MARCH 11, 2004
Margaret M. Mitchell
Is Mel Gibson's movie, The Passion of the Christ, anti-Semitic? Can any account of the death of Jesus which is based on the gospels not be?
The four canonical gospels are "more or less" anti-Judaistic (a more precise term for this context, where other "Semites" are not in view), if what we mean by that is that they increasingly place the blame for the death of Jesus on Jews and Jewish authorities, and absolve the Roman occupational forces. The increasingly Gentile face of the Christian mission toward the end of the first century, coupled with the danger of association with Jewish rebels of any kind in the aftermath of the insurrection so massively squelched by the Romans in 66-74 CE, brought a convergence of motivations for Christian authors to torque the telling of the classic event of their faith. Blame was shifted away from the Romans and onto Jews and Judaism, who became more and more viewed as the other, and, inevitably and with catastrophic consequences, the enemy.
We can watch the gospel accounts progressively rewrite in this direction. Matthew and Luke copied and revised Mark, adding scenes, motifs and dialogue to accent Jewish culpability for the death of Jesus. To Mark's customarily sparse account -- which balances Jewish and Roman trials to demonstrate an equally ironic misunderstanding of Jesus' identity from both Jew and Gentile sides -- the later evangelists add such Special Matthean (SpMt) and Special Lukan (SpLk) material as: Pilate's wife's dream and begging of her husband not to harm Jesus (Matt 27:19), Pilate's three-fold pronouncement of his verdict of Jesus' innocence (Lk 23:4, 13-14, 22), Pilate's washing of his hands to show his own innocence of the blood of Jesus (Matt 27:24), and "the [Jewish] people's" infamous reply, "his blood be on us and on our children" (Matt 27:25). In these accounts, rather than Jewish authorities handing Jesus over to Pilate, Pilate in effect hands Jesus over "to their will" (Lk 23:25).
If we think of Mel Gibson as a modern-day fifth evangelist, we can ask, is his film "more" or "less" on this same trajectory of increasing blame on Jews for the death of Jesus? The verdict seems to me clearly on the "more," even "abundantly more," both for what Mr. Gibson chooses to include from the existing accounts, and, particularly, the "Special Gibson" (SpGib) material that conditions the interpretation of the traditional sources into which it is stitched.
The main and crucial interpretive choice is the singling out of the "high priest" as the one who faces off against Jesus from beginning to end. This imposing figure has a part far beyond the "high priest" of the gospels, who presides over the night tribunal, where he asks the definitive question of Jesus and pronounces the verdict of blasphemy (Mk 14:60-64/Matt 26:62-66; but compare Lk 22:66-71). As in the gospels, in the Gibson film the high priest figures largely in the night court, but here he has made it a kangaroo proceeding by inviting only a few council members while the rest (presumably more sympathetic to Jesus) are still home in bed (contradicting Mk 14:55/Mt 26:59, which emphasizes the presence of "the chief priests and the whole Sanhedrin"). And no gospel supports SpGib's placement of the trial in the Temple (this visual impression is confirmed by the official website, www.thepassionofthechrist.com: "the Temple in which Christ's religious tribunal occurs"). Furthermore, the high priest, the single highest Jewish leader of Roman-ruled Judea, here assumes a significance far out of proportion to his role in the gospels. In the gospels the high priest does not appear, per se, after the night trial; thereafter the leadership is always collective, and varied ("chief priests," "scribes," "elders," "the Jews," etc. [Mk 15:1//Mt 27:1-2; cf. Lk 23:1; Jn 18:28]). But in Gibson's "Passion," the high priest is an individual figure on whom the camera constantly focuses.
The singular cinematic Caiaphas presents Jesus to Pilate with an initial accusation found in none of the gospels: Jesus is guilty of having violated the Sabbath. This invention, placed at the key juncture, accents Jesus' religious incompatibility with official Judaism. In another key SpGib episode, the high priest appears at the scourging of Jesus by the Roman torture squad in the praetorium (directly contrary to Jn 18:28). Despite the few flickers of revulsion that play across Caiaphas' face, while even career Roman soldiers (to say nothing of the film's viewers) are disgusted at the gore the goons have produced by whipping Jesus, the high priest stays the course.
Above all, this film's high priest is given the singular responsibility of telling Pilate, that, no (despite the good prefect's wishes), the whipping of Jesus was not sufficient punishment; he must be crucified. This is also unparalleled in the canonical gospels, where the call to "crucify him" is always a group acclamation (Mk 15:13-14//Mt 27:22-23; Jn 19:6, 15). The telling role-reversal in this rendition can be seen in Pilate's statement (inverse to the Realpolitik of first century Judea at Passover time) that he must accede to the high priest's wishes, or otherwise Caiaphas will start a riot (cf. Jn 11:50).
But that is not the extent of the SpGib material on the high priest. This villainous representative of officious Judaism (curiously here a priest without a real temple, in a Jerusalem bereft of Passover, set in a Judaism peopled by a few good Jews, but with no depth of religious tradition) also tracks his prey to the cross. He travels on donkey-back out to Golgotha to stand out as a singular mocker of Jesus at the foot of the cross (compare Mk 15:29; Mt 27:38 "passers-by" and Mk 15:31//Mt 27:41//Lk 23:35 "chief priests with the scribes"). Indeed there he even receives a scolding from SpLk's good thief and a glance from Mary the mother of Jesus that can only mean one thing: "you did this."
This more subtle touch is rendered in sensurround seconds later as it is the high priest's own residence that is apparently targeted by the splitting of the curtain. The architectural ambiguity of the high priest's space (his house, the court, the temple all merged) obscures the fact that in the gospels it is the temple curtain that is rent, to symbolize Gentile access to the God of Israel (and a prophetic foreshadowing of its destruction decades later). But here viewers will see the split curtain for only a second before being treated to a more impressive new marvel. Pinpointing SpMt's earthquake of Mt 27:51 with "smart-bomb" precision, SpGib conjures up a tremendous crevice that demolishes the very foundation of the temple. Viewers are then offered the satisfaction of seeing this villainous representative of Judaism shriek in horror at his and its demise (all SpGib).
The aggregate portrait of Gibson's newly fashioned account is of Jesus targeted, flayed (and flayed and flayed), and finally killed, not because the Romans had to keep control over Judean rebels, but because the Jewish religious establishment, especially as personified by the high priest, could not accept the "blasphemy" that Jesus was the Messiah. Tellingly, the most authentic and sympathetic Jew in the film is mother Mary (seemingly the only one celebrating Pesach that year, she awakens in the night reciting a famous line from the Passover Haggadah). But the film chronicles her transition, not from motherhood of one son to an adopted surrogate, as SpJn has it (Jn 19:26-27) ), but from faithful Jew to Christian eucharistic devotee as she reverences the blood of her son, spattered even onto her face.
Such choices move this "Passion" from "more or less" to "more upon more."
Margaret M. Mitchell is Associate Professor of New Testament and Early Christian Literature at the University of Chicago Divinity School and Department of New Testament and Early Christian Literature in the Humanities Division .