular actor and director Mel Gibson is the son of Hutton Gibson, a notorious Holocaust denier, a man who, at the age of 85, continues to spout anti-Semitic invective and conspiracy theories about the Jews.

Father and son are both members of a breakaway sect from the Catholic Church that rejects the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, including those that seek reconciliation between Christians and Jews. I wanted to be able to judge the movie as a work of art on its own terms - but, then again, why should I? Why should anybody? And why, especially, should the Jews?

To me, the greatest tragedy of human history is not the crucifixion of Jesus. (His death, after all, is a Divine Comedy for us believers.) The tragedy lies in how we Christians have used the story of Jesus to hurt the Jews. This injustice will be visited upon our Jewish brothers and sisters with each viewing of The Passion of the Christ, not because the film is a hyperviolent distortion of the Gospels, but because it is a mostly accurate meditation on the central story of Christianity.

Let me state my thesis more boldly: Every time we Christians tell the story of our salvation, we hurt the Jews. As Catholic author and historian James Carroll argues, it did not have to be this way. A truer story of the Jewish rabbi named Yeshua - we call him Jesus - could have emerged over the centuries and millennia. There is still time for this truer story to be told. Given the revival of anti-Semitism around the world, we'd better get to it.

The old story, the one I was taught as a child, goes like this: About 2,000 years ago, Jesus, the Son of God, was born in Bethlehem. He was the Messiah the Jews had been waiting for, the savior of mankind. Although he was Jewish, his life, death and resurrection paved the way for a new religion and a new ethic. The New Law of Christianity would "supersede" the Torah. "Love thy neighbor" would replace "an eye for an eye." But the Jews were "stubborn," and did not accept the teaching of the Christ, the anointed one. In fact, their leaders conspired to kill him, collaborating with the sadistic Romans to do their dirty work for them.

Matthew's version of the Gospel puts it this way: "Now Pilate, seeing that he was doing no good, but rather that a riot was breaking out, took water and washed his hands in the sight of the crowd, saying, "I am innocent of the blood of this just man; see to it yourselves.' And all the people answered and said, "His blood be on us and on our children.' "

And so it came to pass. A profound misunderstanding of the essential Jewishness of Jesus led to a distorted religious vision of faith and history, expressed in the early days of Christianity as an anti-Judaism, then throughout European history as anti-Semitism, and finally, in the 20th century, as the Holocaust, the genocide that Hutton Gibson in a recent radio interview dismissed as mostly "fiction."

There's another way the story of Jesus can, and should, be told. Papal leadership and post-Holocaust theology since John XXIII have paved the way for the telling of this version. As we enter the Lenten season, and teach and preach our way to Good Friday and Easter Sunday, what would happen if we told the story this way?

Jesus was born a Jew and died a Jew. His beloved friends and followers were Jews. He was circumcised into the Jewish religion and named Yeshua. He had a good Jewish mother and father. He studied in the Temple and was precocious in his love and knowledge of the Jewish Scriptures. The young carpenter became a rabbi, a teacher. He never renounced Jewish law or the Jewish people. His teaching always drew upon the Torah and often sought to extend the influence of the Law beyond its letter and toward its spirit. When he said "Love thy neighbor as thyself," he was not creating a new ethic, just shining a light on the Jewish law as stated in Leviticus.

The teaching of the Torah also emphasized love for the stranger, much harder than simple love for family or neighbor, a point that Jesus dramatizes in the parable of the Good Samaritan. On the night before his crucifixion, Jesus celebrated Passover with his followers, and after his death was buried in a manner adherent to Jewish custom and law.

There it is. Jesus was born, lived his life, and died a Jew.

My new pastor, Father Robert Gibbons, puts it this way when students ask him if Jesus was Jewish: "No, Jesus is Jewish." That's the spirit.

And yet, for 2,000 years we have persecuted Jews in his name.

