Is The Passion of Jesus Anti-Semitic?

Larry W. Poland, Ph.D.

Larry Poland is a graduate of Wheaton (Illinois) College with a Bachelor's degree in sociology. He also earned Masters and Ph. D. degrees from Purdue University in college administration and a Master of Divinity degree from Grace Theological Seminary.
Having placed his personal faith in Jesus Christ as a small boy, Dr. Poland committed his life to God for vocational Christian service while an exchange student to Germany in 1956. In 1967 he was seeking a greater spiritual challenge and prayed, "God, give me a job so great that if You don't undertake, I'll never be able to do it." In three days he was asked to assume the position of president of Miami Christian College in Miami, Florida, making him the youngest college president in the United States.
Dr. Poland is past director of the Agape Movement, an international volunteer service organization under Campus Crusade for Christ, Intl. This movement trained more than 800 volunteers for service and opened 35 nations for volunteers during his eight years of leadership. He has traveled to 81 countries of the world.
Dr. Poland has been a college professor, founded WMCU-FM, the first Christian radio station in Miami, Florida, and was executive producer of the world's largest traveling mixed media production, World Thrust. He is an ordained minister, lecturer, conference speaker, consultant, and writer. He has authored numerous articles in national periodicals and six books, Spirit Power, Rise to Conquer, The Last Temptation of Hollywood, The Coming Persecution, Master Key, and a novel, 2084.
He hosts a short radio feature, The Mediator, which is aired daily on hundreds of radio stations. Dr. Poland is founder, chairman, and CEO of Mastermedia International, a ministry to the top leadership of film and television in Hollywood and New York, and one which seeks to keep Christian believers informed of the spiritual dynamics inside media. He's the recipient of the coveted Covenant Award for significant, Christian influence on the secular media.


FOR TWENTY-THREE YEARS I'VE CONSULTED with decision makers in film and television in Hollywood and New York media. As an evangelical Christian doing this, I understand prejudice. I live and work in a world in which “Jesus Christ”—my God and personal deliverer—is a common expletive. I know media professionals who have been publicly berated, denied job promotions, and even fired because they were born again Christians.

This contempt for those labeled “fundamentalists,” “born-againers,” or the “religious right” is openly accepted, and it commonly spills onto me personally. After a television executive and I had a delightful lunch together, he learned of my background and told a mutual friend, “I wouldn’t have met with him, if I’d known he was an evangelical Christian.” However irrational or prejudiced his perspective may have been, it was real to him.

At the same time that I have been representing a despised segment of American society in the politically correct, devoutly secular, or raw pagan milieu of Hollywood, I have gotten inside the minds and hearts of another segment of society which has struggled with this same irrationality and prejudice . . . much more than I have. Of course, I refer to the Jewish community. For two decades, I have had one foot in each of two communities which have had, at best, peaceful coexistence and, at worst, “warfare” with each other over a host of real and imagined issues.

Even as I’ve heard evangelicals described by the head of a leading media trade publication as “a bunch of no-nothing yahoos in the Bible belt,” I’ve heard Jews described as ”Christ killers.” All of this has taken place in the media industry—in an arena of professed “tolerance,” “diversity,” and broad acceptance of human differences. As a result of this experience, I think I have a unique perspective on an issue which has been resurrected by the release of a film about Jesus.

When Hollywood icon Mel Gibson announced the release of his film on the suffering of Jesus, a firestorm of protest erupted. The most vocal expressions came from segments of the Jewish community. Representatives of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Jewish Anti-Defamation League expressed concern that the release of the film would stir anti-Jewish sentiment and even violence against Jewish people. Some in media have asked, “How could Mel Gibson do this to us?”

Many from the Christian community—including my evangelical brothers and sisters— have expressed everything from bewilderment to outrage at the Jewish protest. To them, recounting the story of their lord’s betrayal, accusation, trial, and crucifixion has nothing at all to do with Jews or any kind of anti-Jewish agenda. They are typically incredulous—and offended—that anyone would impugn their motives by suggesting such a thing.

The purpose of this booklet is to help the reader understand both the evangelical Christian and Jewish perspectives, not just of Mel Gibson’s film, but of the broader issue of Jesus and the telling of his story. It is my passionate hope that the resulting dialogue will help build a bridge of trust and understanding between the Jewish and evangelical Christian communities. I’ll even offer some steps to “build the abutments” for this bridge.

