Newsweek asks, "Who killed Jesus?"
Newsweek managing editor Jon Meacham is an award-winning reporter. But he's neither a theologian nor a historian, so one may wish that he "showed his work" a bit more in this week's cover story, "Who Really Killed Jesus?" (It's a subject U.S. News & World Report put on its cover four years ago.) It's clear that he did quite a bit of research, but some of his statements certainly raise the question, "Says who?" This especially comes into play when Meacham sets himself up as a better recorder of events than four well-known reporters: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

"The Bible can be a problematic source," he writes. "Though countless believers take it as the immutable word of God, Scripture is not always a faithful record of historical events; the Bible is the product of human authors who were writing in particular times and places with particular points to make and visions to advance. And the roots of Christian anti-Semitism lie in overly literal readings—which are, in fact, misreadings—of many New Testament texts."

The points to make and visions to advance depended on downplaying Pilate and emphasizing Caiaphas in the Passion narrative, according to Meacham (though this is common among many scholars today; this concept certainly doesn't originate with Newsweek). "The [Jewish Temple] elite looked down on Jesus' followers, so the New Testament authors portrayed the priests in a negative light," Meacham writes. "We can also see why the writers downplayed the role of the ruling Romans in Jesus' death. The advocates of Christianity—then a new, struggling faith—understandably chose to placate, not antagonize, the powers that were. Why remind the world that the earthly empire which still ran the Mediterranean had executed your hero as a revolutionary?"

Therefore, Meacham says, the account of the festival crowd before Pilate (something found in all four gospels), is probably exaggerated or made up entirely:

In the memorable if manufactured crowd scene in the version of the movie screened by Newsweek, Gibson included a line that has had dire consequences for the Jewish people through the ages. The prefect is again improbably resisting the crowd, the picture of a just ruler. Frustrated, desperate, bloodthirsty, the mob says: "His blood be on us and on our children!" Gibson ultimately cut the cry from the film, and he was right to do so. Again, consider the source of the dialogue: a partisan Gospel writer. The Gospels were composed to present Jesus in the best possible light to potential converts in the Roman Empire—and to put the Temple leadership in the worst possible light.
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But Meacham, who will be discussing his article Thursday online, doesn't go as far as some. "The Temple elite undoubtedly played a key role in the death of Jesus," he notes. "But Pilate's own culpability and ultimate authority are indisputable as well."

But here's the problem in Meacham's approach (and, again, he's certainly not alone in this): all of the conclusions he says have been made by modern scholarship are found in the gospel narratives themselves. "In fact, in the age of Roman domination, only Rome crucified," Meacham writes. "The crime was sedition, not blasphemy—a civil crime, not a religious one.

Really? Why that's shocking! Oh, wait. That's what John said: "Pilate said to them, 'Take him yourselves and judge him by your own law.' The Jews said to him, 'It is not lawful for us to put anyone to death.'"

Furthermore, knowing the gospel accounts better would have thwarted a paragraph like this:

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 still—even after Constantine's conversion in the fourth century—some 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."

It's a dangerous paragraph because there's a lot of truth to it. Christianity was very Jewish in its early years. But it's difficult to answer anyone who says that such-and-such didn't happen until the end of the first century because, after all, that's when the gospels were written. Still, it's just plain wrong to suggest that pre-Constantinian Christians (Jewish and Gentile) didn't view Jesus as the Christ and Son of God who died to save mankind. This ignores crucial biblical passages such Peter's reply, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God," Thomas's declaration, "My Lord and my God," and John's statement that the Jewish leaders, "the Jews tried all the harder to kill him … [because] he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God."

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Newsweek's embrace of higher criticism without a counterbalance is disappointing, but not as bad as some discussions of this topic have been lately. A recent Associated Press article, for example, claimed

Jewish and Christian leaders have said they are less concerned about reaction to the film in the United States than they are about screenings overseas, where anti-Semitism is on the rise and where some Muslim extremists have used the charge of deicide to spark anti-Jewish violence.

The problem? Not only do Muslims not believe that Jesus was God (kind of a major theological point there), and thus can't believe that killing Jesus would have amounted to deicide, but also they don't believe that it was Jesus who died on the cross (Sura 4:156ff).

Who killed Jesus? Newsweek answers its own question early in the article. "As a matter of history, the Roman Empire did; as a matter of theology, the sins of the world drove Jesus to the cross, and the Catholic Church holds that Christians themselves bear 'the gravest responsibility for the torments inflicted upon Jesus.' Yet for nearly 2,000 years, some Christians have persecuted the Jewish people on the ground that they were responsible for the death of the first-century prophet who has come to be seen as the Christ."

And we all agree that such people were wrong. If you're really interested in this topic, then you absolutely cannot miss Paul L. Maier's 1990 CT article, "Who Killed Jesus?" But whether you're interested in the subject or not, do not be mistaken. The gospels were not created as anti-Jewish tracts, nor was Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. They are intended to draw readers and viewers to the one who is King of the Jews, to the one in whom "there is neither Jew nor Gentile," to the one who grafts Gentiles onto the Abraham's family tree.

Not a surfing movie
Don't miss the sidebar to Meacham's article, an interview with James Caviezel, who plays Jesus in Gibson's film. He discusses the literal pains he suffered while making the film, the pains Gibson took in making sure it wasn't anti-Semitic, and how it changed him. "I love [Jesus] more than I ever knew possible," Caviezel says. "I love him more than my wife, my family. There were times when I was up there [on the cross], and I could barely speak. Continual hypothermia is so excruciating. I connected to a place I could have never, ever gone. I don't want people to see me. All I want them to see is Jesus Christ."

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As long as we're redefining marriage …
Can someone who supports last week's Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court majority opinion on gay marriage make a case on why Carroll Ferdinandsen, must be jailed for his incestuous "marriage" with his 30-year-old daughter?

Last May, the Mobile Register reports, the couple were married in Mobile County Probate Court and arrested in July on incest charges." In December, a Mobile County Circuit judge voided the marriage, and last month Circuit Judge John Lockett released them with orders that they maintain separate residences. But when the Ferdinandsens were caught at a motel last Tuesday, mere weeks after their release from jail, they were arrested and charged with violating the terms of their probation.

So where are the screams about the government invading the bedroom? The Mobile Register reports, "Incestuous relationships are banned in all states because of concerns about child abuse and genetic mutations." Indeed, the former seems to be a particular concern here, where the couple also served time for abusing their pets.

But the Massachusetts high court has specifically dismissed concerns about child-rearing, saying they don't trump "the dignity and equality of all individuals."

"While it is certainly true that many, perhaps most, married couples have children together (assisted or unassisted), it is the exclusive and permanent commitment of the marriage partners to one another, not the begetting of children, that is the sine qua non of civil marriage," the court said in its November decision.

So if defining marriage as between a man and a woman is "invidious discrimination" (as the Massachusetts court said Wednesday), and if one cannot justify it on the basis of what's healthy for children nor on the basis of whether "the governing majority in a State has traditionally viewed a particular practice as immoral," (the judgment of the U.S. Supreme Court in Lawrence v. Texas), then why can't the Ferdinandsens marry? Why the "prejudice" against G. Lee Cook and other polygamists?

Why was it, again, that Rick Santorum got slammed for drawing these kinds of comparisons?

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