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May 15, 2015 1:27 pm

Journalism Tackles ‘The Problem With Good Friday’ and an Episcopal Priest Responds

avatar by Bernard Starr

Email a copy of "Journalism Tackles ‘The Problem With Good Friday’ and an Episcopal Priest Responds" to a friend

Ecce Homo ("Crucify Him") by Mihály Munkácsy. Photo: 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 antisemitic 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 antisemitic 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.

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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.”

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  • Chip Grant

    My name is Chip Grant. I am the Director of Music and the liturgy for the production in question which we presented almost one year ago. “The Passion: According to St. John the Evangelist” was my production and our Artists-in-Residence, Lacuna Arts Ensemble, joined with the Parish Choir of the Episcopal Church of St. Mary the Virgin for the production. We used Schütz’s Johannes Passion and set it within the Good Friday liturgy. The evening service was actually designed to at least even the balance of blame that goes with the crucifixion tale, if not completely redirect the blame by pointing out that “Jesus” was killed by Rome in a Roman style execution. The character “Jesus” is forsaken not only by the Jews but by everyone: the “occupying force” which controlled his country, his religion, his followers, his friends, and even those who were practically family to him. We hoped to show that stories similar to the crucifixion happen every single day and that this story is really not “new news.”

    I have to admit that I was very hurt by some of the assumptions that were made and that sadly Mr. Kleyman missed the point of where we were going with the story. Perhaps it would have helped him if he had heard the Palm Sunday sermon the week before by our Associate, where she set up the harsh reality of the time period for the Hebrew people.

    One important fact that has not been highlighted was that we set the story in contemporary clothes, nothing too specific however. (I find “Bible clothes” the quickest way to lose an audience.) Another bit of interest is that the audience moved with the characters throughout the production. It was not static and they had no idea that the person who was standing next to them may have been a cast member. It was kind of like a flash mob and a living narration have a baby.

    Our presentation bent over backwards to show that, unlike other English chant-settings of the Gospel presented on Good Friday in countless churches with horrible finger-pointing musical cadences, “The Jews.” I actually refused to sing or present that setting. We strove to highlight that it was Pilate who was to blame for this particular execution, hopefully trying to right the wrongs of thousands of years of misinterpretation.

    We used a spoken narration in English taken from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible as that is the version that is appointed to be read by The Episcopal Church. Ver translation (instead of the German recit.). To set up the fact that there were many languages being spoken by the people in the story and that perhaps some things got lost in translation, we left the Jews and the soldiers musical responses in the original German; trusting that these brief interjections would be familiar enough to an audience attending a Good Friday event that they would be able to fill in the blanks or at least get the gist.

    For lack of a better word, in our “site-integrated opera”, we intentionally set out to show that the Jews had been and were still “occupied” by their Roman oppressors and that some members of the Sanhedrin were “more than friendly” with Rome — perhaps for self-preservation reasons. We dressed Annas and his son-in-law Caiaphas in blue robes with a bullet proof vest over the front. (No judgements, just a little more history than you get from St. John the Evangelist.) This was to signal to our modern audience that there may have been some danger to them from the masses. We walked with this arrested man called “Jesus” through his hearings before the first priest who was appointed by Rome to his son-in-law, then pass his friend “Peter” who denies knowing him, into the church again where we see a man in a smartly tailored suit … and another bullet-proof vest, just like the ones we had seen outside. My direction to “Pilate” was to have him be played as a General Petraeus type, early in the campaign in Afghanistan, and in comes some smart mouthed “muslim” who has seemingly no respect for authority and who is talking all of this “king talk.” I said, it is almost Ramadan and you want to get this buttoned up.” The parallels, though not perfect, are hopefully being clear enough for readers of this response to follow. I definitely did not want Pilate to wax Socratic at the line “What is truth?” Rather I wanted to use the words printed in the Bible and see if it worked to have Pilate be hostile toward “Jesus” and Mr. Personality when he climbed the steps of the pulpit to address the people (who respond in German, remember). Pilate works the crowd up into a lather, it is like a school board meeting gone bad with people jumping up all over the place with Heinrich Schütz’s polyphonic entrances. It was Passover so the Jewish leaders, dressed in the blue robes, sang their objections from the balcony … they would not have been down mixing with the People, they had Passover details to attend to after all but they were able to lob over a protest or two.

