The Passion of the Christ, Jewish Pain and Christian Responsibility (Sept 2004)

"The Passion of the Christ," Jewish Pain, and Christian Responsibility:

A Response to Mel Gibson's Film

September, 2004

Mel Gibson's film, “The Passion of the Christ,” has now been released in DVD and video format for private use. This occasions deep concern among us as people whose Christian faith commitments include love and respect for the Jewish tradition and a commitment to repent of the oppression inflicted on the Jewish people by previous generations of Christians. We acknowledge Mr. Gibson's repeated statements that he does not blame the Jews for Jesus' death; we also acknowledge that many who see the film are honestly unaware of its anti-Jewish elements. We feel bound by our knowledge and our faith, however, to alert our fellow Christians to the film's misrepresentations and insinuations. We do not mean to attack Mr. Gibson personally or to call into question any viewer's faith. Our intent is to make plain some of the film's problems and to encourage Christians to work to overcome them in their own settings.

Passion plays have had a painful and violent impact on Jewish communities from medieval times into our own. Those who portrayed the Passion may never have intended direct harm to their Jewish neighbors, but such plays often did poison attitudes and incite violence against Jewish communities, sometimes with lethal consequences. Not only in the immediate response to a particular portrayal, but also in shaping a persistently negative image of Jews even among people of generally good will, Passion plays have played an influential role in long centuries of Christian anti-Judaism.

Today the legacy of Christian anti-Jewish attitudes continues to fuel anti-Semitism far beyond the theaters and churches in which Passion plays are performed. Anti-Semitism is the expression of attitudes, behavior, or propaganda that targets Jews, individually or collectively, based on hateful stereotypes and accusations. The discredited charge that Jews are “Christ-killers” continues to appear in the expression of both American and European anti-Semitism, which remains a serious problem. A recent Gallup poll found that 37 percent of American young adults hold the Jews responsible for Jesus' death. In the United Kingdom, synagogue desecrations tripled in the two-year period beginning October 2000, while physical assaults against Jews became more common and more violent. The scourge of anti-Semitism is real and present, and we must do all we can to prevent poison from the well of Christian anti-Judaism from deepening its deadly effects.

“The Passion of the Christ” is a visually powerful portrayal of Jesus' final hours that shares much with traditional Passion plays. Regrettably, this includes much of their anti-Jewish legacy along with more positive aspects. It encourages misunderstanding of the role of Jews and their leaders in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus' death; it includes gratuitous anti-Jewish portrayals; and its promotion by Christians has largely ignored the pain and concern of the Jewish community about the film. In conformity with the statements of many church bodies repudiating the “teaching of contempt” towards Jews and Judaism, we call on Christians to be aware of these anti-Jewish aspects and to take active steps to mitigate their influence.

First, we caution viewers against seeing this film as a factual representation of Jesus' Passion. Study of the film, confirmed by Mr. Gibson's own words in repeated interviews, has established that visions, legends, and fictional materials were added to a selective combination of the four gospel accounts to produce the screenplay. These visionary or fictitious unbiblical materials include the depiction of Satan and numerous demons, the portrayal of Barabbas as bestial (thereby making the Jewish crowd's preference for him even more vile), and the two-stage and frontal scourging of Jesus, a torment that would have ripped out his vital organs and killed him on the spot. This is neither historically reliable nor theologically sound.

The added materials, some dating from centuries after Jesus' own time, often reflect the anti-Jewish attitudes of the eras to which they belong. Simple agreement between these materials and one or another of the gospel narratives does not legitimize them as historical sources, since the gospels themselves are products of an historical situation that drew strong contrasts between Jesus and his Jewish kinfolk at the expense of his affinity and affection for them. The film has generated a great variety of responses from viewers, which testifies to the ambiguity of its central message. This ambiguity makes it easier for the film to be misunderstood and exploited for anti-Semitic purposes. Even without ill intent, the viewer fails to gain the full richness of the gospel message from this film, which therefore is inadequate as a basis for formulating an understanding of Jesus and his Passion.

