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Introduction

I wrote this little essay around the time ‘The Passion Of The Christ’ came out. I still assert that ‘The Passion’ is not Anti-Semitic but, in light of Gibson’s anti-semitic comments he made at the time of his arrest for drunk-driving in July 2006, I was obviously wrong about Gibson’s personal anti-semitism.

Is The Passion Of The Christ Anti-Semitic ?

Many critics consider Mel Gibson’s film “The Passion of The Christ”
to be anti-Semitic.Gibson, they say, presents Jews as venal and
vicious, ugly, hook-nosed Christ-killers, deserving of hatred. One
has gone so far as to say that the depictions of the Jewish priests
and the high priest Caiaphas in particular are “exact, blatant
replicas”
of sub-human Jews portrayed in Nazi propaganda films, and
that “The Passion” has a “startling fidelity to the conventions of
anti-Semitic Hitlerian cinema”.
Another has written that “The
Passion” is a manifesto for incitement against Jews, the cinematic
equivalent of “yelling ‘fire’”, “little wonder that Jews across the
world are frightened by its phenomenal success”.

“The Passion” is not anti-Semitic. Jewish individuals and groups,
like all individuals and groups in the film, are presented in
spectrum of moods: positive, negative and neutral and as many are
depicted positively as negatively. The Sanhedrin is showed as split
on the legitimacy of Jesus’ trial , with some calling the trial a
sham and walking out on it. Ordinary Jewish women wail for Jesus as
he drags his cross along the Via Delarsso, Veronica wipes his
bloodstained face, Simon of Cyrene helps him and persons in the
crowds call out their support and are physically prevented from
helping (or attacking) him along the Via Dolorossa. Those Jews
portrayed negatively are in the main limited to members of the
Jewish religious establishment and their supporters, but not even
all of these.

Jews are not the only people in the film portrayed negatively. The
Roman soldiers, for example, are depicted as monstrous, sadistic
thugs and, in sum, Roman persons are depicted as uglier and crueller
than Jewish persons. In the film, in fact, the depiction of any
individual or group in the film whether Jew or Gentile depends not on
that person’s ethnicity, but on that individual or group’s attitude
toward Jesus.

In the Western genre of film the good guys wore white hats and the
bad guys black hats. Gibson employs a similar Manichean dichotomy to
tell his story. His good guys are those who are allies of, or
sympathetic or favourably disposed toward Jesus while the baddies are
those who oppose or assault Jesus or who fail to minimally consider
Jesus’ message. But the baddies are certainly not confined to Jews.
Even two of Jesus’ own followers, Judas and Peter, are shown with bad
or flawed moral character: Judas as Betrayer and Peter as Denier. It
is therefore simply incorrect to say that Jews are collectively shown
as evil simply because they are Jews. Jew, Roman or “Christian” the
film has goodies and baddies (or waverers) in each camp.

Contrary to the voices of many critics, “The Passion” does not affix blame collectively to “the Jews” or “all Jews” for the death of Jesus. The Passion does show that the group most determined to condemn Jesus to crucifixion were the chief priests of the Sanhedrin,
led by Caiaphas, in conjunction with the other most respected members of the Jewish religious establishment, the Pharisees. This is in accordance with the Gospel accounts.

The Passion also, however, ascribes responsibility for Jesus death to
all other parties. As Father Di Noia of the Vatican Doctrinal
Congregation has said:

“each of the main characters contributes in
some way to Jesus’ fate: Judas betrays him; the Sanhedrin accuse him;
the disciples abandon him; Peter denies knowing him; Herod toys with
him; Pilate allows him to be condemned; the crowd mocks him; the
Roman soldiers scourge, brutalize and finally crucify him; and the
devil, somehow, is behind the whole action.”

In other words in “The Passion”, no-one is innocent. While the
Jewish religious establishment of Jesus’ day are the prime movers in
Jesus’ death, the Romans and Christians too share guilt for what
happened to Him.

In addition, “The Passion” is quite clear in showing that Jesus’
crucifixion is the prophetic fulfilment
of the Old Testament festival
of Passover. Jesus is the embodiment of the lamb in the Passover rite
whose blood sacrifice provided forgiveness for the community. In
other words The Passion shows, in agreement with Christian theology,
that Jesus death was pre-ordained by God.

This fact about the film alone should make it plain that “The Passion” does not blame “the
Jews” for Jesus death or that they should be punished or hated for
the nonsensical crime of Deicide. Jesus dies, according to “The
Passion”, because it is his God-given mission to do so. As “The
Passion” agrees, no-one forced Jesus to the cross. He went to
Golgotha in obedience to God, in love for mankind and, by act of
personal will, declined opportunities to save Himself.

