In case you were vacationing on Mars from January through March of this year, you know there has been a considerable dust-up over Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. [Editor’s Note: If you haven’t seen it and don’t want to read any spoilers, consider yourself warned.] The controversy had several angles. For instance, there was an interesting debate among Catholics as to whether Gibson’s apparent schismatic stance toward the Church was a reason to reject his movie. But the dominant angle by far was the accusation made by certain Jewish organizations (and rejected and criticized by other Jewish groups) that the movie either (a) was anti-Semitic, or (b) was not anti-Semitic itself but would inspire anti-Semitism among the Christians who would flock to see it.
Naturally, the debate leading up to the movie’s release got a little heated. On
the one hand, anti-Semitic violence is a present reality (think suicide bombers) and a
never-abating danger, but on the other hand, the spectacle of Jewish groups “demanding
changes” in a presentation of New Testament events made some Christians apprehensive
that what they were seeing was in fact a demand for editorial control over the content of
Then the movie opened: first in the United States, then in Europe, and finally in some, but not all, Muslim countries. No pogroms have ensued. The constant undertow of anti- Semitic incidents did not abate, but it also did not increase; some polls even suggested that non-Jews seeing the movie came out less inclined to “blame the Jews,” not more. On the question of the Jews, the Jewish leaders, and their role in the movie’s events, people‘s opinions reflected the baggage they brought to their viewing. Jewish viewers who were determined to find anti-Semitism in the movie easily did so. Christian viewers did not, and for the most part, they did not see how anyone could reasonably find that sort of message.
The Muslim countries were the exception that proves the rule. Some refused to allow the movie to be shown, fearing it would spread the “heretical” doctrine that the “prophet Issa” was the Son of God and the final redeemer. Others decided to take that risk in hopes that the movie would, in fact, spread anti-Semitism, just as its Jewish detractors promised. And indeed, exit interviews with young Muslims, who had been brought up on a steady diet of Israel-baiting, showed that such folk did in fact find that the movie illustrated “the crimes of the Jews.” Which is consistent with my point: viewers emerged from their viewing with the same baggage they brought to it. And as I have mentioned, certain polls suggested that among American non-Jews, the movie actually lessened anti- Semitism. This brings me to my more controversial point: rightly viewed, The Passion of the Christ is a philo-Semitic movie.
The Gospel narratives, and also the apostolic speeches in The Acts of the Apostles, draw a distinction between what the rank-and-file folks of Jerusalem – “the Jews,” properly speaking – were doing between Palm Sunday and Good Friday, and what the elites, the leadership cadre, were doing. Gibson’s movie makes this distinction even clearer. Sometimes the Gospel writers – given that writing was slow, and papyrus and ink were precious – use the abbreviated term “the Jews” to refer to the leadership as well as to the rank-and-file; the distinction is still there, but the unwary reader can lose track of it beneath the undifferentiated term “the Jews.” Gibson’s movie avoids this confusion: in the medium of film, the distinction between the elites and the regular folks is easier to make, and Gibson makes it constantly.
From the ghostly scene in Gethsemane, ricocheting off the moon that shines alike on all, the action shifts abruptly to Caiaphas and his court. Caiaphas is the High Priest; his father-in-law, Annas, is a former High Priest, and he and Caiaphas work hand in glove. They have decided, correctly, that Jesus is a threat to the religious economy based in the Temple, and that he is a dangerous deceiver – which, again, is not an unreasonable conclusion if Jesus is not telling the truth about his identity. The two of them are old men defending an old faith – a very unsympathetic typos for Enlightenment-influenced viewers. For Enlightementarians, including non-Orthodox Jews, it must seem anti-Semitic to show Jewish leaders in a position analogous to a Grand Inquisitor. But for conservative Catholics, evangelical Protestants, Gibson himself, and others for whom the Enlightenment is not the last word, Caiaphas and Annas cannot be seen as cardboard villains. They are defending something they love, something worthy of being loved, against something they perceive as a mortal threat. They are wrong, but not in a way that makes them evil.
To be sure, Annas, as portrayed by Toni Bertorelli, is hate-filled and unpleasantlooking. But Caiaphas, as played by Mattia Sbragia, is dignified; even, at times, moderate. And he looks like a religious leader: one can imagine following him, registering at his church, maybe. He is light-years away from the hideous stereotypes of “the Jews” common in medieval and renaissance Passion paintings and, in former days, at the Oberammergau Passion Play. (For several decades now, the directors at Oberammergau have ix-nayed the horns that the high priests used to wear.)
So the most anti-Jesus elements in the leadership cadre are not mere negative stereotypes of Jews. What else? The Gospels show that there was no unanimity within the leadership cadre on the need to have Jesus killed. At the trial in Caiaphas’s courtyard, one member of the Sanhedrin (we later find out that it’s Joseph of Arimathea, as he is present in the Pietà scene) shouts: “We’ve heard nothing but mindless contradictions. This is a travesty! A beastly travesty!” Another, presumably Nicodemus, demands to know “Why are we meeting at night? Who called this meeting?” Both of them are hustled off the scene, but the point is made.
If there is no unanimity against Jesus within the Sanhedrin, still less is there unanimity among rank-and-file Jews. For example, before the trial in Caiaphas’s courtyard, a Jewish woman tries to get a passing Roman sentinel to intervene: “They’ve arrested him!” she cries. “In secret! At night!” One of Caiaphas’s henchmen scornfully chases her away, but her voice was that of rank-and-file Jewry in Jerusalem at that time: sympathetic to Jesus, and outraged at violations of Jewish legal procedure.