Second, the film includes numerous explicitly anti-Jewish elements that we consider an affront to the gospel. Jewish figures are depicted more negatively than others; critics have demonstrated this in their analyses of the musical score, costuming, set design, and characterization. Non-biblical elements introduced into the story contribute to this negative image. Jewish guards, for example, press Judas to betray Jesus; Jewish children are transformed into demons; and divine judgment in the form of an earthquake falls more heavily on the Jewish temple than on the rest of Jerusalem.

The negative portrayal of Jewish figures is particularly evident in comparing the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, and the Jewish high priest, Caiaphas. Pilate is by turns prudent, hesitant, solicitous, doubtful, and resigned to the fate that awaits Jesus, presenting a sympathetic character. Caiaphas, however, shows no sympathy for the scourged Jesus. He is unrepentant even when a direct and unbiblical accusation of his own guilt is thrown at him on Calvary, thus embodying the age-old anti-Semitic stereotype of cold-blooded Jewish power conspiring to control historical events. Contrary to the church's confessions that universal human sinfulness crucified Christ, and that Jews are in no way specially responsible for his death, the artistry, direction, and tone of this film exemplify the hateful tradition of anti-Jewish Passion plays.

Third, we must dissent from the views of Christian colleagues who commend the film and its virtues while ignoring its serious defects. Acknowledging that many people have responded positively to the film, we still find it lamentable that Christian leaders so easily pass over its anti-Jewish character in favor of what they perceive to be its positive aspects. Surely, to “love the neighbor as oneself” means first to understand what causes pain and suffering for that neighbor; yet Christian endorsement of the film has ignored the deep and legitimate concerns of many in the Jewish community. Those who uncritically promote this film, looking only to its benefits for their own faith communities, turn a deaf ear to the suffering that such portrayals of the Passion have evoked, even in recent memory. This insensitivity is inexcusable.

In North America, this film has forced Christians to confront anew the issues of Christian anti-Judaism, anti-Semitism, and the responsibility of public figures for nurturing just and peaceful communities. We appreciate the efforts of those who, before and during the film's theatrical release, have risen to the challenge in a timely way. Many responses to the film have demonstrated the strength of the Jewish-Christian partnership that has grown over the past half-century.

At the same time, we must express our continuing concern about the effects of this film. In private showings in years to come, the benefits of the public discussion and education we have recently seen will not be as readily available. The Christian community has a responsibility to the Gospel to do everything possible to mitigate the anti-Jewish impact of the film whenever it is shown. Simply noting that anti-Semitic violence has not occurred gives us minimal comfort; we have yet to address the long-term effects on the Christian imagination of images of a seething Jewish mob, of cold and calculating hooked-nosed Jewish leaders, or of scenes of cruelty inexplicably inflicted on Jesus by Jewish characters in exaggeration or disregard of the New Testament.

The heart of the Christian gospel is the reconciliation of God with the world, and the fulfillment of the kingdom which Jesus proclaimed will bring reconciliation to the whole creation. In that spirit, which is the necessary context for understanding the suffering and sacrifice of the Passion, we re-commit ourselves to working for the reconciliation of Christians and Jews. We call on our fellow Christians to join us. May this be a time of courage for us, when we are liberated from fear and timidity by God's assurance of life. May we be shaped in love of our neighbors by Jesus' example. May we share Christ's passion for peace, justice, and human dignity, a passion for which he died and was raised to new life.

John Merkle
Professor of Theology, College of St. Benedict and St. John's University, St. Joseph and Collegeville, MN USA
Associate Director, Jay Phillips Center for Jewish-Christian Learning, St. Paul and Collegeville, MN USA

Peter A. Pettit
Assistant Professor of Religion, Muhlenberg College
Director, Institute for Jewish-Christian Understanding of Muhlenberg College, Allentown, PA USA

Signed by:


  1. Father Bob Albright
    Catholic Campus Minister, Towson University, Towson MD USA

  2. Dan-Erik Andersson
    Adjunct Reader, Lund University, Lund, Sweden

  3. Platform Appèl Kerk en Israël
    Driebergen, The Netherlands

  4. The Rev. William P. Baxter, Jr.
    Rector, St. Thomas Church, Owings Mills, MD USA

  5. Dr. Norman A. Beck
    Poehlmann Professor of Theology and Classical Languages, Texas Lutheran University, Seguin, TX USA