Finally, however, so there can be no doubt at all that Gibson does
not blame the Jews for Jesus death, and so that it can be seen
crystal clear that Gibson is not trying to inflame anti-Semitism,
Gibson in “The Passion” has declared himself, not “Jews”, to be
personally responsible for Jesus death
. It is Gibson’s hand shown in
the movie holding the spike which is driven through Jesus’ palm as He
is nailed to the cross. In this way, Gibson makes a plain statement
about his personal culpability for the death of Jesus.

When Gibson was asked by PrimeTime reporter Diana Sawyer “Who Killed
Christ?”, he replied “The big answer is, we all did. I’ll be first in
the culpability stakes here”
It is a strange anti-Semite indeed who
wishes to incite hatred against Jews by blaming them for Jesus’ death
yet proclaims himself guilty of the self-same crime.

Some critics of The Passion claim that the anti-Semitic nature of the
film can be deduced by comparing the physical and moral depictions of
the Romans (supposedly shown as handsome and noble) as opposed to the
Jews (supposedly ugly and wicked). Viewers who have seen the hideous,
bestial, Roman soldiers and their commanders will immediately dismiss
this accusation.

Critics also pay particular attention to the film’s handling of
Pontius Pilate,
claiming here that the film’s supposed anti-Semitism
is evident since that Pilate was an especially cruel man historically
but his cruelty is not referred to in “The Passion”. While this is
true, neither is Pilate’s cruelty referred to in the Gospel
narratives of the crucifixion. Since “The Passion”, by artistic
intention, confines itself to these final hours of Jesus life
Pilate’s historical cruelty is not germane to the story. The overall
tone of Pilate’s interactions with Jesus, if not every single word
uttered by Pilate in the film, is an accurate reflection of the
Gospel record.

Critics also point to anti-Semitic sensibilities in the movie’s crowd
scenes.
In the trial before Caiaphas, for example, Jesus is
physically assaulted by a large group of Jews, many wearing prayer
shawls. This scene however is not the product of an anti-Semitic
viewpoint. The prayer shawls identify the Jews present as “religious”
and thus as members of the Jewish religious establishment or their
supporters. It was these Jews specifically that were most opposed to
Jesus, who looked for opportunities to kill him and who finally
engineered his crucifixion. This group is not meant to be identified
with “all Jews”. In other crowd scenes where the general Jewish
population are represented a wide range of attitudes toward Jesus are
present. As Prof. Peter Haas, Abba Hillel Silver Professor of Jewish
Studies at Case Western Reserve University writes

“the Jewish community watching Jesus carry his cross down the Via
Dolorossa display a whole range of emotions. Some are happy, some
are indifferent, some are horrified, some run out to help him.
Gibson doesn’t play up the anti-Jewish content. In some cases, he
rounds the edges.”

A further way in which critics claim “The Passion” magnifies and
distorts the role of Jews in Jesus’ death is a supposed inversion of
the power relationship between Caiaphas and Pilate
. In “The Passion”
Pilate laments being trapped between the wishes of Caiaphas to
crucify Jesus and those of Jesus’ followers to have him released.
Pilate describes his predicament this way “If I don’t condemn him
Caiaphas will start a rebellion; if I do, his followers will.”
Critics argue that Pilate wielded absolute power in Palestine at that
time and would not have feared Caiaphas in any way.

The critics’ analysis of the power relationship between Caiaphas and
Pilate is well-based but the Gospels do record that Caiaphas
nevertheless successfully manipulated Pilate to grant the crucifixion
order. Caiaphas did this by insinuating to Pilate that he, Caiaphas,
would see to it that Pilate was reported to Rome for supporting an
alternative King (Jesus) than Caesar should Pilate fail to order
Jesus crucified. (John 19:12). In this way Caiaphas does successfully
exert pressure over Pilate, albeit in a manner not related accurately
by Gibson.

Selectivity

This question of Biblical accuracy leads us to the more sophisticated
criticisms of “The Passion”, namely that Gibson has selected from
amongst the Gospel narratives in order to present the most anti-
Semitic version of events possible. There is also a parallel claim
that the extra-Biblical material inserted by Gibson was specifically
selected in order to heap vilification on Jews.

