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Who Killed Jesus? An Examination of the Evidence

The history of Christian-Jewish relations has been largely a record of Christian hostility and cruelty. This was the last thing Stephen Adly Guirgis wanted to emulate in his play,.
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For six months in 2004, I was invited to serve as "theological adviser" to a new production of an Off-Broadway play called The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, written by the playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis and directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman. The play put Judas Iscariot on trial for his betrayal of Jesus. In my book A Jesuit Off-Broadway, just released in paperback, I describe the discussions with the playwright and the cast, which led to a conversation over a key aspect of the Gospel narratives: responsibility for the death of Jesus.

Responsibility for the death of Jesus, a hotly controverted question, was critical for the purposes of Stephen Adly Guirgis's play on Judas. The controversy surrounding the presentation of Jewish responsibility in Mel Gibson's blockbuster movie, The Passion of the Christ, made Stephen see that the treatment of Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea in the time of Jesus, and the Jewish high priest Caiaphas would need to be carefully written. In our conversations we probed the more reasonable explanations for the crucifixion in the recent books and films and discarded the less reasonable ones. Stephen was careful to repeat to me, however, that he had purposely avoided seeing Gibson's film, to prevent him from writing a "response" to it.

The Passion of the Christ once again raised the controversial question of "Who killed Jesus?" (Almost entirely overlooked was the more interesting question of "Why?") Mel Gibson's film generated hours of face-time for a variety of expert (and not-so-expert) commentators on network television and coverage in every major magazine and newspaper. Critics of the movie contended that by making Pontius Pilate appear as a thoughtful and conflicted official, the movie tipped the balance of responsibility to the Jewish leaders at the time. The movie's supporters, on the other hand, contended that any attempt to remove guilt from the Jewish leaders amounted to a "whitewashing" of history.

One problem with the public conversation that surrounded The Passion of the Christ was the frequent presentation of a dichotomy between reason and faith. Some on the secular left contended that religious faith necessarily blinds a person to the need for serious historical scholarship. That is, religious people are willfully ignorant of facts -- or just idiots. Some on the religious right, on the other hand, counter that appeals to historical evidence betray a lack of faith. That is, academics are prejudiced against religion -- or just atheists.

But this is a false dichotomy.

The majority of Christian denominations have long recognized the importance of serious Scripture scholarship, as well as the need for using historical tools to understand the Bible. Underlying this recognition is the belief that Scripture is one of the primary means through which God is revealed. The Second Vatican Council, for example, a gathering of Catholic bishops in the early 1960s to consider contemporary theological issues, wrote in its document Dei Verbum ("The Word of God"): "Sacred tradition and sacred Scripture form one sacred deposit of the word of God... " This reemphasis on serious Scripture scholarship (long the domain of dedicated Protestant theologians, philologists and historians) led to a flowering of Catholic biblical scholarship in the last few decades.

From as early as the second century, a handful of Gospel passages have been used to support the charge of "deicide" (literally, God-murdering) against the Jewish people as a whole. Used most often was a passage from the Gospel of Matthew, where "the people" say, in response to Pontius Pilate, "His blood be on us and on our children."

Until recently, the history of Christian-Jewish relations has been largely a record of Christian hostility, persecution and cruelty. Throughout European history, Jews were murdered in the name of the Church, and exiled from their homes. Both anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism were also, as noted before, given expression and encouraged by medieval Passion plays sponsored by Catholic churches and organizations. This was the last thing Stephen Adly Guirgis wanted to emulate in his new play.

Eric Bogosian, the actor and writer who would play Satan in Stephen's play, offered an example of how anti-Semitic sentiments operate in subtle ways in the film and television industry. Though a Christian hailing from an Armenian background, Eric told me that with his olive complexion, aquiline profile and dark curly hair, many people assumed that he comes from another ethnic background. "I look Jewish," he said bluntly. "And in the real world that seems to make me a natural bad guy: my black curly hair, and so on, is a quality equated with evil." As a result, the actor is often offered the role of the heavy in films. "It's part of the continuing vilification of the Jews," he said.

More tellingly, almost every review of The Last Days of Judas Iscariot would celebrate Eric's performance as Satan. He hoped that it was because of his acting skills, but suspected that something else might be involved.