  6. Marja van den Beld
    Theologian, Platform Appèl Kerk en Israël, Driebergen, The Netherlands

  7. The Rev. Marc H. Bergeron
    Office of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, Roman Catholic Diocese of Fall River
    St. Anne Parish, Fall River, MA USA

  8. David Blewett
    Ecumenical Institute for Jewish-Christian Studies, Southfield, MI USA

  9. The Rev. Dr. J. Jermain Bodine
    United Church of Christ, Warner NH USA

  10. Robert K. Bohm
    Interim Pastor (ELCA), Fort Valley, VA USA

  11. Dr. Carole R. Bohn
    Associate Professor of Counseling Psychology and Religion, Boston University School of Theology, Boston, MA USA

  12. Mary C. Boys
    Skinner & McAlpin Professor of Practical Theology, Union Theological Seminary, New York, NY USA

  13. Roisin Brown
    17 Abbeywood Cres Guelph, ON Canada

  14. Carol A. Burt
    Catholic, Adult Education/Formation Director, Sacred Heart Parish, Pittsfield, MA USA

  15. Leonard Campbell
    Center Harbor, NH USA

  16. James Carroll
    Author, Boston, MA USA

  17. The Rev. Claudine Carlson
    Pastor, Holy Cross Lutheran Church (ELCIC), Burlington, ON Canada

  18. Prof. Elizabeth Castelli
    Barnard College, New York, NY USA

  19. Rosann Catalano, Ph.D.
    Roman Catholic Staff Scholar, Institute for Christian & Jewish Studies, Baltimore, MD USA

  20. Centro de Estudios Judeo Cristianos, Madrid, Spain
    Sor Ionel Mihalovici, directora

  21. Harvey Cox
    Hollis Professor of Diivinity, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA USA

  22. Philip A. Cunningham
    Executive Director, Center for Christian-Jewish Learning at Boston College, Chestnut Hill, MA USA

  23. Rev. Prof. Dr. Michael Czajkowski
    ICCJ, Warsaw, Poland

  24. Dr Marianne Dacy
    Archive of Australian Judaica, Fisher Library, University of Sydney, Sydney, Australia

  25. John W. Daniels Jr. Th.M
    Instructor, Christian Formation Program, St. Augustine Cathedral-Basilica Parish, St. Augustine, FL USA

  26. Rev. Dr. Lisa W. Davison, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
    Professor of Old Testament, Lexington Theological Seminary, Lexington, KY USA

  27. Celia Deutsch
    Barnard College, New York, NY USA

  28. The Rev. Tom Doherty
    Richmond Hill, ON Canada

  29. John R. Donahue, S.J.
    Professor of New Testament, Ignatius House, Baltimore, MD USA

  30. Dr. Alice L. Eckardt
    Lehigh University, Bethlehem, PA USA
    Institute for Jewish-Christian Understanding of Muhlenberg College, Allentown, PA USA

  31. The Rev. Carl N. Edwards
    Priest-in-Charge, St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Louisburg, NC USA

  32. David P. Efroymson, Ph.D. (Roman Catholic)
    Professor Emeritus, Religion, La Salle University, Philadelphia, PA USA

  33. Don Engel
    Pastor (retired), Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada

  34. Jordan Irwin Fabish (Mrs. David Fabish)
    Long Beach, CA USA

  35. Dr. Norman J. Faramelli
    Lecturer in Social Ethics, Boston University School of Theology, Boston, MA USA

  36. The Rev. Dr. Jon R. Fogleman

  37. Rev. Dr. Marie M. Fortune
    Founder/Senior Analyst, FaithTrust Institute, Seattle, WA USA
    Editor, Journal of Religion and Abuse

  38. Arthur Freeman
    Former Professor of New Testament, Moravian Theological Seminary, Bethlehem, PA USA
    Pastor, Central Moravian Church, Bethlehem, PA USA

  39. Rev. Michael A. Frost
    Pastor, Zion's Stone Church of West Penn Twp, ELCA & UCC, Schuylkill County, PA USA

  40. Mary Gaebler
    Visiting Professor of Theology and Ethics, Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, MN, USA

