The Wider Significance of the Fight Over Mel Gibson's Movie





Mr. Cole is Professor of Modern Middle Eastern and South Asian History at the University of Michigan. His website is http://www.juancole.com/.

The phenomenon of Mel Gibson's The Passion, about the death of Jesus of Nazareth, has provoked a lively debate about the dangers of anti-Semitism. Historians are well aware that medieval passion plays (which shared the sado-masochistic themes of Gibson's movie) often resulted in attacks on Jews. The concern of American Jewish leaders is therefore entirely valid.

Some of the problem goes back to the Gospel writers, who wrote many years after the fact and depict the Jewish leaders in a frankly implausible way because they had lost contact with Jewish customs. They have the Sanhedrin or Jewish religious council meeting about Jesus on the Sabbath, which just would not have happened. They have it meeting at night, which also would not have happened. Their account accords with nothing of the procedures and laws we know to have been followed at that time. The likelihood is that the Romans arrested and killed Jesus as a potential Zealot or religious radical whom they perceived as threatening, but that the later Christian community strove to have better relations with Rome just as Roman-Jewish relations got very bad. So the Gospel authors soft-pedaled Rome's role and invented nocturnal Sabbath Sanhedrins that have gotten Jews beaten up ever since.

In a post-September 11 world, this controversy has taken on wider significance. Film critic Michael Medved argued that American Jewish leaders were wrong to attack the film as anti-Semitic because they risked alienating Christian allies (of rightwing Zionism, apparently), who were needed to fight the "Islamo-fascists" (his word, on the Deborah Norville show) attacking Jews in Israel.

Although Medved appears in this argument to be taking the more "assimilated" position, basically saying that the rightwing Christians should be allowed to broadcast their historically absurd and offensive images of first-century Jews in peace regardless of the consequences, in fact his is the more reactionary position on several levels.

First, he is saying that a minority that faces many attacks every year in the US and Europe should not speak out about cultural phenomena that might increase those attacks. The United States is a relatively tolerant society in world-historical terms, but the ADL alleges that 17 percent of Americans hold anti-Semitic beliefs, and there are every year too many incidents of vandalism of Jewish property and harassment of Jews. I suspect I differ with the ADL on what exactly anti-Semitism is (it isn't criticism of Israeli policies in the Occupied Territories), but I accept their number as a ballpark figure. And if that is the number, it is way too high. Bigotry is when you stereotype an entire group, and then blame individuals for imagined "group" traits. Individuals are unique, and you can't tar a whole people with a single brush. And, it is by speaking out about the problem that any minority makes progress in the United States. Who would imagine telling African-Americans they should be quiet about films that depict them as villains harming something whites hold dear? No liberals that I know of.

Second, Medved is eager to perpetuate a dangerous political marriage of convenience between the rightwing settler movement in Israel and the American evangelicals. The rightwing Christians in the U.S. don't support the settlers against the Palestinians because they love Judaism. They want to set things up for the conversion of all Jews to Christianity and the return of Christ, i.e., for the end of the Jewish people. (Interestingly, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is aware of this "Christian Zionism" and cites it as one motive for the US occupation of Iraq; it is not making Israel or the US any friends.) The Likud may get votes and de facto campaign money from the rightwing Christians in the short term, but it is encouraging Christian anti-Semitism by disguising it as support for Israel. In fact, Israel's best interests lie in a return to the 1967 borders and making peace with Arab and Muslim neighbors, not by a ruthless expansionism and continued colonial occupation that harms Israel's image and debilitates Israeli democracy. (Yitzhak Rabin's policies of Oslo and after, before an ultra-Orthodox Jewish assassin cut him down, would have pulled the rug out from under Zarqawi's argument.)

Third, it is hard to see the difference between the bigotry of anti-Semitism as an evil and the bigotry that Medved displays toward Islam. It is more offensive than I can say for him to use the word "Islamo-fascist." Islam is a sacred term to 1.3 billion people in the world. It enshrines their highest ideals. To combine it with the word "fascist" in one phrase is a desecration and a form of hate speech. Are there Muslims who are fascists? Sure. But there is no Islamic fascism, since "Islam" has to do with the highest ideals of the religion. In the same way, there have been lots of Christian fascists, but to speak of Christo-Fascism is just offensive. It goes without saying that a phrase like Judeo-fascist is an unutterable abortion. (And this despite the fact that Vladimir Jabotinsky, the ideological ancestor of Likud and the Neocons, spoke explicitly of the desirability of Jewish fascism in the interwar period.) Medved is even inaccurate, since the terrorist attack on civilians in Jerusalem to which he referred was the work of the Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, a secular rather than an ostensibly Muslim group.

Interestingly, the Koran, the holy book of Islam, denies that the Jews were responsible for Jesus's death (4:154-159). It appears that some Jews of the ancient Arabian city of Medinah were disappointed when they learned that the Prophet Muhammad had accepted Jesus as a prophet of God, and had put this decision down by observing that he wasn't much of a prophet if the Jews had managed to kill him. The Koran replies to this boast (surely by some jerk in the Medinan Jewish quarter) by saying, "They did not kill him, and they did not crucify him, it only appeared to them so." What exactly the Koran meant by this phrase has been debated ever since. As an academic, I do not read it as a denial of the crucifixion. The Koran talks of Jesus dying, and is not at all Gnostic in emphasis, at one point insisting that Jesus and Mary ate food (presumably against Gnostics who maintained that their bodies were purely spiritual).

