That said, I applaud the film's self-consciously Catholic loyalties. Every account of the Passion must embellish in some direction; every meaningful retelling calls for transformation. This is just as true for experimental projects like Godspell, Jesus Christ Superstar, Last Temptation of Christ and Jesus of Montreal as it is for openly confessional ones like The Passion of the Christ or last fall's The Gospel of John. Translation entails interpretation, and interpretation cannot happen in a vacuum.
If we listen to the film's harshest critics, Passion is "dangerous" and "anti-Semitic," sure to "fuel hatred" against Jews worldwide. Disturbing charges, these. But will they stick? Is Gibson conspiring to undo decades of post-Holocaust, Jewish-Christian dialogue?
Let me propose, first of all, that some critics of Gibson's narrative would find Matthew's or John's equally troubling. Perhaps they are worried that a screen version of the crucifixion will pack more punch, and change more minds, in an a-literate, visual culture than would, say, a public recitation of one of the Gospels.
Truth be told, each Gospel depicts both Romans and Jews conspiring to eliminate the Galilean threat. Pilate has the last word, but he can ill afford to ignore the local religious lobby — the priestly power-brokers who have pronounced Jesus a blasphemous Messianic pretender. If the Jewish establishment was all but unanimous in its rejection of Jesus, Roman occupiers had their own reasons for wanting Jesus out of the way. Pilate could hardly tolerate unauthorized royal claimants, even naïve ones, running loose in his territory. The "cause" of Jesus' execution, as it turns out, was neither singular nor simple.
An even trickier question, however, is whether the Gospels themselves spin the story in a pro-Roman, anti-Jewish direction. Are the Gospels anti-Semitic? This is not the place to explore 1st century Jewish disputes about Jesus and how this "sibling rivalry" plays out on the pages of the New Testament. Suffice it to say that a handful of NT texts, especially in Matthew and John (e.g., Mt 21:43; 27:25; Jn 8:44; Rv 3:9), have been roundly criticized for seeming to vilify, or at least disqualify, Jesus' Jewish opponents. To the extent that Gibson's Passion projects this tension from the Bible onto the big screen, it is bound to stir up controversy. Consider the film an invitation to reflect on one of the more pressing theological questions of our time. The court of public opinion will, I predict, eventually acquit Gibson of all charges of anti-Semitism. And yet I'm left wondering whether Passion missed an opportunity to explore the complex relationship between Jesus and Judaism. Why was it that Jesus failed to gain much of a foothold among his own people? Why did some of them want him dead? Some of Jesus' opponents were no doubt threatened by his charisma, or fearful of slipping in the opinion polls, but surely others felt entitled to question his credentials, or to resist the dangerous tilt of his politics.
If the apostle Paul's initial hostility towards the Jesus movement sheds light on things (Gal 1:13; Acts 8:3), we should imagine many thoughtful Jews rejecting Jesus' claims, all the while confident of God's approval. Gibson's project would have been even more impressive, and built more bridges, it seems to me, had it acknowledged the monumental challenge Jesus posed to devout Jews in his day. Given the long, sad trajectory of Jewish-Christian misunderstanding, we can't afford to do otherwise.
Bruce N. Fisk is associate professor of New Testament at Westmont College. He is the author of Do You Not Remember? Scripture, Story and Exegesis in the Rewritten Bible of Pseudo-Philo and First Corinthians.