By Pastor Jeff Fox-Kline
Yesterday, I spent some time exploring Pontius Pilate. I enjoyed being able to take some time to reflect on how he was presented in John’s gospel and to try to see what could be learned from the man who condemned Jesus to the cross.
But there was an elephant in the room that I want to discuss.
John 18:33, 35
33 Pilate said to them, “Take him yourselves and judge him according to your law.” The Jews replied, “We are not permitted to put anyone to death.”
35 Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?”
There are more examples but I want to emphatically denounce any interpretation of this text that uses it to promote anti-semitism. This passage uses language that is inflammatory, dangerous, and painful.
I keep thinking about the movie “The Passion of the Christ”, and the ways in which the narrative of Jews being solely responsible for Christ’s death has been shaped by this passage, and others like it.
I’m going to talk about that movie for a moment, because I think it exemplifies the sort of insidious antisemitism that this passage foments.
The movie is a retelling of the passion narrative, Jesus’ arrest, trials, sentencing, crucifixion, and death. It goes into gruesome detail as it demonstrates the brutality of crucifixion and seeks to bring that awful moment to life. It was enormously popular and was for a time the highest grossing R-rated film in history. I saw it in theaters and was moved to tears by it in 2004 when it came out. I have since soured on the film but understand that there are people who swear by it, have been transformed by it, and see it as a reliable exposition of their faith.
The film treats Jewish people as evil, bloodthirsty monsters seeking the destruction of Jesus with glee and eagerness. It flattens out the Roman characters and sharpens the ‘bad’ Jews into gross stereotypes.
The Anti-Defamation League issued a statement about the Passion of the Christ, and they said:
"We were saddened and pained to find that "The Passion of the Christ" continues its unambiguous portrayal of Jews as being responsible for the death of Jesus. There is no question in this film about who is responsible. At every single opportunity, Mr. Gibson's film reinforces the notion that the Jewish authorities and the Jewish mob are the ones ultimately responsible for the Crucifixion."
"The images there show Romans who behave with compassion toward Jesus. The Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, constantly expresses his reticence to harm Jesus. The Jews, on the other hand, are depicted as blood-thirsty. The Jewish High Priest, Caiaphas, is shown as bullying Pilate, and the hundreds and hundreds of amassed Jews demanding Jesus' death."
Jewish people are not responsible for Jesus’ death. Power, sin, evil and fear did. These are attitudes that transcend ethnic or religious identification, and to identify those characteristics with any one peoples is a sin.
In my sermon, I portrayed Pontius Pilate as a reluctant killer of Jesus. As much as I don’t want to state what I believe is obvious, I want to be crystal clear that I in no way want to portray him as faultless, or that his actions were in any way acceptable or out of his hands. In the sermon I had him blame others for the horrible decision he made. I had him blame ‘the people’, the system, the laws, the reputation, the need for power. While he did (in my telling) blame the people, which would in this passage indicate the Jewish leaders at the time, I want to be emphatic that the character of Pontius Pilate was projecting his own insecurity to absolve himself of the evil he committed. He was wrong. He was to blame. He, and Herod, and the reality of powerful people seeking to retain influence and authority.
In the sermon, Pilate said “I know what you’re thinking, and you’re wrong. I’m a good person. I AM a good person. I couldn’t help it. They made me do it. It’s their fault. I’m a good person. They’re the ones to blame. They’re bad, not me”.
That’s wrong. Pilate was wrong, and anyone who uses this passage to justify their antisemitism is wrong. Full stop.
Thanks for reading.
Pastor Jeff Fox-Kline