Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" was criticised for its depiction of the Jews and their role in the crucifiction of Jesus
Most people are aware that Christianity has a long and shameful history of antisemitism. The primary motif of traditional anti-Jewish attitudes has been that the Jews were responsible for the death of Christ. In the Bible, St. Paul says that the Jews “killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out, and displease God and oppose all men by hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles that they may be saved.” He adds that “God's wrath has come upon them at last!” (1 Thessalonians 2:14-16). Elsewhere, Jesus says to the Jews, “You are of your father the devil” (John 8:44).
In 2004, this theme was revived by Mel Gibson in his film The Passion of the Christ, which reignited the debate about Christian antisemitism in the West. However, most people remain unaware of the orthodox Islamic view on this subject, which states that the Jews themselves openly boasted that they had killed Christ. The Qur’an says:
That they [i.e. the Jews] said in boast, ‘We killed Christ Jesus the son of Mary, the Messenger of Allah’;- but they killed him not, nor crucified him, but so it was made to appear to them, and those who differ therein are full of doubts, with no (certain) knowledge, but only conjecture to follow, for of a surety they killed him not. (4:157)
Traditional Muslim commentators emphasise that the Jews gloated over the crucifixion of Jesus – who is revered by Muslims as a prophet – unaware that they had in fact been deceived by Allah. For example, the revered Muslim scholar Ibn Kathir (d.1373) provided the following explanation of this verse:
When Allah sent Isa (Jesus) with proofs and guidance, the Jews – may Allah’s curses, anger, torment, and punishment be upon them – envied him because of his prophethood and obvious miracles…the Jews defied him…and tried their best to harm him…they went to the King of Damascus…They told him there was a man…misguiding and dividing the people in Jerusalem and stirring unrest among the king’s subjects. The king became angry and wrote to his deputy in Jerusalem to arrest the rebel leader, stop him from causing unrest, crucify him and make him wear a crown of thorns. When the king’s deputy in Jerusalem received these orders, he went with some Jews to the house that Isa was residing in, and he was with twelve, thirteen, or seventeen of his companions. That day was a Friday, in the evening. They surrounded Isa in the house, and when he felt that they would soon enter the house or that he would sooner or later have to leave it, he said to his companions, ‘Who volunteers to be made to look like me, for which he will be my companion in Paradise?’ A young man volunteered…Allah made the young man look exactly like Isa, while a hole opened in the roof of the house, and Isa was made to sleep and ascended to heaven while asleep…When Isa ascended, those who were in the house came out. When those surrounding the house saw the man who looked like Isa, they thought that he was Isa. So they took him at night, crucified him and placed a crown of thorns on his head. The Jews boasted that they killed Isa and some Christians accepted their false claim due to their ignorance and lack of reason.
A related Qur’anic verse says: “And there is none of the People of the Book but must believe in him before his death; and on the Day of Judgment he will be a witness against them.” (4:159) Ibn Kathir’s commentary elaborates on the classical Muslim view of the End Times, in which Jesus, who is merely a Muslim prophet who preached Islam, returns to “break the cross, kill the pig, and banish the jizya [Qur’anic poll-tax signifying a non-Muslim's subjugation under Islamic rule] and call all the people to Islam.”
This view of Jesus as the destroyer of Christianity is based on a number of hadith. For example: “Allah's Apostle [Muhammad] said, 'By Him in Whose Hands my soul is, son of Mary (Jesus) will shortly descend amongst you people (Muslims) as a just ruler and will break the Cross and kill the pig and abolish the Jizya'...” (Sahih Bukhari v.3, b.34, no.425). Another tradition puts it even more bluntly: “He [Jesus] will descend to the earth...He will fight the people for the cause of Islam. He will break the cross, kill swine, and abolish jizya. Allah will perish all religions except Islam.” (Sunan Abu Dawud b.37, no.4310)
Ibn Kathir's commentary also discusses the Muslim Jesus' role in defeating the Dajjal (the Muslim equivalent of the Antichrist), and quotes the following hadith describing Muslims waging a genocide of the Jews at the end of the world:
The last hour would not come unless the Muslims will fight against the Jews and the Muslims would kill them until the Jews would hide themselves behind a stone or a tree and a stone or a tree would say: Muslim, or the servant of Allah, there is a Jew behind me; come and kill him. (Sahih Muslim b.41, no.6985, and others)
The apocalyptic narrative regarding Jesus' return is reiterated in the important manual of Islamic law, Reliance of the Traveller: “[T]he time and place for [the poll tax is] before the final descent of Jesus…After his final coming, nothing but Islam will be accepted from them, for taking the poll tax is only effective until Jesus’ descent…The coming of Jesus does not entail a separate divinely revealed law, for he will rule by the law of Muhammad.”
The modern teachings and pronouncements of the Catholic Church stand in stark relief. For example, the Second Vatican Council of 1965 definitively rejected the idea that the Jews were responsible for the killing of Christ, and that they are all accursed as a result:
True, the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ; still, what happened in His passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today. Although the Church is the new people of God, the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures.
This was a much-needed decree of reform, repudiating long-standing prejudices in favour of progressive thought and tolerance, and was later adopted by other sects, as well. While antisemitism still exists among Christians, a slow process of Christian-Jewish rapprochement has begun. A document entitled The Jewish People and Their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible, published by the Pontifical Biblical Commission in 2001, includes a foreword by the former Pope Benedict XVI (then Cardinal Ratzinger) in which he candidly writes: “Did not the presentation of the Jews and of the Jewish people, in the New Testament itself, contribute to creating a hostility to this people which the ideology of those who wanted to suppress it has encouraged?” The document honestly admits that many passages in the New Testament that are critical of the Jews “served as a pretext for anti-Jewish sentiment and, effectively, have been used for this purpose”. The current pope, Francis I, has also issued a proclamation urging rejection of antisemitism and exhorting followers of the Church to hold the Jewish people “in special regard”.
But there have been no such formal attempts at honest reformation of antisemitic doctrines in the Islamic world. Muslim leaders, particularly in the Near East, continue to oppose the Vatican’s pronouncements. For example, the famous Muslim cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi berated the Church for exonerating the Jews of this “crime”, saying in 2006: “As we can see, the Qur'an held the Jews of the Prophet Muhammad's time responsible for what their forefathers did...Therefore, I say that the Jews of the twenty-first century adopt what the Jews of the first century did...and so they bear responsibility for it, unless they renounce it, saying: This was a crime, and we ask Allah to absolve us of it. But they have not said this, and therefore, the Jews of today bear responsibility for the deeds of the Jews of yesterday.”
It is unfortunate that basic Islamic theology regarding the “deicide” allegation is little-known in the West. This is due to a combination of simple ignorance and cynical, manipulative obfuscation. The difference between modern Christian and Muslim attitudes towards the Christ-killing motif, and conceptions of the Jews and Jesus in general, couldn’t be more marked. Religious leaders, as well as policy-makers, academics and the media, must begin to discuss these differences honestly, if we are to have any real success with serious, meaningful “interfaith dialogue” between Muslims, Jews and Christians.