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Scholars Challenge Gibson's 'Passion'

By Ben B. Chung, Crimson Staff Writer

A well-respected, influential figure presents radical ideas to the masses in a turbulent era. His revolutionary views rapidly spread, throwing parts of the Jewish community into uproar, its political and intellectual leaders preparing to crucify him. Many scholars in Boston and at Harvard suggest the lines are quickly blurring between the controversial acts of Jesus Christ and Mel Gibson—and that the analogy has been fashioned by none other than Gibson himself.

The controversy arises from Gibson’s latest directorial effort, The Passion, a supposedly historically accurate version of the events leading to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Gibson, who co-wrote the script, utilized various sources to compile the series of events, ranging from the four Gospels themselves to the diary of a vehemently anti-Semitic 19th century nun. He had the script translated into Aramaic, Latin and Hebrew and then assembled a cast whose only recognizable names were Jim Caviezel (Frequency) and Monica Bellucci (The Matrix Reloaded).

Yet despite Gibson’s assertions of the film’s adherence to both historical fact and the New Testament, academics have challenged everything from its severe portrayal of Jews to his subversive self-association with Christ.

“You have Mel Gibson [who’s] channeling the Holy Spirit, who’s had conversions and miracles occur on the movie set, and who’s persecuted by the Jews,” says Paula Fredriksen, Aurelio Professor of the Appreciation of Scripture at Boston University. “The whole thing wraps up nicely together.”

Fredriksen has been a central figure in the controversy over the film, as one of a handful of scholars accused of illegally obtaining an early version of the script and conspiratorially branding it anti-Semitic. She explains what she says is the legitimate manner through which she obtained the script in her New Republic article, “Mad Mel,” which then systematically details the numerous historical inaccuracies she says pervade the screenplay.

Among them, she says, is the claim that Greek would have been the proper language of communication between the Romans and Jews, not Latin. Fredriksen further maintains that any last-minute changes Gibson might make to the script won’t be sufficient in cleansing it of inconsistencies.

“The anachronisms are part of the...weave of the story,” she says. “He has the high priest [Caiaphas] pushing around the Roman prefect; that’s impossible. He has a lot of frantic activity at night in the temple courtyard; impossible. Forget about the language stuff. The ancient languages are window dressing for historical accuracy. But the whole thing is a fantasy.”

A number of individuals who have seen rough cuts of the film have offered similar critiques, stirring up a frenzy of name-calling and finger-pointing from theological scholars and religious extremists alike.

The Anti-Defamation League’s Rabbi Eugene Korn said in a statement that the film “relies on sinister mediaeval stereotypes, portraying Jews as bloodthirsty, sadistic and money-hungry enemies of God.” Gibson responded with charges of a “vehement anti-Christian sentiment out there.”

In a New York Times column, Frank Rich ’71 said the actor’s “pre-emptive strategy is to portray contemporary Jews as crucifying Mel Gibson.” Gibson, in a now infamous New Yorker piece, said of Rich, “I want to kill him. I want his intestines on a stick…I want to kill his dog.”

Making light of the death threats, Fredriksen says, “I felt nervous because I was on Peter Jennings and they had a shot of me walking my golden retriever. I don’t think Mel would kill a golden retriever but I had that thought that I might be endangering his life.”

Though there has been a media frenzy surrounding the film, discussion is also occurring among Biblical scholars, including those at Harvard Divinity School and the College. A number of professors declined interviews for this story, not wishing to comment on a film that they had not yet seen. However, several offered their thoughts on the more heated aspects of the controversy.

Thomas Professor of Germanic Languages and Literature Eckehard Simon, whose class Literature and Arts C-25, “The Medieval Stage,” discusses the historic role of theatre as a widespread informer of religion, says that passion plays have traditionally had the unsettling effect of justifying anti-Semitism in their audiences. Though they were widespread throughout Europe until the 19th century, often provoking Christian violence towards Jews during Holy Week, he says, only one internationally recognized passion play is performed today, in the Bavarian village of Oberammergau.

Simon says the disappearance of the passion play is partially explained by the hostility that often went hand in hand with the performances. “There’s no question that if you look at the medieval passion plays, they’re very hard to take. The passion plays which were performed in towns like Frankfurt reflect the anti-Judaism attitude of the townspeople,” he says. “You can’t justify it; it just happened.”

