What are we to make of l’affaire Gibson now that his film has turned out to be a huge box-office success? Those who, like me, were deeply moved by The Passion of the Christ and judged it to be not anti-Semitic have no reason to gloat. The cultural clashes over the film opened wounds we thought had healed, and they exposed currents of hostility toward Christianity that one would have hoped had disappeared. The freewheeling commentary in the general media, with a few notable exceptions, was pitched at too low a level to call this a teaching moment. But it certainly was a moment to listen and learn—and, at times, to laugh.
Last summer, it should be recalled, Gibson’s project was on very shaky legs. He had not as yet found a distributor for a film in which he had invested twenty-five million dollars of his own money. After reading a “received” copy of the script, a self-selected group of six scholars, most of them veterans of Jewish-Christian dialogue, complained of un-Biblical and anti-Semitic stereotypes. One of the group, Paula Fredriksen of Boston University, wrote a long and fearful essay, “Mad Mel,” in the New Republic, predicting that “violence” would break out upon the film’s release. Immediately, Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, orchestrated a campaign to label the film anti-Semitic. That really got Mel mad, and he responded by showing nearly finished versions of the movie to selected audiences, most of which consisted of politically conservative pundits and evangelical Christians. None of them seemed to find the film anti-Semitic—but then few of them were Jews. To columnists such as Frank Rich of the New York Times, Gibson’s screening strategy was part of a “political-cultural war” pitting Jews against Christians, including the Bush White House and the whole conservative wing of the chattering classes.
Thus began an opéra bouffe that eventually involved a huge cast, including, on the pro-Gibson side, the pope (apparently) and Billy Graham and his son Franklin (certainly), and featuring Gibson-denouncing appearances by Andrew Greeley and Elaine Pagels, among many others. It also featured Foxman and his competitor in Jewish defense, Rabbi Marvin Heir, director of the Simon Weisenthal Center in Los Angeles, surreptitiously slipping into pre-release screenings. Gibson’s publicity people countered their reports with stories of miracles and conversion experiences on Gibson’s set in Italy. The Catholic League came to Gibson’s defense, while a Jewish website, Messiah Truth, called on Attorney General John Ashcroft to investigate Gibson for hate crimes. As prophylactics against a possible outbreak of anti-Semitism, the Catholic bishops and the National Council of Churches published guidelines for watching the film. Appealing to higher authority, Foxman flew to Rome to ask the Vatican to tell all bishops that Gibson’s movie is not “the gospel truth.”
Hollywood, predictably, backed away from Gibson, thinking him toxic. But once he found a distributor the effort to render the film financially dead on arrival turned into a boon. Richard Land, the president of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, scrutinized the film for signs of “creeping excessive Catholicism” and found none, thus clearing a path to the theater door for ten million Southern Baptists. Other Evangelicals also rallied to Gibson and his film, not because they lack Jesus films of their own, but because they saw the clash over his film as part of a battle between Christianity and secularism. It is likely that those who tried to paint Gibson and his work as anti-Semitic guaranteed, ironically, his unexpected box office success. With enemies like these, who needs friends?
In any case, long before his film opened, Gibson’s every comment was closely examined for signs of anti-Semitism. He was denounced by Rich of the Times and others as a “Holocaust denier” because he noted in one interview that Jews were not the only people victimized by the Nazis. “Gotcha, Mel!” was the collective response. Gibson’s disposition as a traditionalist Catholic who loves the Latin Mass and is critical of liberal trends since the Second Vatican Council was routinely interpreted as meaning that he therefore rejects the Church’s formal repudiation (in NostraAetate, 1965) of the charge of deicide against the Jews. Gibson was repeatedly visited with the sins of his father, the aged, addled, and frankly anti-Semitic Hutton Gibson. Admirably, Gibson did not allow Diane Sawyer to provoke him into denouncing his father during his hour-long interview on CBS, and with great patience entertained Ms. Sawyer’s headline-seeking question: “Are you anti-Semitic?”
So what is to be learned from all of this? First, Christians and Jews alike can rejoice over the dog that did not bark. Except for one unsettled Pentecostal pastor in Colorado there have been no reported incidents of anti-Semitism related to Gibson’s film. That is remarkable, considering how many millions of Americans have seen the film, and more so because the media have been primed to report any such incidents. Indeed, it was a golden opportunity for any crank looking for headlines to make his voice heard. The lesson, though, is not that in “tolerant” America Jews and Christians now understand each other. As their widely different reactions to the film suggest, there’s a lot of misunderstanding yet to confront.
