The premiere of The Passion of the Christ on Feb. 25, 2004 – Ash Wednesday – was accompanied by both dire warnings that the film would foment anti-Semitism and by sharp denunciations of those predictions as unfounded and even “anti-Christian.” The movie, financed and directed by actor Mel Gibson, a traditionalist Catholic, went on to take in more than $600 million at the box office worldwide, making it the third most successful film of 2004. But the movie remains a symbol of the many tensions and issues still burdening the relationship between Christians and Jews.
Did the film increase negative sentiment towards Jews? Or did it prompt healthy discussions on difficult topics? Is anti-Semitism in general increasing or decreasing? Is the state of Christian-Jewish relations better or worse? Looking past movies such as The Passion, what are the issues driving – or blocking – dialogue and fruitful interaction?
• Beliefnet.com’s coverage of The Passion of the Christ includes essays about anti-Semitism and Jewish-Christian relations from different points of view.
• Read this article about the furor over The Passion by Vanderbilt Divinity School professor Amy-Jill Levine in the fall 2003 issue of Religion in the News.
Why it matters
Anti-Semitism and Jewish-Christian dialogue are among the most important religious issues of the contemporary era. Beyond the furor over The Passion, Easter and Passover provide poignant reminders of the close but often tortuous connections between these two communities.
Moreover, in 2015 the Roman Catholic Church marks the 50th anniversary of the promulgation of Nostra Aetate, the historic Oct. 28, 1965, declaration of the Second Vatican Council on “The Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions.” The document’s most famous lines concerned Judaism, stating that the Catholic Church “decries hatred, persecutions, and displays of anti-Semitism directed against the Jews at any time and by anyone.” That document and other developments have helped transform Jewish-Christian relations in the post-Holocaust era, but leaders and experts in both communities say much work remains.
Scholars and religious leaders say that work is even more critical in this era of rising religious tensions around the world. The issues surrounding Jewish-Christian dialogue reflect larger themes: the rights of minority faiths in societies dominated by another religion, the rights of any religion – majority or not – to seek converts, the mix of faith and political agendas, and the foundational question of historical accuracy and theological truth. Much of Jewish-Christian dialogue concerns not just what is happening today, but what happened in the last century, and 2,000 years ago in the Holy Land.
Angles for reporters
To find jumping-off points for stories, reporters can check with local Jewish federations for interfaith programs they may be sponsoring, and with the interfaith officials of the Christian denominations in your area. Many Jewish groups hold “model seders” to educate their non-Jewish neighbors about Jewish traditions. Which religious leaders attend? Some churches have held their own model seders, without Jewish input, which can be a source of concern to Jewish groups. They can also find out which local churches regularly show The Passion and other films at Eastertime. If reporters live in an area that has no significant Jewish population, do local religious leaders still have interfaith education efforts?
The furor over The Passion was seen by many experts and leaders of interfaith dialogue as an unsettling reminder of how fragile the relationship between Christians and Jews remains, and how quickly the issue of anti-Semitism can emerge. A number of other flashpoints also come into play:
The Middle East
Regional conflicts, the fate of the dwindling Christian population in the Holy Land, and the Israeli-Palestinian question are all issues that can divide Christians and Jews.
A case in point was the uproar in October 2004 when a delegation from the Presbyterian Church (USA) met in southern Lebanon with leaders of Hezbollah, which the U.S. State Department lists as a terrorist group. The meeting itself was already controversial. Then one of the committee members told an Arab television network that “relations and conversations with Islamic leaders are a lot easier than dealings and dialogue with Jewish leaders.” Reports of the comments and the meeting drew headlines and protests from Jewish groups, and two PCUSA officials were fired.
That dust-up followed the July 2004 decision by the General Assembly of the PCUSA, by a 431-62 vote, to divest from companies that are invested in Israel. Subsequent reports that some provinces in the Anglican Communion, including the Episcopal Church, were considering divesting as a way to pressure Israel also caused an uproar.
Christians converting Jews
Concern over Christian denominations aggressively seeking to convert Jews has also moved beyond the issue of “Jews for Jesus” or controversial statements by Southern Baptist leaders. In 2003 the PCUSA approved $345,000 to fund a Messianic congregation in Philadelphia called Avodat Yisrael, which was aimed at drawing Jews to the Presbyterian Church. In 2004 the General Assembly declined to suspend its funding despite sharp criticism from many Jewish leaders.
