Jewish officialdom — that small, cozy world of community leaders and other machers — is already getting agitated by Mel Gibson’s still-in-production Jesus movie. “The Passion” depicts the last 12 hours in the life of Christianity’s founder, and press reports suggest that it places blame for the man’s death firmly on Jewish shoulders.
By making the movie, Mel Gibson, a traditionalist Catholic, has opened himself to indictment as a sinner against Jewish orthodoxy — not Orthodox Judaism, mind you, but a set of principles you won’t find anywhere in the Torah, on subjects ranging from politics to history, the violation of which by Jew or Gentile is considered a grave offense by communal leaders.
One such orthodox belief insists that, despite what the Christian Gospels say, it wasn’t Jews who killed Jesus: it was Romans acting on their own. You’ve heard this a million times, from Hebrew school onward. The Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Rabbi Marvin Hier, referring to Gibson’s making of “The Passion,” recently told Reuters that he’s concerned “that the film’s purpose is to undo the changes made by Vatican II,” which absolved the Jews of collective responsibility for Jesus’ death. That “would unleash more of the scurrilous charges of deicide directed against the Jewish people.”
However, in communal officials’ rush to warn Gibson against implicating Jews, a crucial fact has been ignored: The circumstances surrounding Jesus’ death are not as clear-cut as communal orthodoxy has portrayed it to be. The difficulty with this official version — that it was all the Romans’ doing — is that scholarship and tradition tell a more complicated story.
In the movie, Gibson apparently will depict a trial of Jesus before the High Priest or Sanhedrin, whose henchmen proceed to hand the fellow over to the Romans for crucifixion. Allowing for variations among Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, this is the Gospels’ version of the event.
True, the most up-to-date historical research — by professors such E.P. Sanders and Paula Fredriksen — emphasizes that crucifixion was a Roman punishment for criminals against the state, not for religious dissenters, which is how the Gospels suggest many Jews saw Jesus.
Yet authoritative Jewish sources teach that Jesus died at least partly thanks to decisions taken by his fellow Jews. That fact used to be covered up by our communal leaders lest antisemites discover and publicize it. But the discovery has already happened, as a quick Internet search will reveal. So why keep fooling ourselves?
Maimonides says it unapologetically in his “Letter to Yemen”: “Jesus of Nazareth… impelled people to believe that he was a prophet sent by God to clarify perplexities in the Torah, and that he was the Messiah that was predicted by each and every seer. He interpreted the Torah and its precepts in such a fashion as to lead to their total annulment, to the abolition of all its commandments and to the violation of its prohibitions. The sages, of blessed memory, having become aware of his plans before his reputation spread among our people, meted out fitting punishment to him.”
In this passage, Maimonides draws on the Talmud and the Tosefta, another ancient rabbinic text. One key talmudic passage, from tractate Sanhedrin (43a), was expunged by censors but preserved in manuscripts and is well known today:
“On the eve of Passover they hung Jesus of Nazareth. The herald had gone forth forty days before [his death], (crying): ‘Jesus of Nazareth goes forth to be stoned, because he has practiced magic and deceived and led astray Israel. Anyone who knows anything in his favor should come and declare concerning him.’ But they found nothing in his favor.”
Stoning would have been followed by briefly hanging the body on a tree. As one modern scholar notes, “the Talmudic story of the execution of Jesus does not implicate the civil [Roman] government at all.”
The truth about Jesus — what he believed about himself, how and why he died — is endlessly debated by historians. Probably the Gospels are right when they indicate that he said many mutually contradictory things, things that would suggest alternatively that he either was or was not a loyal, practicing Jew untainted by heresy. He was a complicated person. The facts of his death are similarly clouded. We may never know exactly what happened.
What’s clear beyond doubt is that the Jewish community has a strong interest in fostering positive, warm relations with Catholics and other Christians. Surely, though, the cause of friendship with our non-Jewish fellow citizens is unlikely to be advanced by critiquing religious beliefs which closely mirror our own tradition. Our loyalty should be to Judaism and to truth, not to an officially sanctioned, sanitized version of Judaism or the truth — which may be neither Jewish nor true.
David Klinghoffer is the author of “The Discovery of God: Abraham and the Birth of Monotheism,” published this month by Doubleday. His next book is “Why the Jews Rejected Christ: In Search of the Turning Point in Western History.”