A lot of Muslims have adopted the rather absurd belief that Jesus was not crucified, but rather a body double took his place. (This is like something out of the fiction of Argentinean fabulist Jorge Luis Borges.) Those Muslims who accepted Jesus' death on the cross (and nothing else in the Koran denies it) interpret the verse as saying it was God's will that Jesus be sacrificed, and so it was not the Jews' doing. (Great Muslims like at-Tabari and Ibn Khaldun accepted the crucifixion.) Any way you look at it, though, the Koran explicitly relieves Jews of any responsibility for Jesus' crucifixion and death. In this it displays a more admirable sentiment than some passages of the Gospels, and certainly than the bizarre far-rightwing Catholic cult in which Mel Gibson was raised, which appears to involve Holocaust denial, and which deeply influenced his sanguinary film.


comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:


Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

Juan Cole's interpretation of the Quranic story of the crucifixion is simply wrong on every significant count. He has mis-cited the text, misinterpreted it, and drawn the wrong inferences from it.

First, the relevant text is not 4:154-159 as he claims but 4:153-159. That seems insignificant, but it's all important. Verse 4:153 contains the referent for the pronoun used throughout 154-159. Verse 4:153 is addressed to Muhammad about demands made by "the people of the book" (ahli-al-kitab) for a miracle. Of these same people it is said that "they asked Moses" for even greater miracles. There are only two Quranic possibilities for who these "people of the book" might be. Either they are Jews, or they are Christians, or they are proto-Muslims (i.e., pre-Muhammadan monotheists who believed in the Jewish scriptures without being sectarian Jews; obviously they couldn't believe in the New Testament at that point). The point is, "people of the book" could, consistently with the text, refer to Jews.

The pronoun throughout 4:154-157 refers to these same people. Of them, 4:157 says "That they said (in boast), 'We killed Christ Jesus...But they killed him not, nor crucified him, but so it was made to appear to them..." This means that these "people of the Book" had the serious intention of killing Jesus, but failed in their attempt. It follows that according to the Quran, either the Jews intended to kill Jesus or some proto-Muslims did--or the Christians themselves did it. But it seems a real stretch to imagine that the Quran is telling Muhammad that his righteous predecessors (proto-Muslims) were guilty of attempted murder of a prophet. It also seems implausible that Christ's own followers wanted to kill him. The most likely reading is that according to the Quran, the Jews were guilty. Incidentally, the "Jews guilty" reading provides a natural transition to 4:160, which speaks of the "iniquity of the Jews", including their propensity for usury and avarice (161).

Incidentally, if Professor Cole thinks that such sentiments represent Islam's "high ideals," I would be curious to hear his argument. If they don't, I am not sure what is wrong with calling them by their proper name. And since they are in the Quran (and are, according to the Quran itself, the inerrant word of God), I don't see the problem with the phrase "Islamo-fascism." Incidentally, I have personally heard cabinet-level politicians in Pakistan invoke these verses as evidence of the inquities of the Jews. On Quranic grounds, were they really so far off base?

Professor Cole claims that the phrase "They did not kill him, and they did not crucify him, it only appeared to them so," is subject to scholarly debate. Sorry, but I don't see what there is to debate here. We know the referent of the pronouns being used here. The text is saying that "those people" tried to kill Jesus, failed, but thought they succeeded. To invoke complex scholarly debates at this point is a red herring: the meaning of the text is blatantly obvious. Incidentally, the Quran does not ask that its readers read it "as academics." It demands to be read as though what it said was true and to be believed in the first-person.

"The Koran," Cole continues, "talks of Jesus dying." Where? It says, very clearly, that he was not killed during the crucfixion ("they killed him not"). Unless Cole thinks God himself killed Jesus--a problem, to put it mildly--I don't see the evidence for Jesus's dying at the crucifixion. Nor do I see evidence that he died later. Verse 4:158 says that God "raised him [Jesus] up unto himself [God]". That's pretty mysterious, but for just that reason, it can't be taken as clear evidence that Jesus died. It can, however, be taken as a fair basis for the interpretation that Cole derides as "absurd," namely that a body-double took Jesus place. Exactly why this is more absurd than anything else in the Quran I am not sure, but it seems well-grounded in the text, and it is boilerplate Sunni doctrine.

As for what at-Tabari and Ibn Khaldun said, I can only say: that's nice, but can they really compete with the Word of God?

As for the claim "the Koran explicitly relieves the Jews of any responsibility for Jesus's crucifixion and death," that's only true because it says they failed in the attempt. So the Jews weren't murderers--they were bungled murderers and usurers who "devoured men's substance wrongfully" (4:161). Seems a distinction without a difference to me, but as my students say: whatever.

I agree with Cole on one thing: the Quran is more admirable than the sentiments of some of the passages of the Gospels. But frankly, that is not a standard to which the wise ought to repair. And as for Mel Gibson, no matter how bad he is, the Muslim world has thousands of people a thousand times worse than him in positions of political power. So let's not kid ourselves, or be fooled into (er) sanguinary illusions about the "noble ideals" of Islam. There is a perfectly good Quranic basis for anti-Semitism. Muslims and ex-Muslims know that even if Professors of Modern Middle East and South Asian History don't.


Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

Sorry, in my second paragraph, I referred to "two Quranic possibilities," when I meant "three." The third one occurred to me after I wrote "two," and I forgot to go back and change it.


Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

Sorry, I really screwed up that first paragraph!

There is really only one possibility for the referent of "ahli-al-kitab" in 4:153 and for all the pronouns thereafter through 161. It simply has to be "Jews" all the way through. It cannot be either Christians OR proto-Muslims. That doesn't change my argument; it merely simplifies it. Apologies for any confusion.


Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

No, the Quran doesn't call Jews "apes and pigs." That's a misreading of 5:63 (with 2:65 and 7:166, which are similar). Verse 5:63 refers to a subset of people who incurred God's wrath, and while they might have been Jewish, there is no clear indication they were, and no clear indication that the "apes and pigs" description refers to all Jews. 2:65 is a little more explicit about Jews, but refers only to sabbath-breakers. Same with 7:166, where "transgressors" are the problem.

Incidentally, this is why even Daniel Pipes rejects the reading you've offered:

http://www.danielpipes.org/article/1294

Notice he says that the little girl is wrong about the Koran. He's right; she is.

