As for its anti-Semitism, let me clarify. Jew-hatred is not its primary purpose, nor even a dominant one. The film doesn’t make a point to lash out at Jews, but, I think, it does manage to caricature them when it has an opportunity. The anti-Semitism is not overt—it’s not what the film’s about—but the simplistic, cartoony stereotypes of sniveling, power-hungry, money-obsessed Jews it gives us certainly smack of classic anti-Semite portrayals of Jews. It’s not so much what we see them do; rather, it’s how we see them do it. ~Peter Suderman
I appreciate Mr. Suderman’s thorough response to my earlier post, and I would like to thank him for elaborating in some greater detail on both why he sees anti-Semitism in the movie and why he regarded it as an artistic failure. His technical critiques of the problems with the storytelling and the characters are interesting, and I would like to come back to them in a different post. But let me try once more to persuade Mr. Suderman that there not an iota of anti-Semitism in The Passion of the Christ.
Granted, it has been a few months since my last viewing of the film, but I must be suffering from some kind of memory lapse to not recall “cartoony stereotypes of sniveling, power-hungry, money-obsessed Jews.” As I recall, there is only one character who has anything to do with a desire for money, and this is Judas. Yes, Judas is Jewish, but for someone so money-obsessed (a character flaw that I believe the Evangelists ascribe solely to the son of perdition and to no other) he has a strange change of heart when he sees Christ before the Sanhedrin in the Temple and suddenly is no longer very money-obsessed at all. His exchange of the Bridegroom for thirty pieces of silver is the archetypal betrayal of God for the sake of Mammon: every man must ultimately choose between the Kindgom and the world, and Judas stands as a warning for every one of us who chooses the world. This is not a statement about Jews, but a statement about the predicament of man.
His Jewishness is not tied to his betrayal of the Master or his avarice. To take this is as something that smacks of classic anti-Semitism is frankly to force 19th and 20th century anti-Semitic preoccupations with liberal Jewish businessmen and financiers onto the portrayal of one character, whose sin here is blasphemy even more than it is avarice. Because modern anti-Semites have obsessed about Jewish people and money, among other things, we as a modern audience are pre-conditioned to see any association of a Jewish character with money in a negative light, when this is not a statement about Jews in general but a statement about the gravity of Judas’ spiritual revolt. Does Judas snivel? He is plainly mortified and horrified at what he has done, and he succumbs to complete despair. In any case, these are traits specific to his character alone that are required by the narrative.
Which Jewish characters in The Passion are power-hungry? Caiaphas and the other chief priests already have power, and like all men in authority they are prone to abuse the power with which they have been entrusted. Like all men who have power, they are prone to want to keep it and ward off threats to it. But they do not give the impression of being particularly grasping or avaricious. They give the impression of a clerical establishment, scandalised by radical preaching, trying to suppress dissent, ultimately by means of silencing and killing Him. They respond as any group of powerful men would respond to someone who seems to undermine their control. Their Jewishness is not what makes them do what they do, nor is their Jewishness the thing that makes them villains, either one of which would need to be present to make the portrayal anti-Semitic, but it is what they do that matters. They may use underhanded methods to apprehend Him, and their concern is to maintain control, but this is a true statement of what people of any kind do when they are entrusted as caretakers of something–at some point, they begin to think that they own it and that no one should ever be able to take it away from them, not even the rightful Heir. Really, I would like to know how one tells the story of the Passion Gospels without putting the chief priests in a bad light.
Jimmy Akin suggests more nuance would have done the trick to balance things out a bit, and according to him the lack of nuance in Caiaphas’ character when compared with that of Pilate reveals a touch of anti-Semitism. Pilate is a more complicated and sympathetic character, you see, while Caiaphas is a cardboard villain. Alas, I don’t buy this, either. Pilate is not “sympathetic” in this film–we are told why he fears to challenge the mob, we understand his reasons, but in the end we see the one person in a position to stop the slaughter of an innocent Man wash his hands of the matter, knowing all the while that he is wrong to do so. More than that, his wife has already declared to Pilate, elaborating on a line from Matthew that has always intrigued me, that Christ is holy. Pilate, more than almost anyone else in the story, has no excuse for what he does. Pilate may not have known exactly Who Christ was, but he certainly knew what he was doing and comes off looking the worse for it.
Caiaphas, in contrast, does appear as the prime mover to have Christ put to death, which is scriptural, and he does appear unmoved when Judas returns with the money, but here Gibson has not darkened the contours of Caiaphas’ character in the least. I like watching a wry, clever, ambiguous villain as much as the next guy, but such villains do not appear in the Gospels. It’s pretty starkly divided, and all the more so in the Gospel of John. However, Gibson adds layers of subtlety to Caiaphas, which he can do through a visual medium, that are all together lacking in Scripture (because fleshing out the character of the high priest was not one of the purposes of writing the Gospels), such as Caiaphas’ visible discomfort and disgust at the scourging or (as it seems to me) his pained recognition of what he had done at the end after the Temple had been struck by the earthquake. These little moments hint that Caiaphas’ conscience is troubled at times and that he may have come to regret all of it as soon as it was done–Gibson was under no obligation to put these shots in, but he did. But in any case, as I have said twice before, if you object to the portrayal of the chief priests, you must also go after the Evangelists and charge them with the prejudice you lay at Gibson’s door. There are people who do make that charge, but they typically also believe that Christianity is inherently anti-Semitic, which is a view I find very difficult to credit.