October 22, 2019

What Jews Need to Know About Jesus

Mel Gibson’s Jesus movie, “The Passion of the Christ,” became controversial long before its release when learned critics, Christians as well as Jews, who had been invited to read a draft of the script objected that the film was, if not actually anti-Semitic, then all too apt for anti-Semitic exploitation. The initial response of the Gibson camp to these charges included a lawsuit charging the critics with a malicious attempt to sabotage the film.

From the sidelines, industry insiders speculated that the controversy was a publicity stunt engineered to pump up the audience for a film that had cost its producers more to make than any Jesus movie was likely to earn at the box office (for a review of “The Passion,” see page 25).

Be that as it may, here, for moviegoers who might not keep a Gospel (or a Torah) at bedside, is a crib sheet for — you should forgive the expression — the post-mortem.

Q. This movie is supposedly based on the New Testament. What is the New Testament anyway?

A. In literary terms, the New Testament is the Christian Bible’s epilogue to the Jewish Bible or Tanakh. Like the Tanakh, the New Testament is almost entirely the work of Jews1. Only one of its authors is definitely known to have been a non-Jew.

The term testament is itself something of a linguistic fossil. It is an English descendant of the Latin word testamentum, which in antiquity translated the Hebrew brith, meaning “covenant.” Inconveniently, testament no longer means “covenant” in English.

Imagine Covenant or Brith as the title of Judaism’s Bible. Christianity’s new brith — memorialized in its enlarged Bible — sought to extend Israel’s covenant with God to the entire human race. That is what was new about its “new covenant.” Mind you, the whole human race wasn’t exactly begging for inclusion. Who but Jews would ever have had the chutzpah to think up such a thing and declare it the salvation of the world? But chutzpah they had, those first-century Jewish dissidents, and the non-Jews went for it.

Besides letting everybody into the Jewish country club, here’s what else was new about the Christian New Covenant. In place of Jews sacrificing animals to God to atone for their sins or ransom their firstborn or otherwise set things right between the Creator and themselves, God now sacrificed himself — in the person of Jesus — to himself and thus set everything right for all time and for everybody in one fell swoop. Thereafter, animal sacrifice could be dispensed with. The animal-sacrifice equivalent for the children of this new covenant would be simply a memorial reenactment of God’s once-and-for-all self-immolation at the crucifixion. The core of traditional Christian worship, beginning with the Catholic Mass, consists of this ritualized reenactment.

As St. Peter, whom Christian tradition honors as the first pope, saw the matter, the human beings involved in the death of Jesus were all just a part of God’s eternal plan. Speaking as a Jew to his fellow Jews in the first big-time sermon of his career, he said:

“Now I know, brothers, that neither you nor your leaders had any idea what you were really doing; but this was the way God carried out what he had foretold when he said through all his prophets that his Messiah would suffer” (Acts 3:17-18).

So, then, whatever the historical answer to the question “Who killed Jesus?” the overriding Christian theological answer is, in effect, “God killed him.”

Q. Why did the Jews reject Jesus?

A. Is it any surprise that not all Jews were charmed at the notion of obliterating the distinction between Jew and non-Jew? Was this not a distinction set up and sanctified by God himself? Though Jewish ethnicity survived as such under Christianity (Christian Jews were still Jews), it survived as no more than that. What had made being Jewish so special — a special relationship with God — was now transferred to a “New Israel” to which everybody and his brother was invited. Maimonides had reason to say that “Jesus of Nazareth … interpreted the Torah and its precepts in such a fashion as to lead to their total annulment.” In his own way, St. Paul had said the same thing.

And there was a deeper reason. Jewish intellectual accommodation could be made, if just barely, for an Incarnate Word of God2. But for a Messiah defeated as horribly as the Jews themselves were in the catastrophic, six-decade Roman-Jewish wars? That was too much to bear. You can easily imagine a Jew in Peter’s audience objecting: “Take another look at the Prophets, Pete. Our Messiah is supposed to be King David redux. He is supposed to rescue us, not suffer for us, much less substitute himself for our sacrificial animals. What a cockamamie notion! A lot of good that does us!”

On the other hand, beware of anybody who tells you that “the Jews” accept or reject anything. In the time of Jesus, there were many Jews who went to war against Rome believing that as God had done to Pharaoh, so he would do to Caesar. But not all shared this suicidal faith. Before fighting the Romans, the Jewish rebels had to fight those of their fellow Jews who correctly foresaw a holocaust and wanted no part of it. Meanwhile, there were a few Jews who had long since concluded that their God would never again come through for them on the battlefield and who had begun, daringly, to imagine him suffering alongside them instead: a crucified God for a crucified people. These were the Jews who founded Christianity.

