Without studio backing he's funding it himself he hopes his
film on the last hours of Jesus' life will have a much greater
"My hope is that this movie has a
message of tremendous courage
and sacrifice [and] that it will affect people on a profound level
and somehow change them," he recently told a Christian Web site.
While the movie is not quite in final shape, The Passion
already has had an unforeseen impact stirring concerns about the
potential of this latest version of the passion play to provoke
"He's an international icon and does movies which deliver
messages that reach the world, so it's of great concern," says
Abraham Foxman, director of the Anti-Defamation League.
ADL and an ad-hoc group of Jewish and Catholic scholars have
stirred debate over The Passion by reviewing a "leaked" early
version of the screenplay. What they read prompted an 18-page report
sent to Gibson and a public airing of their concern.
As the dramatic story of the trial, crucifixion, and resurrection
of Jesus, the passion play has for centuries been powerful and
popular entertainment on stage and screen in the Christian
world. But historically, productions have reflected negative images
of Jews and the longtime church teaching that the Jewish people were
collectively responsible for Jesus' death. Violence against Jews as
"Christ-killers" often flared in their wake.
While the Catholic Church officially repudiated the concept of
collective Jewish guilt in 1965, and most Protestant churches have
followed suit, the shift has not yet fully permeated popular
Jewish and Christian leaders have felt compelled to engage with
those producing passion plays from Jesus Christ Superstar
to stagings at Oberammergau, Germany, and U.S. tourist spots to
local church performances to encourage greater understanding and
Gibson's film comes at a time of intense concern among Jews, as
anti-Semitism has already surged for other reasons in several
countries, especially in Europe and the Muslim world.
The film star had stated his intent to present the passion story
"just the way it happened" based on the Gospels with dialogue in
Aramaic and Latin and including vivid depictions of Jesus' scourging
and brutal treatment.
Part of the stir apparently arises from the fact that Gibson
comes from a family of "traditional Catholics" which, in general,
do not accept the teachings of the church since Vatican II. (He has
built a church in California, for example, where the Mass is held in
It was at that Second Vatican Council that the Catholic Church,
among other key steps, repudiated the "deicide" charge, the
collective guilt of Jews and the idea that they were cursed by God
for the crime.
In addition, in a New York Times interview last March,
Gibson's father caused dismay by saying that the Holocaust did not
happen. There were also reports that the director relied not only on
the Gospels, but on non-scriptural Catholic sources from a period
tinged by anti-Semitism.
"All this is enough to raise the level of anxiety on what this
may be about," Foxman says.
Gibson's Icon Productions responded by threatening to sue over
the "stolen" screenplay, which it said did not represent the nature
of the final film.
"To be certain, neither I nor my film are anti-Semitic," the star
said in a statement. "Anti-Semitism is not only contrary to my
personal beliefs; it is also contrary to the core message of my
[which is] meant to inspire, not offend."
"A lot of people have been quick to jump to conclusions, and
unjustly so," says Alan Nierob, Gibson's publicist, in a phone
interview. "I'm a second-generation Holocaust survivor. Do I feel
there is reason to be concerned? I do not."
Initial statements suggested that the U.S. Conference of Catholic
Bishops had also been involved a staff member helped organize the
screenplay review by the scholars but the USCCB apologized to
Gibson and distanced itself from the project, saying it hadn't
authorized the group. The Catholic scholars have stood by their
concerns, however, though they have returned the script and agreed
not to discuss it publicly.
Since the shift in teaching at Vatican II, Catholics and Jews
have engaged in extensive dialogue. The church has revised its
religious education materials, and Pope John Paul II has made
strengthening Jewish relations a priority.
In 1988, U.S. bishops issued a guide specifically on the
presentation of Jews in passion plays.
While Christians might assume that relying on the Gospels would
be a satisfactory approach, scholars say that the four Gospels tell
the story differently, and combining elements from them can be
For example, only the Gospel of Matthew includes the cry from a
small crowd in Pilate's courtyard, "His blood be on us and on our
children." And only in the Gospel of John is the generalization "the
Jews" used. Combining the two in plays has promoted the ideas of
collective guilt and of a curse on the Jews.
