FEBRUARY 12, 2004
The Passion: Christians and Jews
Fr. John T. Pawlikowski and Rabbi David Sandmel
With all the praise being heaped on Mel Gibson's soon-to-be-released movie, The Passion of the Christ, many people may be wondering why many Christians and Jews are unhappy. Who can complain when a major movie star invests $25 million of his own money to make a historically accurate cinematic portrayal of Jesus' last hours? Here are some reasons.
According to all four Gospels, after Jesus is arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, he is taken by the (Jewish) guards to the High Priest. In the movie, the guards escorting Jesus brutally beat him, and, at one point, throw him over a bridge. The only reason he does not crash into the earth below is that his chains excruciatingly wrench him to a halt inches from the ground.
This episode appears nowhere in the New Testament. None of the Gospels provides any information about what, if anything, occurs on the way from Gethsemane to the High Priest. It is conceivable that those who arrested Jesus might have abused him. But it is no less plausible that the guards were sympathetic, even reluctant, to carry out their duty, and escorted Jesus to the High Priest gently and with dignity.
Gibson has embellished the Gospel text in order to intensify Jesus' suffering. But in so doing, he draws on his own imagination and a variety of non-canonical sources, including the visions of a 19th century German nun who lived at a time when anti-Semitic homilies were a common tool for rallying mobs against the Jews.
The Holocaust compelled many Christians to examine the historic role of churches in fomenting anti-Semitism. Christian sensitivity in these areas has fostered significant changes in traditional church doctrine and practice on the part of both Roman Catholics and Protestants, such as those stemming from the Second Vatican Council's landmark Nostra Aetate (1965), and the Declaration of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America to the Jewish Community (1994).
A primary focus of this investigation is a single verse in Matthew (27:24-25): "So when Pilate saw that he could do nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took some water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, 'I am innocent of this man's blood; see to it yourselves.' Then the people as a whole answered, 'His blood be on us and on our children!'" (NRSV)
In the history of Christian anti-Semitism, this verse serves as biblical warrant for holding all Jews at all times responsible for the death of Jesus. Augustine, John Chrysostom, Thomas Aquinas, and Martin Luther all use it in this way. Yet the verse occurs only in Matthew. It is not found in Mark, Luke, or John, and is thus not essential in depicting Jesus' death.
After a group of Catholic and Jewish scholars objected to the presence of the verse in an early script, Gibson said he would take it out. But the film as screened on Tuesday, January 21, 2004 here in Chicago and the following night in Orlando includes the verse, thus repeating for millions of movie-goers around the world a classical indictment of the Jewish People for deicide.
Gibson claims to have been guided by divine inspiration in making The Passion. That may be so. But by clear intent, Mel Gibson has chosen to fill the screen with stereotypical religious imagery that had virtually disappeared in this country, super-heated by extreme violence, which, as The New Yorker magazine's Peter Boyer puts it, is Gibson's "cinematic language."
It may be that the thousands of good Christians who have seen the film in invitation-only screenings, have been deeply touched by it without being at all influenced by its portrayal of Jewish brutality, and accusations of Jewish complicity in the crucifixion. But one cannot be sanguine about what will happen when the film is released for wide distribution during Lent, especially in Europe and Latin America, where anti-Semitism continues to thrive in societies bereft of the blessing of authentic religious pluralism.
Important Christian leaders such as Pope John Paul II have forcefully condemned anti-Semitism as a sin. The release of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ challenges Christians to address this topic frankly from the pulpit. Christians, especially, must honestly confront the history of anti-Judaism that is tied to the Passion. This challenge must be at the forefront of any evaluation of Mel Gibson's film.
Father John T. Pawlikowski is Professor of Ethics and Director of the Catholic-Jewish Studies Program at the Catholic Theological Union. Rabbi David Sandmel is the Crown-Ryan Chair of Jewish Studies at the Catholic Theological Union.