New Testament scholar Darrell Bock recently spoke with Beliefnet about Mel Gibson's film "The Passion," which dramatizes the last hours of Jesus. Critics--including Catholic biblical scholars and the Anti-Defamation League--have raised concerns about the movie's historicity and its portrayal of Jewish authorities. Bock saw a rough cut of the film in late August.

What is your analysis of the controversy over "Passion"?

The controversy is not about the film. It's about the content--the biblical portrait of the Passion. The gospel accounts agree that the Jewish leadership with Pilate are ultimately responsible for Jesus' death. They agree that Pilate had the technical final decision. But they also suggest that Pilate's sensitivities would not have risen to the level they did had it not been for the relationship and influence of the Jewish leadership.

It's not an attempt to blame all Jews. It's an attempt to historically explain what put Jesus on the cross. Jesus was put on the cross for what was fundamentally a dispute with Judaism about who he was, according to the biblical portrait.

What you have going on with some of the scholarship is a reflection of a kind of critical/skeptical reading of the biblical accounts. These people are claiming to be historical critics and being very careful about the history on one hand, but they're also reading these accounts very skeptically on the other.

There's another kind of conservatism that claims not to be quite so skeptical about the quality of the accounts. Those people, the second group-critical, not skeptical-would look at this film and say "I think it's fundamentally biblical." I think I heard a quote from someone yesterday, a Catholic, who said, "If this film really were anti-Semitic, I'd complain about it but I won't because basically it's fundamentally biblical."

If you're going to understand the discussion going on between Christianity and Judaism over the centuries, you have to understand the biblical portrait of these events. You can't whitewash them. You can't go around it. This has been the debate that has existed between Christianity and Judaism for centuries. It's a difficult discussion, but it's a real discussion.

I actually think some of the protesting is reaching such a level that it risks exacerbating the problem rather than helping it. The suggestion I heard on TV that "this is going to lead to violence against Jews" risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. Not because of the film, but because of the reaction to the film.

The film is about the biblical portrayal of the difference between what became Christianity--which emerged out of Judaism-and Judaism. It's a dispute among Jews. Judaism has a strong history of disputes. You can read the Old Testament prophets, and Israel doesn't come out smelling like a rose. So this kind of religious confrontation is part of the first-century world, and it's actually been part of the biblical world. It's a world that is a little bit foreign to the modern world in that what we try to have is a level of tolerance in engaging each other. But sometimes that can be disingenuous, because we wash over what may be real differences in how we see things.

We're learning that lesson now in our culture with Islam. So we better learn how to talk directly about these things, instead of pretending these differences don't exist.

What is your involvement with the movie?

[In late July,] I was contacted by someone connected with the movie. They were interested in my taking a look at the content of the film. I saw a screening in the afternoon of the same day the screening was held in Houston, where the Anti-Defamation League was present. There were about 45 people--arts people, film, and religious leaders as well.

It's somewhat unprecedented to get all this reaction to a film that actually hasn't been seen by very many people. It's still a rough cut, and they're still deciding what scenes should go in, what scenes should come out.

Were there any Jewish scholars at the Dallas screening?

No. All Christians of various sorts as far as I know, or arts and film people.

Any liberal Christians?

My guess would be no. I didn't know everyone who was there, but the bulk of people I saw would have been evangelical or Roman Catholic.

What was your overall impression?

It's a very, very powerful film. I was watching the film for accuracy, while also understanding the nature of the film-it's about the last 12 hours of Jesus' life and it's based on a narrative that weaves together various Gospel accounts. There are parts where the filmmakers had to figure out "How do we actually visualize the presence of Satan?"--that kind of thing.

That's interesting. How did they visualize Satan?

There was an androgynous character-if you look at the trailer, you'll see her. She's hooded--you don't know it's a woman until the very end of the film.

It's one of the surprises of the film. This figure lurks in and out of the film in certain scenes. She roams the crowd, watching what's going on. It's a very well-done, artistically.