“The Passion”

To the Editor:

David Berger’s article on Mel Gibson’s movie, The Passion of the Christ, is both analytically brilliant and dialogically sensitive [“Jews, Christians, and The Passion,” May]. Still, I have a comment or two from the Catholic side of the sanctuary.

Mr. Berger rejects Rabbi Michael Cook’s unnuanced view that the handling of The Passion by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) amounted to a “betrayal of decades of Catholic-Jewish dialogue.” I would underscore the significance of this. As Mr. Berger rightly notes, many of those praising the movie have also strongly condemned the notion that the Jews can be considered collectively guilty for the death of Jesus. In this country, Catholic bishops and scholars commenting on the film in the Catholic media cited both the Second Vatican Council’s Nostra Aetate and the Conference’s own “Criteria for the Evaluation of Dramatizations of the Passion.” Readers of Catholic journals and newspapers would have had these issues freshly in their minds because of the internal Catholic publicity blitz given to The Bible, the Jews, and the Death of Jesus, a 110-page volume of official statements over the years from the Holy See and the USCCB designed to implement the conclusions of the Second Vatican Council and to guide Catholics in the correct theological and historical understanding of the Gospel passion narratives.

As Mr. Berger also points out, before the Second Vatican Council, Jewish responsibility for the death of Jesus would have been presumed. Passion plays in the past—and the movie is certainly a traditional passion play, in both its artistic strengths and its historical/biblical weaknesses—did indeed trigger anti-Semitic violence. But the historical context has changed. The ancient “trigger,” if you will, was pulled, but the “gun” of the collective-guilt canard has been so thoroughly dismantled in so much of the Christian community that the weapon could not discharge.

I would argue that the review of The Passion by the USCCB, like the Gospel narratives themselves, must be understood in historical context. Despite the film’s flaws in its portrayal of Jews and Judaism, I did not believe that, by itself, it would foster anti-Semitism in anyone who was not already anti-Semitic, and I believe that the record has shown me to be right. It is hardly a “betrayal,” as Rabbi Cook would have it, to have judged that the movie would not lead to anti-Semitic violence in the U.S., which in fact it did not.

This does not mean that we in the Church can relax our vigilance. The USCCB’s “Criteria” are set even more firmly now (and are much better known, thanks to all the publicity) as guidelines for Catholic productions of the passion. But anti-Semitism is a pernicious disease, and has the ability to change with the times. As the Holy See’s 1988 document, The Church and Racism, noted, “anti-Zionism—which is not of the same order [as anti-Semitism], since it questions the State of Israel and its policies—serves at times as a screen for anti-Semitism, feeding on it and leading to it.”

Finally, while Mr. Berger considers Mel Gibson to be an “unreconstructed” or “traditional” Catholic, he might be interested to learn that Cardinal Roger Mahoney, who as bishop of the diocese in which Gibson resides has an authoritative opinion on the matter, does not consider Gibson to be any kind of Catholic at all, since he has publicly rejected the papal and conciliar teaching authority of the Church.

Eugene J. Fisher

U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops

Washington, D.C.


To the Editor:

There are some things in David Berger’s analysis of the controversy surrounding The Passion of the Christ that I would quarrel with, but what matters most to me about discussion of this issue is tone: Mr. Berger’s is sober, reflective, and genuinely moving. His article stands in stark relief to those activists, pundits, and movie critics who have made many reckless and insulting remarks about the movie, Mel Gibson, and Christianity.

The day the movie opened (I had already seen it twice, both times with Gibson), I went to a Manhattan theater with a group that included Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, executive vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis; Father Philip Eichner, chairman of the board of directors of the Catholic League; and several other rabbis and priests. At the press conference that followed, everyone had a chance to speak. There was much disagreement. But there was also amity.

Mr. Berger ends his piece by calling on all sides to maintain the “reservoirs of good will that have been painstakingly accumulated in the last generation.” If I had to make a wager, I would bet that the good relationship that has been built between Catholics and Jews will not dissipate. And that is because there are too many good guys like Rabbi Potasnik to let that happen, and too many Catholics like myself who will not have it any other way.

William A. Donohue

Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights

New York City


To the Editor:

Since I helped to convene the scholars’ committee that evaluated The Passion for the USCCB, and often found myself in the news coverage of the controversy surrounding it, I eagerly read David Berger’s article. After the media frenzy, it was refreshing to have his trenchant analysis of the film and the cultural storm surrounding it.

Mr. Berger is correct to insist on the danger of Jews telling Christians what to believe or how to interpret Christian Scripture. Aside from its theological insensitivity, the practice has a boomerang effect: it provides license for Christians to tread on Jewish sacred soil and to tell Jews what they should believe. But the scholars on the committee—at least we four Jewish scholars—never told Christians what to believe. Mel Gibson promoted himself as a Catholic believer, and we asked him to recognize that the images, theology, and biblical interpretations in his film violated declarations of the Second Vatican Council, Catholic magisterial teachings, and the USCCB’s guidelines for dramatizations of the passion narrative.

If we had a fault, it was our naiveté. Gibson soon made it apparent that he cared little for Church teachings or authority. As for the USCCB, we urged it and other Church leaders to publicize effectively their own tenets rejecting Jewish culpability for deicide and any passion dramatizations that defame Jews. Here, too, our faith proved naive.