What is the “passion” of Jesus? (top)
HISTORICALLY, THE SUFFERING OF JESUS which resulted in his death has been known by Christians as his “passion.” This includes his betrayal by Judas, his accusation by the Jewish religious authorities, his trial before both Jewish and Roman courts, his beatings, his humiliation, his being required to carry his own cross to the place of crucifixion and the crucifixion itself.

Why would anyone think the portrayal of Jesus’ suffering might be anti-Jewish? (top)
ONE OF THE EYEWITNESSES TO THE SUFFERING of Jesus was a follower of his named John who wrote one of the four historic accounts, called “gospels.” When John describes the actions of the Jewish religious leaders who, according to the witnesses, conspired to have Jesus condemned, he refers to them as “The Jews.” In a number of places in his writings, he includes references such as “The Jews persecuted him . . .” or “The Jews tried all the harder to kill him . . . .” When read out of the context of the story, these references can sound as if Jewish people—as an ethnic group—were responsible for killing Jesus.

This language, not used by the other three “gospel” writers, can easily be read by non-Christians as expressing an anti-Jewish sentiment, because “that’s what it says.” However, John himself was Jewish, and he obviously knew that this persecution of Jesus was not being directed by Jewish people against non-Jewish people or Christians, but by Jewish people against one of his, and their, own kin.

Furthermore, there have been some calling themselves Christians who have actually viewed Jews generically as “Christ-killers.” Growing up in a small, WASP community in which the family of the scrap yard owner was the only Jewish family in town, I never knew these bigots even existed. But, a couple of years ago, I asked the Jewish members of a group of trusted media executives in the board room of CBS Television City if any of them had ever been called a “Christ-killer.” Both said, “Yes”! I was stunned to learn this. One said, “I remember it like it was yesterday. I was going to school when I was ten years old, and some kids yelled ‘Christ-killer’ at me. I didn’t know what they were talking about. I knew I hadn’t killed anybody.”

If Jewish people don’t read the Gospel of John in context or have had someone call them a Christ-killer, it’s easier to see why the dramatic telling of the story of Jesus’ killing would not be seen as an act of friendship.

Why would Jewish people be concerned about Christians using the portrayal of the suffering of Jesus to stir anti-Jewish sentiment? (top)
THERE IS ONE COMPELLING REASON WHY Jewish people would think this. There are a number of historical instances in which this is exactly what has happened!

In Europe, the best-known theatrical presentation of the passion of Jesus is the one performed at Oberammergau, Germany. Begun in 1634 and continuing to this day, this spectacular “passion play” uses 1,700 players to tell the story. It is performed at the start of each decade to fulfill a vow made to God by the citizens of Oberammergau when bubonic plague claimed 15,000 of its residents. The vow was an act of devotion to Jesus Christ in hopes God would never again allow a deadly plague to strike their community.

When Adolf Hitler came to power and sought to fuel the fires of hatred for Jewish people, he used this Oberammergau “passion play” drama to stir non-Jews with the message, “See, it was the Jews who killed your savior!” While this is, at best, a half truth, Hitler never let the truth stand in the way of his propaganda machine and its violent contempt for everyone and everything Jewish.

Why are Jewish people so sensitive about anything that hints of anti-Semitism? (top)
JEWISH PEOPLE ARE IN A CLASS by themselves as objects of hatred and violence from other nations. Over the centuries, no other ethnic group on the planet has been more consistently and viciously persecuted.

From the insidious plot to annihilate the Jewish people in the reign of Persian King Xerxes, circa 460 B. C. E. (recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures’ Book of Esther) to the merciless propaganda campaigns and horrific atrocities against Jewish people in mid-twentieth-century Europe, Jewish people have been singled out for destruction. Tensions in the Middle East today also make this point. Multitudes in a major world religion and scores of nations openly call for the annihilation of the Jewish people and of Israel . . . without apology.

This persecution has produced a greater sensitivity to religious and racial bigotry among Jewish people. One needs only to consider Tevye’s lament to God in the musical Fiddler on the Roof: “I know that we are the chosen people, but couldn’t you have chosen somebody else?” to gain a better understanding of the impact of this history of hatred on the Jewish psyche.

An American proverb declares, “A scalded cat runs from cold water.” There is no doubt that the Jewish people have been repeatedly “scalded” throughout history. Even today, one undeniable fear of many Jewish people is that somehow, somewhere, someone will kill them just for being Jewish.

Evangelical Christians should be able to identify deeply with their Jewish friends in this fear. In the last century, “born again” Christians have been slaughtered by the hundreds of thousands by Communists in settings as diverse as the salt mines of Siberia under Stalin and the caves of China by Chairman Mao. As I write this, thousands are still being persecuted, imprisoned, raped and slaughtered in fundamentalist Muslim nations just for being Christian. The American President, known for his Christian faith, is damned as a hated “crusader” for Christianity.

Whether Jewish, Christian, Armenian, or Kurdish, there’s nothing like a history of continual hatred and repeated persecution to stir sensitivity to any hint of more of it.

Who, in fact, did kill Jesus?(top)
EYEWITNESS ACCOUNTS FROM THE BIBLE and trustworthy manuscripts from non-biblical sources of the first century agree: the condemnation, trial, and murder of Jesus had complicity from a number of sources. One of Jesus’ closest associates, a greedy follower named Judas Iscariot, himself a Jew, betrayed Jesus by disclosing his whereabouts and identity to Jerusalem’s ruling Jewish rabbis for thirty pieces of silver. These leaders held great wealth and political and religious power.

The Jewish religious leaders apparently had a mix of motivations for wanting to remove Jesus from the public arena. On one hand, they were legitimately offended that Jesus claimed to be God. This claim constituted the most egregious form of blasphemy in the Jewish faith and carried the death penalty under their code of divine law. There is also evidence that the rapidly growing—yet spontaneous—movement of Jesus’ followers was viewed as a threat. It threatened both the tenuous political authority of the Jewish religious establishment and the dominance of the Roman conquerors of Israel.

Lacking the political or judicial authority to execute Jesus, these religious leaders pursued their plan with the Roman regional governor, Pontius Pilate. Pilate, according to historical records, was caught in a delicate position between Rome and the Jewish people he was ordered to keep in subjection. His tenuous personal situation was evidently a key part of his motivation for giving consent to the Roman military to carry out the torture, humiliation and crucifixion of Jesus.

So, the passion of Christ can be laid at the feet of a betraying friend, a cadre of self-protective Jewish leaders, a weak or conflicted Roman official, and a violence-prone Roman military.

In the screening of Mel Gibson’s film I attended, one guest questioned the wisdom of portraying the Jewish religious leaders as so evil. Another guest said, “Well, I’m Italian, and, frankly, the Romans didn’t come off looking too great either!”

One salient point remains to be made on this issue. In a very real sense, neither the Jews, Romans, nor others can bear the full responsibility for Jesus’ death. In his own testimony, Jesus declared that he came to earth to die and was giving his life into the hands of others to carry out the plan. “No one takes my life from me,” Jesus declared, “I lay it down myself.” This explains the willing submission he apparently showed in the face of the plots, humiliation, torture and crucifixion he suffered.

Was the suffering of Jesus the result of “anti-Christian” acts?  (top)
AT THE TIME OF HIS DEATH, JESUS had been teaching publicly for only about three and a half years. Typically, this would be too short a time to create any kind of significant political or religious movement. However, because of the supernatural signs and miracles attributed to him, his following gained spectacularly rapid momentum. Jesus frequently had spontaneous gatherings of more than 20,000 people, and tens of thousands pursued him seeking miracles of healing, exorcism, and provision.

The profile of Jesus’ audience was not, technically, “Christian.” Even though Christians mark the origin of the Christian “Church” at Pentecost fifty days after the crucifixion, and all of the New Testament was written within four decades, there was no organized Christian religion or ecclesiastical structure until many years after Jesus’ death. In fact, his followers were overwhelmingly Jewish.

Jesus directed his message almost exclusively to Jewish people. He did so, because he had pure Jewish lineage on both sides of his family, and his parents were devout adherents to the Jewish faith. Also, he viewed his divine mission as addressing the “house of Israel” and “fulfilling the Law of Moses.” He commonly taught in Jewish synagogues, a fact which—given the radically different perspectives he expressed in his teachings—actually worked against him.

Essentially, the passion of Jesus portrays one segment of the Jewish community persecuting another segment—and its popular and charismatic leader—with the complicity of the Roman political and military authorities.

Is not placing blame on Jewish religious leaders for Jesus’ death the same as blaming the Jewish people as a whole?  (top)
THE SIMPLE ANSWER IS “It shouldn’t be the same.” Yet, the history of what might be called “Christian anti-semitism” hinges on this point. Outrageous as it is, the blame for what was done by a few first-century Jewish leaders has been unfairly projected onto living Jews—those dubbed “Christ-killers” by the misguided. In actuality, the blame doesn’t fit even first-century Jews . . . as a group.

Let’s assume that those first-century religious leaders were more than just misguided individuals protecting their authority and deeply held beliefs. Suppose they were downright corrupt—as putting a price on Jesus’ head with Judas would indicate. Even so, the corruption of a few doesn’t justify the indictment of an entire ethnic group at the time of the crimes—much less, centuries later.

Corruption sometimes occurs among religious leaders, even in religions with the highest moral and ethical ideals. Roman Catholic Church history is sprinkled with immoral popes, violent anti-Jewish crusades, financially corrupt church officials, and, currently, pedophile priests.

Christian Protestant church history also has more than its share of moral scandals. Corrupt behavior includes everything from Lutheran complicity with the Nazis to the sex and money scandals of American televangelists.

Clearly, it is inexcusable to project blame for the conduct of a few onto their entire religion or ethnic group. But, Jewish and Christian people would have to agree that inexcusable acts are not without precedent by the “jerk factor” in both communities.

How could some Jewish people and some Christians differ so widely in the message they see in Mel Gibson’s film? (top)
SOME OF THE REVIEWS OF THOSE WHO have seen Mel Gibson’s movie are widely disparate in their perceptions of the messages it conveys. Keith A. Fournier, a prominent Catholic constitutional lawyer, declared,”There is not a scintilla of anti-Semitism to be found anywhere in this powerful film.” Other viewers passionately disagree.

I am very familiar with Mel Gibson’s movie. I was one of a select few who read the script before the movie was produced and was in a small-group screening with Mel Gibson as early as July 10, 2003. Naturally, I took all of my evangelical Christian “filters,” my years of study of the history of Jesus Christ, and my seminary training into the screening with me. I also took into the screening a world view that’s a mix of passionate love for everything Jewish and an absolute conviction that Jesus’ death had absolutely nothing to do with Jewish people, then or now. No surprise, then, that I saw a film free from anything “anti-Semitic.”

Where there is disparity in assessing the film’s message, it seems to run along Jewish/Christian lines. Dennis Prager, Jewish intellectual, author and talk show host, suggests that the two groups “see two different films.” He says, “For two hours, Christians watch their Savior tortured and killed. For the same two hours, Jewish people watch Jewish people arrange the killing and torture of the Christians’ savior.” Prager said a Jewish friend who viewed the movie said that during it he “wanted to take a gun and shoot those who had brought such pain to Jesus.”

I can understand this. The Jewish religious leaders were—in historical fact and in the film—clearly the “heavies.” During the film, I burned in anger at those who pursued the death of my lord, savior and intimate friend. But, I made no transference from the ill-motivated Jewish leaders to “Jews” or to “Jewish people” in general, for the simple reason that the whole story was Jewish.

Sitting next to me in the screening was a Jewish man who heads a film studio and who has a number of joint ventures with Mel Gibson. I asked him what he thought of the film. It was the second time he’d viewed it. Among other things, he said, “It’s very Jewish.” We talked about the lines delivered in the Aramaic language and how many similar words and phrases there were to Hebrew. Even I recognized them from my now-rusty seminary Hebrew language study.

The film is very Jewish, and the Jewish leaders are—to put it kindly—not the kind of people you’d like to face . . . whatever their ethnicity. In the film, you’re motivated to despise or even to hate them, and they did play a significant role in the drama leading to Jesus’ death.

Herein lies a legitimate Jewish concern: that some hate-filled, disturbed or bigoted non-Jews might be motivated to do the same—to take revenge on those who “killed the Christians’ savior.” Fear remains that some maniac—in the name of Christ or Christians—might “want to take a gun and shoot those who brought such pain to Jesus.”

It is precisely this kind of unjustified retribution—even from nominal Christians—which stirs sensitivity in the Jewish community when powerful portrayals of the passion of Jesus appear. The scars are still raw from Oberammergau and from the Holocaust—from people who did their evil under the symbols of the swastika and the cross.

Some Jewish critics charge Mel Gibson’s film with perpetrating a view of God that is not in keeping with Jewish–or Christian–understanding. Why?  (top)
THIS CHARGE WAS MADE BY ONE prominent Jewish leader who rejects the notion that God would exact a blood price from His own son to atone for the wrongdoing of the world. He suggests that to paint a portrait of a God like this denies God’s true, loving and just character.

