How is THE PASSION Anti-Semitic?

Correspondence Between Jim Massey and Deke Barker
March 5, 2004

From: Jim Massey
Date: Thursday, March 04, 2004
Subject: How is THE PASSION Anti-Semitic?

So name me one pastor in one Christian church in America who is providing, as the context for this movie, the teaching that the Jews were Christ-killers.

From: Deke Barker
Date: Fri, March 5, 2004
Subject: How is THE PASSION Anti-Semitic?


You're missing the point.

It's not that pastors are preaching that (though some reportedly do), but that there are many people who are susceptible to anti-Semitic attitudes. When a film is released that appears to distort the role of Jews, it feeds those anti-Semitic tendencies.

How many fundamentalist pastors are pointing out that -- according to most or all reports I've read -- Gibson's film distorted the roles of the Jewish leadership and public, and the role of the Romans (especially Pilate and his wife), even based upon the gospels?

How many fundamentalist pastors are pointing out that the extreme violence which so disturbs 21st century Americans would *NOT* have been considered unusual in first century Palestine?

From: Jim Massey
Date: Fri, March 5, 2004
Subject: How is THE PASSION Anti-Semitic?

Perhaps because it doesn't, with the possible exception of making Claudia out to be almost saintly, which goes beyond the gospel description but not against it.  It is far more following of the gospels than any Jesus movie made in the 20th century (with the possible exception of the silent-with-overdubbing-in-any-language "Jesus" based on Luke), all of which took great license for the sake of drama -- and when it does take license, it is not against the story, but is truncating the story through the script, which is what all movies do:  it's part and parcel of the art form.

And that's what you don't see to get:  this is a work of art, an attempt to interpret the event to the silver screen just as much as the gospel narrative interprets the event to the printed word, just as putting plague pustules on Jesus was part of the art of Grunewald's Isenheim Alatarpiece, just as making the dead Jesus' body beautiful was part of the part of Michelangelo's 1498 Pieta.  It's just not YOUR art, because it doesn't say what you think it should say, except that you can't be sure because you won't go see it because you're already convinced that it doesn't say what you think it should say.

DB>> How many fundamentalist pastors are pointing out that the extreme violence
DB>> which so disturbs 21st century Americans would *NOT* have been considered
DB>> unusual in 1st century Palestine?

And why should that matter, except in an historical sense?  It DOES disturb us.  It's SUPPOSED to disturb us.  (I thought that is what art was supposed to do, at least art in the art world.  Mapplethorpe's homosexual photographs and elephant dung on a painting of Mary disturbed me, and I as an Art Appreciation instructor was told by the art world that it was supposed to disturb me and I should thank the artist for that.  Well, they can dish it out but they can't take it.)  It should disturb the hell out of us, so that God can place His heaven in us.

From: Deke Barker
Date: Fri, Mar 5, 2004 Subject: How is THE PASSION Anti-Semitic?


One of the reasons I refuse to watch almost all film depictions of the Bible is that *NONE* of them stay close to the Bible *IN CONTEXT*. That might not be so bad (Scorsese's "Last Temptation... ") provided these films didn't claim to be true to the gospels. But they usually do, and Gibson's PR machine has made a point of its fidelity to Biblical history (at least, history as understood by an ignorant 19th century nun). That's the big difference between Mapplethorpe and Gibson. Mapplethorpe was honest in what he was doing. So was Serrano. Gibson has essentially claimed that he made a documentary, with minor concessions to the filmmaker's art. *BIG* difference.

Understand, I don't think any one of my objections by itself is sufficient to condemn the film. Excessive violence? So what's new? Stereotypical villains? Same thing. Distortions of history? It's historical fiction, not a documentary (although one gets the impression that Gibson would like people to come out of the theater *BELIEVING* it to be a documentary).

Put them all together, and I find it rather disturbing.

You suggest I don't "get" that it's an interpretation. In fact, that's *PRECISELY* what I "get". It's an interpretation based upon an anti-Semitic Roman Catholic perspective of 150-200 years ago. At that time, *ALL* RC --and probably all Protestant -- perspectives on the Passion were effectively anti-Semitic. Most were consciously anti-Semitic. You don't find that troublesome?

From the descriptions I've read by both critics and supporters of "Passion", several historical problems arise:

1. The Jewish leaders were presented stereotypically, without nuance.
2. The Jewish public was presented in the same way.

This isn't to say there weren't exceptions, but exceptions are sorta like saying, "See, I'm not prejudiced. I have a couple of *NICE* non-Xian Jews in the film." IMO, that's like the old line, "Some of my best friends are Jews."

3. The passage from the gospels about Jewish responsibility remains in the film. It should never have been filmed, much less allowed through production. It is a *GROSS* distortion, a polemical insertion into the Passion tradition most likely by the evangelist/author. Absent an explanation of same, its only possible purpose is the promotion of anti-Semitism.
4. The overwhelming emphasis on Jesus' suffering, to the exclusion of much else, *EVEN IF ACCURATE* (which I understand is doubtful), is necessarily misleading to 21st century American audiences.

Gibson's film "Braveheart" had a lot of blood and gore. But it also made it clear that such violence was commonplace and committed by both sides. That is, it put the violence into the context of the time. As I understand it, that is not the case with "Passion... " By itself, the this out-of-context violence would be troubling enough, even for Roman Catholic theologians, for whom Jesus' suffering is much more of a focal point than for Protestants. But in a film that under the best of circumstances does not treat Jews well and is likely to encourage anti-Semitism, it is like tossing gasoline on the fire.

Combine all of these things with a marketing effort directed specifically at audiences that have a proven and longstanding tendency toward intolerance, by a guy whose parents left the U.S. because they hated minorities....

Jim Massey is a Lutheran

Deke Barker is a member of the church of The Disciples Of Christ.

Contact them at

Return To The Passion Essays Index

Return To The Essay Index

Return To The Literary Index

Return To The Site Index Page

Email Shlomoh