Jesus, antisemitism, and agnosticism
The first time I saw The Passion of the Christ I was in an empty screening room. I happened to visit my local cinema when it wasn’t very busy and as a result, I was the only person in the screening room.
I vaguely remember the debates when the film first came out. Some said it was antisemitic and others insisted that it wasn’t. At the time I found the idea that the film being antisemitic rather bizarre. For me, the film was dramatizing a historical event and to say it was antisemitic would be like saying a film that portrayed the British losing the Revolutionary War as being xenophobic. But I no longer view The Passion of the Christ or the story of Jesus the same way.
I think it is fair to say we are not learning about a completely historical event whether we are watching the film or reading the gospels. I am not saying that Jesus of Nazareth was not a real person or that he was never crucified. I think it is very likely he did exist and died by crucifixion but I do not think everything that happens in the stories of Jesus should be accepted as facts. Bible scholars use a tool called multiple attestation where the more sources mention something happened the more likely it happened. And multiple attestation cast a lot of doubts about the historicity of certain aspects of the gospels.
Several sources say that Jesus was crucified but some of the things that went on during the crucifixion are not confirmed by every source. Even the gospels that are a part of the canon of the scriptures are not in agreement about everything. Every gospel in the Bible is in agreement that Jesus was arrested in a garden, that three times Peter denies that he knew Jesus, that Jesus appears before the high priests who all find him guilty of blasphemy, and then he is sent to Pontus Pilate who reluctantly orders him to be crucified. The gospels differ in their accounts of what takes place between Pilate sentencing him and his death although they do agree that Jesus was crucified at the Place of the Skull. It is quite remarkable to compare and contrast the different gospel accounts. Having done so in my preparation for writing this I am amazed at how inconsistent they are. Things like Pilate’s wife telling her husband to have nothing to do with Jesus’ death and him washing his hands, the Jews saying Jesus’ blood will be on them and their children, Simon of Cyrene being forced to carry the cross, Jesus talking to his mother while nailed to the cross, and even Jesus carrying the cross do not take place in every gospel account.
Another thing that makes the historicity of the Crucifixion story doubtful is the character Pontus Pilot. The fact is he was not a man who was scared of killing Jews, if anything he seemed to like inflicting violence on the people Rome occupied. It was not just his violence that traumatize the Jews but also his religious and cultural insensitivities when he hanged worship images of the emperor throughout Jerusalem. He would eventually go back to Rome to face trial for cruelty and oppression. Considering this I find the portrayal of Pilot in the gospels especially the Gospel of Matthew somewhat doubtful. Why would someone who had no problem with killing and offending Jews have any issues with taking another Jewish life? Now it may have been that at this present moment he was politically vulnerable and the Jewish leaders took advantage of how weak he had become but I find it unlikely. And even if he was reluctant to kill Jesus it is unlikely he would have ended up having a conversation with the historical Jesus due to his level of education as he does in the gospels.
The point of me writing all this is not to show how unreliable the accounts in the gospels are in of themselves, the point is to show that we can not view the accounts as an accurate report of something that happened. As Raza Aslan points out in his book Zealot the crucifixion story is drama. The writers have an agenda and I do not think that agenda is giving us the facts. Bible scholar L. Michael White writes that the gospels “are stories told in such a way as to evoke a certain image of Jesus for a particular audience”. Characters in the story are purposefully presented in such a way to make a point. Things happen in the story to unpack theological views. Someone, like me when I was an evangelical, might say the part in the Gospel of Matthew where the Jews declare that Jesus’ blood will be on them and their children are not antisemitic because it was something that happened, but it is unlikely we are dealing with a historical event here.
The term ‘Christ killers’ is an antisemitic slur that has been directed at Jews for centuries. In the podcast Terrible, Thanks for Asking a Jewish woman talked about how she dislikes Easter because growing up she would get yelled at by people declaring that she had killed Jesus. She told of how Christians scare her and to this very day dislikes the holiday because it reminds her of the hatred people have towards her just because she is Jewish. While in discussion on the podcast Unbelievable? with Amy-Jill Levine Anglican priest Giles Fraser said the Jews did not crucify Jesus because it was Rome’s instrument of torture. While I applaud him for trying to stand up to antisemitism but according to the story of Jesus’ crucifixion in the gospels that is only partly true. Yes, it was the Romans who crucified Jesus but in the story, it was the Jews who wanted the Romans to do it. So am I saying it’s perfectly fine for people to call Jews ‘Christ killers’? No, I am not. What I am saying is this antisemitic slur wasn’t made up by some anti-Semite out of nowhere, it came straight out of the gospel. That infamous line has enabled antisemitism. It has given those who hate Jews feel even more justified in their hatred.
