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.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The last time Mel Gibson felt really passionate about directing a film he won the Oscar, and "Braveheart" became a global blockbuster. This time it's a more personal passion: a movie arising out of a rediscovery of his faith. Without studio backing - he's funding it himself - he hopes his film on the last hours of Jesus' life will have a much greater impact.

"My hope is that this movie has a ... message of tremendous courage and sacrifice [and] that it will affect people on a profound level and somehow change them," he recently told a Christian website.

While the movie is not quite in final shape, "The Passion" already has had an unforseen impact - stirring concerns about the potential of this latest version of the passion play to provoke anti-Semitism.

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"He's an international icon and does movies which deliver messages that reach the world, so it's of great concern," says Abraham Foxman, director of the Anti-Defamation League.

ADL and an ad hoc group of Jewish and Catholic scholars have stirred debate over "The Passion" by reviewing a "leaked" early version of the screenplay. What they read prompted an 18-page report sent to Gibson and a public airing of their concern.

As the dramatic story of the trial, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus, the passion play has for centuries been powerful and popular entertainment - on stage and screen - in the Christian world. But historically, productions have reflected negative images of Jews and the long-time church teaching that the Jewish people were collectively responsible for Jesus' death. Violence against Jews as "Christ-killers" often flared in their wake.

While the Catholic church officially repudiated the concept of collective Jewish guilt in 1965, and most Protestant churches have followed suit, the shift has not yet fully permeated popular thought.

Encouraging sensitivity

Jewish and Christian leaders have felt compelled to engage with those producing passion plays - from "Jesus Christ Superstar" to stagings at Oberammergau and US tourist spots to local church performances - to encourage greater understanding and sensitivity.

Gibson's film comes at a time of intense concern among Jews, as anti-Semitism has already surged for other reasons in several countries, especially in Europe and the Muslim world.

The film star had stated his intent to present the passion story "just the way it happened" based on the Gospels - with dialogue in Aramaic and Latin and including vivid depictions of Jesus' scourging and brutal treatment.

Part of the stir apparently arises from the fact that Gibson comes from a family of "traditional Catholics" - which, in general, do not accept the teachings of the church since Vatican II. (He has built a church in California, for example, where the mass is held in Latin.)

It was at that Second Vatican Council that the Catholic church, among other key steps, repudiated the "deicide" charge, the collective guilt of Jews and the idea that they were cursed by God for the crime.

In addition, in a New York Times interview last March, Gibson's father caused dismay by saying that the Holocaust did not happen. There were also reports that the director relied not only on the Gospels, but on non-scriptural Catholic sources from a period tinged by anti-Semitism.

"All this is enough to raise the level of anxiety on what this may be about," Mr. Foxman says.

Gibson's Icon Productions responded by threatening to sue over the "stolen" screenplay, which it said did not represent the nature of the final film.

"To be certain, neither I nor my film are anti-Semitic," the star said in a statement. "Anti-Semitism is not only contrary to my personal beliefs; it is also contrary to the core message of my movie ... [which is] meant to inspire, not offend."

"A lot of people have been quick to jump to conclusions, and unjustly so," says Alan Nierob, Gibson's publicist, in a phone interview. "I'm a second-generation Holocaust survivor. Do I feel there is reason to be concerned? I do not."

Initial statements suggested that the US Conference of Catholic Bishops had also been involved - a staff member helped organize the screenplay review by the scholars - but the USCCB apologized to Gibson and distanced itself from the project, saying it hadn't authorized the group. The Catholic scholars have stood by their concerns, however, though they have returned the script and agreed not to discuss it publicly.

Since the shift in teaching at Vatican II, Catholics and Jews have engaged in extensive dialogue. The church has revised its religious education materials, and Pope John Paul II has made strengthening Jewish relations a priority.

In 1988, US bishops issued a guide specifically on the presentation of Jews in passion plays.

While Christians might assume that relying on the Gospels would be a satisfactory approach, scholars say that the four Gospels tell the story differently, and combining elements from them can be misleading.

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.

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.

New Testament seen as anti-Semitic

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.

Hard labor of changing stereotypes

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.

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