I find Mr. Berger too charitable—perhaps a compliment to him. He guardedly concludes that Gibson’s assault on Jews is not the result of intentional anti-Jewish malice because Gibson included touches like identifying as a Jew the sympathetic figure of Simon the Cyrene and a flashback to the Sermon on the Mount in which some of Jesus’ followers are wearing prayer shawls. (One keen reviewer observed that after almost two hours of relentless violence, these “touches” had an impact roughly equivalent to a beer commercial during the Super Bowl.) I have a different explanation for these elements.

The scholars of the review committee learned early on that Gibson’s film was not about historical accuracy, theological discipline, or scriptural integrity. It was about profit, and controversy was the most effective way to feed the box office. Hence Gibson’s statement, “I want to kill [the New York Times columnist] Frank Rich”; the manipulation of the pope to hawk the R-rated film; the threat to sue the USCCB; and the in-again-out-again games regarding inclusion in the film of the blood curse of Matthew 27:25 (“His blood be on us and on our children”)—all morally vulgar, but excellent grist for the publicity mill.

Gibson’s savvy marketing team knew that the film’s supporters needed some evidence, however flimsy, to make their case. Without the seemingly pro-Jewish snippets cited by Mr. Berger, there would have been no post-release controversy. They provided some degree of deniability. But there is simply too much classic anti-Semitic content in The Passion—sinister conspiracies, devil imagery, blood lust, inhumane caricatures, not-so-subtle worship of money—to discount systematically anti-Semitic motives.

Mr. Berger is on target to insist that the damage to Jewish-Christian relations has been great and, yet, that the dialogue must not falter. The full measure of anti-Semitic fallout from the film will not be known for years to come, but Jews involved today in Jewish-Catholic relations feel a deep sense of disillusionment. A number of individual Catholics and Protestants understood the moral gravity of the problem and fought the battle heroically, but the U.S. bishops were absent when we most needed them. As Mr. Berger recognizes, if there is any hope of a future brighter than our bleak and violent past, there is no other option than ecumenical understanding and cooperation.

Rabbi Eugene Korn

Seton Hall University

South Orange, New Jersey


To the Editor:

In his admirable condensation of nearly twelve months of contemporary religious drama, David Berger mistakenly identifies me as “the most outspoken and uncompromising Jewish apologist for [Mel] Gibson.” Outspoken—perhaps. Uncompromising—well, maybe sometimes. But an apologist for Gibson? That is simply not true.

In my own writing and in media interviews, I have not defended Gibson or his movie—which I consider not entertainment but a piece of religious instruction made by a Christian for Christians—and I have discouraged Jews from seeing it. But I have consistently criticized both the wisdom and the morality of the Jewish organizations that, for the better part of a year, hysterically attacked both the man and his movie. As Mr. Berger correctly notes, many Christians viewed these assaults as being directed not against Gibson but against Christianity itself. Intent on furthering their own agendas, and indifferent to the peril they precipitate, these organizations relentlessly stir up anti-Christianism.

Why? Some historical accounts of the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem report that Jewish zealots burned the city’s food supplies in order to weaken the population’s endurance and make war with the Romans inevitable. Their heirs today jeopardize Jewish life in America by destroying what Mr. Berger calls the “reservoirs of good will” that have sustained mutually respectful relations between American Jews and Christians.

Publishing Mr. Berger’s article was a valuable service to the Jewish community. His dispassionate analysis of the entire episode warns how some Jewish leaders are converting us from a community with shared philosophical and religious values into a xenophobic tribe deriving its identity chiefly from hating others.

Rabbi Daniel Lapin

Toward Tradition

Mercer Island, Washington


To the Editor:

David Berger is justifiably concerned about the state of Jewish-Christian relations, but he ends up downplaying the damage done in the controversy over The Passion by (mostly) left-leaning Jews.

It is noteworthy that Christians did not consider The Passion to be anti-Semitic and that Christian sentiment toward Jews, according to a reliable poll, remained positive on balance after the film. Day after day on television and in the press, Americans witnessed one Christian after another praising the film for its inspiration while one Jew after another disparaged the movie and predicted anti-Semitic violence.

Mr. Berger wants amity to prevail and lectures both sides without stating clearly that Jewish hysteria created the discord over the movie. His “ecumenical vineyards” are nice, but a fair reading of this chapter in Jewish-Christian relations may record that it was Jews who loudly booed an inspiring Christian film, indulging their irrational fears instead of being polite and saying nothing.

David N. Friedman

Bethesda, Maryland


To the Editor:

David Berger states his preference, as a Jew, not to tell Christians what to believe about their own religion, but he does not abide by this preference. Indeed, not only does he criticize Mel Gibson’s approach to Christian Scripture, but he entangles himself in a contradiction. On the one hand, he enumerates nine instances (by my count) in which The Passion departs from the Gospel narratives. On the other hand, he writes (quoting in part from one of his earlier articles):


I do not regard alleged faithfulness to the Gospel narratives as a valid defense of a decision to present those narratives without elaboration or nuance. . . . Gibson and his defenders imagine that the film’s adherence to the words of the Gospels with nothing added provides their most effective defense. In fact, along with the sadism and gore, it is precisely what justifies severe indictment.

These are obvious instances of telling Christians what to believe. Moreover, Mr. Berger does not seem to realize that Gibson’s departures from the Gospel narratives are his “elaboration” and “nuance.” It may be that Gibson’s elaboration and nuance are conceived by him as literal readings, but that is often the case in scriptural interpretation: new meanings are understood as “unfolding” or “unpacking” what is already inherent in the text, or as simply what the text really says or means.

