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"THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST"

IS THE MOVIE ANTI-SEMITIC?

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About the Bible text:

One of the main sources of the screenplay, the Bible, certainly contains many anti-Judaic elements -- i.e. passages which portray some Jews in Jerusalem in about the year 30 CE in a negative light. But beliefs differ about the content and meaning of Bible passages:

bulletMost conservative Christians generally believe that the Bible is inerrant and that its bloodthirsty depiction of Jews in first century CE Palestine is accurate. If this is true, even though the movie is severely critical of the actions of some Jews at the time, its portrayal is truthful and cannot be regarded as hate literature.
bulletMany religious liberals and secularists generally believe that much of the description of Yeshua of Nazareth's (Jesus Christ's) arrest, trial, and execution consists of religious propaganda, inaccurate reporting, and events that never happened. For example:
bulletRobert Price comments: "The crucifixion account of Mark, the basis for all the others, is simply a tacit rewrite of Psalm 22, with a few other texts [from the Hebrew Scriptures/Old Testament] thrown in." 1
bulletJoe Nickell writes: "Jesus' exclamation -- 'My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?' -- comes verbatim from Psalm 22; also from the Psalm are the piercing of the hands and the feet, the casting of lots for the garments and other story motifs." 2

If the liberal position is true, then the Bible portrayal of the passion of Yeshua can be criticized as possibly being inaccurate and anti-Judaic.

Many portions of the movie accurately replicate the Gospel story. If there are any parts of the biblical story that are hate propaganda, one can accuse the movie itself of being equally biased.

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About Catherine Emmerich's visions:

The diaries which describe the visions of St. Anne Catherine Emmerich (1774-1824) provided much of the content of the screenplay. These visions were collected into book form by a noted German writer of the time, Brentano. The book, 'The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ'," is currently in print and is also available on the Internet 3,4 Emmerich was an Augustinian nun who lived in Germany who has been accused of having been anti-semitic. Author Joe Nickell writes: "Although at times Emmerick simply speaks of Jesus 'malicious and cruel enemies' (122), at other times, whether intentionally or not, she appears to malign an entire people. She refers to 'the cruel Jews,' (101, 106,115), and other disparagements -- reflected in Gibson's The Passion in the sinister countenances and action of Caiaphas's followers." 2 Rev. C. E. Schmoeger wrote a biography of biography of Emmerich in 1976. In an apparent reference to the blood libel hoax, Emmerich described one vision of an "old Jewess Meyr" who admitted "that Jews in our country and elsewhere strangled Christian children and used their blood for all sorts of suspicious and diabolical practices." 5

The writings of a second anti-semitic nun, Mary of Agreda, were allegedly used to add ot the screen play. She wrot, in reference to Jews: "Although they did not die, they were chastised with intense pain. These disorders consequently upon shedding the blood of Christ, descended to their posterity and even to this day continue to afflict this group with horrible impurities." Father Michael Cooper, director of the Center for Catholic-Jewish Studies at St. Leo University in Florida said: "Such attitudes had a direct influence on modern anti-Semitism and even on the Holocaust." 5

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About movie scenes added to the Biblical account:

There are a number of scenes which do not appear in the Bible but which seem to be fictional creations added to flesh out the movie. This was a necessary task, because a blending of the Gospel accounts of Yeshua's arrest, trial(s), flogging and execution would only provide material for perhaps a half-hour movie. Some additional scenes had to be created to extend the film to a feature length. Some viewers viewers will interpret the following scenes as containing significant anti-semitic material:

bulletYeshua is repeatedly beaten by the Temple guard after his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane for no apparent reason.
bulletPontius Pilate, the Procurator of Judea, is consistently portrayed as a weak-willed governor, frightened of the power of the Jewish priests, and lacking in confidence. In reality, he was harsh and vicious in his treatment of Jews. He had thousands of them crucified. "Philo, writing at the time, said that Pilate was calculating, cruel and brutal. He probably had a typical Roman's disdain for any other culture, thinking the Jews not nearly as civilized as the Romans." 6 He was later recalled to Rome to be tried for his brutal treatment of Jews. 6,7
bulletIn one scene, Judas is emotionally distraught at his prior betrayal of Yeshua. He is tormented by some Jewish children whose faces morph into demons.

