Gibson’s Christ on Trial

1. Mel Gibson’s forthcoming film “The Passion,” based on the last 12 hours in the life of Jesus as depicted in the New Testament, has even before its release generated controversy. This is good and appropriate.

2. The film might, just conceivably, as Rabbi Eugene Korn, the Anti-Defamation League’s Director of Interfaith Affairs suggests, “undermine Christian-Jewish dialogue and could turn back the clock on decades of positive progress in interfaith relations.”

3. We have a great deal of religious intolerance and narrow-mindedness in this country now (including the form of anti-Semitism directed against Arabs and Arab-American Muslims), and do not need any more of any kind.

4. To depict a whole people as guilty of deicide (“god-killing”) is perhaps the most egregious form of intolerance and racism imaginable, and the Oberamagau Passion Play tradition alone validates Jewish (and others’) concerns about a cinematographic Passion.

5. But the ADL’s accusations of “anti-Semitism” are often dubious, and should be taken with a grain of salt.

6. The issues involved should be examined rationally, unemotionally.

7. There are Christians critical of the Gibson film, and Jews supportive of it. Paula Frederickson, a Catholic scholar of the first century Roman empire, declared that she was “shocked” by the script, which “presents neither a true rendition of the gospel stories nor a historically accurate account of what could have happened in Jerusalem, on Passover, when Pilate was prefect and Caiaphas was high priest.”

But Jack Valenti, the head of the Motion Picture Association of American saw it in Washington and pronounced it “a compelling piece of art.” He phoned Kirk Douglas afterwards to praise it.

Michael Medved, a former synagogue president, wrote in USA Today that the “noisy assaults” on the film were “unfair and painfully premature.” Matt Drudge, interviewed by Pat Buchanan and Bill Press on MSNBC, called it, the “best picture I have seen in quite some time, and even people like Jack Valenti were in the audience in tears at this screening. It depicts a clash between Jesus and those who crucified him, and speaking as a Jew, I thought it was a magical film that showed the perils of life on earth.”

8. Mel Gibson is a devout, if dissident, Catholic. Anti-abortion, pro-death penalty, and accused of hostility to feminists and gays, Gibson is no model of tolerance.

9. But Gibson is a brilliant filmmaker, capable of producing very inspiring works, “Braveheart” in particular a moving validation of righteous rebellion against oppression. (One of my very favorite films.)

10. Gibson revels in very bloody scenes, and can be expected to make “The Passion”
very gory.

11. Objective historians consider the “real” history underlying the Passion storyline unclear. Most concede (although some scholars contest this) that there was a Jewish man living in the Roman province of Judea in the early first century CE who, killed ca. 30, became an object of worship of the Christian faith.

12. We know very little about this man, Yehoshua or Yeshua (Jesus). The Roman historian Tacitus (ca. 55-115) and the Roman-born Jewish historian Josephus Flavius (37-ca. 101), mention him, telling us little except that he was crucified by order of the Roman procurator of Judea, Pontius Pilate.

13. Although some once doubted Pilate’s historical existence, a limestone building inscription found in Caesarea in 1961 mentions “Pontius Pilate, Prefect of Judea.”

14. Most serious academic Bible scholars regard the gospels (biographies of Jesus in the New Testament, probably authored between 65 and 130 CE) as a mix of objective history, legend and myth. Fundamentalists disagree, seeing these writings as the infallible Word of God.

15. About one-third of humankind is at least nominally Christian, and most Christians accept the New Testament account of Jesus’ death as true. This alone justifies dramatizations of that account, whatever its relationship to historical reality, including very graphic dramatizations.

16. The gospels, whether or not reliable as “history,” all indict Pontius Pilate as the executioner of Jesus.

17. The Qur’an, composed in the early seventh century and believed by Muslims (an additional one-fifth of humankind), states that the Jews “claimed” to have killed Jesus, but that in fact they “slew him not” and “God took him up unto himself.” Surah 4 is vague on the issue of responsibility for Jesus’ death.

18. There are many other narratives about the life of Jesus (like the Gospel of Peter), or lists of his sayings (like the Gospel of Thomas), composed from the first to third centuries, that were not incorporated into the New Testament. The emergent Church sought to suppress them; much of such material was burned in anti-heresy campaigns and lost forever.

19. The selection of works for such inclusion was completed only in the fourth century. Critical scholars view the selection process as fully human and subjective.

20. Of the canonical gospels (those included in the New Testament), Mark (of unknown authorship) was probably the first. Matthew and Luke draw upon it and incorporate almost all its content. The three books (called “the synoptic gospels”) are very similar in structure and content.

21. The Book of John is probably the last written of the canonical gospels (ca. 90-120). It is very different from the synoptics.

