New Perspectives on Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ: Review Essay
Ann W. Astell
Mel Gibson's Bible: Religion, Popular Culture, and The Passion of the Christ, edited by Timothy K. Beal and Tod Linafelt. Afterlives of the Bible 1. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2006. 208 pp. 11 illustrations. Paperback edition, $16.00.
Mel Gibson's Passion: The Film, the Controversy, and Its Implications, edited by Zev Garber. Shofar Supplements in Jewish Studies 1. West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 2006. 192 pp. $14.95.
A blockbuster in the theaters, Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ is also an academic phenomenon, in part because of the well publicized (and now litigious) criticism of the screenplay by biblical scholars, theologians, and historians of religion-a criticism that began months before the film's release on Ash Wednesday, February 25, 2004. Since then at least seven volumes of scholarly essays concerning the film have appeared-five of them published in 2004. This review addresses the two most recent edited collections: Mel Gibson's Bible, edited by Timothy K. Beal and Tod Linafelt, and Mel Gibson's Passion, edited by Zev Garber.
Both titles inaugurate a book series. Mel Gibson's Passion is the first volume in "Shofar Supplements in Jewish Studies," a series dedicated to pedagogical materials, for which Zev Garber is the general editor. Mel Gibson's Bible is the first volume in 'Afterlives of the Bible," a series devoted to studying "the rich and complex histories of Jewish and Christian biblical literature" (p. 4), for which Beal and Linafelt serve as general editors. Together they stand as notable, signatory works that set a model and pose an agenda for subsequent volumes in their respective series.
Each volume has a three-part division and an impressive group of contributors. Mel Gibson's Bible begins with "The Passion as Interpretation," with essays by Jack Miles, George M. Smiga, Tod Linafelt, Vincent J. Miller, Bruce Chilton, John Dominic Crossan, Jane Schaberg, and Mark D. Jordan and Kent L. Brintnall-all of which "analyze and interpret The Passion primarily in relation to its religious sources" (p. 6). Part 2 "focuses on the ethical and theological implications of The Passion's particular presentation of the Christian Gospel" (p. 6). Paula Fredriksen, Susannah Heschel, Richard L. Rubenstein, Margaret R. Miles, Mark Douglas, and Mark C. Taylor contribute essays to this section. Finally, Part 3 "explores the film as a popular cultural-religious phenomenon" (p. 7) and includes reflections by Thomas J.J. Altizer, Amy Hollywood, William G. Little, José Márquez, Jody Enders, Robert M. Franklin, and Timothy K. Beal.
Section 1 of Mel Gibson's Passion, entitled "Reflections on the Film," includes a miscellany of essays by Irving Greenberg (reprinted from Commonweal), Penny Wheeler, Yvonne Kozlovsky-Golan, Bruce Zuckerman, Klaus Hödl, and Richard Holdredge. Section 2 follows with essays focused on the "Scriptural Jesus and Gibson's Passion" by Peter Haas, Zev Garber, Gordon D. Young, S. Scott Bartchy (reprinted from Pastoral Psychology), Louis H. Feldman, and Jacob Neusner. In the third section, nine authors-Gordon R. Mork, Samuel Edelman and Carol Edelman, John T. Pawlikowski, Richard Libowitz, James F. Moore, Steven Leonard Jacobs, Stuart D. Robertson, and Joseph A. Edelheit-comment on the film from the perspective of "Diversity and Dialogue." Mel Gibson's Passion includes a useful bibliography and an index.
Advance reviews of The Passion of the Christ stirred fear that the film would intensify prejudice against Jews, blamed historically as "Christ-killers," and actually incite antisemitic violence. Two years after its release, the contributors to these volumes must honestly admit that no such fall-out resulted. In fact, according to a national poll of 1,003 adults conducted by Gary Tobin (cited in the essay by Edelman and Edelman in MGP, p. …