by Lynn Ballas
in recent memory has a movie, yet to be released, generated as much
controversy as "The Passion," actor-director Mel Gibson's
dramatization of the crucifixion of Jesus.
a day goes by without the appearance of another newspaper or magazine
article, op-ed piece or statement, denouncing or praising the film,
which Gibson has financed himself, at a cost of $25 million, through
his production company, Icon Productions.
the "The Passion" is historically
inaccurate, deviates from the official teaching of the Catholic Church,
and at worst, perpetuates the centuries-old falsehood that the Jews
were the killers of Christ.
have found Gibson's effort to be an artistic expression of the
Gospel truth that Christ underwent his passion and brutal death for
our sins so that we might be saved. Rather than fuel anti-Semitism,
the film inspires contemplation on Christ's love for us and our
own sinfulness, admirers of "The Passion" say.
Over the summer
Gibson gave private screenings of a cut of the film. Political commentator
Peggy Noonan, who is Catholic, was among a group invited by Gibson to
a screening in Washington, D.C. in July. Noonan had this to say to Compassion:
"Gibson's movie is the story of a Jewish man with a Jewish mother
and Jewish followers who was killed by Roman soldiers on the order
of a Roman governor bowing to pressure from local Jewish leaders.
The Jewish man was also God, something that wasn't understood by all
of his followers or any of his foes.
"The movie encompasses the story of Christianity --- which comes
from the Jewish people. It is no more likely that movie-goers will
leave this movie feeling inspired to anti-Semitism than it is that
they will leave the movie hating Italian soldiers and wanting to hurt
them. (And believe me, the Italian soldiers are portrayed as very
"It's not about 'They killed Christ,' it's about, 'We killed
Christ.' I think people who see this movie will walk out thinking:
'We did that. And he forgave us.'"
Biblical Scholars Team
and Catholic Biblical scholars who reviewed a leaked script of "The
Passion" found what they read more troubling than inspiring.
script has been at the center of an unfolding drama that involves the
scholars, Icon Productions, and the United States Conference of Catholic
Bishops. Icon maintains that the script was illegally obtained by the
scholars and does not reflect the final movie. The USCCB became involved
because the associate director of the Secretariat for Ecumenical and
Interreligious Affairs for the USCCB, Eugene Fisher, helped to organize
the ad hoc committee of scholars.)
One of the
scholars, Rev. John T. Pawlikowski, OSM, Professor of Ethics and Director
of the Catholic-Jewish Studies Program at Catholic Theological Union,
discussed the findings of the team with Compassion. Pawlikowski
has extensively studied the Nazi Holocaust and is a leading figure in
the Christian-Jewish dialogue.
major problem that all of us had with the main story line is that it
moved along the path that a large cabal of angry, vengeful (and in the
script the term 'bloodthirsty' was used) Jews pursued Jesus
to the point where Jesus would be put to death by the Romans. Pilate
is shown as threatened by blackmail by the Jewish cabal.
of all, this runs counter to Catholic (teaching) that the Jews were
not the primary instigators or power brokers
Pilate was a tyrant
in firm control, with no fear of his being blackmailed. The (script)
repeats the pre-Vatican II canard that the Jews were the killers of
to Pawlikowski, Gibson and his publicist, Alan Nierob, have referred
to the evaluation of the scholars as reflecting new-fangled theory.
"It shows contempt for modern Biblical scholarship,"
has disturbed me is that people defending Gibson don't ask serious
questions about Vatican II teachings and Gibson's general opposition
to Vatican II," Pawlikowski added. "It is the obligation
of Church leaders to repudiate any implication that Jews were the primary
instigators of Jesus' crucifixion. It must be made clear that Pilate
and the Roman imperial government he represented were the chief agents
in putting him to death," he said.
been reported that Gibson has financed construction of a traditionalist
Catholic church not affiliated with the Los Angeles Archdiocese in an
area northwest of the city. The church reportedly rejects the Second
Vatican Council and the papacy since that time.
Vatican II Teachings
are Church teachings in the matter of responsibility for Christ's
death? First of all, the Church declared its "absolute rejection"
of the charge that the Jews killed Christ in the Second Vatican Council
Declaration, "Nostra Aetate" (1965), (4) which
in part stated: "Even though the Jewish authorities and those who
followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ, neither all Jews
indiscriminately at that time, nor Jews today, can be charged with the
crimes committed during his passion."
traditional interpretation of Christ's death is also stated in
Nostra Aetate. "Christ in his boundless love freely underwent
his passion and death because of the sins of all, so that all might
Vatican and episcopal conference documents expound on Nostra Aetate.