  41. Mary Gallagher
    Pastoral Associate, Sacred Heart Church, Middleboro, MA USA

  42. Prof. Deirdre Good
    General Theological Seminary, New York, NY USA

  43. Beth Goldsworthy
    Student of Religion and History, Muhlenberg College, Emmaus, PA

  44. Dr. Thomas Groome
    Director, Institute for Religious Education & Pastoral Ministry, Boston College, Chestnut Hill, MA USA

  45. Jan Grosfeld
    Professor, Warsaw, Poland

  46. Gunnar Haaland
    Ordained minister in the Church of Norway
    Assistant Professor of Biblical studies, The Norwegian Lutheran School of Theology, Oslo, Norway

  47. The Rev. Michael Hackbusch
    St. Paul's Evangelical Lutheran Church (ELCIC), (Bridgeport) Kitchener, ON Canada

  48. Gary L. Harke
    Executive Director, Pennsylvania Council of Churches, Harrisburg, PA USA

  49. Patricia C. Harris
    Minister of Christian Education, The First Church, United Church of Christ, Nashua, NH USA

  50. John Hart
    Professor of Christian Ethics, Boston University School of Theology, Boston, MA

  51. Ray L. Hart
    Dean and Professor of Theology and Philosophy of Religion, Boston University School of Theology, Boston, MA USA

  52. Rev. Tim Hegedus, Ph.D.
    Associate Professor of New Testament Theology, Waterloo Lutheran Seminary, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada

  53. The Rev. Kayko D Hesslein
    Emmanuel Lutheran Church (ELCIC Eastern Synod), Toronto, ON Canada

  54. Mary E. Hines
    Emmanuel College, Boston, MA USA

  55. Paul A. Holloway
    Professor of Religion, Samford University, Birmingham, AL USA

  56. Jean L. Holm
    Retired lecturer in Religious Studies; former Christian Co-President, Auckland CCJ; Editor of Massah, the journal of the NZCCJ; Auckland, NZ

  57. Charles R. Huggins
    Retired Pastor; Interim Pastor; Part Time Faculty Community College, ELCA, Sanford NC USA

  58. The Rev. Earl Janssen
    Senior Pastor, Our Shepherd Lutheran Church, ELCA, Severna Park, MD USA

  59. The Rev. Dr. Darrell Jodock
    Drell and Adeline Bernhardson Distinguished Professor of Religion, Gustavus Adolphus Collge, St. Peter, MN USA

  60. Mary Beth Kallen
    Learning Specialist, Academic Support Services, Muhlenberg College, Allentown, PA USA

  61. Sharon Marie (Grazioso) Katz
    Waltham, MA USA

  62. Susan J. Kay
    Director of Religious Education for Catechetical Leadership, Archdiocese of Boston, Brighton, MA USA

  63. Christopher V. Kimball
    West Redding, CT

  64. Professor Karen L. King
    Harvard Divinity School, Cambridge, MA USA

  65. Carol Schersten LaHurd (ELCA)
    Iona College, New Rochelle, NY USA

  66. George M. Landes
    Professor Emeritus, Union Theological Seminary (NY), Schnecksville, PA USA

  67. The Rev. Gary Langensiepen
    Pastor, St. John's Windish Lutheran Church (ELCA), Bethlehem, PA USA

  68. Sr. Ruth Lautt, O.P., Esq.
    Sisters of St. Dominic, Amitvyille NY USA
    Vollmer & Tanck, LLP, Jericho, NY USA

  69. Rev. David Lefsrud
    Pastor, Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, Victoria, British Columbia

  70. Doug LeMesurier
    Congregational Council, Augsbug Lutheran Church, Brampton, Onatrio Canada

  71. The Rev. Jonathan Linman, Ph.D.
    Ordained Lutheran Minister (ELCA), Associate Professor of Ascetical Theology, General Theological Seminary, New York, NY USA

