PITTSFORD — Hundreds of people filled Church of the Transfiguration Feb. 26 to hear four panelists discuss Mel Gibson’s film, “The Passion of the Christ.” The event was the first of two “Passion” discussions being cosponsored by St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry, Temple B’rith Kodesh and the Catholic Courier. The second event – with a largely new panel of experts – is scheduled for Thursday, March 11.
The first session’s panelists — Father Sebastian Falcone, professor of biblical studies at St. Bernard’s; Rabbi Laurence A. Kotok, senior rabbi at Temple B’rith Kodesh; Rabbi Alison B. Kobey, associate rabbi and director of lifelong Jewish learning at Temple B’rith Kodesh; and Damian Zynda, professor of Christian spirituality at St. Bernard’s — offered little positive commentary about the film.
Noting that a United Pentecostal church in Denver, Colo., recently posted on its marquee the phrase “Jews Killed The Lord Jesus, I Thess. 2:14, 15, Settled!”, Rabbi Kotok blamed Gibson for stirring up anti-Semitism.
“Thank you, Mel Gibson,” the rabbi said.
Father Falcone said “The Passion” was based not on Scripture, but instead on The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ from the meditations of Anne Catherine Emmerich. Sister Emmerich, a German Augustinian nun and mystic who lived from 1774 to 1824, claimed to have visions of Jesus’ Passion. Accounts of her visions were published in 1833, although her writings have never been endorsed by the Catholic Church. Her critics have claimed her work is anti-Semitic, while her defenders have argued that her narrative does portray some Jews in a positive fashion.
Gibson has acknowledged drawing on the nun’s work for the film, but has also said he drew on the four Gospels as well. However, Father Falcone noted that the film contains numerous scenes that have no basis in Scripture. For example, he said, the film depicts Mary wiping up the blood of the scourged Jesus with towels given to her by the wife of Pontius Pilate, and also depicts an earthquake destroying the temple in Jerusalem, which actually was destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D.
Rabbi Kotok likened “The Passion” to medieval Passion plays that blamed Jews for killing Jesus and incited Christians to pogroms.
“The genre continues with all its potential for violence and mistrust,” he said of the film and other Passion plays. To illustrate his point, he noted that the movie depicts Jewish temple guards brutalizing Jesus, although no accounts of such treatment are in Scripture.
“All of us, Christians and Jews, will become demonized and diminished by this film,” Rabbi Kotok said. The only positive thing he said he saw coming out of the controversy is that it may spur people to study the stories that inspired their different faiths.
Rabbi Kobey said “the movie is, quite frankly, disgusting” and added “this movie cannot and should not be taken as the truth.” For example, she said, “The Passion” depicts the Jewish high priest Caiaphas as a powerful figure, but in reality he served only at the pleasure of the Romans.
“I strongly support the issue of free speech and free art, but we have to work together to understand the facts,” she said.
During a question-and-answer period following the panel presentations, one man asked about the Gospels, Sister Emmerich’s writings and how a work can be defined as “divinely inspired.” Referring to Emmerich, Zynda responded by noting that the Catholic Church “has always been cautious about private revelation.”
Audience members offered varied responses to the discussion. Mary Alice Westerlund, a Catholic, said the discussion made her think twice about seeing “The Passion.”
“I think I will go see it, but I’m not in the huge hurry I was in before because maybe the best thing to say to Mel Gibson is to not pay for a ticket,” she said. “He’s presented ‘The Passion’ as history, and I don’t agree that this is really history.”
Bob Fetter, a member of Browncroft Community Church in Penfield, said the panel may discourage people from seeing the film, but that he was going to see it. He noted that he had read a number of positive comments by moviegoers about “The Passion.”
“People say they were really affected, not to hate the Jews, but to realize that (the crucifixion) was their own responsibility,” he said, adding that Jesus’ death allowed Christians to “have our eternal life.”
The second discussion of the film will take place from 7-8:30 p.m. March 11 at the Burgundy Basin Inn, 1361 Marsh Road, Pittsford.