    We also did something quite scandalous. There was a passage that I could not figure out how to stage, where the Roman soldiers, dressed in military looking shirts and garrison caps, two men and two women (written by Schütz SATB) mock “Jesus.” I understood the fast section but the up tempo ending was preceded with a very slow deliberate section. Then, I got it. They were Roman soldiers, it as a Roman salute (pre-Adolf Hitler remember). That really muddied the waters for everyone. We were looking at that vial gesture through 21st Century eyes. Up until the 20th Century no one would have thought twice about the salute, but it does color the making fun of Jesus very clearly. Thankfully they were not Arians but rather Asians. (I don’t think any of us could have stood it if the soldiers had been cast differently.) It was the music that suggested it. I may not be 100% comfortable with my choice (remember is was designed to make everyone a little uncomfortable) but the music suggested the blocking. I would have imagined a “mocking” section as fast only. It was Schütz who put the idea in my head!

    Finally, Jesus does go up to the stripped altar in the church and dies a simply stylized death. Two people come and take his body according to the gospel writer, a man called Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus (a member of the Sanhedrin) dressed in his blue robe but this time unbuttoned, and trying not to be seen. The body is taken out, the door to the sacristy slams, and that is Good Friday. “Have a nice ride home folks!” No “old rugged cross,” no Christian flag, just an altar that now doesn’t even have a body there.

    We then sang “What language shall I borrow, to thank thee dearest friend” to the familiar tune from Bach’s St. Matthew Passion and closed with “Crucifixus” by Antonio Lotti, sung by all of the choirs in the room. Its translation: “Crucified under Pontius Pilate.”

    Please know that my heart was in the right place. I am so on your side of this. I refer you to Passion stories put on in Memphis that dress the Sanhedrin up in blue robes with horns!!! (I am not kidding.) It is my sincere hope not to be in that boat.

    Chip Grant

  • Chip Grant

    My name is Chip Grant. I am the Director of Music and the liturgy in question. “The Passion: According to St. John the Evangelist” was mine. The project, which combined not only Lacuna Arts Ensemble but also the Parish Choir of the Episcopal Church of St. Mary the Virgin was actually designed to even the balance of blame that goes with the crucifixion tale and to point out that “Jesus” was killed by Rome in a Roman style execution. The character “Jesus” is forsaken by everyone: the “occupying force” which controlled his country, his religion, his followers, his friends, and even those who were practically family to him. We hoped to show that stories similar to the crucifixion happen every single day and that this story is really not “new news.”

    I have to admit that I was very hurt by some of the assumptions that were made and that sadly Mr. Kleyman missed the point of where we were going with the story. Perhaps it would have helped him if he had heard the Palm Sunday sermon the week before by our Associate, where she set up the harsh reality of the time period for the Hebrew people.

    One important fact that has not been highlighted was that we set the story in contemporary clothes, nothing too specific however. (I find “Bible clothes” the quickest way to lose an audience.) Another bit of interest is that the audience moved with the characters throughout the production. It was not static and they had no idea that the person who was standing next to them may have been a cast member. It was kind of like a flash mob and a living narration have a baby.

    Our presentation bent over backwards to show that, unlike other English chant-settings of the Gospel presented on Good Friday in countless churches with horrible finger-pointing musical cadences, “The Jews.” I actually refused to sing or present that setting. We strove to highlight that it was Pilate who was to blame for this particular execution, hopefully trying to right the wrongs of thousands of years of misinterpretation.

    We used a spoken narration in English taken from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible as that is the version that is appointed to be read by The Episcopal Church. Ver translation (instead of the German recit.). To set up the fact that there were many languages being spoken by the people in the story and that perhaps some things got lost in translation, we left the Jews and the soldiers musical responses in the original German; trusting that these brief interjections would be familiar enough to an audience attending a Good Friday event that they would be able to fill in the blanks or at least get the gist.