No question, Christians and Jews saw two different films. As John Leo astutely observed in his syndicated column, they walked into the film with different emotions and different preconceptions—and walked out with them intact. Christians know the plotline and most assume as fact that Jesus died for their sins. No wonder so many wept—for Jesus the suffering servant and for themselves as sinners “washed in the blood of the lamb.” Jews who have seen the film (including professional film critics) arrived wary, alert for evidence of anti-Semitism and armed with some knowledge of passion plays past. The story Gibson filmed is not, as one Orthodox rabbi rightly wrote on his website, “our story.” New Yorker critic David Denby, who identifies himself as a secular Jew, bemoaned in his acerbic review the absence of “the electric charge of hope and redemption Jesus Christ brought into the world.” But had this been “his” story, Denby might have realized that that Jesus was right before his eyes, in every frame. Gibson’s Christ is not the parable-telling, halacha-defying rabbi that Reform Judaism at its origins more than a century ago promoted as a figure closer to its own tradition than to Christianity. Rather, he is in this passion—as in the Gospel passion narratives—the obedient son of the Father. As I pointed out in an op-ed piece in the New York Times on Ash Wednesday, the death of Jesus is the one aspect of the Gospels that no other religion can accept. But without that Jesus there would be no resurrected Christ, and without that Christ there would be no Jesus available to make a film about—whether by DeMille, by Pasolini, by Scorsese, or by Gibson.
In sum, in the months leading up to the release of The Passion of the Christ the only issue that seemed to matter in the media was whether the director was guilty of anti-Semitism. In attenuated form, anti-Semitism was also the subject of the February 16 cover story in Newsweek, which had won the heated competition among the three newsweeklies for the exclusive right to screen the film early (I was among those admitted) and to feature it on its cover. The question in its cover line, “Who Really Killed Jesus?” introduced writer Jon Meacham’s earnest and careful exploration of whether Gibson had been faithful to the Gospels and whether the Gospels themselves were trustworthy as history. On the first point, it was obvious that Gibson had gone beyond the Scriptures at several points, as film directors, and all artistic interpreters, are wont to do. To address the second point, however, is to scamper down a hole that no prudent rabbit would dare enter, given the long and complex history of biblical scholarship itself.
The consensus of New Testament scholars is that from Mark to Matthew and Luke, the Gospel writers shifted the burden of responsibility for the death of Jesus from the Romans to the Jews. But as the late Raymond Brown demonstrated in detail in his magisterial two volumes, The Death of the Messiah, “the theory that the Gospels exculpate the Romans by creating a totally fictional, sympathetic Pilate has been overdone.” In particular, Brown shows that the assessments of Pilate in the writings of Tacitus and especially Philo of Alexandria are not to be taken at face value—as Meacham takes them—because both writers had political axes to grind. In short, while Gibson surely overdraws the role of Caiaphas, Meacham underestimates the political vulnerability of Pilate, who stands vilified in Christian tradition as a weak magistrate who condemned a just man to death.
None of this would matter if the Newsweek story, published two weeks before the film’s Ash Wednesday opening, had not become received wisdom to the Scripture-lacking and symbol-impaired commentators who followed in Meacham’s wake. Bowing to Meacham, Denby in the New Yorker charged Gibson with “serious mischief” in assigning responsibility for the death of Jesus, failing to recognize any of the scenes that place responsibility for Jesus’ death on all sinful human beings. In an equally clueless review in the Washington Post, Ann Hornaday asserted the film’s “startling lack of historical context” and declared: “That Jesus and his followers were themselves Jewish is a fact either elided or ignored” by the director. Was she looking for identification tags? Christ—need anyone be reminded?—was not a Christian.
The word “medieval” occurred quite frequently in reviews as a pejorative. In a discussion of the film with this writer on National Public Radio, Denby complained of Gibson’s “odd medieval touches like Satan hanging around among all the Jews through the scourging and all through the Crucifixion, which is not in the Gospels. That’s an anti-Semitic medieval hangover that I found very disturbing.” One should not have to remind a man who makes his living reviewing movies that Gibson’s Satan—a figure out of an Ingmar Bergman film, as Newsweek’s film reviewer David Anson aptly noted—functions throughout this film as the visual and constant reminder of the temptation to terminal despair that tortures Jesus even more than his physical punishment. Note to Mr. Denby: Satan is not a medieval invention; he figures prominently as the Adversary in the Gospels. Similarly, those reviewers who thought they saw cinematic translations of paintings by Caravaggio (Denby) and Jackson Pollack (Gary Anderson in the Washington Times) missed in the long scene with Pilate Gibson’s most obvious visual borrowing: the now classic suffering savior painted by Georges Rouault.
