A Passion for Censorship

By David Klinghoffer

Published August 01, 2003, issue of August 01, 2003.
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Mel Gibson’s forthcoming movie, “The Passion,” will dramatize the death of Jesus, portraying certain Jews of his day as morally culpable. It is already being denounced as antisemitic. From the anti-defamation groups, you expect this — scaring us is how they raise money. But when a painstakingly careful scholar such as Paula Fredriksen promises that Jews will suffer real dangers as a result of this film’s release, now that’s serious.

In an August 4 New Republic article, Fredriksen gives it not as speculation but as fact that when the film appears with translated subtitles in countries like Poland, Spain, France and Russia, savagery will erupt. “When violence breaks out, Mel Gibson will have a much higher authority than professors and bishops to answer to.”

When violence breaks out!

Fredriksen’s book “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” is a highly compelling, beautifully written historical reconstruction of the tensions and forces in first-century Palestine that brought about the crucifixion. She pins Jesus’ death on the Romans, but concedes some responsibility on the part of Jewish priestly authorities.

Gibson apparently depicts the Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate, as agreeing to the execution only under Jewish pressure. I say “apparently” because while Fredriksen has reviewed a draft of the script, as part of a scholarly ecumenical group giving their unsolicited critique to the filmmakers, she has not seen “The Passion.” But notwithstanding Gibson’s dubious claim to have hewed closely to the historical record, such accuracy is not by itself of urgent interest. Rather, what we are confronted with is an alleged threat to Jewish safety.

There are two points that need to be made.

First, even if Gibson’s portrait bears no relationship whatsoever to history, it seems to stick pretty closely to the Gospels’ general approach. Thus, any antisemitic Christians out there are already well versed in the notion that the Jews of his time killed Jesus. Gibson may be dramatizing their beliefs in a highly effective way — or he may not — but he’s certainly not telling them anything they don’t already think they know.

Yes, as Frederiksen points out, Gibson has drawn on the peculiar visions of an 18th-century nun, Anne Catherine Emmerich, to round out the Gospels’ picture of the event. Some of the nun’s narrative details are highly inflammatory, such as an image of the Jews building the cross in the courtyard of the Temple itself, a detail not found in the New Testament or, needless to say, remotely plausible as history. Gibson may yet excise this scene.

But even if he doesn’t, the Gospels themselves are no less inflammatory. In these narratives, Jesus spends much of his brief ministry fighting with Pharisees, representatives of rabbinic Judaism. He debates them on Jewish law, bringing to bear a particular beef against the Oral Torah. For this, the Jews hate him and seek to kill him.

In John’s gospel, they repeatedly try to stone him — in the Temple (8:59, 10:31)! They cry, “Crucify him, crucify him!” (19:6) In Matthew’s gospel, the Jewish mob howls, “His blood be on us and on our children!”

It’s hard to believe that Gibson’s movie could be as searing as the Gospels. These words are still read by Christians of all descriptions. If they are nowhere near rioting against Jews now, I don’t suppose they are going to get suddenly whipped up to do so. Fredriksen cites some e-mails she has received from Christians who don’t like Jews. But if any religious group is genuinely out to do us harm, it’s not Christians — as the example of France, with its Muslim mobs, illustrates.

But the second reason we Jews need to learn some deep-breathing and other relaxation techniques is the one that always gets lost when others less meticulous than Fredriksen publicly humiliate a Christian for espousing his beliefs. If we are empowered to edit their doctrine, then why are they not empowered to edit ours?

In the past, Christians felt justified in telling Jews what we were entitled to write and read if it touched upon their savior. The Talmud was censored with their denunciations, and worse, in mind.

There seems little danger “The Passion” will incite violence. However, if it were to arouse Christians to demand that Jews similarly submit our faith for their approval — well, then, the attempt to cow Mel Gibson will have been most helpful to would-be Christian censors in making their case.

If Gibson someday says he would like to have a look at the Talmud with a view to fixing it up with some additional corrections, we should let Paula Fredriksen have a go at explaining to him why this would be inappropriate.

David Klinghoffer is the author of “The Discovery of God: Abraham and the Birth of Monotheism” (Doubleday).

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