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Gibson's Blood Libel

Gibson's Blood Libel

When you retell a story in which the role of the Jews is central and give it the most offensive, pre-Vatican II treatment possible, you can hardly claim, "I didn't mean it."


Every people has its story. Every people has the right to its story. And every people has a responsibility for its story.

Muslims have their story: God's revelation to the final prophet. Jews have their story: the covenant between man and God at Sinai.

Christians have their story too: the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. Why is this story different from other stories? Because it is not a family affair of coreligionists. If it were, few people outside the circle of believers would be concerned about it. This particular story involves other people. With the notable exception of a few Romans, these people are Jews. And in the story, they come off rather badly.

Because of that peculiarity, the crucifixion is not just a story; it is a story with its own story -- a history of centuries of relentless, and at times savage, persecution of Jews in Christian lands. This history is what moved Vatican II, in a noble act of theological reflection, to decree in 1965 that the Passion of Christ should henceforth be understood with great care so as to unteach the lesson that had been taught for almost two millennia: that the Jews were Christ killers.

Vatican II did not question the Gospels. It did not disavow its own central story. It took responsibility for it, and for the baleful history it had spawned. Recognizing that all words, even God's words, are necessarily subject to human interpretation, it ordered an understanding of those words that was most conducive to recognizing the humanity and innocence of the Jewish people.

The Vatican did that for good reason. The blood libel that this story affixed upon the Jewish people had led to countless Christian massacres of Jews and prepared Europe for the ultimate massacre -- 6 million Jews systematically murdered in six years -- in the heart, alas, of a Christian continent. It is no accident Vatican II occurred just two decades after the Holocaust, indeed in its shadow.

Which is what makes Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" such a singular act of interreligious aggression. He openly rejects the Vatican II teaching and, using every possible technique of cinematic exaggeration, gives us the pre-Vatican II story of the villainous Jews.

His Leni Riefenstahl defense -- I had other intentions -- does not wash. Of course he had other intentions: evangelical, devotional, commercial. When you retell a story in which the role of the Jews is central, and take care to give it the most invidious, pre-Vatican II treatment possible, you can hardly claim, "I didn't mean it."

His other defense is that he is just telling the Gospel story. Nonsense.

His other defense is that he is just telling the Gospel story. Nonsense. There is no single Gospel story of the Passion; there are subtle differences among the four accounts. Moreover, every text lends itself to interpretation. There have been dozens of cinematic renditions of this story, from Griffith to Pasolini to Zeffirelli. Gibson contradicts his own literalist defense when he speaks of his right to present his artistic vision. Artistic vision means personal interpretation.

And Gibson's personal interpretation is spectacularly vicious. Three of the Gospels have but a one-line reference to Jesus's scourging. The fourth has no reference at all. In Gibson's movie this becomes 10 minutes of the most unremitting sadism in the history of film. Why 10? Why not five? Why not two? Why not zero, as in Luke? Gibson chose 10.

In none of the Gospels does the high priest Caiaphas stand there with his cruel, impassive fellow priests witnessing the scourging. In Gibson's movie they do. When it comes to the Jews, Gibson deviates from the Gospels -- glorying in his artistic vision -- time and again. He bends, he stretches, he makes stuff up. And these deviations point overwhelmingly in a single direction -- to the villainy and culpability of the Jews.

The most subtle, and most revolting, of these has to my knowledge not been commented upon. In Gibson's movie, Satan appears four times. Not one of these appearances occurs in the four Gospels. They are pure invention. Twice, this sinister, hooded, androgynous embodiment of evil is found . . . where? Moving among the crowd of Jews. Gibson's camera follows close up, documentary style, as Satan glides among them, his face popping up among theirs -- merging with, indeed, defining the murderous Jewish crowd. After all, a perfect match: Satan's own people.

Perhaps this should not be surprising, coming from a filmmaker whose public pronouncements on the Holocaust are as chillingly ambiguous and carefully calibrated as that of any sophisticated Holocaust denier. Not surprising from a man who says: "I don't want to lynch any Jews. I mean, it's like it's not what I'm about. I love them. I pray for them."

Spare us such love.

For more on "The Passion" see:

Why Jews Don't Believe in Jesus"

Jews and Christians after The Passion

The Passion: The Movie and the Aftermath

Mel Gibson and the Jews

The Passion: A Historical Perspective"


March 6, 2004

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The opinions expressed in the comment section are the personal views of the commenters. Comments are moderated, so please keep it civil.

Visitor Comments: 17

(17) Leonard Jablon, August 3, 2006 12:00 AM

Give us Gibson's E-mail address-so we can chastise him

Is there an e-mail address where we can personally tell this anti-semite how we feel? Please contact me with one, because I have not been able to find one, even at his ICON website.Sincerely,Len Jablon

(16) Anonymous, June 21, 2006 12:00 AM

Mel Gibson is gone for me

I will not see a movie of his without recalling what a fool he is about Jews and the Holcaust.
And his bloodlust is appalling now.

(15) Stephanie, March 27, 2004 12:00 AM


I'm curious to know what the ultimate effect, on the people of our world, will be...

There is so much hate and violence now...

(14) Natalie Wood, March 26, 2004 12:00 AM

Gibson's Film

I saw the film here in Greater Manchester, England with a scholarly friend, two nights ago, a little before its general release in Britain. He is a lay-person but like many rabbis across the Orthodox-Progressive divide,he condemned its host of (ocasionally funny)inaccuracies and although I'm no scholar myself, we both felt it could be nothing else but antisemitic as it is based on the Christian gospels which positively ooze antisemitism in patches.

As a piece of film, I'm bound to say it does nothing but serve what I allege to be Gibson's almost complacently arrogant lust for blood as evinced in many of his other works. In a short space, I'm bound to conclude sardonically: Is this what he thinks women want: a nice juicy bit of rape and pillage?

I allege that Gibson may be a very violent, sado-masochistic individual who channels his poisonous "passions" through what is laughingly called his "art".

(13) Anonymous, March 23, 2004 12:00 AM

passion--how emotional

I agree with this article but here comes the but. I have the same reaction to some of the Passion claims as I do to some of the Palestinian claims, eek, they're making us look bad. And like the Palestinian issue, Jewish responses to the Passion that are based on "facts" are not going to be persuasive in changing the tide of emotion that supports both issues. We should not engage in the Palestinian argument by citing facts, they have their own "facts," and the same applies to Gibson. The Palestinians have cleverly stuck to one answer for all horrors, we are occupied, we will do whatever until we are not occupied, the simplicity and consistency of this response, aped by large portions of their community has overcome accuracy and become the bumper sticker shorthand to describe the issue, even by some Jews. The same with Gibson, we should not be addressing the "facts", we should come up with the core emotional objection to this movie which is its portrayal of Jews as stereotyped ugly, bad teethed, money hungry people, a slap in the face like portraying any other stereotype of an ethnicity. By handling this movie about the Christian past according to Gibson, we can learn a thing or two about handling more current issues--the facts are besides the point for most people. It's hollywood Christianity, it's easy, it's grandiose and it's emotional. I think we can learn a thing or two about public portrayal of Jewish response--keep it simple, stop the public exploration of every possible range of Jewish response that simply makes our public appearance one of a people who never agree with one another.

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