Hollywood superstar Mel Gibson’s upcoming movie about the death of Jesus is anti-Semitic and could lead to increased hatred of Jews around the world, a team of prominent Catholic and Jewish scholars is warning.
In response, the Oscar-winning Gibson has threatened to sue the scholars.
An 18-page report sponsored by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Anti-Defamation League warned that the film, slated for release next year, could trigger increased anti-Semitism by reinvigorating the ancient Christian charge of deicide (that Jews were responsible for killing Jesus) which is believed to have caused the persecution and killing of Jews for two millennia.
"A film based on the present version of the script of ‘The Passion’ would promote anti-Semitic sentiments," according to the "Report of the Ad Hoc Scholars Group," a copy of which was obtained by The Jewish Week.
The group is comprised of nine prominent Catholic and Jewish scholars at major universities across the country who reviewed a copy of the script.
One leading Catholic theologian called the script "one of the more anti-Semitic documents most of us have seen in a long time."
The scholars’ report said that Gibson’s graphic portrayal of the crucifixion of Jesus is too brutal, and filled with historical and theological errors.
The report also accused Gibson of violating primary Roman Catholic Church doctrine about how to accurately present Jews in the story of Jesus’ final hours when he is persecuted and killed in an event Christians call the Passion.
The Vatican guidelines, adopted over the last 40 years, seek to modify traditional Passion plays: emotional dramas retelling the crucifixion story that have blamed the Jews as responsible for Jesus’ death. Over the centuries these plays prompted pogroms and riots against Jews.
The scholars made numerous recommendations to change scenes that portray Jews and the High Priest Caiphas as evil.
The report was sent to Gibson and his Icon Productions on May 2. In response, Gibson sent a letter to the Bishops Conference threatening to sue the Washington-based group and the scholars, sources confirmed.
Gibson in his letter accused the Bishops Conference, the Roman Catholic Church’s official body, of using a "stolen" script of "The Passion" as the basis for the report, sources said.
It was not clear how the Bishops Conference obtained the script or which version was reviewed by the nine scholars, five of whom are Catholic and four Jewish.
The film, directed by Gibson and shot last spring in Matera in southern Italy, is being edited in Hollywood. None of the scholars have seen it.
Nevertheless, they expressed grave concerns based on what they read.
"Viewers without extensive knowledge of Catholic teaching about interpreting the New Testament will surely leave the theatre with the overriding impression that the bloodthirsty, vengeful and money-hungry Jews simply had an implacable hatred of Jesus," said the confidential report, which has not been released publicly.
The scholars group was formed in March by interfaith officials at the Bishops Conference and ADL after Gibson revealed "The Passion" would be a graphic presentation and that Jews may be unhappy with his version.
The group’s formation was also a response to public assertions by Father William Fulco, an ancient languages expert at Loyola Marymount College in California, that the Gibson script complied with Roman Catholic law. Father Fulco translated the script into Aramaic, the daily language of Jews 2,000 years ago.
Gibson wrote, directed and is financing the $40 million film, but he is not appearing in the movie, whose actors will speak only Aramaic and Latin. (The report noted that Gibson erred because the Romans spoke Greek.)
At issue apparently is Gibson’s religious belief. The actor reportedly is a devout traditionalist Catholic who believes in a literalist reading of the New Testament, including anti-Semitic passages that collectively blame Jews for killing Jesus.
Traditional Catholicism also rejects the Vatican’s 1965 landmark Nostra Aetate document, which repudiates the collective blame of Jews and the deicide charge.
The scholars said Gibson has ignored modern Christian biblical scholarship, which puts the four differing Gospel stories into historical context. For example, understanding the ongoing political feud between Jews who accepted Jesus as messiah and the majority who did not at the time the Gospels were written.
"The report recommends serious re-thinking of the film," said a cover letter on Bishops Conference stationery signed by Dr. Eugene Fisher, the conference’s associate director for ecumenical and interreligious affairs, and Rabbi Eugene Korn, the ADL’s director of interfaith affairs.
"The group regards this matter with utmost gravity. Your production schedule lends additional urgency," apparently referring to plans for a 2004 worldwide release.
The scholars declined interviews, citing Gibson’s pending legal threat. But some privately refuted the charge that the script was obtained illegally.
"We were not using a stolen document to the best of our knowledge," said one scholar.
An ADL spokeswoman said her group has not received any legal threat from Gibson’s company.
"At no time have we ever received a letter from Mel Gibson’s lawyer or anyone else threatening a lawsuit," said Myrna Shinbaum.
Father Arthur Kennedy, director of the Bishops Conference’s ecumenical division, referred questions about the lawsuit to the legal department. General Consul Mark Chopko did not return several phone calls.
Alan Nierob, Gibson’s public relations representative, said he was unaware of any legal threats by Gibson or Icon Productions. Nierob said also he had no knowledge of the scholars report, and declined to respond to the charges of anti-Semitism and the call for script changes. Gibson’s agent, Ed Limato, would not comment on the matter.
The scholars group includes Catholics Dr. Mary Boys of the Union Theological Seminary; Philip Cunningham, executive director of the Center for Christian-Jewish Learning at Boston College; the Rev. Lawrence Frizzell, director of the Institute of Judaeo-Christian Studies at Seton Hall University; Fisher and Father John Pawlikowski, director of Catholic Jewish studies at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. They are members of an advisory committee to the Bishops Conference on Catholic-Jewish affairs.
The Jewish scholars include Michael Cook, professor of Judeo-Christian Studies at Hebrew Union College; Paula Fredriksen of Boston University; Amy-Jill Levine of Vanderbilt University; and Rabbi Korn.
The report recognized "the tragic impact of Christian ‘passion plays’ on Jews over the centuries.
"We know that their dramatic presentation of Jews as ‘Christ killers’ triggered pogroms against Jews over the centuries and contributed to the environment that made the Shoah possible," it said. "Given this history and the power of film to shape minds and hearts, both Catholics and Jews in the ad hoc group are gravely concerned about the potential dangers of presenting a passion play in movie theatres."
The scholars expressed concern that a graphic presentation "could reawaken the very anti-Semitic attitudes that we have devoted our careers to combating."
They said the film comes at a particularly dangerous time, when they have all witnessed a "dramatic" increase in anti-Semitism in Europe, on the Internet and on airwaves in the Islamic world.
The scholars said the steps needed to correct difficulties in the script will require "major revisions.
"We realize that such significant alterations will be expensive and time-consuming," the reports said, "but without such revisions the film will inflict serious damage and in all likelihood be repudiated by most Christian and Jewish institutions."