The point is that contrary to Cole, the Quran does hold Jews responsible for an attempted crucifixion of Christ--a separate issue from the apes/pigs thing. It doesn't quite say that all Jews are culpable for the crucifixion (that would violate a basic Quranic tenet), but it suggests that the Jews are in general a problematic bunch of people who have a recurrent tendency to do (the same) bad stuff over and over, including prophet-killing, usury, etc. So they're collectively not quite as bad as "apes and pigs" or "Christ-killers," but they're not quite kosher, either.


Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

No, I wouldn't deny that.


khaleel mohammed - 5/19/2004

I think that many people, in their desire to put the Quran as somehow anti-Jewish, fail to recognixe the professor's statement about context and restriction to certain groups. But over and above that, the rhetoric of the language points to more than this: it shows that the story was itself of Jewish provenance: wa la qad alimtum--and you (Jews) know very well--this is only possible if the story was KNOWN to them--whether of midrashic origins or otherwise. It is similar to the Qur'anc claims of those who wrote material and claimed it to b scripture. This is not a Quranic innovative claim--that was long stated in Jeremiah etc.
And Muslims are so busy in defensive mode that they forget to point out that while they are defending, being made to look guilty, far MORE has been directed against Muslims in terms of Islamophobia.


Richard Henry Morgan - 3/11/2004

Thankyou for the caveat about Crosson. I had just recently read it, and he makes an interesting move. He says it is not beyond imagination that the high priest Caiaphas and Pilate had a prior understanding concerning trouble around the time of Passover, and that a troublemaker could be simply grabbed up and crucified without trial.

Then, later in the book, he plops for this explanation based on methodological simplicity (or some such expression). In other words, it is entirely imagined by him as plausible, and then elevated to probable, all without the slightest shred of textual evidence whatsoever. Simply amazing.


Steven Rutledge - 3/11/2004

Thank you for your post. It brings to mind another point I should have made, to wit: Among the pagans, Pindar and Hesiod, among others, claim divine authority for their words - more explicitly even than the gospels. On what basis should we privilege the claims of the writers of the gospels above others who make the same claims? And given that Pindar, for example, is superior both artistically and spiritually to the gospel writers, perhaps we should conclude a more potent source of divinity for Pindar's inspiration.


Steven Rutledge - 3/11/2004

You are incorrect about your interpretation of Tiberius' reign. A capable general and competent princeps, he has suffered long enough from Tacitus', Graves' (you incorrectly attribute his novel "I, Claudius" to Michael Grant) and Suetonius' rumor mongering. I suggest you read Levick, Shotter, or my own work (type in Imperial Inquisitions at Amazon where you can also read my take on Jesus' trial in my book) on this complex and fascinating figure.


Don Williams - 3/8/2004

As I had noted, I'm not a particularly religious man and so I will try to read your books--or at least, those I can find --with an open mind. The point of my posts, however, is that the people most likely to inflamed by Mel Gibson's "Passion" would dismiss Mr Cole's article --and you books -- as the works of fallible men, men not competent to criticize holy scriptures. While Christians have often debated --with wars -- interpretations of the Bible, I believe all of them agree that the TEXT of the Bible is truthful. That judgment is almost a requirement for being a Christian. Some even use the King James version --vice the Standard Edition which attempts to incorporates recent knowledge/scholarship(Dead Sea scrolls,etc.) and to remove gender bias in translation where it is not warrented by the original text.


Steven Rutledge - 3/6/2004

As one who teaches Christianity in the larger context of ancient Roman religious practices (teaching a course titled Ancient Roman Religion from Jupiter to Jesus at the University of Maryland), and to take some of the polemic out of all of this debate, I would simply suggest some bibliography (similar to what I assign to my students in addition to their basic text by Beard North and Price) in order for those who attack scholarly and "clinical" approaches to the OT and NT to find out why and how scholars use certain methodologies and approaches to the Bible. To wit:

1. C.W. Fornara's The Nature of History in Ancient Greece and Rome.
2. L. Wilken, The Christians as the Romans Saw Them.
3. R. MacMullen, Christianizing the Roman Empire.
4. E. Pagels, The Origins of Satan.
5. E. Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels.
6. E. Pagels, Adam, Eve and the Serpent.
7. The Nag Hammadi Library, ed. E. Pagels et al.
8. Robin Lane Fox, The Unauthorized Version.
9. Crossan, Who Killed Jesus?
10. Reed and Crossan, Excavating Jesus.

I have students read these to understand better the variety of methods one can take in examingin the early Christian community. Of these (number 9 is of course NOT without controversy!) the first three are my personal favorites, and of those Wilken I find an excellent read. I hope this enables any novices interested in this subject to better understand this extremely difficult, controversial and nebulous area.


Richard Henry Morgan - 3/5/2004

I get the impression some think the Josephus quote regarding James and the high priest Anas found in the Antiquities is a later Christian interpolation -- James' martyrdom is not found in Josephus' Jewish Wars, and Hegesippus gives a different history -- James was killed by a mob, not by judicial action.


Richard Henry Morgan - 3/5/2004

Crosson makes the point that the anti-Pharisaic animus of the Gospels reflects the diminishing position of Jesus' followers for leadership of the community post-crucifixion -- they were losing out to Pharisaic rabbinical Judaism. So yeah, Jesus' followers started out as radical Pharisees, and lost the battle for Judaism.


Don Williams - 3/5/2004

The larger context of Jesus' death is that Rome was a real snake pit during the early reign of Tiberius. See Tacitus -- or the DVDs for PBS's TV series based on historian Michael Grant's "I, Claudius". Pilate was quick to chop heads because he knew his own neck was on the line.

