“The Passion of The Christ” – a view of a Messianic Jew

By Steve Maltz

Countering the praise heaped onto the Mel Gibson film by the Christian community has been the almost unanimous condemnation of the film by the Jewish community worldwide. As a person with a foot in both camps, a Jew who has accepted Jesus as my Messiah, I feel qualified to comment on this situation, with the aim of giving a better understanding to all concerned.

As I sat down to watch the film, there were questions that needed to be answered. Is this a gratuitous Hollywood gore-fest dressed up in religious imagery or is it a sincere depiction of the sacred? Is it a film you can recommend to your unbelieving friends? And what about the Jewish angle? Is it anti-semitic, as many Jewish groups have asserted, bearing in mind Gibson’s affiliation with a supposed extreme Catholic sect not known for its love of the Jews?

It was an emotional experience. Production values were high, as one would expect and no holds were barred in showing the graphic awfulness of the Roman scourging and crucifixion of Jesus. The dialogue was in the original languages, with English subtitles. Interestingly, as a Christian I would have preferred it without the subtitles, as the visuals were so strong and I had no desire to hear the extra dialogue penned by Gibson and his collaborator. But, then, only Christians would have any interest in the film, the rest would find it unintelligible – not a good idea, commercially speaking.

As for the content, I found myself weeping and apologising to Jesus for what we put Him through, not because of my Jewish ancestry, but as a human being. I had to add that qualification because of one of the major themes of the film seemed to place the guilt for Jesus’ death firmly on Jewish shoulders. There was no denying it. The Romans were brutal, but you would expect that, as they were soldiers, after all. But the Jews were shown as hostile and uncaring. The film did nothing to reflect the official views of the modern Catholic Church (Vatican II stated “what happened in his passion cannot be blamed upon all the Jews then living, without distinction, nor upon the Jews of today”). It reminded me of those medieval passion plays, enacted every Easter (curiously the season for the release of the film in the UK), where Jews were blamed for the crucifixion and consequently had to keep a low profile until after the festival. I am not saying that modern day Christians are going to rush to the nearest synagogue and burn it down, but I would be most surprised if this film does not provoke acts of anti-semitism, particularly in some Catholic communities, in places like Latin America.

The problem is one of context. The Jewish characters (apart from Jesus and his disciples) are continually angry at Jesus, but we are not told of their reasons in a way we can understand. A thorough reading of the Gospels would provide that context, but the film, concentrating on the final 12 hours of Jesus’ ministry only gives us brief flashbacks to the remaining 3 years of his public life. A reading of the Gospels would also show us other things. It would show us that the chief priests and the elders were responsible for the whole sorry episode, for their own reasons (Matthew 26:3-4Matthew 27:20), and it was their manipulation of the Jewish crowd that gives the impression that all the Jews present were after his blood. We are not shown that in the film, instead we were shown the Jewish people mocking him, pushing him, pelting him with stones and demanding his death, right up to Golgotha. Satan, a curiously androgynous character, makes an appearance at strategic points throughout the film, but it always seemed to be among the Jewish characters, rather than the Roman ones. It brings to mind the words in John 8:44, about “belonging your father, the devil”. Although this quote was clearly intended for the Jewish leadership, the inclusion of this scene acts to re-inforce the negative view of Jews in general. When Jesus says to Pilate, “the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin”, He was clearly referring to Judas, but, instead we cut to the faces of the Jewish leaders, implying who the film-makers really hold responsible for the deeds of that day. In fact the only Jewish characters (apart from John and the Marys) who show any sympathy were some women, mostly dressed suspiciously in black, with a curious resemblance to Catholic nuns! And this brings me to my second point.

Mel Gibson openly acknowledges that the film was heavily influenced by the book “The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ”, by a mystical 19th Century German nun, Anne Catherine Emmerich, a book of mystical visions about the life and death of Jesus. A quote from this book may help to explain much, “the sight of [Jesus’] sufferings, far from exciting a feeling of compassion in the hard-hearted Jews, simply filled them with disgust, and increased their rage. Pity was, indeed, a feeling unknown in their cruel breasts.” The book also has a detailed emphasis on the brutality of the Passion, something that the film also reflects in its unrelenting scenes of blood and gore. There is much Catholic imagery in the film, which is not surprising considering Gibson’s background and the thanks for assistance, in the production notes, to the Jesuits and the suspiciously named “Legionaries of Christ”. Mary, the mother of Jesus, has a leading role with many spoken lines, although the Gospels have her as a silent spectator. John even refers to her as Mother, before Jesus tells him to do so. There’s a grim parody of the Madonna and Child at the scourging and some curious scenes involving bloody garments, reminding me of the Catholic reverence given to the Turin Shroud. I’m sure there was plenty more of that ilk, but I was simply not equipped with the knowledge to spot them!

It is vitally important for Christians to realise that among the most shameful episodes in Church history has been its treatment of the Jewish people.

When Jews, who have been generally told by their leaders that they consider the film anti-semitic, see the Christian community unsympathetic, or even hostile, to their fears, what sort of a message does this send? In the eyes of the Jewish community, this film just serves to reinforce their views on the Christian attitude to Jewish people. They see Christians raving about this film and they see the ‘same old same old’. Despite all of their proclamations over recent years, they still hate us! A Christian watching the film is inclined to feel sympathy for Jesus and contempt for the Jews. For many Jews watching the film, it is the other way round. How many Jews will this entice into the Kingdom? Very few, I suspect. Not minimising the awesome power of the Holy Spirit in convicting hearts, I fail to see how Jewish hearts are going to be reached by this film. I wish it were otherwise. Here is an extract from a letter sent to the Pope by Israel’s Chief Rabbi. “…The subliminal message that the film relays is that the Jews were responsible for the crucifixion of Christ. Since the film is particularly violent, it leaves the viewer with an uncomfortable and painful sensation. As a result, many may be led to believe that the Jews are collectively responsible for the crucifixion of Christ. Indeed the film may provoke undesirable Anti-Semitic responses both in the short and long term …”

It could have been so different. If Gibson had only included Jesus’ assertion in John 10:17-18, “The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life – only to take it up again. No-one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord,” either at a prominent part of the action, or as text at the end of the film, then this would have spoken volumes about his desire for good relations between the Christian and Jewish communities. By not doing so, for all the good this film will do, it will only add to the curse of anti-Semitism that is again growing across the globe.

I don’t believe the film itself is anti-semitic. Neither do I believe that Mel Gibson has a sinister agenda. He has created this film as a result of his own spiritual journey within a Catholic framework. My fears are simply a result of the by-product of his vision, rather than the vision itself. Informed Christians will watch this film and have not an iota of bad feeling towards the Jews. But those who already have an inclination towards anti-semitism in their heart will find their prejudices fed by the film, because of the lack of context in the film in making it clear who really was responsible for the death of Jesus. This is my greatest concern.

For all my negative comments, the film is powerful, with much that is thought-provoking and with many nice touches. The best audience for this film, I feel, would be lapsed Christians, those who have lost sight of their Saviour and need to be reminded of the great sacrifice He made for us. It’s a reminder that will stay with you for a very, very long time.