The Real Jesus
How a Jewish reformer lost his Jewish identity
The audience gathering for Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ last week had few apprehensions about the film they were about to see. Most belonged to a large evangelical church. And even before the lights were dimmed, many who had waited eagerly for the showing in the Arlington, Va., theater said they were expecting an "accurate" and "truthful" version of the Passion story. Many also admitted to being puzzled and even skeptical about the allegations of anti-Semitism that had been swirling around the film for months.
The lobby chatter afterward suggested that the film lived up to their expectations. "I could see it 10 more times," raved Sandra Correa, a mortgage banker, as she left the theater. She didn't find it anti-Semitic at all, and even the sometimes brutally graphic violence seemed justified to her. "It's hardly more graphic than the junk many adults allow their kids to see on TV. And this violence," she said, "has a purpose."
As months of carefully stoked controversy have made clear, not all viewers give the movie such an unqualified thumbs up. Prominent Jewish leaders, while not accusing Gibson or his film of being deliberately anti-Semitic, feel that it will fuel or reinforce the anti-Jewish sentiments that appear to be on the rise around the world. And Jews are not the only ones who think Gibson's portrayal of the events leading up to and including Christ's Crucifixion is an exploitative and sensationalistic distortion of the story. "It is a pornographic celebration of suffering," says James Carroll, a former Catholic priest, a novelist, and the author of Constantine's Sword: The Church and the Jews.
At the very least, the film raises big questions--even for faithful Christians-- about how people are to read, interpret, and understand the Scriptures on which Gibson has selectively based his film. Gibson himself came close to saying as much in his remarks to Diane Sawyer during an ABC interview two weeks ago. "You know, critics who have a problem with me don't really have a problem with me and this film. They have a problem with the four Gospels."
Interpretation. Gibson might more accurately have said that people--Christians, Jews, even the unchurched--have long had a problem with the way Jesus's life and teachings have been represented and interpreted. And not just in the four Gospels but in the rest of the New Testament, as well as in the subsequent teachings of the many sects of Christianity. For many devout Christians, in fact, struggling with those matters is a major part of their religious lives.
And little wonder, given that there are few other religions in which the claims of historical and theological truth are more confusingly mixed. Specifically, Christians have always had to deal with the fact that Jesus of Nazareth--the founder of their religion, their Messiah, and the second part of the trinitarian God--was himself not a Christian but, indisputably, a Jew. From the earliest years of the Christian movement, followers of Jesus have tended to handle this fact in various ways: Particularly in the first centuries after the Crucifixion, many Christians simply saw themselves as a branch of Judaism. As time went on, however, Christians tended to ignore or minimize Jesus's Jewishness, and many denied that he was Jewish at all.