Perhaps it’s unfair to single out Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ since his representation is not unique in message, only in format. Passion plays originated in the Middle Ages, in frightened communities facing the Black Plague. And while the modern cinema more immediately engages the audience, the format itself perpetuates even more graphically and immediately the experience of “the Jews” as Christ-killers, a sinister people in league with the devil.
Stereotypes are embedded in Western social culture; individuals receive from the past centuries of history and tradition. When Helen Thomas insists that “the Jews” control the US Government; when General George Brown, as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1974, said that the Jews, “own, you know, the banks in this country, the newspapers," it is no accident that their comments represent an image of the Jewish people described in the gospels, expanded and reinterpreted over the centuries by Christian theologians from Augustine to Luther.
Revues of Gibson’s movie indicate that it was an emotionally charged and intense religious experience for many Christians. Gibson made full use of the mediums newly developed technology to get up-close and personal with Jesus agony, to take the viewer face to face with the man’s torment. For the believer this was no mere cinematic event but a forced shared experience with a man dying a horrendous death. But beyond Gibson’s dramatic use of cinematography to study the slow death of his subject, his approach to the story as related in the gospels and more traditional passion tellings, is pretty close to tradition. And it is precisely for this reason, that most Christians are familiar with the gospel accounts of the passion are familiar also with the gospel portrait of “the Jews” in the trial, torture and death of their messiah, that is the danger of Gibson’s movie. As obsessed as he was to describe in detail the agony of death, so too was he in his portrayal of the Jews as monsters, demanding his death, mocking, spitting at Jesus on his long and painful walk to the Mount of Olives. Were I a Christian I would likely have left that movie at least disturbed. I would certainly have had strong feelings regarding Jews as “persecutors” and “deicides” of the man considered God.
Matthias Grünewald, The Mocking of Christ, c.1503
The assailants, as traditional for the genre, Jewish features and garb
Gibson’s portrayal of the trial and death of Jesus, embellished with lessons he took from the 19th century “visions” of a Catholic nun is, in general, a fairly accurate representation of events as portrayed in the gospels themselves. I have, in the past, and will likely in the future, refer to Matthew, 27 because, of the four gospels, this one goes further in attributing collective Jewish blame, their assigned gospel role: “the Jews” as deicides.
The problem with the passion play genre or, for that matter, the gospels themselves as religious experience, is that most believers fail to discriminate between allegory and polemic, the first enhancing religious experience, the second enhancing religious hatred. And so Easter, the celebration of the passion and resurrection of Jesus, emerged over the centuries as one of the most dangerous periods on the Christian calendar for Jews.
Outside Virginia Holocaust Museum, 2010
Since the play, Fiddler on the Roof, is itself an adaptation of a short story by Sholem Aleichem, the pogrom depicted cannot be given a calendar date, but likely refers to the Bialystok, Poland pogrom of 1906. Pogroms have been associated with Easter for more than a thousand years. They occurred all across Europe from England to Greece. Just a few examples: York, England, 1190; Prague, 1389; Kishinev, 1903. In 1648 the Cossack Chmeilnicki initiated a pogrom around Easter that continued for several years and resulted in more than 100,000 Jews murdered.
Not even Jewish converts to Christianity were safe. Lisbon murdered thousands of “New Christians in the “Easter Massacre” of 1506.
Passion plays have not lost their popularity over time and continue to be performed around the world. While I could not find an accurate count, the United States alone may host hundreds such performance annually, in states from Connecticut to California, Minnesota to Mississippi.
Before Gibson’s Passion, one of the most famous and, until recently, notoriously antisemitic of the genre is performed by 2,000 residents of the tiny Bavarian village of Oberammergau, Bavaria.
The Oberammergau passion has been reenacted every ten years since 1634. The superstar of passion plays, its 2010 performance was featured a highlight of the year by the American Automobile Association, and prominently promoted in its travel magazine, Going Places. Until 1984 Oberammergau actors portrayed Jews in costumes with horns, making obvious the identity of Jews with Satan, their father, as described in the John gospel. And so Jews were not only seen as evil and in league with the devil, the source of all evil and antichrist, but as a people intent on destroying Christianity. The Middle Ages was also when fear of the “diabolical” Jew gave rise to the myth of a Jewish cabal intent on destroying Christianity and Christendom.
Hitler attended the 1930 performance at Oberammergau. Following his election as chancellor of Germany in 1933, perhaps aware of a war in the near future, he had the town push forward the play’s 300th anniversary performance from 1940 to 1934. Following the 1934 performance Hitler said, “It is vital that the Passion play be continued at Oberammergau for never has the menace of Jewry been so convincingly portrayed as in this presentation of what happened [Jews as murderers of Jesus] in the time of the Romans.”
Hitler at Oberammergau, 1930
The Passion according to Mel
In its initial theatrical release, The Passion of the Christ was a major hit, grossing in excess of $600 million, the highest grossing non-English language film ever. And its popularity is easy to understand, as reflected in comments by Christians who saw it. A few examples: “I can honestly say that after viewing this movie, I will never be the same.” And, “Mel Gibson can be considered a hero of the faith... I am closer to Jesus now after witnessing his sacrifice for me in its full horror and brutality.” Clearly from these examples, and the film’s degree of acceptance by Christian institutions from Catholic to Evangelical, its text was right on. But what of its subtext: what of the Passion’s, “full horror and brutality?” Jesus is beaten, he is tormented and ultimately executed, not by the Roman authorities, but by Jews, from the Sanhedrin down to the lowliest bystander forced to help Jesus carry the cross.
If, as I wrote above, people reading under the influence of faith are unlikely to distinguish between allegory and polemic, what message does the subtext of Jewish persecution of the Christian messiah convey? What effect will this film have on its targeted audience in promoting and reinforcing two thousand years of anti-Jewish stereotypes? What has been and is the impact of passions, Gibson’s, Oberammergau, the smaller local versions, on the image of the Jews, on the security of the Jews? What is the distance between unspoken, sometime unrecognized by its holder; of internal anti-Judaism and expressed antisemitism; and how does a substratum of sometimes unrecognized cultural antipathy and social discrimination explode into persecution, into Holocaust?
These questions are difficult and painful and, for that reason, rarely asked. And yet, anti-Judaism/semitism is endemic to modern Western society, to modern Christian belief, silent inheritor of two thousand years of evolution: The Jewish Problem. To not ask these questions is, for Christians, to continue to live a compromised, a “bad faith” in Sartre’s language, religious life. How square the circle of Christian Love, and antisemitism?
For Jews, of course, the questions are of far greater immediacy since not asking them might well represent a matter of survival, the next Final Solution.
Three of my more recent JPost blogs related to the subject:
Does papal ''exoneration'' mean no more Holocausts?
The Jewish Problem, and the Diaspora
Is Christianity anti-Jewish?