Is Mr. Berger, then, left with no choice but to refrain from any criticism of Gibson? Does the noninterventionist position dictate the extreme lengths to which some Orthodox Jews take it? I think not. My solution is to modify the theological preference not to tell others what to believe by adding a non-theological proviso: provided your beliefs do not require, justify, or stimulate murder.

To require that every religion respect the fundamental human right of life is not a theological imposition by an outsider; it is a secular requirement. If Gibson’s movie does not cause or condone murder, then his elaboration of the Gospels, however unflattering or inaccurate in its portrayal of Jews, should evoke only the driest, most restrained response. Offensive but harmless religious content is the price we pay for freedom of speech and religion.

In this regard, it is important to note that the only known act of anti-Semitism attributable to Gibson’s movie so far was an offensive sign posted on a Pentecostal church in Denver—a sign that was taken down the day after it was put up and that stimulated an immediate protest by both Jews and Christians. The pastor who posted the sign apologized and later resigned, apparently in response to outrage from his own flock.

Mr. Berger’s analysis of the terrible consequences of The Passion for Jewish-Christian relations in this country is overwrought. The evidence so far simply does not bear him out.

Rabbi Hillel Goldberg

Denver, Colorado


To the Editor:

As an evangelical Christian with Jewish relatives, I commend David Berger for his attempt to discuss The Passion “with a degree of equanimity,” and I sympathize with his scholarly demurrals over Mel Gibson’s departures from the Gospel text.

I agree that Gibson whitewashes Pontius Pilate, whom the New Testament shows to be downright cynical. Interestingly, here in Taiwan, where the local Christians (Protestants, at least) read the New Testament in a “fundamentalist” manner, I have been asked by students and friends who have seen the film, “Wasn’t Pontius Pilate supposed to be a bad guy?”

I am rather surprised, however, that Mr. Berger misses a key point where Gibson is very true to the New Testament: the great divide in the film is not between Jews and Christians but between Jews and Gentiles (meaning, in the first century, Greek and Roman pagans). Gibson underscores this divide by having his characters speak either Aramaic or Latin.

I was bothered at first by the absence of Greek in the film’s dialogue, but I suspect it may have been deliberately avoided in order to keep the “Christian” characters clearly on the “Jewish” side. Even St. Veronica, whom Gibson imported into the film from extra-biblical medieval legend, speaks Aramaic as she emerges from and gets chased back into the Jewish crowd. I also noticed that, of all Gibson’s characters, the Apostle Peter is the one who comes closest to the swarthy, hook-nosed, anti-Semitic caricature of the Jew. And how could Mr. Berger have missed Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus—robes, official headgear, beards, staves, jewels, and all—as they noisily protest and flail their arms against the unfairness and illegality at Jesus’ trial? This also was quarried from the Gospels, which describe these men as members of the Sanhedrin.

I understand that the hands Gibson showed nailing Jesus to the cross were his own. In The Passion, I would suggest, he is not throwing theological brickbats at his Jewish neighbors or the ancient Romans, but recognizing that his own sins necessitated the atonement Jesus made. My evangelical sensibilities cannot accept Gibson’s Catholic traditionalism, but charity compels me to say that his confession of his own role in the death of Jesus gets the New Testament right again.

Peter J. Herz

Taichung, Taiwan


To the Editor:

I did not see what David Berger saw in Mel Gibson’s portrayal of Pontius Pilate. I saw a perfect example of a certain kind of modern politician: the equivocator, the civilized man who knows what is just but refuses to see it done. When did we forget what “washing one’s hands” of a situation means? It has always meant moral cowardice. No wonder Pilate’s wife turns away from him in disgust.

John Schuh

Lake Dallas, Texas


To the Editor:

I am a committed Catholic who has seen The Passion and read many discussions and reviews of it. Even though I did not agree with everything in David Berger’s article, his analysis was one of the best, with valuable insights and judicious comments.

Mr. Berger overstates his case in one crucial respect, however. He writes: “In Luke, there is no scourging at all.” In fact, at Luke 23:22, Pontius Pilate says, “I will have him flogged and then release him.” The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and John add that the soldiers placed a crown of thorns on Jesus’ head and struck him repeatedly. These scriptural references weaken Mr. Berger’s contention that Gibson’s film runs counter to the intentions of the Gospels in its depiction of Jesus’ sacrifice.

Paul Cella

Atlanta, Georgia


To the Editor:

David Berger exposes Mel Gibson’s many gratuitous embellishments of the “Jews- killed-Christ” theme in The Passion, but he does not fault the Christian canon itself, partly, no doubt, out of concern that a Jewish challenge to Christian theology could damage interfaith relations and evangelical support for Israel. He appeals instead to a sense of fair play and hopes Christians will return to the ecumenical lead of the saintly Pope John XXIII, who sought in the Second Vatican Council to diffuse guilt for Jesus’ crucifixion to “all humanity.”

Unfortunately, this hope must contend with Gibson’s popular tsunami, which mockingly takes direct aim at John XXIII’s noble intention by standing it on its head. Gibson picks and chooses among the four Gospel accounts in order to find the most anti-Jewish passages, and invents other vignettes (as Mr. Berger convincingly shows) where the Gospels fail to provide the wanted detail.

