An extended book(s) review…..
When Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ hit the movie theaters in 2003, I was intrigued, even thrilled, by the response. It had been a long time since a major figure in Hollywood would put his reputation on the line and produce a film that was so positive towards the Christian faith. Hollywood’s relentless attack on the Gospel had seemingly been broken. A large outpouring of Christian-friendly films have since hit the silver screen, albeit varying in quality, ranging from Gibson’s 2017, well-received Hacksaw Ridge, and other movies frowned upon by mainstream critics, like God’s Not Dead and War Room.
Nevertheless, I was at first puzzled when I read that Paula Fredriksen, a professor of religious history at Boston University, became one of the most outspoken critics of The Passion of the Christ, expressing grave concerns over the anti-Jewish tendencies of the film script. Fredriksen, who was raised a Catholic, and later married an Orthodox Jew, eventually becoming one herself, was disturbed by Gibson’s plan to supposedly retell the story of Jesus’ final hours approaching Good Friday. In her conclusion, from her essay in the New Republic, “I shudder to think how The Passion will play once its subtitles shift from English to Polish, or Spanish, or French, or Russian. When violence breaks out, Mel Gibson will have a much higher authority than professors and bishops to answer to.”
Antisemitic violence, inspired by a Mel Gibson movie? To my knowledge, unless I have been living in some isolated, American bubble, the mass rioting envisioned by professor Fredriksen never materialized, upon the worldwide release of The Passion of the Christ.
But was the professor still right? Was Mel Gibson smuggling in an antisemitic message? Well, Gibson did seem to pile on the Jewish religious leadership, but was that not just for some type of dramatic effect?
In my readings of the Gospels, I have never had the sense that the New Testament unduly put the blame for Jesus’ death squarely on the Jewish leaders. True, the pagan Pontius Pilate washed his hands of his guilt. Nevertheless, it sure seems like Pilate had a major role in condemning Jesus to die. He could have intervened, if he really believed Jesus to be innocent, but he did not. The Jewish Sanhedrin rigged the outcome of Jesus’ trial, but nobody gets off easy when it comes to nailing Jesus to the cross. My evangelical mentors have always been clear about this: whether Pilate or High Priest, we would all have been complicit in the death of Jesus, had we been there in the shoes of either the Romans or the Sanhedrin.
Yet, there is that verse in Matthew 27:35, where the Jewish people answer Pilate, “His blood be on us and on our children!” That does sound pretty rough, taken at face value. But surely a more profound theological message stands behind Matthew’s stated quotation. Any responsible reader of the Bible would conclude that this symbolically represents the guilty verdict that all people, down through the ages, share with respect to rebelling against God. No Christians “literally” place the blame specifically on those Jews present, and their descendants…..
Or do they? Continue reading