Sunday, April 18, 2004

Rabbi Boteach or Rabbi Jeshua?

To my knowledge, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach has been the most prolific and articulate critic of TPOTC. Hearing him on TV, my initial reaction was to dismiss him as just another demagogue who indulges in deliberate distortions. But after reading some of his articles (posted at, it occurs to me that he may be fairly sincere, albeit blinded by his own prejudice. In the interests of evangelism, it may be a worthwhile exercise to take him seriously and run through his major charges. I'm just going to excerpt what strike me as his core allegations and arguments, and then proceed to comment on them.

By way of initial disclaimer, I have yet to see the film, and it's not relevant to my purpose to defend every detail of the film. But Boteach only saw the film a few days ago, and his review doesn't add anything distinctive to his general line of attack. I'm offering generic answers to generic objections. Although Boteach usually keeps his cards close to the chest, he occasionally lays them on the table and admits that his real target is not TPOTC, but the Gospels.

Jesus at Midnight
The Passion's portrayal of Christianity as a cult of death

"I personally found the film to be a gross defamation – not just of the Jews who were portrayed as having demonically demanded the death of Christ – but especially of Christianity which is portrayed as a religion of blood, gore, and death, rather than of blessing, love, and life."

1. The "demonic" adjective is Boteach's characterization.

2. It should go without saying that blood atonement and the death of Christ are fundamental features of the Christian faith. These are non-negotiables, as is, indeed, the entire witness of Scripture.

"Judaism and its daughter religion Christianity were a radical departure from the earlier cults of death. Both emphasized the idea of moral and righteous action on this earth. Both were based on the Hebrew scriptures’ demand for moral and righteous action and the need to perfect the earth in G-d’s name. Even in the New Testament, the passion of Christ occupies at most a chapter or two in each of the gospels, while the life of Jesus is spelled out over about ten times that number."

1. This is a revisionist definition of Christianity and Judaism alike. To begin with, it interposes a false antithesis, as though we had to choose between redemption and ethics. Without redemption, morality has no future.

This definition also secularizes the faith of Scripture by decapitating the heavenly-minded dimension and thereby reducing Biblical piety to eye-level mundanity.

2. Boteach is redefining Judaism in terms of post-Biblical Rabbinical Judaism. It should be unnecessary to point out that blood sacrifice was a fixture of the Mosaic cultus.

3. The OT does not treat man as perfectible by law-keeping. Indeed, the OT is a history of tribal atrocities and national apostasy in spite of and in light of revealed law.

4. If Boteach knew anything about basic NT scholarship, he'd realize that the Gospels are bottom-heavy in weighting the entire narrative downstream to the Cross. And, of course, the Gospels also treat the sacrificial system of the OT as prefiguring the Passion narratives.

"In the wake of September 11th, Judaism and Christianity now find themselves heavily at odds and under attack from forces within Islam. In a world where so many are being encouraged to die in the name of G-d, it behooves Judeo-Christianity to inspire the faithful to live in the name of G-d."

This somehow assumes that the Gospels glorify martyrdom. To compare this with suicide bombers is dishonest, to say the least.

"There are two ways to understand Christianity. One is as a religion of life, the other is as a religion of death. The former focuses on emulating how Jesus lived, the latter hones in exclusively on how he died. The former looks at the incomparable ethical teachings of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount, the latter focuses on the horrors of the crucifixion on the cross. The Christianity of life concentrates on what Jesus taught his disciples about living virtuously, the Christianity of death distills the Christian message into the single maxim that Jesus died for mankind’s sins. The Christianity of life emphasizes the idea of personal accountability in our relationship with G-d, the Christianity of death emphasizes that reposing faith in Jesus is all that is needed in order to gain salvation."

1. Again, a false antithesis—false in principle, false in practice.

2. Christians naturally care very much about the teaching and example of Christ. But we don't reduce his mission to that level alone because the Gospels do not reduce his mission to that level alone.

