FIRST PERSON: 'The Passion' & the Talmud

by Terry Mattingly, posted Tuesday, February 17, 2004 (15 years ago)

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (BP)--The ancient rabbinic text is clear about the punishment for those who twisted sacred law and misled the people of Israel.

Offenders would be stoned and then hung by their hands from two pieces of wood connected to form a "T." The Talmud once included this example from the Sanhedrin:

"On the eve of Passover they hung Jesus of Nazareth," said the passage, which was censored in the 16th century to evade the wrath of Christians. "The herald went out before him for 40 days saying, 'Jesus goes forth to be stoned, because he has practiced magic, enticed and led astray Israel. Anyone who knows anything in his favor, let him come and declare concerning him.' And they found nothing in his favor."

If armies of Jewish and Christian scholars insist on arguing about Mel Gibson's explosive movie "The Passion of The Christ," it would help if they were candid and started dealing with the hard passages in Jewish texts as well as the Christian scriptures.

At least, that's what David Klinghoffer thinks.

The Orthodox Jewish writer -- whose forthcoming book is titled "Why the Jews Rejected Christ" -- believes these lines from the Talmud are as troubling as any included in the Christian Gospels. They are as disturbing as any image Gibson might include in his controversial epic.

The Talmudic text seems clear. Jesus clashed with Jewish leaders, debating them on the meaning of their laws. They hated him. Many wanted him dead.

It is possible, Klinghoffer said, to interpret these documents as saying that Jesus' fate rested entirely with the Jewish court. The use of language such as "enticed and led astray" indicated that Jesus may have been charged with leading His fellow Jews to worship false gods.

There are more details in this confusing drama. Writing in 12th-century Egypt, the great Jewish sage Maimonides summed up the ancient texts.

"Jesus of Nazareth," he proclaims, in his Letter to Yemen, "... impelled people to believe that he was a prophet sent by God to clarify perplexities in the Torah, and that he was the Messiah that was predicted by each and every seer. He interpreted the Torah and its precepts in such a fashion as to lead to their total annulment, to the abolition of all its commandments and to the violation of its prohibitions.

"The sages, of blessed memory, having become aware of his plans before his reputation spread among our people, meted out fitting punishment to him."

Is that it? What role did the Romans play? In terms of historic fact, Klinghoffer emphasized, it's almost impossible to find definitive answers for such questions. But the purpose of the Jewish oral traditions that led to the Talmud was to convey religious belief, not necessarily historical facts.

"If you really must ask, 'Who is responsible for the death of Jesus?' then you can only conclude that both the Gospels and the Talmud agree that the Jewish leaders did not have the power to execute Him," Klinghoffer said.

"Did they influence the event? The religious texts suggest that they did, the historic texts suggest that they did not. It's hard to know. ... But if Gibson is an anti-Semite, then to be consistent you would have to say that so was Maimonides."

Obviously, Klinghoffer is not spreading this information in order to fan the flames of hatred. His goal, he said, is to provoke Jewish leaders in cities such as New York and Los Angeles to strive harder to understand the views of traditional Protestants and Catholics. And it's time for liberal Christians to spend as much time talking with Orthodox Jews as with liberal Jews.

It's time for everyone to be more honest, he said.

"I don't see anything that is to be gained for Judaism by going out of our way to antagonize a Mel Gibson or to antagonize as many traditional Christians as we possibly can. I think we have been yelling 'Fire!' in a crowded theater," Klinghoffer said.

"To put it another way, I don't think it's very wise for a few Jewish leaders to try to tell millions of Christians what they are supposed to believe. Would we want some Christians to try to edit our scriptures and to tell us what we should believe?"


Terry Mattingly (www.tmatt.net) teaches at Palm Beach Atlantic University in West Palm Beach, Fla., and is senior fellow for journalism at the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities. He writes this weekly column for the Scripps Howard News Service. Used by permission. For information on using The Passion in outreach, resources are available on the Web from LifeWay Christian Resources at www.lifeway.com/passion.

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