Dumbed-down biblical scholarship is no friend to Jewish-Christian relations.
As all Christians and Jews who are engaged in fruitful dialogue have long known, interfaith exchange is most successful when both clearly and respectfully put forward their own beliefs and make a sincere effort to comprehend each other's.
True comprehension and respect exclude compromising one's religious identity; authentic dialogue in no way requires checking one's convictions at the door.
Hence my dismay on reading a recent piece of pseudo-exegesis in the April 15 Boston Globe. Columnist James Carroll takes issue with Mel Gibson's new movie on Christ's passion and expresses concern that Gibson's reading of the passion could stir up anti-Jewish sentiment. Strangely, however, Carroll attributes this danger not to any twisting of Scripture on Gibson's part but rather to his fidelity to the Gospel narratives about Jesus’ death.
“A literal rendering of the Passion story can resuscitate the old ‘Christ-killer’ charge,” Carroll warns. In Carroll's reading of things, it is the sacred texts themselves that “carry the virus of Jew hatred.” A momentous charge indeed.
If taken seriously, not only would it eviscerate the doctrine of divine biblical inspiration, but it would also invite a thorough redrafting of the Gospels in order to mollify modern sensibilities. After all, if we are going to rewrite the Passion, we might as well expunge those bothersome condemnations of adultery and greed, and throw in something on the evils of secondhand smoke and the blessings of recycling instead.
Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, and Carroll's disbelief in the authority of the Gospels seems apiece with the rest of his peculiar strain of religious practice. But Carroll goes beyond expressing personal disapproval. He cites the blanket authority of “Scripture scholarship” to negate the historicity of Jesus’ trials and the accuracy of the Passion narratives.
According to Carroll, “scholars now assert with near unanimity that the death of Jesus did not happen as the Passion narratives recount. ‘The Jews’ did not sponsor the death of Jesus. The dramatic trials are unlikely to have occurred.”
One wonders whether the Boston Globe realizes its token Catholic columnist still embraces 1950s-style radical biblical deconstructionism, of the kind in vogue during Carroll's seminary days. Such theories hardly enjoy scholarly unanimity.
True, revisionist exegesis still draws a following among the more militant adherents of the historical-critical method, such as the French exegete Simon Légasse. Yet one could cite numerous contrary exegetical studies that affirm the historicity of the Gospel account of Jesus’ trial and subsequent Passion.
Among the works in English, one could mention N. T. Wright's Jesus and the Victory of God, B. F. Meyer's The Aims of Jesus and R. Brown's The Death of the Messiah. Quite helpful, too, is an older essay by the very respected critical scholar, D. R. Catchpole, “The Problem of the Historicity of the Sanhedrin Trial” (in E. Bammel [ed.], The Trial of Jesus: Festscrift for CFD Moule, 1970).
For its part, the Catholic Church has authoritatively made clear its own unflagging belief in the historicity of the Gospels in the Vatican II dogmatic constitution Dei Verbum.
“Holy Mother Church,” we read, “has firmly and with absolute constancy maintained and continues to maintain that the four Gospels just named, whose historicity she unhesitatingly affirms, faithfully hand on what Jesus, the Son of God, really did and taught for their eternal salvation, until the day that he was taken up” (No. 19).
The fact that no ancient texts call into question the basic facts of the Passion narratives does not seem to bother Carroll, who is more intent on exculpating the Jewish authorities of the time than on careful scholarship.
But Carroll misses the point. As participants in successful interfaith dialogue have discovered, you don't overcome anti-Jewish prejudices by whitewashing history to cover up every misdeed committed by a Jew; nor do you defuse anti-Christian sentiments by pretending that all Christians throughout history deserve straight As for ethics. Harmony and increased cooperation between the Jewish and Christian faiths require, rather, the ability to distinguish between the actions of individuals and the religions themselves. Recent efforts along these lines have yielded splendid results, and a deeper mutual appreciation has been growing steadily since the Second Vatican Council.
As the Catechism of the Catholic Church asserts in no uncertain terms, the historical complexity of Jesus’ trial is evident in the Gospel accounts, and the personal sin of the participants is known to God alone (No. 397). Not the Jews, but rather all sinners, including each one of us, are responsible for Jesus’ suffering and death (No. 398). Mel Gibson himself, reflecting on responsibility for Christ's death on an EWTN broadcast, commented, “Looking at Christ's crucifixion, I look first at my own culpability in that.”
Given that Jesus himself was a Jew and carried out his mission in a Jewish setting, it is natural that the heroes as well as the villains in the Passion story are Jewish. While the high priest Caiaphas as well as other scribes and Pharisees clearly wanted Jesus dead, others such as Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus did not. Moreover, Jesus’ apostles were all Jewish, as were the holy women on Calvary, Simon of Cyrene and Jesus’ own mother. Only a hardened ideologue could find roots of anti-Semitism here.
Christians and Jews must continue to build on the great advances that have been made in their mutual respect and cooperation but not at the expense of the truth. We don't need to rewrite God's word in order to reverence the Jews as our elder brethren in the faith.
Theodore Wirrell, SSD, writes from Rome.