Fall 2003, Vol. 6, No. 3

Table of Contents
Fall 2003

Quick Links:
Articles in this issue

From the Editor:
Under Whatever

The Anglican Crackup

The View From Lagos

Special Supplement:
Religion and the 2004 Election

The Case of Chaplain Yee

Instructions From the Vatican

The Social Gospel Lays an Egg in Alabama

God and the EU Charter

Mel Gibson, the Scribes, and the Pharisees

Gibson and Traditionalist Catholicism

The Religion of Country



Mel Gibson, the Scribes and the Pharisees
by Amy-Jill Levine


Last January, Mel Gibson told Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly that “forces” were seeking to prevent his making a movie about Jesus’ Passion. If so, there was no sign of them in the news media, which up to that point had given the project minimal coverage and no criticism at all.

Gibson may have been indulging in the kind of fantasy that seems to possess his father, who, according to Christopher Noxon’s March 9 article in the New York Times Magazine, believes that the Second Vatican Council was a “Masonic plot backed by Jews.” Or maybe, as New York Times columnist Frank Rich suggested September 21, Gibson was “looking for a brawl,” the better to market his film. In any event, a casus belli was soon at hand.

In April, a group of scholars (including two priests, a nun, a practicing Catholic layman, a rabbi, and two Jewish women—one of them, me—who belong to Orthodox synagogues) convened by Eugene Fisher of the U. S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) sent Gibson an 18-page report on his screenplay for what is now being called The Passion of Christ. The report pointed out historical errors in the script and, as committee member Paula Fredriksen would later write in an extensive account of the affair in the July 28 New Republic, “since Gibson has so trumpeted his own Catholicism—its deviations from magisterial principles of biblical interpretation.”

For his part, Gibson consistently affirmed that he was presenting the Passion “just the way it happened. It’s like traveling back in time and watching the events unfold exactly as they occurred….We’ve done the research. I’m telling the story as the Bible tells it.” (NewsMax Wires, March 10)

How the screenplay had come to the offices of the USCCB was a bit mysterious, although Gibson knew we had it and expressed great interest in reading our report. After he saw the report, however, his production company threatened to sue the USCCB and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) for “stealing” the script.

“They were more or less saying that I have no right to interpret the Gospels myself because I don’t have a bunch of letters after my name,” Gibson told the London Observer September 28. “Just get an academic on board if you want to pervert something.” The evangelical movie critic Ted Baehr, writing for the conservative Internet news service May 19, asserted that Gibson had “consulted the Vatican about the movie…and travels frequently to Rome to confer on theological details.” Whom Gibson conferred with at the Vatican he did not say—nor, so far as I can tell, has Gibson ever publicly claimed to have done so.

Nor did Gibson himself make this claim. Then again, as committee member Mary Boys told the Albany Times Union September 19, Gibson “wouldn’t know a scholar if he ran into one.”

Gibson and his supporters in the media and elsewhere succeeded in framing the discussion as a culture war. In one corner were “egghead perverts” who “falsely represented themselves as a committee of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.” ( columnist Phil Brennan) We were, in due course, joined by: the “anti-Christian entertainment elite” (radio talk show host Laura Ingraham); “an elite media” seeking “to destroy” Mr. Gibson (Bill O’Reilly); the “forces of censorship” comparable to those of the Inquisition and Soviet Russia (conservative activist David Horowitz); and “modern secular Judaism” that “wants to blame the Holocaust on the Catholic Church.” (Gibson himself)

In the other corner stood two billion Christians, whom, as Ted Haggard, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, put it, “Jewish leaders…risk alienating” by protesting a movie about Jesus.

“The big winner in this is Mel Gibson,” Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights president William Donohue aptly if disingenuously noted on September 18. “The big loser is the ad hoc committee of scholars who condemned the movie without seeing it.” In fact, the committee never condemned the movie (since Gibson would not allow any member to see it), and kept its report confidential (it was Gibson who publicized it, along with his response).

Almost from the beginning of the public discussion, Gibson supporters directly and indirectly called into question the scholars’ bona fides. In April, Zenit, a Rome-based news agency dedicated to covering the Catholic church, gratuitously pointed out, “Amy-Jill Levine of Vanderbilt University describes herself as ‘a Yankee Jewish feminist…with a commitment to exposing and expunging anti-Jewish, sexist and heterosexist theologies.’” Zenit failed to mention that the Catholic church has committed itself to standing against sexism, anti-Judaism, and hatred of gay people.

