Jesus' Death Holds Universal Accountability

"It is vital that the Passion Play be continued at Oberammergau; for never has the menace of Jewry been so convincingly portrayed as in this presentation of what happened in the times of the Romans. There one sees in Pontius Pilate a Roman racially and intellectually so superior, that he stands out like a firm, clean rock in the middle of the whole muck and mire of Jewry." Adolf Hitler (July 5, 1942)

It is sometimes asserted that even if "the Jews" killed Jesus (as described in John's gospel), that must be a good thing, since it led to the resurrection. But whether any effect is good or bad, responsibility for the crucifixion's cause must be assessed honestly. Further, many post-Vatican II Catholics and liberal Protestants understand "the Jews" as standing in for "all of us." As we will see below, there is profound truth in that corporate responsibility interpretation, but it can never excuse incarnating such universal accountability in any specific group, and certainly not in "the Jews."

Passion (from Latin passio or suffering) is the Christian name for the story of Jesus' execution, from Gethsemane to Golgotha and from Mark to John. Mark is the major source for that story used by Matthew and Luke (historical certitude level: A+). Second, those three gospels are the major source used by John (historical certitude level: B-). In other words, it is quite possible that Mark is the only consecutive source for the entire gospel tradition of Jesus' execution. That raises some obvious questions: Why is everyone so dependent on Mark? Why are there no independent accounts apart from Mark? Therefore, how much of Mark is actual history and how much is parable?

The Problem of Drama

My first faint glimpse of the "problem" of the historical Jesus occurred in 1960 when I saw the Oberammergau passion play in a version unchanged since Hitler saw it in 1930 and 1934. I knew the story, of course, but something happened when I saw it as drama rather than read it as text. At the start of the play, the stage is filled with children, women, and men shouting for Jesus (our Palm Sunday). But by early evening, that stage is filled with that same crowd shouting against Jesus (our Good Friday). No explanation was made for that change, and no reason was evident for why any people were against Jesus.

Furthermore, when the story is staged or screened as drama rather than heard or read as text, that Jewish crowd shouting for the Jewish Jesus; crucifixion takes on a central focus in the narrative. They, rather than Caiaphas or Pilate, seem in charge of the proceedings, responsible for the events, guilty of the results. The anti-Jewish, if not anti-Semitic, potentials in that passion story are emphasized even more on stage or screen than in text or gospel.

The Problem of History

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