Passion and Jewish Consideratons

by Ed Kessler

Jesus as a Jew

One of the certain facts about Jesus was that he was a Jew. He was a child of Jewish parents, brought up in a Jewish home and reared among Jewish traditions. Throughout his life, Jesus lived among Jews and his followers were Jews.

No other Jew in history has rivalled Jesus in the magnitude of his influence. The words and deeds of Jesus the Jew have been, and are, an inspiration to countless millions of men and women. Strange, is it not, that Jews have given little attention to the life and teaching of this outstanding Jew? Yet, this is true because the Christian followers of Jesus came to cherish beliefs about his life that no Jew could hold.

When the Church persecuted Jews in an effort to convert them, Jewish indifference to Jesus turned to hostility. It is a sad fact of history that the followers of this great Jew have brought much suffering upon the Jewish people, so that for centuries it was very hard for any Jew even to think of Jesus without difficulty. Up until recently, most Jews have chosen not to think of him at all.

Now we are witnessing a significant change and although Jewish indifference to Jesus has not by any means disappeared, the signs are encouraging.

Jesus and his family would have been observant of Torah, paid tithes, kept the Sabbath, circumcised their males, attended synagogue, observed purity laws in relation to childbirth and menstruation, kept the dietary code - one could go on. While the Gospels record disputes about Jesus' interpretation of a few of these, the notion of a Christian Jesus, who did not live by Torah or only by its ethical values, does not fit historical reality.

There is no official Jewish view of Jesus but in one respect Jews are agreed in their attitude towards Jesus. Jews reject the tremendous claim, which is made for Jesus by his Christian followers - that Jesus is the Lord Christ, God Incarnate, the very Son of God the Father. On that belief, Jews and Christians must continue to respectfully differ. Jews believe that all share the divine spirit and are stamped with the divine image and no person - not even the greatest of all people - can possess the perfection of God. No one can be God's equal.

Jesus lived his life not as a Christian but as a Jew, obedient (with very few exceptions) to Torah. Yet within a few years after his death, the Jewish followers of Jesus espoused a rather different kind of religion from that followed by most Jews. Judaism, like Islam after it, is strongly rooted in religious law; Christianity ceased to be so. Judaism, also like Islam, has a strong belief in the unity of God; Christianity came to place such great store in Jesus and subsequently in the doctrine of the Trinity that it has seemed to many other monotheists to be, in essence, a refined form of polytheism. Gradually, Christian religion came to look less like an authentic, even if eccentric, form of Judaism, and more like a completely different religion.

During the Second Temple period, there were many internal arguments about what it meant to be Jewish. Did religious law permit one to acquiesce in Roman occupation, or to fight it? How did the law reconcile justice and mercy? These must have been common debates, which one can see mirrored in the gospels' accounts of Jesus' disputes with contemporary religious leaders.

We cannot be certain of Jesus' views, for the gospels are a highly interpretative genre of literature, coloured by their contributors' and editors' reflections on events that had happened 40 and more years before, in the light of the momentous events that had occurred in the intervening years. Even so, his attitude towards dietary laws recorded in Mark's gospel shows little interest in the minutiae of what they require that Jews eat and drink. This unusual interpretation eventually became common for Christians: certainly the food laws gradually became a thing of the past, as accounts in Acts and the Pauline letters illustrate. Moreover, although Jesus' message of the kingdom of God was clearly within mainstream Jewish tradition, the Christological references about him and his meaning are less so.

The belief that Jesus was God is an impossibility for Jewish thought. But not so the belief that Jesus claimed to be the Messiah. Several Jews have in the course of 2000 years, claimed to be the Messiah - sent by God to inaugurate God's kingdom on earth. Simon Bar Kochba in 132 CE and Shabbetai Zvi in 1665 CE are two examples among many. But the association of Messiah with terms like Son of Man and Son of God, which developed a profusion of meanings, soon led to exalted claims for Jesus that few Jews felt able to follow. Even within the New Testament this is so; by the time of the full-blown Trinitarianism of the 4th century creeds this gap was unbridgeably wide.