Such ideas are not in the Gospels themselves, many say, but
developed in church interpretations. Yet those interpretations have
provoked anti-Jewish attitudes for centuries, and were a factor,
most people agree, in the Holocaust and mob violence.
Some See the New Testament as
Some Jews and Christians suggest that the New Testament itself is
anti-Semitic. So concerned are some over the continuing impact of
historical interpretation that an October 2001 article in the Jewish
magazine Moment asked, "Can Christianity be purged of
anti-Semitism without changing the Gospels?"
While most people dismiss that idea, some Catholic scholars say
the Gospels' human origins and historical context need to be
emphasized more for regular churchgoers. Others researching the
historical Jesus assert that the Romans, not Jews, killed him for
Paul Maier, professor of ancient history at Western Michigan
University, suggests the pendulum has swung from one extreme to the
other from blaming all Jews to claiming no Jews were involved.
"That's wrong, too," he says. The final responsibility lay in Rome's
hands, but historical sources support the Gospel narrative that some
Jewish leaders were involved in the prosecution.
"Flavius Josephus is one of the sources, and in fact, he reports
a similar event, when Jesus' half-brother was brought before the
Sanhedrin in A.D. 62," Maier adds. "In that case, they stoned him
without waiting for the Roman governor to arrive."
The way out of interpretations that provoke anti-Semitism, he
says, is to point out that "a tremendous number of Jews never turned
against Jesus during Holy Week," as Luke reports.
It also helps to clarify that the Gospel use of the phrase "the
Jews" referred to Jesus' Jewish opponents, not all Jews. It was a
common construction of writing of the time, Maier says.
Hard Labor of Changing Stereotypes
Jewish groups have labored for decades, however, to change
negative stereotypes that persist in passion plays, showing that
official church teachings haven't been thoroughly spread. They're
concerned, for example, that a survey shows that American Catholics
who have come from Latin America still tend to believe the charge of
deicide. Prominent Protestants have voiced similar beliefs.
ADL itself was formed in the early 20th century partly to
confront negative views of Jews in the cinema. One of its earliest
campaigns tried to influence Cecil B. DeMille's 1927 production of
King of Kings, with limited results.
"No one wanted in earlier days to be seen as criticizing the
Christian Scripture; that was an argument Jews couldn't afford to
make until Christians made it themselves in the '60s and '70s," says
Felicia Herman, a writer on Jews and the film industry.
Those involved in consultations on "the potent anti-Jewish
images" in the Oberammergau and other passion-play productions have
seen results, however.
"I've worked with mayors, directors, and stage managers, and
through consultation with religious leaders and scholars over the
past 30 years, they've removed a lot of the Jewish stereotypes,"
says Rabbi James Rudin, senior interreligious adviser for the
American Jewish Committee.
"It's not just the text," he emphasizes. "It's the staging, the
music, and costumes that say right away, 'This is the bad guy.' "
In recent years, passion plays have drawn busloads in towns
around the United States, such as Eureka Springs, Ark.; Lake Wales,
Fla.; Union City, N.J.; and the Black Hills of South Dakota. And
Jewish and Christian leaders have taken pains to offer guidelines
via the Internet to local churches for their productions.
But a powerful dramatic film by the Hollywood megastar promises
to have global impact, many feel. "Given that this is radioactive
material that's the only way I can describe it I'm urging Mr.
Gibson to follow what others have done and consult prior to
release," Rudin says.
Gibson hopes to release the film next spring, perhaps around
Easter, but he doesn't yet have a distributor. He recently flew to
Colorado Springs, Colo., to test it out among evangelicals, where it
sparked enthusiastic responses.
ADL says it has requested the same courtesy. "We don't have the
arrogance to say, 'You should make these changes,' or to censor it,"
Foxman says. "We'd just like an opportunity to sensitize him about
what history has taught us."
So far, while ADL and Nierob are in communication, it's not clear
that that will happen.