The Controversy Rages: Mel Gibson’s “The Passion”

Mel Gibson’s motion picture, “The Passion of the Christ,” has ignited a storm of controversy, once again raising the question, “Who was responsible for the death of Jesus of Nazareth?” This week’s Penpoints explores this “hot” topic.
By Wayne Jackson | Christian Courier

No narration available

The American public has awaited eagerly the debut of Mel Gibson’s movie, “The Passion of the Christ” (“passion” = “suffering”). And as the time of its release approaches, controversy rages in the religious community – fanned mightily by the largely left-leaning media.

Some news outlets have suggested that the actor’s feature production is “troubling,” perhaps even “anti-Semitic.” The popular star, who financed the $30 million enterprise, produced the movie, and co-wrote the script, denies that allegation. He even capitulated to Jewish pressure by removing a volatile subtitle that reflects the sentiments of a Hebrew mob, “His blood be upon us, and on our children” — which, incidentally, was recorded by a Hebrew, Matthew Levi (Mt. 27:25).

Since we have not seen the movie, this is not primarily a commentary on Gibson’s film.

We do take strong issue with the hackneyed charge that when Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John penned the original narratives, they distorted the facts, and fashioned the Gospel records into the molds of their own theological agendas, in a defensive effort to placate pagan Rome.

This is the accusation recently made by Jon Meacham in his warped piece, “Who Killed Jesus?” (Newsweek, 2/16/04, pp. 45ff – Click to read on the web). Meacham, with a superficial knowledge of biblical matters, and the kind of liberal mentality that almost invariably is characteristic of the secular press, wrote:

“But the Bible can be a problematic source. Though countless believers take it as the immutable word of God, Scripture is not always a faithful record of historical events; the Bible is the product of human authors who were writing in particular times and places with particular points to make and visions to advance” (46).

And so, it is not the movie with which we are especially concerned. Apparently, it is a gripping visual. Even so, if early reviews of the film are factual, it is not accurate in some particulars. Certainly it is not the case that Mel Gibson produced this film as the “Holy Ghost was working through” him, as he has claimed. The Spirit of God is not supernaturally working “through” people today to produce any sort of communicative message — whether by printed medium or a film representation. Nor would the Holy Spirit ever generate any teaching that was at variance with something that had issued earlier under his guidance.

In this piece, however, we simply wish to deal with some fundamental propositions that pertain to this controversy.

Historical Reality

When considering who is really “responsible” for the death of Jesus of Nazareth, it is important to look at the facts surrounding this controversy.

Accuracy doesn’t equal anti-semitism

It is not “anti-Semitic” to accurately report the fact that a significant element of the Jewish community in the first century was a willing participant in the dramatic events that culminated in the death of Jesus of Nazareth.

Centuries before the birth of Christ, Hebrew prophets foretold the coming of the Messiah and his brutal death. The participation of the Jews in this bloody spectacle was prophesied specifically.

The Psalmist spoke of a “rejected stone” (118:22), and Jesus declared that the fulfillment was effected when his Jewish kinsmen rejected him (Mt. 21:33ff; cf. Jn. 1:11). He announced that the kingdom (reign) of God thus would cease within national Israel, and that the divine regime subsequently would be bequeathed to another people — a spiritual nation, his church (v. 43; cf. Gal. 3:29; 6:16; 1 Pet. 2:9).

Isaiah foretold the hardening of the nation’s hearts (6:9; cf. Mt. 13:27; see also Isa. 53:1; Jn. 12:37-41). Indeed, the Messianic prophet lamented: “We esteemed him not” (53:3).

Of course not every first-century Hebrew was of this rebellious disposition, though a sizable portion was (cf. “in part” – Rom. 11:25). The punishment for this rejection of the King’s (God’s) Son was realized in the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. Jesus himself taught this truth, and that is as clear as anything possibly could be (see Mt. 22:1-7; 23:34ff; 24:3ff; cf. Dan. 9:25-27).

Even Newsweek conceded that “the Jewish authorities wanted to get rid of him,” fearing that his “overexcited” followers would ignite the wrath of Rome (p. 48); again, Meacham acknowledges that the “Temple elite undoubtedly played a key role in the death of Jesus” (p. 50). Are these comments anti-Semitic?

A Jewish hero in anti-semitic writings?

If the Gospel writers were driven by an anti-Semitic disposition, they would hardly have represented the hero of the narratives as a Jew (see Mt. 1:1ff; Lk. 3:23ff; Jn. 4:22), and all of his apostles as Jews. The entire thrust of the Old Testament is that Jesus Christ was born out of the womb of Judaism. The Israelite people were especially selected for this role in human redemption (Gen. 22:17-18; 49:10; Dt. 7:6).

It is the epitome of folly to suggest that the Scriptures entertain a bias against the Jews. The book of Hosea stresses the fervent love of the Lord for his people, in spite of their progressive unfaithfulness.

Jesus, the consolation of Israel

There were many devout Jews in the first century who were “looking for the consolation of Israel” (Lk. 2:25). Zacharias and Elizabeth, Joseph and Mary (Mt. 1; Lk. 1), the Bethlehem shepherds (Lk. 2:15), Simeon and Anna (Lk. 2:25ff), the Lord’s early disciples (Mt. 10:1ff; Lk. 10:1), and notables such as Nicodemas and Joseph of Arimathea were honest and devout Jews.

Those of Jerusalem, all Judaea, and vast numbers of Israelites in the region of the Jordan flocked to hear John the Baptizer, as he heralded Jesus, the Messiah. John immersed these devout believers in the Jordan River, and they became followers of Christ (Mt. 3:5-6; Jn. 1:29).

