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Journalism Tackles 'The Problem With Good Friday,' and an Episcopal Priest Responds

05/14/2015 09:51 am ET | Updated May 14, 2016

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Ecce Homo ("Crucify Him") by Mihály Munkácsy (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

We know that journalism can impact attitudes and action. But it's rare to get concrete proof of that, as I did recently after publishing a blog post about the anti-Semitic content of traditional Good Friday performances of Passion plays and Passion musical compositions, many dating back to the Middle Ages.

The blog post was inspired by a journalist friend, Paul Kleyman, in San Francisco. Paul told me he was shocked when he heard the anti-Semitic verses at a local performance of the St. John Passion, by Heinrich Schütz. Some Passion plays and musical librettos have modified or eliminated the "crucify him, crucify him" call from a "multitude" of Jews, a scene drawn from the Gospels and dramatized in Passion performances and Hollywood films. But many productions -- including the one my friend Paul attended -- retain that murderous call to action, implying that Jews collectively were responsible for the death of Jesus. Not only is the charge false -- all of Jesus' followers were Jews, and without them there would be no Christianity -- it has even been repudiated by Vatican II and more recently by Pope Benedict XVI. In my post I detailed three additional reasons that a mob of Jews calling for crucifixion of Jesus could not have happened:

  • As reported in the Gospels, the seizure of Jesus in Gethsemane Garden under the cover of darkness was a clandestine operation. That's why Judas was presumably paid 30 pieces of silver to reveal where Jesus would be that night. Thus, none other than the Sanhedrin, the ruling body of Judaism, and the arresting party knew that Jesus was in custody. After appearing before Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin, he was delivered early the next morning to Pontius Pilate for questioning. Still, only the captors and the disciples, who went into hiding, knew of the arrest. But in the Gospels account that the Passion dramatizations are based on, Pontus Pilate suddenly addresses a multitude of Jews who shout, "Crucify him, crucify him." Who are they, where did they come from, and how did they know that Jesus was a prisoner? The ancient Greeks called such events in plays "deus ex machina" -- inventions that make no sense but enhance the desired drama. Similarly, the multitudes of Jews calling for the death of Jesus makes no sense; in the tradition of deus ex machina, they are materialized out of thin air. As biblical scholar Candida Moss notes, "flash mobs of thousands of people do not miraculously assemble and offer complicated answers in unison without the assistance of smart phones." Pope Benedict XVI agreed: "How could the whole people have been present at that moment to clamor for Jesus' death?"

  • The clandestine trial of Jesus took place on Passover, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar at that time. Jews not only didn't know about Jesus' trial but were preoccupied with intense preparations for Passover. Furthermore, thousands of Roman soldiers were on duty to prevent protest and violence. The hundreds of thousands of Jews who came to Jerusalem each year for Passover frequently generated violent protests against the Roman presence and occupation. At some Passover celebrations thousands of Jews and scores of Roman soldiers were killed in uprisings. That's why the Roman military was out in force and would surely not allow crowds -- particularly angry, emotionally aroused crowds -- to move across Jerusalem to Pontius Pilate's palace.
  • In preparation for Passover, Jews had to perform cleansing and purification rituals. To appear at Pontius Pilate's palace during Passover would have been an unclean act requiring seven days of purification. It would have excluded them from the celebration of this most important holiday. Punctuating that point, the members of the Sanhedrin who delivered Jesus to Pontius Pilate's palace refused to enter because it was unclean and would have required the seven-day purification ritual: "Then they led Jesus from Caiaphas into the Praetorium [Pilate's palace], and it was early; and they themselves did not enter into the Praetorium so that they would not be defiled, but might eat the Passover" (John 18:28).
  • Kleyman sent emails with his objection to the anti-Semitic verses and a link to my blog post to the artistic director of the Schütz performance and the rector of the church that held one of the Passion performances.

    The artistic director affirmed that "the liturgical churches who proclaim the Passion Gospel have always seen the crucifixion as a necessary part of God's plan and have not placed the guilt on anyone except for the sins of all of mankind." Yet he does not see any need for change, even though the Passion oratorio script plainly accuses the Jews ("crucify him, crucify him"):

    The fact that Jesus was handed over by his own people is central to the narrative. No mainstream Christian church suggests that modern day Jews are responsible for Christ's death any more than modern day Americans are responsible for the slaughter of Native Americans in the time of Columbus. Because this story is an integral part of several modern mainstream religions, we did not feel it needed to be presented with a disclaimer any more than a concert of Christmas carols, which could also be taken as anti-Semitic.

    Christmas carols (many of the most popular Christmas songs were written by Jews) are joyous celebrations that do not indict anyone for a murderous crime. So it's a poor analogy. Furthermore, the artistic director may not be aware of the finding of a 2013 poll by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) that 26 percent of Americans still believe that the Jews killed Jesus. And it's well known that respondents to polls are reluctant to express politically incorrect views, particularly ethnic prejudices, even if the survey is "anonymous." (Few believe in anonymity anymore.) So the figure is probably considerably higher. Also, consider that atrocities in the 15th and 16th centuries against indigenous peoples in the Americas were celebrated in the name of Christendom for taming and converting the "savages." By today's standards, though, those acts should be condemned, not ignored or accepted because they are an authentic part of history.

    Paul Kleyman's objections, bolstered by my blog post, had quite a different effect on Rev. Scott Richardson, the rector of Mary the Virgin Episcopal Church, where Lacuna Arts held one of its performances. He promptly initiated actions to rectify the issue:

    Hi Paul,

    I just want to give you more information about actions taken at Saint Mary's this week in response to your letter. I mentioned already that we discussed it at our liturgy meeting on Tuesday. We did the same at our Vestry (Board of Directors) meeting that evening and then at our staff meeting the following day. I also asked our Associate Rector to add another class to our summer forum series entitled, The Problem with Good Friday. I believe that class will be held on the last Sunday in August at 9:00 AM. I want to again invite you to be in dialogue with us, if you'd like to do so, and, if not, then hope you will receive our thanks for inviting our deeper reflection.

    God's peace,
    Scott

    Rev. Richardson, a strong supporter of interfaith relations, gave a sermon in 2014 that included these statements:

    We have a two thousand year history of Jewish/Christian struggle that needs to be named and healed. The source of much of that conflict is rooted in today's gospel.... In the mid- to late first century, many of the followers of Jesus remained Jewish. For such as these, the ministry of the word occurred in the synagogue and the ministry of the altar in private homes.... the heartache of the primitive church as she begins the excruciating process of separating from her spiritual mother, the synagogue....Anti-Jewish or anti-synagogue rhetoric is especially noticeable in John.

    Despite Rev. Richardson's unqualified embrace of the Jewish foundations of Christianity and the strong bond between the two faiths, somehow the anti-Semitic content in the Passion oratorios slipped passed him. That frequently happens with longstanding traditions; we cease to examine them critically -- that is, until they are called to our attention. And for Rev. Richardson that attention translated into bold action. He should be applauded. His response also sends strong encouragement to journalists, reminding them that advocacy for social justice based on sound facts and principles can effect meaningful change.

    Bernard Starr, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus at the City University of New York (Brooklyn College). His latest book is Jesus, Jews, and Anti-Semitism in Art: How Renaissance Art Erased Jesus' Jewish Identity, and How Today's Artists Are Restoring It. He is also the organizer of the art exhibit "Putting Judaism Back in the Picture: Toward Healing the Christian/Jewish Divide."