Gibson’s “Passion” – Not the Way it Was: A Critical Look at Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ

Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ generated tremendous controversy even before its official opening. Critics rightly charge Gibson, a would-be Biblical literalist, distorts and falsifies the Gospels blitzing on Jewish leaders as “Christ-killers” while largely reducing the blame of Roman authorities for the Crucifixion. This is the first time I ever saw Jews going around town enjoying one of their own being beaten to death instead of staying home and celebrating Pesah/Passover, one of the most Holy Days in the Jewish calendar! Gibson appears nostalgic of pre-1965 Catholicism when the Vatican II Church Council repudiated the notion that all Jews for all time are guilty for the death of Jesus. This movie is being debated as a “religious issue,” but-as we shall see-it also has important racial implications.

For over a century, New Testament scholars have correctly shown that Jewish law does not prescribe crucifixion as Roman law does: there was someone hanging from a tree on every hill in Rome. The brutal, cruel Roman authorities, which then held legal jurisdiction over Jewish Palestine, ultimately conspired, judged, tortured, and executed Jesus afraid of an uprising against Rome by his Jewish followers (!) as exactly they did Menahem, Bar Giora, and several other Jews deemed Messiahs- Redeemers from Roman oppression, as we know from history– at times with the help of traitors .. Any idea to the contrary, like the movie itself is fiction, a pure fabrication — not the way it was.

Scholars worldwide today stress that Jesus’ teachings were Jewish, Christianity an offshoot of Judaism. Jesus was unquestionably a good, loyal, practicing Jew, perhaps a reformer in a long line of Jewish prophets and sages who all sought to influence the direction of the religion. His disciples were Jews without exception as virtually all his followers: witness the multitudes at the Sermon on the Mount and entrance to Jerusalem.

Hillel, Shammai and other sages of his time, regularly disputed fervently with each other, often holding strongly opposing views-witness the Mishnah and the Talmud-but did not call for each other’s execution! Judaism was never fanatical or doctrinaire; in Jesus’ time, it was even more pluralistic. In theory, a Jew could be stoned to death for blasphemy, for using the Lord’s name in vain, but no single example whatsoever in Jewish history exists of a person condemned to death for heresy. Any dispute and disagreement Jesus was said to have had with other contemporary Jewish leaders and teachers, as the writers of the Gospels maintain, often with exaggeration, was an internal Jewish dispute, a family affair. Jesus’ avowed enemy was Rome, not Jerusalem! If all that psychotic punishment in the movie was real and historically accurate, it ironically tells us more as to how the Romans brutally beat, tortured, or crucified Jews: Jesus is a prototype of the historically suffering Jew.

Stressing the role of individual Jewish leaders in the Crucifixion, Gibson’s film contributes to reviving “Euro-centric Christianity” that also denies the importance of Asian and African peoples to the development of the Christian faith. As an overwhelmingly Christian community, African Americans obviouslyhave a religious concern in this dispute– one that has been ignored in the controversy over the film. If you are looking for casting of Black actors in significant roles in the movie-don’t bother. Gibson partnered with Danny Glover in the “Lethal Weapon” movies, but Jesus has no Black followers in the Passion. In other words, “The Gospel According to Gibson” is not only anti-Jewish but also insensitive to Blacks. His racial insensitivity is particularly inappropriate at a time when Africa is the only important growth area for Christianity.

The year 1965-notable for Vatican II’s contribution to religious tolerance-also witnessed the Selma March for racial equality in voting riots, led by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. A famous photograph of the March shows King linked, arm-in-arm, with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a refugee from Nazi Europe. In 1965, Hollywood also made a significant gesture toward acknowledging that Blacks played a role in Biblical history. George Stevens’ The Greatest Story Ever Told cast Academy Award winning actor Sydney Poitier as Simon of Cyrene who helped Jesus carry his cross. An Army photographer during World War II, Stevens photographed the Dachau death camp. He also directed the film version of The Diary of Ann Frank. These experiences influenced Stevens to be careful in his film version of the Passion not to portray Jews in a way that would inflame Anti-Semitism. In other words, Stevens’ film reflects the sensitivity to both Jews and African Americans, characteristic of the high point of the Civil Rights movement.

The actor, whom Gibson chose to portray Jesus, though not blond-haired and blue-eyed, yet is clearly a European with a complexion lighter than Jesus’ probably was. According to a medical Rabbinic opinion from the time of Jesus, “a Jew is of intermediate color …. ”

Another blunder of Mr. Gibson is the claim of Aramaic, the Jewish contemporary vernacular spoken by Jesus. Aramaic has many dialects; but this is not the place to describe the morphological and grammatical variances of the dialects. However, Jewish Aramaic, the language of Jesus, continued in use for centuries among Yemenite Jews who to this day starting at age four fluently recite in Aramaic the Torah and other Biblical books every Sabbath and at holidays; so scholars know what this language is, not just from ancient texts but directly, from living people. Gibson’s is not only non-Jewish Aramaic, the language that Jesus would have spoken, but a modern fabricated dialect – to be sure by a scholar to whom credit must go for the effort- for the most part a modern, misenunciated, garbled, and mumbled speech by the mystified actors.

Furthermore, it is doubtful that Jesus would have known a single Latin word! Had he known a foreign language, which I doubt he did, it would have been Greek, the Roman administrative language of the eastern Mediterranean colonies. Jesus’ prayers would have also been in Hebrew using words akin to the Psalms, not his Jewish Aramaic vernacular. Let no one be deceived that this film is based on accurate historical knowledge about real life in the time of Jesus. Not only Jews (whatever their color) but also African American (whatever their religion) ought not to get on board the bandwagon promoting Gibson’s film-unless they are willing to have a seat at the back of the bus!

*Ephraim Isaac, BD (Harvard Divinity School ’63), PhD (Harvard University ’69), a founder and the first professor of Afro-American Studies at Harvard University when the Department was created in 1969, is author of numerous scholarly works about the Late Second Temple period and Classical Ethiopic religious literature, is Director of the Institute of Semitic Studies, Princeton, NJ.

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