The much-discussed question of whether Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ is anti-Semitic raises a much larger one: Are the Gospels anti-Semitic? Does contemplating the original New Testament documents and the events they describe lead to anti-Semitism because the documents themselves have a bias against Jews?
This is a charge that must be answered. The only fair way to do that is to examine the Gospel accounts upon which the movie is based.
Historical Jesus versus Christ of Faith
Of course, the modernist theologian has an answer for those who consult the Gospels. He would say that the Gospels are more a reflection of the early Church community than of actual historical events in the life of Jesus Christ. The Jerusalem Sanhedrin, as the leaders of second-Temple Judaism, unleashed an intense persecution of the early Church shortly after Pentecost. The modernist says that the early Church “reinterpreted” the events and sayings of Christ’s life in light of that persecution, giving birth to the alleged anti-Semitic portions of the Gospels.
For the Catholic seeking to be loyal to Church teaching, this is not a viable option. The Church has been firm and clear in teaching that the Gospels are historically reliable. The apostles might have remembered and preached certain sayings and events because of how they related to the life of the early Church, but they did not create these events or sayings. Dei Verbum tells us that the Gospels “faithfully hand on what Jesus . . . really did and taught” (DV 19).
In other words, the popular modernist distinction between the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith is a false dichotomy. The Church has repeatedly rejected this way of approaching the New Testament. If the Gospels record a saying of Jesus, loyalty to the Church’s teaching authority demands that we treat it as such.
Jewish Leaders versus the Common Man
What do the Gospels teach? A clear, uniform outline of the situation emerges from examination of all four. First, Jesus taught and healed crowds of common Jewish people. In response, the people loved Jesus and hung on his every word and miracle, adoring him to the point that he had to remove himself from their physical presence at times to recuperate (cf. Luke 4:42–43; 8:4, 42; John 6:14–15). This love for Jesus culminated in the triumphal entry into Jerusalem (cf. Luke 19:41–44), where the crowds thronging around Jesus were made up almost exclusively of Jews.
Second, this popularity with the common Jewish person engendered envy among the leaders of second-Temple Judaism (cf. Mark 15:10), who were accustomed to the status and privileges of religious power. Jesus did teach that the common Jewish person must obey these leaders, but at the same time he made it clear their practice of holiness ranked as abominable (cf. Matt. 23:1–6). Understandably, this created tension between Jesus and the first-century leaders of Judaism.
At this point, clarity becomes essential. These leaders of second-Temple Judaism are not to be confused with the crowds of common Jews. Jesus’ conflicts were always with the leaders: those who are repeatedly identified as the chief priests, the elders, the rulers, the teachers of the law, the Sanhedrin, or the Pharisees (cf. Matt. 16:21; 20:18–19; 21:45–46; 26:3–4, 59; 27:1, 12, 20, 41, 62; Mark 8:31; 10:33; 11:18; 12:12, 38–40; 14:43, 53; 15:1, 10–11, 31; Luke 11:37–54; 13:14; 15:1–2; 19:47–48; 20:19, 46–47; 22:2, 52). Even in John’s Gospel, where he refers to these people on occasion simply as “the Jews,” he makes it clear that he is referring to the elite leadership of the second Temple (cf. John 7:25–32, 48; 8:13; 11:45–46; 12:42; 18:3, 14).
Third, these leaders of second-Temple Judaism (to whom I will refer loosely as the Sanhedrin) became increasingly antagonistic and accusatory toward Jesus. The leaders secretly plotted the arrest and death of Jesus, which became achievable when Judas offered to betray Christ.
We should insert one caveat at this point. While the bulk of the Sanhedrin hated Jesus and his message, there were notable exceptions. Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimathea, and others believed Jesus but were unable or afraid to stop the juggernaut that led to his death (cf. Mark 15:43; Luke 23:50–51; John 3:1; 7:50–51; 19:38).
But the bulk of the leadership of first-century Judaism is portrayed in the Gospels as rejecting Jesus and his message. When he persists in his mission, the leaders are singled out as the ones actively plotting his death (cf. Mark 14:10–11, 64; John 5:18; 7:12–13; 8:48–59; 10:31, 39).
The fourth segment of this story can cause consternation if we are not careful to keep it in context. Jesus responded to the Jewish leaders of his generation with condemnation and prophetic utterances of destruction. His words sound harsh and uncompromising. The Jewish leaders of Jerusalem are told that they will be judged because they rejected their promised Messiah: “Your enemies will cast up a bank about you and surround you, and hem you in on every side, and dash you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave one stone upon another in you; because you did not know the time of your visitation” (Luke 19:43–44, emphasis added). Yet Jesus never lost his obvious compassion for and identification with the crowds of Jewish people. In fact, that is what drove his anger with the leaders: They were leading their flock astray.
