Why Many Christians Don’t Have a Problem with The Passion of the Christ

by Mary C. Boys


In April 2003 I was a part of a team of seven scholars—four Catholics (including Philip Cunningham, Lawrence Frizzell and John Pawlikowski) and three Jews (Michael Cook, Paula Fredriksen and Amy-Jill Levine)—who reviewed a script of Mel Gibson’s film-in-the-making (then called The Passion). Eugene Fisher of the Secretariat of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and Eugene Korn, then director of Interreligious Affairs of the Anti-Defamation League, sent our report confidentially to Mr. Gibson on May 2, 2003.

Our analysis, which we released publicly only on February 25, 2004—the day the film opened in the United States—outlined six major points for consideration.1 The first four addressed concerns arising from the steady round of publicity long before the film opened, and continuing up to the present, that The Passion of the Christ was the most authentic representation of the Passion ever produced. We concluded that: (1) a film based on the script we read would promote anti-Semitism because of its virtually inexorable portrayal of Jews as blood- thirsty enemies of Jesus; (2) the script contained significant historical errors; (3) Jesus’ opponents were one-dimensional “bad guys,” with the drama and pathos driven almost entirely by violence; and (4) the portrayal of the person and mission of Jesus was partial and skewed. Two further points addressed ubiquitous press reports depicting Mel Gibson as a “good Catholic”: (5) the script drew upon New Testament texts without regard for Catholic principles of biblical interpretation; and, therefore, (6) The Passion of the Christ violated many significant Catholic teaching documents about interpreting the Passion and death of Jesus. The serious flaws we identified were so integral to the script that we believed only substantive revisions could ameliorate them.

In retrospect, we were incredibly naïve. We did not anticipate how readily Icon Productions (Gibson’s company) would manipulate our report while refusing to address its substantive claims. Nor in our wildest dreams could we have envisioned the intensity of media interest our confidential (albeit unsolicited) advice to Mel Gibson would generate—thereby inviting condemnation from many of Gibson's fans. The following e-mail is representative:

Abraham Foxman [national director of the Anti-Defamation League] recently described The Passion as a “dangerous practice” that could cause “hate crimes against Jews.” HOW INSULTING! The Passion is no more than a visual representation of GOSPEL truth, how dare the ADL, with your help, label this modern-day work of religious art (on the level of the Sistine Chapel) as a hate crime. With graphic displays of degenerate sex, senseless violent and anti-Christian messages coming out of Hollywood on a daily basis, you choose to attack a devout Catholic’s masterwork? I can only wonder at how many pieces of silver were your consulting fees.

Far more serious for my personal faith is the fact I must now decide if the Catholic Church has indeed succumbed to the attack of modernism and been corrupted in such a way to have been abandoned by God. I must now seriously consider if the branch of the church to which Gibson’s family is a member is the one true Church. I have never spoken to anyone of the cloth or a supposed servant of God in this manner, but your feeble abandonment of the crucifixion story has swept away any respect that I may have had for you as servants of God.

May the good Lord have mercy on your souls.

Most sobering of all was that following his name (which I have omitted), the writer appended: “P.S. just so you know, I’m not a 70 year-old traditionalist, I am a 23 year-old recent college grad—I am the future.”

While I have received about a hundred such e-mails, along with numerous letters and phone calls similar in tenor and viewpoint, my sense is that this brand of outrage does not reflect the sentiments of the majority of the film’s partisans. What these correspondents do reveal, however, is religion’s capacity to justify and fuel anger, and it appears that Gibson, himself a schismatic Catholic, has tapped into a reservoir of profound cultural disaffection.

Of greater interest and concern to me is the reaction of so many Christians who claim, “I didn't see any anti-Semitism.” Having seen The Passion of the Christ when it debuted (our scholars’ group was expressly excluded from the previews shown around the country to great fanfare), I have no doubt that Gibson has substantially magnified the culpability of Jews at the expense of fidelity to gospel accounts. With few exceptions, the Jewish antagonists in this Passion drama, most notably Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin, are obsessed with brutalizing Jesus. They are avaricious and bloodthirsty reiterations of the same ugly tropes that have plagued Christian representations of Jews for centuries. The figure of Satan moves conspiratorially among the Jewish crowd and the Sanhedrin, drawing an unmistakable visual connection between them; those Jewish boys who encounter Judas turn into demons. The association of Jews with the devil (see John 8:44) is another trope that has had tragic consequences.

Moreover, the power dynamics of Roman rule in Judea are reversed. The film portrays Pontius Pilate—whom history has revealed to be a venal and violent despot— as a contemplative philosopher who delicately weighs the nature of truth in conversations with his wife and, in the end, reluctantly orders Jesus’ death chiefly out of concern that Caiaphas will lead a revolt against him if he does not. Pilate and his wife Claudia (unnamed in the gospel accounts, and mentioned only in Matthew) are the only characters in the film granted this level of complexity. Gibson’s treatment of The Passion’s Jewish protagonists affords them no such nuance. The high priest Caiaphas instead presents a caricature of relentless malevolence.

