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).

  • "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.)