Why did a pious, innocent Jew named Jesus suffer “the most cruel and abominable form of execution” (Cicero, crudelissimum tacterrimumque supplicium)? According to Jewish Law, he was guilty of nothing warranting a death sentence. Politically he was neither an anti-Roman agitator nor a Zealot calling for the military overthrow of the oppressive Roman yoke.
Then why was this prophet and rabbi from Galilee executed in the most inhumane manner of crucifixion? Who bears responsibility for this outrage and injustice? Who is guilty for this condemnation?
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These are timely and eternally important questions to ponder. The answers are not simple, nor the implications insignificant. Wrong answers and inappropriate responses can have devastating consequences.
Questions such as these must be asked both with a view to history (seeing the cross, for example, in the painful light of Auschwitz’s crematoria) and with a view to the spiritual, even cosmic dimensions of God’s self-sacrificing love for His creation. They cannot be addressed adequately in historical vacuum nor alone in the moving spiritual isolation of personal salvation. God’s love demands more and history necessitates it.
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Dear Friends, I write this Update on the eve of one of the most anticipated movie events of all time (Hollywood hype not intended!). I refer of course to the premiere of Mel Gibson’s acclaimed and vilified movie, The Passion of the Christ.
I have not had the opportunity to see this historic movie. But given the controversy swirling around it, here, in no particular order, are some of my thoughts about The Passion. Many of you already will have seen the film by the time you read this. Hopefully my comments will stimulate your thinking about some of the issues involved.
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First, the response of so many who have seen advanced screenings of this movie reminds me again of the NT witness that the Gospel is the power of God for salvation to all who believe. The story itself has power, and just the telling of it can release that power into the lives of people. Confronting the love of God, unmeasured and unbounded, can compel a repentant response and a resolve to walk in the ways of the Beloved. May it be so.
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It is good to remember, to consider the cross – both historically and theologically. In remembering, we are renewed and we respond. (I take up these issues in the tape set, Confronting the Cross, should you desire to explore them further.)
I share the hope expressed by my longtime friend, JoAnn Magnu-son: “that the masses who see the film will leave with the thought expressed in the old Lenten hymn:
What punishment so strange
is suffered yonder,
the Shepherd dies for sheep
who loved to wander,
the Master pays the debt
His servants owe him,
who would not know Him.”
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I am impressed by Mr. Gibson’s personal saga in the making of this movie. How exceedingly rare it is for a Hollywood super star to speak out so candidly and transparently about the healing power of the cross in his personal life.
Gibson’s willingness to excise the reference to Matthew 27.25 ( “Then the people as a whole answered, “His blood be on us and on our children!” NRSV) – given the clear and compelling evidence of that text’s volatility in Christianity’s history of contempt against the Jewish people –speaks well of his honorable intentions to focus on Messiah’s sacrificial love, not on assigning guilt.
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The movie’s exclusive focus on the “passion” (from the Latin passio, suffering) of Christ is not surprising given Mr. Gibson’s conservative Catholic background. Historically, this has been the preeminent theme of Catholic devotion, meditation and liturgy. It is the central artistic motif at the altar, from which the Eucharist is served, and the dominant symbol of private and public spiritual gaze in the crucifix.
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Apparently only the briefest allusion is given to the Resurrection in The Passion of the Christ. This orientation in fact is not inconsistent with Christian thinking at large, both Catholic and Protestant. It misses the mark widely, however, with respect to Apostolic witness in the New Testament.
Though the Romans executed tens of thousands of Jews – perhaps upwards of a quarter of a million –during their occupation, God raised only one from the dead. That was the preeminent and transforming reality for the first-generation Jewish believers in Yeshua. The resurrection signaled God’s vindication and exaltation of the innocent, suffering Messiah and the sure and certain basis for our hope in Him.
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In the many testimonies I have seen and read, it is interesting (and perhaps significant) the way men especially are radically impacted by The Passion. The movie’s two-plus hours of unrelenting R-rated visual violence against the man, Jesus of Nazareth, strikes at the heart of men in potent ways.