Gibson chose to insert the following material which is present in
only one Gospel narrative:

  • The acceptance of generational blood guilt for Jesus’ death.by a
    Jewish crowd assembled in Pilate’s courtyard.
  • Pilate scourges Jesus in an attempt to satisfy the hostility of
    the Jewish crowd enough for them to refrain from demanding
    crucifixion. They insistently demand crucifixion. Only Jesus’ death
    will satisfy them.
  • Gibson chose to omit the following which is present in one or more
    Gospel accounts

  • Jesus arrested clandestinely at night because of his popularity
    amongst the people
  • Jesus arrested by a combined squad of Temple guards and Roman soldiers. The film shows the arrest detail beingcomprised only of (Jewish) Temple guards.
  • Overwhelming sorrow amongst the general population immediately after Jesus’s crucifixion

Inclusion Of Anti-Semitic Writings

Gibson also chose to insert the following extra-Biblical material
found in the writings of Anne Catherine Emmerich (1774-1824) an
Augustinian nun who lived in Westphalia, Germany. Emmerich lived in
a time and place where Jews were hated as Christ-killers and her
visions, endorsed by the Catholic Church, include horrible anti-
Semitic references
including the assertion that Jews used the blood
of Christian babies in secret rituals. None of the Emmerich
material below, selected by Gibson for use in “The Passion”,
appears in the Gospels.

  • <Jesus thrown over a bridge by the Jewish Temple guards
  • Jesus’ shoulder is dislocated by his crucifiers
  • Barabbas depicted as physically and morally monstrous, making the crowd’s choice to release him instead of Jesus even more culpable.
  • If we begin with Gibson’s choice of the blood guilt and pre-crucifixion scourging passages these elements certainly do heighten our awareness that the forces behind Jesus’ death were implacable.

    They were prepared to accept generational blood guilt and not prepared to accept anything less than the complete annihilation of Jesus. The question is, who does Gibson finger as the forces arrayedagainst Jesus? Jews…or everybody? Over to you Mr. Gibson

    “This film collectively blames humanity [for] the death of Jesus. Now there are no exemptions there. All right? I’m the first on the line for culpability. I did it. Christ died for all men for all times.”

    Yes, the Jewish crowd insistently bays for Jesus’s death and accepts
    blood guilt but in doing so represent the voices of all men. As Jesus
    stands for the Passover lamb, the Jewish voices here stand for the
    voice of all mankind. “We are guilty”.

    In a similar way, the overall effect of Gibson’s selections from the
    Gospels and his use of the writings of Catherine Emmerich are to
    emphasise the amount of suffering Jesus experienced and the guilt and
    culpability of all. The only exception I can see to this is the
    omission of Roman guards from the arrest detail. This is a glaring
    error and director Gibson needs to explain it.

    In relation to Emmerich, Gibson does not follow her visions as
    collected in Dolorous Passion slavishly, and at many points he
    chooses details that conflict with Emmerich’s account
    . Nor is his
    choice of extra-Biblical material limited to Emmerich. Some is drawn
    from wider Catholic tradition, for example the story of the woman
    Veronica, who ran out of the crowd and gently wiped sweat from the
    face of the exhausted Jesus with her veil on which remained imprinted
    his visage.

    Nevertheless, given that Emmerich is so un-selfconsciously anti-
    Semitic, Gibson’s use of her visions raises valid questions about
    Gibson’s own views toward Jews. Raising further concern is that Mel
    Gibson’s father is an unabashed anti-Semite who blames Jews for all
    manner of nefarious conspiracy.

    If Gibson is an anti-Semite, however, this is not shown in his film.
    “The Passion” does finger the Jewish religious establishment as the
    prime movers behind Jesus death, but this is in accordance with the
    Gospel record. The Passion, in accordance with Christian theology,
    holds all men accountable for the death of Christ and shows that this
    death was pre-ordained by God as Jesus’ saving mission on behalf of
    humanity. Jews are depicted as neither less nor more venal or ugly or
    morally flawed than anybody else and the film crticises even those of
    Jesus’ inner circle including Peter. Finally Gibson has made clear
    that he holds himself as guilty as anybody for the death of Jesus by
    filming himself in the act of crucifying Jesus and by very plain
    statements to this effect on the public record.

    It is a strange anti-Semite indeed who wishes to incite hatred
    against Jews by blaming them for Jesus’ death yet proclaims himself
    guilty of the self-same crime.

    But could Gibson still be an anti-Semite even if an unconventional
    one? He carries a relic of the anti-Semitic nun Emmerich and publicly
    honours his father, Hutton, even in the context of Hutton’s anti-
    Semitic remarks. Peggy Noonan of Reader’s Digest asked Gibson whether
    or not he believed the Holocaust was historical fact because of
    reports that Mel’s father doesn’t believe Hitler killed 6 million
    Jews. Gibson told Noonan: “My dad taught me my faith, and I believe
    what he taught me. The man never lied to me in his life.”
    Noonan also
    asked Gibson “You’re going to have to go on record. The Holocaust
    happened, right?”
    Gibson told her:

    “I have friends and parents of friends who have numbers on their arms. The guy who taught me Spanish was a Holocaust survivor. He worked in a concentration camp in
    France. Yes, of course. Atrocities happened. War is horrible. The
    Second World War killed tens of millions of people. Some of them were
    Jews in concentration camps…”

    Some critics consider Gibson’s responses to Noonan to be shameful, amounting to little more than a nuanced version of Holocaust denial. In his PrimeTime interview, though, Gibson plainly said that the Holocaust was the result of an evil
    racist pogrom

    “You know, do I believe that there were concentration camps where
    defenseless and innocent Jews died cruelly under the Nazi regime? Of
    course I do. Absolutely.
    It was an atrocity of monumental
    proportion… It’s like, it’s obvious. They’re killed because of who
    and what they are.”

    In other interviews, Gibson categorically denies holding anti-Semitic
    beliefs
    pointing out that anti-Semitism is anathema under many Papal
    Councils and Encyclicals and that racism is incompatible with
    Christian faith. Gibson’s views on the Holocaust appear then to be
    largely mainstream with some question as to whether he agrees with
    the generally accepted figure of 6 million killed. If Mel Gibson does
    not do enough for some critics to criticize his father Hutton for anti-
    Semitism then in all probability it is due to Mel’s desire to honour
    his father in accordance with the Ten Commandments or out of filial
    respect but neither Gibson nor his film “The Passion Of The Christ”
    are anti-Semitic.

    Jewish community opinion about this film is not
    nearly unanimous.
    It is not hard to find Jews who do not consider
    either Gibson or “The Passion of The Christ” anti-Semitic. A cursory
    “Google” search returns a number of comments in this vein. For
    example, Professor Haas, quoted above, Rabbi Norbert Samueson of
    Arizona State University “For the most part, the persecutors of Jesus
    are Romans- especially the soldiers – and not Jews”
    and Abraham
    Foxman, National Director of the Anti-Defamation League “The film,
    per se, is not anti-Semitic”.
    Critics too sure of their ground would
    do well to consider remarks such as these.

    Sources

    Mike Davis and Robert Jay Lifton, “And the Oscar for Bigotry
    Goes to…”, March 9, 2004, AlterNet,
    http://www.alternet.org/story.html?StoryID=18084. Last Accessed April 1, 2004

    Phillip Adams, “Passion at the forefront of religious bigotry”, March 23, 2004, “The Australian” News Interactive, http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/common/story_page/0,5744,9043496%5E12272,00.html, Last Accessed April 1, 2004

    Zenit News Agency, “Mel Gibson’s “Passion”: On Review at the Vatican.
    Exclusive Interview With Father Di Noia of the Doctrinal
    Congregation”, Vatican City, December 8, 2003,
    http://www.zenit.org/english/visualizza.phtml?sid=45863, Last
    Accessed April 1, 2004

    Reuters, “Gibson denies ‘Passion’ is anti-Semitic”, CNN
    Entertainment, February 15, 2004, http://www.cnn.com/2004/SHOWB-
    IZ/Movies/02/14/gibson.passion.reut/, Last Accessed April 1,
    2004 Marilyn.Karfeld, “Mel Gibson’s ‘Passion’ elicits strong
    reaction”, Cleveland Jewish News Internet Edition, March 10,
    2004, http://www.clevelandjewishnews.com/articles/2004/03/10/ne-
    ws/local/cpassion0305.txt, Last Accessed, April 1, 2004

    Philip A. Cunningham, “Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ: A Challenge
    to Catholic Teaching”, Center for Christian-Jewish Learning at
    Boston College, February 25, 2004, http://www.bc.edu/research/cjl/meta-
    elements/texts/reviews/gibson_cunningham.htm, Last Accessed April 1, 2004

    Gordon Moyes, “The Crucifixion of Mel Gibson”, Wesley Mission, Sydney
    Australia, http://www.wesleymission.org.au/ministry/sermons/040224.asp 24th
    February, 2004, Last Accessed April 1, 2004

    Peter J. Boyer, “The Jesus War: Mel Gibson’s Obsession”, The New Yorker, September 15,
    2003, http://www.wcnet.org/~bgcc/gibson.htm, Last Accessed, April 1,
    2004 “Mel Gibson’s Holocaust Comments Spark Controversy”, NewsMax, Feb. 5, 2004, http://www.newsmax.com/archives/ic/2004/2/5/110921.shtml, LastAccessed, April 1, 2004

    “Pain and Passion. Mel Gibson Tackles Addiction, Recovery and the
    Controversies Over His New Film” ABCNEWS.com, Feb. 17, 2004, http://-
    abcnews.go.com/sections/Primetime/Entertainment/mel_gibson_passion_0-
    40216.html Last Accessed April 1, 2004

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