22. The representation of the last days of Jesus evolved over time. The author of Mark (ca. 65-80) provides the basic, terse narrative. After driving the moneychangers out of the Temple before Passover, Jesus incurs the high priests’ wrath; with Judas’ cooperation, the Jewish authorities arrest him, convict him of blasphemy, and turn him over to Pilate. Pilate finds no fault with him, but under pressure from the priests and an assembled mob, sentences him to crucifixion, turning him over to Roman soldiers who having mocked him, perform the execution.

Matthew (80-100) adds significant details: it names the chief priest Caiaphas as mastermind of the plot, gives the sum paid Judas, and has Pilate’s wife send him a message telling him of a bad dream and encouraging him not to judge against Jesus. There’s the hand-washing scene designed to emphasize Jewish authorities’ responsibility for Jesus’ death. The mob cries, “Let his blood be on us and our children!” Luke (ca. 80-130) adds “leading citizens” to those wanting Jesus’ death. It has the chief priests telling Pilate that Jesus isn’t just claiming to be king, but inciting to revolt, and to refuse to pay taxes. In Luke, a still hesitant Pilate sends Jesus off for trial before (the Idumaenean Jewish) King Herod in Galilee, who mocks him but making no decision, sends him back to Pilate for a second trial. After Pilate reluctantly sentences him to death, Jesus is taken away by Jewish rather than Roman officials.

23. In this evolving depiction, Jewish authorities (and the mob they organize) receive more and more attention, while Pilate is treated more and more sympathetically.

24. This process culminates in the Book of John. The Sanhedrin trial isn’t even described here; rather, Jesus is interrogated by a small group at the home of Caiaphas’ father in law. Turned over to Pilate, Jesus is repeatedly questioned by Pilate, privately and politely, in the Praetorium, which, for religious reasons, Jews will not enter. Pilate diplomatically “comes out to them” to ask what crime Jesus had committed; the crowd does not respond specifically but says “We are not allowed to put a man to death.” Pilate reenters the Praetorium and has another exchange with Jesus. Asked if he is the king of the Jews, he counters with the question: “Do you ask this of your own accord, or have others spoken to you about me?” Pilate answers, “Am I a Jew? It is your own people and the chief priests who have turned you over to me: what have you done?” In this account the Roman seems particularly anxious to let the rabbi go free. Jesus tells him that he is in fact a king, but his kingdom is not of this world; if it were, “my men would have fought to prevent my being surrendered to the Jews.” He is a king who bears witness to the truth. (“Truth?” Pilate asks, like a sophisticated Roman familiar with Plato and wearied by local religious passions, “What is that?”) He tells the crowd he finds no case, offers to release Jesus; but they want Barabbas.

Pilate has Jesus scourged and humiliated and presents him to the mob, hoping apparently to mollify them but declaring yet again that he finds no case against him. If they want to crucify him, they should do it themselves (19:6). More cries of “Crucify him!” Pilate again has a private talk with Jesus, asking him in some apparent consternation where he had come from. Jesus refuses to reply. Pilate reminds him that he has the power to crucify him, but Jesus says that power was conferred from above, and that “the one who handed you over to me has the greater guilt.” (This may mean Judas, or Caiaphas.) Pilate is all the more “anxious to set him free,” but “the Jews” cry out that if he doesn’t kill Jesus he will be “no friend of Caesar’s” and will be “defying Caesar.” Apparently fearing that Rome might indeed find him soft on sedition, Pilate then turns Jesus over to the chief priests for crucifixion, although as in the other accounts Roman soldiers accomplish the deed. Pilate personally writes a notice in Hebrew, Latin, and Greek to be fixed on the cross: “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” Chief priests protest it should be “This man said: I am King of the Jews,” but Pilate refuses to change it. The implication is that this foreigner better understood the “real” meaning of Jesus life that did his local foes.

25. In telling Pilate that the Roman’s power was conferred upon him by God, Jesus suggests that ultimately neither Jews nor Romans are responsible for his death, but God Almighty. The Last Supper discourse (John 13-17) makes it clear that Jesus’ death will follow a divine rather than human plan.

26. Historical sources suggest that Pilate was not an entirely unreasonable man, and in fact sometimes deferred to local religious sensibilities in a manner unusual for a Roman governor. Josephus states that when Roman soldiers bearing the standard of the (divine) Roman emperor marched into Jerusalem, provoking local outrage, Pilate quickly had the standards removed.

27. The Romans were not always tolerant of local religious practices. They banned some Druid practices, for example, and Tiberius once banned Jews and those practicing Egyptian religion from Rome. On the other hand, Romans dissatisfied with the formal, public nature of Roman religion flocked to foreign cults like those of Isis and Mithras. There were even some Buddhists, in all probability, in Roman Egypt. In any case, Roman authorities were typically broad-minded (and skeptical) about religious matters, and it seems unlikely that the Romans would have sought to execute Jesus as punishment for his religious teachings alone.

