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Critics Too Quick To Judge Gibson’s ‘Passion’

Letters to the Editors

By Shaye J.D. Cohen

To the editors:

The forthcoming movie The Passion by Mel Gibson has already elicited much comment (Arts, “Scholars Challenge Gibson’s ‘Passion,’” Oct. 17). The criticisms generally focus on two points: the movie does not accept the theological reforms introduced by Vatican II and the movie claims to be an accurate historical reconstruction but in fact is not. But the critics, no less than Gibson, need to exercise care.

Some critics of the film (notably Frank Rich of the New York Times) argue that the Gibson’s Catholicism is out of touch with contemporary Catholic thought, since the Second Vatican Council absolved the Jews of the guilt of murdering Jesus. This criticism is not accurate. All four gospels depict the Jews of the time, or at least various Jewish authorities, as responsible for Jesus’ death. The Gospels state that the Romans actually executed Jesus, but that the Jews put them up to it and are to blame for it. Nothing that was said or done by Vatican II contradicts this. What Vatican II did say was that the Jews of later times bear no responsibility or guilt for the actions of some of their ancestors in the first century. Vatican II does not deny Matthew’s statement that some Jews declared to Pontius Pilate “his blood be upon us and upon our children,” but Vatican II argues that the Jews who made that declaration did not have the authority to speak for Jews who would come after them. So, according to Vatican II, some Jews of the first century are to blame for Jesus’ death, but their guilt is not inherited by later generations and does not allow later Christians to accuse later Jews of being “Christ-killers.”

If Gibson accepts the gospel accounts as historically accurate, there is nothing in this stance that is inherently anti-Vatican II or anti-Jewish. The fact that virtually all academic scholars of ancient Judaism and ancient Christianity reject the accuracy of the gospel accounts, arguing that the gospel writers have, among much else, substantially exaggerated Jewish complicity in Jesus’ death, is neither here nor there. Gibson, as a believing Christian, has every right to prefer the word of the New Testament over the word of university professors. If Gibson chooses to elaborate the story with non-scriptural scenes that dramatize and heighten the Jews’ responsibility for Jesus’ death, we may criticize this decision, and we may rightly say that such additions weaken Gibson’s claim to “historical accuracy,” but they do not, in and of themselves, make the movie or Gibson anti-Jewish.

The crucial question is whether the movie establishes historical distance between the Jews of the first century and the Jews of later times. No doubt the Jews, or at least some Jews, in this movie will proclaim “his blood be upon us and upon our children,” and when they do so, does the movie make clear that these are people who lived long ago and who are not speaking for anyone other than themselves? Or does the movie imply, as all medieval passion plays unmistakably implied, that Jews of all generations somehow bear the guilt of murdering Christ and that Jewish “Christ-killers” are with us still? This is the question that needs to be asked in deciding whether the movie and Gibson are anti-Jewish.

I have neither seen the film nor read the script. Perhaps when I have done so I will agree with the movie’s critics. But in the meanwhile, I hope that those of us, Jews and Christians alike, who do not believe that the gospels contain the literal inerrant historical truth, can find a way to allow Christians like Gibson to believe what we do not.


Oct. 20, 2003

The writer is Littauer professor of Hebrew literature and philosophy.

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