The Passion of the Christ: A Response

By Rabbi Samuel N. Gordon

March 2004


The Passion of the Christ: A Response

The master asked his student, “Do you love me?”
“Of course, master,” the student replied.
“Then tell me what hurts me.”
“That I don’t know,” said the student.
“If you do not know what hurts me, then you cannot truly love me,” taught the master.

– Hassidic Tradition

Jews and Christians will watch Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, yet they may see two different stories. When they emerge from the theater, Christians will not understand Jewish criticism, fear, and dismay. They will question why Jews see only the grotesque demonic depiction of Caiaphas, the High Priest of the Temple, and the Jewish mob. Similarly, Jews will fail to appreciate the inspirational power of this story for Christians. Christians will have focused on Christ’s selfless sacrifice amidst horrific torture and pain. Neither Jew nor Christian will fully understand the emotional power and impact of this movie on the other.

Some Jews and Christians will have discussions about The Passion with fellow workers and colleagues. Others will talk with neighbors and friends. But for many, this will be a movie talked about within an interfaith family. Christians and Jews live in marriages with each other. The extended families often include Jews, Catholics, Evangelical Protestants, mainstream Protestants, Mormons, as well as secularists. Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ will be talked about at the family dinner table, and within one family the movie will be viewed through very different eyes. Jews need to understand the power of Christian faith, and Christians must appreciate how a violent Passion story resonates with historical memories for Jews.

It is important to understand that Mel Gibson’s movie, The Passion of the Christ, is a movie of faith. I do not criticize Mel Gibson’s motives or his sincerity. This is not a movie made for anti-Semitic purposes by an anti-Semite. Nonetheless, this is a movie with serious flaws and equally serious potential consequences. This is a movie with an agenda that is part of a much larger religious dispute, but the battle is not between Christians and Jews. In fact, it is a serious quarrel within Christianity itself. The fight is only peripherally about the Jews, yet many in the Jewish community have been embroiled in this dispute between traditionalism and liberalism within Christianity and American popular culture.

First, Gibson sees himself as playing a very important role as a soldier in the internal disputes within the Roman Catholic Church. His is an argument between the mainstream, recognized Roman Catholic Church and a small group of traditionalists such as Gibson who reject the teachings of Vatican II, one small part of which was the document entitled, Nostra Aetate, which stated that neither all the Jews of the time of Jesus nor any in later generations were to be blamed for Jesus’ death. But Vatican II did far more than produce Nostra Aetate. It dramatically changed the Roman Catholic liturgy. It began a liberalization of Catholicism on many fronts, and Gibson has become a leading spokesman for opposition to those reforms. To many in the Church, he is a schismatic or heretic. The Passion of the Christ arises, in part, from his battle with the Roman Catholic Church.

Second, he is also, through this movie, engaged in the fight within Protestantism between a fundamentalist reading of Gospels and modern biblical scholarship. It is unproductive for liberal theologians to criticize The Passion on the grounds that it is not consistent with what scholars now know of the historical accuracy of the Gospel accounts. Fundamentalists and traditionalists are not concerned with the “historical Jesus” or trying to discover Jesus the Jew. That has been an exercise for liberal Christian and Jewish scholars studying the Second Temple time period. The evangelicals and fundamentalists are not generally engaged in those debates, and are not so interested in discovering the humanity of Jesus. They do not accept that scholars find historical inaccuracies in the Gospel accounts. The Gospels, to them, are sacred, canonical, and revealed text, and they accept them as written.

Finally, Mel Gibson sees himself responding to the general culture wars in America between traditionalist conservatives and those whom he sees as secular, non-believing liberals. This is part of a larger condemnation of a general American decadence as seen by the Religious Right. The popular American culture of film, music, and media is full of coarseness, sexuality, and violence, but along comes The Passion, and liberals, especially Jews, are up in arms about it. To the Christian Right this is evidence of the corruption of American secular society and the role some Jews allegedly play in that secularist culture.

The truth is that on this issue I fear that Jews are most vulnerable. It is not that Jews own or control the media, but their influence is great in those fields. Fundamentalist Christians see liberal, secular, and, by implication, Jewish media executives willing to produce and market filth and garbage but now criticizing a movie with inspirational moral Christian content..

Jews and others should be sensitive to how this movie will be seen by Christians of faith. Most Christian viewers will not focus on the evil of the Jewish mob. Instead, they will see the martyrdom, torture, and sacrifice of Christ. They will be moved by it, and they will not understand why today’s Jews are so upset. Most American Christians do not understand that many Jews retain collective memories of Passion plays used to foment mob anger against Jewish populations of Europe. Christians have no memory of blood libels or Jews being attacked as Christ killers, but Jews hear echoes of those attacks as a result of Passion plays.

There are some Jews who worry that viewers of The Passion will be so moved by the movie that they will emerge ready to attack the first Jew they encounter. That is not what worries me. I think that a far more likely scenario is that fundamentalists will emerge from the theatre looking for Jews to shower with the love of Christ. They will want to share the Good News with us and others who have not been saved. They will seek out Jews to introduce them to this vision of selfless martyrdom as a result of being sincerely moved by this movie.

The Passion is being marketed to fundamentalist churches as a tool for evangelism. Church libraries, youth centers, and campus Christian outreach organizations are anticipating multitudes of new converts to Christianity. It is in this area that we should be most concerned about the claim that this movie is an accurate portrayal of the trial and crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. There is much to criticize in Gibson’s claim, and its portrayal of the Jewish role in Jesus’ death may have lasting impact as it affects the image of Jews in the eyes of Christians.

The four Gospels are inconsistent in their story, and the Gospels themselves were intended for evangelism and not historical accuracy. In addition, there are a number of key scenes in the movie that appear nowhere in the Gospel accounts but rather are drawn from mystic visions of a nineteenth century anti-Semitic nun, Anne Catherine Emmerich, (1774-1824) as recorded in her book The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ. A few examples include the beating and torture of Jesus immediately following his arrest in Gethsemane, the throwing of him off a bridge, the hewing of the cross within the precincts of


About Rabbi Samuel N. Gordon

Rabbi Samuel N. Gordon is the founding rabbi of Congregation Sukkat Shalom of Wilmette, Ill. After 15 years as a rabbi in the Chicago area, he established Sukkat Shalom in 1995 as a unique and innovative congregation serving a diverse population with a specific mission of outreach to intermarried and unaffiliated individuals and families. Rabbi Gordon was ordained at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1980.