Pro-Gibson commentary conscientiously refrained from listing the academic positions and titles of the scholars’ committee. (Where Zenit omitted my title—“The E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Professor of New Testament Studies”— it identified the Gibson supporter who translated the script into Aramaic and Greek as “Jesuit Father William J. Fulco, National Endowment for the Humanities professor of ancient Mediterranean studies.”) The Frankfurter Allegemeine Zeitung simply referred to me as a “militant theologian.”

When, on “The O’Reilly Factor” August 11, Rabbi Marc Gellman pointed out that Gibson would have done well to show his film to those who were not immediately predisposed to support it, his host replied, “I don’t send advance copies [of my books] to…people who hate me…who will poison the well against me.” The metaphor was telling, inasmuch as Christians commonly accused Jews of poisoning wells during the Middle Ages. On September 15, O’Reilly made a slip that was also telling, referring to committee member Fredriksen as “Fredrikstein.”

James Hirsen, another writer, on June 16, condemned committee member Phil Cunningham for stating that it is “impossible to do a film based strictly on the gospels…[because] they disagree with one another.” Cunningham, of course, was correct: The Last Supper is either a Passover Seder (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) or it is not (John); Jesus either carries his own cross (John) or he does not (Matthew, Mark, and Luke); there is no disciple at the cross (Mark) or there are several (John), etc. Each Gospel offers its own perspective. Hirsen concluded that “the devil” has “gotten into these people.”

In the New Statesman of September 22, Andrew Stephens wrote, “Christian academics are now divided on whether the Gospels should be seen as indisputable historical fact or merely symbolic guidelines to Jesus’ life.” The either/or formulation was erroneous: All but the most conservative scholars see the gospels as a combination of historical reporting and theological reflection.

This same mistaken dualism underlies the frequent but false report (e.g.,, September 15) that the scholars objected to “the fact that Gibson was basing his film on the Gospels, which they view as unreliable.” The bulk of our report concerned the script’s anti-Jewish material derived not from the New Testament but from the visions of a 19th-century German nun who also promoted the obscene “blood libel”—that Jews kill Christian children and use their blood to prepare matzo, the unleavened bread eaten during Passover.

Speaking on “the O’Reilly Factor” September 15, Peter Boyer (author of a lengthy New Yorker article on Gibson) asserted that the scholars “excuse themselves from the question of Jesus’ divinity…so any dramatization of Christ’s Passion that is based on the gospels is going to be objectionable for them on its face.” (On June 13, had described the scholars as “feverishly working on a rewrite of the New Testament.”)

In her New Republic article (“Mad Mel—The Gospel According to Gibson”), Paula Fredriksen described the script’s numerous nonbiblical, ahistorical scenes, from the construction of the cross in the Jerusalem Temple to the association of Jews with money, to the absence of “good” Jews. She also remarked on the potential of the movie to inflame anti-Jewish views, especially in parts of the globe where Jews are already hated.

In response, David Horowitz labeled her an “ignorant bigot,” and called the report not only an “effort to shut down his film before it opens” (which it wasn’t) but also “just another station of the cross.” Donohue also called Fredriksen a demagogue, while Phil Brennan accused her of arrogance, censorship, and hubris.

Nor were such comments restricted to the right-wing media. A July 30 editorial in Variety castigated Fredriksen’s article as “irresponsible” and asserted that she and her fellow committee members were “ideologues and pedants” as well as “bigots” out to stifle freedom of expression.

“One problem with the media frenzy regarding the interpretation of the Passion of Jesus in Mel Gibson’s forthcoming film,” Mary Boys told the Albany Times Union September 24, “is that so many in the media seem to lack basic knowledge of religion.” Even balanced accounts of the controversy sometimes got basic facts wrong; for example, People magazine asserted that a Pharisee “was forbidden to touch a corpse.”

Amidst this anti-intellectual (to call it nothing else) hoopla, the scholars committee was on occasion treated fairly, notably by the New York Times (in particular Laurie Goodstein’s August 2 article on the controversy).

