Christians, Jews and The Passion

Christians, Jews and The Passion

Credible Jewish groups such as the Anti Defamation League and other commentators have said that Mel Gibson’s blockbuster film The Passion of the Christ is anti-semitic. Why?

I still remember the shock I felt when I learned in 1983 that many Jews believe that the Christian Gospels themselves are the main source of the rabid anti-semitism that has flourished in the world over the millennia. In 1983, I was taking a course at the University of British Columbia called Post Biblical Judaism , on my way to earning a BA in 1984 with a major in Religious Studies. The Professor, a Sabra (a Jewish person who was born in Israel) and war veteran, declared flatly one day, in an massively thick accent, that he believed the New Testament was the root of all anti-Semitism. Ironically, the small class of six students was made up of five “born-again” Christians and one Israeli student.

The Christians in the class, myself included, were aghast at his suggestion and a vigorous debate ensued for the balance of the term. Since that jarring experience, I have taken a strong interest in the historical relationship between Christians and Jews. Unfortunately, a review of Church history does more to support my Jewish professor’s grim opinion of “Christendom” than confirm “the Church” as champions of peace, love and reconciliation.

The New Testament Church

The earliest Christians were at odds with the Jewish authorities and rife with dissention over questions of their own Jewish identity. Comprised mainly of converted Jews, the “New Testament Church” could have rightly been be considered just one of the many a small sects within Judaism. The decades preceding and following the time of Jesus saw the rise of numerous factions and splinter groups in Israel.

The Essenes, for example, made famous by their prominence in the Dead Sea Scrolls, were an anti-orthodox Jewish group that, among other doctrines, predicted the overthrow of Rome at the hands of a triumphal Jewish leader, the so called “Son of Man.” The early Christians could easily have been looked on with contempt by the Jewish authorities as yet another heretical and unbiblical movement. Rabbi Saul of Tarsus, later named Paul, the Apostle, led the way in attempting to stamp out the Christians. After his conversion, Paul would become the key transformer of the Church from a small Jewish sect to an explosive new world religion.

Acrimony between Paul and the Jewish Christians is evident throughout the New Testament. Paul’s mission was to bring the good news of salvation through Christ to the gentiles on the basis that faith alone was required for redemption, and that the Jewish legal system, including its complex dietary laws, was obsolete, or as Paul more diplomatically put it, “fulfilled.” To many Jewish Christians, this view was preposterous. An example of the debate comes from Acts 15:1-2:

“But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brethren, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” And when Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question.”

The ensuing debate saw a compromise worked out whereby certain key laws would be observed by the gentile Christians with most other Jewish customs being optional. In spite of the truce worked out in Jerusalem, Paul’s writings in the Epistles are infused with disdain for anyone who would suggest that legal observances were required for salvation. “For he is not a real Jew who is one outwardly, nor is true circumcision something external and physical. He is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart, spiritual and not literal” (Romans 2:28-29).

Paul has some harsh words for those Christians who sought to integrate Jewish laws into a plan for salvation, as in Galatians 1:7 “…”there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ…” However, Paul writings go to enormous lengths to explain why his view of salvation was correct and emphasized that he was in no way disparaging the Jews, his own people.

“I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew” (Romans 11:1-2). But Paul admits to sometimes antagonizing his brethren: “Inasmuch then as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I magnify my ministry in order to make my fellow Jews jealous, and thus save some of them” (Romans 11:13-14). Paul was indeed zealous, and some of the most evangelical Christian I have know have been converted Jews.

The Church Fathers

Paul was a man whose heart broke for his people. Romans 9:1-4: “I am speaking the truth in Christ, I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit, that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen by race.” Unfortunately, many of the “Church Fathers,” early and revered proponents of Christianity, had all of Paul’s frustration but none of his warm heart toward the Jews. The following are notable instances of anti-Jewish rhetoric wherein Jews are blamed for Jesus death by Church Fathers (source:

Origen of Alexandria (185-254 A.D.) :

“We may thus assert in utter confidence that the Jews will not return to their earlier situation, for they have committed the most abominable of crimes, in forming this conspiracy against the Savior of the human race…hence the city where Jesus suffered was necessarily destroyed, the Jewish nation was driven from its country, and another people was called by God to the blessed election.”

