Mel Gibson’s “The Passion” (2004)

Though Mel Gibson’s controversial film “The Passion of Christ” was not released in theaters until Ash WednesdayAsh Wednesday is the first day of the season of fasting, penitence, and spiritual discipline and study called Lent, the six and one half weeks preceding Easter. For many Christians it is a day of fasting and a day on which the season ahead is symbolized b... of 2003 (Feb 23), a national outcry over the film’s content began six months earlier, when leaders of Jewish congregations who had seen excerpts of the film in advance argued that it explicitly blamed Jews for the death of JesusJesus is the historical figure considered by Christians to be the Christ, the Messiah, whose life and teachings, death and resurrection give clear evidence of God’s love for humankind. Jesus was born shortly before the death of Herod the Great (d. 4 BCE.... RabbisRabbi means “my master,” an authorized teacher or master of the Torah and the classical Jewish tradition. After the fall of the second Temple in 70 CE and the scattering of the Jewish people in exile, the role of the rabbi became very important in gat... expressed particular concern over a scene (later removed by Gibson) in which the Jewish high priestA priest is the leader of a religious community or congregation, specially trained and often ordained to service, who leads members of the community in the rituals and practice of shared and individual life. Many traditions have forms of priesthood.In the... Caiphas cursed the Jews, saying of the crucifixion: “His blood be on you and on all of your children.” AbrahamAbraham is the patriarch, acknowledged as the father of the lineage of faith by the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions. He is presumed to have lived sometime in the period 2000-1700 BCE. He is the father of Isaac by Sarah (Genesis 12.25), and the "... Foxman, the director of the Anti-Defamation LeagueThe Anti-Defamation League is a Jewish organization founded in 1913 to fight anti-Semitism through programs and services that counteract hatred, prejudice and bigotry. Its mission is “to stop the defamation of the Jewish people, to secure justice and fa... (ADL), called the film an “unambiguous portrayal of the Jews being responsible for the death of Jesus.”

Fearing the possibility of a violent backlash against the Jewish community in the wake of the film’s release, Jewish and Christian communities across America quickly mobilized to create dialogue groups promoting mutual understanding and peaceful co-existence. Along with a campaign against the film led by the ADL, religious leaders initiated movements in Kansas City, Boston, and Pennsylvania, among other cities. In Washington, Jewish and Christian leaders designed a viewer’s dialogue guide to the film, hoping that the movie could provide a catalyst for theological exchange between Jews and Christians. And in Kansas City, RabbiRabbi means “my master,” an authorized teacher or master of the Torah and the classical Jewish tradition. After the fall of the second Temple in 70 CE and the scattering of the Jewish people in exile, the role of the rabbi became very important in gat... Levin, Leader of the Reform Congregation Beth TorahThe Old Testament is the term Christians often use for the body of writings that comprise the Hebrew Bible which Jews call Tanakh., told congregants: “ Imagine when the movie comes out… if there are scores, even hundreds of people who have been in dialogue who can testify that they have come to a new understanding and that Jews and Christians can live together peacefully, as friends without blaming one another.” (Kansas City Jewish Chronicle, October 24).

Criticism of the film’s content also came from representatives of the Catholic ChurchThe term church has come to wide use to refer to the organized and gathered religious community. In the Christian tradition, church refers to the organic, interdependent “body” of Christ’s followers, the community of Christians. Secondarily, church ..., who argued that Gibson misrepresents official Catholic church teaching on anti-SemitismAnti-Semitism means literally “opposed to Semites” although it has always referred specifically to Jews. Modern anti-Semitism arose in Europe toward the end of the 19th century, coalescing social, racial, and religious theories that denigrated the Jew.... Gibson, like other members of the Traditionalist Catholic Church, rejects the reforms of VaticanThe Vatican is the residence and administrative headquarters of the Pope. Located in the area around St. Peter’s basilica in Rome, it is the official headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church. Vatican City is the name of the independent state headed by ... II, which state that Jews are not responsible for the death of Jesus. In February, the U.S. Conference of Catholic BishopsA bishop is an ordained minister who supervises life in a diocese, synod, or other broad region and possesses, among other things, the authority to ordain clergy to the ministry of the church. The Roman Catholic Church, the Anglican Communion, and Protest... rushed into print a collection of documents clarifying the Catholic Church’s teachings on the death of Jesus and the “sin of anti-Semitism,” distributing the 110 page document to churchesThe term church has come to wide use to refer to the organized and gathered religious community. In the Christian tradition, church refers to the organic, interdependent “body” of Christ’s followers, the community of Christians. Secondarily, church ... across America (Anti-Defamation League, Feb 23, 2004). In the meantime, Gibson’s decision to bypass the Catholic market and to target the film almost exclusively to evangelicalThe Greek word euangelion means “good news” and an evangelist is one who proclaims and shares the good news of Christ. Evangelism is the preaching and witnessing to that good news. Evangelicals are Christians who emphasize the personal experience of G... Christian Churches, who began a spirited grassroots campaign to use the film to evangelize, reflected the growing political and cultural alliance between conservative Catholics and evangelicalsThe Greek word euangelion means “good news” and an evangelist is one who proclaims and shares the good news of Christ. Evangelism is the preaching and witnessing to that good news. Evangelicals are Christians who emphasize the personal experience of G.... (Religion News Service, Feb 19, 2004, New York Times, Feb. 5, 2005).

The Feb. 23 release of the Passion was followed immediately by events that characterized both the dramatic successes and the challenges still faced by proponents of Jewish-Christian dialogue in America. A billboard unveileled Feb 23 on the property of Lovingway United PentecostalPentecostalism is a term used to describe a twentieth-century Christian movement that emphasizes Spirit-filled worship, including glossolalia or “speaking in tongues,” as is said to have happened on the first day of Pentecost nearly 2000 years ago in ... Church in Colorado read: “Jews Killed the Lord Jesus” and the word “Settled!” By the following day, crowds of protestors had filled the parking lot, eventually taking it upon themselves to tear down the sign (ABC News Denver, Rocky Mountain News). On the eve of PurimPurim is the Jewish festival commemorating the legendary rescue of the Jewish people from the threat of extermination in Persia. The festival celebration, with its costumes and revelry, always includes the reading of the book of Esther which tells the tal... in early March, 10 white swastikas and other Nazi symbols were spraypainted on the walls of BMH-BJ Congregation, a synagogueSynagogue, shul in Yiddish, is the most widely used term for a Jewish house of worship. Meaning a “place of gathering,” it is the central institution of Jewish communal life. The structure and role of synagogues has changed through the centuries, but ... in Denver, Colorado. The next day 300 people lined up to help wash off the paint. In addition, a series of anti-semitic acts at Rehoboth Beach in Deleware prompted members of Christian and Jewish communities to come together to promote interfaith activities, and in Dallas, Jews and Christians sponsored a joint blood drive.

Nonetheless, the state of anti-Semitism in America remained grim, with both the ADL and the Simon Wiesenthal Center reporting an increase in hate messages directed towards their centers since the film’s release. In April, the Pew Research Center released a poll showing that more than one third of Americans who had seen “The Passion of Christ” said Jews were responsible for the death of Jesus. The number of Americans who hold the Jews responsible rose from 19% in 1997 to 26% today.


Selected Links

ADL Praises Catholic Bishops for Document on Anti-Semitism and the Death of Jesus
Anti-Defamation League
,” Anti-Defamation League.

Gibson to Delete a Scene from the Passion,” The Denver Post.

Swastikas Sprayed on Denver Synagogue,” The Denver Post.

Passion Sparks Interfaith Dialogues,” The Miami Herald.