Re Caiaphas -Pilate relationship, consider the recent history of Iraq. Bush invaded Iraq for fears that Hussein posed a major threat due to possession WMDs. The Pentagon then moved to install Iraqi expatriate Ahmad Chalabi as leader -- but was blocked by the State Department. Following the Pentagon's failure to find WMDs in Iraq, we learn that the source of the false WMD intelligence was --you guessed it -- Chalabi:
"The CIA and the State Department, in particular, distanced themselves from Iraqi defectors handed over by the Iraqi National Congress, a London-based umbrella group headed by Ahmad Chalabi. CIA and State Department officials repeatedly warned that the group's intelligence network had proved unreliable in the past.

Senior Pentagon officials, however, supported the former Iraqi banker's bid as a possible successor to Hussein. Chalabi, who now sits on the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council in Baghdad, has said his group provided the Defense Intelligence Agency with three defectors who had personal knowledge of Hussein's illicit weapons programs."
(Source: http://michiganimc.org/newswire/display/3097/index.php )
So tell me -- who is puppet and who is puppetmaster? Maybe we can decide after Karl Rove/CIA rig the Iraqi elections, Chalabi is elected leader, signs long term oil contracts with Houston, and we see Dick Cheney and Chalabi grinning.
An old Arab saying: "When two thieves meet, they need no introduction."

In his Epistles, Pauls notes that the Sadduccees did not believe in the resurrection of the dead and the afterlife --whereas the Pharisees did. He notes one occasion in which he was seized and brought to trial before a Jewish council. He noted how he was able to escape by provoking a quarrel/fight within the council between the Sadduccees and Pharisees by pointing out that his Gospel was consistent with Pharisee doctrine and appealing to the Pharisees in the room.

Josephus notes that James, brother of Christ and leader of the Jerusalem Christians, was stoned to death when the Jewish leadership took advantage of an interim period between change of Roman governors. This is consistent with the Gospels view of the Roman occupation being a brake on --vice a driver of -- aggressive executions by the Jewish leadership.


Richard Henry Morgan - 3/5/2004

I think you're right, and it should be distinguished from Matthew having the crowd pronouncing a curse on all Jews.

On another subject, if Caiaphas was appointed by Pilate, and served at his pleasure, how accurate would it be to say that a Jew (even a Jewish religious authority) killed Jesus? Who gets the blame, the puppet or the puppetmaster? Or in this case, did the puppet have his own reasons too? A case of overdetermination?


Paul Noonan - 3/5/2004

As has been frequently pointed out the gospels were written long after the death of Jesus. However, I am surprised that there is little or no attention paid to a much earlier passage in the New Testament that lays the blame for the death of Jesus on "the Jews". The first letter of Paul to the Thessalonians is pretty much universally considered a genuine letter of Paul and is usually considered the earliest extant Christian document. It was probably written no more than 25 (and possibly as little as 15) years after the Crucifixion by a man who knew Peter, James and other associates of Jesus personally. And it contains the following (1 Thess. 2:14-16):

"For you, brothers, became imitators of God's churches in Judea, which are in Christ Jesus: You suffered from your own countrymen the same things those churches suffered from the Jews, who killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets and also drove us out. They displease God and are hostile to all men in their effort to keep us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved. In this way they always heap up their sins to the limit. The wrath of God has come upon them at last."

Now, of course, there are other passages where Paul refers to himself as a Jew. It is fairly obvious that he is using the term "the Jews" here to mean the Jewish religious authorities, not the Jewish population in toto. It's rather like during the Cold War when we excoriated "the Russians" for the misdeeds of the Soviet government while at the same time expressing sympathy for the population of the Soviet Union. However it does make clear that Paul thought the Jewish authorities, not the Romans, were responsible for the death of Jesus.


Don Williams - 3/4/2004

I forgot to mention --Paul indicates that his preaching of the Gospels to Gentiles was even regarded as somewhat of an innovation --that there was a discussion within the Church as to whether the faith should be extended to non-Jews.


Don Williams - 3/4/2004

It was Paul who made to push to extend Christianity to the Gentiles. Recall the church meeting at Antioch and Jerusalem -- in which preaching of the Gospel to the Gentiles was left to Paul and Barnabas while teaching of the Gospels to the "circumscised" was left to Peter, James,etc? Recall the early debate re whether Gentile Christians were required to follow the laws of Moses (kosher, circumscission,etc.) and it was decided that only a subset of the laws were required?

It is clear that the early disciples --especially James, the brother of Jesus Christ-- regarded themselves as Jews and as bound by the Law and rituals of the Jews.

The Epistles --and the history of Josephus -- also make clear that the early Christians were persecuted by the Jewish leaders (execution by stoning,etc.) at the same time that many Jews were accepting the Gospels -- not as a conversion to a different religion but as an enlargement of the Jewish faith. Even discarding the New Testament, the histories of Josephus make clear that bitter infighting was occurring among various religious sects in Palestine circa 20 AD- 70AD. Tacitus supports this as well (see, for example, his account of how Jerusalem was divided among three factions as Titus approached to lay seige to the city -- and how one faction was exterminated by the other two even as the Roman army approached.)

My (inexpert ) impression from Josephus was that the Pharisees were actually adverse to harsh punishments. An unnamed group , for example, tried to intervene when the Jewish leadership took advantage of a Roman leadership transition to convict James, brother of Christ, and to stone him to death.


Ben H. Severance - 3/4/2004

While everyone is blasting each other over the alleged anti-semitism of Gibson's movie and whether the Jews crucified Jesus, we are all missing the main point--the resurrection. It is ultimately irrelevant who killed Jesus, for it was His sacrifice as the Christ; the Sanhedrin and Pilate were merely agents carrying out God'd will for human salvation. But critics prefer to wrangle over historical and cultural issues that do little more than reveal further the fallen nature of mankind. Easter, however, proves too problematic for the secular scholars and rabbis to cope with, for with Easter one enters the realm of faith, not rational objectivity. In the end, Gibson's movie is not producing anti-semitism, the hateful nature of world civilization has been doing that for a long time. And neither the Jews nor the Romans killed Jesus, we all did (and still do); it is all part of God's deliberate and inexplicable plan to pour out his grace on a rebellious creation. Let us never forget that Christ is not dead, he is risen!


