The Passion and My People

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by Paul Gottfried by Paul Gottfried

Understandably, because Paul Gottfried is an editor of The American Conservative and so is John Zmirak, the magazine would not publish this letter to the editor. LRC is, of course, delighted to do so.

John Zmirak (in The American Conservative) has written a forceful and timely defense of Mel Gibson’s reverential cinematic treatment of The Passion of the Christ, and one can find much to admire in his criticism of Christianity-bashers. One can never vent enough contempt in dealing with the whiney Abe Foxman, who is beginning to surpass even Al Sharpton as a victimological nudnik. Zmirak rightly stresses that anti-anti-Semites dislike pious Christians more than they like Jews. He is also fair enough to point out the artistic defects in Gibson’s work while praising its inspirational aspect.

But there are two details in John’s arguments that merit critical attention. Although I too find excitement in C.S. Lewis’s bold assertion, "Jesus was either the Son of God or a wicked, deranged imposter," this either/or seems in retrospect overstated. Certainly one can thrill to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount or his magnificent parables without having to find in them the revelation of his divine status as presented in John, Chapter One. One might even reasonably contend that Jesus’s sublime moral teaching has led some into accepting his divinity. I’m not sure how credible as a savior someone would seem who might otherwise be taken for a "wicked impostor." John also suggests that the only religious choice available to Jews in the first century was either the acceptance of the divine Jesus or the "highest, purest religion," which was then Rabbinic Judaism.

This was not quite the case. Jesus was living an age of Jewish religious ferment, in which the eventual victory of the Pharisees was still not assured. Both the Jews’ exile at the hands of the Romans and, ironically, the rise of Christianity would help turn the Pharisaical tradition into normative Judaism. But while Jesus was arguing with the Scribes, Talmudic Judaism was certainly not the only other Jewish game in town. Hellenizers, Essenes, and other distinctive Jewish groups still abounded two thousand years ago.

Finally, unlike John, I am not impressed by Bill Buckley’s protégé, David Klinghoffer, who in a forthcoming book cites Rabbinic condemnations of Jesus as an authoritative Jewish judgment. These charges are at the very least historically irrelevant, having been inserted into the Babylonian Talmud (in tractate Sanhedrin) centuries after the events described. By the time these invectives against Jesus as a blasphemer made an appearance, the Christians whom these Rabbis encountered were a non-Jewish religious minority living in Babylonia in the fifth century. They were also, by the way, mostly Monophysites whose views on the nature of Christ put them at odds with both Rome and Constantinople. For all of these reasons, it seems unjustified to build a Jewish case against the New Testament on what was produced in anger by those who were mostly ignorant of Jesus’s life. Which is not to say that fifth-century Roman Christianity would have attracted Rabbinic critics of Jesus, if they had studied its theology. Such an assumption is unfounded. What is being challenged is the binding nature for Jews of the Talmudic approval of Jesus’s execution, an expression of support that was based on hearsay and was unrelated to the event.

Having opened a can of worms, allow me to dig into it more deeply. A recent interview in the Israeli newspaper Maariv with the former Israeli minister of labor and a leading spokesman for the Sephardic Orthodox party Shlomo Beniziri, revealed what traditional Rabbinic Jews still believe about the death of Jesus. On the basis of the received Talmudic account, Beniziri proclaims that the Gospel story is "nonsense." The Orthodox leader goes on to explain that Jesus was a rebellious student in a Rabbinic academy, who after a proper judicial proceeding, was executed by the Sanhedrin. The judges "took him to a high roof and threw him crashing to the ground." To send a message to others, the Sanhedrin then took his lifeless body and displayed it on a crossbeam. Note that all of this is unrelieved fantasy, which cannot be attributed to Christian persecution of Jews. The relevant Talmudic statements came from Jews living in a non-Christian society; and Maimonides, who famously expanded on this interpretation, and Rabbi Beniziri were born and grew up in non-Western Muslim countries.

While there are real theological differences that separate Jews and Christians, the offensive references to Jesus that by now everyone knows about should have about as much standing as a truth-claim as the view that all Jews are Christ-killers. Perhaps it is time for Abe Foxman and the editorial board of the New Republic to give at least some consideration to the festering problem of Jewish bigotry. It is for me inconceivable that such a sentiment has nothing to do with why American Jewish organizations appeal successfully to their donor base by evoking the specter of Christian traditionalists. This is happening not in Tsarist Russia but in a country founded by Protestant sectarians, who have never persecuted Jews, and the campaign of fear and loathing is being directed against enthusiastically philosemitic Christians.

It is unlikely that contemporary Jews have forgotten entirely about medieval Rabbinic prejudices. American and Canadian Jews are at most three generations removed from Eastern European ghettos where the inhabitants certainly listened to Rabbi Beniziri’s pseudo-history. As a boy, I recall that "religious" Jews were always fuming against Christians, including those who treated them well, and that the Rabbinic narratives about Jesus always had a way of surfacing during these invectives. In short, the myth had a way of trumping truth. One might hear from one and the same person the historical fact, that ancient Jews had lost their right under Roman rule to execute anyone generations before Jesus’s death, and then the mind-boggling Talmudic narrative. If the historical fact is correct, then the Rabbinic account is fictive. But while being fictive, it is also gratuitously nasty; and since it has no Jewish legal standing, it might be nice if Jewish religious authorities disavowed this garbled account.

But such an honorable course would have no more appeal to Jews qua Christian victims than admitting the truth about black Africans keeping and selling slaves would have for American civil rights leaders. It is easier to have public fits about the bigotry embedded in the Gospels or in the hearts of white people than to acknowledge the questionable legacies of designated victims. Liberal Christians are the classical enablers in both situations. Why should Jews reassess their own history of prejudice when they enjoy the status of Christian victims, courtesy of the Christian world? In this situation, David Klinghoffer, Abe Foxman, and Elie Wiesel will all go on sharing the fruits of moral success. And this is bad for Jews and Christians alike.

March 8, 2004

Paul Gottfried [send him mail] is professor of history at Elizabethtown College and author of, most recently, the highly recommended Multiculturalism and the Politics of Guilt.

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