Reflections, Resources, Reviews, Rants, & Raves


The Blog for 12/21/03-12/27/03

Review: The Passion of the Christ . Is it anti-Semitic? Part 2
Posted at 6:25 p.m., December 27, 2003

So is The Passion of the Christ anti-Semitic? Because it follows the story of Christ's death in the New Testament gospels, it does portray Jewish leaders as seeking to put Jesus to death. The majority of these officials sought to have Jesus killed and prevailed upon the Roman authority in Jerusalem to carry it out. Moreover, the Jewish crowds went along for the ride, just as they did within the New Testament accounts of Jesus' death.

From what I've just said, you might conclude that The Passion of the Christ is, in fact, anti-Semitic. Of course one might defend the making of this film on the basis that it is seeking to represent the unvarnished truth of what happened to Jesus as that truth is presented in the gospels. One might also criticize the film for exactly the same reason. In fact many critics of The Passion of the Christ actually end up arguing, not so much with the filmmaker, as with the writers of the biblical gospels. These early Christians, we are sometimes told, were themselves anti-Jewish, and they smuggled their bias into the story. The real responsibility for Jesus' death, it is alleged, fell upon Roman shoulders alone. I don't have the space here to enter into this debate at length. I would say, simply, that the New Testament accounts of Jewish-Roman collusion are believable, both because of the overall historical integrity of the gospels, and because it makes good historical sense that major Jewish leaders in Jerusalem would want to put Jesus to death.

What The Passion of the Christ does not provide is a rationale for Jewish opposition to Jesus, or the extent to which this rationale is based upon the terrors associated with Roman rule. Of course Gibson didn't set out to tell the larger story of Jesus' life and ministry, so this omission is understandable. But the truth is that Jewish opposition to Jesus wasn't merely about theology. It was also about national self-preservation. Consider the following passage from my book, Jesus Revealed ,

During the years of Roman domination of Judea, many aspiring "messiahs" attempted to fulfill [messianic] hopes . . . by leading rebelliions against Rome and its local minions. At the death of Herod in 4 B.C., for example, anti-Roman revolts erupted throughout the nation, with leaders promoting themselves as God's anointed leaders. In the town of Sepphoris in Galilee, only a few miles from Jesus' hometown of Nazareth, a man named Judas led a makeshift militia in a successful assault against the royal palace. Of course Rome didn't wink at Judas and his gang. Ultimately the Roman army recaptured Sepphoris, taking all of its residents as slaves and burning the city to the ground. At about the same time, another Roman battalion sought out others who had rebelled against the Empire and crucified two thousand rebels ( Jesus Revealed , p. 104).

As Jesus entered Jerusalem in the week prior to his death, he was acknowledged by the crowds as a messianic deliverer. This surely got the attention of the Romans, who didn't take kindly to Jewish messiahs. Moreover, the Jewish leaders who were responsible for protecting a fragile peace with Rome no doubt saw Jesus as a major threat to that peace. If he stirred up the people as Judas once did in Sepphoris, the results would be horrendous.

My point, simply, is that opposition to Jesus from Jewish leaders must be understood within the broader context of Roman domination of Judea. Even though Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, washed his hands of the blood of Jesus, he and the Empire he served cannot be absolved from sharing in the responsibility for the death of Jesus. If I had made The Passion of the Christ , I would have added a scene that implicates the Romans more explicitly.

Having said this, however, I still think that Gibson's film does not blame the Jews nearly so unambiguously as its critics allege. I'll explain what I mean in my next blog.


My book, Jesus Revealed , explains in much greater detail the historical and theological reasons for Jesus' death. For more information on Jesus Revealed, click here.

The January-February edition of Worship Leader magazine is focused on The Passion of the Christ . It includes an extensive interview of Gibson. I have a movie review in this issue. For more information, see the Worship Leader website.

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Call to Action: Helping Victims in Iraq
Posted at 1:16 p.m., December 27, 2003

I have followed Hugh Hewitt's example in donating to World Vision, an outstanding Christian organization that will, once again, take the lead in a crisis. World Vision can be counted on to provide help for victims of the earthquake in Iran, help that is tangible and wisely administered. We have a great opportunity to show the love of Christ to those who are suffering so terribly.

Please join Hugh and me by making a donation to World Vision, which can be done easily online by clicking here.

Thank you! More on The Passion of the Christ later today.

Review: The Passion of the Christ . Is it anti-Semitic? Part 1
Posted at 11:05 p.m. , December 26, 2003

Mel Gibson's soon-to-be-released film, The Passion of the Christ has already stirred up lots of controversy, mostly having to do with its alleged anti-Semitism. Leading Jews and others have criticized the movie, even though many haven't yet seen it. I did have the opportunity to attend an advance screening of The Passion of the Christ, and I watched with special interest to see if, indeed, I detected anti-Semitic implications.


In this blog I will begin to address the question of anti-Semitism in Gibson's film. But before I get into the movie itself, I want to make a couple of preliminary comments.


First, we must understand Jewish fears about The Passion of the Christ in light of history. When Jews feel afraid about this movie, they aren't operating in a vacuum, but in a world that has derided, oppressed, and killed them, often defending these behaviors because "the Jews killed Christ," to put it bluntly. Thus it is understandable why Jews would be concerned that a movie which purports to tell the true story of Jesus' crucifixion is potentially anti-Semitic. Christian responses to Jewish fears should acknowledge our sad history of Christian anti-Judaism, both in thought and in deed. It's a good time for us to say, once again, that hatred of Jews is wrong. Period.


Second, some critics of The Passion of the Christ have pointed, not to the movie itself, but to anti-Semitic statements that Mel Gibson has supposedly made. Whether he said such things or not, I viewed the movie as its own statement. I did not try to read into the film things Gibson has said, about Jews, or even about Jesus. I tried to let the film speak for itself, which it does, with great power.


So, then, what did the film say about the death of Jesus? And did it picture Jewish involvement in that death in a way that could fairly be called anti-Semitic? These questions I'll address in my next blog.




If you're looking for more information about The Passion of the Christ , view the official website by clicking here.


The January-February edition of Worship Leader magazine is focused on The Passion of the Christ . It includes an extensive interview of Gibson. I have a movie review in this issue. For more information, see the Worship Leader website.


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Reflection: Nativity Scenes
Posted at 11:50 a.m., December 26, 2003

Once again this year we engage in the annual holiday debate: Should nativity scenes be displayed on public property or not? New York City has made all of this quite interesting in 2003 by allowing Jewish and Muslim religious symbols, while disallowing Christian nativity scenes. The city's arguments defending this peculiar bias are quite novel, albeit silly. (See the WorldNetDaily story.)

I'm not going to weigh in on this debate, though I personally believe that our secular culture would be enriched by a variety of religious symbols and recognitions. But I do want to add a good word for putting up nativity scenes where they are unrestricted.

I have a rather large nativity scene on the roof of my home (see picture). It takes me about a day each year to put it up and take it down. I do this partly because I love nativity scenes, but also because I want to make a tasteful statement about the true meaning of Christmas. I was delighted a couple of years ago when a Jewish family down the street told me they like my nativity scene. It didn't offend them in the least that I celebrated my faith in such a public way on private property.

I wish others would put up nativity scenes in their yards or in front of their churches. No matter what the state of public displays, we have great freedom in this country to practice our religion, and should take advantage it. Maybe next year you could put up a nativity scene at your home, or organize an effort to do so at your church.

As we get involved in the cultural debate about public nativity scenes, let's also be creative in coming up with new ways to communicate what Christmas is all about to our friends and neighbors.

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Reflection: A Quiet Christmas?
Posted at 11:44 p.m., December 25, 2003

As my Christmas day draws to a close, the house is quiet. My wife and children have gone to bed, as will I in a few minute. The quiet of this moment sounds awfully good to my ears, and to my soul, especially after spending a major portion of this day in a house full of children pumped up with Christmas adrenaline.

In some of my favorite carols we celebrate the quiet of Christmas: "Silent night, holy night." "The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes, but little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes." But this celebration of silence can almost make us forget the reality of Christmas. The Word became flesh, not as a mature adult who knows how to express ideas with words and feelings with calm, but as a real baby who did what all real babies do: cry, and cry some more. No matter how much I love "Away in a Manger," I must recognize that if the cattle really woke up the baby Jesus with their lowing, it's likely that he howled just like any other newborn infant.

