Editor’s Note: Mel Gibson’s movie generated a raging controversy, some of it fueled by Jewish objections to the film and some of it resulting from Gibson’s relentless efforts to generate prerelease buzz. Prior to its opening, Mel was all over the media, lamenting his persecution at the hands of “Christian- bashers” and liberals, even before it had actually begun taking place. Apparently, he saw himself as some sort of martyr, like his title character, and, with the help of right-wing Christians like Bill O’Reilly, their mutual martyrdom produced a box office bonanza. This article was published in The Jewish Voice monthly newspaper, which is weird, as I’m not even remotely Jewish. I guess I’m just a sympathizer. At the time, I took no position on Mr. Gibson’s alleged personal anti-Semitism, but it didn’t take long for him to prove just how much an anti-Semite he really is.
Opening to huge crowds and wildly mixed reviews, Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” is powerful, sadistic, beautifully filmed and sure to produce mountains of cash. Allegations of biblical inaccuracy and anti-Semitism aside, Gibson knows how to direct and market a blockbuster.
Despite some disconcerting noncanonical scenes, the movie is about as biblically correct as it could be, given the internal contradictions within the four Gospels. However, it does include anti-Semitic elements, because Gibson’s fringe strain of fanatical Catholic fundamentalism, combined with the nature of the Gospels, makes this inevitable. Any biography of Jesus faithful to the scriptures must, of necessity, be as anti-Jewish as the New Testament.
John is generally considered the most anti-Semitic of the Gospels. Of 71 references to “the Jews,” about half are pejorative. They persecute Jesus (5:16), seek to kill him (7:10) and stone him (8:59), and are the driving force behind his crucifixion (18:35). John has Jesus say of the Jews, “You are of your father, the devil” (8:44).
Paul wrote that God gave the Jews “a spirit of stupor, eyes that should not see … down to this very day” (Rom. 11:8). He also asserted they “killed the Lord Jesus … and are contrary to all men” (1 Thess. 2:14). Accusing John’s Gospel or Paul’s Epistles of anti-Semitism is like complaining that Wagnerian opera is disturbingly German.
The New Testament’s hatred of the Jews is often attributed to their rejection of Jesus’ messianic claims, but there’s more to it than that. The Gospels were written not as historical texts, but as religious tracts — theological press releases created to spread a new religion at a time when Roman rule was absolute.
According to most biblical scholars and historians, the earliest Gospel (Mark) was written circa 70 AD, just after the Romans razed Jerusalem. By that time, Judaism’s influence on Christianity’s evolution was waning, and the Gospel writers were anxious to differentiate and distance themselves from the rebellious Jews, who’d brought down the might of Rome on their heads. Mark and the later evangelists hoped to ensure their religion’s survival by convincing the Romans that Christians posed no such threat.
Contrary to Hollywood stereotypes, most Roman emperors didn’t persecute Christians. As a governing policy, the Empire had little interest in the religious practices of its subjects, as long as they behaved themselves and paid their taxes. (Hence, Jesus’ admonition, recorded in Matthew, to “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s” [22:21].) But the Jews incessantly resisted Roman rule, earning terrible reprisals, including the decimation of Judea in 70 AD.
Anxious to avoid the Hebrews’ fate, the Gospel writers were as solicitous toward the Romans as they were contemptuous of the Jews. The Hebrew mob reviles Christ, while a Roman centurion affirms his divinity (Mk. 15:39). Pontius Pilate, a brutal Roman governor, is ludicrously portrayed as a just man struggling to free the Messiah in the face of bullying from the conniving priests. Pilate washes his hands, symbolically absolving Rome, while, in one of Matthew’s vilest passages (27:25), the Jews seal their tribal guilt by asking that, “his blood be upon us and our children.” (In the movie, Gibson removed the subtitle for this line, but includes Jesus’ statement to Pilate that, “he that delivered me unto you has the greater sin” [John 19:11], thereby emphasizing the Jews’ blood guilt.)
When Rome became the throne of Christianity, and the murderous Roman Empire gave way to the somewhat less murderous Holy Roman Empire, the miseries of the Jews continued. New Testament anti-Semitism encouraged centuries of persecution — from Inquisitions to Crusades to Eastern Orthodox pogroms. The Gospels inspired Martin Luther’s bigoted screed, "On the Jews and Their Lies" (which advocates burning Jewish homes and synagogues), and the vicious Oberammergau Passion Play, both of which served as inspirational literature for Hitler and the Nazis.
However, libeling Jews as “Christ killers” flies in the face of theology. For Christians, Jesus came into the world for the express purpose of dying for mankind’s sins. This was the divine plan, and whoever killed him did so as the instrument of God’s will. It was theologically necessary that Jesus be killed in and by whichever nation he was born into — hence Gibson’s disclaimers that Christ was killed by mankind, not merely Jews or Romans.
Regardless of Gibson’s attitudes toward the Jews, “The Passion” is only marginally more anti-Semitic than “King of Kings,” the more-cerebral “Last Temptation of Christ” or the legions of other biblical epics. Brutally mesmerizing, with a terrible beauty that’s excruciating to watch, it should inspire anti-Semitism only among those bigots so hopelessly depraved as to harbor such hatreds already. (Whether Gibson himself falls into that category is a question best answered by those who know him and attend his church.)
The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) would have been wise to just ignore the movie, rather than helping Gibson play the martyr and assisting his campaign in generating millions of dollars in free publicity for his extremist theology. At the same time, I wish Mel would stop pretending that he’s the victim of some sort of Christian-bashing bias and just quietly cash his checks.
He should thank God he has the money to indulge his crackpot theories. And he should thank the ADL that an actor of modest intellect and limited scholarship is now being interviewed and quoted as if he were some sort of learned philosopher.
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