The last temptation of Abraham Foxman

Mel Gibson has taken a lot of flack for alleged anti-Semitism in The Passion. I haven’t seen the film, but Anti-Defamation League National Director Abraham Foxman has. And this is what he has to say:
At every single opportunity, Gibson’s film reinforces the notion that the Jewish authorities and the Jewish mob are the ones ultimately responsible for the Crucifixion…
In the film, the Jews and a group of sadistic Roman soldiers are the only ones portrayed as evil. The Jews make blood-thirsty calls for Jesus’ death on a continuous basis, and by the end, the group of Roman soldiers feels compassion, whereas the Jews never feel compassion for Jesus and his suffering.


Well, Gibson says he took his cue directly from the Gospels. The Gospels say that a majority of the Sanhedrin council (two known exceptions being Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus) ruled that Jesus be executed for blasphemy. All three Synoptic Gospels report that the blasphemy charge stemmed specifically from Jesus’ claim to be the Messiah. Matthew and Mark record the specific pronouncement of death at the meeting; Luke reports the pronouncement indirectly, in Pilate’s statement that Jesus “has done nothing to deserve death.” (see Mt. 26:63-66, Mk. 14:61-65, Lk. 22:66-69; Lk. 23:13-15). John does not record the specific charge, but records the leaders’ explanation for their appeal that Pilate punish Jesus: “we have no right [under Roman law] to execute anyone” (Jn. 18:31-32). All four Gospels record that a crowd outside Pilate’s palace demanded that Jesus be crucified (Mt. 27:22-23, Mk. 15:12-14, Lk. 23:21, Jn. 19:15).
Nothing is known of the post-Crucifixion actions of either the portion of Jerusalem’s population that mobbed the palace or of Jesus’ Roman torturers. A centurion present at the Crucifixion is recorded as saying, “Surely he was the Son of God!” (Mt. 27:54, Mk. 15:39); Luke describes him as praising God and declaring Jesus to be “a righteous man” (Lk. 23:47).
Is Foxman disagreeing with these Gospel claims? In this letter he states (emphasis added):
While Mr. Gibson relies on the Synoptic Gospels and John, he has filled in the lacunae with images and scenes that come from extra-biblical sources. His characters quote texts that were not used in that age, and his version rejects modern critical biblical scholarship.
Just what kind of “scholarship” are we talking about here? Foxman doesn’t say. Considering that Foxman objects to the very idea that the Crucifixion was instigated by the Jewish leadership, it would appear that he is appealing to the sort of deconstructionist “scholarship” that interprets the Bible the way that Harvard Law School interprets the Constitution.
If he is accurately reporting what he saw, Foxman may have a point about the exaggeration of Roman sympathy toward Jesus. The centurion at the cross is the only Roman known to have expressed sympathy toward Jesus. Pilate certainly resisted the Sanhedrin’s demands for execution, but his motivation is not revealed; he may have simply been annoyed at having his day interrupted with a matter he found inconsequential. As for the “group of sadistic Roman soldiers [being] the only ones portrayed as evil,” well, the Gospels don’t record any Roman sadism other than Jesus’ torture (and the crucifixion itself). Does Foxman want Gibson to invent Roman atrocities?
Apparently enough of Jerusalem was present at the mob before Pilate that Peter could make the bold statement, “You handed him over to be killed, and you disowned him before Pilate, though he had decided to let him go” (Ac. 3:13). But Peter made no such pronouncement regarding Jews who were not in Jerusalem on that fateful day – whether of his contemporaries living elsewhere in Judea and beyond, or of future generations.
Centuries ago, many Christians did falsely label those future generations of Jews as “Christ killers.” Foxman fears that the film could spark a resurgence of such attitudes. But why would a single film accomplish what the weekly teachings of Catholic, Orthodox, and fundamentalist and evangelical Protestant churches have not? Anti-Semitism represents the fringes of American society, and most of it is secular, focusing on delusions that Jews exercise conspiratorial control over commerce, politics, etc.
Scarcely any Christians entertain the notion that a modern-day people are somehow complicit in the actions of a subset of their ancestors. Foxman has us confused with the slavery reparations movement.

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6 comments

  1. jen

    Well said, Alan. When I knew I was going to have the opportunity to watch The Passion earlier this month, I was mindful of the accusations and criticism already out there. So I was watching with a critical eye (as much as I could through my tears) and I didn’t see anything that could remotely seem anti-Semitic or would induce people who see the movie to react with anti-Semitic accusations.
    This movie isn’t about the Jews or the Romans. They’re peripheral to the Main Focus – Jesus Christ. This is a movie about Jesus. Period.

  2. clif

    First, let me say that pilate’s reasons are mentioned in the bible. Many people followed Christ, and he was feared as much as in our times direct action against MartinLuther King jr or Malcomb X became political issue’s, but he had to side with the bigger element. As far as wether or not a christian history would represent an anti-semetic veiw…. DuH?
    That is part of Christianity, but hey, can are we talking about theology or prejiduce. According to Christianity he to could accept the teachings of Jesus totally forgiving et-cetera. While I am at it how does he become an authority on Jews, religiously opposed to Homosexuality, yet he is an advacate. Oposed to abortion, yet again an advocate et-cetera. as a matter of fact I am not even mad any more. I wouldn’t listen to a fool in a bar, why would I listen to him in the news paper. One last point Christ said turn the other cheek, and excepted all people even the Gentiles…. peace

  3. James Payne

    I think Abrham Foxman is correct that the movie protrys the Jewish people responisable for Christ’s death, as they were the first toreject The Christ, Their Messiah. Yet he fails to see the point of the movie that we even gentiles harbor guilt for his death as it is attoinment for our sins as well that GOD made flesh died so that we may live. Yes the movie is an artistic portal into the gospel, but it is based in truth. The Jewish people are historically angry and vengeful people look throughout the old testiment. God often rebuked his people for this. Yet tey are not far from any of us, our own hearts at moments are filled with hate for our brother. Why can’t we put this aside and see the point of the film, we are brothers we are forgiven, we are free from the oppression – we have merely to give it up and live as we were created to live.

  4. The Curmudgeon

    Blogger Mark Shea at “Catholic and Enjoying It!” made an excellent point about what may have been going on in Pilate’s head:
    Pilate grew up in a religious tradition which beleived that the gods would occassionally take on human form in order to test or harass mortals like himself, and that if he made the wrong move and pissed off a god-in-human guise he could very well end up at the business end of a lightning bolt.
    This, postulates Shea, is why Pilate repeatedly asked Jesus where he came from. IOW, Pilate suspected, especially after his wife’s dream, that the Jew standing before him may not have been a Jew at all, but instead one of his own deities in disguise sent to challenge him. Hence Pilate’s apparent desire to give Jesus a break before finally caving in to the crowd. (Apparently feared disfavor from Emperor Tiberius at least as much.)
    Interestingly enough, Pilate’s attitude toward upstart Jewish prophets and would-be Messiahs changed abruptly after Jesus’ crucifixion. Before that day, Pilate pretty much ignored such people unless they became anti-Rome agitators. After that day, he wasted no time suppressing them and their followers, crucifying both actual and suspected followers by the thousands, and often without trials. By 36 CE, Pilate’s brutality had gotten so out of hand that Tiberius finally recalled him to Rome (considered a grave dishonor for a Governor), where he committed suicide.