Jonah Goldberg

This has got to be one of the strangest controversies in a long time. A movie that won't be released for months is being denounced by people who haven't seen it. Why? Because they claim the film assigns blame for a crime to a handful of people who have been dead for 2,000 years.

Now, to be sure, the crime in question is a big one: deicide, the killing of God. And the handful of people are a pretty controversial bunch: "The Jews" - scourge of history to some, heroes of history to others, ethnicity of accountants, borscht-belt comics and deli sandwich makers to most.

Nevertheless, I still find the controversy over Mel Gibson's yet-to-be-released film, "The Passion," too rich in irony to take at face value.

First, here's the back story. Mel Gibson is a big movie star, as if you need to be told. He's also a very Catholic guy. In fact, he has ties to a quasi-heretical movement within the Catholic Church that rejects Vatican II and the popes who've run the church since then.

Gibson claims he's attempting to re-create the events of Jesus' final hours before the crucifixion in as authentic a manner as possible. This is an audacious task for a filmmaker for a whole bunch of reasons. According to scholars, the biblical record on the exact details is a bit muddled with different apostles telling slightly different versions of the same event.

But the technical and artistic stuff doesn't get to the heart of why the film is so audacious. The real challenges are religious. Understandably, it's a touchy subject.

The story of the crucifixion is the central religious narrative for over a billion Christians of different denominations and cultures. And, alas, the role of "the Jews" in Jesus' death has been, at various times and places, the most reliable excuse for nearly 2,000 years of Jewish persecution.

In short, getting this movie wrong is a bigger deal than messing up the "Star Wars" series with Jar Jar Binks.

Some scholars, many of them Catholic, who have seen a version of the script believe the film is irresponsible. It gets significant facts wrong - including the use of Latin at a time when Romans spoke Greek - and at the same time, they say, revives the idea that "the Jews" are "Christ killers." The Catholic Church officially exonerated the Jews of the crime in 1965.

Predictably, various Jewish leaders and other like-minded folk have raised their "concerns," too. Unfortunately, none of them has seen the movie, either.

Meanwhile, many people who have seen the film, including several friends and colleagues of mine, say it is a wonderful, albeit violently bloody, film. I'll take their word for it.

Jonah Goldberg

Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online,and the author of the book The Tyranny of Clichés. You can reach him via Twitter @JonahNRO.
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