Given the lack of subtlety in depicting Jews as implacable enemies of Jesus, why do so many viewers seem to dismiss (and in some cases, deride) concerns about the film’s potential to promote anti-Semitism?

Let me speculate about a number of factors that seem to be at play.

We hear many reports from filmgoers who, overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of Jesus’ suffering, realize viscerally the extent to which his willingness to endure such pain reveals the depth of his love for them. This popularly familiar sentiment resonates with gospel texts (John 3:16—“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son”) and receives frequent mention in sermons, devotional material and Christian education. Gibson, who has said that he wanted people to feel the Passion, chose this suffering as the focus of his film because for many, as one evangelical colleague has observed, “the more blood, the more love.” For many Christians, the suffering of Jesus also helps to give meaning to one’s own suffering; it is a sacred story that sustains people in a broken world. The overwhelming—perhaps even traumatizing—emotional response elicited by Gibson’s graphic depiction of Jesus’ suffering thereby appears to thwart the possibility of a more critical reading.

Another factor seems to be the power of the celebrity in our culture. In a society largely reliant upon television and film for information and entertainment, celebrities are sometimes granted an undue level of authority and credibility. In this case, accounts of Gibson’s own conversion story—detailing the plight of a highly successful actor who, despite enormous wealth and fame, was so desperate and despondent that he contemplated suicide until he meditated on the suffering of Jesus—have understandably magnified his stature among sympathetic audiences. In the eyes of many, the film has surrounded him with a saintly aura. Gibson’s repeated assertions that his is the authentic interpretation of the Gospel provides filmgoers “blessed assurance” that this is precisely how it happened. As he told Diane Sawyer, “I know how it went down.”

Having remarked in various interviews that the Gospels are eyewitness accounts, Gibson exerts an authoritative influence that reinforces this belief among some viewers, prompting them to conflate his word with those of the Gospels. As one of my e-mail correspondents asserted, “Mel Gibson’s movie ‘The Passion’ in no way blames the Jews for the death of our Lord. If you condemn this movie, then you MUST condemn the New Testament account of His passion.” A comparable e-mail asserts: “Every version of the Bible clearly indicates that Jews incited Pontius Pilate to crucify Jesus. How is it valid to undermine the Bible simply because you're concerned that some people might act on something that happened two thousand years ago?” The Catholic bishops of the United States issued a monograph immediately prior to the film’s opening, The Bible, the Jews and the Death of Jesus: A Collection of Catholic Documents. It is a useful compendium and much-needed corrective to these assertions, deserving wide circulation—but it is no rival in the minds of those for whom Gibson has become the authority on the Bible.

Publishing documents is but one available response in addressing concerns raised by The Passion. Unfortunately, the varied, uncoordinated statements issued by Catholic officials around the world have fundamentally undermined any effective counterpoint to Icon's efficient publicity campaign. Compare, for example, Cardinal George Pell of Sydney, Australia and the bishops of France. Pell judged the film to be a “contemporary masterpiece.” He saw its message as one of Jesus’ “universal love, certainly love for his own people, the Jews.” Thus, Pell says, “This film in not anti-Semitic because the multitude of heroes are Jewish. We witness a terrible quarrel within the Palestinian Jewish community  . . . Neither does the film lay the blame for Jesus’ death on the Jewish nations.” In contrast, the French bishops said that the film “could be used to support anti-Semitic opinions.” They did not see, as Pell did, the redemptive love of Jesus: “The face of Christ shows through less than the obsessions of our times—the dread of evil, fascination with violence and the search for the guilty.” They were critical of the “violence, which overwhelms the spectator, [and] ends up blotting out the meaning of the Passion and the essence of Christ’s person and message—love carried to its perfection by the voluntary giving of one's self.” An ecumenical panel of German Christian leaders issued a statement corroborating that of the French bishops:

Whether or not the film is intentionally anti-Semitic there is the danger that it can be used in the sense of anti-Semitic propaganda. It does contain signs of differentiation in its portrayal of Jewish figures, but overall it gives rise to an impression of overdrawn negativity in the Sanhedrin and large sections of the Jewish population. The portrayal in the film conceals the danger of the revival of anti-Semitic prejudice. This is especially explosive given the situation in Europe where growing anti-Semitic tendencies are discernible.2

Irony abounds in the controversy surrounding the film. Celebrities are, after all, "idols," but in the religious sphere, idolatry is a sin because it treats as ultimate and absolute that which is neither. And celebrities are about success. Headlines report on the success of this film because it is making millions—apparently some $350 million as I write in early April 2004. But in the religious sphere financial success is not the criterion of significance—and judging a movie about the Crucifixion a “stunning success” cries out for criteria other than profit.

Cultural perspectives have played an additional role in the varied interpretations of The Passion. In general, enactments of the Passion play a greater role in Mediterranean and the Latina/o popular religiosity of the Caribbean and South America. This is especially the case in cultures that have endured much oppression, and that are therefore more inclined to identify at a personal level with the suffering of Jesus. Dramatizing Jesus’ suffering in this context acts as a catharsis. There may also be class differences at play here—after all, those of us who analyzed the script lead lives of relative privilege, and our criticisms appear removed from the sobering realities of their lives.

