Mel Gibson’s forthcoming movie about the death of Jesus, “The Passion,” has created an angry standoff between the filmmaker and Jewish critics who charge him with anti-Semitism. It’s a controversy that will continue to affect relations between Christians and Jews unless some way to cool it can be found. One possible cooling agent is an honest look at how ancient Jewish sources portrayed the Crucifixion.
According to those who have seen a rough cut, Gibson’s film depicts the death of Christ as occurring at the hands of the Romans but at the instigation of Jewish leaders, the priests of the Jerusalem Temple. The Anti-Defamation League charges that this recklessly stirs anti-Jewish hatred and demands that the film be edited to eliminate any suggestion of Jewish deicide.
But like the Christian Gospels that form the basis of Gibson’s screenplay, Jewish tradition acknowledges that our leaders in 1st century Palestine played a role in Jesus’ execution. If Gibson is an anti-Semite, so is the Talmud and so is the greatest Jewish sage of the past 1,000 years, Maimonides.
We will never know for certain what happened in Roman Palestine around the year 30, but we do know what Jews who lived soon afterward said about Jesus’ execution.
The Talmud was compiled in about the year 500, drawing on rabbinic material that had been transmitted orally for centuries. From the 16th century on, the text was censored and passages about Jesus and his execution were erased to evade Christian wrath. But the full text was preserved in older manuscripts, and today the censored parts may be found in minuscule type, as an appendix at the back of some Talmud editions.
A relevant example comes from the Talmudic division known as Sanhedrin, which deals with procedures of the Jewish high court: “On the eve of Passover they hung Jesus of Nazareth. And the herald went out before him for 40 days [saying, ‘Jesus] goes forth to be stoned, because he has practiced magic, enticed and led astray Israel. Anyone who knows anything in his favor, let him come and declare concerning him.’ And they found nothing in his favor.”
The passage indicates that Jesus’ fate was entirely in the hands of the Jewish court. The last two of the three items on Jesus’ rap sheet, that he “enticed and led astray” fellow Jews, are terms from Jewish biblical law for an individual who influenced others to serve false gods, a crime punishable by being stoned, then hung on a wooden gallows. In the Mishnah, the rabbinic work on which the Talmud is based, compiled about the year 200, Rabbi Eliezer explains that anyone who was stoned to death would then be hung by his hands from two pieces of wood shaped like a capital letter T -- in other words, a cross (Sanhedrin 6:4).
These texts convey religious beliefs, not necessarily historical facts. The Talmud elsewhere agrees with the Gospel of John that Jews at the time of the Crucifixion did not have the power to carry out the death penalty. Also, other Talmudic passages place Jesus 100 years before or after his actual lifetime. Some Jewish apologists argue that these must therefore deal with a different Jesus of Nazareth. But this is not how the most authoritative rabbinic interpreters, medieval sages like Nachmanides, Rashi and the Tosaphists, saw the matter.
Maimonides, writing in 12th century Egypt, made clear that the Talmud’s Jesus is the one who founded Christianity. In his great summation of Jewish law and belief, the Mishneh Torah, he wrote of “Jesus of Nazareth, who imagined that he was the Messiah, but was put to death by the court.” In his “Epistle to Yemen,” Maimonides states that “Jesus of Nazareth ... interpreted the Torah and its precepts in such a fashion as to lead to their total annulment. The sages, of blessed memory, having become aware of his plans before his reputation spread among our people, meted out fitting punishment to him.”
It’s unfair of Jewish critics to defame Gibson for saying what the Talmud and Maimonides say, and what many historians say. Oddly, one of the scholars who has most vigorously denounced Gibson -- Paula Fredriksen, a professor of religious studies at Boston University -- is the author of a meticulously researched book, “Jesus of Nazareth,” that suggests it was the high priests who informed on Jesus to the Roman authorities.
Would it have been better if Gibson never undertook to make this movie in exactly the way he did? Maybe, but trying to intimidate him into fundamentally reworking it was never a realistic or worthy goal. The best option now is to acknowledge that other sources besides the Gospels confirm the involvement of Jewish leaders in Jesus’ death and clear the anger from the air. Considering that Gibson’s portrayal coincides closely with traditional Jewish belief, it seems that leaving him alone is the decent as well as the Jewish thing to do.
David Klinghoffer is a columnist for the Jewish Forward and author of the “The Discovery of God: Abraham and the Birth of Monotheism” (Doubleday, 2003) and the upcoming “Why the Jews Rejected Christ: In Search of the Turning Point in Western History.”