The Passion of the Christ

Icon/NewMarket Films, 2004

A Response to Critics

Among the Jews there are three schools of thought, whose adherents are called Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes respectively. The Essenes profess a severer discipline:  they are Jews by birth and are peculiarly attached to each other. They eschew pleasure-seeking as a vice and regard temperance and mastery of the passions as virtue. Scorning wedlock, they select other men's children while still pliable and teachable, and fashion them after their own pattern -- not that they wish to do away with marriage as a means of continuing the race, but they are afraid of the promiscuity of women and convinced that none of the sex remains faithful to one man. Contemptuous of wealth, they are communists to perfection, and none of them will be found to be better off than the rest:  their rule is that novices admitted to the sect must surrender their property to the order, so that among them all neither humiliating poverty nor excessive wealth is ever seen, but each man's possessions go into the pool and as with brothers their entire property belongs to them all.

Josephus, "Jewish Sects," The Jewish War, Translated by G.A. Williamson, Penguin, 1959, p.371

Now, there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonderful works -- a teacher of such men as recieve the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews, and many of the Gentiles. He was [the] Christ; 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, for he appeared to them alive again the third day, as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him; and the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day [c.94 AD].

Josephus, "The Antiquities of the Jews," The Works of Josephus, Complete and Unabridged, Translated by William Whiston, Hendrickson Publishers, 1987, 2003, p.480

1 Corinthians 10:32:  Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, (33) just as I try to please all men in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved. (11:1) Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.

1 Corinthians 1:22:  For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, (23) but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and and folly to Gentiles, (24) but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. (25) For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

1 Corinthians 15:12:  Now if Christ is preached as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? (13) But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; (14) if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.

It is as it was.

Pope John Paul II

Editorial Note, 2012

Mel Gibson has made things very difficult for anyone who was willing to defend The Passion of the Christ. The man has demons. This may inspire some good art, but it has also resulted in behavior and outbursts that seem to betray irrational hatreds and that confirm the worst that critics have discerned in his views and personality. Especially damning was Gibson's anti-Semitic rant during a drunk driving arrest in 2006. The sincerity of his religious beliefs is also called into question, after his separation from his wife (of now more than 30 years) and his engaging in an affair with a woman described as a "Russian pianist." This relationship, which included an illegitimate child, crashed and burned and then featured the additional indignity of raving, furious, and abusive phone messages that Gibson had left for her (and that she released to the press). None of these behaviors seemed like the actions of a serious, or particularly sane, Catholic -- with Catholicism as a faith to which Gibson supposedly adheres with some kind of Old Believer literalness.

One is left with the impression that the madness of Gibson's character in the "Lethal Weapon" movies may have been written in to reflect his actual personality. On the other hand, the loyalty to him of Jodie Foster, who directed Gibson in her modest 2011 movie, The Beaver, leaves me wondering about the other side of the man. Since his 2006 rant about Jews, Gibson has attempted to make amends; and in 2011 he had plans to make a movie about Judas Maccabaeus (or "Judah Maccabee" in the press). This has set off its own protests. On the one hand, no one wants to see such a movie made by an anti-Semite. On the other hand, it is not clear why a genuine anti-Semite would want to make a movie celebrating a hero of the history of Judaism. Gibson, indeed, may be as confused as some of his critics.

The pre-production of this Maccabee movie has produced its own stories, and taped examples, of demented rants by Gibson. In its September 2012 issue, Maxim magazine has proposed a "craze-o-meter" scale for outrageous behavior:  "They say revenge is a dish best served cold. Unless, of course, you're completely nuts, in which case you're gonna want to burn something down" [p.72]. The "craze-o-meter" is in units of "Gibsons," from 1 to 5, , at which point you are "Really, Really Mad Max." Gibson should be grateful to merely be the butt of a joke, since meanwhile he was voted one of the "10 Most Hated People In America," joining Tiger Woods and Michael Moore among the men who have not actually been on trial. Nevertheless, the New York Post ranked him more hated than the convicted child-molester Jerry Sandusky.

