Mel Gibson’s much discussed film "The Passion" opens today in more than 2,000 theaters across America, and its first week box office is projected to be among the largest in history. Jews are right to be concerned about the film. Passion plays have a long history of inciting anti-Semitic pogroms, even without the mesmerizing impact of the big screen and the Technicolor special effects at Gibson’s disposal.
Adding to the concern is the fact that Gibson’s father Hutton Gibson is a blatant anti-Semite and Holocaust denier, who just last week told a radio interviewer that the concentration camps were just work camps and that Jews seek control of the Catholic Church. Both father and son belong to a renegade sect of Catholics "traditionalists" that reject the reforms of Vatican II, which cleared the Jewish people of the charge of deicide, and which Hutton Gibson calls "a conspiracy of Jews and Freemasons." Mel Gibson pointedly refuses to disassociate himself from his father, saying, "That man never lied to me in his life."
Finally, Gibson himself admits to having relied on the ecstatic visions of an 18th century nun, Sister Anne Catherine Emmerich, in preparing his script. Those visions add a number of lurid anti-Semitic details to the already plentiful material to be found in the Christian Gospels themselves.
Still one can question the wisdom of Jewish groups, particularly the Anti-Defamation League of America, that have raised an uproar over the film. That uproar may benefit ADL fundraising. It is less clear, however, that it has been good for the Jews. All the hue and cry has achieved to date has been to boost interest and allow Gibson to turn the film into a "cause" in Christian eyes.
The crux of the problem is simple: Jews cannot attack Gibson’s film without being perceived by Christians as attacking their most sacred texts. Given the relative numbers of Jews and Christians in the world that is a losing strategy.
Had Jewish groups been less eager to take the lead in criticizing the film, they would have found many eager Christian allies. The Catholic Church for one has no interest in promoting a filmed version of the theology of a sect that rejects current papal teaching.
Catholic scholars affiliated with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops have pointed out the deviations in the original script from Church teachings and from the Gospels themselves. More telling, they have pointed out the ahistoricity in the Gospel portrayal of Pontius Pilate as a unwilling executioner. Even by Roman standards, Pilate was an exceptionally brutal ruler, who was summoned to Rome at least once on account of his brutality.
The modern Church employs historical criticism in reconciling the rampant contradictions between the four Gospels themselves, and accepts that the Gospel writers downplayed the primarily Roman agenda in Jesus’ execution in order not to run afoul of the Roman authorities.
While Jews have no desire to be victims of Christian hatred again, the Church has no interest that its followers once again become the agents of that hatred.
Evangelical Protestants do not accept the type of historical criticism of the Gospels employed by the Church. On the other hand, most of them are philo-Semites, and, unlike Catholics, continue to view the Jews as the Chosen People. Nor are those who view every word of the Gospel as inerrant likely to be happy with the importation of elements from the visions of nuns living nearly two millennia later.
An approach like that of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s "An Appeal to People of Faith" that asks Christians of good will to do for Jews what they cannot do for themselves – i.e., ensure that "The Passion" not become a vehicle for sowing anti-Semitic hatred – while eschewing any desire that Christians disavow or censure their own Scriptures, has much to recommend it.