The love of Jesus for the Jewish people, and his subsequent distaste for their leaders, should not surprise us. The analogy of sheep that lack a compassionate shepherd is taken from the Old Testament prophet Zechariah, a foreshadowing of Christ. Both Zechariah and Jesus were bought off with forty pieces of silver (cf. Zech. 11:12). Both “became the shepherd of the flock doomed to be slain for those who trafficked in the sheep” (Zech. 11:7). Zechariah replaced a group of bad shepherds who did not care about their sheep, and his compassion for the leaderless sheep made him angry with the errant shepherds. “Woe to my worthless shepherd, who deserts the flock!” (Zech. 11:17). Like Zechariah, Jesus was never upset with the sheep (the crowd of Jewish people), but he seethed with anger at the shepherds (the Sanhedrin) who cared nothing for the sheep’s welfare.
This is crucial to our understanding of the events. Jesus never condemned the Jewish people as a whole. If he had, a charge of anti-Semitism might approach credibility. But Jesus was careful to make clear that the Jews were God’s chosen people and that his mission was primarily to the Jewish crowds that responded to his love so enthusiastically. Nor did Jesus ever indict future generations of either Jews or Gentiles for what their ancestors might or might not have done. His prophetic pronouncements of doom were directed specifically at the leadership of the second Temple and even more specifically at the single generation of leaders alive during his ministry.
The narrow focus of his anger shone through whenever he pronounced judgment on the Sanhedrin (cf. Matt. 15:14; 23:33–38; 24:2; Mark 12:38–40; Luke 13:34–35; 19:27; 20:46; John 9:41; 15:24–25). His pronouncements specifically singled out his generation (cf. Matt. 12:39; 16:27–28; 24:30; Mark 14:62; Luke 11:29; 17:25). Even on the very road to Golgotha and crucifixion, Jesus reminded those along the way of the impending judgment that would be required because the Sanhedrin rejected him (cf. Luke 23:28–31).
When we understand these facts, we are better equipped to handle the charges of anti-Semitism more thoughtfully. Jesus did not blame the Jews for his death—not even once. But we must admit that he did hold a very narrow segment of the Jewish leadership responsible: the Sanhedrin. Yet even they were not the most culpable. Pilate holds a preeminent place of moral culpability in this tragic affair. We are reminded of his failure each time we recite the Apostles’ Creed. And even he is not as culpable for the Messiah’s death as the disciple Judas (cf. Matt. 26:24; Mark 14:21; John 19:11). These three—Judas, Pilate, and the Sanhedrin—are held especially responsible for the Passion.
Future Prophecy versus Prophecy Fulfilled
But this is not the end of the story. Unfortunately, many people never look any further than the Gospels. Since these verses and events are so often taken out of their biblical context and viewed in a historical vacuum, it is no surprise that they can appear to lend themselves to charges of anti-Semitism.
But all of Scripture must be understood within its greater context. The part of the story that modern readers most often overlook is that the judgment that Jesus predicted unfolded exactly as he foretold. It is not anyone’s duty to hold descendants of either Pilate or the Sanhedrin responsible for their ancestors’ sin, for each and every one of these responsible parties met his judgment. As that pertains to the Jewish leaders, this judgment came with the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70.
The average student of the Bible does not fully appreciate the judgment that God unleashed upon that generation of Jewish leaders, just as Christ had prophesied. He promised that the second Temple and all of its accompanying rites and privileges would disappear within the lifetimes of those that condemned him to death (cf. Matt. 26:64; Mark 13:2; Luke 21:20–24). Perhaps best known are Christ’s words to his disciples, “They [the Sanhedrin] will see the Son of man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. . . . Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away till all these things take place” (Matt. 24:30, 34).
In his prophetic promise to come in judgment upon his accusers, Jesus drew upon two strains of Old Testament thought. The first is from Daniel, where we are given a visionary snapshot of the response of the world governments to the advent of Christ’s kingdom in the first century. We learn that they will resist like a cornered beast, but the “Son of Man” will emerge victorious. In his victory, the Messiah will come to the Father and be presented with his rightful throne (cf. Dan. 7:13–14).