John Chrysostom (344-407 A.D.):

“The synagogue is worse than a brothel…it is the den of scoundrels and the repair of wild beasts…the temple of demons devoted to idolatrous cults…the refuge of brigands and dabauchees, and the cavern of devils. It is a criminal assembly of Jews…a place of meeting for the assassins of Christ… a house worse than a drinking shop…a den of thieves, a house of ill fame, a dwelling of iniquity, the refuge of devils, a gulf and a abyss of perdition.”…”I would say the same things about their souls… As for me, I hate the synagogue…I hate the Jews for the same reason.”

St. Augustine (c. 354-430 A.D.), Confessions, 12.14

“How hateful to me are the enemies of your Scripture! How I wish that you would slay them (the Jews) with your two-edged sword, so that there should be none to oppose your word! Gladly would I have them die to themselves and live to you!”

Given the above pronouncements issued by respected Church leaders in the formative days of the Church, its no wonder that Jewish and other scholars often link orthodox Christian theology to anti-Semitic thinking. It’s hard to believe that in such a short time the message of the love inspired Gospel and Spirit filed Apostles could have been so poorly interpreted. However, as reprehensible as it is to speak hatefully about any particular group, harsh words do not necessarily lead to action. But a fulfillment of these early sentiments was all too evident throughout the Middle Ages, as deplorable acts against the Jews became common throughout Christendom.

The Middle Ages

After the Roman destruction of Israel’s temple at Jerusalem in the 1st century AD, many Jews were dispersed throughout the world (forming what is known as the Diaspora) while many remained in Israel. Remarkably, in spite of widespread persecution, Jews flourished during the early Middle Ages (BC 200-700), a time when the core Jewish texts of the Talmud and the Mishna were compiled and a strong tradition of rabbinic thought was established. Until Christianity was made the official religion of the Roman Empire by emperor Constantine in the 4th century, Jews and Christians had shared a common persecutor in the form of a brutal, repressive and pagan state. Although the Romans had sacked Jerusalem, they allowed Judaism to remain a legal religion for decades, but reversed that status under Hadrian in the second century. For Christians and Jews, survival under the Roman sword was never guaranteed, except by the grace of God.

During the fourth century and the rule of Emperor Constantine, who converted to Christianity, the legal status of Judaism steadily declined in the wake of Christianity’s rise as the official religion of the Roman state. Although not outlawed like paganism, Judaism was subject to increasing state stricture into the next century, such as the banning of intermarriage with Jews and exclusion of Jews from government posts. The Emperor Justinian (525-565), famous for developing one of the most important legal texts in history, the Justinian Code, introduced further discriminatory legislation against the Jews, such as prohibiting rabbinical biblical writings. In spite of the upheavals of beginnings of the first millennium, the worst was still ahead for the Jews.

Ironically, the rise of Islam in the early 8th century, proved less of a threat to the Jews than the Christians. Under the Pact of Omar, believed to date for around 800, both Jews and Christians, called by Muslims “People of the Book”, enjoyed inferior but tolerable status in Islamic states. Although prohibited from proselytizing and overt worship such as church bells, Jews and Christians were guaranteed religious freedom and normal property rights. The centuries of Islamic rule over Jewry in Spain, the Arab world and other areas provided relative sanctuary compared to the persecution that would follow, especially during the medieval crusades.