28. The statement that the Jews had no capital punishment law is dubious. In fact the Jews did have a law authorizing the stoning of blasphemers (Leviticus 24:16) and if we believe the Book of Acts, by the same author as the Book of Luke, the Sanhedrin was allowed by the Romans to apply its own laws on this issue. In Acts 7:55-60, the Christian Stephen is stoned to death by order of the council soon after Jesus’ own death.

29. The ADL report on the film claims that it “portrays Jewish authorities and the Jewish ‘mob’ as forcing the decision to torture and execute Jesus, thus assuming responsibility for the crucifixion.” Surely the gospel accounts all depict Jewish forces (the Sanhedrin and the mob) as heavily pressuring Pilate to sentence Jesus to death, and the charge of “force” here may be subjective. (If Gibson tampers with the biblical script and, say, has Pilate only agreeing to the crucifixion to prevent a general insurrection, then the critics might have a case.) As for assuming responsibility, the Matthew account (for better or worse) is quite clear: “Let his blood be on us and our children!” cries the mob.

30. Only in John are “the Jews” repeatedly and collectively targeted (2:20, 6:41, 7:1, etc.) as responsible for Jesus’ death.

31. More than the Passion sequence itself, the broader (Christian) theological narrative has historically generated Christian antipathy towards Jews. According to this, God chose the Jews as his people through the covenant with Abraham, promised them a Messiah, and sent the Jews his only begotten Son as that Messiah. God has his son undergo a brutal death, then rise on the third day, having through that ordeal cleansed the sins of humanity (at least those accepting him as personal savior). The majority of Jewry, rather than accepting the grace offered, rejects it. The forefathers of the Jews thus not only (according to the gospels) arrest, try, and humiliate Jesus, turn him over to Pilate, and demand his death, but by their failure to embrace Jesus as God (as opposed to such failure among benighted pagans, who weren’t among God’s chosen to begin with), they as a people betray Abraham’s covenant. Now (according to Paul) the Law specifically bestowed on the Jews “comes to an end with Christ, and everyone who has faith” (as Christians, including Gentiles) “may be justified” (Romans 10:4).

32. This concept of a god undergoing a horrible death, descending to the netherworld, the rising from the dead, offering salvation to humankind (or to select believers), is not unique to Christianity but occurs in other religions once popular in the Middle East. The Babylonian god Tammuz (earlier, the Sumerian god Dimmuzi) rises from the dead, due to the actions of the goddess Ishtar, on the third day. The Persian variant of Tammuz, Mithras, gets gored in the groin by a bull, dies, but also rises from the dead. His cult was popular among Roman legionnaires in the first century. Believers ceremonially drank bull’s blood in a ceremony reminiscent of the Christians’ Holy Communion. The Phrygian god Attis (another Tammuz variant) castrates himself, bleeds to death, but returns to his consort Cybele on the third day.

33. Romans tended to lump the Mithras cult, the Egyptian Isis/Osiris cult, the Attis cult, Orphism, Christianity and others as “mystery religions,” because they all involved a narrative about a god’s death and rebirth and promised salvation to a limited orbit of adherents who accepted the faiths’ teachings.

34. In all likelihood, the early Christian movement (which was extraordinarily diverse up to the fourth century, when Rome’s political embrace insured ideological uniformity) was influenced by the other mystery religions.

35. The propensity to prettify the Roman Pilate continued as the Christian movement took shape: the apocryphal gospels The Acts of Peter (second century?) and the Gospel of Nicodemus (third or fourth century) further minimized Pilate’s responsibility. By the third century, the Church father Tertullian was writing that Pilate was a secret Christian; the Coptic Church recognized him as a saint. His wife, depicted in Matthew as opposing Jesus’ death, became a saint (Claudia Procula) in the Greek Orthodox Church. Meanwhile we observe an increasing tendency to vilify the Jews; in Nicodemus, for example, Satan himself says, “at our instigation the Jews crucified” Jesus.

36. Christians have historically answered charges of anti-Semitism by stating that the sins of Jews, like anyone else’s, can be washed away in the Blood of the Lamb. But only if Jews become Christians. Obviously this won’t do as a response to criticisms of “The Passion.”

37. All Abrahamic faiths (Judaism and its offshoots, Christianity and Islam) divide humankind into believers enjoying God’s grace, and nonbelievers who don’t. This fact alone has historically produced religious intolerance with horrific results, especially in Christian Europe. Bloody crackdowns on “heretics” in Christendom throughout the Middle Ages; pogroms against Jews; the Crusades, the Inquisition, the sixteenth century wars of religion, etc.

