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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As to the question of Jewish responsibility, it seems that Caiphus, the high priest, together with other Jews, did want to get rid of Jesus. According to the gospel accounts (echoed in Gibson’s film) they are particularly concerned about his claim to be Christ (Greek for messiah). And why was that such a threat? Because claiming to be messiah (which mean, anointed) was a claim to be the king. (Kings of Judah and Israel were anointed). Perhaps many Jews were afraid that a powerful, charismatic Jew with many followers, who claimed to be king, would be perceived as a threat to the Romans.

In the early first century, Judea was a Roman province, and Jews there were permitted to live in relative freedom. The rise of a messiah, or a Jewish king, could be seen as the beginning of a rebellion.

What Was Pilate’s Role?

Who crucified Jesus? According to all four gospels, the Romans crucified Jesus. Crucifixion was a Roman form of punishment, used especially against those perceived as political threats. Jews in Judea would not have had the authority to put anyone to death.

Pilate was known by his contemporaries as ruthless and brutal--as an absolute tyrant. One film reviewer suggested that Gibson gave Pilate the role that the Jews may have felt: “damned if I do, damned if I don’t.” However, the historian? philosopher? Philo (a contemporary of Pilate) described Pilate's "habit of insulting people, and his cruelty, and his continual murders of people untried and uncondemned, and his never ending, and gratuitous, and most grievous inhumanity."

The Nicean Creed--a central statement of doctrinal Christian faith written in the year 325--declares that Jesus “was crucified under Pontius Pilate.”

Why Do the Gospel Writers Blame the Jews?

In the first century, as Christianity was beginning to grow, followers of Jesus who were trying to spread the gospel lived in the Roman Empire. Many Roman rulers suspected Christians of sedition, as they met in small groups, privately, in houses. Christians were eager to prove that they were loyal citizens of Rome. Except perhaps in the Book of Revelation, one does not find anti-Roman sentiment in the New Testament.

Jews, however, who were also a minority in the Roman Empire, were available as targets. Christians were eager to point out how their faith was different from that of non-Christian Jews. That is, while seeing Christian faith as the fulfillment of the Torah and the prophets, many Christians wanted to show how they were different from Jews, arguing that many Jews did not understand their own Scripture.

What's Wrong With Mel Gibson’s Depiction?

In creating a single text for his movie script, Gibson picked out the pieces he would use from each of the gospels. In doing so, he made choices about how he wanted to shape his film. He chose every anti-Jewish line from all four of the Gospels. He also inflamed the anti-Jewish depiction by added material based on the mystical visions of two medieval nuns.

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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.