Book Reviewed: At Jerusalem’s Gate: Poems of Easter – Nikki Grimes and David Frampton, Eerdmans’ Books for Young Readers, 2005
Recently, while writing about another book with illustrations by David Frampton, I came across his collaboration with the esteemed poet and Laura Ingalls Wilder Award recipient, Nikki Grimes. I read some selections online, and then ordered the book. I was deeply disappointed to read a work which is a disturbing repetition, even if its poetic language is sometimes beautiful, of some of the worst misrepresentations of Judaism and the life of Jesus I have read in a modern children’s book. At Jerusalem’s Gate was clearly not inspired by anti-Semitic rancor, but by Ms. Grimes’s deeply held Christian faith. However, I feel compelled to point out how insidious is her unquestioning acceptance of the Gospel narrative, especially those parts which depict Jesus’s fellow Jews in a way that led to centuries of brutal violence and oppression.
The Gospels were written between forty to sixty years after Jesus’s death, and the New Testament was not codified until around 140 C.E. By that time, early Christians were beginning to make inroads in proselytizing to Romans. Eventually, Christianity’s origins as a Jewish sect would be denied, and the Church insisted on emphasizing the demonic nature of the people who had supposedly denied their own Messiah, the Jews. An essential part of this myth, used to defend Christian persecution of the Jewish people, was the constant insistence that the Jews had killed Christ. Frequent reenactments of the torture and execution of Jesus in the form of Passion Plays, popular lore, and Christian teaching, inculcated hatred of Jews very deeply in the peoples of Europe and their colonies. Ultimately, even the anti-religious Nazis were able to exploit this disease to circumvent opposition to their policy of annihilation.
I would like to quote from these poems and point out how several anti-Semitic tropes form the core of Ms. Grimes’s story, one that is meant to teach children about Easter. Children will learn from this book that the Jewish people and their leaders were greedy and cruel, and deliberately sought the death of Jesus.
“A Conspiracy of Priests” refers to the Jewish religious leaders, the “Pharisees and Sadducees,” and their ostensible hatred for Jesus. The introduction to the poem claims that “few, in any, questioned their spiritual headship – until a man named Jesus came along.” This is untrue. First century Palestine was rife with conflict as Jews tried to cope with Roman subjugation in different ways. In fact, the Priestly Sadducees and the proto-Rabbinic Pharisees were constantly at odds, and Jesus was not the only, first, or last Jew to question the authority of either or both of these sects. The poem, accompanied by Frampton’s woodcut of three menacing priests holding money and other valuable goods, tells the reader that they are determined to get rid of Jesus, and ensure that he will not receive the tithes (money), which they expect.
“The Gathering” may be the most toxic poem in the collection. Jesus is arrested and taken to the home of Caiaphas, the high priest, in preparation for his trial by the Jewish religious court, the Sanhedrin. The view of Caiaphas as an arch villain is essential to the Gospel narrative, especially as later the Romans, the real villains, would come to accept Christianity and spread it around the world, while the Jews continued to refuse to abandon their faith. This is a direct quote from Ms. Grimes’s preface to the poem:
“The council was determined to have Jesus crucified, and trumped-up charges were the order of the day. Why would false witnesses agree to provide a legitimate excuse to have an innocent person crucified? My guess is money. Perhaps there were other reasons. Any ideas?”
Yes, Ms. Grimes. There are many ideas. While some Jews undoubtedly resented what they viewed as Jesus’s threat to tradition and authority, others feared that his preaching would bring further Roman retaliation. Still other Jews followed Jesus and embraced his message. The Jewish leaders did not call for his crucifixion, which was strictly a Roman practice. The notion that “money” could have been the only reason for their betrayal of Jesus to the Romans, an action which cannot be corroborated historically, is extremely offensive.
The poem itself is replete with medieval imagery of the high priest as the personification of evil:
“Yes! Yes! breathes Caiaphas,
a mongrel smelling blood,
“Tell me. Are you the Son of God?”
He licks his lips,
hangs the question like a noose.”
This hideous image encapsulates so much: the Jew as a dog, the thirst for blood which later would be concretized in the “blood libel,” the accusation that Jews killed Christians and used their blood in rituals.
Pontius Pilate was the Roman governor who ordered Jesus’s execution. He and he alone could have done so. The historians Philo and Josephus, as well as other sources, report that his record of cruelty caused him to eventually be recalled, as his harsh and intolerant actions were viewed as provocations to rebellion. Yet the Gospels convert him into a tortured figure who really does not wish to execute Jesus, but is forced to by the vicious mobs of Jews calling for Jesus’ death. Many Christians have come to understand, without compromising their faith, the historical tensions which influenced this inaccurate portrayal of Pilate (you can read about the evolution of such thoughts and theology here or here or here).
Yet in her poem, “The Net,” Grimes accepts uncritically the image of reluctant and strangely powerless Roman prefect, forced to violate his own conscience by executing Jesus:
“I ascend the judgment bench,
wrinkle my nose at the vile stench
of political plot born of jealousy,
and declare, “I will set this Jesus free
for I find no cause against him.”
The notion that Jews intrinsically smelled bad as proof of their evil, the denigration of Jewish authority as jealousy, as well as the unbelievable notion that Pilate was almost a hero, are all brought to life in these images. The rest of the poem features the usual chorus of Jews screaming for Jesus’s death, and Pilate’s reluctant and sad acceptance of his fate:
“Sighing, I wash my hands in their sight.
His blood be on you this day turned night,
for I find no cause against him.”
The Gospel of Matthew actually says, “His blood is upon us and our children,” spoken by Jesus’s Jewish brethren. This terrible “admission” of a guilt that did not exist was used as continual proof of the Jewish people’s deicide (murder of God).
I assume that Nikki Grimes, a gifted poet and strong advocate for freedom, literacy, and equality, did not intend At Jerusalem’s Gate to invoke the most persistent and destructive accusations against the Jewish people, but in her strong imagery and original poetic voice she has done just that.