My point here is not to dump on my beloved carols. Rather, I want to warn us against the tendency so to romanticize the birth of Christ that we begin to gnosticize our faith. Gnosticism, an ancient religious-philosophical movement that plagued early Christianity and has made quite a comeback in today's world, includes the fundamental denial of the incarnation, the "in-flesh-ment" of Christ. The gnostic baby Jesus wouldn't cry, just as the gnostic adult Jesus really didn't suffer on the cross. The Jesus of the New Testament, the real baby born in the stable, was a fully human being who cried real tears and suffered real pain. If anything, Christmas is the celebration of the real incarnation, the Word of God made truly human. (I've written more extensively about this in my book, Jesus Revealed . See especially chapters 2 and 11.)

So, by all means sing your favorite carols as I do, and with gusto. But remember that the first Christmas, with a woman giving birth and with a newborn infant lying in a feed trough, probably wasn't as quiet as we might imagine. That's good news, because it means that Jesus didn't just seem to be human. He was truly and fully human, noisiness and all. In the words of one more of my favorite carols: "Veiled in flesh, the Godhead see; Hail the incarnate deity." Here we're on more solid theological ground. So, "Hark, the herald angels sing, 'Glory to the newborn King!'"

Merry Christmas, once again!

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Reflection: Christmas Gratitude
Posted at 10:46 a.m., December 25, 2003

Merry Christmas!

Not much blogging today, for obvious reasons. Yesterday was one of my two "super bowls" as a pastor, the other being Easter Sunday. I helped to lead three Christmas Eve services: a 4:00 p.m. service for children and families; a 6:00 casual service for all; and an 11:00 candelight communion service. Each service was distinctive in form, yet common in theme: a celebration of the birth of Christ. At the end of the evening, which for me came at about 12:15 a.m., Christmas morning, I was full of gratitude: for friends and family, for my ministry colleagues, for the music of Christmas, and, most of all, for the gift of the baby Jesus.

Yes, this isn't Thanksgiving day. I'm aware of that. But still it's a time to say "thanks" to God and to the people in our lives who mean so much to us.

May you have a truly joyous Christmas, with thanksgiving too!

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Reflection: The True Meaning of Christmas
Posted at 8:47 a.m.,   December 24, 2003

So what is the true meaning of Christmas?

Among those who try to get beyond the "spending and feeding-frenzy" of secular Christmas celebrations, you hear various answers to this question. "Christmas is about giving." "Christmas is really about love." "Christmas means 'Peace on earth.'" Etc. etc. All of these answers are moving in the right direction, but they miss the true Christian understanding of Christmas.

Christmas is, above all, the celebration of the birth of Jesus. Why do we Christians celebrate? Because we believe that the baby in the manger was, by a grand miracle of God, the very Word of God in the flesh. In the words of the beloved carol, "O Come, All Ye Faithful," Jesus was the "Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing."

But then one might ask, "Why is this such a big deal? Why should it matter to me that God has come in the flesh? After all, Jesus is no longer with us. I can't exactly go over to Bethlehem and find him. So what difference does it make?" Let me mention three aspects of this difference, though there are dozens more.

First, the incarnation of the Word means that God understands what it's like to be human in an astounding and intmate way. With due apologies to the pop song, God is not watching us "from a distance."Much truer lyrics are found in the old hymn, "What a Friend We Have in Jesus": "Can we find a friend so faithful, who will all our sorrows share? Jesus knows our every weakness. Take it to the Lord in prayer." Jesus, who is truly God, knows our every weakness precisely because he is also truly human. So Christmas means that God understands, that he has stood in our shoes, so to speak. This is a great encouragement, but it is also just the beginning.

Second, the incarnation of the Word means that we can know God more fully . Jesus came to reveal the very nature of God, so that we might know God both truly and intimately. As Jesus himself said in the Gospel of John, "Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father!" (14:9, NLT). So when we read the gospels and see Jesus' compassion of the sick, his care for the poor, his love for the lost, his power to make things right, and his ultimate sacrifice for us, we see what God is really like.

Third, and most importantly, the incarnation of the Word at Christmas means that salvation is on its way . Jesus was born, not only to live as a human being, not only to proclaim and enact the kingdom of God, but ultimately to die so that we might enter that kingdom. Jesus came so that, in the end, he might bear the sin of the world on the cross, including your sin and my sin. Though we are not saved merely because of the incarnation, that is a prerequisite for the salvation that comes through the death and resurrection of Jesus. He can die in our place precisely because he is human. And he can defeat the power of death precisely because he is God. (I've discussed all of this in much greater depth in my book, Jesus Revealed.)

Therefore, even as we celebrate Christmas, we do so with one eye on the future. We know what lies ahead for this baby, who is indeed the Savior. And we rejoice because we know what lies ahead for us because of his birth, his life, his death, and his resurrection.

May you have a truly merry Christmas, knowing what it's really all about!

The peace of Christ be with you!

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Reflection: Is Christmas Pagan? Part 2
Posted at 10:34 p.m.., December 23, 2003

Earlier I raised the question of the pagan origins of Christmas (see below). I dealt with the argument that the date of Christmas (December 25) comes from paganism, and therefore makes the Christian holiday essentially pagan. Now I want to address another argument for the pagan nature of Christmas.

This argument claims that many of our Christmas traditions grow from pagan roots. Here people often point to the Christmas tree, arguing that ancient European pagans worshipped trees, even evergreeen trees. If one looks carefully at the evidence, there is a shred of truth here, though the Christian use of the evergreen tree is a centuries' old practice.

But let's suppose for the sake of argument that this practice was indeed "borrowed" from pagans at the beginning. Does this mean that faithful Christians shouldn't display and decorate Christmas trees? Only if you believe that in some magical way the continued use of evergreen trees actually honors pagan gods, which is a rather peculiar argument, given the fact that the vast majority of people who enjoy Christmas trees have no thought whatsoever of worshipping Baal, or Mithras, or some other deity.

I'll come clean here. I have a Christmas tree in my home. In fact, I love my Christmas tree. And I can assure you that never in my entire life have I associated any Christmas tree with pagan worship. In fact, pagan gods wouldn't be all that happy with my tree, since it's covered with angels, nativity scenes, and other ornaments with Christian meaning.

From a theological/biblical perspective, I'd note an analogy between Christmas trees and eating meat in the early church. In 1 Corinthians 8-10 the Apostle Paul deals with the meat eating, which was a problem because this practice was strongly associated with paganism. In fact, most meating eating among ordinary people in Paul's day happened in the context of pagan worship. Yet Paul argues that Christians are free to eat meat, just so long as they don't do it in pagan temples or worship contexts. It would seem, therefore, that as long as I don't set up my tree with the intention of worshipping lesser gods, and as long as I don't go to some pagan temple where tree worship is in vogue, I'm free to enjoy my tree.

Interestingly enough, medieval Christians adopted the use of the fir tree to make a profoundly Christian point. Its evergreen nature symbolizes eternal life in Christ. And its triangular shape reminds us of the Trinity. So, even if my tree has pagan roots, those roots have been cut off by my Christian ancestors. Now my tree is, besides being a delightful and religiously-neutral symbol, actually a powerful reminder of basic Christian truth.

I should close, however, by once again bringing up the meat and vegetables issue in 1 Corinthians. Paul, though arguing for the freedom in Christ to eat meat, does allow that some may not be ready to use that freedom if they associate meat-eating with pagan worship. These people should not eat meat. Analogously, Christians who believe that Christmas trees are still pagan should not display them. Yet, at the same time, they shouldn't criticize other Christians who do.

Enough of this. It's time for me to go sit by my tree and think about what Christmas is really all about, not trees and decorations, but the birth of Jesus, the Word of God incarnate. In God's mercy, a Savior is born. And the tree that matters most in his life isn't a Christmas evergreen, but a Roman cross.

Merry Christmas!

For more data on the historical origins of Christmas, click here.

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Reflection: Is Christmas Pagan? Part 1
Posted at 8:30 a.m., December 23, 2003

It's not uncommon to hear the charge that Christmas is really a pagan holiday. Ironically, this accusation comes from diverse quarters: from pagan's who want to claim Christmas as their own and from very conservative Christians who do not celebrate Christmas and who think that other Christians should not as well. So what are we to make of the assertion that Christmas is pagan?

This claim usually rests on two foundational arguments: 1) That the date of Christmas is of pagan origin, and 2) That many of our Christmas traditions find their root in paganism. Let me address these arguments individually, though in the end they are quite similar.