Mr. Berger recognizes the beleaguered condition of Christian fundamentalists, whose beliefs have been beaten upon for decades and whom he wants to keep as friends. So do I. Yet I wonder whether Gibson’s egregious assault on the ecumenical soul of the Second Vatican Council should not be answered with a sharper edge, one that puts the Gospel narrative in the docket for having created and nurtured the anti-Semitic attitudes whose terrible fruit has been two millennia of pogroms, the Holocaust, and now anti-Zionism.

Michael Balch

Iowa City, Iowa


To the Editor:

David Berger’s analysis of The Passion is compelling and certainly enlightening in many respects. It is unfortunate, though, that he did not place the various passion plays, of which Gibson’s is the most graphically violent, in some sort of historical perspective.

The concept of deicide was derived from the synoptic Gospels in the early Pauline adversus Judaeos tradition, and incorporated by the theologians of the patristic era, notably Augustine and Jerome, as an example of the Jews’ proclivity for killing off their own prophets. It was magnified by John Chrysostom in the 4th century, and concretized when Constantine adopted Christianity for the Roman Empire. And, of course, it was finally utilized so well as a rallying point for the Jewish persecution that ensued for the next 1,500 years.

Deicide was just one device, albeit the most prominent, among other accusations well documented through the ages—ritual blood sacrifice, desecration of the host, poisoning of the wells—employed in the overarching design to fortify Christianity against its doubters, Jews being the principal ones. Early Christians made it diabolically clear to the pagan world that the Jews had incurred God’s wrath, and were to be permanently punished, less for their involvement in the death of Jesus than for their refusal to recognize him as the messiah.

Stanley P. Kessel

Hollywood, Florida


To the Editor:

There will be no need in the Middle East to add Arabic subtitles to the blood-libel scene in The Passion in which the Jewish crowd calls for the death of Jesus. Arabic is so close to Aramaic that, even as a non-native speaker of Arabic, I could clearly understand when the bloodthirsty crowd screamed “demmoh aleyna”—“his blood be on us.”

Why do you think the movie is playing so well in places like Kuwait and Jordan?

Nancy Glass

Washington, D.C.

David Berger writes:

I am as reluctant as anyone to deflect a compliment, especially from a person for whom I have high regard, but I am afraid that Eugene J. Fisher has placed me in that unwelcome position. “Betrayal of decades of Catholic-Jewish dialogue” was my own formulation, not Michael Cook’s (though it certainly accords with his), and far from rejecting it, I affirmed its validity. I applied it, however, not to the overall “handling of The Passion by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops” (USCCB) but specifically to the review of the movie by the Conference’s office of film and broadcasting.

The facts that generate this assessment are quite straightforward. In 1988, the USCCB’s committee for ecumenical and interreligious affairs issued a document entitled “Criteria for the Evaluation of Dramatizations of the Passion,” which reflected decades of interfaith discussion about an issue that stood near the core of Catholic-Jewish dialogue since the Second Vatican Council. In 2004, the most widely discussed and disseminated dramatization of the passion ever produced burst upon the scene, replete with precisely the sort of damaging depictions of Jews that the “Criteria” were written to prevent. In response, the USCCB unconscionably abandoned Catholic scholars who attempted to apply the “Criteria,” and its office of film and broadcasting published a largely laudatory review that does not allude to them in even a still small voice. What word would Mr. Fisher substitute for “betrayal”?

What I went on to say is that this betrayal, perpetrated under the pressure of an extraordinary situation, does not nullify the many achievements of the dialogue, and I agree with Mr. Fisher that the larger picture even with respect to the USCCB’s handling of the Passion affair is more nuanced. At the same time, it is hard to see how the “Criteria are set even more firmly now,” when the official review has effectively dismissed them as irrelevant. This is much like saying that an experimental medicine is better established because it has undergone an initial, much publicized test and been found ineffective.

I warmly welcome Mr. Fisher’s reference to the Catholic Church’s recognition of the tenacity and adaptability of anti-Semitism, and especially of its current incarnation in the guise of anti-Zionism. The Church has made the point even more strongly in a declaration issued at a just-concluded Catholic-Jewish meeting in Buenos Aires. This declaration is rendered all the more significant by the simultaneous decision of the Presbyterian Church (USA) to declare economic warfare against Israel by adopting a policy of disinvestment. I noted in my article that “many [Christian] religious liberals . . . vehemently denounce almost any efforts by Israel . . . to defend its citizens against mass murder at the hands of terrorists.” I did not, however, imagine that the overwhelming majority of leaders of a mainstream American Protestant Church would elect to wage active war, persuading themselves that they are pursuing justice and morality while effectively joining hands with suicide murderers aiming to destroy the Jewish state. Here the Catholic Church has an opportunity to defend authentic morality, and one hopes that it will adhere to principles formulated by its emissaries to the Jewish community more firmly than in the case of The Passion.

As for the question of whether Gibson is a Catholic at all, I remind Mr. Fisher that at a meeting we both attended, a Catholic priest of considerable theological sophistication asserted that the group to which Gibson belongs is regarded as being in “loose communion” with the Church, and no one present disagreed with him. I claim no expertise in this matter and leave such judgments to the proper authorities.