Equally wary of the bloody history of the passion play is Plummer Professor of Christian Morals Peter J. Gomes, who teaches Religion 42, “The Christian Bible and Its Interpretations,” and ministers at Memorial Church.

“One would have thought just the opposite, that after listening to the Passion, instead of seeing the villainy of the Jews, one would see the magnanimity of God,” he says. “But that doesn’t tend to be the way it’s gone.”

Gomes says that similar events could occur following the release of Gibson’s film, noting, “It’s nothing new, it’s sad to say, and it could indeed have that effect.”

Many defenders of the film have argued that, despite the history of the passion play, modern audiences will be able to stomach potentially anti-Semitic material with an open mind. But Fredriksen is particularly pessimistic about The Passion’s potentially detrimental effects. At the end of “Mad Mel,” she concluded that “once its subtitles shift from English to Polish, or Spanish, or French, or Russian,” violence would be inevitable.

She says a scene in the 1985 documentary Shoah, wherein a Jewish Holocaust survivor returns to his childhood hometown in Poland, influences her opinion. While initially greeted with friendliness, Fredriksen says, “within five minutes, they are screaming at the man who they had just been affectionate and shy towards.” The sudden aggression arises out of a simple dispute over a passage in the New Testament, reinforcing the notion that anti-Semitism is still a presence in the modern world.

At one point in the Shoah scene, an old lady evokes a line from Matthew 27:25, in which a rabid Jewish mob calls for Jesus’s crucifixion, proclaiming “His blood be on us, and on our children.” This line in particular has been a major focus of the controversy, as it has traditionally been identified as evidence of collective Jewish guilt for deicide.

Included in the original script, Gibson later altered the speaker of the line, which now emerges from the mouth of Jewish high priest Caiaphas. Gibson says he did so only under intense pressure from the film’s editor, stating that if he left the line in, “they’d be coming after me at my house, they’d come to kill me.”

Though Fredriksen retorts she “would actually just kill his goldfish,” she calls the line another instance of the script’s deliberate inaccuracy and another assertion from Gibson that his journey could lead to martyrdom—he’s joked several times that the film is potentially career-killing.

But Gomes disagrees with Fredriksen’s notion of The Passion stirring anti-Semitic incidents abroad.

“This is not 1939, this is not even 1949; we live in a different world where consciousness is a little higher,” he says.

And though he says he recognizes recent anti-Semitic activity in Europe, Gomes explains the country “is not as insular or isolated from the world of discourse as it was even thirty years ago, which is a very good reason for me to believe that it would not be affected by a corpus of world debate.”

Lecturer on the Modern West Brian C.W. Palmer agrees that dialogue would be the best way to quell any potential anti-Jewish “reprisals.”

“In general, I have the feeling more discussion and debate and not less is the most likely way to prevent hostility and violence,” he says. “And that the fact that this film provokes such strong feelings among many different people suggests the questions it touches upon haven’t been settled.”

But Blaine Saito ’04 is not as optimistic that the level of academic discussion would reach all corners of the globe. “While that’s nice to say, when debate gets so heated to the point of violence, it’s hard to construct a nuance, and without a constructive nuance we don’t get anywhere, and that could lead to rioting,” he says.

Saito has experienced such a heated debate on a much smaller scale: the Hillel-Open email list. Several months ago, a post by a non-Harvard student concerning The Passion sparked a fiery exchange among the list members. Saito says it quickly became “nasty and out of control.” The list manager eventually disallowed further discussion of the issue, encouraging participants to continue their discourse outside the list.

Yet, in spite of the publicity that has been generated over such controversies, some say there seems to be little hope for the film’s commercial prospects, with its appeal restricted to the curious and the fanatic.

“If Mel Gibson’s film meets the fate of 99 percent of religious films produced out of Hollywood, it will be archival fodder in eighteen months,” says Gomes. “The medium of film is just not subtle enough in a way to deal with the substance of theological and biblical issues that they try to debate. They make the Bible into a movie and in doing that you take all of the risks of filmdom and none of the benefits of the Bible.”

Students echo similar sentiments about the film’s financial prospects.

“I doubt I’ll see it in theatres,” says Sam Gale Rosen ’06, “but I’ll probably download it online sometime.”

—Staff writer Ben B. Chung can be reached at bchung@fas.harvard.edu.

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