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The Passion Stirs Passion

  • Stephen Hays,
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Mel Gibson's forthcoming film on the Passion of Christ has spawned controversy. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) has expressed concern that it "will fuel the hatred, big-otry and anti-Semitism that many responsible churches have worked hard to repudiate," as well as "undermine Christian-Jewish dialogue" and "turn back the clock on decades of positive progress in interfaith relations." You would almost suppose that another Kristall-nacht was just around the corner.

This criticism, which is all too typical, conceals a number of unspoken assumptions and feline insinuations. For if this were a valid accusation against a cinematic adaptation of the Gospel accounts, then, presumably, the same allegation could be leveled against the Gospels themselves, and any sermon based thereon.

What are we to make of this reasoning? How we answer depends in part on how the question is cast, and whether we accept the way in which the issue has been framed. And two questions command our attention: Who, if anyone, would be inflamed by the movie; and should they be so inflamed?

Notice, first of all, the studied ambiguity of the statement. Who will it inflame? Will the Southern Baptist Convention declare a pogrom? Will Presbyterian elders firebomb a synagogue or yeshiva? By being deliberately vague, the allegation evades any evidentiary basis.

Some have suggested that Muslims will be whipped into a homicidal frenzy. To be sure, that would be nothing new. But since Muslims don't even believe that Jesus died on the cross, they can hardly accuse the Jews of being Christ-killers. And since Muslims don't believe in the divinity of Christ, they can scarcely hurl the charge of deicide.

Like many religious cults, Islam pays lip-service to Christ in order to trade on His good name. But Muslim piety is not Christocentric. In any event, Muslims must either be converted or defeated, but not appeased.

Others have suggested that violence will break out in traditional bastions of Catholic piety. But the state of Catholicism is at such low ebb in modern-day Europe that it is hard to divine the basis of this apprehension. Even in Latin America, the Roman Church is facing stiff competition from the Charismatics.

But an underlying assumption is that the movie will inflame anti-Semitic sentiment because the Gospels, on which it is based, are anti-Semitic. This charge is commonly made, but where is the documentation? Historically, some of the churches with the worst track record in their treatment of the Jews (e.g., Roman Catholicism; Russian Orthodoxy) used to withhold the Bible from the laity. On the other hand, Jews have generally been well received by the Reformed community in Scotland and Holland, and many Fundamentalists have a pro-Israel policy somewhere to the right of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane. Indeed, it could be argued that the reason Jews have fared so much better in America than across the pond is precisely because the Pilgrims revered Old Testament Judaism1. Danish and Norwegian Lutherans took great personal risk to shield their Jewish neighbors during the Nazi occupation.

In addition, contemporary Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox believers all have access to the Gospels. Yet the reading of the Gospels by modern-day believers has not provoked any persecution of the Jews. So why should a movie based on the same theme? If Jews resent the imputation of collective guilt, they ought to avoid imputing collective guilt to the church.

Secondly, take note of how the charge shifts the issue from a question of what is true to a question of what effect the film may have. But if the film is an accurate adaptation of the Gospels, and if the Gospels are an accurate record of a historical event, then why should Mel Gibson be blamed if some nuts can't handle the truth?2 If the movie were either implicitly or intentionally anti-Semitic, then the alarmist rhetoric would be well-founded. But to condemn a historical film irrespective of its factual veracity panders to irrational fears and anxieties, as if the common good is better served by telling lies. This is the regular resort of secular totalitarian states, such as the Third Reich, which dare not trust the public with too much truth, and therefore repair to a ministry of propaganda.

Suppose, for example, a pro-Palestinian group were to express "concern" that The Ten Commandments "will fuel the hatred, bigotry and anti-Arab sentiment that many responsible Jewish leaders have labored to repudiate?" As a matter of fact, don't the Ultra-Orthodox invoke the Torah to justify their right to settle on the West Bank?

Or suppose that some Italians took offense at the Gospels because they paint the Roman authorities in a bad light? Or suppose that PETA took exception because the Gospels depict the donkey as a beast of burden (Mt. 21:7)?

Should a Hasidic Jew shave his dreadlocks before boarding a bus to Harlem, lest his appearance incite some members of the Black community to violence?

One of the problems with shifting the question from fact to effect is that the argument cuts both ways. Christians could just as well object that the ADL is intolerant and censorious of Christian freedom of expression. Indeed, it looks like the ADL is guilty of prejudice by stereotyping Christian opinion and demonizing the Jewish Gospels.

The accusation also leaves to the imagination of the audience the question of whether the movie would have an inflammatory effect because it (or the Gospel account) really is anti-Semitic, or because it is merely and mistakenly perceived as such? Innuendo lets the audience assume the worst while letting the ADL off the hook in case the audience takes the bait.

The ADL is also concerned about the role of blood money in the Gospels. This is an allusion to Judas as the hit-man of the religious establishment (Mt. 26:3-5,14-16; 27:3-10). Although modern Jews are naturally sensitive to slanders about Jewish blood libels and Shylockian stereotypes, it is grossly anachronistic to read the Gospels through the lens of the medieval smear tactics. Let’s not forget the regrettable fact that both sides engaged in character assassination, whether the Protocols of Zion or the Toledot Yeshu. Defamation is a two way street, and needs to be barricaded in both directions.

