National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  November 28, 2003

With Jesus' body double at left, Mel Gibson directs Jim Caviezel as Jesus in the movie "The Passion" during filming in Italy. While the film was still being made, Gibson had given screenings of parts of the movie.
-- CNS/Icon Productions
The Gospel according to Mel

Anti-Semitic or 'one of the best Jesus films'?
Controversy swirls around 'The Passion'

By Raymond A. Schroth

Never in my life have I looked forward to Lent.

But there’s this new movie I think I want to see. And right now there are two groups -- those who made it and those who didn’t want it made -- who are blocking the door. Maybe by Lent.

On one level, the trouble all began when The New York Times Magazine writer Christopher Noxon, who lives in Los Angeles, heard that macho movie star Mel Gibson had bought 16 acres in a valley near Malibu to build his own church where a traditionalist priest could say the Tridentine Mass in Latin for Mel’s group, called the Holy Family, and that Mel’s father, Hutton Gibson (described as 84 by Noxon and as 92 elsewhere by Michael Novak), was an odd duck.

Furthermore, Mel was acting strangely: not only building a church, but making a film on the death of Jesus funded with his own $25 million! Gibson told a news conference, “They think I’m crazy, and maybe I am. But maybe I’m a genius.”

Although the father, described as a “seminary dropout and rabble-rousing theologist,” has no apparent connection with his son’s church in California, Noxon tracked the father down in Houston. The old man, who has a new wife, babbled some nonsense: All the popes since John XXIII are illegitimate anti-popes, the Second Vatican Council was “a Masonic plot backed by Jews,” and the Holocaust figure of 6 million Jews killed was an exaggeration.

A traditionalist tells Noxon that Gibson’s film will “lay the blame for the death of Christ where it belongs.” Is this a plot against the Jews?

On another level, the trouble began some 10 years ago when the young actor’s life began to fall apart. As articles describe it in general terms: Gibson, born in New Jersey but raised in Australia, had returned to the United States and achieved stardom in both futuristic action flicks and mini-thinking man’s classics like “Gallipoli” and “The Year of Living Dangerously,” and then hit emotional bottom. He dug himself out of depression by returning to his Catholic faith -- or, rather, an earlier version of the faith, which he had forgotten but which his father had enthusiastically embraced.

This faith was his rock. Not the Catholicism of Vatican II, with its emphasis on ecumenism and social justice, on peace and rejecting the death penalty, but closer to the faith of his father -- which was not, according to how contemporary Catholicism formally describes itself, Catholicism at all.

Gibson determined to make a movie about the last 12 hours of Jesus’ life, as if the whole meaning of that life -- and perhaps his own -- was summed up in Jesus’ night and day of betrayal, pain, death and triumph.

This is not in itself a crazy idea. Millions of Christians, some of them saints, in imitation of Christ, have made somewhat similar decisions. But they have not been multimillionaire movie stars with the clout to express their convictions on the screen.

In recent years, whatever the triviality of a number of his roles, Gibson has emerged as a serious artist. How must any actor who takes himself seriously and wants the public to perceive him with the same gravity demonstrate his depth? He plays Hamlet. Then he directs and stars in an epic like “Braveheart” and wins an Academy Award. Now, with perfect logic, to give some visible form to the force -- the Spirit -- that he believes animates his life, he has made “The Passion.”

In doing so, months before the film is even finished and a year before it is to be released, he has offended a group of Jewish spokesmen, Catholic and hybrid religious scholars, most of whom have not seen the film but who are convinced on the basis of reading an early script or by reading articles about it that the film should be killed.

Warnings against the film

If the Noxon article was the warning shot across the bow, the guided missile launched from the East Coast into Malibu was Paula Fredriksen’s “Mad Mel,” a preemptive strike against the film filling five pages of The New Republic on July 28 and Aug. 4. She reports the attempts of a committee of scholars, four Catholics and three Jews, under Eugene Fisher, associate director of the Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, to intervene in the process of making the film by claiming, on the basis of reading an early script, that “The Passion” is anti-Semitic.

Fredriksen, a regular contributor to The New Republic who describes herself as a raised-Catholic, Marxist-feminist convert to Orthodox Judaism writing a book on St. Augustine, wrote the article for The New Republic because Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor, asked her to. The same editor published a year ago a review of Daniel Goldhagen’s book in which he blamed the Holocaust on the Catholic church.

