The unprecedented biblical-cinematic debate on the merits and demerits of Mel Gibson's controversial Jesus movie, The Passion of the Christ, began long before its release nationwide in 2000-plus theaters on Ash Wednesday, February 25, 2004. A combined group of Christian and Jewish scholars convened by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' Advisory Committee on Catholic-Jewish Relations and the leadership of the Anti-Defamation League met in Spring 2003 to evaluate the film's biblical accuracy in conformity with the Catholic Bishops' Guidelines on Passion Plays.(1) Their judgment was two thumbs down in both categories, and they offered corrections to balance history and scripture and strong suggestions to purge the anti-Judaism motif in the script. Though Gibson and his film company, Icon, were knowledgeable and initially supported this ecumenical review, they rejected vehemently the scholars' advisory, threatened lawsuits, and informed the media that the script was "stolen and outdated."(2) The rest is commentary.
Gibson's Passion has produced in its wake a flurry of opinion pieces, syndicated columns, and cover stories in major newspapers (e.g., Forward, LA Times, New York Times, Washington Post, Village Voice), Catholic and Jewish Journals (e.g., America, Commonweal, Commentary, The New Republic, The New Yorker, and Tikkun), newsmagazines (e.g., Newsweek, Time, Vanity Fair), movie reviews, and study guides(3) on how to make sense of the willful death of the suffering savior of the Christian faith. The first response made it abundantly clear: the film has shocked and divided Christians and Jews, between and among themselves, in how to view and review the traditional Jesus of the Gospels. On one side there are Jewish literati Frank Rich, Charles Krauthammer, and Leon Wieseltier, who opined that the films cinematic exaggeration is intoxicated by blood, bloodthirstiness, and blood libel(4); religiously observant and politically conservative Jewish radio talk-show hosts, Michael Medved, Dennis Prager, and Rabbi Daniel Lapin, who see Jewish criticism as a mistake and misrepresenting Gibson's conscientious attempt to portray a non-antisemitic Jewish Messiah and his sympathetic Jewish followers; and Jews and Christians who express a deep concern that Gibson's dark portrayal of Temple leaders and the Jewish crowd renders asunder the good work done in Jewish-Catholic-Protestant dialogue since Vatican Council II. On the other side, there are Pentecostals and other evangelical Christians rediscovering a centralist Reformation theology that a suffering savior crowned with thorns, caused by our sins, is willed by God. What traditionalist Catholics never lost, born-again Christians are discovering, and both streams are returning to scriptural basics: a bloodied Christ on the cross is necessary for the salvation of mankind.(5)
Mel Gibson focuses on the Passion, not the life or resurrection of Christ. By doing so, he leaves out most of the elements of the Jesus story familiar to Christians, and consequently he adds non-biblical gruesome details foreign to the Gospels. Case in point, the mean-spirited visions of the 18th-century Sister Anne Catherine Emmerich detailing the arrest and flagellation of Jesus eked out by shouts from a crowd of bloodthirsty Jews. Her problematic diaries, "The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ,"(6) added to other distressing historical and linguistic inaccuracies, make a sham of Gibson's claim that he was striving for historical accuracy.(7) Nonetheless, countless Catholic and Protestant church leaders maintain the oft-quoted but disputed papal review: "It is as it was. …