2016-06-30
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."

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.

I doubt these same people would agree that "the Christians" killed Martin Luther King, Jr., or that "the Black Muslims" killed Malcolm X.

Given this legacy, Christians concerned with presenting a historically accurate Passion and avoiding any anti-Jewish overtones--Christians such as the modern producers of the Oberammergau play--have sought guidance from Jewish and Christian theologians. Their efforts prove that Passion plays can be biblically informed, historically accurate, and sensitive to the Church's history of anti-Judaism.

Alas, fidelity, accuracy, and sensitivity were all lacking in the script I saw for Mr. Gibson's production. What I notice from the media coverage of this controversy is that once again "the Jews" are being blamed--only this time "the Jews" are a scholarly panel and "the truth" is a Hollywood script.

The media have minimized the Catholic scholars' participation and emphasized the Jews'. They've also downplayed the fact that the panel was convened by a Catholic group. Some examples:

 

  • "The Washington Post" (July 7) speaks of criticism by "Catholic scholars at the Anti-Defamation League" (emphasis mine).
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  • "The Christian Science Monitor" (July 10) speaks of the "ADL and an ad hoc group of Jewish and Catholic scholars"(note the order).
  • The Catholic news agency "Zenit" (30 May 2003) reports: "The ad hoc scholar's group... comprised a mix of nine Jewish and Christian academics [note again the order]. One of the signers, Amy-Jill Levine of Vanderbilt University, describes herself as 'a Yankee Jewish feminist.'" The description comes from my website, but the article uses it mockingly; I am, by the way, both the only group member described and the only member with a clearly Jewish name.
  • Next, the media deemed this committee untrustworthy. The Wall Street Journal (7/25) insinuated the scholarly committee members "have an agenda" and repeated Michael Medved's accusation in the July 22 USA Today that the committee went "beyond honest evaluation of the film's aesthetic or theological substance." (Mr. Medved, incidentally, also focuses on the ADL--not a joint committee convened by Catholic bishops--issuing "critical statements" about the script.)

    Our scholarly panel's "agenda" was hardly sinister: We were concerned with biblically fidelity, historical accuracy, and the avoidance of anti-Semitism. While I have not seen Mr. Gibson's film, I have seen a script that has anti-Jewish components. Here are three examples that are already part of media coverage:

     

  • Jesus' cross is manufactured in the Temple. this unbiblical and a-historical scene is analogous to asserting that the ovens of Auschwitz were constructed in the Vatican itself under the watchful eyes of Pius XII.
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  • The Roman governor Pilate--who, like all Roman governors of Judea, had the authority to appoint Jewish high priests--is intimidated and manipulated by a luxuriously garbed priest Caiaphas. Analogy: Those poor Nazi occupiers of mid-20th century Rome could not resist Vatican pressure to rid the city of Jews.
  • The problem with lumping all first-century Jewish leaders together is illustrated in Linda Chavez's August 6th CNSNews.com commentary. She said, among other things, that "Christ's death on the cross may have been ordered by Pontius Pilate at the urging of the Pharisee Caiaphas--following the judgment of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish religious court that judged Jesus guilty of blasphemy..." Any "New Testament 101" student knows that Caiaphas was not a Pharisee; he was, rather, part of the priestly aristocracy in league with Rome. That the Pharisees are the group who give rise to Rabbinic Judaism and ultimately the Judaism of today only makes her mistake worse. As for Pilate, he could not possibly have cared less about blasphemy: he executes Jesus as a political threat, the presumed "King of the Jews" as the inscription on the cross reads.

     

  • Jews repeatedly and spontaneously torture Jesus, whereas the Romans need Satan's prompting. This is tantamount to saying that "the Jews" in Dachau tortured fellow Jews just because they felt like it, whereas the Nazis needed supernatural incitement.
  • After questioning our panel's motives, Mr. Medved referred to the Gibson camp's charge that we used a "stolen" script. Indeed, Mr. Gibson's backers have consistently accused this committee of being underhanded and immoral: first, they claim, we obtained the script illegally. This is wrong: Gibson's company, Icon Productions, knew we had it, and Mr. Gibson personally expressed interest in hearing our views.

    Then, they accused us of leaking the confidential report. Now, anyone with even an ounce of logic should see the problem: the only way the report could fall under the category of confidential would be if it were part of an agreement with Icon productions. They are the ones who requested confidentiality--which, of course, means that they knew we had the script. Finally, we at least were faithful to that agreement. The notice that the script had anti-Semitic elements was first made public not by the ad hoc committee or the ADL, but by Mr. Gibson and his associates, who went on record as denying the charge. Of course, it was they who made the charge public in the first place.

    As a filmmaker, Mr. Gibson knows that intention does not always determine result: a scene intended to be funny can fall flat; an anticipated blockbuster can flop. So too, a film that aspires to promote Christian faith can also easily promote anti-Judaism. How will Mr. Gibson's 'Passion' play before audiences with culturally ingrained anti-Jewish views, such as Orthodox Christians in much of Eastern Europe, or Muslims in Syria? (In 2001, President Assad commented publicly to Pope John Paul II that "the Jews" not only killed Jesus but also attempted to kill Muhammad.) While a number of conservative Catholics and evangelicals who have seen the film--Mr. Gibson is has been quite selective in choosing audiences--insist it has no anti-Jewish material, how would their own children respond if asked, "In the movie, who killed Jesus?" or "Did the Jews in the film seem very interested in money?" Every single response may be benign, but why take the chance?

    Granted, one cannot always tell when anti-Semitic stereotypes are in play. Yet I do wonder... On July 24, after seeing a screening of the film, the Rev. Ted Haggard, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, commented: "In the current global clash of civilizations, I'm surprised that some Jewish leaders would protest a movie portraying the final hours of Christ's life. There is a great deal of pressure on Israel right now, and Christians seem to be a major source of support for Israel. For the Jewish leaders to risk alienating 2 billion Christians over a movie seems shortsighted." The implied threat is all too clear.

    Mr. Haggard--who, not surprisingly, mentions only the Jews and not the Catholics who have also expressed concern about the script--seems to be insinuating that we Jews would hold back on criticizing something we found morally objectionable if a Jewish cause were in danger. With friends like these, it becomes difficult to know what counts as anti-Semitism.

    If Mr. Gibson wants historical accuracy and if his primary concern is the glory of G-d--as he has repeatedly stated, and I believe him--then why not screen his pre-release cut for the scholars' committee or a comparably qualified group of Jewish and Christian historians and theologians? Their suggestions would not bind him, and he will have demonstrated his allegiance to his own principles.

    And, if Mr. Gibson has made the changes recommended by the scholars such that those egregious scenes I've mentioned and the others of their ilk are now removed, why isn't he thanking us rather than allowing his lackeys to bear false witness against us?