The bribery bit – where a lackey of the Sanhedrin gives a bag of money to a deputylackey and tells him to round people up – must be seen in this context. The anti-Jesus faction within the Sanhedrin could not count on rank-and-file Jews to support them They had to take steps to make sure that only reliables would be present, first in Caiaphas’s courtyard, then in Pilate’s. This being done, it is not remarkable that the crowd at both of those trials responds obediently to Caiaphas’s leading: they’ve been preselected to do so.
Gibson draws this point out further throughout the carrying of the Cross. Close to the start of the Via Dolorosa, where Caiaphas’s prescreened supporters are thickest, the crowd reviles Jesus. The further along Jesus progresses, the more sympathy he receives from the crowd – a crowd that, we must assume, is overwhelmingly Jewish. This sympathy from Jewish strangers reaches its apogee in Simon of Cyrene and Veronica. So far, the message is clear: It was not “the Jews” as an entirety who killed Jesus. It was not even the Sanhedrin, as a subgroup opposed to the majority of the people. It was a faction within a faction: a group within the Sanhedrin (albeit a dominant one), as opposed to both the people and the rest of the Sanhedrin.
But surely “blame” is being laid at least on that subset of the Sanhedrin which actively sought Jesus’s death? No; even here, Gibson – like the Gospels, and like the sermons in Acts – directs ultimate responsibility away from those who thought they were the agents of Christ’s death, and towards the will of God. Consider, first, the flagellation scene. I should mention that during the first flagellation, the one with the reeds or rattan canes, the Jewish leaders who are present are visibly shaken; one of them turns away and leaves. Then Caiaphas says something unsubtitled; since he begins to depart as he says it, I assume it’s “Let’s go” or something to that effect. None of the Jewish leaders is present for the flagellation with the fishhookpronged maces.
More to the point, Jesus brings the second flagellation on himself, by standing up after the first one to the amazement of the Romans. (“Credere non possum! — Mutate flagellum!”) Later, as he approaches Golgotha, there is a flashback to John 10:17-18 (“I lay down my life...no man taketh it away from me....”). This flashback is linked by a white-fade to his glimpse of Caiaphas et al. watching him. The message is plain: “These guys think they’re killing me, but they’re not: they’re carrying out a divine plan to which I have freely consented.” This moment caps a whole series of moments, most of which I’ve already described, that divert “blame” away from the Jews as such, and even from the Jewish leaders, and redirect it towards all of us, as sinners, and towards God, for having freely chosen to suffer the penalty of our sins, thus vindicating both his mercy and his justice. The final such moment is when Jesus’s feet are being nailed, and he cries out, “They do not know… They do not know…”
Caiaphas reappears to taunt Jesus on the Cross. To some, this seems to drive home the point about Jewish culpability, since what is Caiaphas if not the big kahuna of the Jews at that time? But, for all the reasons I’ve already given, Caiaphas is shown throughout the movie as not representative of all Jews; indeed, as not even representative of the entire Sanhedrin. The Gospels attribute this taunting on Golgotha to “those who passed by” (Mt. 27:39, Mk. 15:29), “the chief priests, with the scribes and elders” (Mt. 27:41; Mk. 15:31), “the rulers” and “the soldiers” (Lk. 23:35-36). By narrowing the set of taunters down to Caiaphas himself, Gibson makes the taunting more personal, less national. It’s Jesus’s principal personal enemy doing it, and not, to speak plainly, “the Jews.”
Thus, Gibson has created a depiction of the Gospels’ account of the Passion that does not rewrite them for the sake of inoffensiveness, but rather, within the parameters fixed by the commitment of taking the Gospels as history, it nonetheless disperses “blame” away from the Jews as such, both specifically, toward a subset of a subset – one faction within the Sanhedrin – and more broadly, towards all of us. Remember Satan’s taunts in the Gethsemane scene: the task at which Jesus would fail, according to the Tempter, was not that of resisting the machinations of “the Jews,” but that of carrying the weight of all mankind’s sins.
Finally, why have I been putting the word “blame” in quote-marks throughout this article? Because the category of “blame” is wholly inapposite as applied to the Passion – a point Gibson has been making in interviews when he insists that the movie is not about assigning guilt. According to Christian belief, the Passion and Crucifixion had to happen, or the debt of sin would not have been paid and mankind would not have been saved. So if an ignorant Christian calls a Jew a “Christ-killer,” the best response might very well be: “Am I, smarty-pants? Well, then, thank me, because, according to you, if I hadn’t killed Christ, you wouldn’t be saved!” Or, as St. Peter more elegantly put it in one of his post-Pentecost sermons: “Now, brethren, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers, but what God foretold by the mouth of all the prophets, that his Christ should suffer, he thus fulfilled.” (Acts 3:17-18, RSV)
Viewed without a predetermined will to find in it a sinister agenda, The Passion of the Christ reflects this theology. An unbiased viewer would take from his viewing the idea that most of the Jews opposed the killing of Christ, that those who favored it did so out of a sincere if misguided desire to conserve a tradition that everyone admits was God-inspired, and that the Christian’s personal agenda, post-movie, is not to assign blame to others, but to examine his own conscience.
David M. Wagner, Silliman College‘80, MA ‘84, was a founding editor of The Yale Free Press in 1982. He teaches at Regent University School of Law in Virginia Beach, VA and is available for correspondence at email@example.com