The anti-Jewishness isn’t just found in the passion part of the gospels but also in John 8:31–59 where the infamous line from Jesus is uttered about the Jews father being the devil. Some Christian dismiss the idea of this being anti-Jewish by saying Jesus didn’t mean all Jews but when you read from verse 31 you see that he was talking about great numbers of Jews since it identifies these Jews as being those who had believed in him. So if the devil was the father of the Jews who believed in him, then who on earth was the father of the Jews who did not believe in him? Was it God? How does that even make sense since surely believing in Jesus is a good thing? Maybe what the writer of the Gospel of John was saying was that every Jews father was the devil? Another part of the gospels that some think is antisemitic is Matthew 23 and for some time I agreed with them but having studied the chapter I am not so sure now. Unlike John 8:31–59, this chapter makes it clear what Jesus is saying here is directed at the Scribes and the Pharisees and not at all Jews. The interesting thing is that Jesus does not mention the Sadducees along with the Pharisees. It seems to me many Christians view the Scribes, the Pharisees, and the Sadducees as the same (I know when I was a Christian I thought of them as being the same). It might be easier for us to view these groups as all the same but the reality is they were different. The Pharisees and Sadducees had different theological and political views that differed from each other. The scribes consisted of both Pharisees and Sadducees.
In the time of Jesus politics was anything but straightforward. Some were happy with the Roman occupation and others were against it. Rome appointed Herod the Great as their client king and ten years after his death Rome directly controlled Judea. The Jewish elite enjoyed being under Roman rule since it gave them wealth and power and among the elite were the Sadducees. But those who were not a part of the elite were unhappy since they felt that their culture was being chipped away at and the tax they were paying was going straight into the pockets of the elite. The Pharisees were of a working-class background and for the most part, thought the Sadducees were corrupted by Rome. Along with their class and political differences the Pharisees had different theological views. They had a thorough approach to purity and the Sadducees did not. They also believed in addition to the Torah there was an Oral Torah which affected religious practices. To complicate matters even further there were two schools of thought amongst the Pharisees that emerged from two Pharisaic teachers called Hillel and Shammai. Hillel’s teachings encouraged inclusivity and empathy. While the other school of thought was against gentiles converting to Judaism Hillel would accept anyone who wanted to covert. He also stressed the importance of community and as well as self-care. Shammai followers would go on to develop extreme nationalistic views where not only were they against the Roman occupation but they were against any Jew who cooperated with the Romans. It got to the point that they said Jews should not buy bread from Gentiles. Another group that had similarities with Shammai’s followers was the Zealots. They would go on to be one of the main players in driving the Romans temporarily out of Judea in the Jewish Revolt in 66–73 but in Jesus’ lifetime, you see glimpses of them such as the two men who were crucified alongside Jesus. As well as these groups were the Essenes who had enough of the way the temple was run so they abandoned Jerusalem and lived in the desert. They were apocalyptic scholars who were responsible for the Dead Sea Scrolls. They believed that the temple would one day be restored and run by a better priestly group but until then it was best if they remained separated from other Jews.
So within this political mess, where did the historical Jesus fit in? Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg is of the view that he was a Pharisee. I think she has a point, when I consider what is in the gospel along with the politics and theological views at the time I see Jesus as someone who was influenced by the ideas of the Pharisees as well as the Essenes but he was ultimately an independent thinker who mixed the different ideas these groups have. There are numerous parts in the gospels such as the Olivet Discourse where Jesus seems to have an apocalyptic notion. Then you have his similarities with the Pharisees. When I say Pharisees I mean both the school of Hillel and Shammai. Jesus embraces Hillel’s idea of inclusivity to a certain point which is shown in the parable of the Good Samaritan but he also accepts Shammai’s nationalistic views which are captured in his interaction with the Canaanite Woman. Being inclusive and nationalistic seems to be a bit of contradiction but people are complicated and Jesus was a person. It seems to me Jesus may have started his ministry with inclusion but towards the end of it, he became nationalistic. Jesus was crucified and the fact is more often than not the Romans only crucified people who were low-life criminals or those considered a threat to the state. Someone who was for inclusion was no threat to them, but a nationalist was.
The writers of the gospels seem to be doing their level best to present the Romans as the good guys and for the most they succeeded. The only part when they are somewhat unpleasant is when they crucify Jesus but this only happens because the Jews want him crucified. In the gospels, Jesus declares a Roman centurion as having the greatest faith in all of Israel, alongside the Jewish doubters at the cross there is a Roman centurion who believes in Jesus, a section of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus discourages people from the rising against Rome by not taking revenge, and you do not have Jesus say a word against the Romans as he does against the Pharisees. In his book, Zealot Reza Aslan writes about how the gospels were written after the Rome’s seize of Masada (73–74 CE). It is his view that to avoid the wrath of Rome they transformed Jesus from a nationalist into a peaceful spiritual leader. His idea is what the Romans did to the Jews was so traumatic in this siege that any Jew who survived it wanted to forget any idea about Jewish nationalism, revolution, or independence.