Richard Henry Morgan - 3/4/2004

BTW Don, the Gamaliel letter, even if a fraud or an example of Pseudepigrapha, does point out another kind of threat that Jesus posed. Gamaliel points out that John the Baptist ("mikvah John") had claimed that baptism in the Jordan was sufficient to atone for sin -- which would make the priesthood religiously superfluous. Now imagine more and more followers of Jesus, all having that same view ... Where does that leave the high priest?


Richard Henry Morgan - 3/4/2004

Don, I think I see your point, and I think I misunderstood some history. Herod the Great started a new tradition of appointing high priests from outside the priestly families, and abolished life tenure -- to increase his own power. In Jesus' time, Pilate had that role himself. Therefore the priesthood would follow more along Roman wishes (in secular matters), and outside the priestly families, without being, necessarily, something other than Sadducee (an orientation to scriptural sources that emphasized the priesthood's power, and not necessarily confined to the priestly families).

Caiaphas was probably, therefore, by orientation a Sadducee, though not from the line of priestly families (he didn't necessarily inherit his views). The Pharisees had disproportionate power outside the Temple, particularly in synagogues and their courts. Why the anti-Pharisee view of the Gospels? They should have been more closely aligned with Jesus, but were of no help perhaps, and therefore resented all the more (perhaps) -- he certainly was a radical within the Pharisaic fold. I take it the Pharisees and Sadducees would see eye-to-eye on the issue of Jesus' threat to civil order. Maybe the Pharisees saw Jesus as an embarrassment to them, discrediting them. Trying to figure out the motivations is really like walking a maze blindfolded.

Certainly Jesus' attack on the Temple would be unfavorably viewed by the high priest. EP Sanders thinks this the real reason for Caiaphas' opposition, combined with a concern for keeping the peace (implicit in this is that most of the crowd wouldn't have been so motivated by resentment of Jesus' actions at the Temple, but would see blasphemy as deserving of punishment). I think what occurred is that those who held the high priest office tended thereafter toward the Sadducee orientation even had they not been so much inclined before, as it was consistent with more power to the high priest.

I think I misread Sadducee to mean 'of the priestly families'. And yeah, the Sadducees went the way of the Temple when it was destroyed.


Richard Henry Morgan - 3/4/2004

The Sadduccees were the Temple aristocracy within the Temple at Jerusalem, and controlled functions within the Temple. The Pharisees were more and more contending for power on this issue from the Second Century BC onwards, particularly (so it is said) by controlling the money-changing, and by decentralizing the system to other temples under Pharisaic control (against Sadduccee opposition).

The Pharisees saw themselves as the glue that held the Jewish community together against the centrifugal forces of the other parties, and as a screen against the Romans, ensuring a measure of tranquility and freedom. They had the power within the council, and saw the Sadduccees as narrow-minded people looking after their own priestly interests to the detriment of Israel. Jesus was a radical charismatic Pharisee who threatened to bring the wrath of Rome down on Israel (he might spark a revolt against Rome) it was feared, and threatened to further divide Israel and the Pharisees themselves, and threaten Pharisee predominance.

That's one read. On this theory, Caiaphas was motivated by a combination of interests -- an interest in keeping the peace, and keeping the power, which he rationalized as one and the same. Hence the trumped-up charge of blasphemy sure to enrage the crowd on the eve of Passover (there is no blasphemy in calling oneself the Messiah or Son of God, assuming Jesus did -- Rabbi Akiba, for instance, declared Bar Kochba the Messiah, and Son of God had no theological significance on its own).

The crowd, of course, had no direct access to the evidence (or lack thereof), so they were easily led by Pilate, who had his own, somewhat related motivations about keeping the peace. (Of course, this all assumes that the Sanhedrin had a role, which is possible, because adverse accounts of how they operated are from rabbinical traditions that postdated the crucifixion by decades -- or so I've een told). Then again, maybe this is all just a way of rationalizing the Gospels, and maybe Caiaphas had no role at all. We're left, even in trying to take a critical look at the Gospels, somewhat in the realm of speculation. Maybe the Romans did it all themselves, and even the anti-Caiaphas slant of the Gospels is just a post-facto rewriting of history for political and proselytizing purposes.


Don Williams - 3/4/2004

In fact, my understanding is that the control of the aristocratic Sadduccees was so tied to their control of the Temple that they disappeared when the Romans destroyed the Temple -- thereby ensuring that modern day Jews would Pharisees. (Well, disregarding the Karaites.

And disregarding the argument that the Christians were an offshoot of the Essene sect. Does everyone agree that all of the Dead Sea scrolls have finally been released?
heh heh )


David C Battle - 3/4/2004

I wasn't aware that Gibson's objective was to convert Jews, yet you fear such conversion, and it explains the visceral attacks, and the agenda of which I spoke, doesn't it? Does it not prove my thesis--that agenda drives the attacks on this movie?

The ultra-secular media elites will no longer tolerate a serious and respectful portrayal of Jesus and christian themes in mainstream society. It might convert people to christianity, Jews even, and that simply will no longer be tolerate. Yet Scorcese is a great "artist" for his basically blasphemous "Last Temptation of Christ".

You guys are a joke.

When did you decide that the Gospels were anti-semitic? And what gives you the idea that we give a crap if that's what you think? Somebody, pleas tell me.

You can desperately continue to attack the movie, and Gibson, and invent one excuse after another, such as the movie being too "violent" and "pornographic" (since when do liberals dissaprove of pornography? violence?), and anti-semitic. And the more you do, the more yokels in flyover country (the yokels you love to hate) will wake up to your agenda, and pour money into Gibson's coffers just to spite you because they are waking up to your agenda and your influence. Keep writing your shallow, petty reviews. You think they hurt Mel? Think again. You only preach to the choir--what you do best.

