The Passion: A Historical Perspective

Mel Gibson’s film fits comfortably within the history of Christian anti-Semitism.

Mel Gibson’s film, “The Passion of Christ,” has already stirred a lot of passions and heated debate. What’s all the fuss about? After all, isn’t it just a movie and we all know the ending already? Clearly there are much bigger issues at stake. By examining the implications of the story of the Passion, we can begin to understand why so many are justifiably apprehensive about the impact this movie might have.


The Passion remains the central event of Christianity and the role of the Jews in this story serves as the foundation of the early Christian view of Judaism and the Jews.

Here is a brief overview of the Jewish role in the Passion story as portrayed in the Gospel. The corrupt priesthood, feeling threatened by Jesus’ popularity, conspire against him and have him arrested by the Romans. A Jewish mob further conspires to keep him imprisoned and ensure his torture and crucifixion. As he is led to his death, he is further abused by a Jewish mob.

The Jewish role in the story is overwhelmingly negative and culminates in the ultimate crime: deicide—the murder of God. The Gospel is uniformly hostile toward the Jews, while making the Roman procurator, Pontius Pilate, almost completely guiltless. After being “forced” by the Jewish mob to sentence Jesus to death, Pilate symbolically washes his hands and pronounces: “I am not responsible for the death of this man! This is your doing. The whole crowd [the Jews] answered back: Let his blood be on our heads and the heads of our children.” (Matthew 27:24-25)

Paul, the most important personality in the history of the church, makes a special point of blaming the Jews for the death of Jesus: ”[the Jews] killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and persecuted us. How displeasing they are to God! How hostile they are to all men. They even tried to stop us from preaching to the Gentiles…This is the last full measure of the sins they have always committed. And now God’s wrath has at last fallen upon them.” (Thessalonians 1,2)

Probably the most damning of all accusations appears in John 8:44: “You are the children of your father, the Devil, and you want to follow your father’s desires. From the very beginning he was a murderer.”

The negative role that the Jew plays in the Passion served to create a solid foundation on which later Christian anti-Semitism would be built.


While latent hostility toward the Jews simmered for centuries, intense persecution and serious anti-Semitic violence started to take shape after the year 1000—at the end of the first millennium. It seems that people get nervous about big dates, especially Christians whose Book of Revelations predicts that at the end of a thousand years Satan will be released from prison and then he’s going to wreak havoc on the world.

The approaching millennium led to a religious revival in the Christian world which historians call the “New Piety.” The New Piety focused especially on the historicity of Jesus, which meant focusing on his death and of course the Jews’ role in that conspiracy. So at this time, we see the notion of Jews as “Christ-killers”—which first surfaced in the 4th century—gaining tremendous popularity. But that alone does not explain the vehemence of Christian persecutions. To fully understand the issue, we have to look at other, more complex reasons.


To start off, the continued existence of the Jews was an irritant to many Christians. And this is why:

Christian theology accepts the Hebrew Bible. It does not quarrel with the statements therein that the Jews were a special people chosen by God to receive the Torah and bring holiness into the world. But Christian theology says that the Jews failed in their mission. This is why God sent His “son” (Jesus) to straighten things out, but the Jews refused to recognize him as “god” and worse, conspired to have him killed. As a result, God abandoned the Jews and replaced them with the “new chosen people”—the Christians. (Hence, the Christian segment of the Bible is called the “New Testament” which is Greek for “New Covenant.”)

By this line of reasoning however, there would no longer be any purpose for Jews in the world. They should disappear, like did so many mightier nations. But by the first millennium—already 1,000 years after the death of Jesus—the Jews were still all over the place. Christian theology had to come up with some sort of answer to this problem, and it did. The Jews must have been doomed to wander the earth by God as a “witness people”—teste veritatis in Latin. The purpose of a “witness people” is to survive throughout history to bear witness at the end of days, when Jesus appears again for the so-called “Second Coming.”

But the explanations of Christian theology could not remove the sore spot that the presence—at times, strong and prosperous presence—that the Jews represented. At the heart of the matter was the Christian view of Judaism as a direct competitor for the soul of humanity.

The hostility that the Christians felt toward the Jews can be seen readily from the writings of the early fathers of the Christian Church. (See: What Did They Think of the Jews? by Allan Gould, pp. 24-25.)

