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Anti-Semitism in the U.S.: Mel Gibson and the Gospel of Anti-Semitism

by Charles Patterson

The trouble with Mel Gibson's film "The Passion" is not the film itself, but the gospel story on which it's based. The gospel story, which has generated more anti-Semitism than the sum of all the other anti-Semitic writings ever written, created the climate in Christian Europe that led to the Holocaust. Long before the rise of Adolf Hitler, the gospel story about the life and death of Jesus had poisoned the bloodstream of European civilization.

The four gospels — Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John (there were others, but they didn't make it into the New Testament) — were written decades after the death of Jesus. Not only were they not composed in Galilee where Jesus lived or in Jerusalem where he died, but they were not written in Aramaic, the language of Jesus and the region where he lived. Instead, they were written in Greek more than a generation later in cities in the Roman empire like Antioch, Ephesus, and in the case of the earliest gospel (Mark) in Rome itself. As a result, these gospels are at a considerable cultural, linguistic, and religious remove from the events they allegedly describe.

The historical Jesus (as opposed to the Jesus portrayed in the New Testament and elevated to divinity by the Christian church) was a Jew, faithful to the law of Moses and the teachings of the prophets. He grew up and worked in Galilee, where Jewish patriotism was intense, and he was steeped in Jewish scriptures, oral law, and the spirit of the Pharisees, the leading religious teachers of his day. People called him "Rabbi" and, like many religious Jews, he expected the imminent coming of the messianic era, or the "Kingdom of God," as he called it.

Like other religious, nationalistic Jews before and after him, Jesus (whose Aramaic name was Yeshua) angered the Roman government because of his preaching, which was considered dangerous. On what turned out to be his final Passover trip to Jerusalem, Jesus was arrested and, upon the order of the Roman procurator, executed.

After his death, his followers — most of whom were simple fishermen and artisans — lived on in Galilee and Jerusalem. Called "Nazarenes" after Jesus's hometown of Nazareth, they continued to observe Jewish laws and wait for the coming of the Kingdom of God, which Jesus had promised. In Jerusalem it was James, the brother of Jesus, who headed the Nazarenes for the next thirty years until he, too, was put to death in 62 C.E.

However, the future of Christianity did not remain long in the hands of these Aramaic-speaking Nazarenes. It passed on to an energetic, Greek-speaking Jew from Tarsus in Asia Minor by the name of Paul. He had never met Jesus and wasn't greatly impressed by the Nazarenes he did meet when he visited Jerusalem. What won Paul over to the belief that Jesus was the Christos (the Greek word for Messiah) was a vision. After his vision, Paul traveled all over the eastern Mediterranean preaching his own understanding of Christianity, which was rather different from the Nazarene version. Unlike the Nazarenes, who lived according to Jewish law in Jerusalem and Galilee, Paul took his message to gentiles as well as Jews. As a result of tireless work and extensive travel, he planted Christian congregations in Asia Minor and Greece.

The differences between Paul's teachings and those of the Nazarenes back in Jerusalem and Galilee soon became apparent. Not only did Paul preach to gentiles, but he also did not insist that these converts submit themselves to circumcision or to any of the other demands of Jewish law. The Nazarenes were outraged when they learned about Paul's negligence, and they summoned him to Jerusalem for an explanation. In Jerusalem before the Nazarene elders, Paul acted as a devout Jew, observing all the details of Jewish law.

Paul never changed his mind about his mission to the gentiles and his opposition to having these converts treated like second-class citizens. In letters he wrote to his churches (now collected in the New Testament), he went so far as to claim that the law of Moses was no longer necessary, even for Jews, and that faith in Christ and his teachings was sufficient. He also believed that everybody in the churches — Jews and gentiles, slaves and free persons — should be equal. When people from the Nazarene church in Jerusalem arrived at his churches to try to convince the gentile converts to obey Jewish law, Paul denounced them as "Judaizers."

The conflict between the Nazarenes and Paul that divided the early Christian movement was decided by a stroke of history. The Jewish-Roman War (66-70 C.E.), which destroyed Jerusalem and its temple and killed many Jews, dealt a devastating blow to the Nazarenes, from which they never recovered. Whatever traditions and writings they possessed were lost or forgotten. Instead, Paul's churches survived and became the basis for a Christianity that quickly became separate from and even hostile to the Judaism out of which it emerged.

By the time the Christian gospels were written in the latter part of the first century, Jews and Christians were fierce competitors arguing over whether or not Jesus was the Messiah-Christ promised in the Hebrew Bible, and over which group — Jews or Christians — represented the "true Israel." By the end of the first century resentment and mistrust of Jews were so widespread in the aftermath of the Jewish revolt against Rome that the young Christian churches in the cities of the empire sought to distance themselves from their Jewish roots.

This desire to dissociate explains why hostility toward Judaism and Jews came to be written into the gospels. They told the story of Jesus in such a way that it seemed as if his real enemies were not gentiles, or even the Romans who put him to death, but rather Jews — Pharisees, priests, and the Jewish people in general.

This anti-Jewish point of view is evident in the Gospel According to Mark, the first of the gospels written in Rome shortly after the end of the Jewish-Roman War in 70 C.E. when anti-Jewish resentment was especially strong in the capital. In Mark's gospel Jesus is persecuted at every turn by the Pharisees and priests of Judaism. In fact, the very first person in the gospel to recognize his worth was not a Jew at all, but a Roman centurion present at his crucifixion, who proclaimed, "Truly this man was a son of God" (Mark 15:39).

Likewise, Mark's gospel pictures Pontius Pilate, the Roman procurator who ordered Jesus's execution, as someone who tried his best to be nice to Jesus. According to Mark, Pilate wanted to have Jesus released but was prevented from doing so by a mob of bloodthirsty Jews (the same people who cheered his entrance into the city several days earlier). By telling the story in this way, Mark's gospel put the responsibility for the death of Jesus on the Jews, not on the Roman government that ordered his death.

Matthew's gospel took this blaming of the Jews one step further. In this gospel Pilate's wife warns her husband not to have anything to do with wronging "that righteous man." Then, after the Jewish mob shouts for the death of Jesus (choosing to have the criminal Barabbas released instead), Pilate washes his hands in front of the crowd, saying "I am innocent of this man's blood." Here Matthew puts into the mouths of the crowd words that were to condemn later generations of Jews: "And the people answered, 'His blood be on us and on our children!" (Matthew 27:25).

The other two gospels — Luke and John — also portray Jews and Judaism as forces that persecuted Jesus and drove him to his death. Combined with the letters of Paul, these four anti-Jewish gospels make up the bulk of the New Testament, which Christianity considers to be a sacred and accurate account of history.

Not surprisingly, this negative picture of Judaism and the Jews continued in the writings of the Christians who followed. The fourth-century bishop of Antioch, John Chrysostom, widely respected as a "Doctor of the Church" and later canonized as a saint, preached fiery sermons against the Jews of his city, calling them "lustful, rapacious, greedy, perfidious bandits...inveterate murderers, destroyers, men possessed by the devil." Their synagogue was a place of "shame and ridicule," and Jewish religious rites were "criminal and impure." Why were the Jews so hateful? The answer, said Chrysostom, was in the gospel story: the Jews were hateful because of their "odious assassination of Christ."

In the Middle Ages the gospel story about the "assassination of Christ" was enacted annually in Passion plays staged outdoors at Oberammergau in Germany and many other places in Europe. These plays — forerunners of the Gibson film — enacted for their audiences the passion (suffering) of Jesus in all its gory details.

It is ironic and tragic that Christianity, which began as a Jewish sect, grew up to become such a dangerous threat to Judaism. To their credit, some post-Holocaust Christians have been trying to come to terms with the church's anti-Semitic past and get beyond it. In the early 1960s the Catholic Church's Vatican II pronouncement denounced anti-Semitism and stated that Jews of the past, as well as the Jews of today, bear no responsibility for Jesus' death. It was definitely a long overdue step forward, but this film has dealt a serious blow to these efforts.

Source: Reprinted by permission of the author. Patterson, Charles. Anti-Semitism: The Road To The Holocaust and Beyond. iUniverse, 2000.