And you can blacklist Gibson from Hollywood, and rationalize in your Leftist, fascistic minds that you're doing it for the betterment of humanity, but he's better off without you and the tripe you produce and peddle and call "art."


Rafael Gomez-Sjoberg - 3/3/2004

1) "One wonders why hundreds of millions of Christians in the past 2000 years have fallen under the spell of such lying fools. Of course, if you take away the testimony of the disciples, what do you have remaining?"

Mr. Williams, trying to support the authenticity of the Gospels based on the number of people that believe or have believed in them is ridiculously childish. About 1 billion muslims are "under the spell" of the Koran. Does that number alone make the Koran believable?? What about the millions that believe in Hinduism or Shintoism?

2) "Cole is not attacking Mel Gibson's movie because it is contrary to the Bible --he is attacking the Bible. Even I am somewhat offended."

What's wrong with attacking or questioning the Bible? Are you always offended by somebody who questions your beliefs? Is it valid to question or criticize the Koran even though doing so offends 1 billion muslims?


Richard Henry Morgan - 3/3/2004

BTW Don, there is a dispute among scholars whether the characterization of the Sanhedrin one finds in Cole and others is not a reading back into Jesus' time of later sources.

It's not fair to read Pharasaic opposition to Jesus as Jewish opposition. But then it isn't fair to take Matthew's dubious account of the crowd invoking a curse against themselves, putting it into Caiaphas' mouth, and then calling it faithful to the Gospels. Where is Caiaphas' statement, also in the Gospels, that it was better for one man to die, than a whole people? Gibson chose not to use that.

Jewish scholars tend to see the Romans as the guilty party, executing Jesus for sedition. Christian scholars tend to see the hand of the Pharasaic hierarchy at work. The two are not mutually exclusive. What is clear is that the Romans couldn't care less whether Jesus blasphemed, and the Pharisees never really made the case that he had. Both groups had their own reasons.


Richard Henry Morgan - 3/3/2004

The fear of "conversion" has ancient roots within the Jewish faith community, even conversion within the community. Jesus was a Pharisaic Jew who railed against Pharasaic corruption, and was seen as a threat not just to the Romans, but to Pharasaic control of Israel. The Pharisees were on the receiving end from Galileans who had no truck with them, from Sadduccees, from Essenes, and from Zealots. There's a fabulously interesting letter (of some dispute) from Rabbi Gamaliel ben Gamaliel to Philo of Alexandria, which says that Caiaphas' father-in-law had a monopoly on moneychanging at the Temple -- Jewish worshippers couldn't buy sacrificial animals with Roman coin, as it had human figures on it -- that regularly cheated the worshippers with artificially low rates of exchange. Seems Jesus pissed off the priest hierarchy and the Romans, for differing and for similar reasons.

Understandably, Jews tend to see conversion attempts as an assault, as an attempt to destroy the community that is ordained by God to be the occasion of the kingdom of God. Christians just don't tend to get this. Jews, on the other hand, see conversion attempts as anti-semitic. What is the Jewish attitude to Christians vis-a-vis a path to God? I don't think you'll find it (I hope not) in the Toledot Yeshu.

I had previously read the piece referred to above, and others, and was amazed at the misunderstandings that still persist. Rabbis tend to be very well educated, yet there was a rabbi pointing to an analytic distinction between Jews and Christians -- Jews admission to the kingdom is by acts, Christians by faith alone! Unbelievable as a categorical statement. I also read of a Lutheran minister (and Lutherans are generally viewed to be amongst the better educated of the Christian priesthood) complaining that Simon of Cyrene was not portrayed as an African!! I guess they don't teach it in seminary anymore that Cyrene was a Greek colony!! The conversation of the deaf continues on its merry way.


Don Williams - 3/3/2004

1) I think that if this was a "Historical" discussion, then someone would have asked if Juan Cole has sufficient primary source evidence/citations to back up his following assertions:
"Some of the problem goes back to the Gospel writers, who wrote many years after the fact and depict the Jewish leaders in a frankly implausible way because they had lost contact with Jewish customs. They have the Sanhedrin or Jewish religious council meeting about Jesus on the Sabbath, which just would not have happened. They have it meeting at night, which also would not have happened. Their account accords with nothing of the procedures and laws we know to have been followed at that time. "

Maybe I'm missing something, but I hardly see how one combats a hypothetical "rise of anti-Semitism" within Christian communities by arguing that their sacred New Testament is a crock of shit. Especially when Mr Cole has little data to support whatever speculations he makes about events of 2000 years ago.

2) Plus , Mr Cole doesn't stop there:
"The likelihood is that the Romans arrested and killed Jesus as a potential Zealot or religious radical whom they perceived as threatening, but that the later Christian community strove to have better relations with Rome just as Roman-Jewish relations got very bad. So the Gospel authors soft-pedaled Rome's role and invented nocturnal Sabbath Sanhedrins that have gotten Jews beaten up ever since."

I see. Not only were the Disciples ignorant , they were also deliberate liars as well. Liars about the most fundamental aspects --and the most important event-- in their faith. One wonders why hundreds of millions of Christians in the past 2000 years have fallen under the spell of such lying fools. Of course, if you take away the testimony of the disciples, what do you have remaining?

3) I'm also puzzled that the disciples would act in such a manner, given the injunction at the end of Revelations:
"If any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book:
And if any man shall take away from the words of the book
of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things , which are written in this book."

Finally, I'm bemused that Mr Cole feels no embarrassment in shifting all the blame from the local inhabitants to the Italians.

4) I'm not a strong Christian --indeed, I've not been baptized. And I am quite aware that an archaelogist,etc could question the truth of the New Testament, given the limited substantiation we have from outside the Christian community (Roman Historians Tacitus, Suetonius,etc.) But I hardly think Mr Cole's argument would convince the most broadminded Christian. Cole is not attacking Mel Gibson's movie because it is contrary to the Bible --he is attacking the Bible. Even I am somewhat offended.