William A. Donohue’s commitment to good relations with Jews is important and welcome. While I appreciate the assertion that my article stands in contrast to insulting remarks made about the movie, Gibson, and Christianity, here too I need to express some reservations about a compliment. I gratefully accept the assessment that I have avoided insult to Christianity, but it should be clear that I hold no brief for either Gibson or the movie. The Passion, I wrote, “exudes indifference” to the prospect of arousing hostility toward Jews, and “no filmmaker who actually cared about avoiding anti-Semitism could have produced anything resembling it.” Anyone who has seen Gibson’s tortuous responses when asked about the fate of the Jews during World War II—including even his dismissive “sure” when Diane Sawyer asked him if six million were killed—understands very well that he does not believe that they were systematically gassed. Though I have tentatively exonerated him from the charge of intending to foment hostility toward Jews, I feel nothing but disdain for him and his film.

Rabbi Eugene Korn is less charitable to Gibson than I and suspects active anti-Semitic intent. I cannot prove that this is not the case. I would only note that Gibson’s apologists did not need the specific epithet “Jew” directed at Simon of Cyrene by a Roman soldier to argue that Jews are sometimes depicted favorably in his movie. Indeed, when I saw that scene I was struck by the word “Jew” precisely because I had seen no reference to it in discussions of the film. Without recourse to this detail, Gibson’s defenders have pointed to Simon’s positive role, and they have regularly noted, as Peter J. Herz does, the protests by Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus against the condemnation of Jesus. I assign little weight to the last point because the material is in the Gospels and also contributes to the dramatic effect of the scene. What struck me in the case of Simon was that, as I wrote, “the film underscores the Jewishness of a sympathetic character where the Gospels do not.”

I appreciate Rabbi Daniel Lapin’s kind remarks. I described him as an apologist for Gibson because I can recall no instance in which he granted the legitimacy of any criticism of the film, and, in the exchange that I quoted in the article, he embraced Pat Robertson’s assertion that nothing in it departs from the Gospel narrative. During an appearance on the O’Reilly Factor, Rabbi Lapin described the Christian scholars who called for changes in the screenplay as “Reform rabbis” (not a compliment in his lexicon), and even suggested on the Bob Grant Show that Jewish critics had targeted Gibson, rather than the producers of what Rabbi Lapin sees as a comparable film, because Gibson is a Christian while the other film was produced by Jews. In sum, he presented the issues in a manner strongly suggesting that critics could be driven only by considerations unrelated to the merits.

Rabbi Hillel Goldberg raises an issue full of complexity. What are the parameters of restraint in criticizing the religion of another and calling for change in the understanding of that religion? I have devoted much thought to this question for many years, struggling with it repeatedly in a 1983 essay in the Journal of Ecumenical Studies (noted in my Commentary article). Like Rabbi Goldberg, I argued there that the only justification for intervention is self-defense; but the situation is, I think, more complicated than he allows.

Let us take Rabbi Goldberg’s very restrictive definition of self-defense—to wit, confronting a belief that requires, justifies, or stimulates murder. Needless to say, the passion narratives have done precisely that—on a large scale indeed—in the past. The era of a clear and present danger may have passed, at least in the democratic West, but the images in the Gibson film and the impression of abiding Jewish responsibility that can easily emerge from an unelaborated depiction of the Gospel narratives surely retain the capacity to generate anti-Semitism. “The question,” I wrote, “of whether crowds will pour out of multiplexes to initiate immediate pogroms is hardly the criterion for evaluating the potential effect of The Passion on attitudes toward Jews.” All over the world, this film will be seen for decades to come under circumstances that no one can predict.

My own position, then, is roughly as follows. Precisely because religious texts are subject to interpretation, it is wrong as well as unnecessary to demand that Christians reject the historicity of the Gospels. (Such a demand is also foolish and self-defeating in discussions with fundamentalists.) But it is not wrong to ask that the link be broken between the text and anti-Jewish consequences in the real world, even if those consequences will not be the imminent murder of Jews.

Let us say that the consequences of the belief in ongoing divine punishment for the sin of the crucifixion might include the delegitimation of the state of Israel, which could lead indirectly to the increased vulnerability and, yes, murder, of its inhabitants. Would this satisfy Rabbi Goldberg’s criterion? What if some people would simply be more likely to see the Jews as filled with hostility toward others? One e-mail that I received in the wake of my article connected the Jews’ treatment of Jesus to their current treatment of the Palestinians. All these, I think, are legitimate matters of concern, and they justify a respectful effort to encourage the dissemination of a benign understanding of sacred texts, especially since the benign understanding is in fact the official teaching of the Catholic Church and of most Protestant denominations in the United States, including fundamentalist ones.

So—did I contradict myself? I do not think so. I am vigorously opposed to any requirement that Christians deny the accuracy of their Scriptures. To repeat an example I provided in my article, it was improper to call upon Gibson to affirm that Pilate was the sort of person who would surely have agreed to execute Jesus without a modicum of hesitation. Such an affirmation flatly contradicts the Gospels and may not be demanded of fundamentalist believers. But Gibson himself, like the vast majority of American Christians, repeatedly asserted that he does not hold contemporary Jews responsible for the crucifixion to any greater degree than humanity as a whole. Since the unadorned Gospel accounts can produce a different impression, I was not demanding that he and other Christians change their beliefs when, in a newspaper piece before the film’s release, I argued that a supposed fidelity to the Gospel narratives did not excuse presenting them without elaboration or nuance.

