(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.

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."

That is why I am concerned about the impact of Gibson's movie, an R-rated cinematic version of medieval Passion plays. It is a gratuitously violent and bloody film whose actors speak Aramaic and Latin accompanied by English subtitles.

I was troubled by the rough cut of the film I saw last August in Houston. Jews of the first century were portrayed as bloodthirsty and intent on killing Jesus. The priestly class was a target of scorn; Caiaphas and the other priests were driven by malice and an intense hatred of Jesus. They were sinister figures.

The Jewish mob in the film loudly called for Jesus to be crucified. The pivotal role played in the death of Jesus by the harsh Roman governor of ancient Judea, Pontius Pilate, was minimized and sanitized.

Because "The Passion of the Christ" was a work in progress, reports circulated that changes were being made in the film. I was hopeful when I attended a second screening on Jan. 21 in Winter Park, Fla., with nearly 4,000 evangelical pastors and lay people.

Unfortunately, the second version is worse than the first because of the inclusion of the chilling blood curse from Matthew 27:25: "His blood be upon us and upon our children."

That curse appears only in Matthew, and is the religious taproot for the horrific charge that because the Jews killed Jesus, they merited eternal divine punishment for their "crime." Once an integral part of the world-famous Oberammergau Passion Play in Germany, all references to Matthew 27:25 were removed from the 2000 production and will not appear in future performances.

It is ironic that Oberammergau, the "grandparent" of Passion plays, no longer contains the incendiary verse from Matthew, but it does appear in Gibson's version.

Many in the Florida audience were moved by Gibson's film. One woman told me the movie was "awesome!" However, a pastor and his wife expressed "disappointment" and felt the movie's violence "was over the top." The use of the Matthew blood curse disturbed them, and the pastor said he "could not recommend the film to anyone."

Many Christians will experience "The Passion of the Christ" as an authentic religious experience and not simply a movie. But sadly, the same film also has the potential to transmit potent negative attitudes, stereotypes and caricatures about Jews and Judaism to the audience.

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