The Passion of the Christ L'Chaim
March 2004

Is Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" Anti-Semitic?

by Jonathan Chisdes

For the last several months, one of the biggest questions on everyone's mind was whether or not Mel Gibson's new movie, "The Passion of the Christ," was anti-Semitic. Since only a small select few were allowed to preview it, we could not get the final answer until it opened on February 25. The only problem after that, however, was that so many people, in both Christian and Jewish communities, had differing views. After reading so many contradictory opinions, I figured the only way to find out for myself was to pay the $6.50 and see it for myself.

Quite frankly, it wasn't as bad as I expected. In fact, I'd give it three stars. It was dramatic and moving and a passionate, heart-wrenching story. Little details like the night Jesus was captured, which happened to be the first night of Pesach, Mary says "Ma nishtana haliala hazeh," and it also being a full moon, gave it interesting historical authenticity. It was also neat to recognize Latin and hear how similar the Aramaic was to Hebrew. However, because of the focus on the last day of Jesus' life, the movie took his death out of the context of his teachings, so you don't really know why he was considered such a threat.

The one big difference between this film and other Jesus films is the role of the priests and the Jewish crowd. Apparently that's more typical of your average Passion Play, especially the controversial one at Oberrammergau, Germany. It may be more faithful to the Gospels and other extra-biblical sources, but we must remember that just like our own Jewish Biblical books and midrashim, these are not clearly-supported historical documents; rather they are religious texts written generations after the fact. They should not be treated as if they are the word-of-God or even accurate, objective news reports.

I must admit it was odd to me to see such a vicious Jewish crowd and unfeeling priests, especially High Priest Caiaphas. Odder still to see Pontius Pilate portrayed as sympathetic to Jesus and easily controlled by the priests when historical documents depict him as mean, cruel, and certainly unbending to the whims of local leaders under his control.

The crux of the anti-Semitism argument centers around a line shouted by the crowd after Pilate washes his hands: "His blood be on us and our children." This line comes from the Gospel according to Matthew (27:25). Neither the books of Mark, nor Luke, nor John mention this, yet this key line has been taken over and over again through the centuries to justify more than a millennium of Jewish persecution.

Gibson had announced, just before the release, that he would cut the offending line; however when I watched the movie, at the point just after Pilate washes his hands, the crowd shouts something in Aramaic which is not subtitled. (I was frustrated throughout the film because ten to fifteen percent of what was spoken was not subtitled.) I feared that this controversial line had not been taken out; only the subtitle was deleted. My fears were later confirmed by Rabbi David Wolpe who wrote in an article posted to Beliefnet that indeed that is what the crowd says. Does this mean that the line will be subtitled in foreign versions of the film?

So now, we finally come to the big question. The question everyone wants to know but no one can agree on the answer. Is this film anti-Semitic? Well, I don't think Gibson directly set out to provoke anti-Semitism but he either underestimates or is insensitive to the world's view of Jewry. I can also see why many people who are not acutely aware of the history of anti-Semitism, and particularly the role of Passion Plays in anti-Semitic acts, say that this film is not anti-Semitic. From the point of view of a typical Christian, this film is a moving recreation of the last day of their Lord. Of course there were forces raging against him; his enemies were Jews and Romans because those were the people he was surrounded by. He had to die--for the sins of all humans; therefore his death was ultimately a good thing and those who caused it were only working the will of God even though that might not have been their intent. They do not make the connection between the guilty priests and the Jerusalem crowd of 2000 years ago, and the Jews of today--there is such an incredible gulf between those two groups. Besides, it is not the primary focus of the film. However, when put in the context of the 1000-year history of Passion Plays and the rising anti-Semitism in Europe and the Middle East, I can definitely see why Jewish leaders are concerned about the effects of this film.

I don't really think that anyone today hates Jews because they are "Christ-killers." People hate Jews because they are jealous of our success, they resent our morality, they dislike our religion or culture, they disagree with Israeli policy, many reasons…. But even assuming that many Jews were responsible for Jesus' death, hating contemporary Jews for that would be like hating everyone who lives in a Southern state because 200 years ago a few Southerners kept slaves. I believe that the "Christ-killer" epithet is as meaningless as "kike." Just a baseless insult for a real reason that is probably subconscious. It's an excuse. One more thing to hate the Jews for.

What I am saying is that, in my view, this movie will not create anti-Semitism where it had not existed before. Most Christians will not be moved to hatred of the Jews simply by watching this movie. However, for those who are already anti-Semitic, this film could bolster their anti-Semitic rage; they could use it as an excuse to commit violent acts against Jews. Giving Gibson the benefit of the doubt, I do not believe that was his purpose in making the film, yet it may prove to be an unintended consequence.

As of the writing of this article, I have not yet heard of a single anti-Semitic act caused by this film, but it has only been out for less than two weeks. What will happen when it is released overseas, time alone will tell. Then Gibson may have a lot more to answer for. But let's hope not.