Was ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ anti-Semitic?

There were parts of 'Jesus Christ Superstar' that troubled me. But they're not worth losing sleep over.

John Legend, as Jesus, is carried during a dress rehearsal scene from NBC’s

(RNS) — How did you like the Passion play?

Because, in one sense, that’s exactly what we saw on Sunday night’s (April 1) television production of “Jesus Christ Superstar.”

Oh, yes, of course: The music was great, and it has held up over the decades.

John Legend as Jesus was memorable, though it was Alice Cooper, as Herod, who stole the show.

But, for me, the production crashed as soon as the high priest Caiaphas, the other priests, and the Pharisees made their first appearance.

Caiaphas had this odd hairstyle that made him look as if he was about to sprout horns.

The Jews look like they might have been Darth Vader’s homeys. Pure evil.

The lyrics of the accompanying musical number leave little to the imagination. True to at least some of the gospel accounts, the Jewish leaders need Jesus’ death.

Fools, you have no perception!

The stakes we are gambling are frighteningly high!

We must crush him completely,

So like John before him, this Jesus must die.

For the sake of the nation, this Jesus must die.

This pales, however, with the words that the Jews utter later on in the play.

“Crucify him!” the Jews scream to Pilate.

So, why did I refer to Sunday night’s production as a Passion play?

The Passion play was the major entertainment outlet of the Middle Ages. Quite simply — these were pageants, locally produced, that told the story of the final days of Jesus — the Passion.

For a largely illiterate population, the Passion play was the way that they learned the story of Jesus’s arrest, trial, execution, and resurrection — along with the classic anti-Semitic elements that defined the story.

The Passion play tradition did not end with the coming of modernity. The problematic passion play in Oberammergau, Germany, continues to this day.

So, Sunday evening’s scenes of Jesus and the Jews were straight out of a Passion play of the Middle Ages.

In fact, the audience of “Jesus Christ Superstar” was actually seeing the origins of Western anti-Semitism.

Consider that it aired on Easter. Yes, of course: When else should it have been aired?

But, for Jews, Easter has dark historical resonances. Easter was always the time when the local priests used the gospel accounts of the death of Jesus to rile up the masses and to inspire anti-Jewish violence.

That certainly did not happen last night.

I suspect that the most common after show conversations were: “Wasn’t Alice Cooper great?” and “Do you think Starbucks is still open?”

A little history.

The show “Jesus Christ Superstar,” by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber, was first produced in 1970.

It imagined Jesus as history’s first celebrity (as well as having had some kind of erotic relationship with Mary Magdalene, which is a whole other story).

A year later, the musical Godspell imagined Jesus as a hippy. It was straight out of “Jesus freak” culture, focusing far more on Jesus’ teachings than on his death.

As soon as “Superstar” opened, the accusations of anti-Semitism began flying. The accusations intensified after the movie version was released in 1973.

From The New York Times, Aug. 8, 1973:

Benjamin R. Epstein, national director of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, warned yesterday that the movie about the events leading to the crucifixion of Jesus, could result in increased anti‐Semitism by its emphasis on the role of the Jews in the death of Jesus.

The American Jewish Committee has compiled critical comments about the film from Jewish and Christian leaders around the country that it plans to make public this morning to coincide with the movie’s opening at six metropolitan area theatres.

In his prepared statement, Mr. Epstein said that “the movie’s sharp and vivid emphasis on a Jewish mob’s demand to kill Jesus can feed into the kind of disparagement of Jews and Judaism which has always nurtured anti-Jewish prejudice and bigotry.

Except, it didn’t.

Neither, by the way, did the execrable Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ — though it also portrayed the Jewish leaders as not only evil, but demonic. Consider the source …

Why haven’t these productions of Jesus’ final days created any new outbreaks of anti-Semitism — especially because Jew-hatred is far from being a dead issue?

Because, thanks to Christian leaders, thinkers, and teachers, theological anti-Semitism is, in fact, mostly a dead issue.

Consider this:

The latest production of “Jesus Christ Superstar” comes out a full 53 years after the Vatican II declaration that the Jews are not to be blamed for the death of Jesus of Nazareth.

This means that it has been more than a half century since most (though not all)  Catholics have imbibed what Jules Isaac dubbed the “teaching of contempt.”

The same is true in mainstream Protestantism as well. Any theologically based anti-Semitism that still exists is so subtle that it might actually pass away unnoticed.

Things are different now — and I’m tempted to add, thank God.

People can watch “Jesus Christ Superstar” and experience it merely as entertainment, not as history and certainly not as theology.

If you ignored the “evil” Jews, “Jesus Christ Superstar” was still a good show.

And ultimately, harmless.

When it comes to contemporary Jew-hatred, as the saying goes — we have far bigger fish to fry.

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