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No passion for Mel

by: Rabbi Jeremy Rosen - Last updated: 2004-03-18

The Passion of the Christ

The Passion of the Christ

I have just emerged from a preview ( thanks to the BBC Radio 3) of Mel Gibson’s controversial film ‘The Passion of the Christ.’ Before dealing with the theological and political issues I want to say that it was a really bad film.

It was banal and gratuitously violent, almost non-stop flagellation, beating and sadism. It showed that the Mel Gibson of Mad Max, of the crude disembowelling of Wallace, or the gratuitous violence of The Patriot is a sick man who must see the world through such crudely cruel eyes that I think he badly needs top see someone who can help him professionally. I have often wondered at a religious faith based on constant images of pain and suffering.

The violence in this film is so pornographic that I am not so much worried about anti Semitic repercussions as I worry about the effect this will have on minds already disturbed by violent films and video games. The preoccupation with devils with worms, snakes and maggots creeping in and out of them is positively psychopathic and it says more about Gibson’s religious problems than it does about Christianity.

The film totally fails disastrously on every count in comparison to that really great and sensitive film of Pasolini, ‘The Gospel According to St Mathew’ that came out in 1965. If anyone is interested in Christianity , that is a film worth seeing.

Now to the theology. The writers, perhaps, cannot be blamed too much for basing themselves on the synoptic Gospels which contradict themselves on so many issues. But the fact is that whoever wrote them was clearly ignorant of Jewish theology and the social and political conditions that prevailed in Judea two thousand years ago. There is nothing objectionable in Jewish law in saying that one is ‘The Son of God.’ Heresy in Judaism is when you deny there is a God or maybe claim, unprobably, that you are yourself. There is nothing in the Gospels suggest this latter view. It is not until Constantine and the Monophysites three hundred years later that Christianity adopted the dubious idea that Jesus was god. Similarly to say you are ‘the King of the Jews’ or ‘the Messiah’ might be grounds for scepticism but you are not breaking any Jewish laws. Neither is it an offence to cure the sick or perform miracles.

The gospels do not seem to know the difference between the priests, known as the Sadducees and their opponents the rabbis, the pharisees. They seem unaware of the fact that many Pharisees were unhappy about temple corruption, money changers, and priests who cosied up to the Romans. The ‘truths’ that Jesus is reported as preaching in the Gospels can all be found in Jewish sources.

Had Jesus been simply a rabble rousing political upstart this might have offended the Romans and indeed they crucified thousands of political rebels. But had he been real histotrical figure as opposed to a myth, he would not have offended Jewish religious authorities with what is attributed to him. Even his alleged willingness to disobey halacha on aspects of Shabbat observance would have put him with the majority of contemporaneous Jews not a minority.

The film selects that version of the gospels that depicts the poor weak Romans as being reluctantly bullied by the nasty priests into putting him to death simply to pacify the restless mob. Anyone vaguely familiar with the rule of the Roman procurators in Judea will know full well that the Romans at the time were so much in control there was no way they would have allowed themselves to be bullied by a Jewish rabble into making political decisions of life or death they did not have good reasons for themselves. And as for confusing Herod the Great ( who died in 04 CE ) with a minor Herod of Gallilee, Lord only knows why, other than to find another opportunity for depicting corrupt Jews.

The Gospels are the first example of a popular international PR campaign directed at the ignorant Roman masses and I have to say whoever masterminded it was a genius any student of PR today could learn a great deal from.

As for repercussions, I think Jewish objection to the film was exaggerated and counter productive. All religions have myths (true or not, is irrelevant) and when these myths are directed towards uplifting people and enhancing their understanding of life they can only do good. But when they vilify or denigrate other human beings they are dangerous.

It is true in Judaism we say unkind things about the Egyptian authorities but the Tora itself commands us not to hate the Egyptians. It is true the bible says and commands some nasty things to be done to the Seven Canaanite tribes. But by 2,500 years ago the Oral Law declared that Sennacharib had destroyed the tribes and the law was no longer applicable.

Christianity has been disastrously at fault for not qualifying the Gospel teaching of contempt for the Jews. Indeed until Pope John 23rd  some forty years ago it was Catholic doctrine that the Jews of today were cursed because they rejected Jesus and supposedly declared that his blood should be upon them and their children. But Protestantism has over the years reinterpreted its basic texts and not been so bound to literalism and in recent years Catholicism too has taken further strides in rectifying the ‘Teaching of Contempt.’

The trouble with Gibson and his disturbed father is that they belong to a Catholic sect that thinks the present Pope has gone too far in being nice to the Jews. Gibson pere thinks the Holocaust never happened. So one is bound to wonder about Gibson’s motives and sadly why the conservatives of the Vatican have triumphed once again over the progressives and refused to qualify the film themselves.

In the past after Easter sermons about the crucifixion, maddened crowds poured out of Churches to attack the local Jews in revenge for killing Jesus. But if I were you I wouldn’t worry about this happening after this film. Much more likely is that parents will make for the nearest candy store to soothe their children upset by such crude, bloody, violence. Gibson has lost an opportunity to contribute to understanding and tolerance but what's new?