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Concerning The Passion

Posted by acdtest on August 12, 2003

Concerning The Passion

ecently under way is a new round of an old criticism of the yet-to-be-released Mel Gibson film, The Passion, chronicling the last twelve days of Jesus’s life, again charging that the film’s treatment of Jesus’s trial and his subsequent crucifixion is all but certain to give rise to a new wave of Christ-killer anti-Semitism. One wonders what the film’s critics would want done concerning this film which Gibson has reportedly declared will, in strict accordance with the New Testament Gospel accounts, “…lay the blame for the death of Christ where it belongs” (i.e., squarely at the feet of the Jews of the time). Stop its distribution? Let its distribution take place, but convince Gibson to omit in the film the Gospels’ account of the ordered arrest and trial of Jesus by a committee of the Sanhedrin (at which trial, according to the Gospels, Jesus was found guilty of blasphemy, and subsequently turned over to the Roman governor Pontius Pilate for execution based on a misleadingly worded charge)? Convince Gibson to invent a new story of how Jesus came before Pilate, and was sentenced to death by him, that doesn’t involve, as the Gospels have it, the complicity and instigation of members of the Jewish hierarchy of the time, and even, in some accounts, the Jewish population at large?

Consider, please, there are but two near-contemporary documents that have come down to us that report these events and their attendant details, and which are all we have by way of near-contemporary witness on the matter: The New Testament Gospels, and a brief mention by the not-always-to-be-trusted Jewish historian Flavius Josephus whose brief remarks are in agreement with the Gospel accounts. And while I — a down-to-the-bone Jew, and a Kohan to boot (an automatic-by-inheritance member of the Jewish priesthood whose lineage traces back to Moses’s brother Aaron, the first Kohan) — in no way hold the New Testament Gospel accounts to be inerrant, I’ve no problem at all considering them authentic historical documents, and at least possible legitimate sources of actual historical fact.

The reports in all three so-called “synoptic” Gospels of the New Testament of the ordered arrest of Jesus by, and his subsequent trial before, an extraordinarily convened committee of the highest members of the Sanhedrin (the supreme ruling Jewish council of the time, adjudicators of all matters religious and legal), as well as that extraordinarily convened committee’s finding Jesus guilty of blasphemy in a kangaroo-court style hearing, and their ultimately turning him over to the Roman authority (Pilate) for the purpose of having carried out the capital sentence demanded by the offense but which by Roman provincial law was forbidden the Sanhedrin to carry out itself, are all in basic agreement on the essential details, and I see little reason to not accept those reports as being at least historically plausible. That, of course, is not the same as saying the reports are true. It’s saying merely that, in the absence of reliable historical evidence to the contrary, those reports ought to be treated as at least provisionally true. Unless, of course, one places no trust in the basic honesty of the reporters.

So, should any trust by other than believing Christians (who accept as a matter of faith that everything written in the New Testament is not only true, but inerrant) be placed in the basic honesty of the Gospel writers (all of whom were anonymous and only later assigned the names by which we now know them)?

It would seem, on the best available evidence, that all three New Testament synoptic Gospel writers were basically honest Christians telling the story as it was known to them. None were scholars or historians, and, with the exception of the writer called Luke who was a fully educated man, even somewhat illiterate, or at least nave-of-craft writers, and one of the telling signs of their basic honesty is that they all include incidents in their relating of events that a theologue, evangelizer, or mythologizer would have taken great pains to conceal; incidents, for instance, that cast some of the apostles themselves in a most dubious light indeed.

Another is that even though their relating of the events of Jesus’s life was addressed principally to those Jews (the majority) who had not accepted Jesus as the Christ,* as well as for the guidance of those Jews who had (i.e., Christians), they included much that would be seen by Jews of the time as decidedly antagonistic. The very last thing these writers would have done were they dishonest men is, for instance, include material that attacked a Jewish hierarchy (the Sanhedrin) that, as a body, was held in great esteem by the overwhelming majority of Jews, as well as include material that portrayed at least a fair number of the general Jewish population as a mob of bloodthirsty savages. Or if including it all because well known at the time and therefore impossible to omit, would have taken substantial pains to in some way mitigate.

But include it these writers did, and with no discernable attempt at mitigation. The fairly clear inference is that they included it all unvarnished because they were intent on telling the story accurately as it was known to them, and to the at-large Christian community of the time.

In consideration of all this, it seems clear to me that the Gospel writers’ basic honesty is largely to be trusted, and their reports of events at least plausible historically. It seems further clear to me that in the absence of any reliable historical evidence to the contrary, one ought to provisionally accept the reports of these writers as being essentially (as opposed to in every small detail) true no matter how inconvenient such acceptance may be. And if perverse use of that provisional truth puts a weapon into the hands of anti-Semites then one deals with the anti-Semites, one does not alter what, at least plausibly, appears to be the truth. For a Jew especially, to do otherwise would be a betrayal of our millennia-old traditions of dedicated scholarship and ethical teachings; traditions that, in the secular sphere, are the very ground of our identity as a unique and indispensable people.

And so the answer in this matter of the Gibson film seems clear to me as well: If necessary, kill all the anti-Semites whenever and wherever they surface (or even if not necessary, for that matter; it’s never a bad idea), but save blameless the apparent truth and its messengers, even though that truth be only provisional because based on a merely plausible telling rather than on incontrovertible and verifiable historical fact.

*The Gospels were also in some measure addressed to the Roman powers that were, but on political grounds; ergo, the largely sympathetic to the Romans treatment of the story involving the cruel and ruthless Pilate, and his historically thoroughly implausible reluctance to find Jesus, a Jew, guilty of any crime.

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