As for the privilege of being Jewish, what exalted some Jews discomfited others just as it does today. This question seems to have been particularly pressing for the Jews of the Greco-Roman Diaspora precisely because like the Jews of America, they were thriving spectacularly in the international culture of their day. Significantly, the New Testament was not written in parochial Aramaic. It was written in the international Greek spoken by this relatively comfortable Diaspora and, at the start, mostly for this Diaspora as well. The Jews of the Mediterranean Diaspora were not less Jewish than the Jews of Palestine, but they were definitely different. Think of synagogue life in Israel and in the United States: neither is “more Jewish” than the other, but who can deny that they are different? It was through Diaspora synagogues that Christianity spread around the empire.

In sum, then, there were some strong and obvious Jewish reasons to reject Jesus as a divine, pacifist, crucified Messiah enlarging God’s covenant to include the whole world, but there were a few emotionally powerful reasons to accept him in this role as well. The latter reasons may have been particularly persuasive in the Jewish Diaspora.

Q. OK, but now what about that historical question that you hurried past a moment ago? What was Jesus’ life like before the crucifixion? What is the backstory here? Does anyone know?

A. Historically, the time of Jesus was a time of steadily mounting Jewish resistance to Roman rule in Judea. The Romans tried to rule through Romanized local proxies — above all, through the dynasty of Herod. But when its proxies couldn’t quite handle things, the Empire was fully prepared to move to direct rule, even to military occupation.

Jewish resistance to Roman rule went hand in hand with apocalyptic religious thinking, a kind of thinking unknown in the Jewish Diaspora. Apocalyptic scribes and preachers read the older Hebrew scriptures as a key to the future, and the future they saw was one in which God would inflict catastrophic punishment on his foes before restoring Israel to its ancient glory. Apocalypticism was only too suitable, then, as background music for militant, violent resistance to Roman rule.

And yet not every apocalyptic thinker was an armed rebel. Jesus was an apocalyptic preacher and wonder-worker who believed that he was destined to be the star player in God’s final, definitive intervention in human history. Yet Jesus renounced violence. The Galilean rabbi may well have thought he was Messiah. He probably did not think he was God incarnate. After his death, his followers saw and wrote things about him that went beyond his own words. But none of them ever remembered him as a warrior, though his Hebrew name — perhaps by a deliberate irony — was Joshua3.

Josephus — a sometime Jewish soldier writing in Greek about the Roman-Jewish wars of the first and second century — mentions various prominent religious leaders of his day, including Jesus. He has least to say about those whose methods vis-à-vis the Romans were peaceful, including the earliest sages of the rabbinic tradition; but the background historical information that the Gospels indirectly convey is quite consistent with the world that he describes. Jesus, just one rather obscure preacher in a crowded landscape, would be little more than a bit player in Josephus had Jesus’ followers not told his story to the entire known world.

There was a clear conceptual distinction, in any case, between Jesus and the kind of apocalyptic preacher who most worried Rome and the Jews collaborating with Rome. But there was also a dangerous rhetorical similarity between the two. When Jesus left provincial Galilee and began attracting large street audiences in Jerusalem with his special kind of apocalyptic preaching, the Romans’ Jewish collaborators were predictably alarmed at what the Roman reaction might be. To quote the Gospel of John:

What are we to do? For this man performs many signs. If we let him go on thus, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation. But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all; you do not understand that it is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation should not perish (John 11:47-50).

The irony of this key passage is that, ruthlessness aside, Caiaphas’ willingness to acquiesce in Roman rule was matched by Jesus’ own. Not only was Jesus not a militant, he was a radical pacifist, a Joshua who would not fight; and his position regarding Rome was the scandalously compliant: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12:17). Imagine Moses saying “Render to Pharaoh the things that are Pharaoh’s, and to God the things that are God’s,” and you have some sense of the change that Jesus and his Jewish followers were prepared to make.

In historical terms, then, Jesus can be regarded as the victim of either a tragic mistake or a cynical calculation. But in either case, it was not the Jews but some Jews who made the fateful first move against him. When Jesus arrived in Jerusalem days before his death, he was greeted by an adoring Jewish throng, according to the Gospels. When he was condemned to death, he faced a bloodthirsty Jewish mob, according to the same Gospels. Same Jews, different day? Different Jews?

Who knows? Ancient Jewish as well as ancient Christian sources attest that Jesus had influential Jewish enemies. Strikingly, however, in view of early Christian fear of hostile Roman attention, the words of the most ancient summary of Christian belief blame the Roman governor if they blame anyone. The key words of the “Apostles’ Creed” state that Jesus was “conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried.”