From John Chrysostom, the Patriarch of Constantinople, we get this:

“Slayers of the lord, murderers of the prophets, adversaries of god, haters of god, men who show contempt for the law, foes of grace, enemies of the father’s faith, advocates of the devil, brood of vipers, slanderers, scoffers, men whose minds are in darkness, leaven of the Pharisees, assembly of demons, sinners, wicked men, stoners and haters of righteousness.”

In some places, such calumny exploded in a wave of massive anti-Jewish violence and the murder of thousands of Jews in Europe and the Middle East during the first Crusade from 1096-1099. (Some 10,000 Jews of an estimated population of about 20,000-30,000 were murdered in 1096 as the first Crusade got under way.)

In other places, such calumny bred other forms of persecution.


It is next to impossible to explain the accusations that were hurled at the Jews during this time. Jews were persecuted not only for being “Christ-killers” but as “baby-killers.”

The first such accusation—better known as a “blood libel”—was leveled in 1144 in Norwich, England. There, Jews were charged with kidnapping a Christian baby and draining the baby of blood. The charge became so popular it would sweep, in various forms, through Europe and then spread to other parts of the world.

Why did Jews need blood according to Christian opinion? What do you think is the correct answer?:

a. Jews suffered from hemorrhoids as a punishment for killing Jesus and drinking blood was the best cure for hemorrhoids at the time.
b. All Jewish men menstruate and need a monthly blood transfusion.
c. Jewish men, when they’re circumcised, lose so much blood because of that surgical procedure that they need to drink Christian babies’ blood.
d. It’s the chief ingredient in matzah, and therefore prior to every Passover Jews would be requiring a large supply.
e. All of the above.

The correct answer is (e)—all of the above. This is a very important lesson in anti-Semitism. You can say anything about the Jews and people will believe it.

It’s ironic that Jews, who are prohibited by Jewish law of consuming any blood whatsoever (kosher meat is carefully washed and salted to remove all traces of blood), were precisely the people accused of drinking blood.

The blood libel makes even less sense when you consider that in the 13th century the Church adopted the doctrine of transubstantiation. This is a mystical idea which maintains that when the priest says mass over the wafer and wine, these objects mystically change into the body and blood of Jesus. Christians who consume the wafer and drink the wine are said to be mystically eating the flesh of Jesus and drinking his blood. It’s ironic that the Christian world, while engaged in the ritual of “drinking the blood of Jesus” would accuse the Jews—who are forbidden to drink blood—of this totally fabricated hideous crime. But then the accusations got even wilder.

Starting in Switzerland and Germany in the 13th century, Jews were accused of kidnapping communion wafers from churches—to torture it. Medieval documents tell stories describing how a Jew (usually called Abraham) would steal a wafer from a church, stick a knife in it, and blood would start pouring out. He would then cut it up into pieces and send it to different Jews who would continue to torture it.

This would be funny if not for a fact that thousands of Jews were slaughtered as a result of such stories. For example, the entire Jewish community of Berlitz, near Berlin in Germany, was all burned alive based on the accusation of torturing a wafer.

Other accusations were to follow: well poisoning, causing the Black Death and numerous other heinous acts, usually accomplished with the help of Satan. These accusations led to the dehumanization, brutalization, expulsion and murder of Jews throughout Europe.

It is important to note that in Medieval Europe Passion Plays, reenacting the final drama of the life of Jesus, would be regularly performed in the weeks leading up to Easter. These plays would usually inflame the audience and were often followed by accusations of Jewish ritual murder and violence against Jews. (Gibson has also timed the release of his movie to correspond with the beginning of Lent and the period leading up to Easter Sunday.)

The ultimate consequence of the deeply superstitious, irrational and violent anti-Semitism of Europe was the Holocaust. Hitler could not have carried out the Final Solution without the cooperation of the many Germans, nor without the collusion of much of Europe. Centuries of largely Church-sponsored Jew hatred had transformed Europe into a fertile ground for the mass murder of the Jews.