Gibson himself was transformed by meditating on Jesus’ incomprehensible and excruciating suffering. Curiously, even from the beginning of his career many of his movies are characterized by their violence and in several cases (like Brave Heart), their celebration of a heroic male figure who suffers tragically.
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Gibson’s claim for “historical accuracy” in the depiction of Jesus’ sufferings and crucifixion raises a number of questions. With some embellishment, apparently he relies for the most part on the Gospels, but selectively so, to present “his” version of the story.
Though believers usually are unaware of it, the theological focus of the Gospel writers varies. Luke’s account of the events of Jesus’ last week in Jerusalem, for example, paints a much more Judeo-friendly perspective than the other Gospels. Matthew, by contrast, is the only one of the four authors to report the “blood-libel” charge (27.25). And Mark characteristically emphasizes the theme of Christ’s abandonment – by family, disciples, the Jewish multitudes, and finally by God himself it seems.
These features become more evident when one looks at the Gospels in parallel. So one has to be careful in slicing together bits and pieces to make a picture, lest an unintentional distortion emerges.
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Furthermore, the interpretation of selected Scriptures is inescapable and must be made cautiously and contextually.. Consider for example Mt 27.25 (above) in the NRSV, “Then the people as a whole answered …” Does not this language subtly but significantly shift the sense of the verse from the rendering say of the NASB, “And all the people said …”?
Much havoc has been wreaked by the translation of ochlos in the preceding verse (24) as “crowd” or “multitude” (KJV).. This gives the impression–reinforced by centuries of vivid preaching–that the Jewish multitudes that welcomed Yeshua on Palm Sunday turned on him and demanded his death on Friday.
The Greek ochlos can refer to quantity, such as a large crowd or multitude, but it also can point to the quality or character of a group – i.e., a troublesome mob. (Cf. Acts 17.5 NASB, NIV) In other words, it was not the multitudes that eagerly welcomed Jesus who stood before Pilate, crying out for blood, but a ruthless mob of servants, soldiers and cronies of the corrupt Jewish chief priests.
The Jewish multitudes are not seen again until the next day, when they follow Jesus to the place of his execution, not to jeer at him, but to mourn for him: “And following Him was a large crowd of the people, and of women who were mourning and lamenting Him” (Lk 23.27).
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A number of historical inaccuracies are evident in the previews I have seen: The Romans spoke common Greek not Latin in daily discourse; Latin was the ‘official’ language used for imperial documents and occasions. Yeshua, like other Jewish Sages of his time, spoke Hebrew not Aramaic in his teaching instruction; but like many in the multilingual society of his day, Jesus would have known Aramaic and perhaps some Greek.
Crucifixion was an execution technique perfected by the Romans that brutalized the victim and terrorized onlookers (thus acting as a deterrent to any anti-Imperial activities). Only the cross-beam was carried to the place of execution, not the entire cross; the subject’s posture on the cross was different than traditionally portrayed; the nails were driven not through the hands but the wrists; and the victim, in this case Jesus, was not catapulted way up into the air but raised only a foot or so off the ground. But these are not major issues; and license must be granted to the artist to achieve his inspired vision or effect.
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Images are powerful means of communication and evocation of feelings, emotions and sentiments. The cross, for Christians, is a compelling symbol of God’s pursuing love. (Recall the visceral outrage occasioned in the Christian world when a controversial artist depicted an image of a large crucifix in a bucket of urine.)
The same image of the cross, however, evokes terror and fear in Jewish hearts. It is important for us to understand the reasons for that, and as much as possible, to show appropriate respect for such painful sensitivities. A good place to start is to read Fr. Ed Flannery’s landmark work, The Anguish of the Jews.
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Jewish anxieties about anti-Semitism should not be dismissed as flights of fancy or irrationality. Jewish ‘paranoia’ all too often is thoroughly grounded in history–in the putrid compost of ‘Christian’ Jew-hatred and Church-inspired persecutions.
Throughout the Middle Ages and even into more recent times, the “Passion Plays” of Europe sparked terrible outbursts of violence against the “Christ-Killers”. Hitler, after observing a Passion Play in Munich, reportedly observed that “these kinds of productions are very valuable to our [the Nazi] cause.”
