Good News to the Jew First
Mel Gibson's The Passion of Christ sure is getting a lot of heat these days. With more than two months left to go yet before its theatrical release, prominent Jewish leaders, foremost among them New York State Assemblyman Dov Hikind, have labeled Gibson's film as anti-Jewish. "This film can potentially lead to violence directed against the Jewish community," Hikind asserted. "It will result in anti-Semitism and bigotry. It really takes us back to the Dark AgesÂ … the Inquisition, the Crusades, all for the so-called sin of the Crucifixion of Jesus.
It's true that Christians have directed hatred against Jews throughout church history. But if Gibson is correct in saying his movie is faithful to the Gospels, Hikind is protesting the heart of the Christian story itself. Conservative Catholic John McCloskey notes, "If you find the Scriptures anti-Semitic, you'll find this film anti-Semitic." And so some have, like Irwin Borowsky, who has cut out entire sections of the New Testament that Jews find offensive and has published his version as the American Holy Bible.
But are the Gospels anti-Semitic? Most Christians today would contend anti-Semitism and Christianity clearly can't be compatible—Jesus' command to love one's neighbor overrides any kind of rationale permitting violence against Jews. But then how do we explain passages in the New Testament that seem to come down hard on the Jews?
Two recent books help us unpack this question—and come up with quite different solutions. Constantine's Sword, published in 2001, garnered widespread acclaim among the media, though some Christian critics refused to join in the praise. James Carroll, a former Catholic priest who wrote his book on a fellowship with Harvard University, traced the history of Christian anti-Semitism, beginning with the early church all the way into modern times. His theory concerning the roots of anti-Semitism is interesting: Jesus, a faithful Jew, was anything but anti-Semitic. He faithfully observed Jewish law and customs, celebrated Jewish holidays, and made pilgrimages to the Temple. And he hated the brutal Roman occupation of Judea and Galilee as much as any other Jew.
But when we read the New Testament, argues Carroll, we are reading the text of writers a generation or more removed from its events. By then, the church was losing its Jewish identity (owing to the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus in A.D. 70 and the phenomenal growth of the Gentile church through the missionary journeys of Paul and others). "The tragic difference that would set in motion the razor-edged arc of this narrative," writes Carroll, "was that they who now heard this story, and who retold it, were not Jews." In other words, a Gentile church had no sympathy for Jews who rejected Jesus as the messiah, and so it resorted to anti-Jewish sentiment, while Jewish Christians (had the church remained Jewish) would have instead mourned their people's choice and stayed in relationship with them.
Rather than carving anti-Semitic passages out of Scripture, Carroll's solution is to recover the "Jewish" character of Jesus and Paul in his reading of Scripture. But he does so in a disturbing way—the writers of the New Testament wrote with a Gentile, anti-Semitic bias, Carroll claims, so we must read between the lines to perceive the "real" Jesus. In doing so, he questions the Resurrection and divinity of Christ, suggesting instead that his disappointed disciples formed a "healing circle" to comfort themselves in their grief. "His love survived his death," writes Carroll, "which is what the Resurrection means."
And that's where orthodox Christians part ways with Carroll. A writer equally conscious of the Jewish character of the early church but faithful to the message of the Gospels is Oskar Skarsaune. In his newly published In the Shadow of the Temple, Skarsaune busts the myth that Carroll buys—that Christianity lost its Jewish roots by the end of the first century and consequently turned anti-Semitic. No, says Skarsaune, Christians returned to Jerusalem after Titus left the ruins smoldering. And fourth-century historian Eusebius records a list of Jewish Christian bishops beginning with James, brother of Jesus, running unbroken until 135 A.D., when Jewish revolutionary Bar Kokhba challenged Roman rule and Hadrian responded by leveling Jerusalem and prohibiting Jews (including Jewish Christians) from living there.
What about the charges of anti-Semitism in the New Testament? If we look at the letters of Paul (some of the earliest written) we find him following Jesus' own policy by taking the gospel "to the Jew first" during his missionary journeys. Gentiles who listened to Paul and converted to Christianity were almost always "God-fearers" already attached to a local synagogue. Such people esteemed Jewish law highly, points out Skarsaune, and they understood their newfound faith in Christ to be in continuity with the promises made to God's chosen people, the Jews. Rather than despising the Jews, these new believers held them in highest regard for having introduced them to the one true God.
What do we do, though, with "difficult" passages like Stephen's speech to the Sanhedrin in Acts 7, in which he blasts the Jews as "stiff-necked people with uncircumcised hearts and ears?" Understand it, rather, as a rebuke from within, much as the prophets of the Old Testament called their people to repentance. This is the pattern we find throughout Scripture—the Jews falling away from the true worship of Yahweh and God calling a prophet to turn them back. These same people now refused to accept the incarnate Word of God, Stephen would say, much as they had jeered and shamed the prophets of old. His intent was not to smear the Jewish name, but to reconcile his Jewish brethren to the risen Lord.
This is a message Hikind and other Jews protesting The Passion of Christ don't want to hear. But if they would give Gibson's film a chance, they might perceive the good news in Jesus' story—that their messiah has come, and that those who believe in him will reign with him in his second coming. And this coming will inaugurate that kingdom Jews have been awaiting for so long.
Copyright © 2003 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian History magazine.
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