Jesus was put to death by the Romans on the charge that he claimed to be the Messiah. Jesus made it clear to Peter that he regarded himself as the Messiah (Mark 8:29) as he did to the High Priest (Mark 14:62). Some Jews accepted Jesus as Messiah, believing that he would redeem them from the bitter yoke of Rome and bring the messianic age. When Jesus rode into Jerusalem he was acclaimed, "blessed is the Kingdom that comes, the kingdom of our father David" (Mark 11:10). Other Jews rejected the claim.

The charge against Jesus on the cross and his mockery as 'King of the Jews', his execution between two villains, the appearance of the royal messianic motifs - these all suggest that Pilate faced a man charged with sedition. Jesus was not crucified because he denied his Jewishness, abandoned the Scriptures, or disowned his people. He remained a Jew, Jesus of Nazareth, the Jew from Galilee and was executed for political rather than religious reasons.

To claim to be the Messiah, if it was an offence against Judaism at all, was certainly not (as the Gospels contend) an offence against Jewish law for which Jesus could have been put to death. The Gospels say that Jesus' claim to be the Messiah was blasphemy, but in Jewish law, blasphemy was to curse God using God's sacred name. Jesus did nothing of the sort. For Jews, history has shown that Jesus was not the long-awaited Messiah, for Jews were not delivered from the yoke of Roman bondage and the Golden Age did not come. However, some Jews have suggested that Jesus was following in the footsteps of the biblical prophets (cf. Mark 6:15, Matt 21:11).

"What commandment is the first of all?" he was asked. Jesus answered as any Jew: "the first is: Hear O Israel the Lord our God, the Lord is One. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might. The second is this: You shall love your neighbour as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these." (Mark 12:28-31). Every Jew will recognise in Jesus' answer the Shema, a Jewish declaration of faith, which is recited at every Jewish service, day and night. The famous command of Lev. 19:18 is also a fundamental precept of Judaism.

It was in his attitude towards the Torah that Jesus seems to have departed from the Judaism of his time. In their teaching, the rabbis would state, "thus says the Torah." Jesus showed independence by standing above the Torah and speaking as one "having authority". (Mark 1:22) He dared to base his teachings on "I say to you" and it was this daring which brought him into conflict with contemporary Judaism.

It is highly improbable that Jesus told his followers to ignore the Torah; rather, he emphasized that "the kingdom of God is within you" (Luke 17:21) i.e., follow the deepest instinct for truth and love in your heart for therein, not through Torah, lies salvation. This was a courageous message; one which made some Jews unbounded in their devotion to him and others to regard him as a heretic.

Geza Vermes and Ed Sanders are two scholars who in recent years have drawn wide attention among Christians to Jesus' Jewish origins, though Christians earlier in the 20th century (R. T. Herford, George Foot Moore) had also explored this trend, which has now become widespread and crucial within Jesus studies. At least until the 1970s, it was common for New Testament scholars to portray Jesus as a kind of prototype exponent of idealism. Many betrayed an instinctive antisemitism. They depicted Judaism at the time of Jesus as 'late Judaism' (Spätjudentum), as if Jewish religion had ended with the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, or should have. This position was based on the conviction that post-exilic Judaism had ossified and betrayed the prophetic faith of Israel. It contends that Jesus stands outside such a hardened, legalistic religion, a stranger to it, condemning the scribes and the Pharisees who were the fathers of Rabbinic Judaism and who have thus misled modern Judaism into perpetuating this sterile, legalistic religion.

Jesus was a Jew, not an alien intruder in 1st-century Palestine. Whatever else he was, he was a reformer of Jewish beliefs, not an indiscriminate faultfinder of them. For Jews, the significance of Jesus must be in his life rather than his death, a life of faith in God. For Jews, not Jesus but God alone is Lord. Yet an increasing number of Jews are proud that Jesus was born, lived and died a Jew.