    For lack of a better word, in our “site-integrated opera”, we intentionally set out to show that the Jews had been and were still “occupied” by their Roman oppressors and that some members of the Sanhedrin were “more than friendly” with Rome — perhaps for self-preservation reasons. We dressed Annas and his son-in-law Caiaphas in blue robes with a bullet proof vest over the front. (No judgements, just a little more history than you get from St. John the Evangelist.) This was to signal to our modern audience that there may have been some danger to them from the masses. We walked with this arrested man called “Jesus” through his hearings before the first priest who was appointed by Rome to his son-in-law, then pass his friend “Peter” who denies knowing him, into the church again where we see a man in a smartly tailored suit … and another bullet-proof vest, just like the ones we had seen outside. My direction to “Pilate” was to have him be played as a General Petraeus type, early in the campaign in Afghanistan, and in comes some smart mouthed “muslim” who has seemingly no respect for authority and who is talking all of this “king talk.” I said, it is almost Ramadan and you want to get this buttoned up.” The parallels, though not perfect, are hopefully being clear enough for readers of this response to follow. I definitely did not want Pilate to wax Socratic at the line “What is truth?” Rather I wanted to use the words printed in the Bible and see if it worked to have Pilate be hostile toward “Jesus” and Mr. Personality when he climbed the steps of the pulpit to address the people (who respond in German, remember). Pilate works the crowd up into a lather, it is like a school board meeting gone bad with people jumping up all over the place with Heinrich Schütz’s polyphonic entrances. It was Passover so the Jewish leaders, dressed in the blue robes, sang their objections from the balcony … they would not have been down mixing with the People, they had Passover details to attend to after all but they were able to lob over a protest or two.

    We also did something quite scandalous. There was a passage that I could not figure out how to stage, where the Roman soldiers, dressed in military looking shirts and garrison caps, two men and two women (written by Schütz SATB) mock “Jesus.” I understood the fast section but the up tempo ending was preceded with a very slow deliberate section. Then, I got it. They were Roman soldiers, it as a Roman salute (pre-Adolf Hitler remember). That really muddied the waters for everyone. We were looking at that vial gesture through 21st Century eyes. Up until the 20th Century no one would have thought twice about the salute, but it does color the making fun of Jesus very clearly. Thankfully they were not Arians but rather Asians. (I don’t think any of us could have stood it if the soldiers had been cast differently.) It was the music that suggested it. I may not be 100% comfortable with my choice (remember is was designed to make everyone a little uncomfortable) but the music suggested the blocking. I would have imagined a “mocking” section as fast only. It was Schütz who put the idea in my head!

    Finally, Jesus does go up to the stripped altar in the church and dies a simply stylized death. Two people come and take his body according to the gospel writer, a man called Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus (a member of the Sanhedrin) dressed in his blue robe but this time unbuttoned, and trying not to be seen. The body is taken out, the door to the sacristy slams, and that is Good Friday. “Have a nice ride home folks!” No “old rugged cross,” no Christian flag, just an altar that now doesn’t even have a body there.

    We then sang “What language shall I borrow, to thank thee dearest friend” to the familiar tune from Bach’s St. Matthew Passion and closed with “Crucifixus” by Antonio Lotti, sung by all of the choirs in the room. Its translation: “Crucified under Pontius Pilate.”

    Please know that my heart was in the right place. I am so on your side of this. I refer you to Passion stories put on in Memphis that dress the Sanhedrin up in blue robes with horns!!! (I am not kidding.) It is my sincere hope not to be in that boat.

    Chip Grant

  • hadassa

    So, Professor Starr, did Rev. Richardson go on to remove the anti-Semitic sections of the Passion play performed at his church? You didn’t specify. The reverend makes some very nice statements about staff meetings and a summer forum, but what was the upshot of those talkfests?