Among them, the Bishops' Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious
Affairs, National Conference of Catholic Bishops, Criteria for the
Evaluation of Dramatizations of the Passion (1988), specifies standards
to be used in assessing whether dramatic presentations of the crucifixion
conform to Roman Catholic teaching. This document is one of the criteria
that the scholars used in reviewing the script.
that the scholars found with the script was that it contained material
external to the four gospels. In an interview that appears on the "Inside
the Vatican" web site, Gibson said that the script was based on
the writings of two mystics, Sister Anne Catherine Emmerich (1774-1824)
and Mary of Agreda (1602-1665). Visions Emmerich had of the crucifixion
are recorded in the "The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ."
found 13 elements from the Emmerich book that if added to a passion
play would "intensify the responsibility of Jewish characters for
the crucifixion." One such element --- Jesus' cross being constructed
at the orders of the high priest in the courtyard of the Temple ---
appeared in the script that the scholars reviewed but was subsequently
removed, Pawlikowski said.
in August, Gibson's publicist said the actor was not available
to speak to Compassion, but provided a June 13th press release
that contains a statement from Gibson that has been often quoted in
articles about the movie. "To be certain, neither I nor my film
are anti-Semitic," said Gibson
"They (Jewish people)
are my friends and associates, both in my work and social life.
The statement goes on to say "'The Passion' is a film
meant to inspire, not offend."
if the film today reflects the script that the scholars reviewed, Nierob
said "the movie is not final at this point," adding that Gibson
is continuing to work on the film in preparation for release next Easter.
The buzz about
the project began in January when Gibson appeared on television to discuss
the film. Gibson has said that the movie fulfills a decade-long desire
of his to bring Christ's Passion to the screen in the "most
authentic way possible." To that end the dialog is in Aramaic and
Latin. (Critics have noted that the Jewish high priest and the Roman
prefect would have spoken Greek to each other.)
Fulco, S.J., a professor in the Department of Classics and Archaeology
at Loyola Marymount University, in California, did the translation.
In initial interviews, Gibson said he did not plan to use subtitles,
but comments made subsequently by Fr. Fulco indicate that Gibson might
be reconsidering that decision.
The film was shot primarily in Sassi de Matera and Craco, both towns
in southern Italy. American actor Jim Caveziel plays Christ. Scenes
of Christ's scourging and crucifixion are reported to be extremely
to Pawlikowski, sometime in the spring someone from Icon leaked a copy
of the script to him, which he forwarded to Dr. Fisher at the USCCB.
Fisher and Rabbi Eugene Korn, Fisher's counterpart at the Anti-Defamation
League (ADL), assembled an ad hoc committee of New Testament scholars
to review the script with them.
read the script in April and sent the report of its unanimous findings
to Icon Productions on May 5th with the understanding that its report
would remain confidential.
the July 28th issue of The New Republic, scholar Dr. Paula Fredriksen,
Aurelio Professor of Scripture at Boston University, said the first
part of the report explained "the historical connection between
passion plays and the slaughter of European Jews, the dress rehearsals
for the Shoah."
also pointed out historical errors, deviations from magisterial principles
of biblical interpretation, and general recommendations for certain
changes in the script, Fredriksen said.
described the sideline drama that ensued. On
May 16th, the scholars received a fax from a Gibson lawyer stating that
the scholars were in possession of a stolen draft of the screenplay
and that the team was attempting to force Gibson to alter the screenplay
"to suit your own religious views. Icon demanded that the
scholars return all copies of the script to Icon.
The USCCB apologized
to Gibson for the misunderstanding, but not the contents of the scholars'
report, as has been reported. On June 11th, the USCCB issued a statement
that the Conference did not establish the scholars' group, authorize,
review, or approve its report. In July, Gibson paid a conciliatory visit
to the USCCB Secretariat in Washington.
to the Icon charges and the media attention that followed, the four
Catholic scholars on the team issued a June 17th statement that is posted
on the Boston College Center for Christian-Jewish Learning web site
The scholars said that the team was always aware that the script it
reviewed was not necessarily the final script, that it acted independently
of the USCCB, and never intended its report to be public.
Up to Movie-Goers
As the drama
of the making of this movie plays out in the media, one is left to wonder
-- will "The Passion" be an authentic rendering of Christ's
suffering and death that moves viewers to reflection or just a modern-day
incendiary passion play set to film? It will be up to movie-goers to
judge next Easter.
Lynn Ballas is a writer and a member of St. Mary's
Parish in Colts Neck, NJ.
also in this issue:
Mel Gibson's "The Passion of Christ" | "Seeing" the Passion of Jesus
Christian Mystics and the Passion
| Dramatizing the Passion
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