In the end, whether Gibson is an anti-Semite or a born-again philo-Semite, something like The Passion of the Christ can only be evaluated on its own merits. It does not have "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion" in it, simply the New Testament and some well established traditions, such as acts of St. Veronica. Gibson even cut from the film some New Testament text that was attacked as particularly anti-Semitic. But, aye, there's the rub. If the sacred text is anti-Semitic, although it was all written by Jews, then the objections were not to Mel Gibson, or to The Passion of the Christ, but to the foundations of Christianity itself. Perhaps the Bible needs to be redacted by the politically correct and the culturally sensitive. Actually, something of the sort has at times been done, to eliminate "sexist language" and "gendered" references to God -- regardless of the gender in the Hebrew and Greek texts. This is not likely to happen among serious Christians, but it does raise interesting and important questions about the relationship between Judaism and Christianity. That is what the original review here was about.

Christianity is a Jewish heresy. This is a truth of history that is rarely noted and whose implications are rarely appreciated. One result of that lack of awareness and appreciation has come in hostile reactions to the movie, The Passion of the Christ, made by actor/director Mil Gibson as a labor of love and devotion, with his own money (25-30 million dollars).

The Passion of the Christ is a powerful, stunning, and magnificient movie. Gibson says that he wanted it to be shocking, and it is. Some critics, however, don't seem to understand what it is supposed to be. It is not a Life of Christ, or an introduction to Christian theology, let alone a lesson in historical criticism, but simply a "Passion," i.e the last hours of the life of Jesus, culminating in his Crucifixion, according to the Gospels. Critics who would have prefered a Life, or a discussion of doctrine, or a rethinking in light of other historical knowledge or religious preferences, were bound to be disappointed, if not annoyed or angered. And if what they wanted was the sort of insipid, sanitized, Saturday Evening Post version of Roman torture and execution all too familiar from the hitherto delicate traditions of pious moviemaking, they were going to be disappointed also. But some critics who loved Kill Bill, Volume I [2003] suddenly were shocked, shocked to see violence and gore on the screen! Trying to turn this around to accuse conservatives, long critical of violent movies, of hypocrisy, truly missed the point. Perhaps the critics needed to have been raised Catholic to realize the extent that Catholic iconography, especially, dwells on the blood, the wounds, the horror, and the suffering that attended the death of Jesus. Religiously, this was not gratuitous (though one does begin to detect, along with Camille Paglia, an almost pornographic fascination with it), since the willingness of Jesus, as God, to suffer for us, to take the sins of the world upon him, is a central message of Christianity. Anyone unaware, or uninterested, in that message, is not likely to understand or appreciate the aesthetic, let alone the meaning, of the movie.

The controversy over the film began, however, long before critics had ever seen it, with accusations of anti-Semitism. Two bits of historical background fed into this. The Catholic Church, until recently, had always held that the Jewish People were collectively responsible for the death of Jesus. Also, Passion plays in Mediaeval Germany, which dramatized and caricatured the role of the Jewish Priesthood and Jewish crowd in getting Pilate to condemn Jesus, often set off attacks on Jews. Responsible authorities, like St. Bernard of Clairvaux (d.1153), condemned such attacks, but, as we know, what happened to anti-Semitism in Germany has set down one of the most vile stains ever on history. It is no help that Mel Gibson's own father turned out to be something of a lunatic fringe anti-Semite and Holocaust denier.

Does Gibson's movie, however, promote the idea of collective guilt of the Jews? Certainly not. If anything, Gibson adds non-Canonical details, like two Jewish Elders protesting against the proceedings against Jesus, or the expanded part for Simon of Cyrene, who helps carry the Cross for Jesus, that serve to highlight the infra-Jewish nature of the conflict and the sympathy of many Jews for Jesus's message or person. To some critics, however, the role of the Priests in the condemnation of Jesus at all is both anti-Semitic and "ahistorical." This attitude, however, would require the rejection of all the Gospel accounts of the Passion as fabrications. Fabrications or not, however, a charge of anti-Semitism against the Gospels suffers from the paradox that the Gospels entirely feature, and were entirely written by, Jews. This is where it helps to remember that Christianity is a Jewish heresy.

