James Carroll, The Boston Globe
Mel Gibson has produced and directed a movie about the death of Jesus. Called ''The Passion,'' it is scheduled to be released next year. ''I think that the true horror of the Passion will surprise people,'' Gibson told the National Catholic Register recently. He was referring to the graphic violence with which the film renders the crucifixion, but no matter how grotesque the murder of Jesus was, its ''true horror'' lies in the way this event became the source of hatred and murder aimed at the Jewish people. Gibson's film is anticipated with a certain skeptical concern, for despite what might seem to be only good intentions, a literal rendering of the Passion story can resuscitate the old ''Christ-killer'' charge from which so much evil has sprung. Judging from press accounts that have already appeared, the problem is far more complex than Gibson seems to realize.
Even a faithful repetition of the Gospel stories of the death of Jesus can do damage exactly because those sacred texts themselves carry the virus of Jew hatred. ''Crucify him! Crucify him!'' Matthew has the Jewish crowd shouting. ''Let his blood be upon us, and upon our children!'' The murderous Jews force the hand of a compassionately reluctant Pontius Pilate, who then, famously, washes his hands, saying, ''I am innocent of this man's blood. It is your concern.'' (Matthew 27: 23-26).
A momentous challenge confronts the Christian conscience faced with what scholars now assert with near unanimity -- that the death of Jesus did not happen as the Passion narratives recount. ''The Jews'' did not sponsor the death of Jesus. The dramatic trials are unlikely to have occurred. Control-obsessed Romans would have instantly smashed anyone drawing restive crowds in the volatile Passover season. Pilate, no humanitarian, was noted in non-Christian sources for brutality surpassing even the Roman standard. The Gospels tell the story as if Jesus, in conflict with ''the Jews,'' was not himself a Jew. The Gospel of John goes so far as to characterize the Jewish people as allies of Satan, a slander to which Jesus of Nazareth could have in no way given his assent.
In Holy Week, it is important that Christians recall how their foundational texts came to enshrine such misrepresentations. A review of the chronology may help. Jesus died in the year 30 or so. His grief-struck followers, all Jews, began to meet for prayer, scripture readings, and the exchange of stories about him. Oral traditions began, but they did not take the form of written accounts until decades later. The earliest Gospel, Mark, is dated to around 70, with Matthew and Luke dated to the 80s, and John to around 100. This is the exact period of the Roman War -- a paroxysm of violence that led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Jews, the destruction of the Temple in 70, and, finally, the leveling of Jerusalem in 135. A massive identity crisis for all Jews resulted: What is it to be a Jew without the Temple? Some Jews answered by asserting the primacy of Torah, and others by asserting the centrality of Jesus. The conflict between these groups shows up in the Gospels, which were being written only then, as conflict between ''the Pharisees'' and Jesus. The conflict belonged not to the time of Jesus, but to the traumatized later period. The Gospels record one side of a heated dispute among Jews; of the other side we know little.
That groups of Jews should have argued over what it is to be a Jew is not, perhaps, unusual. Such disputes occur today. Two things made this particular argument deadly. First, the Jesus movement, especially after the destruction of Jerusalem, became increasingly dominated by non-Jews who knew nothing of how Gospel texts were written, or even of the Jewishness of Jesus. Second, the Jesus movement became the Church of the Empire, with the power t o press its argument against ''the Jews'' with real force. By the Age of Constantine, Christians had ''misremembered'' their own origins. The Passion narrative, instead of being taken as an argument within the Jewish community, was read as an argument against it.
The ''Christ-killer'' lie has been exposed by modern scholarship -- and by modern history. The religious anti-Judaism of the Gospels provided soil out of which grew the racial anti-Semitism of the Holocaust. Once Christians know where the falsely anti-Jewish Passion story led, it is criminal for them to repeat it naively -- whether from a pulpit or on a movie screen. The texts must be preached against themselves -- as the original blood libel. Christians must measure this story against the primal fact of their own faith -- that Jesus of Nazareth was a firmly committed Jew until the day he died. A victim himself, Jesus would have sponsored nothing that made victims of his own beloved people.