Anti-Semitism in 'The Passion': A Rabbi Reflects on Mel Gibson & the Gospels

By Greenberg, Irving | Commonweal, May 7, 2004 | Go to article overview

Anti-Semitism in 'The Passion': A Rabbi Reflects on Mel Gibson & the Gospels


Greenberg, Irving, Commonweal


Mel Gibson has fashioned the most successful Passion play of all time. His film, The Passion of the Christ, is weak in its presentation of Jesus' teaching, but is a powerful retelling of the Gospel stories, complete with miracles, cosmic portents, and signs--though it is bloody and bordering on the sadomasochistic. The film is gripping and emotionally wrenching, but it focuses one-sidedly on the suffering and death of Jesus and hardly deals with the Resurrection.

The Passion will be seen by tens, perhaps hundreds, of millions of people--that is, by far more viewers than all previous Passion plays combined. The audience will therefore include many more people than have participated in the laborious, painstaking task of rearticulating Christian theology to stop it from spreading hateful images of Jewry. The film is likely to reach many more clergy and active Christians than were reached by all the statements, books, films, and conferences held to end stereotypical, demeaning interpretations of Judaism--one of the main foci of Christian dialogue with Jews for more than a half century. Whether the film will roll back sixty years of effort to theologically reconstruct Christianity in order that it no longer serve as a source of hatred (or justification for hatred) against Jews remains to be seen. One hopes that the American spirit of democratic respect for fellow human beings and disdain for hatred will defeat the film in this regard. In America, hopefully, even those devout Christians who love the film's telling of the Passion will mentally distance themselves or block out the rage at the Jews that the film evokes.

Like the classic Passion plays, The Passion is primarily built on Gospel accounts, but combines differing elements from all four Gospels to heighten the hatefulness of the Jews. The Gospels refer to Jesus' flogging but do not portray it. In Matthew and Mark, Pilate has Jesus scourged and hands him over to be crucified. In Luke, Pilate offers to let Jesus off with a flogging but is shouted down by the crowd, which insists on crucifixion. (The text gives no indication that Jesus is actually flogged.) Only John separates the flogging from the Crucifixion, and portrays Pilate again offering to let off Jesus with that first punishment only--but Pilate is overruled by the shouting Jewish mob. Gibson follows John. However, Gibson first represents and expands the horrific beating and torture--to make all the more cruel the Jewish insistence that Jesus be further tormented to death by crucifixion.

The external source material in the film systematically heightens the culpability and the inhuman hardheartedness of the Jews and their leaders. Gibson inserts an androgynous Satan into the Jewish group urging Jesus' death, literally putting Jews in league with the devil. Only Matthew has Pilate's wife urge the Roman governor to "have nothing to do with an innocent man." (The other Gospels do not mention her at all.) Gibson turns this fleeting reference into a portrait of Claudia, a good Roman who pleads with her husband to save Jesus, anguishes over Jesus' suffering, and brings a white fabric to wipe up his blood--all to highlight the Romans' compassion for Jesus and their reluctance to kill him, as compared with the Jews, who are hard and unyielding. Only John--and Gibson--have Pilate declare to the Jews who wish to execute Jesus, "Take him away and try him by your own law." Only John and Gibson have Jesus console Pilate by stating, "It is he who has delivered me to you [that is, the Jews] who has the greater sin." Only Gibson (borrowing here and in other places from Anne Catherine Emmerich, a nineteenth-century teacher of contempt) outdoes John in graphically heaping up Jewish responsibility and absolving the Romans. Gibson alone has the Jews fling Jesus in chains off a cliff as another of the hideous torments inflicted before the Crucifixion.

The whole film is a flagrant violation of Vatican II's declaration Nostra aetate, which stated that "what happened in his Passion cannot be blamed upon all the Jews then living . …

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