Then the film appeared with all its anti-Jewish elaboration and nuance.When someone takes a text and “unpacks” it by adding anti-Jewish material that is neither in that text nor in the canonized traditions of any Christian denomination, I am not prepared to be as forgiving as Rabbi Goldberg. Still, since he affirms the propriety of “the driest, most restrained response” while I advocated “measured criticism,” I am not quite sure how large the gap between us really is.

David N. Friedman wants neither measured criticism nor even the most restrained response. He wants absolute silence. Since my assessment of the film and its potential consequences is considerably more negative than his, I cannot concur.

If Gibson really decided to have the characters speak in Latin and Aramaic for the reason suggested by Peter J. Herz, I cannot imagine that he would not have said so in the course of the entire controversy. Providing such an explanation would, after all, kill two birds with one stone, deflecting charges of anti-Semitism as well as scholarly objections about the use of Latin instead of Greek. I am afraid that the point never occurred to him. With regard to the hand that drove the nail into the cross, a symbolic affirmation of universal guilt that becomes evident only by recourse to information nowhere available in the film itself cannot bear the burden demanded of it.

John Schuh is surely correct in maintaining that Pilate is hardly a moral exemplar either in the Gospels or in the film. What is disturbing, however, is that the intensity of his inner ethical conflict as well as his revulsion at the spectacle of the scourging—neither of them present in the Gospel account—give him a positive moral valence, however limited, that increases the contrast with the utterly remorseless Jews.

The assertion that Pilate has Jesus flogged in Luke’s account is far from the plain meaning of the text. While I have no quarrel with a Christian who attempts to harmonize the Gospels by asserting that Pilate acted on the first half of the sentence that Paul Cella quotes (“I will have him flogged”) even though he was dissuaded from acting on the second (“and then release him”), any reader of Luke who is not seeking such harmonization will surely understand both parts of the sentence as the expression of an intention that was not carried out.

In Luke, the Jews respond to Pilate’s proposal by insisting that Jesus be crucified, and Pilate relents. Even the initial intention is expressed in a much softer verb than those used in the other Gospels (paideuo, whose primary meaning is to rear or teach, and which the King James Bible translates as chastise, not flog; rather than phragello’o or mastigo’o, which really mean to scourge). On any reading, Luke does not directly inform us that Jesus was in fact flogged.

As for the assertions in Matthew, Mark, and John that the soldiers smote Jesus on his head with a reed or with their hands, I considered citing them in my original article as further evidence of the disconnection between the film and the Gospels. It is hard to see why the Gospel narrative would mention something so relatively trivial if Jesus had really been subjected to the unspeakably savage beating depicted in The Passion. This line of argument, however, seemed both inconclusive and unnecessary, and so I left it out; but if those passages do not definitively refute Gibson’s bloody vision, they surely lend no support to it.

Finally, I deeply appreciate the generous comments of many of the correspondents. This was not an easy subject to address, and I am pleased that some readers feel they derived benefit from the effort.


To the Editor:

Alain Besançon’s fascinating article on the Christian understanding of Islam would benefit from a consideration of the role of Judaism [“What Kind of Religion Is Islam?,” May]. The reason for this is quite simple: much as Christianity sees itself as superseding Judaism, Islam sees itself as superseding both Judaism and Christianity. For Judaism, such supersessionary ideas do not present a challenge; Judaism was the first revealed religion and rejects any claim that a subsequent revelation, whether Christian or Muslim, renders it obsolete.

For Christians, however, the situation could not be more different. Since Christianity is explicitly based on the claim of having superseded Judaism, it cannot reject the idea of supersessionism, but it also cannot accept it as an absolute principle, since then it would either have to deny the legitimacy of Islam at any level or acknowledge that Islam has indeed superseded Christianity. The various Christian approaches to understanding Islam mentioned by Mr. Besançon flow directly from this dilemma.

Supersessionism poses a problem for Islam as well. At root, the concept requires a belief that God either can and does change His mind or that He might double-cross followers who adhere to one revelation by providing a new one. Christianity papers over this problem by making Jesus the son of God and claiming that Jewish Scripture foretells his coming. For Muslims, the problem is compounded. As the third revealed religion, Islam must claim that God has changed His mind twice, but that He will not do so again.

Early Muslim theologians must have been aware of this problem, which is why they present Islam as the first, and therefore only, authentic revelation, necessarily outside history and unalterable in any way. Might Muslim hostility to Western modernity be a direct result of the perception that this new way of life—that is, secular modernity—presents itself as just such a supersessionary revelation?

Yale Zussman

Weymouth, Massachusetts


To the Editor:

Alain Besançon raises precisely the question that Christian theologians need to ask: how does Islam fit into our account of redemptive history? Can we find a place for a religion that has persisted and threatened Christianity for well over a millennium? Many of his answers are important and helpful.

At one point, however, Mr. Besançon criticizes Islam precisely where it should be commended, by charging that it pushes religious duty beyond the “domain” of religious life according to the biblical tradition. In his account, Christianity and Judaism teach by contrast that “man is responsible for conducting his affairs within the framework of a universe—natural, social, political—that operates by internally consistent rules. The performance of one’s religious and moral duties is thus confined to a rationally definable area.”

That is not, I believe, what Christianity teaches at all. Indeed, it is difficult to see how such a statement could be made about religions devoted to a written revelation that gives instruction on everything from property management to prohibited degrees of consanguinity, from civil punishments to liturgy, from the nurture of children to the treatment of the dead. The Bible knows nothing of confined “secular” and “religious” areas of life.