It is estimated that by the time of Stephen’s death (Acts 7:54ff), there were about 20,000 converts to Christ in the city of Jerusalem. Estimates of the population of the city itself range from between 50,000 to 100,000. And every convert was either a Jew, or a proselyte to Judaism!

If the teaching of the early church was so “anti-Semitic,” why did it have such an impact within the nation of Israel? This would constitute a strange circumstance indeed.

Christians angry at the Jews?

The charge has been made that “for nearly 2,000 years, some Christians have persecuted the Jewish people on the ground that they were responsible for the death of the first-century prophet who has come to be seen as the Christ” (Meacham, p. 47).

Even Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly (who can “spin” things as well as the next guy whenever he is so disposed), made this blunder. In an essay on his web site Thursday, February 19th, O’Reilly wrote:

“For thousands of years Jews have been treated with brutality and disrespect, often by the followers of Jesus.”

The allegation is entirely irresponsible. In the first place, Christians are not “angry” about the death of Jesus; they are supremely thankful for it!

But in the second place, any reasonable person ought to know that people can formally “identify” with a movement without actually embracing its principles. Many who have claimed an allegiance to Jesus, without being genuinely committed to his teaching, have perpetrated evil in his name.The crusades, for example, (c. A.D. 1095-1272), initiated under the authority of the apostate Roman Church, boasted an affiliation with Christ, but there was not even a remote practical connection.

There is not a solitary syllable in the literature of the New Testament that would sanction the Christian’s abuse of any ethnic group. The teaching of Christ regarding one’s enemies, and the benevolent disposition of the New Testament epistles, are too well known to need elaboration. The letters of Paul pulsate with a love for his Hebrew brethren and a longing for their redemption (see Rom. 9:1-5).

Should modern Jews be persecuted for ancestors actions?

No body of people is morally responsible for sins of their ancestors (Ezek. 18:20). Most assuredly one may have to suffer the consequences of an earlier generation’s evil — just as we all languish under the consequences of Adam’s transgression (Rom. 5:12). We are not charged, though, with the actual guilt of our ancestors’ crimes (contrary to the popular dogma of “original sin” or “inherited depravity”).

Modern Caucasians are not responsible for the enslavement of Africans during the darker days of American history (though some Black leaders now so claim — in their demand for reparations). Modern citizens of Germany are not accountable for the Holocaust. And modern Jews are not culpable for what their forefathers did to the Old Testament prophets, nor are they personally liable for the literal murder of their Messiah.

They are responsible, however, to the law of God for their own sinful conduct, and for their current rejection of the evidence that establishes Jesus as the promised Redeemer of Old Testament literature (Lk. 24:44-47; Jn. 5:46-47; 2 Cor. 3:14).

Gentiles not innocent

The New Testament makes it perfectly clear that the Gentiles were also involved in the death of Jesus Christ. Peter (a Hebrew) declared that the Jews manipulated “lawless men” (Acts 2:23) in the implementation of their heinous plan. The Greek term denotes those who live in defiance of law. The Gentile authorities executed an innocent man. In his acts of humble submission, Christ’s “judgment” (of innocence) was taken away from him (see Acts 8:32-33).

The Roman officials were spineless, corrupt men, who were bankrupt of moral character. Pilate is not a figure who elicits sympathy from the New Testament authors, though Gibson is represented as portraying the Roman governor as a “sensible and sensitive” character (Meacham, p. 49). He definitely was not. In his February 16th ABC interview with Diane Sawyer, Gibson denied the charge that he soft-peddled Pilate; he called him a “monster” — which indeed he was.

We all were “there”

There is a sense — an ultimate and tremendously crucial sense — in which every sinful person put Christ on the cross. Had it not been for human sin, the Savior would not have come to earth to die for “all” who have been guilty of violating divine law (Mt. 20:28; 26:28; Jn. 1:29; Rom. 3:10,21ff; 2 Cor. 5:15; 1 Tim. 2:4).

This does not mean, however, that all will be saved (Mt. 7:13-14), regardless of whether or not they obey Christ (Acts 4:11-12; 2 Thes. 1:7-9; Heb. 5:8-9).

Surely when this point is forcefully emphasized, no balanced person can accuse genuine Christians of focusing exclusively upon the Jews as those who must bear the blame for the Savior’s death.

It is tragic indeed that many will view Gibson’s film and weep, not realizing that they still retain a guilt for Jesus’ death — by virtue of the fact that they have not correctly accessed his plan for forgiveness (Jn. 8:24; Mk. 16:16; Luke 13:3,5; Acts 2:38; 22:16).

And some, who have fallen away from the faith, will refuse to acknowledge that they are crucifying the Son of God afresh (Heb. 6:6).


There are those in today’s society of spiritual confusion who take pride in generating and maintaining “hot” controversies of this nature. Their motives may be self-justification. They may be operating out of a desire to discredit Christianity — the system that has become every rebel’s “whipping boy” these days. They may simply enjoy “stirring the pot” for the smoke’s sake (as the media moguls do). Such ones are ever anxious to hitch a ride on the back of the crucified Savior whenever they smell a good story.

Whatever the motives of misguided speculators, history remains what it is. Illusionary revisionists may seek to adjust the record, but it stubbornly remains invincible — long after they evaporate into the mist of historical oblivion.

Finally, one fact is stunningly potent. Here we are, twenty centuries removed from the event, still passionately discussing the “Passion” of the man from Nazareth. This fact, at least, separates the issue from that misguided little group that still insists that Jesus never existed. That whining mantra is totally dead.