Anyone with a Bible, and anyone who has been to church around “Easter,”1 knows the sequence of events surrounding the crucifixion. So why hasn’t there been an upturn in attacks against Jews during Lent? The answer is simple: Because Christians do not see today’s Jews as responsible for Jesus’ death. Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League knows this, and every critic of The Passion of the Christ knew it when it hit theaters in 2004. Jews weren’t attacked in the streets when Cecil B. DeMille’s 1927 silent screen adaptation The King of Kings was shown. The same is true of the 1961 version, dubbed “I Was a Teenage Jesus” by critics, when a blued-eyed Jesus was played by Jeffrey Hunter.2
Nearly every movie about Jesus—from King of Kings and Ben Hur to The Greatest Story Ever Told and the widely distributed Jesus film—has been edited to some degree. Maybe it’s the brutality of Gibson’s rendition of the crucifixion that caused so much concern by the critics. But why were film critics concerned about depictions of graphic violence in The Passion? Gladiator was bloodier with bodies sliced in half, heads and limbs cut off, and blood spurting everywhere. The gratuitous violence was so “despised” by the Hollywoodians that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded the movie “Best Picture” and “Best Actor” Oscars! And we mustn’t forget The Matrix, an excessively violent film that inspired real violence by the two Columbine shooters and resulted in two sequels. But even in this instance, only two misguided souls out of tens of millions walked away from the movie with the wrong motives. Clockwork Orange (1971) is described as a “cult classic.” It received four Oscar nominations, one for Best Picture. In 2008, the film was placed as the 4th greatest Science-Fiction movie to date in AFI’s Top 10 for the category, just below E.T. Watchman (2009) is equally violent with recurring acts and symbols such as a blood-stained smiley face. In fact, the original 12-part comic book miniseries “has received critical acclaim both in the comics and mainstream press, and is regarded by critics as a seminal text of the comic book medium.” But since it’s an “operatic version of violence” it avoids most criticism.
When the Emmy Award winning television mini-series Holocaust aired on network television over a period of five days in September of 1978, I don’t recall a display of anti-German sentiment. Unlike the crucifixion that happened nearly 2000 years ago, victims of the holocaust were still alive in 1978 as were many Germans who, for many reasons, did not take an active role in saving Jews from Hitler’s ovens and camps. If any group of people had a reason to vent their anger, the Jews did. But they didn’t. They knew that not all Germans were guilty of killing Jews. These Jews understood how to distinguish between those who were immediately responsible for the holocaust and those who had no direct culpability. The Nuremberg Trials applied some measure of justice. And some who got away were hunted down and brought to justice. Adolf Eichmann, head of the Department of Jewish Affairs in the Gestapo and the chief of operations in the deportation of 3 million Jews to extermination camps, was hunted down by Israeli Mossad, abducted, brought to Jerusalem, tried for war crimes, and was hanged in 1962.
Schindler’s List (1993) was very graphic in its depiction of the dispassionate inhumanity of the German Nazis. Did we hear Gentiles and Germans complaining that the Jews might finally vent their corporate anger against a national collective that had no direct ties to the horrors of the holocaust? Did Steven Spielberg hold special screenings before his award-winning movie was released so Germans could voice objections? Were there demands by German groups to modify the distasteful portrayal of Nazi atrocities because they were performed by Germans?
As long as Jesus is portrayed as ethereal (The Greatest Story Ever Told), confused (The Last Temptation of Christ), hip, urbane, and New Age (Godspell), irreverent (Life of Brian), and homosexual (Jesus of Montreal), Hollywood has few objections. But portray Jesus as the God-Man with a mission of redemption, a statement of our sinfulness, the need for reconciliation with the Sovereign Lord of the cosmos, and this Jesus must be buried forever.
Missing the Point
I heard a very gracious and well-spoken Rabbi object to the message of The Passion. Why the emphasis on the crucifixion, he asked? Why not dwell on the love and mercy of Jesus’ ministry? Without the cross, Jesus’ love and mercy would accomplish nothing. Jesus did not come to earth to be an example, although He was that, and He certainly did not come to be a martyr. A martyr’s death brings no one salvation. God demonstrated His love for us “in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). The death of Christ is the center-point of history that is a history of the greatest love: “Greater love has no one than this that one lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13; see 10:11).
The comments by C.S. Lewis remain a classic statement of how to deal with the theological dodge that Jesus was nothing more than a great moral teacher who should be emulated:
I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.” That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit on Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left this open to us. He did not intend to.3
If Jesus is “Lord and God” (John 20:28), as the Bible claims, then the issue of anti-Semitism misses the point. The New Testament is only anti-Semitic if Jesus is a liar or a lunatic and the creators of the Jesus mythology used it as a plot to make Jews look bad. If you are going to denounce The Passion and the “Easter” story in general because the story is fraudulent, which Foxman and other critics actually believe, then say so, and let’s debate. At the same time, if you are going to defend Gibson, but you really don’t believe this nonsense about Jesus being the Messiah, as some conservative Jews believe, then I wish you also would fess up and tell us that as well. The same goes for unbelieving non-Jews.
Rejecting Jesus for a Reason
Our nation is becoming consistent with its secular worldview and those who want to accelerate its move to moral degeneracy. Jesus Christ messes with these plans. He always has, and He always will. The crucifixion is a statement that we are sinners, that God’s law counts, that those who break it are guilty before God, and an ultimate price had to be paid for the damaging effects of sin in our relation to God not to our fellowman.