And that is just where Christians especially can learn from Islam. There is no secular space, and religious duties must indeed be “pushed beyond” the “rationally definable area” whose boundaries are set by secular modernity.

Peter Leithart

New St. Andrews College

Moscow, Idaho


To the Editor:

I hope it will not detract from my appreciation of Alain Besançon’s extraordinarily interesting essay if I observe that in certain respects his discussion does not quite reflect the subtlety of various Islamic and Christian texts.

Addressing principles of Islamic theology, Mr. Besançon writes that in it, “the world is not governed by unchanging natural law. Atoms, physical properties, matter itself: these endure only for an instant, being created anew at every moment by God.” The view that he here cites without attribution may be found in part two of al-Ghazzali’s The Incoherence of the Philosophers, a work of the late 11th century.

Causal relations in nature, al-Ghazzali argues, are never necessary. “The connection between what is habitually believed to be a cause and what is habitually believed to be an effect is not necessary according to us.” Beyond temporal succession, there is nothing, al-Ghazzali writes, to link “the quenching of thirst and drinking, satiety and eating, burning and contact with fire, light and the appearance of the sun, death and decapitation, healing and the drinking of medicine, the purging of the bowels and the using of a purgative, and so on to all that is observable among connected things in medicine, astronomy, arts, and crafts.”

This argument is by no means limited to theological speculation. It is, in fact, the same argument that the skeptic David Hume would present in An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748). Al-Ghazzali, too, was a kind of skeptic, who sought rather desperately to reconcile himself to the apparent coherence of reality by concluding that “it is God who destroys and then re-creates the world at every instant of time.” The linkage with Hume seems even closer when one considers al-Ghazzali’s idea that it is habits that give the world its appearance of coherence; Hume believed the same, with the difference that the habits to which he appealed are human and not divine.

Nor is this idea foreign to Christianity. Deus est ubique conservans mundum, medieval Christian theologians remarked: God is everywhere conserving the world. This doctrine may be found in the Epistles of Robert Grosseteste as well as in the Summa Contra Gentiles of Thomas Aquinas. Without God’s perpetual intervention, nature would at once collapse into nothingness. Similar although not identical arguments were later used by Protestant theologians to justify the doctrine of the ubiquity of the body of Christ. On this point, a warm current of sympathy joins Muslim and Christian systems.

Our understanding of medieval Islamic theology and science is still shockingly incomplete. We do know that al-Ghazzali’s near contemporaries included men of outstanding scientific competence—most notably al-Biruni, by all accounts a superb mathematician and natural scientist with a wide-ranging curiosity. His collected works run to over 11,000 folio pages.

Reversing the course of al-Ghazzali’s reasoning, al-Biruni assigns the coherence of the material world not to God’s intervention but to the laws that bind its particles together. “That Allah is omniscient,” he remarked dryly, “does not justify ignorance.” Well before the advent of Western science, al-Biruni began the long and difficult process by which the power guaranteeing the coherence of nature became vested in its laws and not in its deity.

By contrast, there is a suggestive relationship between the skepticism of an al-Ghazzali and the decline of the magnificent medieval Muslim tradition in mathematics and the physical sciences. What makes the relationship even more suggestive is the fact that David Hume’s own skeptical strictures some six centuries later, although brilliantly argued, would have no effect whatsoever on the course of Western science.

David Berlinski

Paris, France


Alain Besançon writes:

I appreciate the intelligence and learning displayed by my three correspondents, and I have no deep quarrel with their comments. Let me just offer a number of observations.

Unlike Yale Zussman, I would not say that “Christianity is explicitly based on the claim of having superseded Judaism.” Christians generally use words like “completed” or “fulfilled,” not “superseded.” They profess to believe everything Jews believe; in Christianity, the Hebrew Bible enjoys the same authority as the New Testament. Of course, Christians interpret that Bible in such a radically different way as to make it all but unrecognizable to Jews, and they place credence in matters to which Jews would never assent. But that does not amount to supersession, properly speaking, or at least most Christians would deny that it does.

By contrast, one can say that, in its own eyes, Islam “has indeed superseded Christianity” as well as Judaism. That is why Islam does not recognize the authority either of the Hebrew or of the Christian Bible.

In any case, the point of my essay was to question the common practice of “triangulating” Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, a practice in which adherents of all three religions participate. It may seem understandable and even excusable that Jews, to start there, should put Christians and Muslims on the same plane with them, often giving a slight preference to Islam (it seems less problematically monotheistic, it prohibits “graven images,” its dietary regulations are reminiscent of kashrut, and so forth). Understandable or not, however, this attitude strikes me as being at variance both with the historical record and with current geopolitical realities. Those realities might at least induce one to look more favorably upon the old idea of a “filial” relationship between Christianity and Judaism, a relationship now being reasserted by many Christians, though still energetically repudiated by many Jews.

As for Christians who triangulate their own faith with both Judaism and Islam, again often with a slight nod to Islam (its “universalism” as opposed to Judaism’s “particularism,” the respect it accords to figures like “Issa” and “Maryam”), this seems to me inexcusable. It involves a grave distortion of Christianity, the return of a tendency that regrettably may be more alive today than at any time since the emergence in the second century of the Marcionite heresy with its utter rejection of the supposedly stern, lawgiving God of the Hebrew Bible.

