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Inter-Jewish Conflict
and the Passion of Jesus

    To argue that the Evangelists all conspired to re-write history, condemning the Jews and exonerating the Romans, seems a little far-fetched.

By Anthony J. Tomasino
Bethel College
Mishawaka, IN
April 2004

    The new film by Mel Gibson, The Passion of the Christ, has provoked a great deal of passion among its critics and its defenders. Long before the film was released, there were charges that the movie was anti-Semitic, or would promote anti-Semitism by resurrecting the notion that the Jewish people are “Christ killers.” Gibson’s defenders shot back that the film had no political or social agenda and was simply true to the Gospel accounts. This assertion prompted a couple of responses. One was that the film actually incorporated much non-biblical tradition into its interpretation. But the other response, to many Christians, was far more disturbing. These were the charges that the movie could not help being anti-Semitic because the Gospels themselves are anti-Semitic.

    There’s nothing really new in this claim. Accusations that the Gospels “canonize” a hatred for Judaism have been around for a very long time. But the turmoil around the Passion film has brought these charges to the attention of the general American public, probably for the first time. Undoubtedly, it’s been confusing for some readers. After all, most people are well aware of the fact that Jesus and all the apostles were Jews themselves. According to tradition and internal evidence, the Gospel writers (with probably one exception) were Jewish, as well. Are we to believe that the Evangelists wanted the world to blame their own people for the death of Jesus and exonerate Pontius Pilate and the Romans of any wrong doing? Would Mark and the other Gospel writers have re-written history in such a way as to throw a notoriously cruel and corrupt governor into a “positive” light?

    Were the early Christians so well disposed to the Romans that they would have deliberately shifted the blame for Jesus’ death from the Empire to their own people? By the time the Gospels were written, the Christians were already being burned on Roman stakes, torn apart by Roman dogs, and dying in Roman arenas. Subject peoples throughout the Empire—not just the Jews—were smarting under the destruction and oppression of the Roman regime. The Apocalypse of John demonstrates what must have been the Christian attitude toward Rome at the time. Rome was the Great Beast, the whore Babylon. It was doomed to quick and complete destruction. To argue that the Evangelists all conspired to re-write history, condemning the Jews and exonerating the Romans, seems a little far-fetched.

    I can’t comment about anti-Semitism in the Passion movie since I haven’t seen the film myself. But I would like to address briefly the issue of anti-Semitism in the Gospels themselves. Or more specifically, I want to offer another perspective on the idea that the Gospel accounts of the trial and death of Jesus have been “doctored” to make the Jewish people appear responsible for Jesus’ death. The points I’ll be making aren’t especially new and don’t represent historical discoveries on my part. But in light of the current debate, I believe they bear repeating. First, I believe that the charges that the Gospel accounts are anti-Semitic do not take sufficient consideration of inter-Jewish polemics of the late Second Temple period. And second, any arguments that the Jewish high priesthood and political authorities weren’t involved in attempts to do away with Jesus are historically improbable. It seems, rather, highly unlikely that the Jewish leaders would have allowed this itinerant preacher to traverse Galilee and Judea, attacking the Temple establishment, and not taken serious action against him.

Inter-Jewish Polemics

    An important prerequisite for understanding the anti-Jewish statements of the Gospels is to recognize that the Gospels are themselves Jewish literature. In the first century C.E., when all the Gospels were written, Christianity had not yet separated from its Jewish roots. Paul, James, Peter, and the other apostles were all Jews and never repudiated their Judaism. The second generation of church leaders, as well—those under whom the Gospels were written—were also primarily Jewish. The church historian Eusebius reports that all the bishops of Jerusalem up through the Bar Kokhbah revolt (135 C.E.) were Jewish (Ecclesiastical History 4.5.1-4). The description of the ministry and legacy of Jesus found in Josephus’ Antiquities (18.63), which many scholars believe is a retouched version of a “less Christian” original, seems to speak of Christianity as a group within Judaism.

    While Christianity had added many Gentile converts by the end of the first century, it still retained a strong Jewish flavor (well demonstrated in what may be the latest New Testament text, the Apocalypse of John). It wasn’t until after the Bar Kokhbah rebellion that Christianity began to diverge sharply from Judaism, and to absorb the anti-Jewish sentiments of the pagan world. The harshly anti-Semitic sentiments of the third-century Church Fathers belong to an entirely different age than the Gospels. And even then, the anti-Jewish rhetoric was inspired partly because many Christian laypeople continued to worship in Jewish synagogues—much to the chagrin of both the Jewish rabbis and the Gentile church leaders.

    The fact that much of Christianity viewed itself as a branch of the Jewish religion in the first century puts the Gospels’ anti-“Jewish” statements in a different light. We aren’t reading hate-inspired attacks from Gentile outsiders but relics of interfaith rivalry. Even the Gospel of John, when it speaks boldly of how the “Jews” opposed and condemned Jesus, probably wasn’t proffering a blanket condemnation of all Jews, but only of Jesus’ opponents. John uses the term “Jews” as an ethnic designation for both those whom he considered good (i.e., those who chose to believe in Jesus; see 8:34, 12:9-11, 19:38-39), and those he considered bad (i.e., those who rejected Jesus, and especially those who wanted him dead). Many times, the term is simply neutral (“the Jews” marvel at Jesus’ wisdom in 7:15; they are divided about Jesus in 10:19; “the Jews” comfort Mary and Martha in 11:19; and “the Jews” observe how much Jesus loved Lazarus in 11:36). John does not paint all Jews as villains. Indeed, he portrays some Jewish leaders, such as Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, as sympathetic figures (e.g., Jn.19:38-39). It is also noteworthy that this Gospel puts special emphasis on the notion that Jesus was the “king of the Jews” (18:33, 39; 19:3, 14, 19, 21).

    I believe that John’s identification of Jesus’ opponents as “the Jews” is not evidence of ethnic hatred but only the fact that the author expected most of his readers to be Gentiles. Josephus consistently refers to the subjects of his narrative as “the Jews,” even when he means only a small group of Jewish people (e.g., he writes that “the wicked Jews” stoned to death a righteous prophet named Onias, when of course only a few Jews were actually involved in the incident [Ant. 14.24]). Paul, too, writing as a Jew for a multi-ethnic audience, sometimes refers to his opponents as “the Jews”—even though many Jews were his allies. When he wrote that the Gospel was “a stumbling block to the Jews” (1 Cor.1:23), he certainly didn’t mean all Jews since most Christians were, at that time, Jewish. Such language must be put into its international context: modern journalists might well write, “The Iraqis invaded Kuwait.” No one would say that the statement implies all Iraqis were equally involved, or equally responsible, for the action.

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