Mel Gibson’s movie “on the last 12 hours of Jesus’ life” has stirred up all sorts of passions among interested observers the world over.  The Passion, directed by Gibson and produced by Gibson’s film company, Icon Productions, is scheduled to be released sometime during the Lenten season of 2004.  The goal of this ambitious project, funded almost entirely by Gibson, a traditionalist Catholic, and (this phrase sounds bizarre, no matter how you intone it) starring James Caviezel as Jesus, is nothing short of evangelism.  “It’s about changing lives and changing hearts,” Gibson told the National Catholic Register.  And, in an interview with Christian editorialist Holly McClure, he added, “My hope is that this movie has a tremendous message of faith, hope, love, forgiveness and a message of tremendous courage and sacrifice.  My hope is that it will affect people on a very profound level and somehow change them . . . ”

Mr. Gibson, known to be a director obsessed with getting the details right (which won him an Oscar for Braveheart), has sought verisimilitude through graphic depictions of the suffering and brutal death of Christ (a vivid description of which the New Testament leaves out).  Sparing no expense, he has employed new special-effects technology to show the cat-o’-nine-tails tearing through the flesh of the Savior and the large Roman spikes being pounded through His hands and feet.  “I’m doing it in a realistic manner,” he told McClure, “so that it doesn’t suffer from the traps of a lot of biblical epics, which quite frankly, suffer from either being too corny, or laughable, or have bad hair or really bad music.”  In another attempt at realism, Gibson’s script, based on the narratives in the four Gospels as well as The Dolorous Passion (an account of a private revelation by Sr. Anne Catherine Emmerich), has been translated by Jesuit scholar Fr. William Fulco into the languages of Jesus’ day—Aramaic and Latin.  (Some biblical scholars have expressed disappointment at this, noting that the Roman soldiers and the procurator Pontius Pilate undoubtedly spoke Greek, and it is quite possible that Jesus did, as well, in conference with His disciples and in His confrontation with Pilate.)  In Gibson’s film, the Roman soldiers speak the language of Cicero, though they pronounce it in the manner of Dante.

In following the Gospel narratives, Gibson’s original screenplay and rough cuts have irked several key Jewish leaders by portraying Christ’s arrest, trial, and transmission to Pilate as the work of “the Jews.”  Immediately after Mr. Gibson began to show a post-production version of his film to select audiences, members of the Anti-Defamation League sprung into action, denouncing the work, which, Rabbi James Ruden alleged, is “radioactive material.”  In the Los Angeles Times, Marvin Hier and Harold Brackman attacked Gibson by denouncing Sister Emmerich, an “early 19th-century German stigmatic who told of a vision she had in which she rescued from purgatory an old Jewish woman who confessed to her that Jews strangled Christian children and used their blood in the observance of rituals.”  (Such fantastic scenes, we can be sure, will not appear in the film.)  The New York Times launched an attack on Gibson’s father, Hutton, an octogenarian conservative given to historical revisionism and holocaust denial (more proof that the apple cannot have fallen far from the tree).  Sr. Mary C. Boys of Union Theological Seminary (calling her or it a bastion of liberalism is an understatement) cried that, “For too many years, Christians have accused Jews of being Christ-killers and used that charge to rationalize violence.”  “This,” said Sister Boys, regarding The Passion, “is our fear.”

Most of the national media has marched in lock-step, raising red flags about Gibson’s “lack of sensitivity” and echoing the “grave concerns” of Abe Foxman.  Esquire’s Kim Masters even assured readers that Gibson will not be able to find a studio that will distribute his movie.  Meanwhile, those generally thought “conservative” have denounced the denouncers.  Rush Limbaugh, Michael Medved, Matt Drudge, Shawn Hannity, Bill O’Reilly, and others have insisted that everyone lay off of Mel.  Drudge called the film “a miracle,” and, “speaking as a Jew, I thought it was a magical film that showed the perils of life on earth.”  “This movie will hit you in the gut,” said Limbaugh.  “It has themes about man’s inhumanity to man.  It’s also about one man standing by what he believes to be true—no matter the cost—and enduring.”

Evangelical Christians, in general, have also rallied to Gibson’s defense.  The Rev. Ted Haggard, the president of the National Association of Evangelicals, further infuriated the ADL by offering Jews what Foxman called a dispensationalist “quid pro quo.”  “There is a great deal of pressure on Israel right now,” said Haggard after a private screening of the film, “and Christians seem to be a major source of support for Israel. . . . For the Jewish leaders to risk alienating 2 billion Christians over a movie seems shortsighted.”  Catholics, also, have pledged support for Gibson, despite the efforts of the mainstream media to alienate them because Gibson has built a church for a schismatic congregation in California that celebrates the Tridentine Mass exclusively.  (As we go to press, the Vatican has endorsed The Passion.)

“The real scandal,” said Deal W. Hudson, the publisher of Crisis, in an August 23 editorial in the London Spectator, “remains the Gospel.  The debate that has raged these past six months raises the question whether there is any way that Christians can portray the Passion, as depicted by the evangelists, without encountering charges of hostility and anti-Semitism.”  The answer, if you ask the ADL, apparently is “no.”  In a June 24 press release, the ADL said Gibson’s film was “replete with objectionable elements that would promote anti-Semitism.”  Among such elements was “the unambiguous depiction of Jews as the ones responsible for the suffering and crucifixion of Jesus”; the “exploitation” of “New Testament passages . . . to weave a narrative that does injustice to the gospels, that oversimplifies history, and that is hostile to Jews and Judaism”; and the use of such “fictitious non-scriptural elements” as “excessive violence, Jews physically abusing Jesus before the crucifixion,” and “Jews paying ‘blood money’ for the crucifixion.”

