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The Passion: A Historical Perspective

The Passion: A Historical Perspective

Mel Gibson's film fits comfortably within the history of Christian anti-Semitism.


Mel Gibson's film, "The Passion of Christ," has already stirred a lot of passions and heated debate. What's all the fuss about? After all, isn't it just a movie and we all know the ending already? Clearly there are much bigger issues at stake. By examining the implications of the story of the Passion, we can begin to understand why so many are justifiably apprehensive about the impact this movie might have.


The Passion remains the central event of Christianity and the role of the Jews in this story serves as the foundation of the early Christian view of Judaism and the Jews.

Here is a brief overview of the Jewish role in the Passion story as portrayed in the Gospel. The corrupt priesthood, feeling threatened by Jesus' popularity, conspire against him and have him arrested by the Romans. A Jewish mob further conspires to keep him imprisoned and ensure his torture and crucifixion. As he is led to his death, he is further abused by a Jewish mob.

The Jewish role in the story is overwhelmingly negative and culminates in the ultimate crime: deicide -- the murder of God. The Gospel is uniformly hostile toward the Jews, while making the Roman procurator, Pontius Pilate, almost completely guiltless. After being "forced" by the Jewish mob to sentence Jesus to death, Pilate symbolically washes his hands and pronounces: "I am not responsible for the death of this man! This is your doing. The whole crowd [the Jews] answered back: Let his blood be on our heads and the heads of our children." (Matthew 27:24-25)

Paul, the most important personality in the history of the church, makes a special point of blaming the Jews for the death of Jesus: "[the Jews] killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and persecuted us. How displeasing they are to God! How hostile they are to all men. They even tried to stop us from preaching to the Gentiles…This is the last full measure of the sins they have always committed. And now God's wrath has at last fallen upon them." (Thessalonians 2:15-16)

Probably the most damning of all accusations appears in John 8:44: "You are the children of your father, the Devil, and you want to follow your father's desires. From the very beginning he was a murderer."

The negative role that the Jew plays in the Passion served to create a solid foundation on which later Christian anti-Semitism would be built.


While latent hostility toward the Jews simmered for centuries, intense persecution and serious anti-Semitic violence started to take shape after the year 1000 -- at the end of the first millennium. It seems that people get nervous about big dates, especially Christians whose Book of Revelations predicts that at the end of a thousand years Satan will be released from prison and then he's going to wreak havoc on the world.

The approaching millennium led to a religious revival in the Christian world which historians call the "New Piety." The New Piety focused especially on the historicity of Jesus, which meant focusing on his death and of course the Jews' role in that conspiracy. So at this time, we see the notion of Jews as "Christ-killers" -- which first surfaced in the 4th century -- gaining tremendous popularity. But that alone does not explain the vehemence of Christian persecutions. To fully understand the issue, we have to look at other, more complex reasons.


To start off, the continued existence of the Jews was an irritant to many Christians. And this is why:

Christian theology accepts the Hebrew Bible. It does not quarrel with the statements therein that the Jews were a special people chosen by God to receive the Torah and bring holiness into the world. But Christian theology says that the Jews failed in their mission. This is why God sent His "son" (Jesus) to straighten things out, but the Jews refused to recognize him as "god" and worse, conspired to have him killed. As a result, God abandoned the Jews and replaced them with the "new chosen people" -- the Christians. (Hence, the Christian segment of the Bible is called the "New Testament" which is Greek for "New Covenant.")

By this line of reasoning however, there would no longer be any purpose for Jews in the world. They should disappear, as did so many mightier nations. But by the first millennium -- already 1,000 years after the death of Jesus -- the Jews were still all over the place. Christian theology had to come up with some sort of answer to this problem, and it did. The Jews must have been doomed to wander the earth by God as a "witness people" -- teste veritatis in Latin. The purpose of a "witness people" is to survive throughout history to bear witness at the end of days, when Jesus appears again for the so-called "Second Coming."

