The Real Problem with 'Passion'

I don't know if the film is anti-Jewish. But the response to criticism of the movie smacks of anti-Semitism.

By now it is well known not only that Mel Gibson has invested $25 million to produce a film of Jesus' Passion, but also that a group of Catholic and Jewish New Testament scholars found that a version of its script contained strong anti-Jewish potential. I don't know if the movie is anti-Semitic--I have only seen a version of the script--but the reaction to the scholars' objections could be interpreted as anti-Semitic.

This group--of which I was a part--was convened by officers of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish organization. The majority of its members were Roman Catholic (including two priests and a nun). Our 18-page report to Mr. Gibson included a section on Vatican teachings regarding Jews and Judaism. (For a summary of this process, see Paula Fredriksen's article in The New Republic.)

Passion plays, which enact Jesus' last days in Jerusalem, have typically emphasized and exaggerated the most polemical aspects of the Gospels. Only in Matthew does the Jewish crowd accept responsibility for Jesus' death: "His blood be on our heads and on the heads of our children" (27:25). Only in John does Jesus speak of "being handed over to the Jews" (18:36), as if he were not a Jew himself. Not surprisingly, in 1934 Adolf Hitler described the 300th anniversary performance of the Oberammergau Passion Play as "a convincing portrayal of the menace of Jewry."

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Although Jesus died on a Roman cross on the Roman charge of sedition--Jesus was not killed by "the Jews" but by "the state"--Pontius Pilate became a saint in some Christian traditions while Jews have been vilified, ghettoized, and murdered.

Even in the United States, anti-Jewish attitudes are still common, and can easily be inflamed by Passion plays. A survey administered by International Communications Research in Pennsylvania and reported in "The Philadelphia Inquirer" (Jan. 17, 2003) asked respondents if they thought that "the Jews were primarily responsible for the killing of Jesus Christ." The result: 37 percent agreed, 47 percent disagreed, and 16 percent said they did not know.

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