Who Really Killed Jesus?
- 2004 2 Mar
The Catholic movie star director made sure to insert himself into the scene where a Roman soldier nails Jesus to the cross.
The hand holding the spike belongs to Mel Gibson and symbolizes both an act of violence thrust toward the Savior and an offering of peace to the Jews.
It turns out to be the perfect paradox for The Passion of the Christ, which is being both praised for its portrayal of the last 12 hours of Jesus' life and pummeled for opening the door to the persecution of Jews.
That tension between positive and negative interpretations of the film typifies the relationship between the Christian and Jewish communities. Gibson's movie simply shines a brighter spotlight on the subject.
Jews and Gentiles have co-existed - sometimes peacefully, sometimes not - since Abram became Abraham nearly 4,100 years ago. In the United States, the relationship is probably as healthy as it's ever been - as long as that friendship takes care not to scratch beneath the surface.
"I would think that culturally there's probably a détente in the relationship between Christians and Jews. This is the age of acceptance and toleration," said D. Jeffrey Bingham, research professor in historical theology at Dallas Theological Seminary. "As a whole, Christians and Jews get along quite pleasantly. As long as those relationships involve issues of secular society, they will be good."
The problems arise when the issue turns toward the Word and away from the world, Bingham said.
"When Jesus of Nazareth is proclaimed as the Messiah ... this potentially becomes a source of discomfort (for Jews)," he said. "But then the Gospel has always caused discomfort. It's never comfortable to the natural man. Paul preached that the cross was a stumbling block to the Jew and foolishness to the Gentile."
The cross is central to the latest tension between Jew and Christian. "Who killed Jesus?" continues to be a hot topic in Christian-Jewish circles because of The Passion.
Some Christians say the Jews put Christ to death, although polls show that number to be a small minority. Others say the Romans. Gibson says we're all murderers. And then there is the theological view that Jesus gave himself up to save the world from sin.
But unlike your typical whodunit, this case centers on examining faith instead of fingerprints.
If your faith follows the belief that Jesus died but rose from the grave – and thus he isn't dead after all – then it's rather pointless to assign blame, said Susan Perlman, first assistant to the Executive Director of Jews for Jesus.
But if you think Jesus was just a man, a nice carpenter, then it's probably important to know who killed him," she said.
Criticisms of The Passion run the gamut, from being too violent to too judgmental. Some Jewish leaders attack the film as fueling anti-Semitism in the United States and around the world, an accusation that Gibson denies. A devout Catholic, the director stresses that the message of the movie is that Christ went through hell so we wouldn't have to.
Nevertheless, the angst is out there. Rabbi Eugene Korn, former director of interfaith affairs for the Anti-Defamation League, has said the movie "portrays Jews in the worst way as the sinister enemies of God."
Rather than debate Korn and other critics on the issue - and thus threaten Christian-Jewish relations - some Christian leaders prefer to preach a message of understanding.
Rich Nathan, a messianic Jew and Chief Pastor of Vineyard Church of Columbus (Ohio), thinks it important for Christians to walk in the shoes of their Jewish counterparts when trying to understand why Jews are sensitive to the potential negative effects of Gibson's movie.
"Have you tried to consider what a Jewish person might feel when he or she discovers that a major motion picture is going to portray the crucifixion of Christ?" Nathan said. "Most Christians have no idea of the history of anti-Semitism that has been engendered because Jews have been historically labeled 'Christ-killers.'"
"We need to be very sensitive here," he said. "We live in a post-WWII world and post-Nazi world and anti-Semitism is a real evil that has shown its ugliness in our own world in the last generation and a half. The point for Christians is to be sensitive to that reality."
Both Bingham and Nathan agree that The Passion suggests no hint of anti-Semitism. But to ensure continued positive relations with Jews, it is important to understand the source of their concerns.
"If Christians ever hope to have any authentic dialogue with Jewish people, listening to Jews' justifiable fear of anti-Semitism without defensiveness is a must," Nathan said. "This movie provides a fantastic opportunity for bridge-building between two historically separated communities. If Christians will open their hearts and empathize with their Jewish brethren, the opportunity will not be wasted."