Is there an anti-Semitic strain to the Christian story? That question seems to be revisited in every generation. Last year at this time, I felt it was the most serious question to emerge from all the controversy around Mel Gibson's movie version of the Passion. Certainly, New Testament writings about "the Jews" sound inflammatory in modern ears. But Jesus and his disciples and the earliest Christians were themselves all Jewish. It is easy to forget this simple fact, especially perhaps in the season of Easter.
In this week's program, as Christians around the world commemorate the Passion and Jews anticipate Passover, we explore the original, intimate link between Judaism and Christianity. We trace a story that has been lost to both Christians and Jews, and without which neither the New Testament nor its Hollywood versions can make sense for modern people.
Joel Marcus is a remarkable guide through this story. He brings both a scholarly mastery and a rare personal affinity with the experience of the earliest Christians. He was raised in a secular Jewish home. In the heady mix of politics and spirituality in California in the 1960s, he became a writer and a religious seeker. He read the Bible for the first time all the way through after he found allusions to it in great literature. What began as a literary interest became a passage of faith. He became a Christian, and later a New Testament scholar with a special emphasis on the Jewish origins of Christianity. In 1997 he published a lovely, thought-provoking book, Jesus and the Holocaust, that reveals his more recent journey to reconciling his own Christian story with an enduring Jewish identity.
In the earliest days of Christianity, hostility between traditional Jews and followers of Jesus was intramural — it was a family fight, marked by the no-holds-barred emotion that we all reserve for those we know best and whose understanding we most fiercely desire. Jesus' last words on the cross as reported in the Gospels of Mark (15:34) and Matthew (27:46) — "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?" — are the first two lines of Psalm 22 from the Hebrew scriptures, the only sacred texts Jesus himself knew and which formed his own religious sensibility. The earliest Christians also took their sustenance and imagery from the Hebrew Bible and Jewish tradition. They looked to the ancient prophets of Israel to make sense of the events of the Passion. But by the end of the first century — by the time the New Testament itself was beginning to be compiled — most new Christians were not Jewish. At a remove from the original context of Christianity, "The Jews" became an almost technical term for the enemies of Jesus. Christians no longer understood the castigating tone of the prophetic writings as a genre of bold introspection and self-criticism. They heard it as a condemnation of Jews as a separate, unrelated group.
Moreover, both Judaism and the fledgling Christian sect struggled to survive within the Roman Empire, and this also led each group to define its identity defensively, over against the other. A very real, and understandable, atmosphere of persecution marks the writings of the New Testament. And Joel Marcus makes the illuminating point that this sense of persecution has been internalized by Christians ever since. One could argue that some of the most strident and influential Christian voices in American public life today carry a puzzling tone of persecution. But applying first century attitudes — such as this sense of persecution on the part of Christians — to our own time, Marcus says, is faithful neither to current realities nor to history. For the past 16 centuries, he notes, the New Testament situation has been turned on its head: a dominant Christianity has all too often been responsible for the persecution of Jews.
At times and places, Holy Week has been a dangerous time for Jews, a season in which Christian fervor expressed itself in anti-Semitic attacks and pogroms. Even now, Joel Marcus points out, Christian devotion at this particularly sacred season may harbor seeds of anti-Jewish sentiment. His stories and insights are especially important, then, at this time of year. And clearing away the debris of anti-Semitism makes room for the root meaning of the events of the Passion — a meaning which, Marcus also reveals, has been mined poignantly by Jewish thinkers and artists across history.
I believe that there is much possibility for good in asking hard questions about the Jewish-Christian relationship, even when they are raised by Hollywood. But the good will be found by taking those questions back to the biblical stories themselves and in reflecting on the ways these stories have shaped the 2,000-year history shared by Christians and Jews. It is a history rich and appalling and intimate, and it is still being written in our time.