Capturing the Passion
A new film by Mel Gibson, to be released next year, depicts Jesus' last few hours. Jews and Catholics are raising concerns about its potential for stoking anti-Semitism.
(Page 2 of 2)
For example, only the Gospel of Matthew includes the cry from a small crowd in Pilate's courtyard, "His blood be on us and on our children." And only in the Gospel of John is the generalization "the Jews" used. Combining the two in plays has promoted the ideas of collective guilt and of a curse on the Jews.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Such ideas are not in the Gospels themselves, many say, but developed in church interpretations. Yet those interpretations have provoked anti-Jewish attitudes for centuries, and were a factor, most people agree, in the Holocaust and mob violence.
Some Jews and Christians suggest that the New Testament itself is anti-Semitic. So concerned are some over the continuing impact of historical interpretation that an October 2001 article in the Jewish magazine, Moment, asked, "Can Christianity be purged of anti-Semitism without changing the Gospels?"
While most people dismiss that idea, some Catholic scholars say the Gospels' human origins and historical context need to be emphasized more for regular churchgoers. Others researching the historical Jesus assert that the Romans, not Jews, killed him for political reasons.
Paul Maier, professor of ancient history at Western Michigan University, suggests the pendulum has swung from one extreme to the other - from blaming all Jews to claiming no Jews were involved. "That's wrong, too," he says. The final responsibility lay in Rome's hands, but historical sources support the Gospel narrative that some Jewish leaders were involved in the prosecution.
"Flavius Josephus is one of the sources, and in fact, he reports a similar event, when Jesus' half-brother was brought before the Sanhedrin in AD 62," Dr. Maier adds. "In that case, they stoned him without waiting for the Roman governor to arrive."
The way out of interpretations that provoke anti-Semitism, he says, is to point out that "a tremendous number of Jews never turned against Jesus during Holy Week," as Luke reports.
It also helps to clarify that the Gospel use of the phrase "the Jews" referred to Jesus' Jewish opponents, not all Jews. It was a common construction of writing of the time, Maier says.
Jewish groups have labored for decades, however, to change negative stereotypes that persist in passion plays, showing that official church teachings haven't been thoroughly spread. They're concerned, for example, that a survey shows that American Catholics who have come from Latin America still tend to believe the charge of deicide. Prominent Protestants have voiced similar beliefs.
ADL itself was formed in the early 20th century partly to confront negative views of Jews in the cinema. One of its earliest campaigns tried to influence Cecil B. DeMille's 1927 production of "King of Kings," with limited results.
"No one wanted in earlier days to be seen as criticizing the Christian scripture; that was an argument Jews couldn't afford to make until Christians made it themselves in the '60s and '70s," says Felicia Herman, a writer on Jews and the film industry.
Those involved in consultations on "the potent anti-Jewish images" in the Oberammergau and other passion-play productions have seen results, however.
"I've worked with mayors, directors, and stage managers, and through consultation with religious leaders and scholars over the past 30 years, they've removed a lot of the Jewish stereotypes," says Rabbi James Rudin, senior interreligious adviser for the American Jewish Committee.
"It's not just the text," he emphasizes. "It's the staging, the music, and costumes that say right away, 'This is the bad guy.'"
In recent years, passion plays have drawn busloads in towns around the United States, such as Eureka Springs, Ark.; Lake Wales, Fla.; Union City, N.J.; and the Black Hills of S.D. And Jewish and Christian leaders have taken pains to offer guidelines via the Internet to local churches for their productions.
But a powerful dramatic film by the Hollywood megastar promises to have global impact, many feel. "Given that this is radioactive material - that's the only way I can describe it - I'm urging Mr. Gibson to follow what others have done and consult prior to release," Rabbi Rudin says.
Gibson hopes to release the film next spring, perhaps around Easter, but he doesn't yet have a distributor. He recently flew to Colorado Springs, Colo., to test it out among evangelicals, where it sparked enthusiastic responses.
ADL says it has requested the same courtesy. "We don't have the arrogance to say, 'You should make these changes,' or to censor it," Foxman says. "We'd just like an opportunity to sensitize him about what history has taught us."
So far, while ADL and Mr. Nierob are in communication, it's not clear that that will happen.