In 1095 in the south of France, Pope Urban II proclaimed the First Crusade, ostensibly a call to forcibly wrest the Holy Land from the control of the Muslim Turks. The proclamation had the effect of setting off widespread hysteria and fervor for salvation and blessing through violence. While official armies were being marshaled, it became commonplace for hoards of self appointed holy crusaders to wreak havoc on such unbelievers as were to be found throughout the countryside. Throughout 1096, Jewish communities throughout Europe were attacked, plundered and slaughtered unless they consented to baptism. In some cities, total extermination of the Jews resulted. Church and state leaders eventually put a stop to the rampages and eventually provided some legal protections to the Jews.

The 12th and 13th centuries saw a pivotal shift in the careers of many northern European Jews, also called Ashkenazi Jews. Due to the Christian monopoly over most trade and merchant guilds, Jews moved increasingly into the field of money lending. The expanding economy of Western Europe of the period created a significant demand for loans, and Jews vied for this business with Christian groups such as the Lombards of Italy and the clerical order of Templars. However, the Jews had a competitive advantage in that they were outside the rule of the Church that discouraged the making of profits through lending. The economic prosperity experienced by some Jews resulting from their successful banking business became an ongoing source of resentment in Europe, even though their success helped fuel a prosperous economy.

Perceived economic inequalities mixed with religious prejudice combined to make the later middle ages a difficult time for the Jews. The stereotypes of the Jew as a deliberate disbeliever with demonic qualities flourished, as did bizarre superstitions and myths portending Jewish wickedness. A particularly unpleasant myth, believed to have originated in England in 1144 that has survived in various forms down to the 20th century, is the notorious “blood libel,” where Jews were accused of murdering Christian children and using their blood to make matzah, the unleavened bread used in Jewish ceremonies such as the Passover. The legend, often used as a pretext to confiscate Jewish property, surfaced later in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in the form of The Prioress Tale, an account of an innocent Christian choir-boy wickedly murdered by Jews:

From that time forth the Jewish folk conspired
Out of the world this innocent to chase;
A murderer they found, and thereto hired,
Who in an alley had a hiding-place;
And as the child went by at sober pace,
This cursed Jew did seize and hold him fast,
And cut his throat, and in a pit him cast.
I say, that in a cesspool him they threw,
Wherein these Jews did empty their entrails.
O cursed folk of Herod, born anew,
How can you think your ill intent avails?

When the crime is revealed “by a miracle:”

The Magistrate at once put every Jew
To death with torment and shamefulness.

A variant of this “blood libel” ritual murder in Christian folklore was the accusation that Jews would routinely steal the elements of the sacrament of communion, i.e. the blessed “host” or wafer, so that they could secretly repeat the murder of Christ.

The official position of the Church during the Middle Ages did not support prejudicial treatment of Jewish people, but some Popes were openly critical of the Jews. For example, Pope Innocent III wrote in 1205:

“ …although they ought not to be killed, …as wanderers ought they to remain upon the earth, …they ought not to be aided by Christian Princes…but ought rather to be forced into servitude of which they made themselves deserving when they raised sacrilegious hands against Him..”

Negative religious, social and economic sentiments in Europe against the Jews lead to routine expulsions and massacres for centuries. In 1182, King Phillip Augustus of France expelled all Jews from the Royal domains (in and around Paris) and confiscated all their property. In 1290, all Jews were order to leave England, their possessions reverting to the King. 13th Century France saw all Christian loans owed to Jews cancelled and numerous bogus ritual murder and host desecration trials proceed. Germany saw plundering gangs massacre Jews in 140 communities in 1298. During the plague of the Black Death in the 14th century, it was widely believed that the Jews had caused the Plague by poising the wells of Europe with a vile mixture of animal and human parts combined with the sacred host. These outrageous allegations lead to an unprecedented slaughter of Jews throughout Europe for the remainder of the century. The once relatively stable Jewish communities of Spain were thrust into turmoil by rising Christian hostility towards Jews, leading to widespread massacres in 1391. The violence against Jews lead to tens of thousands of Jews converting to Christianity to save their lives and property, setting the stage for one of the most infamous Church institutions in history, the Spanish Inquisition.