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A key event in the Bible that is missing in the movie:

There are two crucial passages in John 11 and 18 which appear to show the mind set of the Chief Priest Caiaphas concerning the fate of Yeshua.

bulletIn the first passage, word had spread about Yeshua having raised Lazarus from the dead. The chief priests and Pharisees called a council to decide what to do.
bulletThe passage reads: John 11:48-57: "If we let him thus alone, all men will believe on him: and the Romans shall come and take away both our place and nation. And one of them, named Caiaphas, being the high priest that same year, said unto them, Ye know nothing at all, Nor consider that it is expedient for us, that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not."
bulletThe Interpreter's One-volume Commentary in the Bible 8 states that: "This counsel of the high priest Caiaphas is crucial. It is a decision made in hatred, fear and expediency. By sacrificing an innocent man, however much disliked by them, the council reckons that it can save its own position and prestige -- indeed can save the whole country from war and destruction. The people, or at least all too many of them, believe this man Jesus to be the Messiah. This means war with the Romans." Jews in Palestine during the 1st Century CE, expected a Messiah who was a political-military-religious leader who would bring liberation from the Roman Empire through conflict. Caiaphas reasoned that it would be better to have one man, Yeshua, killed rather than risk having the Romans remove the priests from power and destroying the entire country. The chief priest's decision appears to be motivated more by by love and concern for his fellow Jews and for his own power, than by any hatred of Yeshua.
bulletThe second passage, John 18:14, relates the events when the temple guards brought Yeshua before Annas and Caiaphas. The latter repeats his earlier statement: "Now Caiaphas was he, which gave counsel to the Jews, that it was expedient that one man should die for the [Jewish] people."
bulletIf one or both of Caiaphas' statements had been included in the movie, the viewers might have understood that the chief priest was willing to see Yeshua die rather than risk a war which would destroy the Jewish nation. Without these statements, the viewer will probably conclude that Caiaphas was motivated by hatred and envy of Yeshua.
bulletMovie critic Roger Ebert commented in his review of The Passion of the Christ: "The critic Steven D. Greydanus, in a useful analysis of the film, writes: 'The film omits the canonical line from John's gospel in which Caiaphas argues that it is better for one man to die for the people [so] that the nation be saved. Had Gibson retained this line, perhaps giving Caiaphas a measure of the inner conflict he gave to Pilate, it could have underscored the similarities between Caiaphas and Pilate and helped defuse the issue of anti-Semitism'." 10

This essay continues below.

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Possible changes to the movie to minimize incitement of anti-semitism:

Through most of the history of Christianity, Christian Churches taught that all "the Jews" -- whether they lived in the 1st century or 20th century or sometime in between -- were responsible for Yeshua's death. This belief is no longer current. The Roman Catholic Church, for example, abandoned this position in the mid 1960's. However, with thousands of years of tradition behind it, one might expect that the belief is still circulating among part of the public. It rises to the surface regularly like a bloated corpse. Gibson could have displayed a pro-active disclaimer, as Cecil B DeMille did in his epic movie, "King of Kings," that would state directly that the Jewish people are not responsible for Yeshua's death.

