Some of the controversy surrounding The Passion of the Christ, Mel Gibson’s new movie, has been about who crucified Jesus. Was it the Romans? Was it the Jews? Were both equally responsible, even if for different reasons? If they were, is this where we are to place the blame?
In seeking answers to these questions, it is critically important to remember that the passion narratives in Scripture do not offer eye-witness accounts or a modern transcript of historical events. Rather the events are presented through the theological lense of the respective evangelist.
Certain historical essentials are shared by all four accounts: a growing hostility against Jesus on the part of some Jewish religious leaders; the Last Supper with the disciples; betrayal by Judas; arrest outside the city; interrogation before a high priest; formal condemnation by Pontius Pilate; crucifixion by Roman soldiers; affixing the title ‘King of the Jews’ on the cross; death; burial; and resurrection.
Many other elements, such as the crowd shouting “His blood be on us and on our children” in Matthew, or the generic use of the term “the Jews” in John, are unique to each author and must be understood within the context of that author’s overall theological scheme.
The Scriptures must be interpreted within their historical and literary contexts.
Raymond Brown in attempting to bring modern scholarship to bear on the passion narrative of John’s Gospel states that one can not disguise a hostility towards “the Jews” in the passion narrative. It seems clear that the evangelist is spreading to the synagogues of his own time the blame that an earlier tradition placed on the authorities. He is not the first to do this, for the oldest extant Christian writing speaks of “the Jews who killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets” (1 Thess. 2:14-15).
But John is the most insistent New Testament writer in this usage. Why?
Because he and/or his confreres have suffered from synagogue persecution. They have been driven out of the synagogue for professing that Jesus is the Messiah (9:22; 12:42). Within a few decades of the composition of John, there was introduced into synagogue prayer (Shemoneh Esrh or the Eighteen Benedictions) a curse against deviants from Judaism, including followers of Jesus. This was an initial example of an attitude that is still with us today. For many Jews, no matter how true and long one’s Jewish lineage may be, one ceases to be a Jew when one confesses Jesus to be the Messiah.
At the end of the first century, expulsion from the synagogue seemingly exposed Christians to Roman investigation and punishment, even death. Jews were tolerated by the Romans; but who were these Christians whom the Jews disclaimed?
The evangelist may be alluding to this painful outcome in 16:2: “They will put you out of the synagogue; indeed the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God.” The context of mutual hostility between the Johannine community and the synagogue must be taken into account if we are to bring out the meaning of the Gospel texts for Christians of today.
As for Matthew’s statement,“His blood be on us and on our children,” one could argue that it was not applicable to whole Jewish people of Jesus’ time, for relatively few stood before Pilate. It might also be that it was an affirmation of present willingness to accept responsibility, not an invocation of future punishment or vengeance. However, given Matthew’s hostility to the Pharisees and Sadducees, “a brood of vipers,” any tempering of his remarks must ultimately be sought in the words of Jesus, who refers to his blood “as poured out for many (all) for the forgiveness of sins.” (26:27).
The Catholic interpretative perspective is that the Bible is the Church’s book. It is the foundational written authority for Christians. It was assembled within the Church. Its New Testament books were composed within first century church under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and are interpreted in the Church for each succeeding generation.
History shows that the Scriptures have been misused to justify war and violence, racial segregation and slavery, and antisemitism. The Scriptures are not only to be studied and prayed with, but also, to be read attentively and wisely.
For Pope John Paul II this need for an informed reading of the Scriptures has special significance in regard to Jews. In meditating on the first station of the cross, he deals with who bore responsibility for the crucifixion of Jesus: “Oh no, not the Jewish people, crucified by us (Christians) for so long, not the crowd which will always prefer Barabbas because he repays evil with evil, not them, but all of us, each one of us, because we are all murderer of love.”
Even though the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Jesus, neither all Jews indiscriminately at that time, nor Jews today, can be charged with the crimes committed during the passion.
The Church has always held and continues to hold that Christ out of infinite love freely underwent suffering and death because of the sins of all, so that all might attain salvation.
It is said that while Mel Gibson does not himself have a role in the movie, he does, nonetheless, appear in one scene. It is his hands that are pictured driving the nails into the flesh of Jesus. He did so to express his own conviction that his sinfulness, as well that of all of us, was responsible for the crucifixion.
Who is to blame? Frankly, we all are. As we watch the movie, we might also bear in mind that some of the bad guys just happen to be Jewish, but all the good guys are Jewish!
☩ Frederick Henry