Perhaps because Gibson’s movies, Braveheart and The Patriot, do not express great love for England, the English press was comparatively more attentive to the scholarly critique. On August 13, for example, the Manchester Guardian Weekly managed to quote Mary Boys and Paula Fredriksen accurately and extensively. On September 28, the Observer gave extensive play to committee member John Pawlikowski’s account of specific historical errors in the script.

From the April story in Zenit until the end of June, much of the criticism of the committee in the media focused equally on the Catholic and the Jewish scholars or actually concentrated on the Catholics. But after the ADL issued its first public criticism of Gibson’s project on June 24, the tide shifted. From then on, the opposition began to be seen principally as “Jewish groups” or simply “Jews.”

Conservative critics made a practice of citing “Orthodox Jews” who spoke of the film’s fidelity to the gospels. Orthodox Jews, however, don’t tend to be experts on the New Testament, and these happened to be familiar conservative ideologues like movie critic Michael Medved and radio talk-show host Rabbi Daniel Lapin.

In National Review Online, Lapin speculated that the lack of “Jewish organizational protest over the release of The Gospel of John” might have had something to do with the Jewish “ethnicity of the producers.” Then, after noting that the producers were Jewish, Lapin asked, “If Jews quote the Gospel it is art, but if Mel Gibson does the same, it is anti-Semitism?”

But there was a critical difference between the films: Gibson claimed historical accuracy while The Gospel of John, using only the words of the gospel, claimed to be nothing more than an enactment of…the Gospel of John. It’s also worth noting, though Medved and Lapin did not, that a number of biblical scholars served as consultants to the John film, just as they have to the last several Passion plays in Oberammergau.

Meanwhile, the role of the USCCB in convening the scholars committee tended to disappear. On August 8, CNBC’s Kelly O’Donnell introduced Mary Boys with the lead-in, “The Anti-Defamation League asked several biblical scholars to review the script.” The Washington Times put it more bluntly July 7: “Catholic scholars at the ADL.”

Eventually, the committee dropped out of the media accounts, leaving only the “Jews” as the force aligned against Gibson. Thus, on August 17, the Queensland, Australia Sunday Mail explained that Hollywood was reluctant to touch the project because “many of the most influential people in the film business have Jewish origins. From the outset, they have been seriously worried that the film paints an unsympathetic picture of the Jews.” A columnist in Melbourne’s Herald Sun described Gibson as having to bend to “the power of the Jewish lobby.” In fact, no specific “Hollywood Jew” was ever cited as saying anything negative about the film.

In his November 3 column for the Chicago Sun-Times, Robert Novak warned that the apparent failure of “a campaign by some Jewish leaders to radically edit the film, or, alternatively, prevent its exhibition” could lead to public protests when it opened. “The ADL carries a heavy burden in stirring religious strife about a piece of entertainment that, apart from its artistic value, is of deep religious significance for believing Christians,” wrote Novak, who had been given an opportunity to see a rough cut of the film.

Not only was The Passion not anti-Semitic, but according to Novak “complaints by liberal Bible scholars” that the film “is not faithful to Scripture are rejected by the Vatican.” Novak’s Vatican authority was Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos, who heads the Congregation for the Clergy. Significantly, Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity, subsequently called his colleague’s remarks “purely personal.”

The poor coverage of what we scholars did and why has to some extent been our own responsibility. Even after negative comments about the committee—and me, in particular—surfaced, I did not agree to speak with the media on the record, because I still believed that the report was a confidential document for Gibson alone.

Then there was the gap between the classroom lecture and the media sound bite. When Paula Fredriksen contends that “the true historical framing” of Gibson’s script is not early first century Judea but “post-medieval Roman Catholic Europe,” her comment cannot be expected to have much impact on readers who see no reason to presume that post-medieval views of Jesus’ death would be any different from the first century’s—especially if they believe the gospels to be eye-witness testimony, much less inerrant products of divine inspiration. 

“One of the problems is that people are going to see this film and are going to conclude that’s the way it is because they don’t know anything different,” Mary Boys told the Jewish Week of New York September 19. “We really have to find ways to educate them about interpreting scripture more thoughtfully.” Here is where greater collaboration between the academy and the media is needed, if only we would talk more with each other, and if only Mr. Gibson would deign to show us his film.



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