Gibson’s ‘Passion’ remains a concern over portrayal of Jews

Nearly a month after its release, “The Passion of the Christ” has made hundreds of millions of dollars for producer-director Mel Gibson but remains a focus of concern among scholars over its portrayal of Jews.

Next week, at least seven seminars examining the film’s historical accuracy, interpretation of the Gospels, portrayal of Jews and its place in “Jesus film” iconography will be offered by district schools and religious groups.

The level of local interest is consistent with this region’s history as a cradle of Catholic-Jewish dialogue. In 1965, as the bishops of Vatican II prepared to declare that Jews had not been rejected or cursed by God, Catholic and Jewish theologians met at Saint Vincent Archabbey in Latrobe to discuss the history and teachings of their faiths. It was a radical gathering in an era when Catholics still offered Good Friday prayers for “the perfidious Jews.” The monks trucked in kosher food, and rabbis sat in on morning prayers.

A direct legacy of that meeting is the presence of Rabbi Jason Edelstein, who teaches pastoral counseling to Saint Vincent seminarians and team teaches a course, “Catholic-Jewish Dialogue,” at Saint Vincent College with the Rev. Campion Gavaler.

Edelstein wishes that “The Passion of the Christ” had inspired grass-roots discussions on topics such as the different Jewish and Christian understandings of redemption. But it has produced little constructive conversation, he said.

“I think everybody is talking past one another,” he said. “It seems to me a signal purpose of dialogue is not to hear oneself talk but to listen to the other, to gain some understanding of what has not been understood.”

Gavaler shares his frustration. “In the past month, we have heard just about every possible evaluation of the Mel Gibson movie. Now we are even getting every possible evaluation … of the reviewers of the movie.”

As Passover and Easter approach, “We Jews and Christians ought to move beyond discussion of the movie. … The sources for our study are the Scriptures, not Mel Gibson’s movie.”

To move discussion forward, another heir to that early Catholic-Jewish dialogue in Westmoreland County is sponsoring a variety of conversations on the film. The National Catholic Center for Holocaust Education, which Seton Hill University founded in 1987 to promote teaching about the Holocaust and anti-Semitism in Catholic schools and churches.

Fran Leap, associate professor of religious studies at Seton Hill, will speak on the Gibson movie in the context of other films about Jesus. She was surprised that “The Passion” was breaking box office records, because most Jesus movies are too controversial for a mass audience, she said.

“Every age tries to communicate the message of Jesus in the idiom of that time period and culture,” she said. “There is a spiritual hunger in our culture, and [Gibson] is tapping into it and speaking to the culture in a way that it can hear. And I think the genre of our culture is violence.”

Conversions after 1979 film

But the most heated discussion about the movie is not over R-rated violence but over its portrayal of Jews. From the Middle Ages until 20 years ago, passion plays often presented Jesus as an enemy of Judaism rather than as a Jew himself. Jews other than Jesus and his disciples were depicted as bloodthirsty, greedy and demonic.

Pontius Pilate, whom the historical record shows to be callously cruel, was portrayed as a gentle figure manipulated by evil Jews. Finally, a verse that appears only in the Gospel of Matthew, “His blood be on us and our children,” was used to promote the idea that all Jews for all time were guilty of killing Jesus.

Although widely believed, that view was never official Catholic teaching and was denounced by Vatican II in 1965. Over the next 25 years, at the urging of the Vatican, Catholic and Jewish scholars in the United States worked together to clean up passion plays.

Some of the same scholars who worked on those efforts reviewed a script of Gibson’s film and pointed out many pre-Vatican II anti-Semitic motifs in it. Gibson apparently removed some offending scenes, notably a grossly inaccurate image of the cross being constructed in the Jewish temple, and the English subtitle for “His blood be on us and our children.”

Most of the scholars, however, contend that the film still suffers badly from being too kind to Pilate, unbiblical images of bribery by Jewish religious authorities and other medieval stereotypes.

Other Jesus films have done much better, Leap said, including the renowned evangelical “Jesus,” which has been dubbed into 848 languages and viewed more than 5 billion times since John Heyman made it in 1979, resulting in a reported 195 million conversions to Christianity.

That film’s narrator says Jesus’ conflict is with a faction of Jewish leaders, rather than with all Jews, and Pilate is clearly the bad guy. In “Jesus,” which is based on the Gospel of Luke, it is the Romans who push the temple authorities to act against Jesus, Leap said.

In Gibson’s film, which relies heavily on Matthew but uses other Gospels and nonbiblical sources, the Jewish authorities pressure Pilate to kill Jesus.

