The Story of Jesus
What's the Point of Forgiveness?
This is a time of year when a Jewish TV reviewer can become very paranoid. Naturally at Easter there are plenty of programmes relating to the death of Jesus, and whether it was the Jews what done it. This year, since the Pope's intervention on our behalf, I was slightly more relaxed but there was still a slight knot of apprehension when The Story of Jesus reached the tachlis end of the crucifixion.
We learned in this two-parter - which claimed to have re-examined the story with the help of nine biblical experts - that Jesus was indeed born and brought up a nice Jewish boy, circumcised and immersed in Judaism. However, this re-examination was nothing like as radical as the job Francesca Stavrakopoulou recently did on the Old Testament. Maybe it was thought to be insensitive at Easter, but there was not a single dissenting voice.
There were few, er, revelations even for someone like me who cannot claim to be an expert in Christian theology. Although archaeologists were interviewed at length, the best anyone could come up with was that the towns Jesus lived in and the synagogues he was said to have prayed at, actually existed. As for the story of the resurrection, the theory used most to justify its accuracy was that nobody would have made up something so unlikely.
On the death of Jesus there was, if you will pardon the expression, some good news.
While everyone agreed that the High Priest Caiaphus and his colleagues stitched up Jesus because he was undermining their authority, no one believed the Jews should be blamed for his demise.
And in fact, the consensus was that the Gospels, - written some time after Jesus's death - were harsh on the Jews mainly because Christians were trying to convert Romans and did not want to offend them with an anti-Roman account.
Meanwhile, also on BBC1, there was a much more interesting investigation by Bettany Hughes of the concept of forgiveness - the modern definition of which is credited to Jesus.
In the ancient world, forgiveness was seen as a sign of weakness and there was very little of it about. But having established that mercy was a Christian virtue, it seemed notable by its absence in the early Christian world.
Even today, Christians in religious parts of the United States are more likely to be in favour of the death penalty than secular liberals. Indeed, paradoxically, the more secular the society, the more forgiving it tends to be.
However, the most interesting question posed was whether forgiveness was always an appropriate response. The example was given of South Africa where Nelson Mandela was determined to build a society based on reconciliation - a policy which seems to have resulted in a nation which copes well with past injustices.
But how about the worst crime in history? Hughes asked Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks whether the perpetrators of the Holocaust could be forgiven.
His answer was that only the victims were in a position to grant forgiveness. Murder, he said, was unforgiveable because the victim was not there to forgive.
So would God grant forgiveness? Rabbi Sacks smiled as he quoted Heinrich Heine. "Asked the same questions, Heine replied: 'Of course God will forgive me. It's what he does for a living'."