Mel Gibson's Passion and the Jews

The Mel Gibson film disturbed this writer--but offers the opportunity for greater interfaith understanding.

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Mel Gibson's 2004 film The Passion of the Christ provoked intense controversy, with Jews and many Christians saying it depicted Jews in an anti-Semitic fashion, perpetuating the belief that Jews were responsible for Jesus' death. In the following piece, the author separates fact from fiction in the Passion story, offers her personal thoughts, and calls for Jews as well as Christians to learn more about each other's religion and beliefs. It is adapted with permission from a sermon Lenk delivered at a synagogue in Newton, Mass., on March 6, 2004.

After seeing Mel Gibson’s film I feel no hesitation calling it anti-Semitic. The film depicts Jews as inexplicably hateful, rejecting a holy man, seemingly for no reason except their hatefulness. In a hallucination suffered by Judas, little Jewish boys turn into little demon children. Pontius Pilate is a handsome, gentle, and wise ruler, who regretfully gives into the wishes of the uncontrollable Jews, in order to avert a rebellion.

passion of the christ trailer

I am writing, however, not as a movie critic, but as a scholar, and want therefore to look at the following questions raised by the film:

1) What really happened?

2) What role did the Jews actually play in the death of Jesus?

3) What role did Pilate play?

4) What is wrong with Mel Gibson’s take on the story?

What Really Happened?

First: We have no documents contemporary to the event that record the death of Jesus. Paul is the earliest Christian writer, and he never met Jesus. However, he knows that Jesus was crucified, and this event is the central event for Paul’s faith. Paul knows almost nothing about Jesus’ life, but only about his death.

The gospel writers wrote no less than a generation after Jesus’ death--between 75 and 100 C.E. They were not eyewitnesses to the events of Jesus’ life and death.

Second: The gospels were not written as historical documents. They are rhetorical works, meant to persuade people as to the correct faith. This, in part, accounts for the many contradictory accounts in the different gospels. One example: According to the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) Jesus was captured, tried, and killed on the first day of Passover, and the “Last Supper” was a Passover meal. According to John, the Last Supper took place the night before Passover, and Jesus was crucified on the afternoon before Passover--slaughtered together with the paschal lambs--as a paschal lamb. This imagery is carried into later Christian liturgy.

Historians have argued that it is highly unlikely that the priests would have gathered for a trial just at the time when so many pilgrims were entering Jerusalem and just when there was so much festival activity at the Temple. However, all four gospels have a tradition connecting Jesus’ death with Passover. And telling his story in this way certainly gives it a particular meaning.

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Marcie Lenk

Marcie Lenk is a Visiting Instructor in Boston University's Department of Religion. She is a doctoral candidate in the study of Early Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism at Harvard University.