Christians do believe that Jesus willingly submitted to a torturous death—“shed his own blood”—as an innocent, divine man. He declared that he did so in order to pay for the sins of all those who would accept his payment on their behalf.

For first-century Jewish followers of Jesus, blood atonement was not a new concept. It was part and parcel of the Mosaic Covenant and was practiced daily at the temple in Jerusalem. From Jewish beginnings, the sacrificial shedding of the blood of an animal with no defects—a bull or goat for sin offerings—was an essential part of ceremonial atonement. A goat was slaughtered for Yom Kippur ceremonies.

The blood of an unblemished lamb was used on the door posts of the first Passover in Egypt and every following Passover. Thus, when Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptizer, introduced Jesus to the public, he proclaimed, “Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” In doing this, John was announcing Jesus as the Messiah of Israel who would remove sin once and for all by spilling his own blood.

The reasoning set forth by Jesus’ followers for his blood sacrifice was that the same God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and the prophets who required the blood of animals for sin atonement throughout Jewish history was now requiring the blood of His innocent son—the “unblemished lamb”—for one final and all-encompassing covering for the sins of the world. This atonement, they assert, requires only belief and acceptance of his atoning work.

As I said earlier, early Jewish disciples of Jesus believed that he was divine, so they found it obvious that ultimately he, and he alone, could surrender his life. Biblical Christians believe that no mortal ruler or band of religious zealots could take it from him—not from God.

Since this is the clear teaching of Jesus and of the Christian New Testament as well, it relegates the ultimate responsibility of those human instruments of Jesus’ death to a somewhat secondary one.

While the full guilt of their actions rests on them, Jesus’ killers were instruments in the Jewish Messiah’s accomplishment of a divine mission—one foretold hundreds of years earlier by the Jewish prophet Isaiah in the 53rd chapter of his prophecies. Thus, for Christians, this act of surrender to death became unique in human history. It became an expression—not of the capriciousness of a vindictive God—but an expression of the voluntary, loving sacrifice of this God-become-man for the entire human race—Jewish and non-Jewish alike.

What’s the bottom line?  (top)
While traditional Jewish people and two millennia of Christian believers differ significantly on their views of the role and “office” of Jesus, their differences have been grossly exaggerated, and their respective religious leaders have often deepened the divide between them. On one hand, irresponsible and corrupt Christian leaders have perpetrated contempt for and even persecution of Jewish descendants of the heroes and heroines of their own faith!

On the other hand, irresponsible and corrupt Jewish religious and political leaders have perpetrated contempt for, prejudice against, and even persecution of, conservative Christians or Christian evangelicals—believers in the Jews’ very own God, Scriptures, and faith heroes and heroines!

Interestingly, it appears that the more closely Jewish and Christian people pursue a deep, personal relationship with their common God, His moral law, and His sacred Scriptures, the more rapport and fellowship they seem to enjoy with each other. It seems that secularism is the poison in the well of both groups.

Jewish leaders will acknowledge that among the “best friends” of Israel are evangelical Christians. Some have even defended evangelicals as protectors of their interests in modern America.

Christians will note that their “most loyal allies” in the pursuit of moral righteousness in government, education, and media are often Jewish people of faith. True Christians also openly and uniformly condemn acts of hatred or violence against Jewish people or Jewish religious interests.

What are the “action points” for Jewish people in this controversy?(top)
I would plead with those in the Jewish community to . . .

What are the “action points” for evangelical Christian people in this controversy?(top)
I would plead with those in the Christian community to . . .

A Dream Scenario (top)
I DREAM OF A TIME WHEN JEWISH PEOPLE of faith and authentic Christians will set aside traditions of unthinking or ill-motivated suspicion and hostility toward each other and explore what they have in common. I trust that the controversy over Mel Gibson’s film will morph into a gracious dialogue and, in so doing, will put the keystone in a bridge between Christian and Jewish people that no one can destroy. In Dennis Prager’s words, “The last thing Jews need is to create tension with their best friends. And the last thing Christians need is a renewal of Christian hatred toward Jesus’ people.”
Such a bond of developing trust and friendship would certainly permit the telling of uniquely Jewish or uniquely Christian stories in films, books, or other forms of media without stirring suspicions of hostility.

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