Wednesday, February 25, 2004

Mel Gibson's Kill Jesus, Part I. Actually, that seems to be the bloody tone of The Passion of the Christ, even though critical opinion is very divided, to say the least. Most upscale publications -- and even a conservative tabloid, such as The New York Daily News -- are slamming it while Roger Ebert and others are praising it. The Rotten Tomatoes site provides a useful round-up. Whether the film is anti-Semitic isn't a settled issue, but it seems to be no more anti-Semitic than the gospels themselves. Unfortunately, that means that there are some anti-Jewish elements in the film, because the source material -- the New Testament -- doesn't exactly portray the braying Jewish mob and scheming high priests in a very flattering way. After all, the gospels were written in the early decades of the Christian church by writers eager to make the case for their new religion against the old one, Judaism, all under the domineering presence of the Roman Empire. So naturally, Pilate is portrayed as an indecisive moderate swayed by the angry Jewish mob. That's what the gospels say (e.g., Matthew 27), take it or leave it. Beliefnet summarizes what scenes in the film come from the gospels, and where Gibson's fictionalized or used other sources. Still, all the nattering criticism from religious scholars about the historical distortions of the film or the gospels won't deter true believers. Fortunately for gore lovers, there's enough graphic violence to satisfy fans of slasher movies and Tarantino as well.

Update: Why are Jews so sensitive about the Gibson film? Maybe it's because of the traditional -- but not in the modern era -- legacy of anti-Semitism in Christianity, as aptly summarized in the Encylopedia Britannica:

Historians agree that the break between Judaism and Christianity followed the Roman destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem in the year 70 CE. In the aftermath of this devastating defeat, which was interpreted by Jew and Christian alike as a sign of divine punishment, the Gospels diminished Roman responsibility and expressed Jewish culpability in the death of Jesus both explicitly (Matthew 27:25) and implicitly. Jews were depicted as killers of the Son of God.

Christianity was intent on replacing Judaism by making its particular message universal. The New Testament was seen as fulfilling the “Old” Testament (the Hebrew Bible); Christians were the new Israel, both in flesh and in spirit. The God of justice had been replaced by the God of love. Thus some early Church Fathers taught that God had finished with the Jews, whose only purpose in history was to prepare for the arrival of his son. According to this view, the Jews should have left the scene. Their continued survival seemed to be an act of stubborn defiance. Exile was taken as a sign of divine disfavour incurred by the Jews' denial that Jesus was the Messiah and by their role in his crucifixion.

Enmity toward the Jews was expressed most acutely in the church's teaching of contempt. From St. Augustine in the 4th century to Martin Luther in the 16th, some of the most eloquent and persuasive Christian theologians excoriated the Jews as rebels against God and murderers of the Lord. They were described as companions of the devil and a race of vipers. Church liturgy, particularly the scriptural readings for the Good Friday commemoration of the Crucifixion, contributed to this enmity.

Such views were finally renounced by the Roman Catholic church decades after the Holocaust, with the Vatican II declaration of Nostra aetate (Latin: “In Our Era”) in 1965, which revamped Roman Catholic teaching regarding Jews and Judaism. The Vatican accepted the legitimacy of Judaism as a continuing religion and exonerated Jews for the murder of Jesus by universalizing responsibility for his crucifixion. As a result, the Good Friday liturgy was changed to make it less inflammatory with regard to Jews. A centerpiece of the papacy of Pope John Paul II, who witnessed the Holocaust directly as a young man in Poland, was the fight against anti-Semitism and his embrace of Jews. The Pope paid a historic visit to a synagogue in Rome in 1986 and officially recognized the State of Israel in 1993 shortly after the conclusion of the Oslo peace agreement between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization. In March 2000 the pontiff visited Israel. At Yad Vashem, Israel's memorial to the Holocaust, he described anti-Semitism as anti-Christian in nature and apologized for instances of anti-Semitism by Christians. At the Western Wall, Judaism's most sacred site, he inserted a note of apology for past Christian misdeeds into the stones—an act of repentance seen throughout the world.

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