Time to End the Lies

"Such an issue is the question of Jewish culpability for the death of Christ. I would like to see Christianity grow and flourish in the United States, but with one essential caveat: that such growth does not come at the expense of Judaism. Our Christian evangelical brethren are choosing to use "The Passion" as a tool for promoting the gospel, even though it falsely portrays the Jews as demanding the death of Jesus amid intense Roman reticence."

1. What historic evidence is there that American Evangelicalism has ever flourished at the expense of American Judaism? If you compare the situation of European Jews with the situation of American Jews, the opposite seems to be very much in view.

2. The use of the definite article (THE Jews) is Boteach's choice. No reasonable man or woman would assume that a book or movie that depicts some Jews who lived 2000 years ago is automatically referring to those who identify themselves as Jews in the 21C. Is the first thing that comes to mind when a Christian reads the Gospels or views TPOTC the image of, say, an investment banker who works in upper Manhattan? Boteach is guilty of mirror-reading.

"Medved has dismissed charges of anti-Semitism in the movie by saying that in the film "some of the bad guys are Jewish, some of the really bad guys are Roman, and virtually all of the good guys are Jewish." Remarkably, he neglects to mention that all the Jewish 'good guys' are Jewish followers of Jesus, in other words, Christians, while the throngs calling for Jesus to be executed are Pharisaic Jews, from whom all modern Jews descend."

1. Yes, it is true that in both the Gospels and the movie, Messianic Jews, not to mention the Messiah himself, are presented as the good guys. So what? Pharisees and Sadducees cast themselves as the good guys, and Messianic Jews as the bad guys. The objection is symmetrical and convertible.

For that matter, Pharisees cast themselves as the good guys, and Sadducees as the bad guys—while Sadducees returned the compliment by trading white hats and black hats. In the meantime, the Essenes cast themselves as the good guys while casting both the Pharisees and Sadducees as the bad guys. That's the way it goes whenever you have a conflict with opposing sides.

2. Do all modern Jews descend from Pharisaic Jews? First of all, that blurs the distinction between ethnic and religious Jews. There is, for example, a broad distinction between the descendents of Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews. Moreover, the degree to which modern-day Jews are affiliated with Pharisaic Jews ranges along an extremely wide continuum, viz., Ultra-Orthodox>Orthodox>Conservative>Reform>Reconstructionist>Marxist. Boteach is indulging in sweeping equivocations. He knows the lay of the land far better than I, so he is quite capable of drawing all the necessary distinctions if he wanted to. But that would spoil his straw man argument.

"People like me who protest "The Passion"'s portrayal of the Jews as being responsible for Jesus' death do so simply to end a 2000-year-old defamatory lie and refute the world’s first blood libel, that the Jews killed the founder of Christianity."

1. Note, once again, the gratuitous introduction and imputation of the definite article (THE Jews). Boteach imagines that TPOTC is pointing an accusatory finger directly at him; if any finger is wagging in his face, that is only because he is gazing into a mirror and waging a finger at the image contained therein. Naturally the finger points back at himself. But he's the one who treats TPOTC as a mirror--like a cat that starts a fight with its own reflection.

That, of course, raises interesting questions. He acts like a man with a guilty conscience. Wonder why?

"But I wonder why such wholesome entertainment must necessary involve first-century Jewry taking sadistic and demonic delight at the brutal torture of Jesus by the Romans and demanding from Pontius Pilate, the Saddam Hussein of the ancient Middle-East, to have Jesus nailed up to two planks of wood."

1. "Sadistic" and "demonic" are, again, his epithets. Most of the Jewish establishment wanted Jesus dead. Stoning failed, and they couldn't execute him on their own authority, so they turn him over to Pilate. They leveled a political charge. Crucifixion was a standard punishment for political prisoners who were not Roman citizens.

Some of the Jewish authorities may also have favored this form of punishment because it would publicly humiliate and discredit a religious rival. This isn't a case of sadistic or demonic delight, but cool calculation.

2. Having said all that, fallen humanity has a streak of cruelty. Are Westerns racist because they sometimes depict white cowboys lynching innocent victims?

"I’m not sure that many Jews in the audience – particularly those who grew up in American public schools being called ‘Christ-killers’ – will consider that wholesome entertainment."

1. This may explain why some Jews are hypersensitive to the Gospels and TPOTC. I'll just say that I attended public school from K-12, and although I heard some choice epithets, Christ-killer was never one of them.

2. But I don't see how modern-day Jews benefit from being caught in a time-warp. Being haunted by the past blinds them to the present threat, which is not coming from the Church, but the mosque and the college campus.

"No doubt Rabbi Lapin would counter that Gibson is simply following the gospel texts and that it is not for us, as Jews, to tell Christians what to believe. But Gibson has taken a highly selective reading of the gospels. The New Testament says that Pilate was so cruel that he slaughtered a huge group of Galileans who were worshipping in the Temple (Luke 13:1) and that the Pharisees, far from calling for Jesus’ death, had earlier saved his life: "At that very hour some Pharisees came, and said to [Jesus], "Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you." (Luke 13:31) Later, Acts 5 and 23 have the Pharisees saving the lives of both Peter and Paul. Yet there isn’t a hint of this Jewish benevolence toward Christians anywhere in the film."

1. Of course TPOTC is selective. It's a movie about the Passion of Christ. Like, duh. It's not a biography of Pontius Pilate, or even a biography of Jesus Christ.

2. Yes, the NT doesn't paint with a broad brush. The NT has a doctrine of a Jewish remnant, which goes back to the OT.

"I will still not allow the lie that the Jews killed Jesus to go unchallenged. Rabbi Lapin says that such "arrogant and intemperate" opposition "refutes all myths of Jewish intelligence." But that still will not silence me in proving historically and biblically that the Jews did not kill Jesus."

"Rabbi Lapin may be correct. I may be dumb. And I may be arrogant. But I’m not a murderer."

1. More mirror-reading. Who is accusing THE Jews of killing Christ? All Jews—past, present, and future? Who is accusing Bioteach of murder? Why's he so defensive? If a man walked into a police station with a newspaper under his arm and indignantly denied that he had killed the murder victim on the front page, his denial would, if anything, arouse the suspicions of the homicide unit. Innocent men don't volunteer and protest their innocence even before they're arrested or formally charged. Does Boteach know something that I don't know?

2. But, of course, some Jews were responsible for the death of Christ. What is more, they were primarily responsible. And it isn't just the NT that says that. You can find it in the Talmud and Maimonides.

Back to Square One?

"I truly fear that this film may serve to hinder the increasing intimacy that has begun between Christians and Jews."

1. Is this some sort of veiled threat? If Evangelicals don't recant the Gospels, then Jews like Boteach will break off relations with us? With all due respect, this is rather like a patient on life-support threatening to pull the plug unless his physician recants the Hippocratic oath and leaves his profession. Even if the patient carried through on the threat, it is not the physician who would be harmed by that action.

2. The reason Evangelicals defend Jewish survival is not because Evangelicals don't associate modern-day Jews with Biblical Jews, but because they do make such an association. Because Evangelicals believe in a Jewish remnant of the chosen people, they are very protective of Jews.

If Boteach had his way, Americans wouldn't treat Jews any differently than Europeans nowadays do. There goes Israel, and if the Muslims have their way, European and American Jews.

"To be sure, my evangelical friends tell me that they do not blame the Jews for the death of Christ, and that Jesus willingly submitted his life so that humanity might be saved from sin. But this evangelical reading is a version of the Crucifixion portrayed in the Gospel of John, where Jesus is control of the entire Passion narrative. The version that Mel Gibson seems to have highlighted—based on every serious review of the film I have read—is that contained in the Synoptic Gospels, and especially that of Matthew, where the Jews are portrayed as being the principal agitators for the murder of Christ, goading the reluctant Romans into the act of deicide."