Icon, Gibson’s production company, declined the bishops’ committee’s request for a script. Then, mysteriously, an envelope appeared on a Chicago rabbi’s doorstep. Voila! According to Peter J. Boyer in The New Yorker of Sept. 15, Fisher told Robert Fulco, the California Jesuit scholar who was translating the script into Aramaic and Latin for Gibson, that he had received it from the Easter Bunny and Deep Throat, but assured him that only a few minor adjustments in the script would solve all problems.

Protesters gather Aug. 28 outside the New York offices of News Corporation, the parent company of 20th Century Fox, urging film distributors not to handle the Mel Gibson film "The Passion."
-- Photographer Showcase

Fulco, who holds a Ph.D. from Yale in comparative Semitics, ancient Near East religion and archeology, has published widely and taught for 30 years in Jerusalem, Amman and at UCLA.

What criteria would the committee use in evaluating their envelope-at-the-door script? Answer: the “Criteria for the Evaluation of Dramatizations of the Passion,” issued by the bishops’ committee in 1988 -- catechetical principles applicable as guidelines to all levels of Christian instruction in any form. The pamphlet’s purpose is to portray Jews and Judaism “free from prejudices,” with an “awareness of the common heritage.” They warn against “caricaturing the Jewish people” as if all were opposed to Jesus. In short, the relations between the various groups and religions in Jesus’ time were very complex. They caution against being overly literal and against selecting Gospel passages where the four Gospels don’t all agree.

Although Fulco assured the committee that the script respected these criteria, the committee sounded the alarm: A film based on this script could cause great damage all over the world.

Fredriksen argues that Gibson claimed that his account would be historically truthful because it would be based on the Gospels. But the Gospels themselves, she replies, written between A.D. 70 and 100, are not reliable historical documents. They contradict one another on details of the trial and present no logical reason for Jesus to be crucified at all. If the Jewish leadership wanted him dead, it could simply have had him murdered. Historically, since only the Romans could crucify, Rome was primarily -- even exclusively -- to blame. Furthermore, having the Romans speak Latin is inaccurate. In those days, the Romans in Palestine spoke Greek.

The committee’s report was particularly critical of Gibson’s reliance on the diaries of the 19th-century mystic Anne Catherine Emmerich, The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ, for non-biblical details of Jesus’ suffering. The book is available on the Internet, and I read the scourging scene, which, while reminiscent of things I was told in grammar school about the Passion, borders on “violence pornography.” Stripped naked, Jesus is strung up and whipped on the pillar, back and front, his blood spurting out over his tormentors, while hunks of flesh are ripped out by the steel-tipped lashes.

Recently, I clicked onto an old Gibson movie on television. There he was, being chased by tigers, strung upside down in the jungle and beaten like heck. In “Lethal Weapon,” he is slammed and battered with blows that would kill a normal human. In “Braveheart,” he is disemboweled. Last night I stumbled upon the final scenes of “We Were Soldiers,” where, during the Gibson-led attack, dismembered enemy bodies go flying in all directions. There is something going on here.

Meanwhile, Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles gave Gibson an honorary degree. Why? Because he is a good family man, a distinguished artist, is making a movie about Jesus Christ and gave the best commencement speech Loyola president Jesuit Fr. Robert Lawton ever heard. Mel is not perfect, says Lawton, an Old Testament scholar, but the Old Testament heroes weren’t perfect either.

And Icon’s attorney accused the Catholic bishops’ conference and the Anti-Defamation League, which had joined the controversy, of receiving stolen property and trying to intimidate Gibson into accepting their religious views.

Scaring off viewers

The anti-“Passion” strategy, it seems to me, is to make the film so controversial that distributors will be scared to put it on their screens. As of October, according to Newsweek, the strategy was working. Then, late that month, Gibson changed the film’s name from “The Passion” to “The Passion of Christ” and announced that it would be distributed in a joint partnership between Gibson’s Icon Productions and the New York-based Newmarket Films, which also released “Whale Rider” and “Memento.”

