Old Tyme Religion, Mad Mel Style

It finally looks as though my good friends at Slate got it right. It is indeed fine time for the Jews to fess up and admit their forefathers killed Jesus.

Oodles and oodles of free press have helped sell Mel Gibson's newest film, The Passion, months before it actually hits theaters. You'll be hearing more and more about this movie as the release date gets closer (Mr. Gibson is looking for a distributor), which should be Easter 2004. Until then, you can watch something close to a celebrity death-match take place as Mr. Gibson makes the rounds to say that his movie is not anti-Semitic but an accurate portrayal of the last few hours of Christ's life before His/God's death on the Cross.

Of course, there are some niggling details that don't jibe with historical accuracy. For instance, the entire movie's dialogue is in Latin and Aramaic. That's a great departure from most American-made films about Jesus, but there's no way that the Roman occupying power would have been speaking Latin with populations under their control: it would have been Greek, which was the lingua franca of the day thanks to the conquests of Alexander the Great, who steam rolled through the Middle East to the Indus Valley three centuries before Christ was born. In a trailer of the movie I found on the Internet, you have a mob (yes, a mob) of Jews screaming at Pilate and Jesus while the former intones, "Ecce homo!" In real life, that would have been met with a collective "Mah?" ("What" in Aramaic and Hebrew), as no one would have understood him. And that's assuming that Pilate would even deign to deal with an unruly crowd, which according to what I've studied about Roman rule, was something they tended to suppress harshly. So much for historical accuracy.

Then of course, there's the other problem of the Gospels themselves. You see, the Gospels were not written by actual disciples of Christ, just people using well-known names to add to their authenticity. And the Gospels quite frequently disagree with each other over certain facts. Some versions have a trial between "the Jews" and Jesus before Passover, while another omits it entirely. One Gospel contends that Jesus was killed before Passover and another after Passover had started.

If my good friends at Slate want to Jews to fess up, they should actually come up with what exactly got Jesus into trouble. The Gospels are ambiguous about why Jesus should even be tried (if He was, at all.) It's a well-established fact that if Jesus had been convicted of blasphemy, then He would have been stoned to death, not handed over to the Roman authorities who liked to keep themselves as far away from local issues as possible. The author of the article, Steven Waldman, doesn't do enough research: he seems to accept Jewish culpability at face value and Roman helplessness an outright fact. Regardless of what some of the Jerusalem establishment might have thought of Jesus, it's incredible to witness the whitewashing the Gospels give to Pontius Pilate and not blink. Yet Mr. Waldman seems to accomplish just that.

The good people at Slate should also be wary of asking, "Who cares?" to the question of who killed Jesus. If the question of who killed Jesus was such a trivial matter, then the belief that "the Jews" did it would not have seeped into the minds of Christians and serve as the number one answer when asked. It would have made the theological grist of Passion plays moot. The identity of Jesus' presumed killers would not have been a question even for the Gospel writers, much less a personality like St. Augustine, for whom the depraved existence of the Jews was proof positive of their guilt. The cavalier dismissal of the question is fitting for the petite bourgeoisie that fills Slate's editorial ranks.

Another important point is this: why should Jews admit their culpability? Doesn't that question entail that Jews admit Christianity has been right all along, that Jesus is indeed the promised Messiah, and that the interpretation of their history is false? The good folk at Slate are asking Jews to validate the Christian religion by participating in it, which is curious because I don't see the Church rushing to validate Islam and declare that yes, the angel Gabriel really did appear to Mohammed in the desert and that Islam supercedes Christianity. Will the gentle souls at Slate follow up with that? After all, shouldn't it make for better relations if we just say that we're all wrong?

While the author of the above piece gave passing reference to his own Christian/Jewish relatives, they might be more embarrassed by his ignorance of history than his actual arguments. The question of anti-Semitism is one that poses deep problems not just for Jews, but also for Christians in general and Catholics in particular. While the Vatican took far too long to expunge the charge of deicide, the lasting damage had already been done, and it goes far beyond a mere film. And the kindly author fails to examine the fact that Mr. Gibson belongs to a "traditionalist" Catholic group that rejects the validity of Vatican II outright. By limiting the focus on Jewish reaction (read overreaction), people will think "there go the Jews again," or start up arguments of how ridiculous political correctness is. And that reaction might carry a tinge of anti-Jewish sentiment, which is exactly about what Jews and Christians should be concerned.