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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Every depiction of the Passion (the suffering and death of Jesus) is not anti-Semitic, although some depictions have been. It is important to sensitize Christians to be aware and responsible in their depictions. It is also time for us to understand why so many Christians are moved--many to tears--by the Passion.

Some scholars have suggested that the stories of Jesus’ life in the gospels are merely preludes to the main event, which is the passion. Jesus himself speaks to his disciples, numerous times, of the inevitability of his suffering and death, and the literary shape of the gospels supports this reading. For Christians, the concept of God coming to earth, taking on a human body, and suffering for the sake of all humanity is a very central concept of their faith. It is a very powerful idea: Whatever a human suffers, God suffered more, in order to bring salvation for humanity.

Many Christians have criticized Gibson’s film, arguing it seems to imply that Jesus suffered because of the Jews, rather than because of the sins of all of humanity. Others have worried that Gibson glorified the gore, in much more detail than one finds in any of the gospel accounts.

While Jesus’ suffering is present in all of the Gospels, they significantly understate the details of the suffering. After over two hours of torture, Gibson gives less than 30 seconds to the Resurrection, an event of great theological import for many Christians. Others are deeply dismayed by Gibson’s neglect of Jesus’ life and teachings, of any indication of what Jesus represented, aside from suffering.

A Chance to Learn

In emphasizing our need to try to understand the power of the theology of Jesus’ suffering, I do not mean to justify any and every depiction of it. We know that Passion plays notoriously led to pogroms in medieval and even modern history. However, rejection of anti-Semitism need not lead us to rejection of entire narratives that have meant so much to so many Christians.

In my Jewish education, practically the only concept I was taught about Christianity was that Christians are anti-Semites. I was taught about the crusades, the Inquisition, blood libels, and the Holocaust. While we should not forget any of these horrific chapters of our history, it behooves us not to limit ourselves in our understanding of Christians and Christianity.

As an adult, a teacher of Jewish texts, while living in Israel I became involved in interfaith dialogue. I met Christians who inspired me, from whom I knew I had much to learn. They were eager to clear up my misconceptions about their faith. And in return, they were eager to learn from me about mine. I began to teach in Christian seminaries in Jerusalem, and was privileged to teach many members of the clergy--church leaders, ministers, priests, and nuns. I believe that they were open to learn about Judaism from me because I was equally open to learn about Christianity from them.

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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.