Compared to the rising death toll in Iraq, the Democratic primary debates, the latest scandal in the British royal family, and the rising cost of college tuition, “Jews vs. Mel” does not seem a big story. But it is because of the other questions it raises.

How far must Christians go, when they read the Gospels’ Passion narratives, to overlook the evidence that Jewish leaders played a major role in Jesus’ execution? Is there a residue of anti-Semitism in Christian audiences that would be inflamed by a film’s depiction of Jesus’ suffering? Do we know enough from the Gospel evidence to make any judgment at all on who killed Jesus? What are the limits -- if any -- on an artist responsible primarily to his own vision of Jesus and who wants to sing, paint, dance, sculpt, dramatize, film or act out that vision for us, the audience, either to reject or to embrace?

Mel Gibson at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' headquarters in Washington July 21, when he met privately with general secretary Msgr. William Fay to discuss "The Passion."
-- CNS/Mary Knight

The ensuing debate has not been between Christians and Jews, or liberals and conservatives, but between differing theories of artistic freedom -- between Jews and Christians who are professionally sensitive to any possible hint of negative references to Jews, and Jews and Christians more willing to take a work of art on its own terms.

In response to the flap, Icon determined a marketing strategy that, in my opinion, has weakened its credibility. Except for a special showing to several hundred Jesuits of the California Province at Loyola, it has limited its screenings to ultraconservative groups and individuals -- perhaps thinking some would sympathize with Mel’s traditionalist split from Catholicism.

Most likely, they feared that liberals would automatically side with Jews. A typical stacked audience: televangelist Robert Schuller, Cardinals Anthony Bevilacqua and Francis George, the Catholic League’s William Donohue, Michael Novak, Crisis magazine publisher Deal Hudson, Peggy Noonan, The National Review’s Kate O’Beirne, Internet gossip Matt Drudge and Pat Robertson. Their big score was a thumbs up from Vatican Cardinal Dario Castrillón Hoyos, who called it “a triumph of art and faith.”

Soon enough, The New York Times’ Frank Rich got into the act. In an Aug. 3 article, Rich called Gibson’s father a “Holocaust denier” and accused Mel of going out of his way to bait Jews. Gibson, defending his father, said to The New Yorker of Rich, “I want to kill him. I want his intestines on a stick. … I want to kill his dog.”

Rich replied that he doesn’t have a dog and that Gibson and his supporters were deliberately inflaming the culture wars to build an audience for his film. Some who have seen the film told Rich, “It isn’t even a close call,” that it presents Jews as the primary instigators of the crucifixion. Rich said Noxon gave him the tape of his interview with Hutton Gibson, the father, saying there was “no systematic extermination” of the Jews. My friend, New York attorney Kevin Doyle, asked Noxon for the transcript. Noxon, though he had given the text to Rich, declined, pleading threats from Gibson’s attorneys.

Alan Sereboff, a Jewish screenwriter who had worked with Gibson’s company, wrote Mel, “As a Jew I left the movie feeling a greater sense of kinship and closeness to my Christian brothers and sisters that I ever thought imaginable.”

Jewish talk show host Rabbi Daniel Lapin told United Press International that the protests against the film are “recklessly ill-advised and shockingly imprudent.” He cited examples where Jews have grossly offended Catholics without being held accountable: Lew Wasserman’s Universal Studios’ release of “The Last Temptation of Christ” (1988), the Weinstein brothers’ Miramax distribution of “Priest” (1994), about priests with gay and straight love affairs, and record companies run by Jews producing obscene records that advocate killing policemen and raping women.

The New Republic’s Gregg Easterbrook, a Christian who worships in a joint Christian-Jewish church, asked in his online column how we could take Gibson seriously as a Christian when his movies glorify violence. A week later, to be fair, he picked up on Lapin’s idea and excoriated Disney CEO Michael Eisner and Miramax’s Harvey Weinstein, who together distributed Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill,” “which so glorifies violence as to border on filth,” and for their worship of money, which led them to profit from this sickening film. Within a few days, under pressure, he backtracked and apologized -- not for the idea but for the poor wording.

Studying the sources

Can any good come out of all this? Only if it leads us back to the sources and the scholars as we examine where the responsibility for Jesus’ death really lies. And only if it leads to a more sophisticated understanding of the distinction between history and myth and what the artist feels called to do with both.