"I found it interesting that many of the reviews said, 'Bogosian is perfect as Satan.' I wondered how much of that had to do with the way I look. Did the fact that I have Semitic looks make me 'perfect' to play Satan?"

All of this, it could be argued, is a residue from the way that the story of Judas, the Jews and the crucifixion has been told over the centuries. Indeed, the long history of Christian anti-Semitism and the horrific fate of the Jews during the Second World War are in themselves reason enough to consider carefully the ways in which Christians understand and present the Passion story.

In one of its most important decisions, the Second Vatican Council, after decades of work on Catholic-Jewish relations, published its document Nostra Aetate ("In Our Age"). Echoing the statements of Saint Paul in his Letter to the Romans, the Council reaffirmed the role of the Jews as "the people to whom the covenants and promises [of God] were given." Nostra Aetate also repudiated the ancient accusations that charged the Jewish people as a whole for the death of Jesus: "True," the Council wrote, "authorities of the Jews and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ. Still, what happened in His Passion cannot be blamed upon all the Jews then living, without distinction, nor upon the Jews today."

More recently, the late Pope John Paul II worked diligently on Catholic-Jewish relations. Apologizing for the Church's historic role in Jewish persecution, he stated, "erroneous and unjust interpretations of the New Testament regarding the Jewish people and their alleged culpability [for the crucifixion] have circulated for too long, engendering feelings of hostility toward this people."

What scholars call the "historical-critical" approach also makes sense intellectually. Put simply, a completely literalist or fundamentalist interpretation is an impossibility. The proof for this is simple: the gospels are not always consistent.

A few examples will suffice. Jesus makes only one journey to Jerusalem in the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), while he makes several in John. The story of Jesus' birth in the Gospel of Matthew describes Mary and Joseph as living in Bethlehem, fleeing to Egypt and then moving for the first time to Nazareth, while Luke has the two living originally in Nazareth, traveling to Bethlehem in time for the birth and then returning home again. Mark and John have nothing of such traditions. More seriously, some of the Resurrection stories are substantially different. In some accounts, the risen Christ appears as a material being; in others he can walk through walls.

The various ways of telling the story reflect the different views and concerns of the Gospel writers (and, in the case of the Resurrection, the difficulty of expressing what the earlier witnesses had experienced). They make it clear that, despite what many fundamentalist Christians contend, the Gospels are not to be treated as strictly historical chronicles.

This points up the need for a careful approach to even the most familiar of New Testament stories, such as the betrayal of Jesus by Judas. The first-century writers of the Gospels presented different views of Jesus Christ, and did so with different communities, concerns and readers in mind. So when arguing about historical accuracy, it is not enough simply to say, "It's in the Bible."

Likewise, when believers raise questions about the accuracy of certain historical contexts, unearth inconsistencies in the narratives, or critique a reliance on literalist interpretations, they are not trying to "water down" the Gospels, they are engaging in part of the life of faith. Theologians call this adopting a stance that is "historically conscious." And in mainstream Christian theology, reason and faith are not opposed to one another: both are seen as expressions of God's leading human beings to the search for truth. Indeed, one of the most venerable definitions of theology comes from the eleventh-century Saint Anselm of Canterbury, who defined the study as Fides quaerens intellectum: Faith seeking understanding.

Stephen Adly Guirgis's own "historically conscious" questions into what really happened to Jesus and Judas were therefore an important part of his own spiritual journey. And once put on stage, they would become part of the journey of the audience -- at least for a few hours.

All of this was part of our discussion about the responsibility for the death of Jesus, which was, after all, the underlying theme of his play. The answer to "Who killed Jesus?" would help to unlock the riddle of Judas Iscariot.

But Stephen wanted to get to the heart of the matter. After all of his research, he wanted to hear what I thought.

"So who do you think was responsible?" he asked me one evening, a few days before Thanksgiving. "Caiaphas or Pilate?"

The most notable recent effort to answer Stephen's question is a gargantuan, 1,600 page, two-volume work The Death of the Messiah, written by Raymond E. Brown, a Catholic priest and one of the leading New Testament scholars of the late twentieth century.

As Brown points out, while it is clear that some of the Jewish leaders were opposed to Jesus, it is also clear that only Rome had the power to condemn and crucify a man. Strains of anti-Judaism crept into the New Testament as the early Christians began to move away from Jewish traditions and embrace non-Jews into their movement. That is, as the early church sought to distance itself from its Jewish roots, it encouraged readings of the events of the Passion that would cast the Jewish authorities in a poor light. The writers of the gospels were not immune to this. Contemporary scholarship therefore treats this issue with justifiable care and attention.

No matter how fine the scholarship, one has to remember that we are dealing with what are essentially reconstructions of what happened by the followers of Jesus, anxious to tell an inspiring tale. The Gospel accounts are not necessarily eyewitness accounts.

But to get to the point. In an essay entitled "Who Killed Jesus?" Daniel J. Harrington, S.J., a renowned New Testament scholar, answers the question simply: "Pontius Pilate, cooperating with some Jewish leaders, was responsible for the death of Jesus."

The key point is that Jesus was executed by Romans for a Roman crime, that is, sedition. "Jesus was, in fact, executed by the Romans," writes D. Moody Smith, professor of New Testament at Duke University, in an essay in Harper's Bible Commentary. Still, there were some Jewish religious leaders angered by what they saw as Jesus's blasphemous utterances, as well as actions that threatened their understanding of their religious duty -- among other things, his claim to have the power to forgive sin, his violent expulsion of the money changers from the Temple grounds, his association with people considered "unclean," and his followers' declaration of their teacher as the Messiah.

But the gospels are murky about precisely what lay behind the death of Jesus, for they were not as much concerned with providing an historically accurate picture as modern readers might assume. "From the outset," writes Raymond E. Brown about the Passion narratives, "we must be cautious about the New Testament reports." Here is a blunt warning from one of the most learned of Scripture scholars against simplistic interpretations of the Gospel narratives.

What Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are intent on providing is not historical truth but something more elusive, and far more important for the early Christians, the religious meaning of the events in question. As a result, the descriptions of the last days of Jesus differ from Gospel to Gospel. As one example, while in the other gospels Jesus is virtually silent during his Roman trial, the Gospel of John has him speaking at length to Pilate.

In another of his books, An Introduction to the New Testament, Raymond Brown notes that only one gospel tries to give a more or less complete explanation:

Only John explains clearly why Jesus was brought to Pilate (the Jews were not permitted to put anyone to death) and why Pilate rendered a death sentence even though he knew that Jesus did not deserve a punishment (he would be denounced to the Emperor for not being diligent in punishing a so-called king.)

It is critical to note that the use of the word "the Jews" in the Gospels as a description of the opponents of Jesus does not mean "all Jewish leaders" any more than it means "the Jewish people." Sadly, phrases like "the Jews" in the Gospel of John have been used as a tool for anti-Semitism. That particular phrase, tragically, has been used to blame all Jews for the decisions of some religious leaders who have been dead for almost two millennia. As D. Moody Smith notes, "Certainly the Evangelist could not have foreseen the awful implication and effects of his words as they have resounded through the centuries."

This is one reason that Mel Gibson's blockbuster film, The Passion of the Christ proved so problematic for many theologians and biblical scholars. His film, which focused on the last several hours in the life of Jesus, beginning with his betrayal by Judas in the Garden of Gethsemane and ending with his crucifixion and resurrection, was both exceedingly popular and exceedingly violent, sparing viewers little of the blood and gore of Jesus' execution.

While The Passion superbly portrayed the utter brutality of the crucifixion and the emotional responses of the disciples, and did so in the language of Jesus and his circle -- Gibson's brilliant use of Aramaic neatly avoided the problem of the Oxford-educated Jesus -- it did a poorer job in handling the complicated question of Jewish and Roman responsibility. For all his emphasis on getting things accurate, it was far from a "historically conscious" presentation.

"The Passion of the Christ" contained scenes and dialogues that, in general, make the Jews look worse and Pilate look better. For example, the gospels are unclear about the number of Jews in the city of Jerusalem who demanded the crucifixion. The movie, however, shows a large mob, visually implying that the city's Jewish community wanted him dead. But Scripture scholars point out that Jesus most likely had many Jewish supporters in Jerusalem: one reason that the Romans arrested him at night, as mentioned in the Gospel of Mark, was probably to minimize angering his many supporters. John Dominic Crossan, the New Testament scholar, has pointed that the pilgrims at the Temple were much taken by Jesus's teaching on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, and that by Friday there was every reason to believe that the authorities would have been reluctant to take him by daylight.