5) Juan Cole goes on to say: "Although Medved appears in this argument to be taking the more "assimilated" position, basically saying that the rightwing Christians should be allowed to broadcast their historically absurd and offensive images of first-century Jews in peace regardless of the consequences, in fact his is the more reactionary position on several levels."
Again, is the Bible "historically absurd"?

Also note the statement "allowed to broadcast". Leaving aside the issue of censorship vs First Amendment, note that recent news articles have noted (a) The enormous influence of Jewish executives and owners in Hollywood (b) that the major studios in Hollywood refused to distribute Mel Gibson's movie --he had to go to an independant and (c) a New York Times article reporting discussion in Hollywood re whether Mel Gibson has destroyed --or at least greatly harmed --his career by offending Jewish executives.

If Gibson had produced a movie contrary to Biblical accounts, I would have understood some of the attacks. But to use economic coercion to suppress a faithful depiction of a Biblical story seems to me to be more likely to spur modern day hatred and anger than an event of 2000 years ago. It also raises the question of what else is being suppressed in this alleged open society of ours.

Does anyone else have an alternative explanation of why businessmen would shun a movie costing $25 million to produce and earning over $137 million in its first week?

6) I do agree with Mr Cole that Christians have no basis for blaming Jews as a people for Christ's death. I also think that anti-Semitism and racism are contrary to Christ's teachings.


David C Battle - 3/3/2004

the horrors !!!


Jonathan Dresner - 3/3/2004

This is just one piece of a longstanding tension: the unrelenting desire of Christians to convert everyone, but especially Jews. In spite of recent "advances" in inter-faith dialogue and relations, Christianity is still based, fundamentally, on the denial of the validity of Judaism as a path to God. I don't think the movie is targetted towards Jewish conversion specifically, but the marketting power being put behind the film, and Gibson's own desire to retell the tale publicly, certainly suggest that increasing the prominence and attractiveness of Christianity is part of the film's "mission."


David C Battle - 3/3/2004

"What I'm concerned about is that Jews who see this film will identify deeply with Jesus - the movie's heroic 'good guy' - and will dis-identify with their own G-d-given identity as the Jewish people." Excerpts from an Orthodox Union symposium.

full:

http://www.israelnationalnews.com/news.php3?id=58728


Jonathan Dresner - 3/3/2004

" I would point out that the late dating of the Gospels is somewhat irrelevant. The only People who would care about this matter accept the Gospels as literal Truth -- since God would presumably not allow false writings to be put in the Bible."

At risk of sounding pedantic, this is a History website, not a Christian one. Some of us people (small p, of course) care about clarifying and understanding the development of humanity as a whole.


David C Battle - 3/3/2004

Then I stand corrected on the more precise interpretation you've offered. But the fact remains that the "apes and pigs" interpretation is WIDELY accepted in the muslim world, and is even offered from the pulpits of their biggest mosques. Would you deny that?


Don Williams - 3/3/2004

With sincere respect to Mr Morgan and Mr Cole, I would point out that the late dating of the Gospels is somewhat irrelevant. The only People who would care about this matter accept the Gospels as literal Truth -- since God would presumably not allow false writings to be put in the Bible.

The four diciples are very consistent in their account of Christ's death and of the people responsible for it. Certainly some Jewish leaders. Presumably most of the members of the populace who called to Pilate to crucify Christ were also Jewish, although there may have been a few foreign merchants.

I'm not sure it matters. My rather limited understanding of the Gospel is that Christ's death was to some extent foreordained and that the people involved were merely representative of sinful humanity as a whole. Plus, let us not forget that it was the Romans who actually carried out the crucifixation. Yet we don't hear loud debates of whether Mel Gibson's movie will stir up anti-Italian sentiment.

The condemnation of Christian "anti-Semitism" by Mr Cole and others here on HNN is hilarious. The roughly contemporary histories of Tacitus --and even of the Jewish historian Josephus --are far more negative in their portrayal of the inhabitants of Israel circa 30-70 AD than any thing in the Gospels.


Frankly, I think the larger issue of the Gospels is the interesting question: Will a secular government inevitably become a nasty, brutish mechanism? Did the humane values of Christ greatly improve life for humanity? -- at least, before they evolved into the thirst of for power of the Church of Rome and the Inquisition?

After all, consider how many executions the US carries out each year --and the reluctance of prosecutors to allow DNA tests of evidence after a convict has been executed. Consider how the proclaimed values of the US people are so easily subverted by the purchasing power of a few billionaires, a deeply corrupt campaign finance system -- and how, as a result, the Palestinian people have rotted in refugee camps for 55 years with a mean per capita income of $1600 per year. Or consider the hundreds of thousands of Japanese mothers and children burned alive at Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and in Curtis Lemay's extensive napalm bombing of 69 Japanese cities.
Or how quickly Alan Dershowitz flipped from defending the rights of the accused in the OJ Simpson trial to publicly discussing whether the US government should be allowed to use torture after Sept 11 occurred.


David C Battle - 3/3/2004

The Koran calls Jews "apes and pigs", but the good professor is offended by what he calls, "rightwing" and "historically absurd and offensive images of first-century Jews" from the Gospels. And then the good professor follows up with an apologetic diatribe for the very book that calls the Jews "apes and pigs".

A perfect example of dhimmitude if I ever saw one.


William H. Leckie, Jr. - 3/3/2004

Got me by a minute!


William H. Leckie, Jr. - 3/3/2004

You were right...about a dozen, with great controversy over whose was legit. In the 16th century Pope Clement VII decided in favor of Charroux. The relic was stolen in the 1980s...all this off an atheist site via About.com, though you can google a trove.


Richard Henry Morgan - 3/3/2004

Here's a link:

http://atheism.about.com/library/FAQs/christian/blfaq_jesus_foreskin.htm


William H. Leckie, Jr. - 3/3/2004

I've seen 90-150 on John somewhere, and you're right in there with Matthew, about 60 or 70, though there are some folks reacting to the Jesus Seminar and the Q text and all who want to push him back further...wish my stuff was not under piles in a basement!

