Joseph WeilerUniversity Professor Joseph Weiler began his three-part lecture series on Jesus of Nazareth with an anecdote involving the actor Heath Ledger. When news of Ledger’s untimely death broke in January 2008, a front-page New York Times article quoted a student of Weiler, mentioning that she had received a message about the actor’s death while sitting in Weiler’s seminar The Passion of the Christ: The Trial of Jesus. A sharp-eyed contributor to the Wall Street Journal’s law blog subsequently published a post about the class, using it as a springboard for a contest in which readers were asked to submit their own candidates for “the quirkiest law-school elective out there.”

Weiler took exception to the implication that his course was irrelevant: “A law school is not only in the business of training first-class lawyers, although I think we do that, too, and we do that very well.... We also are in the business of reflecting on the nature of law and the interaction of legal institutions and law with our society.”

Calling Jesus’ appearance before the Sanhedrin “arguably the most famous trial in Western civilization,” Weiler noted that at least 400 books focused solely on the trial have been published. He asserted that verifying the historical accuracy of the trial’s details was much less important than examining the influence of the New Testament version of the event on latter-day perceptions of justice.

In the first part of his lecture series, “The Passion of the Christ: The Trial of Jesus,” on February 3, Weiler considered the procedure and cultural significance of the trial. On February 10, in his second lecture, he focused on the trial’s substance in looking at exactly what Jesus was accused and convicted of, as well as the theological implications of the proceedings. In the third and final lecture on February 17, Weiler examined the trial’s aftermath in terms of its subsequent historical significance for the relationship between Jews and Christians. He also touched on questions of identity, “the other,” guilt, and collective responsibility.

The lectures, part of the Tikvah Public Lecture Series, were presented by the Tikvah Center for Law & Jewish Civilization, of which Weiler is co-director.

Posted on March 3, 2011