Missing from this story, of course, are those dramatic moments in the Gospels when Jesus and his followers argued with other Jews. Jesus criticized some of the legalists of his day, the Scribes and Pharisees, whom he at times derides as hypocrites. To what extent these things happened, we can never know, because the Christian Scriptures are a complex mixture of history, parable, myth and moral reasoning. They are meant to teach, and they do so from the vantage point of believers who were not eyewitnesses, and for whom the separation of the "Jesus movement" from Judaism was a fait accompli.

"What would Jesus do?" is a powerful question that many Christians wear, as acronyms, on their sleeves. Which invites the question, "What would Jesus have done?" That is to say, had he not been crucified, would he have become the founder of a new religion, one that over the next 2,000 years would turn so violently against his own Jewish brothers and sisters?

It should not surprise us that the Jewish followers of Jesus, the Jesus crowd, would bump up against other Jewish movements and leaders. Jews arguing with Jews is more than a cultural stereotype or a day at the Knesset or a joke in a Woody Allen movie. Study the history of Judaism and the developments of political and religious movements within it. Look at the tensions among Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Jews. Consider the passion of arguments, still alive in Israel, over "Who is a Jew?"

The rabbi Jesus taught and argued with other Jews. Perhaps these arguments among Jews, and the political instability they threatened, contributed to his death. That these events transpired within the context of one of the most brutal military occupations the world has ever known - that of the Roman Empire - surely magnified the tensions among all the Jewish sects. It took Paul, not Jesus, to turn Christianity into a religion.

I can hear the argument that the legacy of Christian persecution of the Jews is "old news," especially in America. In his book Anti-Semitism in America, Leonard Dinnerstein concludes that "in no Christian country has anti-Semitism been weaker than it has been in the United States."

But let's not kid ourselves. Not long ago, a tape recording of Richard Nixon and Billy Graham caught them both in an anti-Semitic rant. Some African-American leaders, using a vicious stereotype, condemn Jews as economic parasites. Throughout Europe, violence and vandalism against Jews and Jewish institutions have re-emerged like vampires after a decades-long sleep. And throughout the Arab world, children learn in their homes and schools to hate Jews, their minds twisted by blood libels that can be traced, sadly, back to the Christian West.

I used to belong to a parish in St. Petersburg, where, every Christmas Eve, cute children in costume would perform the story of the Nativity. Over many years, my three daughters would play the role of sheep, of angels, even of the Virgin Mary, cradling the baby Jesus in her arms. The wise kings would emerge from the back of the church, following an angel carrying a star. Of course, the wise kings were not Jews, but came from a distant country, a lesson that anticipates the embrace of Jesus by the Gentiles.

Along the way, the wise men visit Herod, King of the Jews, and the only character portrayed as Jewish in many Nativity plays. Following a tradition that can be traced back to the mystery plays of the Middle Ages, the boy who plays Herod rants and raves, angry that his reign might be threatened by the Child, wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.

What follows in the Gospel, of course, is what we now call the Slaughter of the Innocents, the murder of a generation of tiny children, born around the time of Jesus. The Gospel story says that, warned by a dream, the holy family flees into Egypt to avoid the murder of Jesus, a story that turns on its head the Passover and replaces a brutal Pharaoh with a grotesque Jewish tyrant.

The point is not the historical reality of Herod - who was installed as King of Judea by the Romans and whose actual claim to Judaism is regarded as nominal - but rather the way in which Gospel-derived drama has been used to divide Jesus from the Jewish faith that he never lost.

What would Jesus do if he sat through a Catholic Mass around Easter time and heard the communal reading of the Passion and listened as the congregation recited that the blood of Jesus is upon the heads of the Jews and their children?

After he dried his tears, I think he would stand, raise his hand, and in the ensuing silence, declare to the congregation his pride in his Jewishness, his attachment to the Torah, and his sorrow that the story of his death had been turned so grotesquely against his own people.

- Roy Peter Clark is senior scholar at the Poynter Institute, a school for journalists that owns the St. Petersburg Times. He also served for a year as the Times film critic. He can be reached at

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