No need to belabor the point: Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ is not anti-Semitic. But having said that, still there remain in the film some disturbing things which could easily lead to anti-Semitism. The primary reason for this is the movie’s failure to present certain bits of essential background information that would make its narrative understandable.
Other than a few scattered lines of dialog, there is little explanation as to why so many angry old men want to harm Jesus, who is plainly a very charismatic young man. And when Jesus dies because of these old men, an earthquake comes to rend their Temple – as if to punish them for the way they have treated Jesus.
The New Testament fairly consistently lays the blame for Jesus’ crucifixion on the Jewish leaders and their Roman overlords. The Gospels indicate that Jesus’ enemies were primarily among some of the scribes, certain types of Pharisee, and the priesthood. Jesus, along with many other Jews of his time, was opposed to the current management of the Temple. Jesus’ most significant protest was against the priesthood, in his famous disruption of Temple commerce. Driving out money changers and sacrificial animals from the Temple precincts was a direct, though mostly symbolic, action against the priesthood. And it was a crime, perceived as such by the priesthood. The priests, at least nominally, had right on their side, and could cite Jesus’ extremist behavior in their litany of complaints against him.
It is important to realize that the Synoptic Gospels depict Jesus in friendly commerce with Jerusalem Jews, as well as in conflict with some of them. In fact, Matthew’s gospel insists that the authorities were reluctant to arrest Jesus publicly “for fear of the [Jewish] crowds” and that they were afraid that arresting Jesus “would cause a riot.”
Gibson shows a brief scene of Jesus’ “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem, but does not include the Temple incident, which follows soon after in the Synoptic narratives. This omission makes the authorities’ opposition to Jesus appear puzzling and somewhat irrational. It therefore makes them appear more bad than necessary, more bad even than they appear in the Gospels. No effort is made to present the religious-political situation in a nuanced manner.
The same can be said for the earthquake sequence near the film’s end. When Jesus dies an earthquake ravages the Temple, wreaking havoc among its keepers. Without nuance, it is all too easy to draw the conclusion that God was punishing the Jews for murdering his Son. Most viewers would associate the Temple with Judaism. Therefore, the gripping visuals depicting the destruction of the iconic core of cultic Judaism could lead to the conclusion that the Jews had offended God in their treatment of Jesus, and had merited divine punishment.
In short, lack of a sufficiently detailed background story weakens the film and could potentially fan the flames of anti-Semitism among those viewers who are uninformed about the necessary establishing facts.