The trouble with Mel Gibson's film "The Passion"
is not the film itself, but the gospel story on which it's based. The
gospel story, which has generated more anti-Semitism than the sum of all the other anti-Semitic writings ever written, created
the climate in Christian Europe that led to the Holocaust.
Long before the rise of Adolf
Hitler, the gospel story about the life and death of Jesus had poisoned
the bloodstream of European civilization.
The four gospels — Matthew, Mark, Luke,
and John (there were others,
but they didn't make it into the New
Testament) — were written decades after the death of Jesus.
Not only were they not composed in Galilee where Jesus lived or in Jerusalem where he died, but they were not written in Aramaic, the language of
Jesus and the region where he lived. Instead, they were written in Greek
more than a generation later in cities in the Roman
empire like Antioch, Ephesus, and in the case of the earliest gospel
(Mark) in Rome itself. As a result, these gospels are at a considerable
cultural, linguistic, and religious remove from the events they allegedly
The historical Jesus (as opposed to the Jesus portrayed
in the New Testament and elevated to divinity by the Christian church)
was a Jew, faithful to the law of Moses and the teachings of the prophets.
He grew up and worked in Galilee, where Jewish patriotism was intense,
and he was steeped in Jewish scriptures, oral
law, and the spirit of the Pharisees,
the leading religious teachers of his day. People called him "Rabbi"
and, like many religious Jews, he expected the imminent coming of the messianic era, or the "Kingdom
of God," as he called it.
Like other religious, nationalistic Jews before and
after him, Jesus (whose Aramaic name was Yeshua) angered the Roman government
because of his preaching, which was considered dangerous. On what turned
out to be his final Passover trip to Jerusalem, Jesus was arrested and, upon the order of the Roman
After his death, his followers — most of whom
were simple fishermen and artisans — lived on in Galilee and Jerusalem.
Called "Nazarenes" after Jesus's hometown of Nazareth,
they continued to observe Jewish laws and wait for the coming of the
Kingdom of God, which Jesus had promised. In Jerusalem it was James,
the brother of Jesus, who headed the Nazarenes for the next thirty years
until he, too, was put to death in 62 C.E.
However, the future of Christianity did not remain
long in the hands of these Aramaic-speaking Nazarenes. It passed on
to an energetic, Greek-speaking Jew from Tarsus in Asia Minor by the
name of Paul. He had never met Jesus and wasn't greatly impressed by
the Nazarenes he did meet when he visited Jerusalem. What won Paul over
to the belief that Jesus was the Christos (the Greek word for Messiah)
was a vision. After his vision, Paul traveled all over the eastern Mediterranean
preaching his own understanding of Christianity, which was rather different
from the Nazarene version. Unlike the Nazarenes, who lived according
to Jewish law in Jerusalem and Galilee, Paul took his message to gentiles
as well as Jews. As a result of tireless work and extensive travel,
he planted Christian congregations in Asia Minor and Greece.
The differences between Paul's teachings and those
of the Nazarenes back in Jerusalem and Galilee soon became apparent.
Not only did Paul preach to gentiles, but he also did not insist that
these converts submit themselves to circumcision or to any of the other
demands of Jewish law. The Nazarenes were outraged when they learned
about Paul's negligence, and they summoned him to Jerusalem for an explanation.
In Jerusalem before the Nazarene elders, Paul acted as a devout Jew,
observing all the details of Jewish law.
Paul never changed his mind about his mission to the
gentiles and his opposition to having these converts treated like second-class
citizens. In letters he wrote to his churches (now collected in the
New Testament), he went so far as to claim that the law of Moses was
no longer necessary, even for Jews, and that faith in Christ and his
teachings was sufficient. He also believed that everybody in the churches
— Jews and gentiles, slaves and free persons — should be
equal. When people from the Nazarene church in Jerusalem arrived at
his churches to try to convince the gentile converts to obey Jewish
law, Paul denounced them as "Judaizers."
The conflict between the Nazarenes and Paul that divided
the early Christian movement was decided by a stroke of history. The Jewish-Roman War (66-70 C.E.),
which destroyed Jerusalem and its temple and killed many Jews, dealt
a devastating blow to the Nazarenes, from which they never recovered.