Jewish relations with conservative evangelicals remain conflicted. Many Jewish leaders recognize the strong support by evangelicals for the state of Israel. At the same time, they are disturbed by statements by many evangelical Christian leaders about the validity of Jewish belief, and by popular apocalyptic visions such as those in the Left Behind series of novels and films that show unconverted Jews dying in a conflagration at the End Times.
Catholic relations with Judaism are also turbulent. Jewish concern over Vatican efforts to beatify the wartime pope, Pius XII, who many Jews feel did not do enough to stop the Holocaust, alternated with the deep reservoir of good will that the Jewish community had for Pope John Paul II. A Jan. 18, 2005, meeting between the pope and Jewish leaders was reportedly the largest ever, and a sign of good relations. In the process toward sainthood Pope Benedict XVI declared Pius XII Venerable in December 2009.
Biblical theological scholarship
The issues surrounding The Passion centered around historical accuracy and theological meaning. What was the role of the Jewish community in Jesus’ death? How did first-century Christians view the Jewish community? What does that mean about theological justifications for long-standing attitudes? Research has upended some old notions, reinforced others and ensured that debates will continue. But can they continue in a civil way?
Islamic anti-Semitism is an issue, although the U.S. State Department’s Report on Global Anti-Semitism, released in January 2005, sees this as largely a European phenomenon, along with the rise of neo-Nazis and skinhead movements. The Anti-Defamation League’s Anti-Semitism International page reported rising anti-semitism in European countries between 2009 and 2012.
Jew vs. Jew
Another aspect of the story is the debate within the Jewish community about how to react to anti-Semitism. A Jan. 29, 2005, New York Times op-ed called “Playing the Holocaust Card,” by Ami Eden, national editor of The Forward, critiques Jewish responses to Prince Harry’s wearing of a Nazi costume at a party. Eden’s comments and the reactions to them in subsequent letters to the editor give some insight into the debate.
Read a Jan. 28, 2005, Catholic News Service story about a threat by a Jewish group, the Coalition for Jewish Concerns, to sue the Vatican for access to its World War II-era archives.
Read the declaration “Dabru Emet: A Jewish Statement on Christians and Christianity” that was issued by more than 170 Jewish scholars in September 2000. It is considered a landmark document in Christian-Jewish relations.
An April 2004 Pew Research Poll conducted a month after the release of The Passion found that the belief that Jews were responsible for Christ’s death was increasing and was particularly strong among viewers of The Passion.
A survey taken two weeks after The Passion of the Christ’s premiere by the San Francisco-based Institute for Jewish & Community Research found that among those who saw the film or were familiar with it, 83 percent said it had no impact on the extent to which they feel contemporary Jews are to blame for Jesus’ death. Two percent said The Passion made them more likely to hold Jews responsible, and 9 percent said the film has made them less likely to hold today’s Jews responsible.
A 2004 ABC News poll conducted three weeks before the premiere of The Passion of the Christ found that fewer than one in 10 Americans say all Jews today are responsible for the death of Jesus.
A number of books, mainly collections of essays, were published in the years after the movie premiered. These are useful resources for experts of varied backgrounds and viewpoints.
• Pondering the Passion: What’s at Stake for Christians and Jews (Rowman & Littlefield, 2004) is a collection of 15 articles by various experts, Christian and Jewish, from around the country. The collection examines the history of depictions of the crucifixion and their impact on Christian-Jewish relations up through the Mel Gibson movie.
• Re-Viewing The Passion: Mel Gibson’s Film and Its Critics (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004) is a series of 13 essays edited S. Brent Plate that discuss the state of Christian-Jewish relations in light of the film.
• After ‘The Passion’ is Gone: American Religious Consequences (AltaMira, 2004), edited by the University of Judaism’s J. Shawn Landres and Michael Berenbaum, examines the controversies surrounding the film, placing it in the context of Christian-Jewish relations and interreligious dialogue in the United States. The University of Judaism merged with Brandeis-Bardin to become American Jewish University in 2007.
• Perspectives on The Passion of the Christ: Religious Thinkers and Writers Explore the Issues Raised by the Controversial Movie (Miramax Books, 2004) includes a number of contributions from theologians, journalists, academics and philosophers from varied views and backgrounds.
• In Jesus and Mel Gibson’s ‘The Passion of the Christ’: The Film, the Gospels and the Claims of History (Continuum, 2004), edited by Kathleen E. Corley and Robert L. Webb, 10 scholars give their take on Gibson’s Passion and its impact.
The International Council of Christians and Jews serves as the umbrella organization of 38 national Jewish-Christian dialogue organizations worldwide. The North American branch of the organization is the Council of Centers on Jewish-Christian Relations, which lists more than two dozen affiliated centers and institutes around the country with access to dozens of scholars and experts.
Philip A. Cunningham is a professor and director of the Institute for Jewish-Catholic Relations at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. Before that he was a theology professor at Boston College and executive director of the Center for Christian-Jewish Learning. The center is “devoted to the multifaceted development and implementation of new relationships between Christians and Jews that are based not merely on toleration but on full respect and mutual enrichment.” Cunningham is an expert on the Catholic Church’s dialogues with Judaism, especially during the reign of Pope John Paul II.
Rabbi A. James Rudin was the senior interreligious adviser for the American Jewish Committee and a longtime veteran of Catholic-Jewish dialogue. He met with Pope John Paul II many times and participated in high-level talks at the Vatican between Catholic and Jewish leaders. He has also consulted frequently with Christian churches and groups that want to present Passion plays and Easter dramas. Rudin is currently affiliated with Saint Leo University in Florida and works at the university’s Center for Catholic-Jewish Studies.
Harvey Cox is the Hollis Professor of Divinity Emeritus at Harvard Divinity School and a renowned author and commentator on religious issues. He has written many books on the future of religion and theology, including The Future of Faith and The Secular City: Secularization and Urbanization in Theological Perspective.
The Sister Rose Thering Endowment for Jewish Studies at Seton Hall University in New Jersey is a good source for scholars and veterans in Jewish-Christian dialogue from both communities
The Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies in Baltimore is an excellent resource for experts on Christian-Jewish relations.
The American Jewish Congress is a leading Jewish advocacy group dedicated to fighting anti-Semitism. The AJC has regional chapters around the country for local sources.
The Anti-Defamation League tracks discrimination based on religion. ADL has 30 regional offices. Check with local ADL officials for a breakdown on the number and type of anti-Semitic incidents in your area, and for leads on interfaith initiatives.
The National Conference for Community and Justice is an interfaith relations group with offices across the country.
William Donohue is president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, an organization that is akin to a Catholic counterpart to the Anti-Defamation League.
Donohue is an outspoken defender of Mel Gibson and The Passion and engaged in sharp debates with Jewish leaders over the film and charges of anti-Semitism.
In the Northeast
Rabbi Joseph Ehrenkranz is rabbi emeritus of Congregation Agudath Sholom in Stamford, Conn., and a co-founder of the Center for Christian-Jewish Understanding at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn. The center is a leading forum for dialogue and learning.
The Christian Scholars Group includes 20 Christian specialists in the Jewish and Christian relationship whose collective work is supported by the Center for Christian-Jewish Learning at Boston College. The group meets annually.
Phyllis Chesler of New York City is a prolific author and lecturer, an emeritus professor of psychology and a longtime human-rights activist. She is active in Jewish causes. She wrote The New Anti-Semitism: The Current Crisis and What We Must Do About It (Jossey-Bass, 2003). Contact through her website.
The Pave the Way Foundation is a New York-based organization dedicated to fostering interreligious understanding. The foundation’s president, Gary Krupp, organized a January 2005 meeting at the Vatican between 160 Jewish leaders and the pope.
The MOTNY challenges visitors to confront bigotry and racism, and to understand the Holocaust in both historic and contemporary contexts. Through interactive workshops, exhibits, and videos, individuals explore issues of prejudice, diversity, tolerance, and cooperation in the workplace, in schools and in the community. It is a project of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which fights anti-Semitism.
David Berger is a history professor at Brooklyn College who specializes in medieval Jewish history, Jewish-Christian relations, anti-Semitism, contemporary Orthodox Judaism, and the intellectual history of the Jews. He wrote a May 2004 essay in Commentary magazine titled “Jews, Christians and ‘The Passion.'”
Berger argues that the movie sharpened old divisions, created new ones and endangered decades of effort to build good will.
In the South
Abraham J. Peck is executive director of the Center for Catholic-Jewish Studies at St. Leo University in Florida. He is a veteran in the field of interrelations and civic affairs with deep roots in both the Catholic and Jewish communities.
Frank E. Eakin Jr. is a professor of Jewish and Christian Studies at the University of Richmond in Virginia. He specializes in the impact of religion on cultural expression and is the author of What Price Prejudice? Christian Anti-Semitism in America (Paulist Press, 1998).
Rabbi Marc Howard Wilson of Greenville, S.C., is founder of Jewish Chaplaincy of the Upstate. He is an essayist and writes occasionally on his blog.
Ben Witherington III is a professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky. A prolific author and an ordained minister, Witherington can talk about the historical tensions between Christians and Jews and current cultural manifestations of those tensions. He is the author of Jesus and Money: A Guide for Times of Financial Crisis, an examination, in the wake of the recession, of “what Jesus has to say (and doesn’t say) concerning wealth and poverty, money and spending, debt and sacrificial giving.”
Jim Sibley is director and co-founder of the Pasche Institute of Jewish Studies at Criswell College in Dallas. He served as National Coordinator of Jewish Ministry on the Interfaith Evangelism Team of the North American Mission Board for 10 years. Prior to that assignment, Jim and his wife, Kathy, served as missionaries of what is now the International Mission Board, in Israel, for almost 14 years. He has taught courses related to Judaism and Jewish Evangelism as a guest professor at Southern Baptist seminaries and Bible colleges across North America.
Amy-Jill Levine of Vanderbilt University’s Divinity School is a professor of New Testament studies and of Jewish studies and director of the Carpenter Program in Religion, Gender and Sexuality. She can comment on Christian-Jewish dynamics and representations of Jews by Christians throughout the centuries. She was co-editor of A Feminist Companion to Mariology. She is an expert on sexuality and the bible, religion and gender, Jewish-Christian relations and the historical Jesus.
She saw an early version of Mel Gibson’s script.
In the Midwest
The Rev. Stanley L. Davis Jr. is co-executive director of the Council of Religious Leaders of Metropolitan Chicago, as well as executive director emeritus of the Chicago and Northern Illinois Region of the National Conference for Community and Justice, now named the Chicago Center for Cultural Connections.
Rabbi Michael J. Cook teaches at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati and is author of the collection Images of Jesus in Medieval Art: Influence of the Middle Ages on Contemporary Passion Plays (The Center for Jewish-Christian Learning, 1995). He is an expert on Christian-Jewish relations. Cook prefers to correspond by email.
The Rev. John Pawlikowski is a professor of social ethics at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. He is a veteran of Christian-Jewish dialogue and author of many books and essays on the topic.
Pawlikowski was a vocal critic of The Passion.
In the West
Thomas Leininger is a professor of religious studies and head of the Catholic Studies Department at Regis University, a Jesuit school in Denver. He can comment on the use of Passion plays and their impact on Christian-Jewish relations.
Pamela M. Eisenbaum is an associate professor of Biblical studies and Christian origins at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver. She has written widely about anti-Semitism in its historical contexts.
Leonard Dinnerstein is emeritus professor of history at the University of Arizona at Tucson. He is the author of Anti-Semitism in America (Oxford University Press, 1995).
Stephen T. Davis is a professor of philosophy at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif. He contributed an essay titled “Crucifying Jesus: Antisemitism and the Passion Story” to the collection After ‘The Passion’ is Gone: American Religious Consequences (AltaMira, 2004). He is the editor of Encountering Evil: Live Options in Theodicy.
The San Francisco-based Institute for Jewish & Community Research did a survey after The Passion that indicated the film made viewers less likely to hold Jews responsible for the death of Jesus. In a news release, the Institute argued that the movie may have had a positive effect on Jewish-Christian dialogue by prompting discussions. Contact through the Institute’s website.
Donald A. Hagner is a professor of New Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., and an expert on Jewish-Christian relations and the history of the two communities.
Rabbi Marvin Hier is the dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, one of the foremost advocates for Jewish causes and opponents of anti-Semitism.
Hier was sharply critical of The Passion and church responses to the movie.