Another way of looking at the tone and language that was used in the writing of the gospels is bearing in mind the disputes that took place between those who wanted to hold onto the Jewish aspects of Christianity and those who wanted to break away from it. Reading the New Testament books that come after the gospels you read of disputes between Christians. One example of one such disagreement is the Apostolic Council in Jerusalem which is written about in Acts 15. The Apostle Paul writes about it in Galatians 2 where he states that he, Barnabas, and Titus went up to Jerusalem and refused to submit to the church in Jerusalem. According to Paul, a compromise was reached where the church agreed Paul should be the leader of the Gentiles and they be the church for the Jews. Despite this compromise, the disputes within the church did not end because in the next section of the chapter Paul writes about opposing Peter. It is important to remember that in the Bible we are only reading one side of the dispute. We do not get to read the church in Jerusalem or Peter's defence of their position so we get a one-sided argument. Despite this, we know there were fights within the church regarding how Jewish the church should be. The epistles were written before the gospels so perhaps the gospel writers were influenced by what was said in the dispute and sided with the Apostle Paul. Maybe the writers were so angered by what the Jewish side of the church did and said that they wrote things to make the Jews look bad.
When I consider all these factors I have some sympathy for the gospel writers. It’s easy to judge and I have done so in the past. Often I have viewed their writings with such cynicism. We may think that if we were in the same circumstances we would act differently to them but how can we know for sure? If we happened to survive such a bloody onslaught from the world’s most powerful military on earth at the time we may have wanted to distance ourselves from the ideas of those who had provoked such violence too. And even if the seizure of Masada was no factor and the driving force for the anti-Jewish things were the disputes among Christians I still have some sympathy. Sure it is better to not write out of anger but I think tweets on Twitter gives us a demonstration that writing without working your anger is still a problem humans face today.
So I don’t think it’s fair to say the gospels are antisemitic. Now I do think there’s some terrible things written in the gospels but I don’t think the gospel writers expected their writing to endure so long. Nor do I think they expected their work to be studied and analyzed so much. Despite this, the fact is the term Christ killer is an antisemitic slur and the slur comes straight from the gospels. When Christians talk about Jesus or the gospels I feel like there’s a lot of simplifying going on. They tend to not talk about the complex political situation in Judea. They seem to not understand how alike the politics of Jesus and the Pharisee were. More often than not Pharisee is Christianese for someone who is stuck up and traditional. Christians tend to join in with the gospel writers in the demonization of the Pharisees. They say things about the crucifixion that is not historically true such as Jesus was crucified because he upset religious people. You have Christians who say Jesus stood against injustice but within the gospels, he doesn’t say a word against the Roman occupation of Judea. Then there’s the dismissiveness from Christians when someone mentions there might be anti-Jewishness in the New Testament. At times it seems that the Jesus Christians believe in is a Jesus that is so far removed from history that it is impossible for him to have ever existed. When I say Christians I mean both conservative and progressive Christians. It seems to me their dismissiveness of the anti-Jewishness in the gospels and their history misconception is one of the few things both conservatives and progressives Christians have in common.
The never-ending arguments I had with Christians over the anti-Jewish aspects of the gospels and being told there was something wrong with me for being so concerned about. The antisemitism and the way so many seem to think it was no big deal was nauseating. Christianity’s role in the empowerment of antisemitic views was heartbreaking. I got to the point last year when I just could no longer carry on arguing with my fellow Christians and wrestling with the texts in the New Testament. So I walked away from Christianity and embraced an agnostic view. I struggle with Jesus nowadays. At times I view him, in the same way, I would view a wife who is a chronic adulterer because I feel deceived by him. There was a time when I really loved him and I thought he loved me but now he seems to be someone who hid his true self from me. But then maybe the true Jesus was there hidden in plain sight? Since you have the odd story in the gospel depicting him as nationalist. Maybe I have felt deceived because I only recently learnt about how politically complicated Judea was? Then again I don’t think we can truly know what the true Jesus was because we don’t have a lot of evidence to go on. Something I feel confused, and sometimes I feel mystified. It’s understandable why so many Christian’s insist that they know the truth about Jesus. The idea that he might not be in favour of peace and not so loving can be heartbreaking. But here I am thinking my old Christian view of Jesus was wrong and I am ok with that. I will never say never, so it is possible I could return to Jesus but it is unlikely I will. I think if I were to ever follow a religion ever again I suspect that religion would be Judaism because there’s something about Judaism that’s so special.