1. This is yet another false antithesis. The truth of the matter is that God is the Grand Master, moving the chess pieces. Pilate, Caiaphas, the mob, are all so many pawns in the hand of God. God thinks many moves deep—all the way to checkmate.

2. "Deicide" is Boteach's adjective. It confuses different motives and narrative levels. At the authorial level of the Gospel writers, Christ is God incarnate, so by putting him to death the agent is, in a roundabout sense (communication of attributes), guilty of deicide.

Of course, even the Gospel writers don't use the word "deicide." And they don't attribute that intent to either the Roman or Jewish agents.

The Gospels play off the ironies of different motives and narrative levels. The Christian reader knows exactly who Jesus is. And God has willed this event from start to finish.

The villains don't grasp the full enormity of their crime, although they know enough to be culpable.

"Elsewhere, I have written how this narrative requires elucidation and should not be taken at face value, not only because it is deeply offensive to Jews—Jesus was, after all, one of us—but because it is historically implausible. Pontius Pilate was the cruelest proconsul the Romans ever sent to Judea and he regularly slaughtered thousands of Jews—particularly those who, like Jesus, challenged Roman authority—without even the semblance of a trial."

1. Why should something not be taken at face-value merely because it may be offensive? Many offensive things are true. Has Boteach never heard of an unwelcome truth?

2. Jesus never challenged Roman authority. This is historical revisionism. He challenged the corrupt Jewish establishment.

3. Since Boteach constantly reminds us (as if we didn't already know), indeed, in this very paragraph, that Pilate felt very free to slaughter Jews without due process, how does the absence of a formal trial of Jesus before Pilate invalidate the historicity of the account? Is Boteach listening to himself?

"But even if my evangelical colleagues are correct, and Christians will harbor no ill feeling after seeing the film’s graphic portrayal of the Jews calling for Jesus’ death, I fear that Jews themselves will begin to pull back from their close relationship with Christians, feeling that the terrible lie that we killed the Christian god is being perpetuated."

1. Once again, the collective "we" is a figment of Boteach's mirror-reading. There is, as I've said elsewhere, a distinction between responsibility for killing someone and responsibility for rejecting someone.

"Can Christians understand just how painful it is for Jews to be accused of having murdered (from a Christian perspective) the source of all goodness, the divinity? Can my Christian brothers and sisters understand the deep pain we feel—committed as we have been for more than three thousand years toward a moral and ethical lifestyle—when we are portrayed as reveling in sadistic delight as the Romans savagely beat Jesus?"

1. I can understand why Jews are touchy antisemitism in church history.

2. Moreover, I understand that Boteach is guilty of the very thing he accuses us of. He engages in a smear campaign. He paints with a broad brush. He saddles us with collective guilt. He imputes all manner of odious motives to us.

3. Furthermore, I understand that Boteach has locked himself into a hall of mirrors. He must, in effect, assume responsibility to deny it. He has to see his face at the bottom of the well before he can deny seeing his face at the bottom of the well. For he assumes that we see his face at the bottom of the well.

4. To change metaphors, he's like a man living in a haunted house. He's bolted and double-bolted and boarded over the back door to keep out the ghosts of Christmas past. And while he's busy with the hammer and nails and key-chain, he has his back turned to the front door, which is wide open, with Jihadist suicide-bombers streaming in by the hundreds and thousands and millions.

"I fear that Mel Gibson’s film does not show the other side, how certain passages in the Gospels expressly declare that the Pharisees (progenitors of modern-day Judaism) tried to save Jesus’ life (Luke 13:31), how Gamliel, the leader of all the Pharisees, saved the lives of Peter and the rest of the Apostles from execution by the corrupt high priest, the agent of Rome (Acts 5:33-40), and how the Pharisees even saved the life of Paul, although he was their biggest critic. (Acts 23: 6-9)."

This is another straw man argument. He begins by setting up a one-sided reading of the Passion narratives. Then he opposes to this a one-sided reading of the pre- and post-Passion narratives.