  72. The Rev. Michael McGarry, CSP
    Tantur Ecumenical Institute, Jerusalem, Israel

  73. Bruce D. MacLaughlin
    Pastor,Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, , Easton, PA USA

  74. Dr. Earl E. Matson
    Estes Park, CO USA

  75. John W. Matthews
    Senior Pastor, Grace Lutheran Church, Apple Valley, MN USA
    Vice-president, International Bonhoeffer Society, English Language Section
    Chair, Region III ELCA Task Force on Jewish-Christian Relations

  76. Esther M. Menn
    Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, Chicago, IL USA

  77. W.F.Metzger
    Reverend, Protestant Church in The Netherlands, Amsterdam, The Netherlands

  78. John J. Michalczyk
    Co-Director, Film Studies, Fine Arts Department, Boston College, Chestnut Hill, MA USA

  79. Peter Mikelic
    Reverend Dr., Epiphany Lutheran Church, Toronto, ON

  80. Catherine M. Mooney, Ph.D.
    Associate Professor of Church History, Weston Jesuit School of Theology, Cambridge, MA USA

  81. Diane L. Moore, Ph.D.
    Faculty of Divinity; Director, Program in Religion and Secondary Education, Harvard Divinity School, Cambridge, MA USA

  82. Jerry Mraz
    Reverend, ELCA, Northampton, PA USA

  83. Olav Myklebust
    Associate Professor in Biblical Theology, Oslo, Norway

  84. Carmen Marie Nanko
    Catholic Theological Union, Chicago, IL, USA

  85. National Catholic Center for Holocaust Education, Seton Hill University, Greensburg, PA USA
    Lois Sculco, S.C. and Gemma del Duca, S.C., Directors

  86. Laura Nasrallah
    Assistant Professor, Harvard Divinity School, Cambridge MA USA

  87. The Rev. Glen Nelson
    Pastor (retired) of the Evangelical Lutheran Church In Canada, Toronto, ON Canada

  88. Robert Cummings Neville
    Dean of Marsh Chapel and Professor of Theology, Religion, and Philosophy, Boston University, Boston, Massachusetts

  89. Charlie & Peggy Obrecht
    Baltimore, MD
  90. Thomas G. O'Brien III
    Bethesda-by-the-Sea Episcopal Church, Palm Beach, FL USA

  91. Theresa O'Keefe
    Ph.D. Candidate, Boston College, Pittsfield MA USA

  92. Dr. Bohdan W.Oppenheim
    Professor of Mechanical Engineering, Loyiola Marymount University, Los Angeles, CA USA

  93. Jon Pahl, Ph.D.
    Associate Professor of Church History, The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, Philadelphia, PA USA

  94. Jim Palmquist
    National Council member, Affirmation (United Methodist GLBT caucus), Macungie, PA USA

  95. Jeanette Parmigiani
    Ellicott City, MD USA

  96. The Rev. Dr. John Pawlikowski, OSM
    Director, The Bernardin Center for Catholic-Jewish Studies, Catholic Theological Union, Chicago, IL USA

  97. Dr. Peter C. Phan
    The Ignacio Ellacuria Professor of Catholic Social Thought, Department of Theology, Georgetown University, Washington, DC USA

  98. Rev. Friedhelm Pieper
    Pastor, Christuskirche, Bad Nauheim, Germany

  99. Rev. Dr. Shanta Premawardhana
    Associate General Secretary for Interfaith Relations, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA, New York, NY USA

  100. Elena G. Procario-Foley, Ph.D.
    Br. John G. Driscoll Professor of Jewish-Catholic Studies, Iona College, New Rochelle, NY USA

  101. The Rev. Wolfgang Raupach-Rudnick
    European Lutheran Commission on the Church and the Jewish People, Hannover, Germany

  102. Harold Remus, Ph.D
    Professor Emeritus, Department of Religion and Culture, Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, ON Canada

