Beyond Bias: The Passion of the Christ and Antisemitism
By Steven D. Greydanus
Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League declared recently that Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ is not antisemitic, and that Gibson himself is not an anti-Semite, but a "true believer."
This doesn’t mean Foxman is a fan of the film, or of Gibson. Foxman has been one of the film’s most outspoken critics; he has described the film’s portrayal of Jews as "painful to watch," and expresses worries that while the film is not itself antisemitic, it may fuel latent antisemitic sentiments in some audience members.
Another reason for his concern, interestingly, has to do with Gibson’s Traditionalist-leaning antipathy toward Vatican II and John Paul II — two touchstones of Catholic opposition to antisemitism. Although Gibson, unlike his sedevacantist father Hutter Gibson, appears not to be in schism from Rome, the younger Gibson does have Traditionalist sympathies that worry Foxman, who reasonably enough would like to see modern-day Passion plays be in the spirit of Vatican II and John Paul II.
Yet Gibson recently unequivocally denounced antisemitism in a prime-time interview with Diane Sawyer, declaring that "to be antisemitic is to be not Christian," and Foxman appears willing to take him at his word.
These are positive, constructive steps. For their part, Catholics and other Christians need to recognize that antisemitism is more than a mere canard or bogeyman.
Scapegoating "the Jews"
Though much atrophied from what it once was, and much more a fringe phenomenon, antisemitism continues to exist today. Readiness to blame "the Jews" for a raft of social, economic, and political crises, from the war in Iraq to anti-Catholicism in Hollywood, is still with us. Probably most common in Islamic and Arabic circles, it can still be found among Christians as well, both Protestant and even, despite magisterial condemnations, Catholic as well.
An extreme if vivid illustration was recently provided by vitriolic comments in the media recently from Gibson’s father, who claims to be Catholic — quite literally more Catholic than the Pope — though in fact he’s a schismatic. In fact, the elder Gibson directs nearly as much venom at John Paul II as at the state of Israel.
Yet even outside the Traditionalist fringe less virulent strains of antisemitism can still be found. Some years ago, drinking coffee after a perfectly ordinary vernacular Mass, I overheard an irascible Archie-Bunker sort comment that a recent TV broadcast depicting the Virgin Mary in a problematic light was probably the work of "the Jews or the homos."
On the other hand, I have also witnessed the opposite danger: cries of antisemitism where in fact none exists.
A decade or so ago, while working at a typesetting service, I was accused of antisemitism by a Jewish customer, who felt that I had begun deliberately ignoring her after taking her last name and realizing she was Jewish (though in fact her ethnicity hadn’t registered with me at all, and it wasn’t until much later, when my supervisor apprised me of her accusation, that I had any inkling of her heritage in the first place).
Ironically, I considered myself an active opponent of antisemitism. In fact, I was in the process of reading a Jewish exposé of one form of antisemitism, a book called Denying the Holocaust by Deborah Lipstadt, since I have an interest in general apologetics and wanted to be prepared to discuss and refute the claims of Holocaust deniers if necessary. Fortunately, I had little trouble persuading my supervisor that the alleged slight had been all in the customer’s head. (Actually, it may have had something to do with my head too; with my close-cropped blond hair, perhaps I looked like a neo-Nazi to her.)
False cries of antisemitism can be as hurtful and dangerous as antisemitism itself. Antisemitism is real and contemptible, but not everything branded with the label merits it. For example, the term has been thrown around in connection with individuals whose only offense was to express concern for Israeli policy toward Palestinians. Even Jewish critics of Israeli policy have been accused of "Jewish self-hate."
Antisemitic — and anti-Christian — misreadings of scripture
The Second Vatican Council condemned attempts to lay blame for Jesus’ death either upon all first-century Jews as a group or upon Jews of later generations (Nostra Aetate 4). In doing so, the Council indicated that these antisemitic misconstruals represented an actual moral danger (since the Church doesn’t go around randomly condemning false propositions, but only those that have actually been claimed by some and that represent a real moral danger).
But there are also dangers in the opposite direction. Opposition to antisemitic misconstruals has in some circles given way to criticism not just of distortions of the gospel but of the gospels themselves. Specific incidents in the passion narratives, including Jesus’ nighttime trial before Caiaphas, the charge of blasphemy, and the role of the Jewish leaders in pressuring Pilate to have Jesus killed, have been questioned or denied outright in order to minimize Jewish involvement and maximize the role of the Roman authorities.
Citing Jesus’ harsh rhetoric against the Pharisees and other Jewish leaders, some have gone so far as to accuse the gospels themselves of antisemitism. Of course, the Old Testament prophets themselves used similarly scathing language; if Ezekiel and Micah aren’t antisemitic, there’s no reason to say Luke or John are either.
Attacking the Christian scriptures is not just resisting antisemitic prejudice; it amounts to anti-Christian prejudice. One is no longer defending the dignity of one community, but attacking that of another.