But the explanations of Christian theology could not remove the sore spot that the presence -- at times, strong and prosperous presence -- that the Jews represented. At the heart of the matter was the Christian view of Judaism as a direct competitor for the soul of humanity.

The hostility that the Christians felt toward the Jews can be seen readily from the writings of the early fathers of the Christian Church. (See: What Did They Think of the Jews? by Allan Gould, pp. 24-25.)


From John Chrysostom, the Patriarch of Constantinople, we get this:


"Jews are the most worthless of men- - they are lecherous, greedy, rapacious - they are perfidious murderers of Christians, they worship the devil, their religion is a sickness ... The Jews are the odious assassins of Christ and for killing god there is no expiation, no indulgence, no pardon. Christians may never cease vengeance. The Jews must live in servitude forever. It is incumbent on all Christians to hate the Jews."

From Gregory of Nyssa, we get more of the same:

"Slayers of the lord, murderers of the prophets, adversaries of god, haters of god, men who show contempt for the law, foes of grace, enemies of the father's faith, advocates of the devil, brood of vipers, slanderers, scoffers, men whose minds are in darkness, leaven of the Pharisees, assembly of demons, sinners, wicked men, stoners and haters of righteousness."


In some places, such calumny exploded in a wave of massive anti-Jewish violence and the murder of thousands of Jews in Europe and the Middle East during the first Crusade from 1096-1099. (Some 10,000 Jews of an estimated population of about 20,000-30,000 were murdered in 1096 as the first Crusade got under way.)

In other places, such calumny bred other forms of persecution.


It is next to impossible to explain the accusations that were hurled at the Jews during this time. Jews were persecuted not only for being "Christ-killers" but as "baby-killers."

The first such accusation -- better known as a "blood libel" -- was leveled in 1144 in Norwich, England. There, Jews were charged with kidnapping a Christian baby and draining the baby of blood. The charge became so popular it would sweep, in various forms, through Europe and then spread to other parts of the world.

Why did Jews need blood according to Christian opinion? What do you think is the correct answer?:


a. Jews suffered from hemorrhoids as a punishment for killing Jesus and drinking blood was the best cure for hemorrhoids at the time.
b. All Jewish men menstruate and need a monthly blood transfusion.
c. Jewish men, when they're circumcised, lose so much blood because of that surgical procedure that they need to drink Christian babies' blood.
d. It's the chief ingredient in matzah, and therefore prior to every Passover Jews would be requiring a large supply.
e. All of the above.


The correct answer is (e) -- all of the above. This is a very important lesson in anti-Semitism. You can say anything about the Jews and people will believe it.

It's ironic that Jews, who are prohibited by Jewish law of consuming any blood whatsoever (kosher meat is carefully washed and salted to remove all traces of blood), were precisely the people accused of drinking blood.

The blood libel makes even less sense when you consider that in the 13th century the Church adopted the doctrine of transubstantiation. This is a mystical idea which maintains that when the priest says mass over the wafer and wine, these objects mystically change into the body and blood of Jesus. Christians who consume the wafer and drink the wine are said to be mystically eating the flesh of Jesus and drinking his blood. It's ironic that the Christian world, while engaged in the ritual of "drinking the blood of Jesus" would accuse the Jews -- who are forbidden to drink blood -- of this totally fabricated hideous crime. But then the accusations got even wilder.

Starting in Switzerland and Germany in the 13th century, Jews were accused of kidnapping communion wafers from churches -- to torture it. Medieval documents tell stories describing how a Jew (usually called Abraham) would steal a wafer from a church, stick a knife in it, and blood would start pouring out. He would then cut it up into pieces and send it to different Jews who would continue to torture it.

This would be funny if not for a fact that thousands of Jews were slaughtered as a result of such stories. For example, the entire Jewish community of Berlitz, near Berlin in Germany, was burned alive based on the accusation of torturing a wafer.

Centuries of largely Church-sponsored Jew hatred had transformed Europe into a fertile ground for the mass murder of the Jews.