"But the reason for the complete closed-mindedness of Jews toward Jesus is that Jews have simply suffered too much in Jesus’ name to give two cents about what he had to say. Christians historically committed an abomination against the memory of Jesus by turning him into the source of all anti-Semitism. Christians delighted in telling Jews how Jesus said, "You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father's desires," (John 8:44) and that, according to Jesus, Jews are condemned to the damnation of hell (Matthew 23). There was never any balance. They never bothered telling Jews that there was another side of Jesus where he expressly says that Jews are more dear to him than non-Jews (Matt. 10: 5-7; Matt. 15:22-26) and that he was a great lover of his people."

"To be sure, Jews will never accept the divinity or messiahship of Christ, and I am utterly opposed to any Jewish conversions to Christianity, just as am I opposed to Christian conversions to Judaism. I want Jews to be fully observant of the Torah and their own traditions, while not shying away from being enriched by exposure to other faiths. I believe in the authenticity and integrity of both faiths, as they worship G-d in their own way. I believe that G-d made us perfect the way we are, and that every religion that leads to G-dliness and goodliness is authentic."

1. Ah, well, there's the rub--isn't it?! Yes, there are many sides to Jesus, and they're all the same Jesus—Jesus the redeemer, Jesus the judge, Jesus the Christ, Jesus the Son of God. Boteach's version of Jesus is just as unbalanced as what he repudiates or imputes to us.

2. Then he resorts to pluralistic incoherence. Pluralism can only be true if you happen know all some roads converge on the same destination. But if you think you're privy to that God's-eye view, if you think you know where the truth lies and where the truth comes out, then you're really not a pluralist—in which case pluralism is false. Why should a pluralist believe that everyone ends up in the same place? If you're a pluralist, shouldn't you allow for the possibility different roads fork off in different directions and come out in different destinations? Why be a pluralist about the routing, but be a non-pluralist about the destination?

3. Does Boteach also want Muslims to be authentic to their Jihadist tradition? Did God make suicide-bombers perfect just the way they are?

4. How are we enriched by exposure to other religions unless they have some truth we do not? And does not that open up the possibility that one is right and another is wrong?

The Gospel Untruth
Gibson's movie perpetuates the lie that the Jews killed Jesus.

"Mel Gibson's movie "The Passion of Christ" brings to the big screen the New Testament allegation that Jews are possessed of such dark power that they orchestrated the murder of the Creator, something that even Satan was too weak to achieve."

Another straw man argument.

"But I question whether the fact that Gibson's Jesus has dark skin and a big nose is enough to offset the portrayal of Jews as sadistic, deity-murdering devils. But whether or not "The Passion" will excite anti-Semitism, the film should be opposed because it is a lie. Not the innocent, harmless fiction of the Star Wars variety. No, this is analogous to a movie being based on Thomas of Monmouth's "Life of the Martyr William from Norwich" which began the blood libel back in the 12th century."

"Sadistic, deity-murdering devils" are Boteach's coinages. He fashions a scarecrow that he plants in our front yard, then accuses us of scare-tactics.

"The argument that the Jews, rather than the Romans, killed Jesus, rests on one central, absurd premise, namely that Pontius Pilate tried to save Jesus's life but the Jews demanded that he be executed."

Far from being an absurd premise, it makes flawless psychological sense. Pilate is pulled in two different directions. On the one hand, the Jewish authorities level a religious charge: Jesus is guilty of blasphemy for claiming to be divine.

Ordinarily, Pilate would not concern himself with sectarian sqabbles. But in this case, what bothers Pilate is not that the charge is false, but that it might be true—truer than the Jewish authorities could imagine. There's something about being in the presence of Christ that lends a disconcerting plausibility to the charge. So Pilate is afraid to execute Jesus (Jn 19:8).

On the other hand, the Jewish authorities also level a political charge. They threaten to play their trump card by denouncing Pilate to Caesar as a sympathizer of a political revolutionary and rival (19:12). And Pilate is naturally apprehensive of that prospect as well.

