Thursday, July 31, 2003

I am rather disappointed by Andrew Sullivan's enthusiastic reception of an "evisceration" of Paula Fredriksen's very intelligent article on Mel Gibson's upcoming movie. One rather representative comment from the letter: "In fact, it is precisely Fredriksen's agenda -- to reduce Jesus to a merely historical figure and to use 'history' to obliterate any notion that Jews were involved in the killing of Jesus (one of their own, remember) that is beginning to border on fantasy." The author of this letter accuses Fredriksen of "political correctness" when actually she is employing the usual tools of historical-critical study of biblical texts. For example, he/she says:
Moreover, in light of Fredriksen's erudition and years of research, the decidedly unscientific method of her own argument is quite remarkable. She attacks the credibility of the evangelists, stating "[t]he evangelists wrote some forty to seventy years after Jesus's execution. Their literary problems are compounded by historical ones: it is difficult to reconstruct, from their stories, why Jesus was crucified at all".

This is, in fact, one of the usual assumptions in academic study of the New Testament. The letter writer then continues:
However, even she must concede that, however dubious she believes them to be, these gospels represent the only historical data directly bearing on the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth; nonetheless, she summarily dismisses all but the most basic data to arrive at her predetermined conclusion: "But the historical fact behind the Passion narratives--Jesus's death on a cross--points to a primarily Roman agenda." The analysis sandwiched in between these statements involves incredible intellectual contortions. Fredriksen posits that Pilate had his own political motives for killing Jesus that were completely independent of any influence or pressure from the high priests by means of the following argument: "The fact that Jesus was publicly executed by the method of crucifixion can only mean that Rome wanted him dead: Rome alone had the sovereign authority to crucify. Moreover, the point of a public execution, as opposed to a private murder, was to communicate a message. Crucifixion itself implies that Pilate was concerned about sedition. Jesus's death on the cross was Pilate's way of telling Jerusalem's Jews, who had gathered in the holy city for the paschal holiday, to desist from any thought of rebellion."

The author of this letter takes the gospels at their face value, as offering an accurate historical record of the time, without being willing to view them critically at all. The consequence of this perspective is reiteration of traditional Christian anti-Judaism which blames the Jewish people as a whole for the death of Jesus -- a position rejected by the Second Vatican Council.
Interestingly, Matthew, the first of the gospel writers chronologically (and thus, presumably, the most intimately familiar with the facts and circumstances surrounding Jesus' crucifixion), seems to have agreed completely with this analytical process; but, of course, he arrived at a different conclusion (after noting some facts): "Meanwhile, the chief priests and elders convinced the crowds that they should ask for Barabbas and have Jesus put to death. So when the procurator asked them, 'Which one do you wish me to release for you?' they said, 'Barabbas.' Pilate said to them, 'Then what am I to do with Jesus, the so-called Messiah?' 'Crucify him!' they all cried. He said, 'Why, what crime has he committed?' But they only shouted the louder, 'Crucify him!' Pilate finally realized that he was making no impression and that a riot was breaking out instead. He called out for water and washed his hands in front of the crowd, declaring as he did so, 'I am innocent of the blood of this just man. The responsibility is yours.' The whole people said in reply, 'Let his blood be on us and on our children.' At that, he released Barabbas to them. Jesus, however, he first had scourged and then he handed him over to be crucified." (Matthew, 27:20-26 (The New American Bible)).

This passage from Matthew is one that has been used for the last 1900 years to justify both anti-Judaism (denigration and contempt for Judaism as a religion) and anti-semitism (denigration and attacks upon Jews as a group). Paula Fredriksen's approach to this text -- one which is accepted by many New Testament scholars, and which does not originate with her -- vitiates the offense offered by the statement "let his blood be on us and on our children" and contextualizes it as part of Matthew's agenda to diminish the responsibility of the Romans (at a time of overwhelming Roman hegemony over the Mediterranean world, and after the brutal war between Rome and the Jews of Palestine which lasted from 66-73) in order to make this new sect seem less threatening and more attractive to Gentiles. It is hard for me to understand why a contemporary Christian would want to maintain the force of the traditional anti-Jewish interpretation.

The author of the letter addresses Matthew's statement with this explanation:
(Sidebar: Note that the statement "Let his blood be on us and on our children", while easily misappropriated by anti-Semites, must be put into proper context. If applicable to all Jews, it would implicate Mary, the apostles and St. Paul, among all of the other early Christians. As it is, it simply refers to those individuals actively complicit in the event, and not to a larger group of people, most of whom were not present. One may love and honor and respect Jews without having to pretend that all of the Jewish residents of Jerusalem were looking the other way while the Romans slew one of their most high-profile brothers).

The letter writer seems to have missed the fact that Matthew says that the crowd says "let his blood be on us and on our children." This is a self-directed curse whose force falls not only on those who uttered it, but on their children, who, it seems to me, cannot be said to be guilty. And these words were used to justify millenia of anti-Jewish actions.

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