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What's Up With Mel Gibson's "The Passion"?

By Derek Leman, February 15, 2004 - Hope of David

Derek is the Messianic leader of Hope of David, a Messianic Fellowship located in Sandy Springs

Some Christians immediately think all of the flap about Mel Gibson's movie about the trial and death of Jesus is nothing more than anti-Christian bias. Well, maybe a lot of it is. But there really has been some cause for concern, a reason to question Mel Gibson and a reason to wonder what effect the movie might have on the Jewish community. It seems now that the movie is going to be a well-made and mostly accurate version of the events leading up to the crucifixion, but consider these reasons for concern in the early days of publicity for the movie:

1. Mel Gibson's inspiration was the book The Dolorous Passion of the Christ by Anne Catherine Emmerich, an Augustinian nun who died in 1824. Sister Anne was reputed to be a stigmatic, having the wounds of Christ on her body and crosses imprinted on her chest. She had mystic visions of the life of Jesus, filling in details missing from the Bible. Emmerich has an anti-Semitic slant in her telling of the story. According to the Boston Globe (Aug 18, 2003, Cathy Young), "Emmerich claimed that the cross on which Jesus died was built in the Jewish temple on the orders of the high priest." The good news, however, according to a reporter who saw a screening of the movie, is that nothing in the movie actually comes from the book. Viewers need not fear that any anti-Semitic writings from a mystical nun will ruin the movie.

2. Mel Gibson belongs to a reactionary group within Catholicism that rejects Vatican II. One of the provisions of Vatican II is to repudiate the belief that Jews, past or present, are collectively responsible for "deicide." Gibson's father, Hutter Gibson, made remarks denying the holocaust to the New York Times. Apparently, Gibson's father believes that a relatively small number of Jews died in Germany during the war.  One can only hope that Mel Gibson does not share his father's views and that the spiritual experiences Mel has spoken of during the filming of the movie have renewed his love for Israel and the people from whom Jesus came.

3. Mel Gibson has made some unfortunate remarks, apparently in anger. He was quoted in the New York Daily News as saying that he wanted to keep in the movie a scene where Caiphas says, "His blood be upon us and our children." This statement from the gospels has, sadly, been misused as a reason to persecute Jews through the centuries (see below). Gibson said of the scene, "I wanted it in. But, man, if I included that in there, they'd be coming after me at my house, they'd come kill me." (New York Daily News, Sept 6, 2003). When Mel Gibson said he worried that Jews would come to his house to kill him, he clearly crossed the line of decency. One can only hope that it was a remark made in the heat of anger and does not reflect a conspiracy view of Jewish people.

4. Some anti-Semites are already using the movie to incite hatred. Consider this ridiculous quote from "We are convinced that these hypocritical and self-righteous Zionists are of the same mold as those Jewish Pharisees responsible for the cruel crucifixion of Our Lord Jesus Christ." These people clearly do not represent Gibson, but this is the type of result Jewish groups were concerned would occur.

5. Passion plays have a history of anti-Semitism. The most famous is the Oberammerggau Passion Play which runs every 10 years in Bavaria. Until the 1990 play, "Jewish characters used to appear in horned hats suggesting a link between Jews and the Devil, and Jewish religious officials were portrayed as evil and sadistic. When Adolf Hitler went to see the play in 1934, he considered it a “precious tool” for his fight against Judaism" (

So, it seems there was some legitimate reason for the Jewish community to be concerned. Especially in Europe, with its recent increase of anti-Semitic acts, the fear of renewed anti-Jewish popular sentiments is well-placed.

What is not true, though it is often-repeated by those criticizing Gibson's film, is that the gospels are anti-Semitic. The charge is historically ludicrous since the writers of the gospels were not only Jews, but faithful Jews who continued to worship at the Temple daily (Acts 2:46, 3:1, 5:42). The reader of the gospels needs to keep a few facts in mind:

1. Jewish groups often used strong rhetoric against each other. The Essenes, who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls, attacked other Jewish groups viciously. In The Rule of the Community, for example, they claimed that the Jews who were sacrificing at the Temple were wasting their time, "He will not become clean by acts of atonement . . . defiled, defiled he shall be all the days he spurns the decrees of God" (1QS 3:4-5, Florentino Martinez translation). There are many descriptions of damnation and suffering for Jews who do not join the Essenes. This was not anti-Semitism, but intra-Jewish rivalry over religious issues.

2. The official synagogues of the first century held in some cases the power of life and death over Jewish and Gentile followers of Jesus. By turning Jesus-followers in to Roman authorities, the synagogues could subject them to prosecution for refusing emperor-worship (only those of the Jewish religion were exempt). Thus, when John, an Israelite from Galilee, spoke of the "synagogue of Satan," he was not characterizing a religion or a people group, but referring specifically to persecutors of his people.

3. The modern term "Jew" or "the Jews" did not refer to all people of Israel. "Jew" is a term derived from "Judah" and "Judea." John and other Galileans would not have been referred to as "Jews" in the parlance of the time. Thus, when John refers in his gospel many times to "the Jews," he means the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem. Just as we refer to the leaders of America as "the people in Washington," so John referred to the Temple leadership and the Sanhedrin as "the Jews" (the Judeans). There was a sort of rivalry between Galilean and Judean Israelites.

4. When Matthew reports (27:25) the Jewish leaders and the relatively small crowd standing by Pilate's hall as saying, "His blood be upon us and our children," he was not making a theological basis for anti-Semitism and the charge that Jews attempted to kill God (deicide). Those in the church throughout history who used this text for evil did not follow the spirit of the New Testament in the least. Matthew's account is historical. Most scholars date Matthew's writing before the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E., which means even the terrible destruction that came upon these same Jewish leaders at that time was not being hinted at in Matthew's text. That a determined and corrupt group of leaders, as even other Jews of the time viewed Caiaphas and his band, took the blood of Yeshua the Nazarene on themselves, is not a divine sanction for punishing anyone of Jewish descent. It shows rather the corruption of the individuals involved, not the Jewish people as a whole.

Mel Gibson's movie, not released yet as this article is being written, will probably be an accurate account of the last hours of Yeshua before his crucifixion. It will be a view biased from Catholic tradition and Catholic art (as opposed to a Jewish perspective), but it will probably be moving. God will use a movie like this which has the whole country talking about Jesus. One can only hope that Mel's visuals and script will emphasize the Jewishness of the man who died for the sins of others. May God cause many in America and abroad to consider Jesus, the Jewish Messiah for themselves.

To read about the Jewish life and teachings of Jesus, get a copy of JESUS DIDN'T HAVE BLUE EYES: RECLAIMING OUR JEWISH MESSIAH by Derek Leman.

Related Article:

The Passion of the Messiah


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