PARIS – It`s hard to imagine a movie provoking such contrasting reactions among Jews and Christians as Mel Gibson`s “The Passion of the Christ”, the story of the last 12 hours of Jesus Christ.
It sounds like they`re watching two different films — and, in a way, they are. As Gibson gives one pre-release showing after another to selected religious audiences, a “pro and contra” pattern is clearly emerging in their comments.
Gibson, whose film reflects his traditionalist Roman Catholic faith, predicted on Wednesday the controversy could grow once it is released on February 25, Ash Wednesday.
“I anticipate the worst is yet to come,” the Australian actor told 4,500 evangelical Christian pastors at a showing in Orlando, Florida. “I hope I`m wrong, I hope I`m wrong.”
Gibson made the film to show in gruesome detail how Jesus died to redeem mankind, a central tenet of Christian belief. But the Passion — from the Latin word for suffering — could also be seen as the story of how Jews plotted to kill the Saviour.
Jewish leaders have been warning for months that any film based on the Gospel accounts of Jesus`s life and death risked depicting Jews as Christ-killers and stirring up anti-Semitism.
“There are problematic portrayals of Jews in the movie,” Rabbi David Sandmel of Chicago said after attending another pre-release showing there on Wednesday.
“The role of the Jews…in the `trial` and execution of Jesus are exaggerated,” he told the Chicago Sun-Times.
The four Gospels all say the Sanhedrin — the Jewish religious leadership at the time — opposed this rebellious new preacher and urged the Roman occupying powers to execute him.
Jewish viewers will watch for further details given only in some Gospels, for example the scene Matthew describes where a Jewish crowd demands Christ`s crucifixion and says “May his blood be on us and on our children.”
Passages like that — often highlighted in the Passion Plays that flourished in the Middle Ages — were seeds for centuries of Christian anti-Semitism before the Holocaust, a horror that cannot be far from Jewish viewers` minds.
Contrast that with the enthusiastic reaction of believing Christians who see in Christ`s Passion the proof that God loved mankind so much that He offered his son to save it from sin.
To explain how deeply Christ`s suffering can move Christians who see the film, a high-ranking Biblical scholar compared their reaction to that of Americans who lived through the tragedy of the World Trade Centre attacks in New York in 2001.
“This has a deep emotional resonance for Christians, it`s like the emotion in 9/11,” said Father Donald Senior, president of the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago and a member of the Vatican`s Pontifical Biblical Commission.
Believing Christians react to the film “like the way people responded to the firemen and police going in and offering their lives trying to save people… there is a lot of violence, but also the nobility and beauty of that self-sacrifice,” he said.
Among Christians praising the film are Ted Haggard, head of the National Association of Evangelicals in the United States, and several Catholic cardinals. Pope John Paul was reported to have approved it, but Vatican officials later denied that.
The Catholic Church repudiated the anti-Semitic reading of the Gospels at the Second Vatican Council in 1965, stressing Christ`s death was part of his divine mission.
Despite this, “The Passion” is causing some tension in interfaith contacts and reactions to it are becoming “a litmus test” of Christian commitment to better relations with Jews, said Senior, a member of the Passionist order of priests.