A Jewish View of Gibson's `Passion'

The film may transmit negative attitudes, stereotypes and caricatures about Jews.

(RNS) The controversy surrounding Mel Gibson's soon-to-be-released film, "The Passion of the Christ," is a graphic reminder that the execution of Jesus has been a divisive issue between Christians and Jews since the four New Testament Gospels were written.

A tragic result of that conflict is the allegation of collective Jewish guilt that many Christians have believed and taught throughout history. Passion plays, dramas about the death of Jesus, date from the 12th century, and were performed in hundreds of European communities. Between the 14th and 16th centuries, more than 300 villages in Germany and Austria re-enacted the Passion.

Lethal bloody reactions against Jews often followed Passion play performances. Physical attacks were so appalling that in 1338 the councilors of Freiburg banned the performance of anti-Jewish scenes of that town's play. The Frankfurt Jewish ghetto was protected in 1469, and in 1539 a Passion play was forbidden in Rome because of the violent attacks against the city's Jewish residents.

But with the end of World War II and the Holocaust, and the positive teachings of the Second Vatican Council in 1965, many Christian leaders publicly taught that traditional Passion plays are a source of negative and false teachings about Jews and Judaism.

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In 1985 Pope John Paul II gave support to the reformers, declaring: "We should aim, in this field, that Catholic teaching at its different levels present Jews and Judaism, not only in an honest and objective manner, free from prejudices and without any offenses, but also with full awareness of the heritage common (to Jews and Christians)."

Twelve years later the pope warned, "Erroneous and unjust interpretations of the New Testament regarding the Jewish people and their alleged culpability have circulated for too long, engendering feelings of hostility toward this people."

In 1988 the Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops published a strongly worded teaching document that urged all "depictions of the sacred mysteries conform to the highest possible standards of biblical interpretation and theological sensitivity. The greatest caution is advised in all cases where it is a question of passages that seem to show the Jewish people in an unfavorable light."

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A. James Rudin
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