Jewish converts in Spain, or Conversos, at first enjoyed greater privileges after baptism, and many went on to leadership roles. In 1480, Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain established the Spanish Inquisition to investigate rumors that many Conversos were not sincere Christians but secret Jews. Those whom the inquisition claimed to have discovered as false Christians had their property confiscated and were sentenced to various punishments. Those who refused to recant were burned at the stake. The inquisitors used torture to extract an alleged blood libel confession, which led to the total expulsion of Jews from Spain. Besides sending Columbus off to discover the new world, in 1492 Ferdinand and Isabella made Judaism illegal in Spain, and an exodus of 100,000-150,000 Jews ensued.

The Reformation

Martin Luther (1483-1546) led a protest against the Catholic Church and its horrendous abuses that completely changed the course of history. Unfortunately, Luther’s achievements and profound contribution to the Christian faith are marred by his fanatical hatred of Jews. In a disastrous tracked entitled Against The Jews and Their Lies, Luther rages in words that could easily be mistaken for Nazi propaganda:

“What then shall we Christians do with this damned, rejected race of Jews? Since they live among us and we know about their lying and blasphemy and cursing, we can not tolerate them if we do not wish to share in their lies, curses, and blasphemy. … Let me give you my honest advice.

First, their synagogues should be set on fire, and whatever does not burn up should be covered or spread over with dirt so that no one may ever be able to see a cinder or stone of it. And this ought to be done for the honor of God and of Christianity in order that God may see that we are Christians, and that we have not wittingly tolerated or approved of such public lying, cursing, and blaspheming of His Son and His Christians.

Secondly, their homes should likewise be broken down and destroyed. For they perpetrate the same things there that they do in their synagogues. For this reason they ought to be put under one roof or in a stable, like gypsies, in order that they may realize that they are not masters in our land, as they boast, but miserable captives, as they complain of incessantly before God with bitter wailing.

Thirdly, they should be deprived of their prayer-books and Talmuds in which such idolatry, lies, cursing, and blasphemy are taught.”

Far from extinguishing superstition and prejudice through a return to the scriptures and renewed spirituality, Luther stoked anew the horrors of Jewish hatred and violence brewing for centuries. Wittingly or not, Luther through his detestable outburst help set the stage for the Holocaust wrought by an ever more virulent strain of anti-Semitism born out of deep rooted religious fear mixed with more “enlightened” theories of racial difference and social evolution.

Modern Anti-Semitism

In 1770, 1.75 million of the world’s 2.25 million Jews lived in Christian Europe. The early days of the enlightenment period showed promise for the Jews, who were still subject to a multitude of discriminatory laws. The widespread rejection of the dogma of the middle ages led some intellectual leaders to rise to the defense of the Jews and lobby for greater freedoms and equality. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizens instituted during the French Revolution of 1789 typified the yearning for equality and freedom in Europe and the nascent United States of America. After much debate, Jews were finally granted full French citizenship in 1791. The spread of the French empire under Napoleon also brought citizen rights to Jews in Germany and other jurisdictions. Throughout the 1800’s, liberal political forces expanded Jewish emancipation, marked by occasional resurgences of medieval prejudices and nationalistic fervor, particularly in Germany. Liberal policy was usually to promote assimilation of Jews into the Christian fabric of society, which often stirred up resentment when such assimilation did not occur. The later 1800s saw great prosperity and new opportunity for Jews in all walks of life, exemplified by the Benjamin Disraeli, a man of Jewish decent who became Prime Minister of England in the 1870s. The Jews seemed poised to enjoy increasing peace and security at the dawn of the modern age.