Nor can we discount the role of stereotypes of Jews as wealthy and secure, and thus not in need of advocates in the Christian community. While most Christians know something about the Holocaust, it seems in many cases to have little existential effect; that is, knowledge of the Holocaust does not typically lead them to probe the role of the churches nor to imagine its consequences for contemporary Jewish life and thought. As a result, little thought is given to anti- Semitism nor to what it might be like for Jews to see this film. In addition, most Christians are abysmally ignorant of the long history of anti-Jewish teaching that has left such an open wound in Jewish communities and compromised the integrity of the preaching of the Gospel. In my experience, when Christians learn of the largely tragic history between our two communities, they understand the problems with the film in a new light. But too few have the opportunity to learn this history—and to learn it in ways that might be as viscerally powerful as a film presenting the suffering of one Jew from Nazareth.

Another reason that so many Christians are insensitive to the potential for anti-Semitism in the wake of the film is the dominance of fundamentalist readings of Scripture in the public domain. The more contextual readings taught in most colleges and seminaries have little visibility, and, in many cases, clergy are uncertain how to integrate what they learned in classrooms with pastoral practice. Thus, too few Christians know alternatives to the sort of literalist reading Gibson represents. Notwithstanding the enormous wealth of biblical scholarship in our time, too few Christians hear sermons or engage in Bible study enriched by careful analysis of texts in their cultural, historical and literary contexts. This deficiency is painfully apparent in my own Catholic community despite the fact that contextual readings are officially mandated and much wisdom has been transmitted regarding interpretation of the Passion narratives in a series of instructions since Vatican II's Nostra Aetate in 1965.

Another irony: despite his claim to historical authenticity, Gibson has made copious use of extra-biblical materials from The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ. This work, purportedly an account of the visions of a nineteenth-century illiterate nun, Anna Catherine Emmerich (d. 1824), characterizes Jews, for example, as “ungrateful” and “hard-hearted.” Gibson is indebted to Emmerich for such details as the scenes of Satan moving among the Jewish crowds. As the editors of Commonweal opined recently, “Gibson’s Passion is not a transcription of the Gospels. In fact, in part the film transcribes more faithfully the visions of a mystic [Emmerich] who had thoroughly imbibed the prejudices of her time.”3

It may be that the controversy over the film reveals what Bernard Lonergan has termed “scotosis”: a hardening of the mind against unwanted wisdom through the repression of questions that might lead to a deeper insight into problematic readings of the Gospels.4 Clearly, some of the film’s enthusiasts are unwilling to acknowledge the ways in which Passion stories have been used across the centuries against Jews, and are equally resistant to exploring the ways in which Gibson has magnified Jewish culpability by his skillful use of selective details. Scotosis seems an apt description for those who equate any criticism of the film with unbelief or political correctness.

The controversy over Gibson’s film poses a crucial question: will we Christians take anti-Semitism—and the role Christianity has played in its development—seriously? It also suggests the need for intensified religious education programs that will help people imagine a more complex response to this film. In particular, we need to teach those who have been captivated by the portrayal of the suffering Jesus to acknowledge another, more dangerous level of interpretation in which the involvement of Jews in his death is magnified far beyond that warranted by the Gospels—and that thereby the single most divisive issue between Christians and Jews over the ages has been catapulted into our consciousness in a time when our world is dangerously divided.


1. “Report of the Ad Hoc Scholars Group Reviewing the Script of The Passion.” This report, along with numerous other documents relating to the film and the controversy surrounding it, is available at http://www.bc.edu/research/cjl/ . For detailed background of the scholars’ project and the response of Icon Productions, see Paula Fredriksen, “The Gospel According to Mel: Mad Mel,” The New Republic, on-line version, at: http://www.tnr.com/doc.mhtml?pt=80VDpXe%2BtUVYgZguKgNQvB%3D%3 D. For an anthology of critical perspectives on the film, see Jonathan Burnham, ed., Perspectives on The Passion of the Christ (New York: Miramax Books, 2004); release date is June 9, 2004.  
2. The statements of Cardinal Pell and the German leaders (Cardinal Karl Lehmann, president German Bishops’ Conference; Bishop Wolfgang Huber, Evangelical Church and Dr. Paul Spiegel, president of the Central Council of Jews) may be found in “Propaganda or Masterpiece?” The Tablet (March 27, 2004): 12-13. The statement of the French Bishops is drawn from a Reuters summary; official text is available at http://www.cef.fr/catho/actus/communiques/2004/commu20040330_passionduchrist.phpl  3. “Et Cetera,” Commonweal 131/6 (March 26, 2004): 6. The website of the Center for Christian-Jewish Learning at Boston College (see n. 1) includes many statements of the Catholic bishops.  
4. See Bernard Lonergan, Insight: A Study of Human Understanding (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1978), pp. 191-192, 222-225.

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Source: Cross Currents, Winter 2003, Vol. 52,  No 4.