The Rev. Robert Smith believes he has a message that needs to be heard.
Smith – rector of St. Mark’s Church in Perryville, Md., and author of what he calls “a Passion play from a different perspective” – contends that it “was never the intent of Jewish leaders to see Jesus of Nazareth crucified. ” Indeed, Smith says, “They tried to prevent it.”
The minister, who was born in Englewood and ordained in 1976 at Christ Church in Teaneck, said that growing up with many Jewish friends taught him a great deal about Judaism and about the effects of Christian teachings on his friends’ families.
For those whose parents or grandparents had hailed from Eastern Europe, “Good Friday was never very good,” he said. These friends, he said, “made me aware of what the impact of these texts really are.”
Still, he noted, having lived all of his life as a Christian, “with the four Gospels and the story of the trial and death of Jesus, I knew something didn’t add up. From the very beginning, I wanted to understand more about them.”
His subsequent research – including not only textual sources but study sessions with prominent rabbis such as the late Isaac Swift and Arthur Hertzberg, both in Englewood at the time – helped him better understand the Jewish origins of Christianity and the Second Temple period.
|What: The Inquiry: A New Look at the Death of Jesus
When: Nov. 20, 2 p.m.
Where: Kaplen JCC on the Palisades
Tickets: (201) 408 -1458, or www.jccotp.org.
Information: (201) 408-1426
“I was blessed in knowing those two rabbis,” he said. “I would make an appointment and ask them deep questions. I’m very grateful for their kindness, hospitality, and learnedness.”
The controversy surrounding Mel Gibson’s movie “The Passion of the Christ” prompted Smith to write his own play, “The Inquiry: A Story of the Passion of Jesus.” A staged reading of the work will take place at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades on Nov. 20.
“The Gibson picture is so inaccurate,” said Smith, noting that he boycotted the film. “Anyone who knows the history of the times, and what could and could not have been, can see that it’s egregiously unhistorical.”
His research, Smith said, pointed him toward a more likely version of events surrounding the death of Jesus, presenting a scenario “exactly opposite of the Gibson film. I said, ‘I’ve got to write this thing.'”
“I’ve never been so convinced I’m right,” said Smith.
His “aha” moment came when he discovered particular wording in the midrashic account of an attack on Lydda two centuries after the death of Jesus. (The tale is recounted in both Genesis Rabbah and the Jerusalem Talmud.) Asked to surrender a Jewish man to the invading army, or risk the destruction of the entire city, Rabbi Joshua ben Levi persuaded the man to surrender himself to save others.
“The words were identical to the words used by the high priest Caiaphas according to the Gospel of John,” said Smith, who believes that Jesus was crucified because Pontius Pilate demanded that Caiaphas surrender Jesus as a sacrifice on behalf of all Jews.
Smith, citing teachings in the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Talmud, and the works of Maimonides, noted that “din rodef,” the law of the pursuer, prevents a Jew from “betraying other Jews to gentile oppressors.” Only one exception, the principle of one man suffering for his people, could explain the actions of the high priest, he said.
“I believe that is what happened,” he said, citing passages in the Gospels indicating the reluctance of the Temple police to apprehend Jesus.
“They didn’t have a desire to arrest a popular teacher,” he said, pointing out that only the threat that other Jews would die could counter the law not to turn over a fellow Jew. “It’s in the Gospels,” he said. “You need to dig underneath, but you can find it.”
Caiaphas, Smith came to believe, was reacting to the threat of mass crucifixion. “But he didn’t have the intention that [Jesus] should die,” he said, suggesting that the high priest hoped to win Jesus’ freedom, as well.
His play, he said, depicts that version of events. While fiction, he said, “I believe that this is close, or closer, to what originally happened” than accounts describing crowds calling for Jesus’ execution.
The play, first performed at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, was “well-received by some, criticized by others,” particularly “biblical fundamentalists. Some people believe the Gospels were dropped out of a golden box,” he said. “Fortunately, there are biblical scholars who take a look at the text.”
Smith expressed gratitude to JCC Judaic director Rabbi Steven Golden, who served as technical adviser to the play, as well as to “Golden’s mentor,” Rabbi Isaac Sassoon, for “their great advice, assistance, support, and encouragement” in bringing the story to the Jewish community. The JCC reading, he said, will be launched as an interfaith event.
“I hope it will open the way to more shared scholarship between Jews and Christians and be a plus in Jewish-Christian relations,” he said.
“I find this a well-reasoned treatment of both Pilate and the Jerusalem leadership of Jesus’ day that clearly emanates from an honest re-examination of the ancient sources,” said the JCC’s Golden. “This fresh look at the trial and passion of Jesus is a welcome gift for a generation that teeters on the brink of a precipice.”
Golden said he believes the play “can help create a calm atmosphere in which the synagogue and church can listen to one another, speak to – not at – one another across the barrier. May this play invite all good people of faith to engage in open and fearless dialogue, and unite in prayer for God’s spirit to guide us.”