Other accusations were to follow: well poisoning, causing the Black Death and numerous other heinous acts, usually accomplished with the help of Satan. These accusations led to the dehumanization, brutalization, expulsion and murder of Jews throughout Europe.

It is important to note that in Medieval Europe Passion Plays, reenacting the final drama of the life of Jesus, would be regularly performed in the weeks leading up to Easter. These plays would usually inflame the audience and were often followed by accusations of Jewish ritual murder and violence against Jews. (Gibson has also timed the release of his movie to correspond with the beginning of Lent and the period leading up to Easter Sunday.)

The ultimate consequence of the deeply superstitious, irrational and violent anti-Semitism of Europe was the Holocaust. Hitler could not have carried out the Final Solution without the cooperation of the many Germans, nor without the collusion of much of Europe. Centuries of largely Church-sponsored Jew hatred had transformed Europe into a fertile ground for the mass murder of the Jews.

Possibly the scariest modern development is that the Arab world has now picked up on the worst, Medieval libels against the Jews. Accusations of blood libels, poisoning, and murder circulate daily throughout the Palestinian Authority's print and electronic media. In 2003 Syrian television aired a series based on the famous forgery, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which contained staged scenes portraying Jewish ritual murder.


Although it was usually too little too late, throughout history there were church officials and even a few popes who spoke out against anti-Semitism. The most significant turning point in the Church's relationship with the Jews happened in October 1965 with the publication of Vatican II-Declaration of the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religious. Vatican II states: "True, authorities of the Jews and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ (cf jn.19:6), still, what happened in His passion cannot be blamed upon all the Jews then living, without distinction, nor upon the Jews of today. Although the Church is the new people of God, the Jews should not be presented as repudiated or cursed by God as if such views followed from the Holy Scriptures." (Alexis P. Rubin, Editor, Scattered Among the Nations-Documents Affecting Jewish Hisitory 49-1975. Northvale, New Jersey: Jason Aronson, 1995. P.302).

Vatican II clearly represents a great leap forward in the Church's attempt to make amends for millennia of Christian hostility toward the Jews. The current pope, John Paul, has gone further than any other pope in history in his attempts to make amends and heal Catholic-Jewish relations. And there is no doubt that the Church has a far more positive and tolerant attitude toward the Jews. Gibson's graphic, modern Passion Play could well represent a huge step backward in the relationship between Jews and Christians, possibly undoing decades of progress.


Despite the good intentions expressed in Vatican II that "…the Jews should not be presented as repudiated or cursed by God as if such views followed from the holy Scriptures," the fact of the matter is that anyone looking objectively at the Christian Bible will see that it is loaded with anti-Jewish sentiment. Any attempt, therefore, to accurately portray the Passion story on film is likely to stir up anti-Jewish sentiment and help to re-ignite the age-old hatred that has caused so much Jewish suffering. The timing for the release of The Passion is particularly poor, given the current rise in anti-Semitism world-wide, especially in Europe.

For more on "The Passion" see:

Why Jews Don't Believe in Jesus

Gibson's Blood Libel

Jews and Christians after The Passion

The Passion: The Movie and the Aftermath

Mel Gibson and the Jews



Carroll, James, Constantine's Sword: The Church and the Jews - A History, Houghton Mifflin, 2002

Lewis, Bernard, Semites and Anti-Semites-An Inquiry into Conflict and Prejudice. New York, W.W. Norton & Company, 1999

Pagels, Elaine. The Gnostic Gospel. vNew York: Vintage Books,1989.

Prager, Dennis and Telushkin Joseph, Why The Jews-The Reason for Antisemitism. New York, Simon & Schuster, 1983

Trachtenberg, Joshua, The Devil and the Jews-Medieval Conceptions of the Jew and its relation to Modern Antisemitism. New York, Meridian Books, 1961

Rubin, Alexis P., Scattered Among the Nations-Documents Affecting Jewish History 49-1975. Northvale, New Jersey, jason Aronson Inc., 1995

Wistrich, Robert S., Anti-Semitism-The Longest Hatred. London, Thames Methuen, 1991.


