Mel Gibson’s ‘Passion’ film: A look back at the controversy

‘Cohnipedia’ is the feature by Editor-in-Chief Emeritus  Robert A. Cohn, chronicling St. Louis Jewish  history.  

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

The book world’s buzz about Reza Aslan’s “Zealot:  The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth,” recalls another take on Jesus—namely, Mel Gibson’s extremely controversial film, “The Passion of the Christ,” which was released in 2004.

Even before “The Passion of Christ” was released in its final form, the film generated considerable controversy related to Gibson’s many statements about Jews that some considered anti-Semitic, along with his membership in a traditional Catholic sect that believes Jews were collectively to blame for the crucifixion.

Jewish leaders were concerned that the film would revive the harshly anti-Jewish stereotypes of Jews as “Christ-killers” by suggesting complicity of the Jewish Sanhedrin, made up of 70 priests and sages, and an angry Jewish mob, before Pontius Pilate railroaded a guilty verdict. Other stereotypical depictions of the death of Christ, like the Oberammergau Passion Play in Germany, had been modified to meet objections from Jewish scholars. It was feared that the Gibson film would revive false readings of history in a film with worldwide distribution.

For months prior to its official release on Feb. 25, 2004, articles, press reports and extensive public debate swirled about the film.  A group of prominent scholars and experts from both the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and Jewish groups like the Anti-Defamation League reportedly were asked to review the galleys of the proposed screenplay.


Two prominent national Jewish leaders watched versions of the unreleased film and were described in a New York Times story as having “found it anti-Semitic and incendiary in the way it depicted the role of the Jews in Jesus’ death.”

The Times piece, by Randy Kennedy, describes the reactions of Abraham H. Foxman, the national director of the New York-based Anti-Defamation League, and Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal