We live at a time in America where racial, ethnic and religious sensitivities run high. Mel Gibson’s upcoming movie, “The Passion,” is a case in point, having drawn criticism from Jewish interest groups such as the Anti-Defamation League, which claims that the movie “unambiguously portrays Jewish authorities and the Jewish Mob as the ones responsible for the decision to crucify Jesus.” In his guest column “Anti-semitism in film is part of larger, troubling political trend” (10/9), Boris Volodarsky similarly condemns the film as “rabidly anti-semitic” and part of “a larger, troubling political trend.”
I would agree with Mr.Volodarsky that the sources upon which Mel Gibson’s movie is based, the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, do not portray the “Jewish authorities and mob” in a particularly positive light. The gospels of the New Testament aren’t shy in describing Jewish complicity in Jesus Christ’s crucifixion. Each gospel clearly describes the arrest of Jesus by Jewish priests and a trial held by a counsel of priests, in which Jesus is condemned to death. John goes even further to use the collective epithet of “the Jews” in incriminating those who demanded Jesus’ crucifixion.
Like any historical account, the synoptic gospels are subject to criticism. The earliest of the gospels, Mark, was written at least 40 years after Jesus’ death, making it far from a firsthand account. Though many Christians uphold that the whole of the New Testament is the infallible word of God, critical analysis clearly reveals a document colored by the people, traditions, politics and social conditions of the time in which it was written. All four gospels were written during a time of hostility between mainstream Judaism and the rebel Christians–perhaps then it is no surprise that enmity between the two groups is manifested in the New Testament.
Let’s accept two things: first, that humans, governed by passions and prejudices and capable of error, wrote the Bible, and second, that Jewish people likely had some responsibility in the death of Jesus. Does this make the New Testament and consequently, “The Passion,” “rabidly anti-semitic”?
Not in the least. What occurred two thousand years ago should not influence our views on Jews or Christians today. The story of the New Testament has, and always will have, the potential to unleash feelings of anti-semitism. “Passion plays” were a popular theatrical genre in early 20th-century Europe, and often resulted in mob violence where synagogues were burned, and Jews harassed and sometimes killed. And it is possible that “The Passion,” or any retelling of the New Testament, could unleash anti-semitic violence, especially in the Middle East. Yet the responsibility for taming anti-semitism lies with the viewers, who can interpret the story of Jesus as the inspiration it was meant to be, or wrongly use it as evidence to support their anti-Semitic views.
Anti-semitism is reprehensible, but labeling “The Passion” or the Bible as anti-semitic is wrong and unfounded. The story of Jesus Christ — whether fact or fiction — remains one of the greatest stories in human history, and should not be censored to meet the demands of increased religious sensitivity today.
It is ironic that in an era where gratuitous profanity, violence and sexuality have come to be accepted standards in the entertainment industry, a movie about religion has drawn so much controversy. Released several weeks ago, the movie “Luther,” starring Joseph Fiennes, tells the story of Martin Luther, yet conveniently ignores his identity as one of the most infamous anti-Semites in history. The upcoming “Gospel of John” copies every word of John verbatim. Neither has received nearly as much criticism as “The Passion.” The reason why? Neither was bankrolled, produced, and directed by Mel Gibson.
Mel Gibson isn’t your typical Christian. Coming from a neo-traditionalist wing of the Catholic Church, Gibson believes that the current papacy has been illegitimate since the 1960s when the Church instituted liberal reforms. His father is even more dogmatic, and has been accused as a Holocaust denier and an anti-semite. As objectionable as his father’s views may be, they cannot be attributed to Gibson.
To say that the only way Gibson could attract people to a movie about Jesus would be by relying on “a healthy dose of anti-Semitism,” as Volodorsky contends, is not only absurd, but downright insulting to the world’s two billion Christians and people like myself who find the story of Jesus compelling. Gibson has sought to create interfaith dialogue about “The Passion” by inviting leaders of all faiths to preview his movie and has altered the screenplay to accommodate his critics. In no way does Gibson seek to blame the Jews of the 21st century for the death of Jesus — that would be anti-semitism. In fact, in one of only two scenes in which he appears on screen, Gibson places his own hand on the nail that will hold Jesus Christ to the cross, perhaps for him symbolizing the collective guilt of humanity. I truly believe that Gibson’s movie is an experiment in his faith and an attempt to accurately retell the stories of the four gospels in an artistic and powerful way to inspire.
Keith Urbahn is a sophomore in Saybrook College.