Mel Gibson has reportedly dropped from his forthcoming film, The Passion of the Christ, what have been called the most inflammatory words in the New Testament. This cut has been hailed as a victory for Jews who worry about the impact of the film. Is it really something to celebrate?
Critics contend that the excised verse, Matthew 27:25, in which the Jews appear to assume upon themselves eternal guilt for Jesus' death, stirred up anti-Semitic bloodshed in previous centuries. Never mind that we don't live in previous centuries. Today it's not radical Christians who threaten Jewish safety around the world.
In fact, there are two good reasons, based in Jewish and Christian religious thinking, to regard the verse in a more positive light.
The scene: At his trial before Pilate, Jesus is confronted with a Jewish mob bent on seeing him killed (Matt. 27:20-25). The Roman governor capitulates, washing his hands and saying, "I am innocent of this man's blood." Then, "all the people answered, `His blood be on us and on our children!'"
As history, this happens to be implausible. The first-century historian Josephus makes clear in his account of the period that Pilate was a brutal tyrant unconcerned with mollifying the Jews on any point.
As Jewish theology, however, it's more creditable. Far from being a Christian invention to blacken the reputation of the Jews in future generations, the verse's whole idea of collective guilt is actually Jewish. This is unsurprising coming from Matthew, the most Jewish of the gospel writers.
From Genesis on, we find instance after instance of fathers changing the destiny of their descendants. When Adam and Eve sinned, God told Adam, "By the sweat of your brow shall you eat bread." As for Eve, "I will great increase your suffering and your childbearing; in pain shall you bear children" (Gen. 3:16-19). Every time a man trudges off to the office for another grueling day, every time a woman groans in labor, it is the legacy of our earliest ancestors.
Later, Noah's son Ham commits a grievous, unspecified crime against his father's dignity. Of Ham's son, Canaan, Noah says, "Cursed is Canaan; a slave of slaves shall he be to his brothers" (Gen. 9:25). Thanks to this curse, ten generations later the children of Canaan were still understood to be somehow degraded morally. That's why the patriarch Abraham was so adamant that his son Isaac not marry a Canaanite (Gen. 24:3).
Abraham's descendants go on to receive the Ten Commandments at Mt. Sinai. The Second Commandment, prohibiting the worship of false gods, stipulates that the true God is "a jealous God, Who visits the sin of the fathers upon children to the third and fourth generations; but Who shows kindness for thousands [of generations] to those who love Me and observe My commandments" (Exod. 20:5-6).
The Jewish classical commentators stress how much greater God's kindness is than his severity with sin. Still, "the sin of the fathers" affects children, grandchildren, and so on.
While the Israelites were still at Sinai, they worshiped a Golden Calf. In the Talmud, Rabbi Yitzchak says that "There is not a single punishment that comes into the world" that does not contain some minute touch of that which was due the Israelites for this crime (Sanhedrin 102a). The flecks of gold dust into which the idol was later ground by Moses are, to paraphrase Matthew, "on us and on our children."
Which make sense: We plant seeds with our actions now that will keep bearing fruit for centuries to come. If you raise your child poorly, the negative ramifications may perpetuate themselves for generations. A serious wrong by a person or group at a critical moment in history can create a cultural matrix of attitudes that may build and spread with no end in sight.
Granting that "the sin of the fathers" is a Jewish idea, you may ask what comfort that is if the New Testament pins its own version of collective guilt on the Jews? A good question, but Matthew 27:25 cannot mean what Mr. Gibson's critics at the Anti-Defamation League think it does. If it did mean only the Jews bear responsibility for killing Jesus, that would overturn the whole structure of Christian theology.
For Christians, collective guilt must mean the guilt of all humanity. Those who understand their religion know that the "us" in "his blood be on us and on our children" means Christians themselves. In fact, Christians want that blood on themselves, as we see from the verse's broader New Testament context.
In the Letter to the Hebrews, there appears a summation of the Christian theory of forgiveness through the shedding of blood. It's derived from the Hebrew Bible's depiction of how animal blood was shed in the Temple sacrifices as an accompaniment to repentance. In this theory, there is a bit of a Christian misunderstanding of Judaism. Elsewhere the Bible makes clear that, when the Jews are in exile and there's no Temple, shedding blood isn't necessary for forgiveness (1 Kings 8:46-50).
Whatever the discrepancy with the Hebrew Bible, the author of Hebrews states as a general rule that "without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins" (9:22). The author shows how, under the "first covenant," Moses sprinkled blood on the Israelites to purify them.
Accordingly, to bring forgiveness to the whole world, blood had to be spilled and then somehow sprinkled on all humanity: "not the blood of goats and calves but [Jesus'] own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. For if the sprinkling of defiled persons with the blood of goats and bulls and with the ashes of a heifer sanctifies for the purification of the flesh, how much more shall the blood of Christ... purify your conscience from dead works to serve God" (9:13-14).
For Christians, the mob that called for Jesus' death ("all the people," as Matthew tellingly puts it) stands for all mankind. Humanity thus inherited not only the mob's guilt but also "eternal redemption."
The crowd was composed of Jews simply because the event took place in a Jewish country. But if their cry, "His blood be on us and on our children," applied only to Jews, then the promise of Christian universalism would be nullified. Only the Jews would have Jesus' blood on them, so only they would inherit the promise of redemption!
Of course there have been anti-Semites who understood Matthew's words differently, and any such hateful individuals still around today will find confirmation of their bigotry in Gibson's film.
As with any piece of art, what you see will be conditioned by what you bring to it. In the same way, because representatives of the ADL see Jewish victimization wherever they look, they will see anti-Semitism in the film even if none is there.
But it's wrong to expect Mel Gibson to tailor his work because of the extreme imaginings of a minority of viewers, whether anti-Semitic bigots or self-appointed anti-bigotry watchdogs.
When you consider that Matthew got his idea in the first place from his Jewish background, and that at the same time it speaks not of Jewish people in particular but of mankind in general, the grounds for insisting that Gibson excise the verse seem very tenuous. According to news reports, he only deleted the scene because friendly screening audiences objected to it. That, at least, is a comfort. The irony would be too painful if he had been pressured into editing his faith by critics who claim to be defenders of the freedom of faith.