The Problem With Passion

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It is a wrenching tableau. A brutalized Jesus is displayed by Roman Governor Pontius Pilate, who announces derisively, "Ecce Homo," behold the man. A mob, ostensibly made up of Jesus' fellow Jews, responds with a bloodthirsty roar. They fill a massive courtyard; there must be a thousand of them.

And oops, there it is. Long before The Passion's full release (the scene is from a trailer), Mel Gibson's film has already ignored the guidance of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in 1988 for dramatizers of Christ's last hours. The advisory warns, among other things, against "changing the small 'crowd' at the Governor's palace into a teeming mob." Why? Such an exaggeration, the bishops claim, would misleadingly suggest that the Jews as a body, indeed as a race, wanted Jesus dead.

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Gibson is a traditionalist Catholic who may care little what the more liberal Bishops' Conference thinks. But the guidelines' very existence and concerned tone suggest the sensitivity of the issue facing anyone translating the Passion for stage and screen: Is it possible to do a biblically accurate drama about Jesus' trial and death without feeding anti-Semitism?

The first challenge is the Gospels themselves. All four describe complicity by at least some Jews in Christ's execution. But they differ on details, such as the community's unanimity and its influence with Pilate, Jerusalem's Roman ruler. Matthew, Mark and Luke accuse individuals and Jewish subgroups but leave room for the (likely) possibility that many rank-and-file Jews sympathized with Jesus or were indifferent. John, however, repeatedly refers to "the Jews" as a whole, implying collective guilt. Matthew provides the only report of a seemingly damning oath by the spectators at Jesus' trial: "His blood be on us and on our children."

Modern theologians find such passages highly subject to interpretation. They point out that Jesus and the Apostles saw themselves as Jews; John's wholesale condemnation of the faith, they speculate, may reflect Christian-Jewish rancor in A.D. 95, when that Gospel was written, more than the politics of Jesus' era. The great Catholic scholar Raymond Brown concluded upon meticulous examination that the "blood on our children" line was a specific group's oath of responsibility rather than an assumption of eternal, racial guilt.

Such exegetical niceties, however, eluded the Christians who pioneered the Passion as theatrical entertainment back in the Middle Ages. What came to be called Passion plays were harder edged than the Gospels, dropping Jesus' earlier teachings on tolerance and love to focus on his moment of supreme self-sacrifice. They also imbibed the malignant anti-Jewish spirit of their age, when peasants believed that Jews mixed the blood of Gentile children into Passover matzos. Consistent with such prejudice — and with the black-hat, white-hat needs of early dramaturgy — Passion plays presented Jews as money-grubbing Christ killers, a dramatic rendering that enjoyed a centuries-long run. Attending Oberammergau's famous staging in the 1930s, Adolf Hitler said enthusiastically, "Never has the menace of Jewry been so convincingly portrayed."

The Holocaust caused much Catholic rethinking. It contributed to the Second Vatican Council's 1965 decision to clear the Jews of deicide. It also lurks behind the bishops' 1988 guidelines, which, in micromanaging prospective productions, strive so earnestly to help modern auteurs sidestep the Passion plays' excesses. "Presentations ... should [avoid] any implication that Jesus' death was a result of religious antagonism between a stereotyped 'Judaism' and Christian doctrine," they warn. "It is not sufficient for [artists] to respond to responsible criticism simply by appealing to the notion that 'It's in the Bible.' One must account for one's selections."

It is an accounting that, regardless of whether he heeds the advisory, Gibson will no doubt be asked to make.