By 1880, the ascendancy of rational and scientific thought over the prior predominantly religious worldview was largely established. But whereas earlier in the century concepts of freedom and enlightenment had promoted equality, hostility towards Jews now took the form of discrimination based on cultural and ethnic differences. The term anti-Semitism was invented during this time in part to establish Jew-hating as a legitimate position supported by reason and not faith, purporting that Jews possessed specific undesirable “traits” inherent to their race. Wilhelm Marr, the likely inventor of the term “anti-Semitism,” wrote that the fate of Germany lay in the crux of an epic struggle between Semitic aliens and native Teutonic stock. The Jews, he wrote “…corrupted all standards, have banned all idealism from society, dominate commerce, push themselves into ever more state services, rule the theatre, from a social and political phalanx…”

A resurgent conservative movement sprung up in Germany during an economic downturn in the 1870s and some politicians seized on anti-Semitism as a popular platform from which to campaign. The Christian Social party organized in 1878 had overtly anti-Jewish policies. In 1881, a zealous anti-Semite collected 225,000 signatures supporting cessation of Jewish immigration and other legal sanctions. In 1893, small anti-Semitic parties succeeded in having 16 representatives elected in Germany. In France, anti-Semitism proved to be a good political ploy as clerical and monarchist groups fought against certain tenets of the French Revolution. Far more ominous for the Jews ware developments in Russia, where anti-Semitism became official government policy. The assassination of a tsar in 1881 led to widespread pogroms (from the Russian for ‘havoc,’ an organized massacre and persecution of a minority group, especially Jews) in the Ukraine, resulting in looting and destruction of 150 Jewish communities.

Modern anti-Semitism was in some ways more potent than prior instances because it appealed to a wide range of societal fears such as the economy and national security. However, ancient superstitions such as blood libels and ritual murder charges were dragged out as pretexts for riots, boycotts, quotas, and hateful rhetoric. In its most rabid form, anti-Semitism was at the heart of a growing political paranoia and crisis of national identities in Europe.

As the concept of evolution took hold, Social Darwinism mixed with racism to further intensify anti-Semitic tendencies. The theory that the fit survived led to speculation that the Jewish race, deemed by anti-Semites to have inferior traits, would eventually die out. Jews were portrayed as having a “Semitic Mentality” consisting of egoism, materialism, financial skill, low physical courage and creativity, whereas “Aryans” were seen to be heroic, life-affirming and highly poetic. Secular anti-Semites promoted images of a pagan, Germanic warrior race and even criticize Christianity for its “Jewish” charity toward the weak. The success of Jews in the earlier part of the 19th century gave anecdotal credence to suggestions that the Jews were too powerful and that they must be manipulating commerce and government through secret means. Even the revolutionary socialism of Karl Marx (a Jew) was portrayed as merely a thinly guised front for a further rise of Jews to power.

In Russia, in an attempt to discredit socialist advances towards civil rights, the tsarist secret police forged one of the most notorious works of political propaganda in history: The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Supposedly the minutes of a hidden Jewish world government, the tract documents alleged plans to control the press, manipulate all political parties, and dupe the populace through alcoholism and other devious means. Originally circulated by an Orthodox priest in 1905, the Protocols were largely discredited initially, but after World War I they gained credibility and were increasingly used in anti-Semitic propaganda.

The Rise of the Nazis and The Holocaust

Even a cursory review of the horrific events of World War II Europe is beyond the scope of this paper. In light of the overwhelming suffering of the Jews in the preceding centuries, it would have been hard for Jews to imagine that their calamities would get worse by an order of magnitude completely beyond comprehension. The goal of the Nazis was nothing short of total eradication of all Jews. As declared by the infamous Nazi Heinrich Himmler: “The hard decision had to be taken – this people must disappear from the face of the earth.” Ostensibly rooted in pagan myths of a mysterious and ancient Aryan race of superior beings, Nazism nevertheless cleverly used the age-old demonic view of the Jews to stir up popular support for their macabre plans. From a Jewish perspective, Nazi Germany was simply continuing and building on millennia of hatred and violence in “Christian” Europe.

What are Christians Anyway?