In addition, what are called the Palm Sunday narratives present Jesus entering Jerusalem the week before his death to the adulation of celebrating crowds. That the whole Jewish people would have flip-flopped from adulation to publicly calling for his execution seems unlikely.

Just as important as what is included in Mel Gibson's movie is what is excluded. The film, for example, omits the most famous action of a man named Joseph of Arimathea, a notably sympathetic Jewish leader, who appears prominently in the Gospel of Mark. Joseph, a "respected member of the council," generously provides a tomb for Jesus. Thus an opportunity for the film to portray a specific Jewish leader in a positive light -- and one that is actually found in the New Testament -- is unaccountably omitted.

Pontius Pilate, on the other hand, appears as a more benign figure in Gibson's film than he does in the Gospels on the whole. Historical research into other ancient sources suggests that Pilate was a brutal Roman governor, who had no qualms about crucifixion, and who was recalled to Rome because of cruelty towards his subjects. "Inflexible, stubborn and cruel" is how one contemporary described him. "In Judea," notes Anne Wroe in her biography, "Pilate possessed every kind of blood-spilling power."

In The Passion of the Christ, however, he is presented as a pensive and conflicted man, certainly more careful about sentencing a man to death than is the Jewish high priest Caiaphas. Pilate, for example, graciously offers Jesus a drink from his cup (a scene that is not found in Scripture and is dubious given the Roman attitude towards their Judean subjects). Later, Pilate carefully deliberates on his role in sentencing Jesus, in stark contrast to the quick and angry decisions of the Jewish high priests. As if to make the contrast more striking, the film has Pilate ask the high priest (after Jesus, in another non-biblical scene, has been savagely beaten by the Jewish crowd) the question, "Do you always punish your prisoners before they are judged?" These words appear nowhere in the New Testament -- but do in a film that was supposedly strictly based on biblical sources.

In many ways, The Passion of the Christ was a needed corrective to the saccharine and bloodless portrayals of the crucifixion in many mainstream Jesus movies. But the movie subtly shifted the burden of responsibility for the death of Jesus away from Pontius Pilate and to the Jewish leaders. Mel Gibson's film thereby overlooks many of the insights of modern Scripture scholars and, sadly, frustrates the desire of many mainstream Christian denominations to avoid precisely this kind of misrepresentation in a film that many viewers took, wittingly or unwittingly, as "historically accurate."

At the same time, any artistic retelling of historical events must take liberties with the original story, for dramatic purposes. Some events will have to be omitted for the sake of time, conversations will have to be invented to convey information, and characters will have to be eliminated for the sake of simplicity. The question is how much liberty can one take, and whether these liberties fundamentally alter the underlying history.

Even the most rigorous of historians would accept the validity of this question. In 1997, for example, Edmund Morgan, one of the most admired historians of colonial and early America, wrote an appreciative review of the film version of Arthur Miller's The Crucible, starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Joan Allen and Winona Ryder. Based on Miller's successful stage play of the same name, which was written at the height of the anti-Communist crusades of Senator Joseph McCarthy in the mid-1950s, the film takes as its subject the ghastly Salem witchcraft trials in late-seventeenth-century Massachusetts. The trials ended in the executions of 19 people.

Morgan's provocative essay is included in a collection of essays entitled The Genuine Article: A Historian Looks at Early America. "A playwright dealing with historical figures can scarcely ignore what is known or knowable about them," wrote Morgan. "The only question is how closely a playwright must be tied to what is known, for he cannot be tied so closely that his film becomes merely a documentary. He is surely entitled to make up things that did not happen. Indeed he must make things up if he is to give us more understanding of what did happen than historians have been able to do in confining themselves to proven facts." Though the artist and historian draw from the same well of historical data, they use the material for different ends.

The central weakness in the presentation of the last days of Jesus of Nazareth in Mel Gibson's movie was, therefore, not that it was one man's artistic representation of the crucifixion, but that it substantially tipped the balance of responsibility to the Jews in ways unsupported by historical evidence -- and did so while the film's producers publicly proclaimed its historical accuracy.

In tackling essentially the same story, and in trying to achieve the delicate balance between historically accurate material and artistically compelling action, Stephen Adly Guirgis knew what a difficult task he was taking on.

From 'A Jesuit Off-Broadway: Center Stage with Faith, Doubt, Forgiveness and More'.

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