"Passion": A Step Back for Jews and Christians

Reviving Christian attraction to the Passion's danger and cruelty is a threat to the Jews--and to loving Christians.

Mel Gibson unlocked the secret of why Americans have never confronted anti-Semitism in the way that we did with the other great systems of hatred (racism, sexism, homophobia) when he told a national t.v. audience on February 16 that "the Jews' real complaint isn't with my film (The Passion) but with the Gospels." Few Christians today know the history of anti-Semitism and the way that the Passion stories were central to rekindling hatred of Jews from generation to generation. Many are embracing Gibson's movie and not understanding why Jews seem to be so threatened. Gibson knows that for many Americans it is simply unimaginable to question the Gospels.

Those who wanted to purge hatred of Jews from the collective unconscious of Western societies after the defeat of Nazism in 1945 faced an impossible dilemma. The dominant religious tradition of the West was based on a set of four accounts of Jesus, each of which to some extent is riddled with anger at or even hatred of the Jews. The Gospels were written, many historians tell us, some fifty years after Jesus' death at a time when early Christians (most of whom considered themselves still Jewish) were engaged in a fierce competition with a newly emerging rabbinic Judaism to win the hearts and minds of their fellow Jews (some of whom were becoming Jewish Christians, retaining their Jewish practice but adding to it a belief in Jesus as messiah) and the minds of the disaffected masses of the Roman empire (some Christians already having given up on converting Jews and beginning to think that the real audience for their outreach should be the wider world of the Roman Empire).

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The Gospels sought to play down the antagonism that Jews of Jesus' time felt toward Rome, so they displaced the anger at his crucifixion instead onto those Jews who remembered Jesus as an inspiring and revolutionary teacher but not much more (not a messiah, not God). The result: an account that portrays Jews as willfully calling on the Romans to kill Jesus, rejecting the supposed compassion of the Romans, and thereby earning the hatred of humanity for the Jews' supposed collective responsibility for this act of deicide. Conversely, Jesus' Judaism, his viewing the world through the frame of his Jewish spiritual practice and Torah-based thinking, is played-down or at times completely obscured, so that the message of these professional "convert the non-Jews" thinkers would not be undermined by a covert message (still advocated by some of the Jewish Christians at the time of the writing of the Gospel) that to be a Christian one should also become a Jew.

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