The secularists have been successful in keeping Jesus and the message of the cross sequestered in the church sanctuary. They have driven Jesus from the school classroom, from government buildings, courtrooms, and public discourse. The gospel can be preached in the Christian ghetto but not in the public square where it is an “offense” (1 Pet. 2:8) and might disturb people who hold different religious opinions. Mel Gibson changed the rules by taking the gospel to the modern-day equivalent of “the streets” (Acts 17:16–34), and the worldlings didn’t like it. The medium that has been used by today’s peddlers of filth has been co-opted by one of their own, and he beat them at their own game. Gibson was able to use, through no choice of his own, the hate-filled vitriol of his critics to fund a multi-million dollar advertising campaign at no cost to him or his production company. Every major news outlet gave The Passion ample coverage. Even Variety and the Hollywood Reporter reviewed it. As the adage goes, “The only bad publicity in Hollywood is no publicity.”
Who Was Responsible for Jesus’ Death?
The usual answer to this question is a technical dodge: “We are all responsible, because it was our sin that sent Jesus to the cross.” Joseph Farah takes this approach in his article “Who Killed Jesus?”:
Followers of Jesus believe we are all responsible—all human beings, alive, dead or yet to be born—for crucifying Jesus. . . . He bore our sins and they were nailed to that tree the day he died. We don’t blame anyone but ourselves. To do so would miss out on the grace He offered with His shed blood.
At one level, Farah is correct. But this answer does not satisfy skeptical Jews since there has been a long history of anti-Semitism, and the epithet “Christ killer” has been part of that history. Following the “we-are-all-responsible” logic, I could make the case that no one is responsible for Jesus’ death since Jesus said, “No one has taken [My life] away from Me, but I lay it down on My own initiative. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again” (John 10:18). The whole thing was predetermined anyway (Acts 2:23).
At the biblical historical level, Jesus was put to death by some Jews. In fact, prior to Jesus’ crucifixion, there were attempts to harm Jesus physically. He described His Jewish enemies as liars whose father was the devil. (John 8:44). After hearing this and Jesus’ claim to be God (8:58), “they picked up stones to throw at Him” (8:59). This was not an isolated event (10:31; 11:8). A plot was hatched by the chief priests and the Pharisees to kill Jesus: “So from that day on they planned to kill Him” (11:53). Not all Jews were involved in the conspiracy, just like not all Germans were responsible for the holocaust.
The local Roman governing authorities were also responsible. Was every Roman responsible? Certainly not. Even though Jesus was accused (falsely) of committing political crimes, Pilate wanted to release Him: “I find no guilt in this Man” (John 18:38). But Pilate feared some of the Jewish leadership (Matt. 27:24). He knew they could make trouble for him. “If you release this Man,” Jesus’ accusers told Pilate, “you are no friend of Caesar; every one who makes himself out to be a king opposes Caesar” (John 19:12). What if word got back to Rome that Pilate was soft on revolutionaries? The death of one man, even an innocent man, was a small price to pay for peace and job security. Pilate gave in to the crowd even after his wife told him not to have anything “to do with this righteous Man” (Matt. 27:19).
We can argue over why some in the Jewish hierarchy wanted Jesus dead, but there is no argument about who concocted and carried out the plot. The rest of the New Testament confirms the gospel accounts in fixing blame on those who participated in the crucifixion. Paul, a Jew and early persecutor of Christians, placed the blame directly on those who were responsible for Jesus’ death (1 Thess. 1:14–15). Remember, Paul was a Jew, a Jew among Jews, “a Pharisee” (Phil 3:5). Peter, also a Jew, states it this way:
“Men of Israel, listen to these words; Jesus the Nazarene, a man attested to you by God with miracles and wonders and signs which God performed through Him in your midst, just as you yourselves know—this Man, delivered up by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death” (Acts 2:22–23).
Is this the end of the story? Not at all. When the crowd heard Peter’s sermon, their response was the right one: “Now when they heard this, they were pierced to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Brethren, what shall we do?’“ (2:37). Peter’s answer? “Repent.” Many of them did, “and there were added that day about three thousand souls” (2:41).
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The Self-Malediction Oath
The most debated line in The Passion, spoken in Aramaic but not given an English translation, is Matthew 27:25 which was made by “all the people” calling for Jesus’ death: “‘His blood be on us and on our children.’” What does this mean? First, it is not a multi-generational indictment on all Jews throughout history, a point I made to Christopher Hitchens over dinner a few weeks ago when he raised the issue of the imputation of ongoing Jewish guilt. The phrase is quite literal. It refers to those who uttered the self-curse and to their own children if they did not repent. Notice what Peter says after his first sermon to his Jewish audience: “For the promise is for you and your children.” This is a literal statement. He goes on to say, “and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God shall call to Himself” (2:39). This is the multi-generational side to the promise. It extends far and wide and into the future. No such statement is made in Matthew 27:25. There is no “far off” application to the self-maledictory oath made by the crowd.
Second, Jesus warned “this generation” (Matt. 24:34), that is the first-century generation, that the temple would be destroyed, and that they would see it happen. This message was preached for nearly forty years as a warning: If you do not leave the city (24:15–21) before it happens, you will die in the conflagration (24:22). True to His word, Jesus came in judgment within a generation and destroyed the temple and judged Jerusalem. With the end of the old covenant going up in smoke before them, Jerusalem’s judgment, an event that could have been avoided, ended in A.D. 70. The Jews are no longer a special people deserving any special punishment. They are like the rest of us—in desperate need of the Savior.
1 “Easter,” derived from Ishtar, is an unfortunate term for the resurrection of the Son of God.
2 Hunter starred in the pilot for Star Trek where he played Captain Christopher Pike in “The Cage.” “The Cage” was used in the two-part Star Trek: The Original Series episode “The Menagerie” (November 17 and 24, 1966).
3 C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1965), 40–41. The quotation appears at the end of chapter 3.