If Pope John Paul II really said “It is as it was” after a private screening of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, as John Allen and others reported at the time, it wasn’t the first papal accolade of a Jesus movie. Franco Zeffirelli’s “Jesus of Nazareth” was screened for Pope Paul VI — and Paul VI praised the film, not in a private comment, but in a public address on Palm Sunday prior to the miniseries’ Holy Week debut on Italian television. “Tonight,” the pope declared, “you are going to see an example of the fine use which can be made of the new means of communication that God is offering man.”
Both “Jesus of Nazareth” and The Passion of the Christ occasioned controversy. Allegations of blasphemy cost “Jesus of Nazareth” the sponsorship of General Motors after the production was condemned sight unseen by fundamentalist scion Bob Jones III, grandson of the founder of Bob Jones University. (Procter & Gamble eventually assumed the sponsorship role.) The Passion of the Christ, of course, incurred intense criticism from both religious and secular observers on various fronts, notably regarding charges of antisemitism, along with the pervasive, extreme violence. Zeffirelli himself (who directed Gibson in his 1990 adaptation of Hamlet) was critical of Gibson on both fronts, declaring that Gibson was “sinisterly attracted to the most unrestrained violence” and had made a film that conveys the impression that “the Jews were to blame for all that bloodshed…This way we set ourselves back centuries.”
While concerns around “Jesus of Nazareth” were short-lived, The Passion of the Christ remains controversial, beloved by many and condemned by many others. If any one thing was responsible for the Vatican’s concerns to disavow the remark ascribed to John Paul II, in contrast to Paul VI’s willingness to publicly endorse “Jesus of Nazareth,” the most probable factor is the very different approaches in the two productions to depicting Judaism and the Jews. In a way, Paul VI helped to pave the way for “Jesus of Nazareth”’s approach in 1965 by promulgating the Vatican II declaration Nostra Aetate, on the relation of the Church to non-Christian religions, including Judaism. A revolutionary turning point in Jewish-Catholic relations, Nostra Aetate emphasized the common heritage of Judaism and Christianity and rejected the idea of a collective Jewish guilt for the crucifixion of Christ — a charge inseparable from the long and tragic history of anti-Jewish and antisemitic bigotry in Christendom, from medieval pograms to the Holocaust.
Zeffirelli has long cited Nostra Aetate as a guiding influence on “Jesus of Nazareth.” Zeffirelli wanted to emphasize the Jewishness of Jesus, his followers, and their world in a way no other production had done. Zeffirelli has also cited the concern of producer Lew Grade, who was Jewish, that the production be acceptable “to all denominations” (perhaps meaning all religious groups, since Islamic scholars as well as rabbis, Biblical scholars and other experts were consultants). On the whole, “Jesus of Nazareth” displays unprecedented sensitivity and appreciation regarding the place of Judaism in the foundational Christian story. The film marks a turning point between less nuanced portrayals in some earlier films (most recently Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew) and more aware later interpretations, from Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (a film of which I am not a fan, but which sidesteps concerns about Jewish culpability for Jesus’ death by omitting Jesus’ Jewish trial) to the stop-motion The Miracle Maker (which, despite being animated, may be the most historically well-informed Jesus film to date).
Whatever else can be said for or against The Passion of the Christ, concern for sensitivity regarding the issue of antisemitism and the portrayal of Jews is not among the film’s leading concerns. That’s not to say that The Passion is overtly antisemitic, or even that countervailing creative choices are absent from the film. By and large, though, the film shows little concern about the history of antisemitism in Christian imagination, or interest in subverting that history and helping to promote a more balanced picture. Given Gibson’s Traditionalist leanings, among other factors, this lack of concern is troubling. Another issue is Gibson’s reliance on 19th-century devotional literature with antisemitic themes, notably The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ, which purports to recount the visionary experiences of Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich. These concerns were only sharpened by Gibson’s drunken antisemitic slurs in 2006.
One important index of a Jesus film’s Jewish-friendliness is the extent to which it offers a one-sidedly negative depiction of Jewish characters who are not Jesus’ disciples. If the sympathetic Jewish characters are all within Jesus’ circle, and all other Jewish characters are negatively depicted, that’s obviously a problem. Zeffirelli’s film shines here in many ways, starting with the opening scene in the synagogue at Nazareth, in which the village rabbi Yehuda, played with warm humanity by Cyril Cusack, preaches to his flock, proclaiming the messianic hope of Israel as well as the centrality of keeping the Law of Moses, the Sabbath, and, above all, the obligation to love the Lord. Yehuda is an important supporting character, helping to arrange the marriage between Mary (Olivia Hussey) and Joseph (Yorgo Voyagis) and officiating at their betrothal and wedding. He also offers Joseph what counsel he can regarding the revelation of Mary’s pregnancy. At the wedding the rabbi’s face quietly suggests that, if Joseph’s doubts about Mary’s premarital conception have been settled, his have not; he is not brought into the inner circle of believers in God’s new work. Yet he never comes across as judgmental or anything but compassionate.
Can any sympathetic Jewish characters outside the circle of Jesus’ followers be found in The Passion of the Christ? Like Zeffirelli, though far more fleetingly, Gibson depicts debate at Jesus’ trial by the Jerusalem Sanhedrin in which two council members speak in Jesus’ defense — but they are the same two members in both productions, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus. While neither is fully in Jesus’ inner circle, both are at least proto-disciples who have felt the call to follow Jesus. This is one area in which both productions could have done better.