Shifting the issue from a question of objective truth to a question of subjective impressions substitutes emotional coercion for reasoned argument: "If you don't give me what I want I'm gonna hold my breath till I turn purple!" When you consider the distinguished and disproportionate contribution that Jews have made to the life of the mind, it is a pity when some indulge in such anti-intellectual appeals and scare-tactics.

Casting this as an issue in terms of anti-Semitism assumes, without benefit of argument, that this is an inter-faith rather than intra-faith dispute. But, of course, this controversy goes to the core of Jewish identity, and at two levels. On one level, it is a dispute between Jews who accepted the Messiahship of Jesus, and Jews who rejected his Messiahship3. The New Testament is a Jewish document. With the possible exception of Luke, who was quite likely a proselyte or God-fearer, the Gospels were written by Jews, as was rest of the New Testament canon.

That, in turn, raises the incendiary question of who is the true Jew. But the question is incendiary however you answer it, for one party is right, and the other wrong. If the goal of ecumenism is to relegate the New Testament to the status of a banned book, then the time is past due to turn back the clock on interfaith dialogue.

On another plane, you have modern Messianic Jews who accept the Messiahship of Jesus, while you have many Gentiles, as well as other Jews, who reject His Messiahship. Moreover, many modern Jews who reject the Messiahship of Jesus are neither ethnic Jews nor observant Jews. In what sense does a secular Ashkenazi Jew represent the Semitic side of the equation? Conversely, how can the Gospels be anti-Semitic when the hero of the Gospels is a Jew, and a Jew who died for the Jewish remnant — past, present, and future?

There is a difference between killing Christ and rejecting Christ. The events leading up to and including the execution of Christ are naturally limited in time and place. Who killed Jesus? The Gospels give a pretty precise answer. His death was engineered by the Sanhedrin and the Jerusalem rabble. Even then the Gospels do not tar every Jewish leader (Lk. 23:50-51; Jn. 7:50; 19:38-42). And nowhere does the New Testament authorize a Christian to persecute a Jew for rejecting Jesus. Originally, it was the Jews who persecuted the Christians. Messianic Jews are persecuted in modern-day Israel, while Jewish-led lobbies such as the ACLU and People for the American Way are working hard to outlaw Christian expression in America.

In this general connection, much has been made of Matthew 27:25 — even though it will not be used in the film. And yet this statement is not an editorial comment by Matthew, but rather, a quotation. In context, Pilate doesn't wish to take the blame for executing Jesus, so the riff-raff let him off the hook by claiming responsibility. But to equate this stock Semitic idiom (cf. 2 Sam. 3:28-29) with a doctrine of collective bloodguilt confuses the narrative viewpoint with the hyperbole of the mob. The Jews of Jerusalem were complicit in the death of Christ (Mt. 23:35). But not all the Jews, and not for all time. Even at the narrative level, Messianic Jews, as well as the Diaspora, clearly fall outside the purview of the quote.

Are the Gospels anti-Semitic because they are critical of the religious establishment? By that token, the Essenes are also anti-Semitic. Are the Gospels anti-Semitic because they attribute the death of Christ to the Jewish authorities and the common mob? By that token, the Talmud is anti-Semitic4.

Unlike the execution of Christ, rejecting Jesus is not limited in time and plane. For that matter, it is not limited to a particular ethnicity. Apostate Christian lands such as modern-day Europe and the United Kingdom are, I would say, in a position of moral parity to that of first century Jews who rejected the Messiah.

Not all Jews are critics, and not all critics are Jews. On the one hand, there are Jews like Michael Medved, Dennis Prager, David Klinghoffer, and David Horowitz who, despite some qualms and caveats, have come to the defense of the film. On the other hand, I'm sure there are some Christians of a Cameronian5 stripe who would dismiss the entire exercise as a Popish plot and infringement of the Second Commandment.


1. Cf. Abram Vossen Goodman, American Overture: Jewish Rights in Colonial Times (Philadelphia, 1947); Abraham Isaac Katsh, The Biblical Heritage of America Democracy (Ktav, 1977); Rabbi Daniel Lapin, Enemies or Allies?: American Jews and Christian Conservatives as Political and Moral Allies (2003).

2. Some Jews do challenge the Gospels accounts on the grounds that the trial of Christ would violate Jewish law. For a brief rebuttal to this objection, cf. C. Blomberg, Jesus & The Gospels (Broadman & Holman, 1997), 344.

3. More precisely, Jesus was convicted for His assumption of divinity and His denial of the Oral Torah.

4. "On Passover Eve we hanged Jesus of Nazareth" (BT, Sanhedrin 43a).

5. The Cameronians were the wing of the Covenanters who rejected the Established Church of Scotland, as brokered by William and Mary. They are the object of Sir Walter Scott's two great novels: Old Mortality, and The Heart of Midlothian.

  • Stephen Hays

Stephen Hays doubled-majored in history and classics at Seattle Pacific University and is currently both a student and teacher's assistant at Reformed Theological Seminary. He resides in Charleston, SC.

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