Whatever traditions and writings they possessed were lost or forgotten.
Instead, Paul's churches survived and became the basis for a Christianity
that quickly became separate from and even hostile to the Judaism out
of which it emerged.
By the time the Christian gospels were written in the
latter part of the first century, Jews and Christians were fierce competitors
arguing over whether or not Jesus was the Messiah-Christ promised in
the Hebrew Bible, and over which group — Jews or Christians —
represented the "true Israel." By the end of the first century
resentment and mistrust of Jews were so widespread in the aftermath
of the Jewish revolt against Rome that the young Christian churches
in the cities of the empire sought to distance themselves from their
This desire to dissociate explains why hostility toward
Judaism and Jews came to be written into the gospels. They told the
story of Jesus in such a way that it seemed as if his real enemies were
not gentiles, or even the Romans who put him to death, but rather Jews
— Pharisees, priests, and the Jewish people in general.
This anti-Jewish point of view is evident in the Gospel
According to Mark, the first of the gospels written in Rome shortly
after the end of the Jewish-Roman
War in 70 C.E. when anti-Jewish resentment was especially strong
in the capital. In Mark's gospel Jesus is persecuted at every turn by
the Pharisees and priests of Judaism. In fact, the very first person
in the gospel to recognize his worth was not a Jew at all, but a Roman
centurion present at his crucifixion, who proclaimed, "Truly this
man was a son of God" (Mark 15:39).
Likewise, Mark's gospel pictures Pontius Pilate, the
Roman procurator who ordered Jesus's execution, as someone who tried
his best to be nice to Jesus. According to Mark, Pilate wanted to have
Jesus released but was prevented from doing so by a mob of bloodthirsty
Jews (the same people who cheered his entrance into the city several
days earlier). By telling the story in this way, Mark's gospel put the
responsibility for the death of Jesus on the Jews, not on the Roman
government that ordered his death.
Matthew's gospel took this blaming of the Jews one step further. In this gospel Pilate's
wife warns her husband not to have anything to do with wronging "that
righteous man." Then, after the Jewish mob shouts for the death
of Jesus (choosing to have the criminal Barabbas released instead),
Pilate washes his hands in front of the crowd, saying "I am innocent
of this man's blood." Here Matthew puts into the mouths of the
crowd words that were to condemn later generations of Jews: "And
the people answered, 'His blood be on us and on our children!"
The other two gospels — Luke and John —
also portray Jews and Judaism as forces that persecuted Jesus and drove
him to his death. Combined with the letters of Paul, these four anti-Jewish
gospels make up the bulk of the New Testament, which Christianity considers
to be a sacred and accurate account of history.
Not surprisingly, this negative picture of Judaism
and the Jews continued in the writings of the Christians who followed.
The fourth-century bishop of Antioch, John Chrysostom, widely respected
as a "Doctor of the Church" and later canonized as a saint,
preached fiery sermons against the Jews of his city, calling them "lustful,
rapacious, greedy, perfidious bandits...inveterate murderers, destroyers,
men possessed by the devil." Their synagogue was a place of "shame and ridicule," and Jewish religious
rites were "criminal and impure." Why were the Jews so hateful?
The answer, said Chrysostom, was in the gospel story: the Jews were
hateful because of their "odious assassination of Christ."
In the Middle Ages the gospel story about the "assassination
of Christ" was enacted annually in Passion plays staged outdoors
at Oberammergau in Germany and many other places in Europe. These plays — forerunners of
the Gibson film — enacted for their audiences the passion (suffering)
of Jesus in all its gory details.
It is ironic and tragic that Christianity, which began
as a Jewish sect, grew up to become such a dangerous threat to Judaism.
To their credit, some post-Holocaust Christians have been trying to
come to terms with the church's anti-Semitic past and get beyond it.
In the early 1960s the Catholic Church's Vatican II pronouncement denounced
anti-Semitism and stated that Jews of the past, as well as the Jews
of today, bear no responsibility for Jesus' death. It was definitely
a long overdue step forward, but this film has dealt a serious blow
to these efforts.