So Pilate is conflicted, not over ethical qualms, but fear of the consequences whatever he does. Being a shortsighted pragmatist, he chooses to hazard the less tangible risk ("Is Jesus the Son of God?") over the more tangible risk ("Dare I antagonize Caesar?").

"Pilate said to [the Jews], 'Then what shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ?' They all said, 'Let him be crucified.'... so Pilate took water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, 'I am innocent of this man's blood; see to it yourselves.' And all the people answered, 'His blood be on us and on our children'" (Matthew 27:22)."

"These verses are cheap forgeries, contradicted by all serious history of the time and by other verses in the New Testament itself. Pilate was known to be one of the cruelest Roman proconsuls ever. He killed thousands of people on an absolute whim. Philo wrote that Pilate was an "unbending and recklessly hard character. Corruptibility, violence, robberies, ill treatment of the people, grievances, continuous executions without even the form of a trial, endless and intolerable cruelties" were what he was famous for."

That's why he's prepared to execute an innocent man—to save his own skin. He wants at all cost to avoid another diplomatic incident which will be whispered in Caesar's ear.

" In 'Antiquities,' Josephus relates that Pilate's excessive murders and brutality eventually got him recalled to Rome. One can only imagine how villainous a ruler he would have to be for even the brutal Romans to consider him too harsh. The idea that he fought to spare the life of a Jew who allowed himself to be called King of the Jews (Matt. 27:11, Mark 15:2, Luke 23:3) and who was rebelling against Roman authority is not just unreasonable but ridiculous. The further idea that Pilate would take orders from the Jews about who should live and who should die is not just implausible but laughable."

1. Aside from the fact that what Josephus says is perfectly compatible with the Gospel accounts, even if these sources were incompatible, why choose Josephus over the Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John? Josephus was a Roman collaborator, writing to ingratiate himself and his defeated people with his imperial overlords.

2. Of course, Pilate was not taking orders from the Jews. This is a caricature. Rather, Pilate was buckling under coercive pressure. He could not afford any innuendo of divided loyalties and subversive sympathies making their way through the rumor mill to the imperial capitol.

"Hyam Maccoby's brilliant book "The Mythmaker" demonstrates how shortly after the death of Jesus a concerted effort was made to curry favor with the Roman authorities by implicating the Jews and exonerating the Romans in Jesus's and his disciples' deaths. But the haphazard and unprofessional editing effort left much of the original and authentic story intact in the New Testament, like the fact that the Pharisees had earlier saved Jesus's life (Luke 13:31), and that the leader of all the Pharisees, Gamliel, saved Peter and the rest of the Apostles from execution by the corrupt High Priest, an appointee and agent of Rome (Acts 5:33-40)."

"The deliberate effort on the part of New Testament editors to slander the Jews by accusing them of the murderous intentions of others is further evidenced by Paul's story of how the Syrian King Aretus, an ally of Rome, tried to kill him for proselytizing in Damascus and how he was saved by being lowered in a basket (II Corinthians 11:32-33). Amazingly, when the exact same story is retold in the book of Acts (9:22-25), it is now the Jews who are trying to kill Paul. The great underlying secret of the New Testament, and what its later anti-Semitic falsifiers tried so desperately to bury, was that Jesus hated not the Jews, but the Romans. He tried to overthrow the authority not of the rabbis-–among whose number he counted himself-–but the Romans, whom he detested and despised for their cruelty and paganism."

Secret, huh? If it's so secret, how come he knows about it? This is nothing more than a fanciful just-so story that must impugn the integrity of the very evidence on which it selectively relies. Such paranoia bears an ironic resemblance to the antisemitic methods of the International Jewish Conspiracy.

1 comment:

  1. Many Thanks for your nice blog. I will come back.
    I wanted just to mention an interesting site about Religions. With more than 500 pages, Religion News and Articles:Religion Universe: Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Taoism (Daoism) and many others