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At a time when anti-Semitic acts and rhetoric are at their highest levels in Europe since right before World War II – fueled in large part by extremist Islamic propaganda against the “Zionist Enemy” – the reactions of some Jewish leaders to The Passion are more understandable. Indeed one might well ponder the potential reactions to this emotionally explosive film when it plays in say France, Poland or Russia?
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Mr. Gibson has said he deliberately set out in his depiction of the violence done to Jesus to push his audiences to the very edge of their emotional tolerance, and even over the edge – forcing them to confront the horror of their sins and the unfathomable depth of God’s love and forgiveness in Christ Jesus.
That is powerful stuff to Christians who have a frame of reference to see the depths of love behind the degradation of their substitute on the cross. But what if, in your historical frame of reference, the cross is a symbol of hatred, condemnation and persecution? Surely, the very love of Christ exhibited on the cross should compel us to be empathetic to these Jewish concerns.
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For a different and insightful Jewish response to The Passion, see the commentary of Daniel Lapin at www.towardtradition.org. This Orthodox Rabbi with experience in Jewish-Christian relations predicts that “the faith of millions of Christians will become more fervent as Passion uplifts and inspires them. Passion will propel vast numbers of unreligious Americans to embrace Christianity. The movie will one day be seen as a harbinger of America's third great religious reawakening.”
Rabbi Lapin critiques the well-meaning Jewish leaders who are criticizing the film but alarming the Jewish people they represent. “Instead of helping the Jewish community, they have inflicted lasting harm. By selectively unleashing their fury only on wholesome entertainment that depicts Christianity, in a positive light, they have triggered anger, hurt, and resentment… I consider it crucially important for Christians to know that not all Jews are in agreement with their self-appointed spokesmen.”
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The 33-year-old actor who portrayed Jesus, James Caviezel, gave an intriguing answer to NEWSWEEK reporter’s question about Gibson’s alleged anti-Semitism: “I can tell you this much, the guy is not in the least anti-Semitic. I never saw it. Maia Morgenstern [the Virgin Mary] is this beautiful Jewish Romanian actress whose parents were in the Holocaust. Every day he’d say, “Maia, tell me about your traditions. Is this OK to do?” Instead of having an Aryan, blue-eyed Jesus, he wanted to have a Semitic Jesus.
Caviezel continued, “Our faith is grounded in our Jewish tradition. We believe we're from the House of David. We believe we're from the House of Abraham, so we cannot hate our own. That crowd standing before Pontius Pilate screaming for the head of Christ in no way convicts an entire race for the death of Jesus Christ any more than the actions of Mussolini condemn all Italians, or the heinous actions of Stalin condemn all Russians. We're all culpable in the death of Christ. My sins put him up there. Yours did. That's what this story is about.”
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We began with the question, Why was Jesus executed? The brilliant Oxford professor and Jewish scholar, Geza Vermes, answers:
“Had he not been responsible for a fracas in the Temple in Jerusalem at Passover time when Jewish tradition expected the Messiah to reveal himself, very likely Jesus would have escaped with his life. Doing the wrong thing in the wrong place and in the wrong season resulted in the tragic death of Jesus on the Roman cross.” (The Changing Faces of Jesus, p. 280)
True … from a human point of view. But from the Divine perspective, exactly the opposite is true (as I point out in my series, Misconceptions About Jesus and the Passover.) Jesus of Nazareth, by the Almighty’s providential design and the Father’s ever pursuing love, did exactly the right thing, at precisely the right place, on the only suitable day. The Jewish Messiah was handed over to the Roman rulers so that all nations might draw nigh to the merciful God of Israel.
Experience The Passion, and afterwards think on all these things. In Jesus’ giving of his life, we truly find ours, and the fullness of it. May it be so for many. And in remembrance of the Lamb of God and for his name’s sake, may our acts of love, kindness and mercy mirror his, including the respect we exhibit toward His kinsmen, the Jewish people. Then the Suffering of the Messiah will not be in vain.