National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  March 19, 2004

-- CNS/Icon

Actor Jim Caviezel portrays Jesus on the cross in a scene from "The Passion of the Christ."
Gibson, Gospel facts and anti-Semitism


Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” is arriving at movie theaters with more buzz in the air than at a coffee break of an auctioneers convention. The loudest clamor concerns whether the film is anti-Semitic or unwittingly fosters it.

I think there are tougher topics for Gibson to handle in producing a seemingly accurate film. The Gospels were written in Greek. Jesus and his Palestinian disciples spoke Aramaic. How can you retroject from Greek accounts what Jesus actually said in Aramaic? Here’s a higher hurdle to scale: The four Gospels were never meant to be harmonized, thereby capturing a clear picture of what happened when. Jim Bishop’s famous book of years ago, The Day Christ Died, crashed for this reason.

‘Passion’ stirs passion

Even before it opened, Mel Gibson’s movie “The Passion of the Christ” was controversial, with some claiming the movie was anti-Semitic or could fuel latent anti-Semitism. The controversy has not been put to rest with the movie’s opening. In their discussion of the historical truth of the Gospels, the movie’s portrait of Christ and Christianity and the charge of anti-Semitism, these writers (Miller, Beaudoin and Tapia) reflect some of the divergent responses the movie has occasioned.
-- Margot Patterson, opinion editor

Because the question of anti-Semitism has gotten pushed, unfairly to my mind, to center stage, I want to offer a few observations on it and on the nature of Gospel materials. I’m going to term my observations “facts” in the sense that they reflect the insights of mainstream biblical scholarship. A fact is like a basic idea. Around the edges of the idea there is scholarly debate and disagreement, but the main shape of the idea is generally accepted.

It is a fact that some of the Jewish leaders reckoned Jesus to be such a threat to their religious convictions that they pressured the Romans to execute him. It doesn’t mean that all Jews, or most Jews, sized up Jesus to be a dangerous blasphemer. It doesn’t mean the Romans were merely innocent pawns. It doesn’t mean that the trial scenes in the four Gospels are word for word factually accurate. John’s account, to take just one case, doesn’t agree with Matthew, Mark or Luke as to the day on which the trial happened. (Was it on Passover or on the day before Passover?)

What the fact does mean is that Jesus’ ministry of healing and preaching, in and of itself, would not have caused the Romans to pluck him out for execution as being seditious. The Romans did not care if a Jew called himself the Messiah or a prophet or challenged interpretations of the Torah, the Law of Moses. They only cared when one’s behavior crossed over into upsetting the political status quo, Roman civil peace and rule in Palestine. Let those make the case who claim that Jesus simply provoked the Romans, so that Gentiles alone are responsible for his death. This flies against facts and common sense.

It is another fact that the Gospel writers were not eyewitnesses to what they describe. Between Jesus’ Passion and the four evangelists stand at least 40 years of preaching by people who did know Jesus and had received resurrection appearances. It is a fact that the preached memories of Jesus’ life and death were shaped by later events and the pastoral needs of good preaching during those 40 or more years. The Gospel writers preserve such modified memories. So, for instance, the Jesus of John’s Gospel speaks like a non-Jew while Matthew’s Jesus is very Jewish, because Jews who believed in Jesus had been officially expelled from the synagogue by the time the Gospel of John took shape in the last decade of the first century.

Apropos the Gibson movie, the Matthew text of “let his blood be upon us and our children,” which is not found in the other three Gospels, was not yelled out by Jews at Jesus’ trial but rather shaped by some pastoral application within the circle of Jesus’ believers that the anonymous evangelist we call Matthew knew.

But the above-mentioned fact does not mean Gospel accounts are historically fictitious even if they are not verbatim and even if they do not allow being harmonized (precisely where Bishop’s book and any moviemaker, by the very nature of Gospel materials, have to trip up). Romans would never have executed Jesus if Jewish opposition to him did not somehow indict him to Pilate. And Romans would not have crucified him if Jesus never appeared seditious to them, and not just because Romans were unwittingly maneuvered by Jewish leaders into this viewpoint.

So it is a fact that Jews and Romans caused Jesus’ death. Another fact follows. Not all Jews, not most Jews, at that time were involved. Not any Jews after that time are to be implicated in Jesus’ death. And here is an oft-forgotten fact, especially when the “let his blood be on us” text is waved around: The earliest preaching, done in those first decades after the Crucifixion, depicted the Jewish leadership as handing Jesus over to Gentiles “out of ignorance.” These were Jews (who confessed Jesus) preaching to Jews. They did not condemn High Priest Caiaphas and his circle. They did not berate fellow Jews. The first Christian preaching, done by Semites, was not anti-Semitic.

After saying, as I must and saying foremost, that anti-Semitism is wrong, I also want to say it has become something of a sacred cow. I refer to a kind of environment that has been created in which to say anything critical of Jews now and in biblical times invites an immediate question: “Are you anti-Semitic, sir?” Mel Gibson appears badgered by the news media with this question about his film and with almost nothing else. I cannot answer for Gibson, though I suspect he is not anti-Semitic, but it is the spring-loaded readiness of this question that alarms me.

You cannot make a film or write a book about Jesus’ death and assert Jews were uninvolved. Nor can a Christian say Jesus was rightly, fittingly, put to death, such that the Jews or Romans acted faultlessly. Jesus died innocently. His opponents were at fault. But to make too much of Jewish and Roman fault, not only should Christians remember the Crucified One’s words, “Let him without fault toss the first stone,” they should also remember that “too much” has been made of fault-finding in later centuries that indeed begot anti-Semitism. (Pope John Paul II made a moving apology and request for forgiveness for it at Jerusalem’s Western Wall.) I only claim that as unjust as is anti-Semitism, describing Jesus’ death in a whitewashed way is untruthful. And I ought to be able to say this without provoking a charge of anti-Semitism. So ought Gibson if he says it in a non-inflammatory manner.

It is as unrealistic to wish away those texts in the Gospels depicting Jesus’ Jewish opponents in a bad light as it is to wish away all those texts in the Book of Exodus depicting Moses’ opponents, the Egyptians, badly. If the Gospels are anti-Semitic, then the Torah is anti-Egyptian. My rhetorical quip is addressed only to those who brandish the charge of anti-Semitism too spontaneously.

Edward J. Miller teaches in the Humanities division at Gwynedd-Mercy College, Gwynedd Valley, Pa.

National Catholic Reporter, March 19, 2004

This Week's Stories | Home Page | Top of Page
Copyright  © The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO   64111
All rights reserved.
TEL:  816-531-0538     FAX:  1-816-968-2280   Send comments about this Web site to: