But we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to the Jews, and foolishness to the gentiles.
1 Corinthians 1:23
There is certainly a dishonorable tradition of anti-Semitism in Passion Plays. The Judas of the York plays is a silly anti-Jewish stereotype. He looked after Jesus' money and was creaming 10 per cent off the top. When Mary Magdalene anointed Jesus with 300 silver pieces worth of ointment, he lost the 10% kickback he might have got if the goods had been put up for auction, so he sold his saviour to make up the 30 s.p shortfall. Business is business.
Granted, the Mystery Plays are not the only works of English literature which contain dubious stereotypes but somehow staging the York play near the site of a anti-Jewish massacre feels worse than, say, staging the Jew of Malta at the National. I believe the Oberammergau script was worse, and has been bowdlerized for recent productions.
I sincerely could not spot any of this kind of thing in the Gibson movie. (Unless the mere fact of showing Judas accepting 30 pieces of silver is anti-Jewish, which would surely be a strange argument: gentiles have characterized Jews as greedy, so you can never show a Jew in a dubious financial transaction.) The Jews are not represented as more brutal than the Romans; indeed, we are specifically shown members of Sanhedrin dissenting from the decision to arraign Jesus; and as has been seen, the two Marys are Jewish enough to envisage Jesus' sacrifice in terms of Passover.
The film doesn't say that all the Jews wanted Jesus dead, but it certainly says that the people who wanted Jesus dead were Jews. But it is strange to blame this part of the story on Mel Gibson, since he is here sticking to the Gospels very closely. All four Gospels agree that Pilate is reluctant to have Jesus executed, but capitulates with the Jewish priests. In the film, Pilate says to his Centurion 'Do as they wish.' This is not a direct quote from the Bible, but a reasonable representation of the relevant Bible passages:
Wanting to satisfy the crowd, Pilate released Barabbas to them. He had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified
So Pilate decided
to grant their demand. .He released the man who had been thrown into prison for
insurrection and murder, the one they asked for, and surrendered Jesus to their
Finally, Pilate handed him over to them to be crucified John
The film pays particular attention to Matthew's version.
When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. 'I am innocent of this man's blood' he said 'It is your responsibility' All the people answered 'Let his blood be on us and on our children'. Then he released Barabbas to them. But he had Jesus flogged and handed him over to be crucified.
If one was briefed to argue for the film's anti-Semitism, one could argue that Matthew blames the Jews slightly more explicitly than the other three, and attach significance to the fact that this is the version which Mel chooses to follow. The hand washing is left in the movie but the line 'let his blood be on our children' is spoken, but not sub-titled, so it only offends those members of the audience who are fluent in Aramaic.
It is rather strange that it is this line which is deemed offensive, when a passage from John, which is equally explicit in blaming the Jews, is left more or less verbatim.
'Do you refuse to speak to me?' Pilate said 'Don't you realize that I have power either to free you or to crucify you?' Jesus answered 'You would have no power at all if it were not given to you from above. Therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.
Both passages appear to say the same thing: that the Gentiles are relatively exonerated from their part in Jesus death, and the Jews are relatively condemned for it. Why is one so much worse than the other? My assumption is that the use of the word 'blood', in the context of a movie in which quite so much hemoglobin is being splashed around, is connected in some minds with stupid story that Jews drink the blood of Christian children—the so called 'blood libel.' But you would have to be pretty hypersensitive to think that this was what Mel intended.
If you don't like Jews, and are looking for proof that God doesn't like them either, then the Matthew passage could be called in for use as a proof text. If you don't like Christians, and are looking for proof that theirs is a nasty, racist, religion, then the same passage will serve that purpose nicely. But would a neutral reading of the passage allow you to say 'Because some Jews said that they were guilty of the death of Jesus, the Christian religion mandates you to hate all Jews for all time'? Obviously not. I think that the phrase 'upon us and upon our children' has a pretty clear, literal meaning. The writer of the Gospel knows that something awful happened to Israel within twenty or thirty years of the death of Christ, and thinks that the Jewish authorities' collusion in that death explain why. The Awful Thing, of course, being the destruction of the Temple in AD 70. Matthew is saying: 'Why did God, having picked the Jews as his Chosen People, allow the Temple to be destroyed in 70? Answer — because Jews living in Jerusalem at that time and their parents had rejected Christ.'
Which, while it doesn't cast all Jews for all time in the role of Christ-killers, isn't exactly the most ringing endorsement of brotherly multi-cultural I'd like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony ism I've ever heard, either.
Some of the more extreme anti-defamation people appeared to be saying that the story itself, as opposed to anything specific in Mel Gibson's handling of it, was anti-Semitic. Some of them seemed to be objecting to the fact that he was following the Gospels rather than depicting a more purely Jewish 'historical Jesus' such as the one which Geza Vermas imagines lying behind the Bible. The argument appears to be that the Biblical story of Jesus death and resurrection is offensive in-and-of-itself, and needs to be replaced with a less offensive, more historical version.
Since Christianity has pretty much no content apart from the Gospel story of Jesus death and resurrection, this is also not a particularly tolerant or multi-cultural approach.
Is the Christian story offensive to the Jewish religion? Well, of course it is. Have you never noticed that the Christian Bible labels the Jewish Scriptures as the 'Old' Testament? Or that the gentle-Jesus-meek-and-mild keeps launching into what can only be described as tirades against the Pharisees, who are, I understand, pretty much a caricature of the historical sect. Pass on through the Epistles, where Paul gives a negative meaning to the term 'law', via Hebrews, which says that the Jewish Temple and sacrifice system was a sort of Platonic foreshadowing of the Crucifixion of Jesus, and end up in the book of Revelation where Christians at any rate out-number Jews in what is called (that word again) the 'New' Jerusalem.
That's what the Christian story is about; that is the point of it. It goes like this: 'Once upon a time, God chose some people to be his special people. He told them what he was like, and how he wanted them to behave, and told them to build a temple , and promised that one day he would come to earth and live in it. But when he did come to earth, they not recognize him, and many of them actively tried to kill him. They called him a blasphemer for not sticking to his own laws, and when he came to the temple, he was so horrified with what he saw there that he started to smash it up. In the end, they made an alliance with the pagans and had him killed. And a few years later, the temple and the city were destroyed and the people were scatted. But it turned out that this was, in fact, all part of Gods plan, because….'
Whether you believe it or not, its a good story. But in the real world, real people say 'Er, actually we are the mysterious chosen people who your book alternatively reveres and patronizes and we don't see it all like that. And the meanings that you are attaching to our scriptures are not at all the ones we attach to them. '
It seems, if nothing else, an object lesson in the limits of liberalism and multi-culturalism. We have Christians telling a story which treats Jews as major supporting characters in their own history, and we have Jews, telling a story which regards Christian history as a two millennia long blind alley. Christians can't stop telling their story and remain Christians; there is no realistic way of removing the anti-Jewish bit and leaving the story intact. (When people go to church on Christians Eve and hear the third lesson 'He came unto his own, and his own received him not' are they listening?) If we believe in multi-culturalism, we have to say that the two mutually exclusive and mutually offensive grand narratives have got a perfect right to exist—if it comes to it, Christians have got a perfect right to upset Jews and Jews have got a perfect right to upset Christians. But we'd rather they refrained from killing each other.
'People who say they don't like Milton's God' wrote C.S Lewis 'Really mean that they don't like God.' I wish that Mel had made a better film. I wish that he'd made a less visceral, more thoughtful film. But I still think that he has done us all a favour by getting the actual content of the Christian story into the multiplexes and onto the cover of Empire Magazine. When some Jews and some atheists and some liberal Christians are freaked by the contents of The Passion of the Christ they are really being freaked by Christianity. Recognizing that to be the case is probably the best response anyone can make to this deeply flawed movie.
I might agree that the allies are partly to blame, but nothing can fully excuse the iniquity of Hitler's persecution of the Jews, or the absurdity of his theoretical position. Did you see that he said 'The Jews have made no contribution to human cultures and in crushing them I am doing the will of the Lord?' Now, as the whole idea of 'the will of the Lord' is precisely what the world owes to the Jews, the blaspheming tyrant has just fixed the absurdity for all to see in a single sentence and shown that he is as contemptible for his stupidity as he is detestable for his cruelty.
C.S Lewis — letter, 1933