Philip A. Cunningham, ed.

Pondering the Passion: 

What's at Stake for Christian and Jews?  

(Lanham, MD: Sheed & Ward, 2004).

ISBN 0-7425-3218-6   pbk  $19.95  cloth $60.00  214 pp. 

Reviewed by Rabbi Gilbert S. Rosenthal, Executive Director, National Council of Synagogues

    Rarely in recent times has so much tumult resulted from a movie. And rarely have we witnessed such an emotional outpouring in Christian and Jewish circles as in the past year as a result of the reactions to Mel Gibson’s reading of the Passion of Jesus.

     In an attempt to explore the relevant issues more dispassionately, Dr. Philip A, Cunningham, head of Boston College’s Center for Christian-Jewish Learning, has edited a valuable and eminently readable collection of essays on how one should properly view the Passion of Jesus and where the Gibson film has both betrayed the historical record and seriously injured Christian education as well as Christian-Jewish relations. The fifteen contributors have approached the problem from various vantage points and have shed considerable light on the subject.

     Claudia Setzer sets the historical background of Judea under Roman rule. Michael J. Cook questions whether the trial of Jesus ever took place, suggesting “that the belated tradition of a Sanhedrin trial contributed to the goal of casting Jesus as a common ally of both Rome and Christianity” transforming Jesus from a Jew put to death by Rome into a Christian put to death by Jews. John Clabeaux poses the question of why Jesus was executed and replies theologically that he died for our sins (I Cor 15:3) and historically that from the Roman point of view he posed a threat to the public order. The supposed questioning of Jesus in the house of Annas is not corroborated by any transcript and the speeches in the New Testament must not be taken as verbatim accounts. The Romans crucified “deserters, rebels and those guilty of high treason.”

Since Jesus was mocked as “the king of the Jews,” we must assume that his crime was against Rome who viewed him as a rebel. 

     Walter Harrelson presents a Protestant understanding of the Passion. From that vantage, Jesus died for our sins, as Corinthians put it; it was a sacrificial act to achieve human salvation. Evangelicals see his death as a cosmic event planned before creation. Non-Evangelicals reject this view and take his death as a metaphor for the model Christian life: the gift of love, freedom from enslavement to sin and the triumph of the new age over the old. Not surprisingly, Harrelson notes, Evangelicals and traditionalist Roman Catholics are enamored of the film. George Smiga wrestles with teachings in the New Testament that seem to foster anti-Judaism (e.g., Matthew 27:25) arguing that the Gospels are not primarily history; rather, they are attempts to present the meaning of Jesus’s life and resurrection and not how those events took place. “They are creative works of evangelism, efforts to bring their readers to faith in Christ.” As such, they contain historical information but are not necessarily history. There is a difference between truth and history so that there are things that are true even when not historical (e.g., poetry, parables). This allows the reader to reject the historical basis of some negative claims of the New Testament like deicide. What is true about the Passion narrative? For one, the political situation in Judea at the time renders Matthew 27 unlikely for no governor would have tolerated a massing of a crowd especially at the Passover season when the temple was mobbed and the mood of insurrection was heightened. The washing of hands by Pilate only appears in Matthew, further vitiating its historicity. What we can extract from the story is: the depth of injustice and the responsibility for all life so that the blood-curdling curse in Matthew 27:25 stresses that “whenever blood is shed, when a life is neglected, when a person is treated as a commodity, it is our (author’s italics) problem” for we are responsible for each another.

     Pamela Berger analyzes a multitude of artistic renditions of the Passion Cycle, enriching her contribution with valuable illustrations. Surprisingly, she notes, early illustrative art does not depict the Passion. Only in the fifth century do we begin to see the crucifixion in art. We also detect the shift in blame for the tragedy from the Romans to the Jews. But artistic demonizing of the Jews only appears after the Crusades, which marked the watershed in Christian-Jewish relations. Now we observe the caricature of the Jew: hooked-nose, pointed hat, demonic appearance and utterly satanic. She suggests that today, in our world of interreligious conflict, we are challenged to examine our own visions of the religious other and ask, In what ways are ancient texts interpreted to incite hatred between peoples? Raymond G. Helmick examines the way great composers such as Bach and Handel treated the Passion theme. He observes that “antisemitism was simply endemic to the period, unchallenged in the churches at large, Protestant or Catholic” so that the music reflects this bias. Interestingly, Bach did not follow the antisemitic texts of Brockes and others, but rejected the slander that the Jews scourged and tortured Jesus, downplaying the Matthew curse while stressing the importance of Jesus’s forgiving his tormentors and laying the blame at the feet of the community of faith. A. James Rudin sets forth the history of the Passion plays (of which , Gibson’s  is the latest), noting that the toxic content of plays such as the Oberammergau version (which Hitler saw in 1934 and loved) were factors in generating antisemitism and even pogroms. Although the text has been “cleaned up” in the past twenty years, “it still contains much anti-Jewish elements.” John Michalczyk surveys the films dealing with Jesus and the Passion going back to 1898 and including the works of Griffith, DeMille, Zeffirelli, among others.

