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Who Killed Jesus?
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Are the gospels themselves anti-Semitic? Not in the sense the term has come to mean in the early 21st century, but they are polemics, written by followers of a certain sect who disdained other factions in the way the Old Testament was dismissive of, say, Israelite religious practices not sanctioned by Jerusalem. Without understanding the milieu in which the texts were composed, we can easily misinterpret them. The tragic history of the persecution of the Jewish people since the Passion clearly shows what can go wrong when the Gospels are not read with care.

Most of the early Christians were Jewish and saw themselves as such. Only later, beginning roughly at the end of the first century, did some Christians start to view and present themselves as a people entirely separate from other Jewish groups. And for centuries stilleven after Constantine's conversion in the fourth centurysome Jewish people considered themselves Christians. It was as the church's theology took shape, culminating in the Council of Nicaea in 325, that Jesus became the doctrinal Christ, the Son of God "who for us men and our salvation," the council's original creed declared, "descended, was incarnate, and was made man, suffered and rose again the third day, ascended into heaven and cometh to judge the living and the dead."

As the keeper of the apostolic faith, the Roman Catholic Church has long struggled with the issue of Jewish complicity in Jesus' death. Always in the atmosphere, anti-Semitism took center stage with the coming of the First Crusade in the 11th century, when Christian soldiers on their way to expel Muslims from the Holy Land massacred European Jews. By the early Middle Ages, Christian anti-Semitism lent a religious veneer to political decisions by the secular authorities of the day, decisions that often penalized or curtailed the rights of the Jewish people. The justification for anti-Semitism was articulated by Pope Innocent III, who reigned in the early years of the 13th century: "the blasphemers of the Christian name," he said, should be "forced into the servitude of which they made themselves deserving when they raised their sacrilegious hands against Him who had come to confer true liberty upon them, thus calling down His blood upon themselves and their children."

After the horror of Hitler's Final Solution, the Roman Church began to reassess its relationship with the Jewish people. The result from Vatican II was a thoughtful and compelling statement on deicide. "True, the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ; still, what happened in His passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today... in her rejection of every persecution against any man, the Church, mindful of the patrimony she shares with the Jews and moved... by the Gospel's spiritual love, decries hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone."

Join Jon Meacham on Thurs. Feb. 12 at noon ET to discuss why The Passion still fascinates so many people and infuriates so many others. Submit questions anytime.

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The council went on to make another crucial point undercutting the use of Passion to fuel anti-Semitism, either in fact or in drama. "Besides, as the Church has always held and holds now," Nostra Aetate (In Our Time) says, "Christ underwent his passion and death freely, because of the sins of men and out of infinite love, in order that all may reach salvation." And his mercy is not limited to those who confess the Christian faith. "The Church reproves, as foreign to the mind of Christ, any discrimination against men or harassment of them because of their race, color, condition of life, or religion."

If pointing to a 40-year-old church teaching is not enough, we can also look back more than 400 years to find the seeds of reconciliation and grace. At the Council of Trent in the 16th century, the Roman Church stated as a theological principle that all men share the responsibility for the Passionand that Christians bear a particular burden. "In this guilt [for the death of Jesus] are involved all those who fall frequently into sin..." read the catechism of the council. "This guilt seems more enormous in us than in the Jews since, if they had known it, they would never have crucified the Lord of glory; while we, on the contrary, professing to know him, yet denying him by our actions, seem in some sort to lay violent hands on him."

In the battle over his project, Gibson has veered between defiance and conciliation. "This film collectively blames humanity [for] the death of Jesus," he said in his Global Catholic Network interview. "Now there are no exemptions there. All right? I'm the first on the line for culpability. I did it. Christ died for all men for all times." Of critics who think his film could perpetuate dangerous stereotypes, he said: "They've kind of, you know, come out with this mantra again and again and again. You know, 'He's an anti-Semite.' 'He's an anti-Semite.' 'He's an anti-Semite.' 'He's an anti-Semite.' I'm not." In a letter to Anti-Defamation League national director Abraham Foxman last week, Gibson wrote: "It is my deepest belief, as I am sure it is yours, that all who ever breathe life on this Earth are children of God and my most binding obligation to them, as a brother in this waking world, is to love them." The news of the letter broke on Tuesday; late last week David Elcott, the U.S. director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee, reported that he had been present at a screening when someone asked Gibson, "Who opposes Jesus?" Gibson's Manichaean reply: "They are either satanic or the dupes of Satan."

Was there any way for him to have made a movie about the Passion and avoided this firestorm? There was. There are a number of existing Catholic pastoral instructions detailing the ways in which the faithful should dramatize or discuss the Passion. "To attempt to utilize the four passion narratives literally by picking one passage from one gospel and the next from another gospel, and so forth," reads one such instruction, "is to risk violating the integrity of the texts themselves... it is not sufficient for the producers of passion dramatizations to respond to responsible criticism simply by appealing to the notion that 'it's in the Bible'." The church also urges "the greatest caution" when "it is a question of passages that seem to show the Jewish people as such in an unfavorable light." The teachings suggest dropping scenes of large, chanting Jewish crowds and avoiding the device of a Sanhedrin trial. They also note that there is evidence Pilate was not a "vacillating administrator" who "himself found 'no fault' with Jesus and sought, though in a weak way, to free him." A reference in Luke, instructions point out, and historical sources indicate that he was, rather, a "ruthless tyrant," and "there is, then, room for more than one dramatic style of portraying the character of Pilate and still being faithful to the biblical record." The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, NEWSWEEK has learned, is publishing these teachings in book form to coincide with the release of Gibson's movie.

Mel Gibson's 'The Passion of the Christ'
in the best of all possible worlds, "The Passion of the Christ" will prompt constructive conversations about the origins of the religion that claims 2 billion followers around the globe, conversations that ought to lead believers to see that Christian anti-Semitism should be seen as an impossibilitya contradiction in terms. To hate Jews because they are Jewsto hate anyone, in factis a sin in the Christian cosmos, for Jesus commands his followers to love their neighbor as themselves. On another level, anti-Semitism is a form of illogical and self-defeating self-loathing. Bluntly put, Jesus had to die for the Christian story to unfold, and the proper Christian posture toward the Jewish people should be one of respect, for the man Christians choose to see as their savior came from the ancient tribe of Judah, the very name from which "Jew" is derived. As children of Abraham, Christians and Jews are branches of the same tree, linked together in the mystery of God.

Let us end where we, and Gibson's movie, beganin the garden, in darkness. The guards have come to arrest Jesus. He watches as his disciples come to blows with the troops. Punches are thrown, and one of Jesus' men lashes out with a weapon, slashing off the ear of a servant of the high priest. Watching, removed from the fray, Jesus intervenes, commanding: "Put up thy sword," making real the New Testament commandment to love one another as he loved us, even unto deatha commandment whose roots stretch back to the 19th chapter of Leviticus: "... you shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am the Lord." Amid the clash over Gibson's film and the debates about the nature of God, wheth-er you believe Jesus to be the savior of mankind or to have been an interesting first-century figure who left behind an inspiring moral philosophy, perhaps we can at least agree on this image of Jesus of Nazareth: confronted by violence, he chose peace; by hate, love; by sin, forgivenessa powerful example for us all, whoever our gods may be.

2004 Newsweek, Inc.


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