Yes, the date of Christmas (December 25) does have a pagan origin. The early Christians who celebrated the birth of Christ did so on a variety of dates, January 6 being a popular option. (This is still the date of Christmas for the Armenian Christian Church.) Though proponents of different dates tried to argue that theirs was correct, they just didn't have sufficient evidence to make their case. No consensus was ever reached on the actual date of Jesus' birth.

So why did early Christians choose December 25? When the Roman emperor Constantine became Christian early in the fourth century A.D., he established this date as the official one. Why? It had been popular in Rome as a day to celebrate pagan festivals, of winter solistice and the birth of a Persian-Roman god, Mithras. It appears that Constantine, upon the urging of Christian leaders, established December 25 as the date for Christmas in order to compete with and ultimately co-opt that date for Christian purposes. In other words, far from adopting paganism, the choice of December 25 was an anti-pagan strategy.

It's rather like what many conservative Christians do in our time of history with Halloween. Instead of merely not celebrating it because of its pagan roots, they have established an alternative festival, often called a Harvest Celebration. They are not being influenced by paganism here so much as seeking to create an alternative to Halloween, or even to overthrow it. So the pagan origin of the date of Christmas does not in any way prove the pagan nature of our Christmas celebrations.

I'll take on the second argument - pagan traditions - in tomorrow's blog.

For more data on the historical origins of Christmas, click here.

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Rave: The Return of the King
Posted at 10:13 p.m., December 22, 2003

This is not just a review, but a rave. The Return of the King is an astounding movie. Yes, it has all of the spectacular effects that one would expect, and even more. Yes, it brings a phenomenal story to a close. But beyond this, it allows us to get close to the characters, several of them, actually. We feel their struggle, rejoicing in their victories and sorrowing in their defeats. We see them grow as people, either into greater virtue or greater evil.

Hardcore Tolkien fans have to grapple with the changes that Peter Jackson has made to the story. Diehards might resent them. But I think Jackson has faithfully retold Tolkien's own story, yet in a movie that runs for only 201 minutes.

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Review: The Da Vinci Code is Truly Fictional
Posted at 3:42 p.m., December 22, 2003

Everywhere you turn these days somebody is talking about The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown. It has made headlines and has received cover stories from major magazines. The book is a fairly typical thriller, with plenty of intrigue, action, murders, and conspiracies. None of this is particularly noteworthy. But The Da Vinci Code has received an incredible amount of attention in the secular media because it purports to reveal secrets about Jesus Christ, most of all his secret marriage to Mary Magdalene, by whom he supposedly fathered a child, whose lineage continues to this day. The novel seems to be informed by scholarly study of the New Testament and early Christian history, and in a few points it is. There actually are a few second-century writings, called gospels, in which Mary Magdalene plays a small role, though never explicitly as Jesus' wife. (For a detailed look at this non-canonical evidence, see my article, "Was Jesus Married?") Nevertheless, much of the apparent scholarship in The Da Vinci Code is as fictional as the main characters.

One of these fictions, which is often found in so-called non-fiction books on Jesus, is the idea that the divinity of Christ was a late addition to his résumé. The earliest Christians, so the story goes, knew that Jesus was a human being, and only a human being. He was an inspired teacher, maybe even a healer, but certainly not divine. The deification of Jesus came decades or, as in The Da Vinci Code , centuries after his death, and it involved rejection of the earliest historical records of Jesus which portrayed only his humanness.

Theological implications aside, whether you believe in Christ or not, what I've just related is historical bunk. It's nonsense. It doesn't stand up to the evidence of history. All you need to do is to read the New Testament, most of which was written by monotheistic Jews within fifty years of Jesus' death. There you find that Jesus was believed to be God. You might look, for example, at John 1:1-18 and Philippians 2:11-16.

The evidence that early Christians believed in Jesus' deity is overwhelming. He wasn't deified by Johnny-come-lately fourth-century Christians, but by his earliest followers, who were faithful Jewish monotheists. From a theological point of view, they could have been incorrect, of course. But my point here is a historical one. Belief in the deity of Jesus is as old as Christianity itself. All theories to the contrary, including that of The Da Vinci Code, are fiction.

If you read The Da Vinci Code, just remember that it's fiction, thoroughgoing fiction. And if you'd like more information on early Christian views of Jesus, I'd point you to my own book, Jesus Revealed. I go into all of this in much greater detail there.

Also, for more discussion of Mary Magdalene from a responsible historical perspective, see my Resources page.

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