But we're on the same page about the gospels, I think.

On the other hand, while it would be really neat to have a forum here on Christology, alas, don't think we'll have any takers!

I'd read about the foreskin relics somewhere, too. Someone, in the 80s? Did a book on the whole Medieval and Renaissance mystique of Christ's body...I'll check and see what I can find, maybe like a journalist watching folks who used to (and for all I know still do before the ERs arrive) stalk airliner crashes for souvenirs!


Richard Henry Morgan - 3/3/2004

I now see that my fallible memory has betrayed me again. The Test Benediction dates from the mid-80's AD, so John is even later than I thought.


Richard Henry Morgan - 3/3/2004

PS

On the subject of circumcision, there were about a half dozen churches in Europe that claimed to have the foreskin of Jesus -- I don't think they had established provenance very well. The one in France was stolen back in the '70's, I think.


Richard Henry Morgan - 3/3/2004

I think you're right about the Test Benediction and Matthew, though I can't remember the date -- somewhere around 60AD?

Gibson may not have fallen far from the tree, or for reasons of filial piety and/or marketing might just choose not to address the issue of the Holocaust.


William H. Leckie, Jr. - 3/3/2004

My Biblical stuff is still packed, so forgive a question of Mr. Morgan, not a criticism:

As I recall, a form of the Test Benediction is also in Matthew, the Gospel usually taken to contain explicitly hostile references to the Jews, or is memory serving me correctly? Certainly John says the Jews did not receive the light of the Word, however.

He is, though, right about the origins of circumcision in Old Testament; again, most vividly portrayed in the story of the massacre of the men of Schechem (I think Julian Pitt-Rivers has an elegant essay about that somewhere).

As I'm sure most readers already know, the New Testament--the Synoptics plus John--was rather late in becoming canon anyhow, late 3rd or early 4th century, partly in reaction to the Marcionites? John--once again Mr. Morgan is right--tells a highly Hellenicized story; Luke (and the writings of Paul) bear the imprint of the Stoics. And John is also the one Gospel to explicitly attribute divinity to Jesus.

A plethora of gospels preceded the four we now take to be, well, gospel, collated to establish doctrinal unity in the early church, though to repeat, the anti-Marcionite reaction seems to have been the immediate cause.

As for Mel's Movie: I haven't seen it. It's not available yet in Europe. I have seen interviews with "Braveheart" Gibson--whose cinematic histories are not very good history but very good ideological spectacle (if a bit surprising, as when his Wallace snookers the Plantagenet line by bedding a princess! I cannot forgive him an awful rendering of the Battle of Stirling).

In those interviews, he managed to sidestep acknowledgement of the scale and nature of the Holocaust. My hunch is the acorn hasn't fallen very far from the tree.

Finally, I have no problem with portrayals of the Crucifixion in all its savagery--indeed, serenely hanging Christs, it seems to me, dilute the message of a divine sacrifice. But from the reviews, it is my understanding that the salvational message is somewhere lost in all the gore. It's legitimate to ask why.


Richard Henry Morgan - 3/3/2004

Prof. Cole is right on about the later source of the Gospels, and their spotty familiarity with Jewish customs. John has Jesus saying that Moses gave the Jews circumcison, when it was the patriarchs -- and then it has the Jewish crowd marveling at his knowledge. John is probably post-70 AD, as it seems to have an allusion to the Test Benediction. The idea that a Jewish crowd would bring a prostitute down to the Temple to be stoned is implausible, and is evidenced by the fact that it is an "orphan" passage, found in different places in different Gospel document traditions. The whole thing looks like it was meant to appeal to potential Greek converts, with their more lax sexual attitudes.

I think Robin Lane Fox addressed the Sanhedrin issue at length, and made similar points to Cole. I would also hesitate to call pre-Vatican II Catholics "a bizarre far-rightwing Catholic cult", nor attribute Holocaust denial to the group as a whole.

I think what mostly inspired Gibson was his realization of his own shortcomings in discipleship, which traditionally results in an emphasis on the suffering of Christ, as a rebuke to Christians who have been unwilling to suffer for their beliefs.

My last pet peeve is that one hardly ever sees the historical dimension revealed vis-a-vis Medinah (not directed at Cole). Medinah means City of the Prophet (actually, Medinat an-Nabi). Obviously it couldn't have been named that before his arrival there on the occasion of the Hegira. It was previously known as Yathrib.


Richard Henry Morgan - 3/3/2004

Prof. Cole is right on about the later source of the Gospels, and their spotty familiarity with Jewish customs. John has Jesus saying that Moses gave the Jews circumcison, when it was the patriarchs -- and then it has the Jewish crowd marveling at his knowledge. John is probably post-70 AD, as it seems to have an allusion to the Test Benediction. The idea that a Jewish crowd would bring a prostitute down to the Temple to be stoned is implausible, and is evidenced by the fact that it is an "orphan" passage, found in different places in different Gospel document traditions. The whole thing looks like it was meant to appeal to potential Greek converts, with their more lax sexual attitudes.

I think Robin Lane Fox addressed the Sanhedrin issue at length, and made similar points to Cole. I would also hesitate to call pre-Vatican II Catholics "a bizarre far-rightwing Catholic cult", nor attribute Holocaust denial to the group as a whole.

I think what mostly inspired Gibson was his realization of his own shortcomings in discipleship, which traditionally results in an emphasis on the suffering of Christ, as a rebuke to Christians who have been unwilling to suffer for their beliefs.

My last pet peeve is that one hardly ever sees the historical dimension revealed vis-a-vis Medinah (not directed at Cole). Medinah means City of the Prophet (actually, Medinat an-Nabi). Obviously it couldn't have been named that before his arrival there on the occasion of the Hegira. It was previously known as Yathrib.

Subscribe to our mailing list