The Passion from a Jewish perspective

By Ed Kessler

Scholars have spent an impressive amount of energy on the study of the historical Jesus and much of it has revolved around his Jewishness. "Whom do men say that I am?" Jesus once asked his disciples (Matt 16:13). The answers varied which reveals how even then there was little consensus over his identity. A brief glance towards recent scholarship indicates that scholars are still on this elusive trail and are as far as away from consensus as were the disciples. Yet, it can be agreed that Jesus was born a Jew, raised a Jew, taught as a Jew and died a Jew. He was indicted by Pilate as "king of the Jews" and condemned to death as such.

The BBC's The Passion successfully places Jesus the Jew in his Jewish context. His disciples on occasion call him 'rabbi' for he was a Jewish teacher. Jesus and his family would have been observant of Torah, paid tithes, kept the Sabbath, circumcised their males, attended synagogue - and so on. While the Gospels record disputes about Jesus' interpretation of a few of these, the notion of a Christian Jesus, who did not live by the Jewish commandments or only by their ethical values, does not fit historical reality.

The BBC series successfully portrays the many ways to be Jewish in the first century. Josephus, who lived in the first century, mentions four groups: Pharisees; Sadducees; Essenes; and Zealots. With which of the groups did Jesus have dealings? The Gospels never mention the Essenes, although the Dead Sea Scrolls parallel some of the teachings of John the Baptist. Some Jews were Zealots and were active from the time of the Maccabees. Josephus accuses them of kidnapping Jews as hostages and killing their own people whom they regarded as traitors. The Zealots are hardly mentioned in the New Testament although Luke includes Simon the Zealot among the twelve disciples.

The Gospels make clear that Jesus' major dealings were with Pharisees and Sadducees and The Passion follows accordingly. The Sadducees are mentioned in the New Testament as having arguments with Jesus (eg., Mark 12:18-27), and as members of the Sanhedrin. The series rightly portrays them as being mainly associated with the Temple, although not all Temple priests were Sadducees.

Jesus' action in the Temple was a key moment in the BBC series as its marked a turning point in the Temple authorities' view of Jesus. All four Gospels record that Jesus overturned the tables of the money changers, and accused the Temple staff of making what should have been a "house of prayer for all nations" into a "den of thieves". The chief priests were concerned to protect an economy built around the Temple. The Passion depicts Jesus as staging a symbolic destruction, because he believed that destruction was to take place after which the Temple would be radically transformed and the kingdom of God would shortly arrive. The authorities, both religious and secular, took note.

One of the most intriguing characters of the series is the High Priest, Caiaphas. The High Priest was appointed by Rome and his duties included performing Temple rituals, managing the Temple treasury, and presiding over the Sanhedrin. In the past, performances of the Passion have often inaccurately portrayed him as Pilate's superior. The BBC's The Passion gives the viewer an indication of what it must have been like for a High Priest who struggled with his conscience in order to protect the limited autonomy given to Jews by the Romans. Caiaphas is portrayed as a sensitive man who knows he is caught been between a rock and a hard place.

The writer, Frank Deasy, carefully followed contemporary New Testament scholarship by depicting Pilate as perceiving that Jesus threatened the peace of Jerusalem. This political situation provides the context for Caiaphas' ironic comment to Pilate, 'It is better for you to have one man die for the people than that the entire nation perish' (John 11:50).

The Jewish group closest to Jesus were the Pharisees and other than the Jewish followers of Jesus, only they survived. After the Temple was destroyed in 70CE, the Pharisees began to reconstruct Jewish faith and so became known as the fathers of Rabbinic Judaism. In the Gospels, the Pharisees are prominent as the main rivals of Jesus and their conflict generally centres on interpretation of the Torah, especially in terms of observing the Sabbath, dietary laws and issues of purity.

Interestingly, many of Jesus' teachings mirror those of the Pharisees. For example, Rabbi Hillel, a famous rabbi who lived a few decades before Jesus, is well known for a saying which echoes the Golden Rule, "do not do unto others what you would not wish to be done to yourself".

I would suggest that Jesus argued so much with the Pharisees because he was closest to them and it is not by chance that they are absent from the Gospel Passion narratives. Indeed, Jesus may even have been a Pharisee.

