The Gospels and Anti-Semitism

In his book, “God and Empire”, John Dominic Crossan makes a good case for the claims that the popular portrayals of Jesus’ passion is at the root of anti-Semitism:

The residents of the Bavarian village of Oberammergau have staged a Passion Play every decade on the decade and also on special anniversaries in gratitude for protection from a 1634 plague. When I saw the second production after World War II, in 1960, it was the same one that Hitler had seen in 1930 and 1934, before and after he became Chancellor of Germany. Later, in July 1942, about the time the German armies were beginning their fateful push toward Stalingrad, Hitler commented on what he had seen a decade earlier:

“It is vital that the Passion Play be continued at Oberammergau; for never has the menace of Jewry been so convincingly portrayed as in this presentation of what happened in the times of the Romans. There one sees in Pontius Pilate a Roman racially and intellectually so superior, that he stands out like a firm, clean rock in the middle of the whole muck and mire of Jewry.”

Judging from that approval, Hitler would have fully applauded Mel Gibson’s 2004 film The Passion of the Christ. There the “rock” is portrayed as even rockier and the “muck” as even muckier than anything ever dreamed of at Oberammergau. That reminds us that any dramatization of Jesus’s death demands a very particular level of ethical responsibility. You must get it right in the present, because getting it wrong has fed theological anti-Judaism and racial anti-Semitism in the past.” [John Dominic Crossan, God and Empire]

I loved Gibson’s “Passion” when it first came out and thought that the accusations of anti-Semitism were unfounded.  Even later, after the drunken Gibson made some hatefully bigoted remarks, I did not believe this proved the movie to be anti-Semitic. It appeared to be a faithful re-enactment of the Gospel’s account of Jesus’ torture and death.  After a careful and more informed reading of the scriptures, though, I have changed my mind.

I’ve always been puzzled at how the same people who greeted Jesus with adoration on Palm Sunday were crying for his crucifixion by Good Friday. What happened to make them change so?  Well, with the help of Crossan, I realize that they did not change, and the evidence is right there on the pages of Mark’s Gospel:

We have already seen that the Jerusalem crowd was on the side of Jesus in the anti-imperial demonstration in Mark 11:8–10 on what Christians call Palm Sunday:

Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

But watch the importance of that continuing support and protection as Mark’s story unfolds day by day from Sunday through Wednesday.

On Monday, after the demonstration in the Temple, Mark 11:18 comments that, “when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching.” That sets up a clear distinction between the Jewish authorities and the Jewish crowd concerning Jesus. And it is similar to the divergent reactions to Jesus in Josephus cited at the start of this section.

On Tuesday, there is a series of debates between Jesus and those authorities, in several of which they attempt to drive a wedge between him and his popular support. That, for example, is the logic of the trick question: should we pay taxes to Caesar or not? (12:13–17). If he answers yes, the crowd will desert him; if no, the Romans will arrest him. But three times on that Tuesday, Mark insists, the crowd is on the side of Jesus.

First, with regard to John the Baptist, Jesus shows that the authorities were against John as they are now against him, and thus also against their own people. “The chief priests, the scribes, and the elders…were afraid of the crowd, for all”,”regarded John as truly a prophet” (11:27, 32). Second, after Jesus tells the parable of the wicked husbandmen who kill the vineyard owner’s son, those same authorities “realized that he had told this parable against them [and] they wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowd. So they left him and went away” (12:12). Finally, after Jesus shows from Psalm 110:1 that the Messiah is not just the Son but the Lord of David, “the large crowd was listening to him with delight” (12:37). Mark mentions Jesus’ support and protection from the crowd those three times on Tuesday to lead up to his story’s climax the next day.

On Wednesday morning, a final decision is made by the religious authorities: “It was two days before the Passover and the festival of Unleavened Bread. The chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him; for they said, ‘Not during the festival, or there may be a riot among the people’ (14:1–2). In effect, therefore, they have given up hope of moving against Jesus during the festival days, and of course after the festival he might well go home. However big the supporting crowd was, it was big enough to stop the authorities by threatening a riot. At this point within the logic of Mark’s story, Jesus is safe: as he expected, he has gotten away with his double demonstration, and the Jewish authorities have been stopped by the Jewish crowd, who support the Jewish Jesus.

It is precisely this impasse that is solved for the authorities by Judas in 14:10–11: “Then Judas Iscariot, who was one of the twelve, went to the chief priests in order to betray him to them. When they heard it, they were greatly pleased, and promised to give him money. So he began to look for an opportunity to betray him.” Judas offers to tell them where Jesus is at night, away from the crowd, and no doubt their idea is to have it all over and done before the crowd knows anything about it. Betrayal, secrecy, and speed are now essential— within the logic of Mark’s narrative. And so it happens. [John Dominic Crossan, God and Empire]

Then Crossan reminds us that it was already Pilate’s custom to release a prisoner of the people’s choice at Passover.  Barabbas was a violent and effective leader of rebellion against Rome and it is likely that the ‘crowd’ came for his release as opposed to seeing Jesus die. When Pilate offers up the prisoner that (in his opinion) is less threatening to Rome, this ‘pro-Barabbas’ crowd refuses. Which makes perfect sense, this crowd not being the ones who were following Jesus.

Again, this is according to Mark’s gospel, the first one written and the one from which the other three all drew. But in each succeeding Gospel the crowd becomes increasing more angry and bloodthirsty and and more generically “Jewish”. Crossan says that this can be attributed to the early Christian Jews finding  themselves increasingly in conflict with traditional Jews as their ranks swelled with Gentile believers.

Crossan’s book, like most of his other work, helps to open up your eyes and perhaps even your heart.  I understand better how our theology can become twisted by the spin that small minded yet influential  people have put on it. It is easier to understand the complaints that people have made against our popular portrayals and public statements about Jesus, people who have often suffered terribly at the hands of “Christians”. It is also easier to understand how so many of these people who claim to be Christian can rationalize their bigotry.

But just as importantly Crossan clearly shows how history helps to pull Jesus out of the penal substitionary box that the Church has placed him in, allowing us to see more clearly the meaning and purpose of his mission.

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