In his popular recent novel, The Order, thriller writer Daniel Silva decides in the name of Judaism to launch a missile at Christianity. The result is a massive exercise in missing the point.
To his credit, Silva has done some homework. At least, he has done it in a particular form of Biblical studies: the historical debunking that is currently being championed by the likes of ex-evangelical Bart Ehrman, whom Silva cites in an appendix. In this understanding, the Christian Scriptures, and particularly the Gospel records of Jesus’s sayings and doings, are hopelessly fictional—except for bits and pieces tweezed out by the expertise of scholars such as…Bart Ehrman.
This is an old story in the history of Biblical studies, exposed more than a century ago by Albert Schweitzer (yes, that Albert Schweitzer) in his laconic indictment of the previous century of critical Biblical studies (Vom Reimarus zu Wrede [The Quest of the Historical Jesus], 1906). Instead of the Bible opening a window onto a big and interesting world revealed by God, this way of reading the Bible closes it up into a mere mirror that reflects back the values of whoever is reading it. Jesus doesn’t reveal Someone else. Jesus looks a lot like…me.
Daniel Silva evidently doesn’t much care what the Bible actually says, only what it mustn’t say. And what it must not say is that the Jewish people are responsible for killing the Son of God. The charge of deicide perpetuated particularly by the Roman Catholic Church, he says, has been exploited to justify centuries of anti-Semitic prejudice and violence.
That dark history is true, of course, but Silva’s solution to this problem is to demolish the historical reliability of the Gospels and thus their account of Jewish willingness to shoulder responsibility for the Crucifixion: “Then the people as a whole answered, ‘His blood be on us and on our children!’” (Matthew 27:25). If the Gospels can be shown to be false (and at the heart of the novel is a little fiction about how they might be), then the charge of “Christ-killing” should go away and all Catholics would then treat Jews better.
Alas, the novel is not Silva’s best work. I’m a longtime fan of the series. His protagonist, Gabriel Allon, a Mossad assassin, and his fabulous wife, Chiara, head a team of characters I enjoy observing in their deadly, but vital, work. In this book, however, they are dully omnipotent and any suspense is brief and small. Silva instead spends ‘way too much time making his ideological case—always a problem in adventure fiction. And his is both wrong and unnecessary.
He is wrong on two counts, in fact. First, anti-Semitism might have drawn some theological cover from the deicide charge, but it has hardly been dependent upon it. The Roman Catholic Church, in fact, has already apologized for it (in the proclamation of Nostra aetate of the Second Vatican Council and in several key junctures of the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI)—and yet anti-Semitism is on the rise throughout Europe, as Silva himself notes.
Second, if the Gospels are as unreliable as the skeptics suggest, then the Christian story doesn’t merely change a little bit. It turns into something quite different. Indeed, Silva hints that he understands that, but his Roman Catholic protagonists seem oddly clueless in that regard.
What remains after this critical devastation is…well, whatever you want to remain: typically, some combination of mysticism and moralism. But then Silva, and Ehrman, and the rest have to answer a pretty basic question: Why in the world would Pilate bother to crucify just another Jewish rabbi? Not just beat him or even kill him, but crucify him—the way the Empire made horrific object lessons of particularly annoying criminals? What threat was such a rabbi to Rome?
Sadly, all of this effort at critical demolition is actually in vain, for the Gospels do not in fact place all the blame on the Jewish people. The orthodox interpretation of what happened, sustained over centuries of Christian exposition, makes a very different point.
The Jewish religious leaders, the very people who ought to have recognized Jesus as Messiah, not only failed to do so, but resisted him literally to death: his death. For their part, the Roman authorities, the very people who ought to have been relied upon to uphold law and order, jettisoned their virtues to collude in a politically useful execution.
The Biblical point, then, is the one the Apostle Paul also makes in his Epistle to the Romans: “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (3:23). Jews and Gentiles together and at their best killed Jesus. Everyone, the whole human race, crucified the “Lord of glory” (I Corinthians 2:8).
Anti-semitism remains a grievous blight, and we Christians have a lot to answer for in that regard. But blowing up the Gospels, and thereby Christianity itself, isn’t going to eradicate prejudice against Jews.
Indeed, one might find in the example and teaching of the Jewish Jesus and his Jewish apostles as depicted in those Gospels the very grounds for love for the (Jewish) neighbor as a powerful response to anti-Semitism. Silva himself takes note of Christians treating Jews properly over the centuries. Too bad he didn’t inquire further as to why they did.