The origins of the heresy we see in the extraordinary passage from the Jewish historian Josephus at the top of this page. If there were "three schools of thought" among the Jews -- the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes -- and we find the Jesus of the Gospels criticizing the Pharisees and Sadducees, we are left with the reasonable inference that Jesus, if he was not just out of nowhere, must have been an Essene. And if he was not an Essence, we would expect him to say so, so as to distinguish his teaching from the Essenes as well as from the Pharisees and Sadducees. But the Essenes are not even mentioned in the Gospels. This fits best with a characterization of the Gospels as something from an Essene Point of View. The rest of the passage sounds eerily like a description of some early Christian community. Monasticism and communal ownership don't have much to do with the subsequent history of Judaism (or Islâm), and are certainly now alien to Protestant Christianity, but are characteristic of Christianity in its early history. To be sure, early Christian communities seem less monastic and more friendly to female members, but the esteem expressed by Jesus for celibacy is clear in the Gospels, and monastic practices very soon became a major part of the tradition. The characteristics noted by Josephus among the Essences died out in Judaism proper, but then this is no more than to say that the Judaism of the Essenes did survive, but as Christianity rather than as Judaism -- the way that dinosaurs likely survive as birds.

The "ahistorical" charge against The Passion of the Christ presupposes that the movie is supposed to be historical, in some critical or academic sense, and that the history in fact is well enough known to rule out the Gospel version of events. The issue in question mainly seems to concern the character and actions of Pontius Pilate. Some critics are saying that Pilate is well known to have been the kind of governor who was quite capable of crucifying someone like Jesus without any encouragement from the Priests or anyone else in the Jewish community. The argument is that Pilate crucified hundreds of Jews, was so brutal that he was relieved of office for it (in 36 AD), that Jesus, therefore, was just one among many, remembered in particular probably for no good reason, and that the Gospel story of the Priestly conspiracy was manufactured by Evangelists appealing to Gentile converts, just to smear the Jews. However, the historical record is not so certain or so unequivocal as to sustain the sort of negative inferences that Jesus cannot have been targeted by the Priesthood or that Pilate cannot possibly have been so conflicted as to doubt the value or justice of the condemnation. Even Josephus gives a more nuanced picture of Pilate, who, quite willing to use force, nevertheless removed from Jerusalem images of Caesar (i.e. Tiberius) when Jewish protesters professed themselves willing to die in the presence of Roman soldiers with swords drawn [ibid. p.126-127]. Most importantly, in The Antiquities of the Jews, Josephus (cited above) mentions Jesus and says that Pilate crucified him "at the suggestion of the principal men among us."

This may be the earliest reference to Christians outside the Evangelists, and it is written so positively that one might suspect it of being an interpolation by a Christian copyist. However, it does sound like Josephus does not yet think of Christians as estranged from Judaism, which, for a while, they were not. This item definitely explodes the "ahistorical" accusation, were The Passion of the Christ actually trying to argue the historical record, rather than just expound the Gospels. In any case, information about Pilate in Josephus or Philo Judaeus suffers from the circumstance that these writers are no more contemporaneous with events than the Gospels, and that suspicion of bias in the Gospels does not exempt these Jewish sources from suspicion of bias also. The psychology of Pontius Pilate, therefore, or the influence of the Priesthood, is not a matter of historical certainty. And if the Gospels are fabrications, then the accusation would have to be, not just that The Passion of the Christ is anti-Semitic, but that the Gospels are anti-Semitic, which is equivalent to saying that Christianity, as a religion, is anti-Semitic. If critics happen to believe that, they have at least exercised enough prudence not to voice it publically, though some have come close enough.

A true problem with an ahistorical approach is the particular self-righteousness that might now be expressed toward the Mediaeval doctrine of the collective guilt of the Jews. The collective guilt of the Jews is a significant feature of Judaism itself. The Israelites are condemned by God to 40 years in the desert because they (all? some?) venerated the Golden Calf while Moses was on Mt. Sinai. Later, when the 10 Tribes are deported by Assyria or the First Temple is destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar and the Jews Exiled in Babylon, the only theological explanation that would ever exist for these events, inflicted on the Chosen People of the Lord, is that they were punishment by God for the failure of Israel, or the Jews, to obey the Law. The Chosen People, after all, although God's favorites, are also held to a higher standard, to be rewarded or punished by God to the extent that they observe His commandments and walk in His ways. It is not surprising then, but quite obvious, that early Christians would see the failure of their Jewish brethern to accept Jesus as the Messiah as another example of their previous disobedience to God. Since the Temple was destroyed in the Jewish War (66-73 AD), the nation of Judah destroyed, and the Jews scattered across the Roman Empire and the whole Middle East in an enduring Disaspora, it would be astonishing if Christians, or even Jews, did not interpret these as signs of God's Wrath.