The gospel claim, affirmed by Vatican II, that "the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ" (Nostra Aetate 4), is in no way inherently antisemitic. Every people and nation on earth has had leaders who have acted shamefully. The Greek Athenians killed Socrates. The English government did the same to Thomas More. The German Junkers helped keep Hitler in power. No one’s heritage is stainless.
The day Jesus died was not, let it be said, a proud day for the first-century Jerusalem establishment. That a film like The Passion of the Christ, even if it did no more than reflect the gospel accounts, should be "painful to watch" for non-Christian Jews is hardly surprising.
Caiaphas vs. Pilate
At the same time, the situation is more complicated than that. The Passion of the Christ does not simply reflect the gospels.
Compared to the gospels, the character of Pontius Pilate in the film is more nuanced and sympathetic than the canonical figure, while Caiaphas, the Jewish high priest, is somewhat less so. The film develops in detail Pilate’s inner struggle and his motivations for crucifying Jesus, yet no attention is given to Caiaphas’s motivations — which, as it happens, are according to John’s gospel remarkably similar to Pilate’s. Both men are trying to keep the peace and avoid potentially dangerous unrest; Pilate fears a riot, while Caiaphas fears a Roman crackdown.
Pilate’s inner struggle is developed well beyond what is set forth in the gospels. "If I crucify him," he reasons in a non-canonical line, "his disciples will start a riot; if I don’t, Caiaphas will start a riot." Yet 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 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 antisemitism.
The film softens Pilate’s character in other ways as well relative to the biblical picture. For example, even John’s gospel, of the four the most sympathetic to Pilate, depicts Pilate brushing aside Jesus’ dictum about truth with the dismssive remark "What is truth?" In the gospel, there is no indication that Pilate ever thought about this brief exchange again. But in the film it foreshadows a heartfelt discussion between Pilate and his wife Claudia about the nature of truth. Again, had Gibson permitted Caiaphas some of this soul-searching, the result might have been less subject to criticism.
Yet even Caiaphas isn’t without a degree of nuance and moral conflict, as I indicated in my review. Once again going beyond the gospel text, Gibson has Caiaphas witnessing the scourging at the pillar, not sadistically, but in a troubled and sympathetic way.
Compare this redemptive moment to the depictions of the nuns and priests in The Magdalene Sisters, not one of which has a single comparable moment of anything like moral conflict, let alone compassion, generosity, or any moral virtue. I consider The Magdalene Sisters anti-Catholic agitprop in good measure because of its unrelentingly prejudicial depiction of every single nun and priest. The same cannot be said of the Jewish leaders in The Passion of the Christ.
In fact, at least two members of the Jerusalem council or Sanhedrin, Nicodemus the Pharisee and Joseph of Arimathea, are depicted objecting the trial of Jesus and denouncing it as illegal. So the Sanhedrin isn’t depicted as monolithically opposed to Jesus.
Beyond that, there’s also at least one positive, sympathetic Jewish character who has no prior involvement with Jesus and is not depicted acting as or becoming Jesus’ disciple: Simon of Cyrene, the man who helps Jesus carry his cross. His role, too, has been beefed up; at first we see him prudently seeking to distance himself from the condemned criminal, but in the end compassion gets the better of him, and he dares to stand against the brutal Roman cohort and defend Jesus.
This picture of a typical Jewish man in the street suffering side by side with Jesus at the hands of the Romans is one of the film’s most moving images. Significantly, this scene includes an explicit, damning depiction of Roman antisemitism, as one of the centurions contemptuously spits the word "Jew" right in Simon’s face.
Another positive factor worth noting in the film’s overall treatment of Judaism is the Jewishness of Jesus himself and his disciples. For example, we see Jesus being called "rabbi," and a familiar line from the passover liturgy about being freed from slavery is quoted by the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene.
The most important point, though, is that responsibility for Jesus’ death in The Passion of the Christ is not something to be variously apportioned among the Roman and Jewish supporting cast. From the portentous opening scene, with its confrontation between Jesus and the tempter, the film is abundantly clear that the reason Jesus died was not the intrigues of Jews or Romans, but because he freely chose to lay down his life in atonement of the sins of the world.
The film begins with the agony in the garden, during which a satanic figure suggests to him that "No man can bear this burden" until Jesus decisively puts his foot down and ends the trial. Later, carrying his cross, there’s a moment when he says, catching sight of the Jewish priests, "No one takes my life from me, but I lay it down on my own accord" — almost as if to say that their involvement has been merely incidental. Then there is a deeply affecting moment with his mother, bordering on divine gallows humor, in which, battered and bloodied, and says to her, "See how I make all things new."
Finally, at the moment of the crucifixion itself, Mel Gibson’s own hand holds the nail to be driven through Jesus’ hand, symbolizing the director’s acknowledgment that it was finally for his own sins — for the sins of the whole world, not of any one generation or people — that Jesus died. That is the message of the film, and the final answer to concerns about antisemitism, and The Passion of the Christ never loses sight of it.