Q. But what about the long history of Christian persecution of Jews as “Christ killers”? Haven’t even some Christian commentators proposed excising certain anti-Semitic lines from the Gospels? And if Gibson is true to Gospel anti-Semitism, then isn’t he just serving up a Hollywood version of the anti-Semitic Oberammergau Passion play?

A. The smoking-gun line for the claim that the Gospels are anti-Semitic — a line now reportedly4 deleted from Mel Gibson’s film — is Matthew 27:24-25:

So when Pilate saw that he was gaining nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this righteous man’s blood; see to it yourselves.” And all the people answered, “His blood be upon us and upon our children!”

Most scholars recognize in the Gospel of Matthew the most Jewish of the four canonical Gospels. It was almost certainly written by a Christian Jew for other Jews like himself and against their Jewish opponents. Imagine, if you will, the anger of secular Israelis about the ultra-Orthodox Israelis who called for the execution of Yitzhak Rabin and who applauded Yigal Amir when he did the deed. Intense as it was, that anger was not an anti-Semitic anger, for all parties to the transaction were equally Jewish. So it may have been here as well — originally.

Alas, when a Gospel containing such anger migrates out of its initial all-Jewish context into other contexts where Jews are a minority, the notorious line takes on a fearsome new anti-Semitic potential. In my judgment, it retains that potential down to our own day. Theologically, the death of Jesus is not a wrong that could be set right if his murderers could somehow be brought to justice. Theologically, Jesus’ passage from death to life in his resurrection is a new Exodus, bringing the human race as a whole to the new promised land of immortality. Theologically, those who killed Jesus, even if they sinned, were tools in God’s hands; and God’s enemy was not his people Israel but Satan. Theologically, it was Satan and Satan alone who was defeated when Jesus rose from the dead: Paradise lost, paradise regained. But when have anti-Semites ever cared, really, about theology?

I hope that “The Passion” does not live up to the worst of its advance notices; but if it does, the result will be more a pity than a peril. Anti-Semitism is not best confronted by bowdlerizing “The Merchant of Venice,” censoring Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion,” expurgating the Gospel according to Matthew 5 or editing the latest Jesus movie to come down the pike. To think this way is to treat anti-Semitism as something like the genitals of human thought and of ourselves as a frail Victorian damsel who might faint dead away if her innocent gaze ever fell on the dread organs. We are stronger than that, I dare to think — strong enough, if you will, to stare the obscenity down. The anti-Semites among us only rejoice when we act otherwise.

Jack Miles, senior adviser to the president of the J. Paul Getty Trust, is the author of “Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God” (Vintage Books).


1 The Israelite authorship of a few books of the Tanakh — notably Job and Ecclesiastes — has long been in question.

2 Though it is commonly claimed that the doctrine of Jesus’ divinity is an “un-Jewish idea,” its nearest theological kin is actually ancient rabbinical memra or “Word” theology — a kind of religious speculation that arose from the Tanakh’s way of speaking of God’s Word (Aramaic memra) as endowed with something like a life of its own. Without a Jewish initiation, pagan Greeks would scarcely have known what to make of what the Gospel of John has to say about the divinity of Jesus.

3 Greek Isous, which yields Latin Iesus, translates Hebrew Yehoshua or Yeshua — alternate forms of the name Joshua. It has become common enough for New Testament scholars, Christian as well as Jewish, to refer to Jesus as Yeshua. Yeshua, however, though it has the merit of reinforcing Jesus’ Jewishness, otherwise says nothing. Joshua speaks volumes.

4 New York Times, Feb. 4, 2004. According to The Times, the film placed the now-deleted line in the mouth of the high priest, Caiaphas. The Gospel of Matthew, the only one of the four New Testament gospels to include the line, attributes it to Jewish demonstrators outside the palace of Pontius Pilate. Though the change is typical of the sort of liberty that screenwriters take in turning a book into a shooting script, it would have had the effect of making the assumption of responsibility for the execution more nearly official. In the Gospels, as noted, different Jewish crowds hold different views about Jesus and sometimes engage each other in public dispute.

5 It was reliably reported to me, some years ago, that a Christian professor in a prestigious Eastern liberal arts college was proposing in class that the Book of Deuteronomy and the Book of Joshua be purged of their “anti-Semitic” portions, these being those portions in which God commands genocide against the Canaanites, and Israel obeys. One can imagine, of course, how Palestinians might quote these passages against Israelis. One can imagine, in other words, how in contemporary context the passages could be used to anti-Semitic effect. But the claim being made, apparently, was that the ancient authors of these works were writing to disgrace their Jewish contemporaries — in other words, that the authors were anti-Semitic. This I found, and find, quite incredible, but note well: The expurgatory genie, once out of the jug, may not stop where Aladdin would have him stop.