But Leap concedes that Gibson’s film affected her differently as a believing Catholic than as a professional scholar.

“Seeing it as an everyday Catholic, I would not have picked out anti-Semitism as an overt message by any means,” she said. Because of her work, however, “I was aware of the way in which he chose to put the film together” in ways that reflected badly on Jews.

In contrast to some scholar’s predictions, a survey by a Jewish research group indicates that the film may be having a positive impact on Christian views of Judaism.

The Institute for Jewish & Community Research surveyed 1,003 adults in early March and found that 2 percent believed that Jews today are responsible for killing Jesus. An ABC poll before the movie’s release had found that 8 percent held such beliefs.

Although differences in wording and methodology could account for the drop, a consultant who worked on the post-movie poll said the discussion of interfaith issues surrounding the film might have had beneficial effects. Of the 146 respondents who had seen the movie, 5 percent said the movie made them more likely to hold Jews responsible for Jesus’ death but 12 percent said the film made them less likely to do so.

Centuries of violence

“Some Jewish and Christian leaders have been understandably worried that the film might unleash a wave of hostility toward Jews and even erode the constructive effects of Vatican II. But this does not appear to the happening,” said Gary Tobin, president of the Institute for Jewish & Community Research.

To date, one anti-Semitic incident appears directly connected to the movie.

The week of its release, the pastor of a Pentecostal church in Denver wrote “Jews killed the Lord Jesus” on the church’s letter-board sign.

It was promptly condemned by the National Association of Evangelicals, and the 73-year-old pastor apologized and resigned from the church.

Rabbi Alvin Berkun, of Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill, participates in Vatican-sponsored international Catholic-Jewish dialogue and will be one of the speakers at a Duquesne University forum on the film. This is a sabbatical year for Berkun, but one of the few local commitments he is maintaining is a monthly class on Judaism at Central Catholic High School in Oakland.

Berkun had initially asked Bishop Donald W. Wuerl to put a rabbi in one Catholic high school, but Wuerl asked Berkun to find rabbis immediately for all of them, which Berkun did.

Berkun discussed “The Passion of the Christ” with his Catholic students, who were baffled by his criticism of it.

“I told the kids that we’re seeing two different movies. They’re seeing it as an act of faith and an expression of their religion. I’m looking at it for historical accuracy and I come away from the movie with a very different feeling than they do.”

Berkun was ordained in 1966, the same year as Wuerl and the year after Vatican II officially denounced anti-Semitism.

The classes in the Catholic high schools are a testament to the staying power of that declaration. But the flip side is that post-Vatican II religious education about Judaism has been so effective that his young Catholic students don’t comprehend traditional anti-Semitic images.

“They’ve had 40 years of good conditioning on the part of the church, so they are seeing Jesus suffering because of their sin. The old canard of the Jew as the Christ-killer is not on their radar screen,” Berkun said.

The problems will come when the film goes outside of North America, Berkun said.

“I’m in a lonely position. I don’t want to come across as a screamer who sees anti-Semitism everywhere I look. But I know that it is raising its ugly head all over Europe.”

It’s difficult to predict how the Muslim world will react to “The Passion of the Christ,” said Rebecca Denova, a part-time lecturer in religious studies at the University of Pittsburgh and moderator of a major panel discussion on the film scheduled for Sunday at Sixth Presbyterian Church, Squirrel Hill.

Muslims do not believe that Jesus was divine or that he died to save humanity, but they have great respect for him as a prophet, Denova said. When she has shown students the film “The Last Temptation of Christ,” which depicts a confused Jesus sexually obsessed with Mary Magdalene, “My Christian students don’t have a problem with it, but my Muslim students are very upset,” she said.

So Middle Eastern audiences may stay away from “The Passion of the Christ” because they don’t want to see Jesus mistreated. “On the other hand, given the nature of it and the history of these kinds of programs in the Middle East, the fact that it is Jews doing this to Jesus is huge propaganda,” she said.

Denova loathed the film, calling it “horrific.” It was made worse by the fact that Gibson was alerted to the anti-Semitic elements and chose to include many anyway, she said.

But she agrees with Berkun that most American Christians today don’t understand how the image of Jews as Christ-killers fomented centuries of violence against Jews and helped to create a culture in which the Holocaust could happen.

“People are just clueless about this,” she said. “The kids in my classes are so young. So do I let them go on not knowing about this, or do I teach them the history of hate so they can understand it? If they don’t understand the background, the fear is that it could happen again.”