The story of Jesus is the ultimate political drama
By Jonathan Freedland, Saturday 24 December 2011 04.10 EST
I shouldn’t like it. Not at all. My upbringing – regular synagogue attendance, Hebrew classes twice a week, a kosher home – was meant to inoculate me against it, ensuring that I would recoil at the mere mention of the word. And yet – and here I need to lower my voice to a whisper – I am strangely drawn to the story of Jesus.
Jews don’t even like saying the name too loud. The Talmud refers to him only as “that man”. Plenty of Jews use the Yiddish name Yoshke, which sounds more unflattering than it looks on the page. Now that I think about it, I remember my grandfather preferring the word “Yoizel”, which has a slightly gentler ring to it – so maybe I picked up this habit from him.
The point is, Jews don’t go in for Jesus. So-called Messianic Jews, “Jews for Jesus”, are ostracised almost universally by other Jews. The religion founded in Jesus’s name may have been good news for Christians, but it usually spelled trouble and persecution for the Jews. So, for people like me, an interest in Jesus is a little taboo.
Not that I’m a crypto-follower or Christian-curious or anything, don’t get me wrong. I know lots of lefties bang on about how Jesus was the first socialist and all that, but that’s not the draw for me. No, what pulls me in is the Jesus story.
I wasn’t taught it in school and I didn’t read it in the gospels. My first exposure came on TV, in the form of those Jesus films they always show at Easter. I think it was the ATV movie, Jesus of Nazareth, that got me hooked (produced, incidentally, by the unmistakably Jewish Lew Grade). But from then on I was a sucker for any telling and retelling: whether Hollywood epics, such as The Greatest Story Ever Told, musicals like Jesus Christ Superstar, or even cunning modern-day adaptations – think Godspell or Jesus of Montreal. I lapped them all up.
A psychologist would say it’s the taboo that does it. Especially if they knew that that first, childhood viewing of Jesus of Nazareth coincided – as Easter so often does – with the first night of the Jewish festival of Passover. I was watching Robert Powell get crucified when I should have been preparing the seder table. What for most people is a tale associated with Sunday school tedium carried for me the frisson of the forbidden.
But I’m afraid I don’t think that explains it. The truth is, the Jesus story is the ultimate political drama. Imagine it: a radical firebrand, whom the powerful want to silence and shut down. But the threat is not only external. He also faces a hidden challenge from within his own inner circle, a traitor in his midst …
I admit that I brace myself when I come to hear the story told again, whether through radio drama, rock opera or, say, some BBC experimental production on the streets of Manchester. I worry: will this version blame the Romans or the Jews? Of course it’s always best when Pilate, the Roman occupier who gave the order, is the bad guy; certainly better than any suggestion, coded or otherwise, that it is the Jews who should bear the weight of guilt.
I like to think Jesus himself would understand this nervousness on my part. After all, and this is remembered less often than it might be, he was Jewish too.