The differences between the two productions are much more pronounced when it comes to the portrayal of the crowd at Pilate’s judgment seat on Good Friday morning. Gibson depicts a massive crowd monolithically following Caiaphas in calling for Barabbas to be released and Jesus to be crucified; only Jesus’ immediate inner circle are despairingly silent. Zeffirelli, by contrast, depicts a range of pro-Jesus sentiments among anonymous Jews: One calls him a righteous man, another the true prophet, another a man sent from God; others mock and revile him. Zeffirelli also depicts Barabbas’ Zealot allies working the crowd, pressuring people to cry for Barabbas as well as warning against “shouting for that false prophet.” Zeffirelli’s depiction clearly excludes the notion that the Jewish people as a whole were guilty of Jesus’ death in a way that Gibson’s doesn’t. In this sequence, notably, Zeffirelli omits a line from Matthew’s Gospel associated in later years with Christian anti-Jewish and antisemitic bigotry: the cry of the crowd, “His blood be on our heads and on our children” (Matthew 27:25). The inclusion of this line in The Passion led to pre-release controversy, prompting a promise from Gibson to remove it. Instead, however, he only removed the English subtitles for that line, leaving the Aramaic clearly audible. While very few viewers will understand the words, Gibson’s refusal to remove the line is suggestive of his resistance to concerns on this subject.
Another point of concern in The Passion is the disparity in the way the film treats the chief priest, Caiaphas, and the way it treats Pontius Pilate. Pilate in both productions is a thoughtful man who is reluctant to put Jesus to death. There’s some basis in the Gospels for this, though Gibson goes far beyond the text, e.g., inventing a soulful dialogue between Pilate and his wife in which, haunted by Jesus’ words, he ponders the meaning of “truth.” That’s a far cry from Pilate’s famously dismissive canonical retort, “What is truth?” (John 18:38). Yet for all Gibson’s interest in speculating about the depths of Pilate’s soul, he gives Caiaphas exactly the opposite treatment. Caiaphas has no depth, no struggle, no explicit motive — not even the motive given to him in John 11:50, that “is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation should not perish” (i.e., sacrifice the rabble-rouser so the Romans will leave the rest of us alone). Gibson’s Caiaphas is simply a one-dimensional villain who wants Jesus dead. In a 2004 essay about concerns about antisemitism in connection with The Passion, I described Caiaphas as troubled and sympathetic as he watched Jesus suffer. Revisiting the film in later years, it has seemed to me that Caiaphas’ sympathy was in the eye of the beholder, namely me. Perhaps I saw what I wanted to see.
The Passion of the Christ does offer at least one deeply sympathetic Jewish character who has no prior involvement with Jesus and is not presented as a proto-disciple: Simon of Cyrene, the man who helps Jesus carry his cross. (Interestingly, Zeffirelli omits this incident.) Plucked from the crowd by the Romans, Simon bears in solidarity with Jesus the brunt of Roman brutality, embodying in a way the sufferings of the occupied nation as a whole. At first reasonably concerned for his safety, Simon tries to extricate himself from unwanted entanglement in the fate of this bloodied stranger. Yet empathy and compassion win out, and he ultimately identifies with Jesus to the point of risking his life to defy the Romans and defend Jesus. This sequence is among the film’s most moving — and it includes a pointed depiction of the ugliness of anti-Jewish bigotry in the Roman soldier who contemptuously spits the word “Jew” (“Iudaeum!”) in Simon’s face.
Especially striking here, as Peter T. Chattaway has noted, is how Gibson revised his source, The Dolorous Passion, to invert its antisemitic force. In The Dolorous Passion, Simon of Cyrene is identified as a pagan pressed into service carrying Jesus’ cross by the Jews. In The Passion, Simon is a Jew pressed into service by the Romans. The pro-Jewish force of this revision couldn’t be clearer. This sequence, including Gibson’s redaction of his source, offers the best case for Gibson’s conscious repudiation of antisemitism in The Passion. This might be a bit weakened, though, if we consider that while Simon isn’t depicted in the film as a proto-disciple, in popular piety he has been acclaimed a saint. In that case, a case could be made that The Passion has no one comparable to Rabbi Yehuda (among others) in “Jesus of Nazareth,” a sympathetic Jewish character who can’t be claimed in any way for Team Jesus. Of course, Zeffirelli has the advantage of telling the whole story from before Jesus’ birth, where Gibson only treats the more fraught material around his last days.
None of this is to say that The Passion of the Christ is overtly antisemitic, or that Gibson meant to depict all Jews as responsible for Jesus death. The Passion is clear that Jesus lay down his own life, and that he did it to pay for the sins of the world. A key shot in which Gibson’s own hand holds the nail at the crucifixion before it is driven into Christ’s hand represents the director’s self-accusation, the confession of every Christian: I killed Jesus. He died for my sins. That’s the message of The Passion, one made with great power and conviction. I remain convinced that critics of The Passion who dismiss its spiritual power and consider it no more than sanctified torture porn have profoundly misread the film.
This is not, though, sufficient to alleviate all concern. After centuries of Christian anti-Jewish hostility, during which Jews were persecuted and murdered as “Christ-killers,” Christians retelling the story of our origins cannot simply turn a deaf ear to Jewish concerns and the history of antisemitism in this connection. Nostra Aetate has ushered in a new era in Catholic-Jewish relations. In a not entirely disanalogous way, “Jesus of Nazareth” struck a new tone in the retelling of the Christian story — a tone that should inform all subsequent efforts, from which there is no going back.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.