  • art

    in many churches Jews are depicted as brutish, subhumans in the stations of the Cross. Similarly in many statutes Jews are again depicted as vile subhumans. It feeds anti Semitism

  • Julian Clovelley

    If one is trying to come to grips with the antisemitism built into Christianity one would do well to start with a highly significant verse in Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. Quoting the crucial verses:

    “For I received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you, that the Lord Jesus in the night in which he was betrayed took bread; and when he had given thanks, he brake it, and said, This is my body, which is for you: this do in remembrance of me. In like manner also the cup, after supper, saying, This cup is the new covenant in my blood: this do, as often as ye drink it, in remembrance of me.” (1 Corinthians 11 23-24)

    The crucial words are easily missed – they are the first three, “For I received”. Whether Paul himself existed as portrayed in the Bible is as dubious as Jesus’s own Bible presented image, but what we have here is a tacit admission by the Pauline Church in the Turkish Province of the Roman Empire, that details of the Passion narrative were received through “prophetic” – or “inspirational” means, and since such means do not exist to a rational man, they are an admission that details of the Passion narrative are pure invention. Look a little closer, and the hint is there that the invention includes the action, and likely even the person, of Judas Iscariot

    When we go further, and look at the Passion narrative in the Bible, we find other instances of obvious invention. The character of Pilate is clearly an attempt to exculpate the Romans of the guilt of executing Jesus, and to blame it on the shouting “Jews”. The story of Barabbas is obvious fiction in that there was no such tradition of releasing a prisoner. The trial before the Sanhedrin during Passover is highly unlikely to have happened, and the assertion that the Jews could not have sentenced Jesus to death quite wrong – He could have been stoned for Blasphemy. Most likely the Sanhedrin would have told him to shut up and stop rocking the boat. Jesus was far from being the only eccentric itinerant preacher

    In the New Testament a crucial account is missing. It is “Paul’s” own account of the life and death of Jesus. And yet it is totally unreasonable to suggest that there wasn’t one – even if it was an oral tradition. “Paul’s Gospe” is the probable missing source of all the Gospels, for the Pauline letters are known to predate the Gospels – none of which were credibly written by eyewitnesses

    I think that if one takes into account the obvious recorded opposition to Paulism on the part of the Judean followers of the way it all points in the direction that the creation of the Christian myth that became the religion we now know, was either “Paul” or the Paulist church in Asia Minor

    The cause then – and I fear the intractability – of the built in antisemitism, likely occurred in an environment of competing religions – Judaism itself being a competitor. The Eucharist demonstrates the ideological breach with Judaism – it is an anti-kosher ceremony in which blood is symbolically consumed – unlikely in the extreme to be authentic. Judaism was most in the position to demonstrate the lack of authenticity in the account that evolved, over decades, into the Four Gospels, which by the time of the Gospel of John – a religious tract dating some seventy years after Jesus’s supposed death – had become firmly antisemitic

    There is much more that could be said – Items that Jews themselves might find disturbing, such as to what degree was there a real Judean exile under the Romans? – It would have been a unique measure – and rather pointless, since Jews already lived throughout the empire. Just how much of our standard approach to First century CE history is really back written Christian propaganda the wide ranging Diaspora being the “punishment” of the Jews – also backwritten as a virtual prophecy in the Gospels

    That is the elephant in the room. It is also all so unanswerable within our traditional religious understanding, that for many of us the only sensible recourse is to walk away from such racist nonsense.

    For the world to move forward into a more compassionate age and for humanity to be reconciled the most important people are the “de-mythologisers” – people like the late Hyam Maccoby, Brandon, Mack, Spong, and Shlomo Sand amongst many other scholars

    Antisemitism belongs to the past. It should never have survived the Enlightenment. But nor too should so many myths that undermine our ability to create a rational morality – including, I put it to you, the myth of the Jewish people itself. I did my bit long ago – I walked away from the controlling myth that my parents passed on to me and placed a division between brother and brother. It was painful but essential. Sanity lay outside the walls of irrationality, mythology, and superstition, my parents and their own ancestors had built

    How are you guys doing? Peace

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