The Passion from a Jewish Perspective

Scholars have spent an impressive amount of energy on the study of the historical Jesus and much of it has revolved around his Jewishness. "Whom do men say that I am?" Jesus once asked his disciples (Matt 16:13). The answers varied which reveals how even then there was little consensus over his identity. A brief glance towards recent scholarship indicates that scholars are still on this elusive trail and are as far as away from consensus as were the disciples. Yet, it can be agreed that Jesus was born a Jew, raised a Jew, taught as a Jew and died a Jew. He was indicted by Pilate as "king of the Jews" and condemned to death as such.

The BBC's The Passion successfully places Jesus the Jew in his Jewish context. His disciples on occasion call him 'rabbi' for he was a Jewish teacher. Jesus and his family would have been observant of Torah, paid tithes, kept the Sabbath, circumcised their males, attended synagogue - and so on. While the Gospels record disputes about Jesus' interpretation of a few of these, the notion of a Christian Jesus, who did not live by the Jewish commandments or only by their ethical values, does not fit historical reality.

The BBC series successfully portrays the many ways to be Jewish in the first century. Josephus, who lived in the first century, mentions four groups: Pharisees; Sadducees; Essenes; and Zealots. With which of the groups did Jesus have dealings? The Gospels never mention the Essenes, although the Dead Sea Scrolls parallel some of the teachings of John the Baptist. Some Jews were Zealots and were active from the time of the Maccabees. Josephus accuses them of kidnapping Jews as hostages and killing their own people whom they regarded as traitors. The Zealots are hardly mentioned in the New Testament although Luke includes Simon the Zealot among the twelve disciples.

The Gospels make clear that Jesus' major dealings were with Pharisees and Sadducees and The Passion follows accordingly. The Sadducees are mentioned in the New Testament as having arguments with Jesus (eg., Mark 12:18-27), and as members of the Sanhedrin. The series rightly portrays them as being mainly associated with the Temple, although not all Temple priests were Sadducees.

Jesus' action in the Temple was a key moment in the BBC series as its marked a turning point in the Temple authorities' view of Jesus. All four Gospels record that Jesus overturned the tables of the money changers, and accused the Temple staff of making what should have been a "house of prayer for all nations" into a "den of thieves". The chief priests were concerned to protect an economy built around the Temple. The Passion depicts Jesus as staging a symbolic destruction, because he believed that destruction was to take place after which the Temple would be radically transformed and the kingdom of God would shortly arrive. The authorities, both religious and secular, took note.

One of the most intriguing characters of the series is the High Priest, Caiaphas. The High Priest was appointed by Rome and his duties included performing Temple rituals, managing the Temple treasury, and presiding over the Sanhedrin. In the past, performances of the Passion have often inaccurately portrayed him as Pilate's superior. The BBC's The Passion gives the viewer an indication of what it must have been like for a High Priest who struggled with his conscience in order to protect the limited autonomy given to Jews by the Romans. Caiaphas is portrayed as a sensitive man who knows he is caught been between a rock and a hard place.

The writer, Frank Deasy, carefully followed contemporary New Testament scholarship by depicting Pilate as perceiving that Jesus threatened the peace of Jerusalem. This political situation provides the context for Caiaphas' ironic comment to Pilate, 'It is better for you to have one man die for the people than that the entire nation perish' (John 11:50).

The Jewish group closest to Jesus were the Pharisees and other than the Jewish followers of Jesus, only they survived. After the Temple was destroyed in 70CE, the Pharisees began to reconstruct Jewish faith and so became known as the fathers of Rabbinic Judaism. In the Gospels, the Pharisees are prominent as the main rivals of Jesus and their conflict generally centres on interpretation of the Torah, especially in terms of observing the Sabbath, dietary laws and issues of purity.

Interestingly, many of Jesus' teachings mirror those of the Pharisees. For example, Rabbi Hillel, a famous rabbi who lived a few decades before Jesus, is well known for a saying which echoes the Golden Rule, "do not do unto others what you would not wish to be done to yourself".

I would suggest that Jesus argued so much with the Pharisees because he was closest to them and it is not by chance that they are absent from the Gospel Passion narratives. Indeed, Jesus may even have been a Pharisee.