Gibson, declaring himself not to be an antisemite, and hoping to pacify the ADL, modified his “realistic” film.  Neoconservative Catholic scholar Michael Novak, in an attempt to exonerate Gibson, wrote in the Weekly Standard (August 25) that “Gibson omits some of the New Testament texts most painful for Jewish readers, such as ‘His blood be upon us and our children!’”  (Gibson, in an unguarded interview with the New Yorker’s Peter Boyer, admitted, “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.”)

Novak, who says he attempted to watch The Passion through the eyes of a Jew, goes on to claim that the Gospel accounts “often overlap and sometimes contradict . . . one another” and then launches into an all-but-dispensationalist description of Jews and Judaism.  “From a Christian point of view, the life and teachings of Jesus and his new covenant do not remove or destroy the old covenant.  God cannot be unfaithful to his promises.  Besides, if the Creator is not faithful to his first covenant with the Jews, how can Christians expect Him to be faithful to His new covenant with them.”  (Interestingly, in the Weekly Standard, Novak usually capitalizes pronouns referring to God but never those referring to Jesus.)  He continues that “Christians hold that Christianity fulfills the hopes launched into the world by Judaism.  They also hold that those Jews who reject Christianity remain vessels of God’s first love.”

These qualifications of the Passion narrative, from both the ADL and Novak, run contrary not only to 2,000 years of Christian teaching but to the Old Testament, particularly as Christians were taught to interpret it by Christ’s Apostles in the New Testament.  They ignore one very important, though uncomfortable, element of the Gospel narratives: “The Jews” really did hate Christ, conspire against Christ, arrest Christ, “try” Christ, and saw to it that the Romans put Christ to death.  “He came unto his own,” reports Saint John, “and his own received him not.”  “His own” is not a reference merely to “certain Jewish leaders” but to the Jews en masse.  Neither, however, is it a reference to the Jewish “race,” as modern antisemites might think, but to the Jews as a people beholden to what Jesus and the Apostles described as a perverted form of the religion of the Old Testament—one that replaces a longing for the Savior with an ever-increasing legalism.  (To call that religion “Judaism” is, at best, anachronistic, at least from a Christian perspective.)  “The Jews,” “Israel,” “Jerusalem,” and even “the Scribes and the Pharisees” are used almost interchangeably by the Gospel writers and Saint Paul precisely because of this.  

Take, for example, Saint John’s account of Jesus’ trial (emphasis all mine).  In John 18:12, the Apostle records that, after Judas’ betrayal, “the band and the captain and officers of the Jews took Jesus and bound him,” and, in verse 14, describes the high priest Caiaphas as “he, which gave counsel to the Jews, that it was expedient that one man should die for the people.”  “I spake openly to the world,” says Jesus (18:20), “I ever taught in the synagogue, and in the temple, whither the Jews always resort.”  “Pilate answered [18:35], Am I a Jew?  Thine own nation and the chief priests have delivered thee unto me.”  After this, Pilate [18:38] “went out again unto the Jews, and saith unto them, I find no fault at all.”  After attempting to satisfy them by scourging Jesus and placing the crown of thorns upon His head, “The Jews [19:7] answered [Pilate], We have a law, and by our law he ought to die, because he made himself the Son of God.”  When Pilate “sought to release him [19:12], the Jews cried out, saying, If thou let this man go, thou art not Caesar’s friend.”  “About the sixth hour [Pilate] saith unto the Jews, Behold your King!  But they cried out, Away with him, away with him, crucify him” (9:14-15).

Is it antisemitic for John, a Jew by birth, to lay the death of Christ at the feet of the Jews?  If so, then the Jewish historian Josephus is also an antisemite.  In Antiquities 18:3, he records: “Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher.  He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles.  And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; and the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day” (emphasis mine).  Nor is Christ Himself antisemitic, despite His harsh criticisms of the Jews, for He wept over Jerusalem and sent out His messengers first unto the “lost sheep of the tribe of Israel.”

By caving in to the pressure of the ADL, the media, and progressive theologians such as Novak, Gibson not only runs contrary to his stated goal of biblical and historical accuracy but risks altering the theological meaning of the Passion itself.  Admitting the genuine historical accidents of the bitter sufferings and death of Jesus does not detract from the larger, greater theological truth that God the Father (Isaiah 53:10), Christ Himself (John 10:18), Pontius Pilate (the Nicene Creed), and the sins of the world (I John 2:2) also put Jesus on the Cross.  In fact, it establishes it.

Mel Gibson’s The Passion will be shown at theaters across the country in one form or another.  Beyond concerns that Mr. Gibson might alter the substance of the Gospel narrative in order to please unbelievers, Christians should be aware that this “Icon Production” is but a movie, which is, essentially, an entertainment vehicle.  The Word of God, as preached by faithful pastors and placarded by two-dimensional icons, still holds the power of God unto salvation, “to the Jew first and also to the Greek.”