  103. The Rev. Dr. Thomas P. Reynolds, SSC
    Institute of Pastoral Studies, Loyola University, Chicago, IL USA

  104. The Rev. Dr. Nancy D. Richardson
    Senior Lecturer, Harvard Divinity School, Cambridge, MA USA

  105. The Rev. Charles W. Richter (ELCA)
    West Bloomfield, MI USA

  106. Gabriel Jay Rochelle, Ph.D.
    Allentown, PA USA

  107. Prof. Dr. Ursula Rudnick
    Institut of Evangelical Theology, RWTH Aachen, Germany

  108. Jean-Pierre Ruiz
    St. John's University, New York, NY USA

  109. James A. Sanders
    Founder and President Emeritus, Ancient Biblical Manuscript Center, Claremont, CA USA

  110. Karen L. Schierman
    Associate Director, Jay Phillips Center for Jewish-Christian Learning, University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, MN USA

  111. Brooks Schramm
    Associate Professor of Biblical Studies, Lutheran Theological Seminary, Gettysburg, PA USA

  112. Dr. Franklin Sherman
    Managing Editor, , Allentown, PA USA

  113. Dr Ola Sigurdson
    Ass. Prof., Department of Religious Studies, Gothenburg University, Göteborg, Sweden

  114. The Rev. Sue Singer
    Doctoral Student, Boston College, Chestnut Hill, MA USA

  115. Vincent M. Smiles
    Associate Professor, Theology Department, College of St. Benedict & St. John's University, St. Joseph, MN USA

  116. Sister Patricia Smith, RSM
    Vice-President, Sisters of Mercy, Baltimore Regional Community, Baltimore, MD USA

  117. Betsy Sowers
    Adjunct Associate Director, Massachusetts Council of Churches, Boston, MA USA

  118. Rev. Kevin P. Spicer, C.S.C., Ph.D.
    Stonehill College, Easton, MA USA

  119. Bishop Krister Stendahl
    Harvard Divinity School, Cambridge, MA USA

  120. Bryan Stone
    Professor, Boston University School of Theology, Boston, MA USA

  121. Bishop David R. Strobel
    Northeastern Pennsylvania (ELCA) Wescosville, PA USA

  122. Matthew Connor Sullivan
    Apex, NC USA

  123. Dr. Jesper Svartvik
    Lund University, Sweden

  124. Hal Taussig
    Visiting Professor of New Testament, Union Theological Seminary, New York, NY USA

  125. The Rev. Lee Ann Tolzmann
    Rector, The Episcopal Church of the Messiah, Baltimore, MD USA

  126. John Townsend
    Visiting Lecturer, Jewish Studies, Harvard Divinity School, Cambridge, MA USA

  127. The Rev. Arthur W. Turfa
    Chaplain, United States Army, ELCA, Wuerzburg, Germany

  128. The Reverend Janice L. Trammell-Savin
    Presbyterian Church (USA), Baltimore, MD USA

  129. Dr. Joseph Tyson
    Professor emeritus of Religious Studies, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, TX USA

  130. Suzanne Gibson Vance, M.Div.
    Office of the Dean, Wesley Theological Seminary, Washington, DC USA

  131. Louise Barnes Vera
    Director, Office for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations, Archdiocese of Cincinnati, Cincinnati, OH USA

  132. Misael Noel B. Vera IV
    Film Critic, Businessworld, Cinemaya Magazine, Manila, Philippines

  133. Bobby Waddail
    Baptist Campus Minister, Towson University & Univ. of Maryland, Baltimore County, Baltimore, MD USA

  134. James C. Walters
    Professor, Boston University School of Theology, Boston, MA USA

  135. Ralph Webb
    Austin, TX USA

  136. Kirk Wegter-McNelly
    Assistant Professor of Theology, Boston University School of Theology, Boston, MA USA

  137. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson
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  138. The Rev. Harold S. Weiss
    Bishop (1983-1996), Northeastern Pennsylvania Synod (ELCA), Allentown, PA USA

  139. The Rev. Romuald Jakub Weksler-Waszkinel
    Catholic University of Lublin, Poland

  140. Wesley J. Wildman
    Associate Professor of Theology and Ethics, Boston University, Boston, MA USA

  141. Rev.Wilson & Mrs. Touhsaent
    Naples, Florida

  142. Dietmar W. Winkler
    Visiting Professor of Patristics and Ecumenical Theology, Boston University, Boston, MA USA

  143. Randall C. Zachman
    Associate Professor of Reformation Studies, Department of Theology, University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, IN USA