Thursday, January 01, 2004

DAVID KLINGHOFFER defends Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ on the basis of Talmudic references that assume that Jewish leaders were involved in the death of Jesus. (The article is in the Los Angeles Times, which requires a lengthy and rather intrusive, but free, registration.) Excerpt:

A relevant example comes from the Talmudic division known as Sanhedrin, which deals with procedures of the Jewish high court: "On the eve of Passover they hung Jesus of Nazareth. And 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."

The passage indicates that Jesus' fate was entirely in the hands of the Jewish court. The last two of the three items on Jesus' rap sheet, that he "enticed and led astray" fellow Jews, are terms from Jewish biblical law for an individual who influenced others to serve false gods, a crime punishable by being stoned, then hung on a wooden gallows. In the Mishnah, the rabbinic work on which the Talmud is based, compiled about the year 200, Rabbi Eliezer explains that anyone who was stoned to death would then be hung by his hands from two pieces of wood shaped like a capital letter T � in other words, a cross (Sanhedrin 6:4).

These texts convey religious beliefs, not necessarily historical facts. The Talmud elsewhere agrees with the Gospel of John that Jews at the time of the Crucifixion did not have the power to carry out the death penalty. Also, other Talmudic passages place Jesus 100 years before or after his actual lifetime. Some Jewish apologists argue that these must therefore deal with a different Jesus of Nazareth. But this is not how the most authoritative rabbinic interpreters, medieval sages like Nachmanides, Rashi and the Tosaphists, saw the matter.

Maimonides, writing in 12th century Egypt, made clear that the Talmud's Jesus is the one who founded Christianity. In his great summation of Jewish law and belief, the Mishneh Torah, he wrote of "Jesus of Nazareth, who imagined that he was the Messiah, but was put to death by the court." In his "Epistle to Yemen," Maimonides states that "Jesus of Nazareth � interpreted the Torah and its precepts in such a fashion as to lead to their total annulment. The sages, of blessed memory, having become aware of his plans before his reputation spread among our people, meted out fitting punishment to him."

It's unfair of Jewish critics to defame Gibson for saying what the Talmud and Maimonides say, and what many historians say.

You can read some of the relevant texts here. And I've discussed some of them here and here. I would say that we just don't know the exact circumstances of Jesus' death. The fact that he was crucified indicates Roman involvement. The Gospels certainly portray some Jewish leaders as being involved, but there is much debate on how historically accurate the Passion narratives are. The Talmud (Gemara, that is - the Amoraic commentary on the Mishnah), of course, was written many centuries after the Gospels and anything it says about the first century is very dubious. Historically speaking, what Maimonides thought is irrelevant. He lived many centuries after the writing of the Talmud and we know more about the first century than he did. But pretty much everyone seems to agree that he's right in this case: the Talmud's Yeshu was Jesus of Nazareth.

Klinghoffer's argument seems to be that some of Gibson's critics are themselves being inconsistent if they accept the authority of the Talmud and of Maimonides yet still condemn Gibson. I'll leave that debate between him and them.

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