Possibly the scariest modern development is that the Arab world has now picked up on the worst, Medieval libels against the Jews. Accusations of blood libels, poisoning, and murder circulate daily throughout the Palestinian Authority’s print and electronic media. In 2003 Syrian television aired a series based on the famous forgery, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which contained staged scenes portraying Jewish ritual murder.


Although it was usually too little too late, throughout history there were church officials and even a few popes who spoke out against anti-Semitism. The most significant turning point in the Church’s relationship with the Jews happened in October 1965 with the publication of Vatican II-Declaration of the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religious. Vatican II states: “True, authorities of the Jews and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ (cf jn.19:6), still, what happened in His passion cannot be blamed upon all the Jews then living, without distinction, nor upon the Jews of today. Although the Church is the new people of God, the Jews should not be presented as repudiated or cursed by God as if such views followed from the Holy Scriptures.” (Alexis P. Rubin, Editor, Scattered Among the Nations-Documents Affecting Jewish Hisitory 49-1975. Northvale, New Jersey: Jason Aronson, 1995. P.302).

Vatican II clearly represents a great leap forward in the Church’s attempt to make amends for millennia of Christian hostility toward the Jews. The current pope, John Paul, has gone further than any other pope in history in his attempts to make amends and heal Catholic-Jewish relations. And there is no doubt that the Church has a far more positive and tolerant attitude toward the Jews. Gibson’s graphic, modern Passion Play could well represent a huge step backward in the relationship between Jews and Christians, possibly undoing decades of progress.


Despite the good intentions expressed in Vatican II that “...the Jews should not be presented as repudiated or cursed by God as if such views followed from the holy Scriptures,” the fact of the matter is that anyone looking objectively at the Christian Bible will see that it is loaded with anti-Jewish sentiment. Any attempt, therefore, to accurately portray the Passion story on film is likely to stir up anti-Jewish sentiment and help to re-ignite the age-old hatred that has caused so much Jewish suffering. The timing for the release of The Passion is particularly poor, given the current rise in anti-Semitism world-wide, especially in Europe.


Carroll, James, Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews - A History, Houghton Mifflin, 2002

Lewis, Bernard, Semites and Anti-Semites-An Inquiry into Conflict and Prejudice. New York, W.W. Norton & Company, 1999

Pagels, Elaine. The Gnostic Gospel. vNew York: Vintage Books,1989.

Prager, Dennis and Telushkin Joseph, Why The Jews-The Reason for Antisemitism. New York, Simon & Schuster, 1983

Trachtenberg, Joshua, The Devil and the Jews-Medieval Conceptions of the Jew and its relation to Modern Antisemitism. New York, Meridian Books, 1961

Rubin, Alexis P., Scattered Among the Nations-Documents Affecting Jewish History 49-1975. Northvale, New Jersey, jason Aronson Inc., 1995

Wistrich, Robert S., Anti-Semitism-The Longest Hatred. London, Thames Methuen, 1991.


I have received a lot of feedback from Christian readers regarding the topic of Medieval anti-Semitism. Most of the comments come from evangelical Christians who claim that those who persecuted Jews in the Middle Ages were not really true Christians and that I shouldn’t lump all Chritians together.

Readers of this series should understand that this is a history series and as such, it reflects the historical realities of the past. One thousand years ago in Western Europe, there were no evangelicals. The Catholic Church reigned supreme. Superstitious, violent anti-Semitism was rampant and there were no Christian supporters of the Jewish people.

Today, thank God, the situation is very different. There are tens of millions of Christians who are good friends of the Jewish people and true supporters of Israel.

In no way is the series meant to reflect the modern realities of Jewish-Chrisitan interaction, nor is it meant as an attack against Israel’s true friends and allies. My sincere apologies if it was understood to be otherwise.

Rabbi Ken Spiro


Rabbi Ken Spiro is originally from New Rochelle,NY. He graduated from Vasser College with a BA in Russian Language and Literature and did graduate studies at the Pushkin Institute in Moscow. He has Rabbinical ordination from Yeshiva Aish HaTorah in Jerusalem and a Masters Degree in History from The Vermont College of Norwich University. Rabbi Spiro is also a licensed tour guide by the Israel Ministry of Tourism. He lives in Jerusalem with his wife and five children where he works as a senior lecturer and researcher on Aish HaTorah outreach programs.


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