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Why Jews Are Concerned Over Mel Gibson’s Rendering of “The Passion”
by Scott Shore
15 February 2004

It seems that the major selling point The Passion is its faithfulness to New Testament depiction. Here is a major problem.

I am an observant, religious Jew.  I have never suggested the banning of Mel Gibson’s new film, The Passion. I have, in fact, worked tirelessly to build the bridges between religious Christians and Jews in the belief that we have far more in common in our agenda for America than anything theologically that might divide us. I have the utmost respect for thoughtful, believing Christians. I even understand the spiritual gain that many Christians may feel in watching The Passion. Moreover, I do not believe any religious group should try to hinder or suppress the artistic expression of those who produce a religious film.

Having said all of that, I am concerned with the release of The Passion. There is a long, historical reason for this. The story of the Passion has often led to violent outbreaks of anti-Semitism throughout the centuries--- not just once or twice but thousands of times in thousands of places! It often served historically as the dramatic precursor to arouse the people to a pogrom. I do not believe this is a likely outcome among the great majority of Americans of good will.  Nevertheless, it should at least be honestly acknowledged that this is the historical context in which Jews rationally anticipate this film

I also wish to make clear that I respect the right of Christians to express without harassment their Christian faith in film. It is unreasonable for Jews or others to expect Christians to water down their faith to suit non-Christians or to be politically correct. Every faith of goodwill and peace should celebrate its own heritage. The problem I have with the descriptions of the film (I have not seen it yet) is the question of historical accuracy. It seems that the major selling point of the film is its faithfulness to New Testament depiction. Here is a major problem.

The Passion is a Hollywood film. As a Jew who has read the New Testament in greater detail than many Christians have read the Jewish Bible, its commentaries and its simultaneous Oral Tradition, I have serious issues with the historicity of the film as it has been described by fans and critics alike. The New Testament does NOT describe in vivid detail the actual scenes or common dialogues surrounding the Passion. We have no idea of the size of the crowds or overall tone of the animosity or involvement of the average Jew in this matter. It is highly unlikely that Jesus attracted massive crowds to this event. Jesus, for what it’s worth, was one of many Jews proclaiming themselves to be the Messiah at that point in history. Messianic excitement and would-be messiahs were common fare in those days. While the events surrounding Jesus are of the utmost importance to Christians, they were marginal matters in the life of the Jewish people at that time. Mel Gibson is well within his rights to make the Passion a “super-event” for artistic reasons. A ruckus of a small, angry crowd does not make for a particularly spectacular film. In general, Mr. Gibson took enormous artistic license in the way he chose to portray the vituperative size, tone and feeling of events surrounding the New Testament account. While Mr. Gibson is no doubt a highly devout Catholic, he is also an incredibly talented director with a sense of dramatic impact.

For the record, there is an entirely different portrayal of the life of Jesus within Jewish history and recorded within the Talmud. It would serve no useful purpose to go into those details. The point is that contemporaries of Jesus had very different accounts of the character and events surrounding Jesus’ life.  Some devout Christians have tried to “prove” their account of events by quotations from the New Testament. This is a somewhat dicey proposition in that there are conflicting accounts within the New Testament itself.  Moreover, those who believe the literal accuracy of other texts could produce outrageous films. A Muslim cinematic interpretation of the life of Jesus would point to the inevitable conclusion that Jesus was a precursor to Mohammed based on the historic infallibility of Koranic texts.

If Christians want to claim that The Passion is a dramatic and artistic portrayal of the death and resurrection of Jesus there is no issue. If these same people try to suggest that this is a historically accurate (indeed literally exact), film then they have little basis in Scripture to support that. If Gibson wants to talk about dramatic effect that is one thing, but he should not try to claim he is representing historical events in the way they occurred.

Finally we come to my last concern. All good drama shows a dramatic contrast between protagonists and antagonists. Gibson understands this and by all accounts he represents opponents of Jesus and the unlikely hordes of Jews surrounding the event as malicious caricatures. They are apparently portrayed as conniving, unethical, smarmy and mean-spirited people. Many of these people are part of the Holy Temple and represented those who were part of an unbroken line of those anointed since Moses. The oft-quoted Hillel was among the Pharisees. Much of Jesus’ ethical teachings are straight from the Talmud and from his own rabbinic teachers and can be found in many Jewish texts. To libel an entire group of Jewish sages and saints is a frontal attack on Judaism.  As Jesus was himself an observant Jew who followed Jewish Law and the teachings of the Sages, it is highly unlikely that the attacks against the Sages came directly from him. It is far more plausible that they are the opinions or interpretation of his apostles.

To summarize, there are five good reasons for Jews to be concerned about The Passion. First, it has traditionally led to a few zealots being led to violent action against Jews. Secondly, The Passion is a historical Hollywood drama. The literal scenes around the Crucifixion are not based on any Scriptural foundation beyond the simple facts. Three, the mobs and hateful vituperation make for a good movie, but shabby history. Four, no attempt is made to understand the Jewish view of the same events. This means no sympathy or understanding of the Jews is possible and thus no opportunity for dialogue is opened. Jews are simply demonized and this, quite expectedly, is going to be received as an affront and attack on the Jewish people. Five, the Jews have a very deep and proud understanding of the events surrounding both Christianity and Islam. The so-called “vipers” of the Sanhedrin were great sages and holy men (See Paul Johnson’s, The History of the Jews).  It is as insulting to Jews to attack their character in this way as it would be for Muslims or Jews to characterize the Christian apostles or saints as “charlatans” in a major blockbuster film and not expect anger and mass indignation. One can only imagine the outrage.

This article, as I have made clear, is not meant to stifle the film. It is only meant to share with my Christian friends the angst felt by many Jews based on history and the always constant fear of an anti-Semitic outbreak that would tear asunder the bonds of understanding and amity that currently exists between many Christians and Jews.

Scott Shore is a political commentator and management consultant in Providence, Rhode Island.

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