Ten years ago, Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ film was released amid a swirl of controversy and after a relentless public relations campaign playing up the director's celebrity status and his adamant refusal to change the film amid concerns of insensitivity and anti-Semitism.
Gibson's Passion was a passion of hate. His film bought into all of the troubling representations of the Passion that fortified church-based anti-Semitism through nearly 2,000 years of Christian history. The Jews were depicted as a blood-thirsty mob. The Jewish High Priest Caiaphas was a vengeful bully. At every single opportunity, it seemed, the movie reinforced the notion that the Jewish authorities and the Jewish mob were the ones ultimately responsible for the Crucifixion.
For those of us who invested years in countering the anti-Jewish teachings of Christian history, the Passion film was a disaster on many levels. While Christian and Jewish scholars panned it for its unambiguous portrayal of Jews as being responsible for the death of Jesus, Gibson's celebrity status turned it into an overnight blockbuster viewed by millions the world over. Even today, the film remains a staple in some religious schools and churches where it is used as a teaching tool.
Fast forward 10 years later, and now comes the antidote to Gibson's Passion. Mark Burnett and Roma Downey's new film, Son of God, slated to arrive in theaters nationwide on February 28, is the true anti-Gibson.
From start to finish, theirs is a much more sensitive effort. Burnett and Downey have done everything Gibson failed to do. They consulted with religious scholars. They sought guidance from Catholic, evangelical and Protestant leaders. They reached out to me and others in the Jewish community before production commenced. We engaged in healthy dialogue and conversation and offered some recommendations on their original script. We asked them to incorporate those recommendations, and they have.
In the end, Burnett and Downey did a great deal to show historical perspective and sensitivity. Their film makes it very clear that Jews were occupied by the Romans in biblical times, that the Romans engaged in crucifixions every single day, and that Jesus was Jewish and loved by the Jews.
These differences are in keeping with Vatican guidelines and respectful of the tremendous responsibility inherent in the telling of a story based on New Testament source material that is complex, sometimes contradictory and crafted two generations after the death of Jesus.
The Passion and Passion Plays historically have served as the basis for the charge of deicide against the Jewish people, and the notion of Jews as "Christ killers" informed Christian theology for centuries, with tragic results. Christian officials exercised political power in ways that, at best, tolerated Jews as a scorned people whose fallen status testified to the abrogation of their covenant with God. At worst, it led to the wholesale slaughter of Jewish communities throughout Europe and the Middle East and the rise of anti-Semitic myths, such as the blood libel, that still reverberate today.
In 1965, the Second Vatican Council issued a groundbreaking declaration that reversed 1,800 years of Christian teaching. Nostra Aetate repudiated the centuries-old "deicide" charge against all Jews, stressed the religious bond shared by Jews and Catholics, reaffirmed the eternal covenant between God and the People of Israel, and dismissed church interest in trying to baptize Jews.
Gibson's Passion was a rejection of those important reforms.
In contrast, Son of God largely comports with contemporary Catholic doctrine and guidelines for the sensitive depiction of the Passion story. Unlike Gibson's treatment, in Son of God Jews are not shown gratuitously inflicting punishment on Jesus, or as a teeming, devilish mob before Pontius Pilate.
Gibson's narrative and imagery were heavily influenced by extra-biblical elements, such as the visions of Anne Catherine Emmerich, an anti-Semitic German nun who lived from 1774 to 1824, that accentuated the culpability and demonization of Jews. Here again, Son of God departs from Gibson's approach by weaving together strands of narrative from the Gospels in a sensitive manner.
Jesus and his followers are depicted in Son of God as part of a diverse, contemporary Jewish milieu. They are seen, in prayer, wearing Jewish ritual shawls, as opposed to Gibson's depiction, in which prayer shawls are donned when the mob cries out for Jesus's execution. They are also seen reciting the Mourner's Kaddish, the traditional Jewish prayer for the deceased. These depictions and others throughout the film are consistent with contemporary Catholic Church teachings, which emphasize Jesus' Jewishness and Jews as Christians' "elder siblings."
Undoubtedly, the story of the Crucifixion and the way it has been used through the centuries have never been good for the Jews. When the foundational story of Christianity describes a situation where the Jews are not accepting Jesus as Messiah and Son of God, that inevitably will create negative reactions.
And there are elements of the Burnett and Downey film that still make us uncomfortable, such as the depiction of a reticent Pontius Pilate whose hand was forced by Jewish leadership. While comporting with the Gospels, this does not reflect a fair historical appraisal. We know from contemporaneous sources that Pilate was a brutal leader, responsible for the torture and crucifixion of hundreds of Jews without trial.
Having said that, Son of God is the most sensitive depiction of the story of Jesus that I have ever seen or probably will ever see. The producers have done everything possible to put the events into historical, political and psychological context.