When I converted to Christianity from agnosticism in 1980, I was keenly aware that not all who professed Christianity were in fact Christians. My life was totally transformed upon believing in Christ and I adopted a radically different worldview and behavior. I had been “born again.” I came to realize that many of the old “main line” Churches did not espouse my belief in miracles, the divine inspiration of scripture, the creation of the world by God, or even the physical resurrection of Christ. The Catholic Church was another enigma to me, holding up centuries of extra-biblical doctrines such as the divinity of Mary, the veneration of saints, worship of relics, the transubstantiation of the elements of communion, the exclusivity of the priesthood and the supremacy of the Pope. The history of the Church, when compared to the New Testament accounts of Christian life, seemed to me like an exercise in drawing the sharpest contrasts possible.

To me, true Christians, like Jews, are a small minority in the western world. In spite of the trappings of Christendom in the western world such as Christmas, Easter, Church weddings and religious funerals, the vast majority of the population does not attend Church. More significantly, a relatively small number of people in “the West” have they experienced the inner transformation that comes through the Holy Spirit’s indwelling in us when we truly believe that Jesus died on the cross for the forgiveness of our sins and then rose from the dead. “Fundamentalist” or “Evangelical” Christians are constantly ridiculed in the popular media and often portrayed as narrow-minded bigots who seek to make converts not out of love, but out of avarice or malice. In my view, devout Christians are largely alienated from society. As Jesus said of his followers, “They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world” (John 17:16). As Christians, our hearts should break for the Jews, who have experienced alienation and persecution on a scale that makes Christian suffering minor by comparison.

I do not believe that a balanced reading of the New Testament supports any characterization of the Jews as any better or worse than all of us. However, I do sympathize and understand why Jews might believe that to be the case, and I believe it is incumbent on Christians to be aware of how the Jews have been mistreated and harmed at the hands of “Christendom” over the centuries. Much like the West’s distorted view of the Muslim world, Christians should not expect Jews should to discern between the myriad strains of Baptists, Methodists and Pentecostals, for example. Most Christians do not understand the difference between Shiite and Sunni Muslims much less knowing a Reformed from a Hasidic Jew. It has become a joke in recent years that westerners don’t even know the difference between Islam and the Sikh Faith. In this light, it is understandable that some Jews might see the nations of “the West” as “Christian” countries and therefore logically link anti-Semitic tendencies and Christian thought.

As a Christian, I believe that Jesus suffering and death was brought about by a plan ordained by God whereby He would draw all mankind to Himself. Due to the sinfulness of the world, God was forced to sacrifice His only Son, as this was the only way He could restore a good relationship with man, whom He had made in His own image. God chose the Jews, who since the beginning of God’s covenant with them experienced the most profound blessings and sufferings imaginable, to communicate His plan to the world. The persistence of the Jews throughout a history of unrelenting persecution and even attempted extermination is an unassailable miracle of God’s faithfulness to His people.

As I watched The Passion of The Christ, the tears I wept were tears of regret – regret that my own sins were directly responsible for Jesus horrific torment. After becoming a Christian in 1980, it never once entered my mind to hold the characters of the Gospels, mainly Jews, in any way particularly responsible for Jesus death. The guilt of the Gospels is the collective guilt of mankind. In the words of the Jewish prophet Isaiah, “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:6).

Mel Gibson’s Father

Adding to the controversy surrounding The Passion of The Christ is the fact that Mel Gibson’s father Hutton Gibson, 85, is openly anti-Semitic. In media interviews, Gibson’s father has suggested the Holocaust was greatly exaggerated and outlined his elaborate theory that the Jews are behind a global conspiracy to control the world, involving the US Federal Reserve, the Vatican, and others. Mel Gibson has deflected media questioning about his father on the grounds that his relationship with him is off limits. Mel Gibson’s failure to distance himself completely from his father’s views has added fuel to the criticism of his film.

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