38. A key issue in this intolerance is the belief that some live in bliss after their bodily deaths, while others suffer endlessly for their “sins” (as defined by a given faith) in torment. Judaism has been ambiguous on the issue of life after death in general. Islam plainly states that Jews and Christians may by the grace of God enter Paradise. Christianity is uniquely prone to consign nonbelievers to damnation. While many Christian denominations currently concede that non-Christians may “go to Heaven,” New Testament scriptures consign all non-believers to perdition (John 15:6, John 3:36, Matthew 25:46, etc.).

39. Many films have exacerbated existing religious or ethnic conflicts. The Indian film Gadar (Anarchy) drew protests from Sikhs and Muslims; Deepa Mehta’s Water from Hindus; Kevin Smith’s Dogma riled Catholics; the American Sikh community is enraged about the film Dysfunkional Family, etc. Given the nature of religion, this may be inevitable.

40. Christians believing the theological narrative noted above, watching a powerful depiction of Jesus’ bloody death following his trial, might indeed, if only subconsciously, come to feel antipathy towards Jews. Or the film might, whatever Gibson’s intentions, fuel pre-existent anti-Jewish feelings. “God Squad” Rabbi Marc Gellmann told Bill O’Reilly that the “visual impact” of the cat ‘o nine tails, the spikes going through Jesus’ hands make a “visual impact” that might cause hatred. “All the way through, the Jews are portrayed as bloodthirsty,” says Sister Mary C. Boys, a professor at New York’s Union Theological Seminary.

41. The film might encourage Muslim anti-Jewish feeling as well. This is an issue in places like Casablanca, Tunis and Cairo. Some have expressed fears about its impact in Russia, too, where anti-Semitism is on the rise.

42. But Gibson has a right to follow his faith and make a film that expresses the content of the gospels.

43. And the ADL and other groups have the right to criticize the film, or what they know or even imagine about it. They can picket, organize boycotts, etc.

44. In doing so, such groups should clarify whether they find the New Testament itself anti-Semitic, and hence dramatic treatments of it inherently objectionable. Some scholars have effectively made that case.

45. But if the film is in fact a faithful recounting of the New Testament narrative, non-Christians criticizing it will (for better or worse) risk reducing their own influence in largely Christian American society. “For the Jewish leaders to risk alienating 2 billion Christians over a movie seems shortsighted,” states Ted Haggard, head of the National Association of Evangelicals. Columnist Joseph Farah, who considers himself “a good friend to the Jewish community in the U.S. and around the world,” says that, “if the Anti-Defamation League chooses to make an issue of this film, it will be the organization’s own undoing. In effect, the ADL will be telling Christians their most deeply held beliefs, their faith, their Holy Scriptures are offensive. To take issue with this movie is, essentially, to take issue with the Gospels, to take issue with the Christian faith…I wouldn’t recommend that path to my friends in the Jewish community. It would be a dreadful mistake.”

46. The “undoing” of some critical organizations might be a good thing. In supporting such Islamophobes as Daniel Pipes, the ADL can hardly present itself as a paragon of religious tolerance.

47. Criticism of the film might focus, less on its depiction of Jesus’ Jewish antagonists, as on premise that the Lord of the Cosmos should require the brutal death of his Son (at Jewish, Roman or any other human hands) as the means to allow a select segment of believing humanity to avoid eternal damnation. (Question for discussion: Is such a cosmos reasonable?)

48. Criticism could also focus on the dubious historicity of the whole gospel narrative.

49. Some fine Hollywood producer could follow up by dramatizing the bloody tale of Tammuz, which precedes Christianity by centuries but anticipates the gospel story in its story of a bloody divine death and resurrection. This, especially if very movingly done, would help place the Christ-tale in comparative religious-mythological perspective.

50. One should oppose any effort by studios, entertainment capital, and interest groups to censor or impede distribution of Gibson’s religious work. Honest, dispassionate debate (about history, religion, and tolerance) is in order, not the crucifixion of a brilliant artist.

* * * * *

In Braveheart, just before the Battle of Stirling, William Wallace’s followers ask him what they should do, confronted with so overwhelming an English force arrayed against them. “Just be yourselves,” he counsels. I hope you’ll be yourself, Mel, however I may differ with your religious premises. They may take away your distributors, they may take away your promoters, but they can’t take away your freedom.

GARY LEUPP is an an associate professor in the Department of History at Tufts University and coordinator of the Asian Studies Program.

He can be reached at:


Gary Leupp is Emeritus Professor of History at Tufts University, and is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900 and coeditor of The Tokugawa World (Routledge, 2021). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: