The Passion of the Christ – Behind the Scenes

In the Herald we do not normally comment on films, but Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ has generated so much controversy in terms of how it views the Jewish people and the responsibility they bore (or bear) for the death of Jesus that we felt it was important to look at it. At the time of writing, the film has been seen by only a select few (including the Pope), but even before its general release more has been written about Gibson’s Passion than about most other Hollywood productions after they hit the silver screen.
The Prologue

It has been said that Mel Gibson is usually portrayed in films as a “happy-go-lucky blue-eyed golden boy, with a malicious grin on his handsome face and mischief forever on his mind”. Many were therefore surprised that his most recent venture, which he has both funded and directed, details the final hours and crucifixion of Jesus the Messiah. Thankfully, The Passion of the Christ does not depict “the Christ” as a European “blue-eyed golden boy” but as someone who is clearly Jewish and is addressed as “Rabbi” by his followers. Furthermore, all the Jewish characters in the film speak Aramaic and Maia Morgenstern, the actress who plays the mother of Jesus, is herself Jewish. However, long before its release, the film began to be branded as anti-Semitic.

People have moulded the man Christ Jesus into so many likenesses that any portrayal of the last twelve hours of his life is certain to be controversial and to offend various groups of people. However, many of the films dealing with his life and death have not reached a wide enough audience for the reaction to be of any significance. In contrast, The Passion of the Christ will be widely distributed and be seen by many who would normally avoid, or deny, the claims of Christ. Indeed, the film has already been the subject of intense debate, being criticised by some even before they had seen the final production.

The Critics

The main assault on the film has come from Abraham H Foxman, National Director of the Anti-Defamation League and Paula Fredriksen, the spokesperson for a coalition of Roman Catholic and Jewish academics. The Anti-Defamation League is well respected for its work of combating anti-Semitism, but some have felt that Foxman has marginalised himself by certain personal accusations he has made against Mel Gibson. However, it is his wider agenda that should concern us. For he believes that claiming one’s own faith to be “the only valid path in life” is a discredited Christian theology. As such, he represents those for whom political correctness is often more important than truth.

Paula Fredriksen is Professor of the Appreciation of Scripture at Boston University. She is the author of Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews, in which she concedes that the Jewish priestly authorities were partly responsible for Jesus’ death. However, she has harshly criticised The Passion of the Christ saying, “When violence breaks out, Mel Gibson will have a much higher authority than professors and bishops to answer to”. Fredriksen’s remarks, however, may suggest a wider agenda for she believes that Anti-Semitism has been integral to Christianity, and several of the theologians who consulted with her are strongly opposed to Jewish evangelism.

The Producer

But where does Mel Gibson stand in relation to all of this? One of the reasons for the controversy surrounding The Passion of the Christ is that Gibson is a “traditionalist Catholic” who opposes the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. Amongst those reforms was the Nostra Aetate (In Our Age) document, which rejected the notion that Jewish people were collectively responsible for the death of Jesus. One concern of groups opposing The Passion is that the film allegedly reinforces this notion. As Rabbi Eugene Korn (Director of Interfaith Affairs for the Anti-Defamation League) puts it, “We have ridden into the middle of ideological war between conservative Catholics and Vatican II progressive Catholics.”

For his part, Mel Gibson rejects any charge of anti-Semitism, and it is reported that one of the two glimpses of him in the movie is “when you see his hand placing the stake on Christ’s palm – thus underlining Gibson’s own guilt for the death of Christ.” However, he has admitted that his screenplay was based not so much on the Gospels as on the mystical visions of 19th-century nun Anne Catherine Emmerich, whose reinterpretation of the passion of Christ included many details not found in the Gospels. These details, it is claimed, are the source of much of the anti-Semitic content of the original screenplay, if not the final film. Indeed, they prompted the accusation from Fredrickson that the true historical framing of Mr. Gibson’s script is post-medieval Roman Catholic Europe. Ironically, this has led the critical scholars to cry out “Scripture alone” and demand that the final version rids itself of “fictitious non-scriptural elements that form an inescapably negative picture of Jewish society and leadership”. Sadly, as already noted, their love for Scripture wanes when it comes to Jewish evangelism.

But perhaps we need to ask if Mel Gibson set out to make a movie that was historically accurate. Indeed he did! He is quoted as saying of The Passion, “It’s like travelling back in time and watching the events unfold exactly as they occurred”. But the Jewish author David Horowitz, who defends the film, believes that it is an artistic vision and not an attempt to portray the historical Jesus. He says, “It is as close to a religious experience as art can get”. But why does he reject Gibson’s own assessment of the project? Because, according to Horowitz, “There is no evidentiary basis for such a portrait, no one can know what the truth is”. Here is someone who appears to believe that it is impossible to know the historical Jesus. Yet, as a commentator, Horowitz frequently writes “authoritatively” about historical events of which he was not an eyewitness!

The Messiah

The New Testament, however, was written by those who were witnesses, or had access to eyewitness reports, of the life of Jesus. His was a life that challenges the “wider agendas” of Abraham Foxman, Paula Fredricksen and David Horowitz, for it was dedicated to seeking and saving the lost sheep of Israel (Matthew 15:24 cf. Jeremiah 50:6). And it was to those “lost sheep” that the Messiah sent his first disciples to preach the message of the kingdom (Matthew 10:6). Those who oppose Jewish evangelism, on the alleged grounds that it is anti-Semitic, and those who oppose any evangelism, on the grounds that there is no ultimate truth, find themselves opposing the One who claimed to be “the way, the truth and the life”.

Contrary to what many critics of evangelical Christianity would have us believe, anti-Semitism has a history that pre-dates Christianity. It is an evil that needs to be confronted, especially by those of us who claim to understand God’s purposes for the Jewish people. However, as Michael Medved (a film critic and Orthodox Jew) has observed, “If there are people in the Jewish community saying Christians have to disregard certain passages in scripture or else they will be accused of anti-Semitism, then that’s a bridge too far”. Yet that is exactly what some expect us to do. For many of them, it is not only the cross of Jesus that causes offence, but also the claims of Jesus.

It was a Jewish high priest who asked Jesus if he was the Messiah, the Son of God and it was a Gentile, Pilate, who asked him “Are you the King of the Jews?” On both occasions Jesus replied, “Yes, it is as you say.” King Messiah has come and his people need to know, lest they perish.

Losing the plot

Mel Gibson, of course, has his agenda too. His project, funded largely from his own cheque book, appears to be a traditional act of Roman Catholic devotion. Just as medieval kings built cathedrals and commissioned great works of art depicting the crucifixion, a Hollywood superstar is now offering his own substantial contribution. The Passion of the Christ looks to be an artistic tour-de-force, cinema-goers will no doubt be deeply moved by the experience of seeing it and the controversy surrounding the movie will be with us for some time to come.

However, it is sobering to remember that, in contrast to the explicit bloodiness of Gibson’s film, the Gospel writers are remarkably laconic about Jesus’ suffering: “Pilate took Jesus and scourged him”; “The soldiers twisted a crown of thorns and put it on his head”; “They crucified him”. The New Testament emphasis is not that Jesus suffered, but that the Messiah suffered; and the glory of the gospel is not simply that the Messiah suffered but that he suffered for us. It is highly unlikely that cinema audiences – Jewish or Gentile – who see Gibson’s film, with its graphic violence and Latin and Aramaic dialogue, will hear that authentic message.

Howard Fleming & Mike Moore

This article first appeared in the March 2004 edition of the Herald

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