Interreligious irony

Despite all the controversy, inter-religious dialogue in America is actually benefiting from “The Passion of the Christ.”

That’s just one of many ironic aspects about the whole “Passion” brouhaha pointed out by Michael Cook, one of seven theologians who reviewed early versions of the script.

From the moment he and his colleagues were invited to critique the script in last April, the entire process has been plagued by unexpected events that have yielded often-unintended results.

Cook, the Sol & Arlene Bronstein Professor of Judeo-Christian Studies at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, Ohio, described his “Passion” experiences last week to a crowd of 200 people at Peninsula Temple Sholom in Burlingame.

At times funny and often engaging, Cook’s story is both a cautionary tale about what can happen when Christian and Jewish views come into contact, as well as a simple plea to let historians do the work of history, and let artists do the work of art.

An expert in Jewish-Christian relations — and perhaps the country’s only rabbi with a Ph.D. in New Testament studies — he was invited by the United States Conference of Bishops to review a draft that was leaked from the production set.

The bishops were concerned that Gibson’s film would violate recent guidelines for presenting the so-called passion plays, representations of the little-known last days of Jesus. Those guidelines grew out of Vatican II, the 1965 edict that said, among other things, that Jews must not be blamed for Jesus’ death.

The scholars were aghast at what they found.

Yes, the Gospels were in the script, but so were dozens of motifs and scenes that weren’t from the Bible at all. In particular, the scholars noted similarities between the script and the mystical writings of Anne Catherine Emmerich, a 19th century German nun.

“The problem would have been changed entirely if only Gibson had done his Diane Sawyer interview in the beginning of the process instead of the end,” explained Cook of Gibson’s February interview.

Gibson, visibly uncomfortable, said for the first time that the movie was just his own personal interpretation.

Up until then, Cook said, Gibson has described the movie as “the most accurate historical representation of what actually occurred” at the time of Jesus’ death.

The admission would also have saved plenty of ink.

After the scholars provided the bishops and Gibson with their critical report, Gibson’s self-owned production company, Icon Productions, went into full damage-control mode — threatening the scholars with legal action and leading to the bishops to drop out from their own inquest in June 2003.

This left the Anti-Defamation League — which had signed on to the critique merely in a show of support — holding the bag.

So what was a struggle between Gibson and the Church suddenly became a more inflammatory battle between Gibson and the Jews.

In most articles from that time, the Jews were accused of being overly critical — despite the fact that it was the bishops themselves who had invited the criticism. And despite the fact, as Cook pointed out, that it’s Catholic policy to review passion plays in consultation with scholars.

So what’s the big deal, anyhow? Isn’t a filmmaker allowed to have some creative license? Yes and no, said Cook.

So little of the last days of Jesus is known, and so much has been done to harm Jews through depictions of the those hazy days, that even most Christian scholars refuse to speculate on what exactly went on.

And the church itself has recommended that it never be depicted at all.

“So we scholars were being labeled ‘revisionists,’ smiled a rueful Cook, “when it was the Gospel writers who themselves were revisionists.”

To see the criteria for the evaluation of dramatizations of the Passion, go to
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