For his part, Pontius Pilate (governed 26-37 CE) was a despotic and ruthless Roman dictator, who was forced to resign from office. Even early Christian sources, which are keen to portray the early church as non-threatening to Roman authority, contain criticism of Pilate. Luke mentions "the Galileans, whose blood Pilate mingled with their sacrifice" in the Temple (Luke 13:1-4) and according to the writings of Eusebius (260-339 CE) Pilate committed suicide, which was a fitting fate for him: "Divine justice, it seems, did not long protract his punishment".

Pilate, being the political potentate in Judaea at the time, without whose consent no one would be put to death, has nevertheless been interpreted in Christian tradition as being opposed to the execution of Jesus. However, most scholars understand this as an attempt to present the Christian message as in no way threatening to the Roman authorities, rather than historical reality.

Passion Plays and tackling anti-Jewish bias

Since Passion Plays focus on the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus, they have sometimes provided an excuse for anti-Judaism.

On occasion, performances of the Passion have led to violence against Jews, especially in the mediaeval period which one Catholic scholar of Christian-Jewish relations, Edward Flannery, described as "the centuries of woe", during which Jews were progressively "demonised" by Christians and portrayed first as in league with Satan in their opposition to Jesus and then as Devils themselves. Passion Plays have contributed towards what has become known as the 'teaching of contempt' of Judaism.

The portrait of Jews as collectively guilty for the death of Jesus was a key factor, scholars agree, in a demonisation process.

The BBC series, however, takes special care to avoid these dangers by portraying Jesus as a Jew, reminding viewers of the Jewish context to his ministry, demonstrated at the end of the series by the chanting of the Jewish prayer of mourning, the Kaddish, at Jesus' death, which is deeply moving and very Jewish.

A particular challenge, however, was presenting the trial narrative. Typically, the most anti-Jewish sections of a passion play are those relating to the trial and death of Jesus and portraits of Jesus' last days are made more complicated by the differences between the four Gospel accounts. For example, Mark, Matthew, and Luke place Jesus' arrest on the night of the Passover. In John it occurs before Passover. In John, Jesus is brought first to Annas, then to Caiaphas, then to Pilate but in Matthew he is brought only to Caiaphas, and then to Pilate, while in Luke no details of a Jewish trial are given at all, and Jesus is brought before Pilate and Herod Antipas.

Such variances indicate the Gospels were written generations after the event and rely on the oral traditions of the earliest Christian communities as their sources. Furthermore, the evangelists were not interested in writing factual, historical accounts of Jesus' last days. They were not historians in the modern sense, but men of faith who were preaching in their communities. It is a mistake to treat passion narratives as a straightforward report of what actually occurred, although that is how they are often viewed - therefore all performances of the Passion never simply retell the story, they reinterpret it.

The outcome of the trial is that Jesus is convicted of blasphemy according to Jewish law, and condemned to death as a political trouble-maker by the Roman authorities. There are many odd aspects to this account. The narrators present the Roman authority, Pilate, as being very uneasy about condemning Jesus, and finding it hard to believe that he is guilty of the crime of subversion, or that he constitutes a threat to the Roman administration. This is a strange feature of the presentation because of Pilate's ruthlessness and oppressive behaviour and presented a difficult literary and theological problem for the authors of the Gospels as well as for the BBC.

For the Romans, one might say it was all a much simpler matter: had there been an offence against public order that was sufficiently serious to warrant taking punitive action and was there a threat to their political authority?

Perhaps it is best to conclude with a question asked of Jesus. "What commandment is the first of all?" Jesus was asked. He answered as any good Jew would have answered: "the first is: Hear O Israel the Lord our God, the Lord is One. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might. The second is this: You shall love your neighbour as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these." (Mark 12:28-31). Every Jew will recognise in Jesus' answer the Shema, the Jewish declaration of faith, which is recited at every Jewish service, day and night.

The famous command of Lev. 19:18 is also a fundamental precept of Judaism, demonstrating that wherever, however and whenever the Passion narrative is performed, Jesus is most accurately portrayed not as living his life as a Christian but as a Jew.

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