Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" came into my life last April. Gene Fisher, the ecumenical officer for the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, convened a group of scholars to assess Mr. Gibson's script - its historical fidelity, use of New Testament materials, and consonance with Catholic instruction.
Why did we on the panel care? This was, after all, just a movie. The answer, in part, lay with Gibson's own publicity efforts. In numerous interviews, he'd presented his movie as an act of God, insisted that it was the most historically accurate depiction of Christ's passion ever filmed, and paraded his own Catholic piety as authentication of his movie.
But Gibson had revealed some historical gaffes. One source for his story came not from the first-century Gospels, but from Anne Catherine Emmerich (1774-1824), a stigmatic nun whose visions enunciated an anti-Semitism typical of her time. (She believed that Jews used the blood of Christian babies for rituals.) And, finally, website stills of the movie were marked with Hollywood gore: "Realism" had less to do with history than with celluloid violence.
All this concerned those of us who work to promote interfaith dialogue and good relations between Christians and Jews. We volunteered time and expertise to give Gibson a confidential report that reviewed the problems, historical as well as (from a Catholic point of view) doctrinal, with his script. We framed our presentation by naming one precise source of concern: The long, toxic Christian tradition that Jews were - or are - particularly responsible for the death of Jesus, and how this has led to anti-Jewish violence.
Icon Productions leaked our report to the media, presented our assessment as an "attack" on Christianity, and has worked hard to keep the controversy alive until the movie's release Feb. 25. Right-wing Jewish pundits have been lined up to report that they see no problems with the movie, and that criticisms of it "lack moral legitimacy." Catholic concern has been deemphasized and Jewish concern emphasized to enhance the idea that the controversy is a Christian vs. Jews argument. Gibson's critics, say "Passion" apologists, attack his rights, and thus the rights of all citizens.
Let's be clear: This is an action flick. Gibson has taken skills honed in "Lethal Weapon," "Conspiracy," and "Payback" to construct his take on the last 12 hours of Jesus' life. If you've seen the final half-hour of "Braveheart" (a medieval action movie) you've essentially seen "Passion." This time, Caiaphas is Longshanks.
Again, so what? It's just a movie. But this movie - unlike, say, "The Last Temptation of Christ" or "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" - risks more than religious offensiveness, and does more than simply entertain with violence. "Passion" stands in the echo chamber of traditional Christian anti-Judaism. The tradition at its most benign has excused, and at its most malicious has occasioned, anti-Jewish violence for as long as Western culture has been Christian. Jews viewing "The Last Temptation" were hardly going to feel enraged at Christians. Someone overstimulated by "Massacre," if tempted to act out, would act on his own. Christians enraged at the supposed Jewish treatment of Jesus have often acted out against Jewish neighbors in their midst, and felt morally and theologically justified in doing so.
Will "Passion" have a negative effect on society? Might it promote anti-Jewish violence? I think it well might. Long cultural habits die hard. Debate around the film has already occasioned ugly anti-Semitic slurs. My university and I have received ominous threats from a furious Christian "Passion" fan. ("I am telling you now that if this woman continues to be employed as a professor, you will be putting your university at risk.") If the publicity-oriented "debate" stirs such feelings now, will the true debate stir fewer feelings once the public can actually view the movie? I doubt it.
Gibson reshot some scenes after the prerelease attention. Will he actually follow some of the scholars' suggestions and make his Bad Guys - the Jewish high priest, most of his council, and most of Jerusalem's Jews - less extreme? I don't know.
Will the anti-Semitism the movie has already stirred lead to violence? I think in the US it won't, despite the violence of our culture. Anti-Semitism just hasn't had the defining role here, historically, that it has had elsewhere. The long tolerance of anti-Jewish violence in Europe, and the current climate of violence against Jews - in Istanbul, South America, Britain, and France - inclines me to be much less sanguine about the effects of "Passion" there.
In recent years in Europe, violence against Jews - if those Jews are Israelis - has been explicitly excused by appeal to the tradition that "the Jews killed Christ." Horrific suicide bombings during the current intifada inspired a church in Edinburgh, over Easter 2001, to display a painting of the crucifixion with Roman centurions and officers of the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) at the foot of the cross. A political cartoon in Italy's La Stampa commented on the IDF's cordon around armed Palestinian gunmen in Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity with a baby Jesus, crouching in his manger at the sight of an Israeli tank, crying out, "Oh, no. They don't want to kill me again?!?"
My point is that the toxic tradition - Jews killed Jesus; all Jews everywhere are culpable; when something bad happens to them, it is no less than they deserve - is very much alive. The film, if unaltered, is inflammatory, and potentially dangerous.
My responsibility is to speak out - not against the film so much as against the ignorance and the unselfconscious anti-Judaism that it so dramatically embodies. Gibson has given us a priceless opportunity for public education. Out of the ivory tower, past the Cineplex, into the churches and interfaith communities, this teachable moment now serves as the silver lining that shines within the looming dark cloud of Gibson's "Passion."
• Paula Fredriksen, a Bible scholar, is a professor at Boston University. This article is reprinted with permission from the Winter 2003/2004 issue of The Responsive Community.