For his part, Pontius Pilate (governed 26-37 CE) was a despotic and ruthless Roman dictator, who was forced to resign from office. Even early Christian sources, which are keen to portray the early church as non-threatening to Roman authority, contain criticism of Pilate. Luke mentions "the Galileans, whose blood Pilate mingled with their sacrifice" in the Temple (Luke 13:1-4) and according to the writings of Eusebius (260-339 CE) Pilate committed suicide, which was a fitting fate for him: "Divine justice, it seems, did not long protract his punishment".

Pilate, being the political potentate in Judaea at the time, without whose consent no one would be put to death, has nevertheless been interpreted in Christian tradition as being opposed to the execution of Jesus. However, most scholars understand this as an attempt to present the Christian message as in no way threatening to the Roman authorities, rather than historical reality.

Passion Plays and tackling anti-Jewish bias

Since Passion Plays focus on the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus, they have sometimes provided an excuse for anti-Judaism.

On occasion, performances of the Passion have led to violence against Jews, especially in the mediaeval period which one Catholic scholar of Christian-Jewish relations, Edward Flannery, described as "the centuries of woe", during which Jews were progressively "demonised" by Christians and portrayed first as in league with Satan in their opposition to Jesus and then as Devils themselves. Passion Plays have contributed towards what has become known as the 'teaching of contempt' of Judaism.

The portrait of Jews as collectively guilty for the death of Jesus was a key factor, scholars agree, in a demonisation process.

The BBC series, however, takes special care to avoid these dangers by portraying Jesus as a Jew, reminding viewers of the Jewish context to his ministry, demonstrated at the end of the series by the chanting of the Jewish prayer of mourning, the Kaddish, at Jesus' death, which is deeply moving and very Jewish.

A particular challenge, however, was presenting the trial narrative. Typically, the most anti-Jewish sections of a passion play are those relating to the trial and death of Jesus and portraits of Jesus' last days are made more complicated by the differences between the four Gospel accounts. For example, Mark, Matthew, and Luke place Jesus' arrest on the night of the Passover. In John it occurs before Passover. In John, Jesus is brought first to Annas, then to Caiaphas, then to Pilate but in Matthew he is brought only to Caiaphas, and then to Pilate, while in Luke no details of a Jewish trial are given at all, and Jesus is brought before Pilate and Herod Antipas.

Such variances indicate the Gospels were written generations after the event and rely on the oral traditions of the earliest Christian communities as their sources. Furthermore, the evangelists were not interested in writing factual, historical accounts of Jesus' last days. They were not historians in the modern sense, but men of faith who were preaching in their communities. It is a mistake to treat passion narratives as a straightforward report of what actually occurred, although that is how they are often viewed - therefore all performances of the Passion never simply retell the story, they reinterpret it.

The outcome of the trial is that Jesus is convicted of blasphemy according to Jewish law, and condemned to death as a political trouble-maker by the Roman authorities. There are many odd aspects to this account. The narrators present the Roman authority, Pilate, as being very uneasy about condemning Jesus, and finding it hard to believe that he is guilty of the crime of subversion, or that he constitutes a threat to the Roman administration. This is a strange feature of the presentation because of Pilate's ruthlessness and oppressive behaviour and presented a difficult literary and theological problem for the authors of the Gospels as well as for the BBC.

For the Romans, one might say it was all a much simpler matter: had there been an offence against public order that was sufficiently serious to warrant taking punitive action and was there a threat to their political authority?

Perhaps it is best to conclude with a question asked of Jesus. "What commandment is the first of all?" Jesus was asked. He answered as any good Jew would have answered: "the first is: Hear O Israel the Lord our God, the Lord is One. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might. The second is this: You shall love your neighbour as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these." (Mark 12:28-31). Every Jew will recognise in Jesus' answer the Shema, the Jewish declaration of faith, which is recited at every Jewish service, day and night.

The famous command of Lev. 19:18 is also a fundamental precept of Judaism, demonstrating that wherever, however and whenever the Passion narrative is performed, Jesus is most accurately portrayed not as living his life as a Christian but as a Jew.

BBC ONE ONLINE, articles 1 & 2, accessed 18.6.2013

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