Some interpreters confuse this coming of the Son of Man in Daniel with the Second Coming, but the context does not allow it. The coming is clearly in the direction of the Father (“the Ancient of Days”). If Daniel were describing the Second Coming, the direction of travel would be in the opposite direction, toward us here on earth. Accordingly, the liturgy of the Church always connects this passage in Daniel to events during the first advent.
Jesus promised the Sanhedrin that they would personally witness his coming in judgment (cf. Matt. 26:64). That means that the only possible fulfillment of this promised judgment is the same one that Jesus tells his disciples about two chapters earlier in Matthew (cf. 24:34). The first half of the Olivet discourse has been widely understood as a prediction of the demise of the second Temple and its leadership.
There is a second strain of thought that Jesus draws upon in his ringing denunciations of the Sanhedrin. This has to do with precisely how God comes in judgment.
In the Old Testament, God himself promised to come in judgment on Egypt. We read, “The Lord is riding on a swift cloud and comes to Egypt; and the idols of Egypt will tremble at his presence” (Is. 19:1–2). The fulfillment of God’s promised coming in judgment is one chapter later (cf. Is. 20). Yet God did not visibly manifest himself to Egypt or their idols. What appeared on the doorstep of Egypt to execute God’s promised coming in judgment was the Assyrian army. God came and he judged, but the physical eye saw only the conquering army of Assyria.
Before, during, and after his trial by the Sanhedrin, Jesus promised judgment upon his accusers. He promised he would come in judgment within a generation, and the judgment came just as he said. From the years 67 to 70, the Roman army leveled the second Temple. The Sanhedrin was destroyed, and it has not existed now for almost 2,000 years. In the process of judging the Sanhedrin, God used the Romans to obliterate biblical Judaism forever. Its replacement is now known as rabbinic Judaism. Even Jewish rabbis admit that rabbinic Judaism, with its emphasis on morality, is entirely distinct from biblical Judaism, with its emphasis on the centrality of sacrifice and Temple worship. Present-day rabbinic Judaism is not responsible for the sins of the Sanhedrin.
There is a growing rediscovery in the Church today that the Bible even records the fulfillment of Jesus’ prophecy. Parts of the book of Revelation certainly refer to the final eschaton, yet the primary focus of much of Revelation revolves around the judgment Jesus predicted. Revelation is a masterpiece in which the author carefully reflects the language and symbolism of Jesus when he predicted the judgment of his accusers. For an example of this purposeful parallelism, compare Matthew 23:13–38 and 26:64 with Revelation 1:7. (For a thorough explanation, see my book Rapture.)
I do not have the room here to justify that analysis fully, but there is ample evidence. The fact that many Christians have swallowed the Protestant version of Revelation does not negate this evidence. Protestants and Catholics who claim that these visions are referring exclusively to events still in the future miss a very important message of Revelation.
That important, sometimes-missed message pertains to the charges of anti-Semitism implicitly directed at the New Testament by groups such as the Anti-Defamation League. In the vision of Revelation 15 (which I call “The Battle Strategy of God’s People”), the judgment of God against Jerusalem’s leadership for rejecting his Son is introduced. (Interestingly, the battle strategy itself clearly revolves around the Eucharist, but that is another topic.)
What is important for our discussion of anti-Semitism is to note the words that introduce this vision. “Then I saw another portent in heaven, great and wonderful, seven angels with seven plagues, which are the last, for with them the wrath of God is ended” (Rev. 15:1, emphasis added). In other words, Jesus promised the Jewish leadership that they would be judged within their generation for rejecting him, and that occurred less than forty years later in A.D. 67–70. Revelation declares that that judgment was sufficient to “end” the wrath of God. God’s Son was rejected and killed, but the judgment of the responsible parties “is ended.” Anyone who still holds an anti-Semitic grudge after God’s justice was served 1,934 years ago certainly has not absorbed the basic message of Christ.
The long and the short of it is that modern anti-Semitism does not find fertile soil in those with a full understanding of the New Testament and its teaching. On the contrary, a full understanding of the entire Bible leads one to the inescapable conclusion that Jesus is, in fact, who he said he is. Those leaders who rejected him deserved punishment, so he reached back from beyond the grave to judge his accusers just as he said he would. And then God himself declared that judgment complete.
What God has ended, let no man attempt to continue. There is no debt owed by any ethnic group for the events of A.D. 30. Judas, Pilate, and the Sanhedrin have already been sufficiently judged. According to the New Testament, twenty-first-century Jews are no more or less responsible for Christ’s death than is the Catholic sinner writing this article. If, in The Passion of the Christ, Mel Gibson is faithful to the Gospels, it cannot be anti-Semitic.