Any honest discussion of Mel Gibson's movie "The Passion of the Christ" must begin with recognition of a few undeniable facts:
The movie has been made and will open in thousands of theaters worldwide this month. It will draw eager audiences and become a box office hit - due in part to prerelease controversy, the "must see" factor has reached an almost unprecedented level of intensity among both committed Christians and the cinematically curious. Mainstream Christian leaders of every denomination will embrace the film as the most artistically ambitious and accomplished treatment of the crucifixion ever committed to film. Some critics and scholars will criticize Mr. Gibson for his cinematic and theological choices in shaping the film. But any attempt to boycott or discredit the movie will, inevitably and unquestionably, fail.
No one who has actually seen the movie, as I have, would seriously challenge these conclusions.
All the debate about allegedly anti-Semitic overtones misses the point: The organized Jewish community and its allies in interfaith dialogue may not welcome "Passion," but overreaction will provoke far more anti-Semitism than the movie itself.
Gibson financed the film on his own precisely due to his determination to realize his own traditionalist Catholic vision of the Gospel story without compromise to the sensitivities of profit-oriented accountants or other religious perspectives. Jewish leaders feel wounded that he never consulted them on the script or historic details, but he also left out Protestant and Eastern Orthodox traditions.
The possibility of anti-Jewish violence in response to the film has been irresponsibly emphasized and has become, self-fulfilling prophecy. In parts of Europe and the Islamic world, anti-Semitic vandalism and violence occur daily, and hardly need a film by a Hollywood superstar to encourage them. In this context, Jewish denunciations of the movie only increase the likelihood that those who hate us will seize on the movie as an excuse for more of hatred.
The problem with traditional "passion plays" was always the unmistakable association of contemporary Jews with the staged oppressive Judean religious authorities. The high priest often appeared with anachronistic European prayer shawls, skull caps, and side curls. Gibson avoids such imagery - costumes and ethnicity of the persecutors make them look far less recognizable as Jews than do the faces and practices of Jesus and his disciples. The words "Jew or "Jewish" scarcely appear in the subtitles to his movie, spoken in Aramaic and Latin. By agonizing so publicly about the purportedly anti-Semitic elements in the story, the Anti-Defamation League makes it vastly more likely that moviegoers will connect the corrupt first-century figures with today's Jewish leaders.
Of course, rabbis and teachers will feel an almost irresistible urge to respond to interest inspired by "Passion," and will comment on ways in which the Gospel probably distorted the execution of Jesus. Many Jews understand that the canonized accounts were created at a time when early Christians had begun to despair of converting Jews, and instead focused their attention on proselytizing Romans. Hence, orthodox Jews come out looking very bad, while Pilate and other Roman authorities receive less blame.
Putting the New Testament account into this perspective may make sense with Jewish audiences, but insisting on this approach with our Christian neighbors is outrageous arrogance. We may not welcome the stories told by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, but Christians have cherished the record for 2,000 years. The fact that anti-Semites have used these accounts as the inspiration for their depredations may prove that those stories can be dangerous, but it doesn't prove them untrue. Jewish organizations must not attempt to take responsibility for deciding what Christians can and cannot believe. If they do, they force a choice between faithfulness to scripture and amiable relations with Jews. The notion that committed Christians can't have one without spurning the other does no service to Jews - or anyone.
Do we feel comfortable when some evangelical observers insist that they know more about the real symbolism of our Jewish rituals - emphasizing their supposed anticipation of Jesus the Messiah - than we do? I enjoyed a stimulating interchange with a pastor in Michigan who emphatically argued that the details of the Passover seder all related to Jesus of Nazareth - with the three matzos representing the Holy Trinity. He offers a Christian understanding of Judaism without demanding that our own teaching must be accordingly adjusted. In our pluralistic society, this pastor enjoys perfect freedom to do so. And we remain free to teach a Jewish understanding of the New Testament - with no effort to suppress or attack Christians for their traditional interpretations of their scripture. That's especially true for a Christian like Gibson who provides a vision of the crucifixion that falls unequivocally within the Christian mainstream.
From a Jewish perspective, the most unfortunate aspect of the dispute involves the renewed focus on Christian scripture when most Americans - including most Jews - remain ignorant of the most fundamental Jewish teachings - other than a general sense that Jews respect Moses and refuse to accept Jesus as Messiah. The interest of Jewish continuity and vitality can hardly be served by a battle over a movie that will succeed with the public regardless of our discomfort. Rather than wasting energy and good will to discredit an artful and ambitious film, we would do more for the cause of Judaism to emphasize the positive and productive aspects of our own sacred tradition.
• Michael Medved, author of "Hollywood vs. America," hosts a national radio talk show. This article is reprinted with permission from the Winter 2003/2004 issue of The Responsive Community quarterly.