But what about Muslims who put Jews and Christians on the same plane with Islam? Within the framework of Islamic supersessionism, that is perfectly logical and, from the Muslim point of view, unobjectionable. Indeed, contemporary expressions like “the three monotheisms” or “the three revealed religions” or “the three Abrahamic religions” are perfectly compatible with canonical Islamic thought (so long as the other two religions are not seen as independently legitimate faiths). Only in Judaism, and in Christianity, would I contend that such expressions are false or nonsensical.

I am not sure I understand Peter Leithart. Of the two revealed religions, Christianity, having declared most of the ritual and juridical prescriptions of the “Old Law” obsolete, allowed great latitude to secular rulers. For its part, rabbinic Judaism did of course refine and elaborate biblical law to a great extent, but in accepting the principle that “the law of the land is the law,” it also consciously urged Jews to adapt and accommodate themselves to non-Jewish rule. Much later on, Jews were able to adjust with relative ease to the broader secularization of society that characterized the birth of the modern.

How Islam will evolve in these matters is something I cannot predict. But in general my remarks about the intensity of its commitments were meant to be understood in light of the broader distinctions I endeavored to draw in my article between it and the two revealed religions of Christianity and Judaism.

David Berlinski’s very impressive letter shows a deeper knowledge, especially of scientific literature, than my own; I found his comments most instructive. I was particularly struck by Mr. Berlinski’s reference to Hume. In another, longer essay on the same subject as my Commentary article, I too cited Hume—and also Malebranche, from whom Hume drew his critique of causality. In that essay I observed that both atomism and the doctrine of God’s constant re-creation of the world are part of Islam’s core theology, whereas in Christianity such ideas never became matters of dogma. But beyond this I dare not venture.

Art Under Pressure

To the Editor:

Having had the privilege of knowing personally both Aaron Copland and Dmitri Shostakovich, I would never call Copland a “fool,” or Shostakovich a “coward,” as Terry Teachout does in his provocative and (as usual) brilliantly written review [“Composers for Communism,” May].

Rather, in my opinion, both composers employed certain cultural strategies that enabled them to produce memorable music in circumstances that were difficult for them, though, of course, in starkly different ways. How such strategies sometimes worked (and sometimes did not) in the Soviet Union I describe in my book, Shostakovich and Stalin, which Mr. Teachout discusses. In a remarkable and informative recent American documentary, the Armenian composer Tigran Mansurian compared the creative artist to a pregnant woman: both instinctively know that in order to deliver a healthy child, one must take care of oneself, avoiding all upsetting disturbances. This is a wise observation.

Any picture of creative personalities like Shostakovich that relies primarily on their public pronouncements without taking into account the dominant message of their true children—their works—will inevitably be lopsided. As Rodion Shchedrin, another composer from the former Soviet Union, commented: “Shostakovich did not wish to rot in prison or a cemetery; he wanted to tell people, through the power of his art, of his pain and his hatred of totalitarianism.”

Solomon Volkov

New York City


To the Editor:

At the end of his article about Aaron Copland and Dmitri Shostakovich, Terry Teachout asks, “Who was the lesser man” for his failure to confront the evils of the Soviet system? I would suggest that Mr. Teachout himself provides a clue when he writes that Shostakovich, unlike Copland, was doing his work “at gunpoint.”

Granted that the risk of facing a firing squad diminished after Stalin’s death, I would still challenge Mr. Teachout’s statement in the final paragraph that Shostakovich could have defied the regime “without unreasonable risk.” Shostakovich died in 1975. What were Rostropovich, Solzhenitsyn, and Sakharov doing at that time? Certainly not expressing their views freely and without unreasonable risk—a privilege Copland enjoyed all his life.

Peter Heiman

New York City


Terry Teachout writes:

True or false? “If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is worth any number of old ladies.” So said William Faulkner, and one’s answer to my question will presumably determine how one feels about Shostakovich’s conduct, at least in the 1930’s and 40’s.

As I mentioned in my piece, Shostakovich certainly appears to have held himself in contempt for the way he knuckled under to Stalin’s thugs. By one account, he called himself a “whore,” which is at least as loaded a word as “coward.” I know I am profoundly grateful for the existence of the immortal music made possible by his “whorish” behavior, but does that mean I must endorse the behavior, too? Ought one to hold a creative genius to a lesser moral standard simply by virtue of the fact that he is a genius? Is great art that important? And if (as was clearly the case) Shostakovich embedded in his music symbols of protest that were intelligible to at least some of his contemporaries, should that fact alter one’s view of his behavior?

I ask these questions without answering them, just as I ended my piece with an unanswered question, because they seem to me all but unanswerable. In Copland’s case, however, the situation was different. Copland was a Stalinist out of personal conviction, not out of fear for his life. That makes him a fool at best—though it does not make me love his music any the less.

As for the matter of whether it would have put Shostakovich at “unreasonable risk” to speak out against Soviet tyranny in the 60’s and 70’s, I suppose it depends on how you define “unreasonable.” On the one hand, Rostropovich, Solzhenitsyn, and Sakharov were all put under considerable pressure as a result of their protests; on the other hand, their worldwide renown kept them from being killed or tortured. It is also worth mentioning (as I failed to do) that Shostakovich was in increasingly poor health at that time. One can only expect so much of a human being.


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