Director Des McAnuff’s raucous, glam Jesus Christ Superstar revival led me to think of the New Testament in a completely new way.
The Broadway production opened with an LED ticker display starting at 2012 that rapidly counted down to the year 33. When the first notes of the overture pierced the air, audience members thrust fists upward, cheering in gleeful recognition of the 1970s rock opera. A stage manager voice had announced if anyone forgot to turn off a cell phone, it probably would be drowned out by the music, anyhow.
Andrew Lloyd Webber’s catchy tunes with Tim Rice’s conversational lyrics told a fast-paced story of Christ’s betrayal, trial, crucifixion and resurrection. Actors wearing what looked like “Free People” brand fashions or wardrobes from Brooklyn Industries, zealously sang and danced as the followers of Jesus Christ (Paul Nolan). The Romans strutted authority in black leather. Judas Iscariot (Josh Young) expressed festering resentment and his own feelings of betrayal, while Mary Magdalene (Chilina Kennedy) sang familiar refrains of her love for Christ. Judas, the Jewish priests, Caiaphas (Marcus Nance) and Annas (Aaron Walpole), King Herrod (Bruce Dow), Pontius Pilate (Tom Hewitt), apostles, followers who later become the angry crowd, and angels belted out the New Testament storyline, often with head swinging, hip shaking choreography. The stage sported an electric, industrial look with metal, bleacher-like scaffolding swung in various ways for different scenes.
How could this be anything more than an entertaining, rockin’ good time?
In grade school, I asked a friend if she wanted to see Jesus Christ Superstar. She said, “I can’t go because my mom says it makes it look like the Jews killed Christ, and the Jews didn’t kill Christ. The Romans did.”
Flash forward to 2012. When I left the Neil Simon Theatre with my 21st century perspective, I asked, “Is Jesus Christ Superstar anti-Semitic?” If so, can there be any telling of the New Testament that is not anti-Semitic?
Gordon Haber teaches at American Jewish University in Los Angeles. He writes on religion for The Jewish Daily Forward and The Huffington Post. Haber sees the Lloyd Webber/Rice musical as an expression of popular culture. Due to the complex issues surrounding the idea of a messiah and Jewish law, Haber said he would not look to Jesus Christ Superstar to address serious questions about anti-Semitism.
As to the larger questions of Christ’s story in relation to Jews, Haber pointed to the history of successive Abrahamic religions. Each one proposes theological arguments of why it abrogates the previous one.
In considering Christianity as a religion following and competing with Judaism, Haber said, “Of course, they are going to have hostility toward the Jews because these guys, Paul especially, were going around trying to convert Jews to accept that Jesus was the messiah. But they were all saying ‘We’re OK as we are. Thank you very much. We’re fine.’ [laughs] So, of course, there is hostility in the text.” Haber added that the same is true later in the Koran with Islamic views toward Christianity.
“So, is there anti-Semitism embedded in the Christian Bible? Of course there is,” he said. “Look at the Hebrew Bible and what the Hebrews did to the Canaanites. If there were Canaanites around, people would be talking about anti-Canaanism. So, is there anti-Semitism in the text by definition in any expression of the texts? Possibly.”
Hal Taussig holds an A.B., M.Div. and Ph.D. in religion. He is a Methodist minister and a professor of New Testament studies at Union Theological Seminary and a professor of early Christianity at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia. Taussig’s scholarship includes knowing the five ancient biblical languages (Aramaic, Coptic, Greek, Hebrew and Latin) and publishing numerous books and articles on religion.
Taussig felt Jesus Christ Superstar did not distort the New Testament. However, he said a majority of biblical scholars today believe the New Testament, itself, inaccurately framed the Jewish people and leaders.
“From my point of view as biblical scholar, it is completely the case that the Romans killed Jesus,” Taussig said. “The Romans never let go of the prerogative of capital punishment, and so it’s very clear from a whole range of Roman documents that it would never allow a Jewish group to decide who gets capital punishment or not.”
The musical portrayed Caiaphas and Annas as instigating the idea of Christ’s death, while Pilate resisted executing an innocent man. However, records document Pilate crucified more than 10,000 people. Hesitancy in executing Christ would be completely out of character with the historical records, according to Taussig. Similar to Haber, Taussig concludes the early writers of the Gospel had reasons to shift blame away from Rome.
Taussig believes interpreting the New Testament (or Jesus Christ Superstar) through a historical, critical examination, does not discredit the entire story of Christ. The Gospels’ profundity, beauty, wisdom and truth can exist, as well as its errors, as humans wrote, edited, collected, and compiled the stories.
“I, myself, love Jesus and read the New Testament for faith but that doesn’t mean that Christianity must not face whether [it] in a musical or film semi-consciously participated in anti-Semitism, and for me the clear answer is yes,” said Taussig.
“I think we all need to acknowledge and be honest and say that there is anti-Semitism embedded in Christian text. Whether there is a straight line from that to the Holocaust is certainly arguable. But I would never argue that we have to leave it alone or that people can’t try to explore it artistically. That would be really bad,” said Haber.
However, to me, the fury in blaming anyone for killing Christ never made sense. If Christianity requires belief that it was God’s will for Christ to die on the cross for the salvation of mankind, then hatred for anyone involved in the crucifixion is illogical.
Taussig responded that this premise of salvation presents a Christian fundamentalist view of the New Testament. “There are many ways of being a Christian and many entrances to the grace of God,” said Taussig. He added that the history of Christianity is filled with different interpretations and that American fundamentalism has tried to restrain the dialogue to only one story.
Taussig did not complain that Jesus Christ Superstar was more anti-Semitic than the Gospels, but believes that the Gospels clearly played a role in the Holocaust. Christ would never have intended for his story to lead in that direction. “Jesus never in the Gospels said he wanted to start a new religion. Jesus lived and died as a Jew,” he said. Taussig said that he agreed with my childhood friend’s mother but with one slight difference. “Jesus was always on her side,” he said.
“You don’t move on from the damage that the text you love did, until you address some of the basic issues at stake in your life. I think you illustrated clearly that most Christians haven’t really asked this of the text they love,” said Taussig.
Even if Lloyd Webber and Rice wrote their rock opera for sheer entertainment, it inevitably will stir more discussion. It takes a certain amount of guts and bravado to take on religion, an often highly sensitive subject. The production, which originated at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, where McAnuff is the artistic director, closed on Broadway. Yet the musical continues its resurrection. Tickets are now on sale for a new production with a new cast, directed by Laurence Connor to open in London on September 21.