Mel Gibson did make one significant change to the movie before it was released to the public. Matthew 27:25 describes the Jewish mob pressuring Procurator Pilate to crucify Yeshua. Matthew, and Gibson, has the mob say: "Then answered all the people, and said, His blood be on us, and on our children." This one verse is probably responsible for more murders of innocent people than any other in the Bible. A. James Rudin, senior inter-religious adviser for the American Jewish Committee writes: "That curse appears only in Matthew, and is the religious taproot for the horrific charge that because the Jews killed Jesus, they merited eternal divine punishment for their 'crime.' Once an integral part of the world-famous Oberammergau Passion Play in Germany, all references to Matthew 27:25 were removed from the 2000 production and will not appear in future performances. It is ironic that Oberammergau, the 'grandparent' of Passion plays, no longer contains the incendiary verse from Matthew, but it does appear in Gibson's version." 7 The statement from Matthew gave theological justification to the charge of deicide -- the belief that the entire Jewish people were and continue to be responsible for the murder of God. Like other statements by actors portraying Jews in the movie, the line was spoken in Aramaic. Gibson had the English sub-title removed, so that only those viewers who were familiar with Aramaic would be able to understand the statement.

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Comments by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL):

Representatives of the ADL attended a private screening of a pre-release version of The Passion of the Christ on 2003-AUG.  They "voiced concerns that the film, if released in its present form, 'could fuel hatred, bigotry and anti-Semitism' by reinforcing the notion of collective Jewish guilt for the death of Jesus." Abraham H. Foxman, ADL National Director, said: "The film unambiguously portrays Jewish authorities and the Jewish mob as the ones responsible for the decision to crucify Jesus. We are deeply concerned that the film, if released in its present form, could fuel the hatred, bigotry and anti-Semitism that many responsible churches have worked hard to repudiate." In a press release of 2003-AUG-11, ADL's expressed concern that:

bullet"The film portrays Jewish authorities and the Jewish 'mob' as forcing the decision to torture and execute Jesus, thus assuming responsibility for the crucifixion."
bullet"The film relies on sinister medieval stereotypes, portraying Jews as blood-thirsty, sadistic and money-hungry enemies of God who lack compassion and humanity."
bullet"The film relies on historical errors, chief among them its depiction of the Jewish high priest controlling Pontius Pilate."
bullet"The film uses an anti-Jewish account of a 19th century mystical anti-Semitic nun, distorts New Testament interpretation by selectively citing passages to weave a narrative that oversimplifies history, and is hostile to Jews and Judaism."
bullet"The film portrays Jews who adhere to their Jewish faith as enemies of God and the locus of evil." 9

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References:

  1. Robert Price, "The incredible shrinking Son of Man: How reliable is the Gospel tradition?," Prometheus Books, (2003).  Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store
  2. Joe Nickell, " 'Visions' behind the Passion," Skeptical Inquirer, 2004-May/June, Pages 11 to 13.
  3. Anne Emmerich, "The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ," Tan Books, (Reprinted 1994). Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store
  4. Anne Emmerich, "The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ," online at: http://www.emmerich1.com/
  5. Joe Berkofsky, " 'Passions' Rise Over Gibson Film," Jewish Life, 2003-JUN-25, at: http://www.jewishportland.org/
  6. "Who killed Jesus?" BBC, at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/
  7. A. James Rudin, "A Jewish View of Gibson's 'Passion.' The film may transmit negative attitudes, stereotypes and caricatures about Jews." Beliefnet, 2004, at: http://www.beliefnet.com
  8. C.M. Layton, "The Interpreter's One-volume Commentary on the Bible," Abingdon Press, (1971), Page 720. Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store
  9. "ADL Concerned Mel Gibson's 'Passion' Could Fuel Anti-Semitism if Released in Present Form," Anti-Defamation League, 2003-AUG-11, at: http://www.adl.org/
  10. Roger Ebert, "The Passion of the Christ," 2004-FEB-24, at: http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/

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Site navigation:

 Home > World religions > Judaism > "The Passion" > here

or Home > Christianity > Personalities > Jesus > "The Passion" > here

or Home > Christianity > Relations with other religions > "The Passion" > here

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Copyright 2004 & 2005 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2004-MAY-21
Latest update: 2005-MAY-07
Author: B.A. Robinson

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