      In a richly evocative piece, Clark Williamson defines for us the meaning of “salvation.” He notes that it has many nuances. Basically, it implies rescue from a dire situation to a “new and transformed situation.” In the Hebrew Bible, it originally meant, “buying back.,” redemption from slavery (geulah) with God as the goel.. In Galatians 5:1 it suggests redemption of the soul. For a Christian, salvation means freedom of sin, reconciliation with God and self, and with all humanity. It suggests freedom from hostility and indifference, sanctification of a people who love God and neighbors. It implies everlasting life when we are “enfolded in love by the One who is ultimate.” But salvation is not just for the Christian: indeed, it challenges us to relate to the other, specifically the people of Israel, in a special way. “We cannot be reconciled to the God of Israel if we are not reconciled with the Israel of God.” Pondering the ambivalence of the New Testament and subsequent Christian teachings about the place of the Jewish people in God’s new salvific plan, Williamson comes down strongly against those who argue that salvation is selective and exclusive: “If God grants salvation to some and not all then God is not the God of steadfast love.”       Louis Roy writes that God permitted but didn’t will the Passion (although Roy seems to contradict this by referring to Acts 2:23 which posits that it was all pre-ordained). Jesus’ sacrifice is “the ultimate solution to the problem of evil.” Jesus is never portrayed as a scapegoat but rather as the slain lamb whose goal is “love-in-suffering which vanquished sin.” By undergoing the extreme consequence of sin, Jesus could “break the logic of hatred” (a sad irony in view of the relentless and age-old hatred generated against the Jews).

   Turning to the Gibson movie itself, Philip Cunningham submits the film to a dispassionately thorough analysis and devastating critique. He notes that it is unhistorical, full of errors and omissions, and borrows much from the ranting of an obscure nun, Anna Katerina Emmerich, who died in 1824 (and who is regrettably a candidate for beatification). Cunningham underscores the danger pf picking and choosing texts from different sources in the New Testament resulting in a film in which “Jewish hostility is more relentless, implacable, and evil than either Gospel on its own conveys.” Moreover, the film is at variance with authoritative post-Vatican II teachings in the Catholic Church. It does violence to the New Testament and to its proper interpretation, to teachings that have followed in the wake of Vatican II, and to the many papal utterances of Pope John Paul II. It fails according to current Catholic teaching since a number of criteria and “a guiding artistic vision sensitive to historical fact and to the best biblical scholarship are obviously necessary” for depicting the Passion in films or theater, as the US Conference of Catholic Bishops wrote in 1988.

     John Pawlikowski discusses religious antisemitism as “an indispensable seed bed for the growth of Nazism.” He fears that The Passion of the Christ has now become “a carrier of traditional antisemitism” and he is deeply concerned that in its DVD version and use in Christian education it could “undermine the more than forty years of detailed work on revising textbooks within Catholicism and Protestantism.” Few have recognized this danger in the film, unfortunately, and few religious leaders have detected in it a return to the old Augustinian “ransom” theory, namely, that God battled Satan and ransomed humanity from Adam’s sin via the death of His son. This doctrine was replaced around 1200 by the view that God’s love is seen in the ultimate sacrifice of His son as loving service to humanity. Jesus substituted himself as the one upon whom, divine punishment fell, thus appeasing God. Gibson has returned to the early medieval theology in his film and this “plays right into the destruction of personal commitment” which is what happened in Nazi Germany by “placing the burden of human salvation entirely on God and His suffering son.” Thus, the film contradicts the basic moral thrust of Vatican II and subsequent documents in which the pursuit of justice is viewed as integral to the authentic proclamation of the gospel.

     Social worker Maddy Cunningham fears for the “psychological risks of witnessing the film,” given its unremitting violence. Media violence does result in negative aftereffects, as psychological studies have shown time and again. There is secondary trauma and stress caused when we witness the brutal treatment of someone we love so that hostility to Jews may well result from viewing this kind of film. Educator Mary Boys is deeply concerned over the failure of many in the Christian community to hear and understand Jewish and Christian fears and concerns. She is equally shocked that so many Protestants and Catholics fail to read the Bible in its historical and literary context and she is appalled that few among the clergy and laity, including bishops, grasp what has happened in the wake of the film. She reminds us that “our task as educators is to join thinking with feeling.”

     Having seen the film myself, I can attest to its unmitigated violence and gore that borders on sheer sadism. I was also struck by the juxtaposition of the forces of good (the new Christians) versus the forces of Satan and evil (the Jewish leaders and mob). More significantly, I was deeply dismayed that there were Catholic and Protestant clergy who not only endorsed the film but urged their flocks to go and see it, notwithstanding the many violations of authentic Catholic and Protestant teachings.

    Philip Cunningham writes in his introduction, “The Gibson film has created one of the benchmark moments when each community each with its own internal diversity pauses to reassess the relationship.” The only positive fallout from the film, in my view, is the upsurge of interest in the period of the first century and the remarkable numbers of Jews and Christians who have entered into dialogue and study of the historical and theological sources. It would be good and profitable for clergy and educators alike to study and ponder the Passion by careful engagement with this thoughtful, intelligent and well-researched volume.