Gibson's 'Passion' remains a concern
over portrayal of Jews
Sunday, March 21, 2004
By Ann Rodgers
Nearly a month after its release, "The Passion
of the Christ" has made hundreds of millions of dollars for
producer-director Mel Gibson but remains a focus of concern among
scholars over its portrayal of Jews.
Next week, at least seven seminars examining the film's
historical accuracy, interpretation of the Gospels, portrayal of
Jews and its place in "Jesus film" iconography will be
offered by district schools and religious groups.
The level of local interest is consistent with this
region's history as a cradle of Catholic-Jewish dialogue. In 1965,
as the bishops of Vatican II prepared to declare that Jews had not
been rejected or cursed by God, Catholic and Jewish theologians met
at Saint Vincent Archabbey in Latrobe to discuss the history and
teachings of their faiths. It was a radical gathering in an era when
Catholics still offered Good Friday prayers for "the perfidious
Jews." The monks trucked in kosher food, and rabbis sat in on
A direct legacy of that meeting is the presence of
Rabbi Jason Edelstein, who teaches pastoral counseling to Saint Vincent
seminarians and team teaches a course, "Catholic-Jewish Dialogue," at
Saint Vincent College with the Rev. Campion Gavaler.
Edelstein wishes that "The Passion of the Christ" had
inspired grass-roots discussions on topics such as the different
Jewish and Christian understandings of redemption. But it has produced
constructive conversation, he said.
"I think everybody is talking past one another," he
said. "It seems to me a signal purpose of dialogue is not to
hear oneself talk but to listen to the other, to gain some understanding
of what has not been understood."
Gavaler shares his frustration. "In the past month,
we have heard just about every possible evaluation of the Mel Gibson
movie. Now we are even getting every possible evaluation ... of the
reviewers of the movie."
As Passover and Easter approach, "We Jews and
Christians ought to move beyond discussion of the movie. ... The
sources for our study are the Scriptures, not Mel Gibson's movie."
To move discussion forward, another heir to that early
Catholic-Jewish dialogue in Westmoreland County is sponsoring a variety
of conversations on the film. The National Catholic Center for Holocaust
Education, which Seton Hill University founded in 1987 to promote
teaching about the Holocaust and anti-Semitism in Catholic schools
Fran Leap, associate professor of religious studies
at Seton Hill, will speak on the Gibson movie in the context of other
films about Jesus. She was surprised that "The Passion" was
breaking box office records, because most Jesus movies are too controversial
for a mass audience, she said.
"Every age tries to communicate the message of
Jesus in the idiom of that time period and culture," she said. "There
is a spiritual hunger in our culture, and [Gibson] is tapping into
it and speaking to the culture in a way that it can hear. And I think
the genre of our culture is violence."
Conversions after 1979 film
But the most heated discussion about the movie is not
over R-rated violence but over its portrayal of Jews. From the Middle
Ages until 20 years ago, passion plays often presented Jesus as an
enemy of Judaism rather than as a Jew himself. Jews other than Jesus
and his disciples were depicted as bloodthirsty, greedy and demonic.
Pontius Pilate, whom the historical record shows to
be callously cruel, was portrayed as a gentle figure manipulated
by evil Jews. Finally, a verse that appears only in the Gospel of
Matthew, "His blood be on us and our children," was used
to promote the idea that all Jews for all time were guilty of killing
Although widely believed, that view was never official
Catholic teaching and was denounced by Vatican II in 1965. Over the
next 25 years, at the urging of the Vatican, Catholic and Jewish
scholars in the United States worked together to clean up passion
Some of the same scholars who worked on those efforts
reviewed a script of Gibson's film and pointed out many pre-Vatican
II anti-Semitic motifs in it. Gibson apparently removed some offending
scenes, notably a grossly inaccurate image of the cross being constructed
in the Jewish temple, and the English subtitle for "His blood
be on us and our
Most of the scholars, however, contend that the film
still suffers badly from being too kind to Pilate, unbiblical images
of bribery by Jewish religious authorities and other medieval stereotypes.
Other Jesus films have done much better, Leap said,
including the renowned evangelical "Jesus," which has been
dubbed into 848 languages and viewed more than 5 billion times since
John Heyman made it in 1979, resulting in a reported 195 million
conversions to Christianity.
That film's narrator says Jesus' conflict is with a
faction of Jewish leaders, rather than with all Jews, and Pilate
is clearly the bad guy. In "Jesus," which is based on the
Gospel of Luke, it is the Romans who push the temple authorities
to act against Jesus, Leap said.
In Gibson's film, which relies heavily on Matthew but
uses other Gospels and nonbiblical sources, the Jewish authorities
pressure Pilate to kill Jesus.
But Leap concedes that Gibson's film affected her differently
as a believing Catholic than as a professional scholar.
"Seeing it as an everyday Catholic, I would not
have picked out anti-Semitism as an overt message by any means," she
said. Because of her work, however, "I was aware of the way
in which he chose to put the film together" in ways that reflected
badly on Jews.
In contrast to some scholar's predictions, a survey
by a Jewish research group indicates that the film may be having
a positive impact on Christian views of Judaism.
The Institute for Jewish & Community Research surveyed
1,003 adults in early March and found that 2 percent believed that
Jews today are responsible for killing Jesus. An ABC poll before
the movie's release had found that 8 percent held such beliefs.
Although differences in wording and methodology could
account for the drop, a consultant who worked on the post-movie poll
said the discussion of interfaith issues surrounding the film might
have had beneficial effects. Of the 146 respondents who had seen
the movie, 5 percent said the movie made them more likely to hold
Jews responsible for Jesus' death but 12 percent said the film made
them less likely to do so.
Centuries of violence
"Some Jewish and Christian leaders have been understandably
worried that the film might unleash a wave of hostility toward Jews
and even erode the constructive effects of Vatican II. But this does
not appear to the happening," said Gary Tobin, president of
the Institute for Jewish & Community Research.
To date, one anti-Semitic incident appears directly
connected to the movie.
The week of its release, the pastor of a Pentecostal
church in Denver wrote "Jews killed the Lord Jesus" on
the church's letter-board sign.
It was promptly condemned by the National Association
of Evangelicals, and the 73-year-old pastor apologized and resigned
from the church.
Rabbi Alvin Berkun, of Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel
Hill, participates in Vatican-sponsored international Catholic-Jewish
dialogue and will be one of the speakers at a Duquesne University
forum on the film. This is a sabbatical year for Berkun, but one
of the few local commitments he is maintaining is a monthly class
on Judaism at Central Catholic High School in Oakland.
Berkun had initially asked Bishop Donald W. Wuerl to
put a rabbi in one Catholic high school, but Wuerl asked Berkun to
find rabbis immediately for all of them, which Berkun did.
Berkun discussed "The Passion of the Christ" with
his Catholic students, who were baffled by his criticism of it.
"I told the kids that we're seeing two different
movies. They're seeing it as an act of faith and an expression of
their religion. I'm looking at it for historical accuracy and I come
away from the movie with a very different feeling than they do."
Berkun was ordained in 1966, the same year as Wuerl
and the year after Vatican II officially denounced anti-Semitism.
The classes in the Catholic high schools are a testament
to the staying power of that declaration. But the flip side is that
post-Vatican II religious education about Judaism has been so effective
that his young Catholic students don't comprehend traditional anti-Semitic
"They've had 40 years of good conditioning on
the part of the church, so they are seeing Jesus suffering because
of their sin. The old canard of the Jew as the Christ-killer is not
on their radar screen," Berkun said.
The problems will come when the film goes outside of
North America, Berkun said.
"I'm in a lonely position. I don't want to come
across as a screamer who sees anti-Semitism everywhere I look. But
I know that it is raising its ugly head all over Europe."
It's difficult to predict how the Muslim world will
react to "The Passion of the Christ," said Rebecca Denova,
a part-time lecturer in religious studies at the University of Pittsburgh
and moderator of a major panel discussion on the film scheduled for
Sunday at Sixth Presbyterian Church, Squirrel Hill.
Muslims do not believe that Jesus was divine or that
he died to save humanity, but they have great respect for him as
a prophet, Denova said. When she has shown students the film "The
Last Temptation of Christ," which depicts a confused Jesus sexually
obsessed with Mary Magdalene, "My Christian students don't have
a problem with it, but my Muslim students are very upset," she
So Middle Eastern audiences may stay away from "The
Passion of the Christ" because they don't want to see Jesus
mistreated. "On the other hand, given the nature of it and the
history of these kinds of programs in the Middle East, the fact that
it is Jews doing this to Jesus is huge propaganda," she said.
Denova loathed the film, calling it "horrific." It
was made worse by the fact that Gibson was alerted to the anti-Semitic
elements and chose to include many anyway, she said.
But she agrees with Berkun that most American Christians
today don't understand how the image of Jews as Christ-killers fomented
centuries of violence against Jews and helped to create a culture
in which the Holocaust could happen.
"People are just clueless about this," she
said. "The kids in my classes are so young. So do I let them
go on not knowing about this, or do I teach them the history of hate
so they can understand it? If they don't understand the background,
the fear is that it could happen again."
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