The Gospels themselves are not historical documents in the contemporary sense but four interrelated interpretations of Jesus’ life and teaching. Each evangelist gives us a slightly different perspective on the same person. And each Gospel emerges from a sub-community of Christians with its own preoccupations, and thus the word “Jews” has different connotations in each. The early Christians still considered themselves Jews, but John’s community, for example, was embittered against “the Jews” because the Jewish authorities had thrown them out of the temple.

In “Who Killed Jesus?” a Discovery Channel show re-run recently to cash in on the Gibson controversy, the narrator plays detective and presents three suspects: Caiaphas, Pilate and Jesus himself, driven by his Messianic mission. The great biblical scholar E.P. Sanders concludes that it was Caiaphas. Does that make him anti-Semitic? The program concludes that all were responsible in some way.

Jesuit Fr. Daniel Harrington, in his Sacra Pagina commentary on Matthew, holds that Matthew used the words “all the people” to implicate the Jews opposed to his community after the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70. In no way are we to conclude from this that today’s Jews are also responsible.

In A Christological Catechism, Jesuit Fr. Joseph A. Fitzmyer explains that the New Testament puts the finger on both the Jews and Romans with varying degrees of emphasis, according to different writers and at different times. Luke makes a distinction between the Jewish people and their leaders. The last Gospel, John, tends to hold the Jewish leaders most responsible, though this may well represent the desire of the Christian writers to live in peace with their Roman Empire rulers. Fitzmyer, however, rejects the argument that only the Romans had the power to crucify. According to the Jewish historian Josephus, the Hasmoneon king Alexander Janneus, a predecessor of Herod, crucified 800 enemy Jews.

Is the film any good? I can make no judgment on something I haven’t seen. But two Loyola Marymount Jesuits whose judgment I trust say clearly that it is not anti-Semitic. Sociologist John Coleman says that some of the audience tuned out on the excessive violence and suggests that the final cut will be milder. The only anti-Semitic remark, he says, is made by a Roman soldier to Simon of Cyrene, who is helping Jesus carry his cross. But the film, he says, must be judged as an artistic whole, not subjected to the prior censorship of a committee. Communications professor Jesuit Fr. Ed Siebert, director of Loyola Productions, praises the cinematography enthusiastically, takes some exception to the gore, but calls the work “charged” -- to “go down in history as one of the best Jesus films.”

On the other hand, New York Jesuit Fr. Mark Hallinan, of a committee of five readers “randomly” selected by the New York Post to judge a video of the film obtained from undisclosed sources, calls the film “unhelpful.” He told the Post that Gibson portrays the Jews as “a bloodthirsty rabble” and the Romans as “thoughtful and reflective.” He warns that “unsophisticated people viewing the film will see Jews as cold, heartless, people.”

Violating artistic freedom

To me, the most disturbing aspect of the bishops’ committee’s role is their attempt to interfere with a work in progress. Surely their concern for the possible effects of a film on Jewish-Christian relations is legitimate, but the bishops’ conference guidelines for depicting the Passion are for internal use among Catholics, for plays and films made by church employees teaching catechism. Mel Gibson, strictly speaking, is not even a Roman Catholic. The prospect of church representatives and scholars policing historians, novelists, painters and musicians in their libraries and studios is embarrassing to the church.

I give the last word to a New Testament Jew. In the Acts of the Apostles, Chapter 1, the apostles are arrested for preaching and brought before the high priest and the council. Peter replies that they preach to obey God rather than man. The council members are enraged and want them killed. But a Pharisee, Gamaliel, warns them: If the apostles’ undertaking is not of God, it will fail. If it is -- then we might be fighting God.

When the church fails to apply that principle to its own theologians, critics call it an Inquisition. Jews, of all contemporary intellectuals, should want to let a writer speak.

In other words, let Mel be Mel. We’ll tell him what we think of his film -- if we get to see it in Lent.

Jesuit Fr. Raymond A. Schroth is the Jesuit Community Professor of the Humanities at St. Peter’s College. He thanks Joyce Cluess and Kevin Doyle for help in the research for this article.

National Catholic Reporter, November 28, 2003

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