Today, collective guilt as a concept is properly rejected on the basis of modern liberal and individualistic principles of justice and political order. Unfortunately, I am afraid that some of the very critics who wax so indignant about Mediaeval docrines of the collective guilt of the Jews, nevertheless subscribe to the modern political doctrines of the collective guilt of, say, white males, for whom the "equal protection of the law" provision of the 14th Amendment of the United States Constitution may be suspended (as explicitly stated recently by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor) so that they can be discriminated against in "affirmative action" or "diversity" programs intended to cut down the number of white males who are admitted to educational programs, hired for jobs, or promoted. It is such approachs of social engineering and racial/gender retribution that today get called "liberal" politics -- with the dirty secret that people of Asian ancestry, male and female, often face more discrimination than whites from the academic bastions of liberal orthodoxy. Since some of these critics may in fact be Jewish, whose leftist or "liberal" voting, in general, is legendary, even while male Jews are consistently counted as "white males," benefiting from no preferences at all in "affirmative action" or "diversity" programs, we also have the curious circumstance that male Jews may actually judge themselves as collectively guilty for wrongs of the past like slavery and Segregation. Indeed, virulent anti-Semites like Louis Farakhan are happy to hold the Jews (male or female) particularly guilty for slavery and Segregation -- not to mention the exploitation and victimization of minorities by Jewish businesses in their neighborhoods. Critics of The Passion of the Christ, consequently, better be clear about whether they are actually for collective guilt or against it. I will not allow that Jews individually can be innocent, but white males cannot.

Accusations of anti-Semitism now have descended to the level of claiming that Jews in the movie have "hook noses" and look like Nazi caricatures of Jews. However, we have actors in the movie, not cartoon caricatures. Unless Mel Gibson is to be accused of applying prosthetic noses and makeup to alter their appearance (apart from the beards, which are historically necessary), the accusation would seem to amount to more than that the Jewish characters look Jewish. Since the actors in the movie are supposed to be Jews, and are sometimes played by Jewish actors (like Maia Morgenstern, who plays Mary), one wonders if Gibson was supposed to go out of his way to make sure they don't look Jewish. Or perhaps critics want to claim that there is no such thing as "looking Jewish." Certainly, many Jews (like Sammy Davis Jr. or, for that matter, Kirk Douglas, born Issur Danielovitch), don't "look Jewish"; but it would be hard to argue that there are no resemblances among many Jews, as among Arabs, Turks, Scots, Mexicans, etc.

While the ambition of the movie for authenticity is evident in its use of Latin and Aramaic, informed critics have noted that it would be less likely that a Roman governor would know Aramaic, or that a Jew would know Latin, than that all of them would know Greek, which had existed as a second language in Palestine for 300 years (why the New Testament is written in Greek) and which educated Romans would learn as a matter of course. It would be nice to have the Greek, but the use of even two ancient languages in a Hollywood movie is marvelous enough. Actually, hearing Pilate say, Ecce homo ("Here is the man"), a familiar phrase in its own right in Latin, is dramatically stronger than the Íde ho ánthrôpos, , of the Gospels [John 19:5]. Finally, however, an answer must be given to the question posed by the show "History or Hollywood?" on the History Channel:  Is The Passion of the Christ History or Hollywood? Truly, it is neither. Based on the Gospels, and intended to express essentials of Christian faith, it succeeds extaordinarily well as an expression of religion. As film making, as art, and as boxoffice, the movie has succeeded as Hollywood also, but no one (except Andy Rooney) can seriously argue that the movie was made or intended as a cheap exploitation of a religious market. Quite the contrary. Conventional wisdom would dictate that such a movie would be a financial disaster. Already playing, The Gospel of John [2003] has made not much more than $3,000,000. If The Passion of the Christ did no better than that, Mel Gibson would be out a lot of money. The furor that arose during the production, with charges of anti-Semitism, also sounded like the kiss of death for the project. Instead, the movie opened with record-breaking attendance, with people emerging weaping and moved beyond words. Gibson recouped his investment in two or three days ($125 Million after only five days). One could well understand him thinking, Vox populi, vox Dei.

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