The day the film opened, Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie was in the audience in a sold-out theater in Times Square watching The Passion of the Christ unfold. Yoffie was deeply offended by what he saw as Jewish stereotypes. “The Jews in this film are evildoers,” he later wrote to his colleagues on Reform Judaism’s website. But he also noticed the woman next to him sobbing throughout the film, and gradually came to the conclusion that such Christians are responding out of deep belief and “really do not understand the charge of anti-Semitism and what Jews are talking about.”
Yoffie’s modest exercise in what literary types call “reader-response theory” is a useful way to survey the reactions of the nation’s celebrity pundits. In Vanity Fair, everybody’s favorite urban atheist, Christopher Hitchens, called Gibson a fascist and the movie an “exercise in lurid masochism.” In the New Republic, Leon Wieseltier let loose with another of his contemptuous screeds against Christianity in general, medieval Catholicism more generically, and Gibson’s “wretched hero” in particular. “A sacred snuff film” was his most inelegant shot. From the other side of the political aisle, columnists William Safire (New York Times) and Charles Krauthammer (Washington Post) found the movie sadistic as well as anti-Semitic. Indeed, “sadist,” “masochistic,” “pornographic,” and their variants were the most common adjectives in the lava-laden commentaries published in the Boston Globe, USAToday, and Slate. Then there were the efforts to trivialize: A. O. Scott in the New York Times led his review with a Mel Gibson appearance on “The Simpsons,” eventually getting around to comparing The Passion to “a slasher film,” and Garry Wills in the New York Review of Books reported that he and his wife had to “keep from laughing” while watching the movie.
There were also many warnings from the critics that children watching the film would be traumatized. Never mind the fact that the movie is R-rated; adolescents who do make it into the theater will discover an “adult” film whose violence might actually be good for them. For sure, Gibson’s film is brutal, as he promised it would be. Every biblical film is necessarily a new translation, and Gibson’s visual vernacular is violence. On this score he risks much in his effort to do through violence what other directors have done by other, sometimes ideological, means—to jolt the viewer into a fresh understanding of an all-too-familiar story. Not all of his risks pay off. Critics are right to complain that the central scene of Christ’s scourging goes on far too long, straining belief that any human being could survive such a brutal whipping and overwhelming the viewer’s ability to empathize. Worse, the flashbacks to pre-passion moments in the life of Jesus fail to provide sufficient context for understanding why the Jewish religious establishment wanted to see Jesus put out of the way—a nearly fatal flaw in Gibson’s conception.
Above all, Gibson misled both critics and supporters of his film by proclaiming his fidelity to Scripture. As Beliefnet.com demonstrated in its very alert analysis, for almost all of his excessive—and artistically unnecessary—additions to the biblical materials Gibson relied slavishly on one book dear to traditionalist Catholics: The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ, written by Clemens Brentano in the early nineteenth century and purporting to be the mystical visions of an illiterate nun and stigmatic, Anne Catherine Emmerich. As Paula Fredriksen and others pointed out, many of the utterances attributed to Emmerich are indeed anti-Semitic, though none of these find their way into Gibson’s film. What no one mentioned is that the Vatican halted Emmerich’s canonization process in 1928 over concern that Brentano probably embellished her visions considerably. In other words, Gibson drew from a book that the Church considers dubious enough to exclude from material it will consider in her cause for sainthood.
Finally, what can one say about the dark warnings from Frank Rich and others that The Passion will surely inflame anti-Semitic violence in the Middle East, once it reaches theaters there? Well, there aren’t many theaters left in Iraq, but knock-off DVDs of the film have been on sale there for more than a month at this writing and so far there has been no disturbance. Nor in Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Bahrain, Qatar, or the United Arab Emirates, where the film was released uncensored, according to a report from Cairo by Charles Levinson in the San Francisco Chronicle, April 1.
It would be nice, but too much to expect, if Jews and Muslims as well as Christians could see The Passion of the Christ and recognize a larger theme: that like Jeremiah and Mohammed, prophets are rarely welcomed among religious establishments. Were I a Jew, I admit, this is one film I would skip. But as the nonviolent responses to The Passion so far demonstrate, this is a film that Jews should realize is not about them. It is about Jesus. As a creative interpretation of sacred texts rather than a straightforward reading of a scriptural story, it deserves to be treated with the respect we normally show to all sincere attempts to search out the fullness of God’s intention. Sadly, such respect was shown by few critics of Gibson’s Passion.
Kenneth L. Woodward is a Contributing Editor at Newsweek, where he was Religion Editor for thirty-eight years.