Home/Daniel Larison/The Passion Still Isn’t Anti-Semitic

The Passion Still Isn’t Anti-Semitic

At the same time, it’s hard to deny that Gibson’s depiction of the Jewish religious leadership runs uncomfortably close to the tropes of classic anti-Semitism. I wouldn’t have wanted, mind you, to see a movie that acceded to the foolish notion that the only morally legitimate way to tell the crucifixion story is to pretend that the chief priests didn’t have any role in it at all. But even so, there were a number of places in the movie where Gibson played up the Shylockish aspects of the priestly characters, and it’s hard to imagine that his artistic decisions in this regard were unrelated to his private feelings about Jews. ~ Ross Douthat

When people say things like “classic tropes anti-Semitism,” do they have any clear idea what this means?  Most of the time, “anti-Semitic” tropes include anything from negative portrayals of Jewish characters in scripture or art (see The Four Gospels, The Passion) to specific combinations of conspiracy-mongering and attributions of certain vicious characteristics.  Since reading heresiology is a significant part of what I do in my research, I feel confident in saying that there are no “classic tropes of anti-Semitism” as such, but simply classic tropes of prejudice, resentment and conspiratorial thinking into which everyone falls from time to time or, in the case of the anti-Christian and anti-theocracy watchdogs, all the time. 

Anyone who has closely read or studied the Gospel of St. John will recognise that the entire depiction of Caiaphas and the other chief priests is drawn from no other source than the Gospels, among which the Johannine Gospel would figure prominently in shaping these portrayals.  If you think that Gibson has made Caiaphas and the others into Shylockian characters, you will perforce have to claim the same about the Evangelist and Theologian John (more than a few have).  Where ridiculous critics (either of the Gospels or of The Passion) go astray is much the same place that the looney fringes go astray: they take a polemical portrayal of religious adversaries not simply as the truth, which is quite one thing, but go farther and believe that this portrayal is decisive for defining the character of all people of that sect or religion forever.  Rather than seeing the tragedy of the prophecy being fulfilled that He came to His own and His own received Him not, and understanding this in the context of salvation history, the semi-literate see in this story either an indictment of the eternal anti-Semitism of Christianity or proof of the eternal perfidy of all Jews everywhere. 

The curious thing is that these two buffoonish crowds (the professional Christian-haters and anti-Semites) resemble one another to a surprisingly high degree: both are obsessed with the enemy’s control of the media or art that controls the minds of the people, both see the enemy’s hand in everything that ever goes wrong in the world, and both are incapable of serious discernment.  The former are people who would probably see The Possessed as an anti-Semitic political fable, even though there is not a Jew to be found in it, because they know what Dostoevsky really thought about Jewish people (despite all of his passionate and credible objections to the contrary), and they will probably find those “classic tropes of anti-Semitism” in Apocalypto, too, no matter how hard it will be to find them among the Maya.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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