I have received a lot of feedback from Christian readers regarding the topic of Medieval anti-Semitism. Most of the comments come from evangelical Christians who claim that those who persecuted Jews in the Middle Ages were not really true Christians and that I shouldn't lump all Chritians together.

Readers of this series should understand that this is a history series and as such, it reflects the historical realities of the past. One thousand years ago in Western Europe, there were no evangelicals. The Catholic Church reigned supreme. Superstitious, violent anti-Semitism was rampant and there were no Christian supporters of the Jewish people.

Today, thank God, the situation is very different. There are tens of millions of Christians who are good friends of the Jewish people and true supporters of Israel.

In no way is the series meant to reflect the modern realities of Jewish-Chrisitan interaction, nor is it meant as an attack against Israel's true friends and allies. My sincere apologies if it was understood to be otherwise.

Rabbi Ken Spiro

February 21, 2004

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Visitor Comments: 48

(48) Christian, March 3, 2010 1:15 PM

Gibson's words, not of any Christian Church

Just one single sentence: that movie, Gibson's and (even worst) Gibson's father NO WAY show their Christian or Catholic faith. Impossible to be their judge, but what they say and express is the opposite of any Christian faith both in official and non-official members of any Christian Church.

(47) megan, September 4, 2006 2:02 PM

it is appalling that gibson could bring on more anti-semitism like he has. ive read other articles in which it says that his belief came from his own fathers teachings. ive always questioned the belief in jesus, i was raised anglican but since i was never allowed to ask questions and told just to believe that the new testament was truth i could no longer live under those false pretenses anymore. i have always wondered how christians could use the old testament but deny that it came from jews. even as a child i knew that jews were more humble a people than anyother group. im glad that there has been some work from the vatican to help overcome the problems today, but its just not enough.

i saw the passion and was horrified, ive never believed that the jews then had that much a part in what had happened, sure they may have had strong beliefs that brought them to know that jesus was not the true moshiach. i mean he fell away from his own families beliefs and did not follow his own teachings. g-d tells us to marry and have children but why then would jesus not practice what he preached?
thank you for such a good article, there is enough anti-semitism in the world without the need to bring up old hatreds and prejudices. and mel gibson needs to learn how to see the world as it should be, filled with peace and understanding, not death and destruction.
why can so many not see that h-shem and all other g-dly names are not from the same g-d? he stands for the same things in each religion just in a different language, if only we could get past the language barrier put before us, we could learn that g-d feels that we are all his children, all unique but forever looking to the same skies and to the same g-d that made us all.

(46) Patrick Malloy, August 9, 2005 12:00 AM

As a Catholic, I recognize the truth of most of your
article. Without attempting here to specify what parts I disagree with, I would have hoped you would not have saved John Paul II's work to the end of the article. Also, I would have thought that a fair-minded and objective author would have expaned on John Paul's work in this area, e.g., first visit to a Jewish temple (in Rome), the deep conviction displayed by the Pope on his visit to the Wailing Wall.
Given my background, I was over-joyed and thankful to God for the efforts made to rectify what havoc Christians raised on the Jews for most of recorded history. I add my own personal apologies for the horrible wrongs of the past.

(45) Devorah, January 18, 2005 12:00 AM

my thoughts

This e mail is not for Rabbi Shapiro alone. This is for all that might come across this article and find the comments posted. I am the daughter of a fundamentalist Christian minister. Both my parents are children of ministers. I was raised to believe in Jesus and the whole story of the New Testament. As a small child I felt G-d's presence in my life. I learned the theology of the church growing up and accepted what I was being told because I loved, respected and trusted my dad. However, even as a child I had my own thoughts and questions. I found church to be a totally unsatisfying experience. In fact, I found church and theology of Christianity to be down right dark and frightening. I could not understand all the conflicting messages that I received and became quite depressed internally. My family did not know how I felt because it would have been heresy to speak of it. I lived a very lonely and sad existence.

Since my family was all about religion, it was virtually impossible to challenge. I was a bright and happy child when I was very young. A mixture of hell, fire and damnation from my father who was such a sensitive and loving person and the emotional instability of my mother who did not nurture us children, who in fact abused us verbally every day....set in motion the drama of my life..The part of me that I would say was sane was the part that clung to G-d and hope. I went through incredible painful experiences growing up. You could even say that I suffered from incredible mental/emotional states because I saw the conflicting and hypocritical message of my family and their Christianity. Of course when it came to others problems they were so empathetic. Years later, I see why. To deal with the other people's problems was to be able to deny that you have any your own. I was a victim of a family who went about being do gooders who could not have any understanding for their own children. We were to be seen and not heard. I hated my life. I did not want to die, but I did not know how I was going to find a way to live. I married at age 19 to get away from my family. I had a heart of love that was not reciprocated.

Pain seemed to be the only thing I received UNLESS I did exactly as I was expected. I married someone who fit the bill of more abuse because I did not have the understanding of my own life. It took a few years before we ended up moving away from family. Thank G-d we did. I started to really search and seek the truth for my life.

I offered a very simply prayer to G-d asking that I be led to where it was I was to be spiritually. It was a few years before I was aware of where that prayer was taking me but all things work for good to them that love the L-rd. One thing led to another and I found myself eventually in a synagogue.

I put my children into Jewish Day School and studied for conversion. My story is very detailed and there is not room for it here but I wanted to say all this to let anyone who should read this know that I found life in Judaism. I found the G-d that I knew existed. I found love and acceptance and healing. I have been to Israel three times and my children, G-d bless them, are citizens in the Land. I have wrestled with angels and I continue to learn. I have not viewed this movie as I do not think I could handle the violence. I was victimized by a violent family that don't even understand that they are violent. I found that Jews and Judaism are not perfect and there is much that we have to learn about ourselves. I know that there are Christians who love G-d who do not violate the spirit of their children but I found that the guilt and control of the Christian theology to be more than my sensitive soul could stand.

Those of you who are sincere, know that G-d has not rejected the apple of his eye. The prophets told that we would have a difficult time and that all these things would happen and then that G-d would restore us to our Land, G-D's Land, actually. I don't believe that G-d ever intended to leave anyone out. We were to be a family and the Jewish people were to be the first born of G-d in order to bring the goodness of G-d to this earth for all of us to share in.

Division between us as sibling rivalry has caused even the earth to suffer. I believe it is time to heal and to accept and to dialogue and sort it all out. Having lived as a Christian and a Jew, I feel I have a vantage point. It is my wish that we unite in our love of our creator and KING. This movie can cause division only if we allow it. We can take something that was meant to be negative and turn it around. I hope and pray that we are able to find ways to stop all the hate in this world and all the death and suffering that hate causes. To LIFE!!!!

(44) BethAnne, October 12, 2004 12:00 AM

great reading

Dear Rabbi Spiro,
I am sincerely enjoying your "Crash Course in Jewish History". When I was in college in 1983, I spent four months living on KIbbutz Ashdot Yacov Ichud just below the Kinnerit (sorry for the spelling, it's been a few years!) I have been fascinated by everything Jewish since I was a child going to church with my parents. I have the utmost respect for your culture and religion. My trip to Isreal was a dream come true for me. I would love to come back and bring my husband and children to see the country, that if I were Jewish, would probably live in.
I am probably one of the few people in the U.S. and maybe around the world who did not see the "Passion". I have never believed that the Jews killed Christ and as that is a 'core' belief for me, this movie,when I do get around to watching it, will not change it. I also just as stronly believe that the Jewish people are still God's chosen people and have not been abandoned by Him.
Keep up the excellent work of educating the world about past and present issues with anti-semitism.

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