Jesus and the Jewish Leaders in The Passion of the Christ

This post continues a series that is lightly adapted from a paper written a couple of years ago in my M.Div.

While I chose to start this paper with the excessive suffering of Jesus portrayed in the film and the related questions of atonement theology, the primary complaint heard repeatedly about The Passion of the Christ is that it has many anti-Semitic overtones. In this one major way, the film does not fit within thinking contemporary to its time, Catholic or otherwise, but would have belonged more fittingly before the Holocaust. Although I will ponder in the next section whether it is really anti-Semitic or whether it was a combination of a need to keep Jesus innocent as well as a pro-authority that left the Jewish leaders as the only ones to blame, it is clear that the blame is squarely placed on the Jewish religious leaders.

These religious leaders are immediately set apart with the costuming choices, elegantly dressed in large ornate robes.  The other simple film-making choice made of representing this group is that they are almost always presented as travelling as a group, with Caiaphas at the front, which brought to mind images of a pack of wolves and their alpha male.

The contrast between these characters is obvious

There are also more overt scenes which display the Jewish leaders, and sometimes some of the general populace as well, as the evil ones despite the frequent presence of Satan. Jesus is directly beaten by the Jewish mob that arrests him even before they take him to Pilate, a beating which there is no indication of in the biblical accounts. In a flashback to John 8 of the woman caught in adultery, all that is shown of the scene is Jesus looking at the religious leaders who angrily drop their stones, and the actual helping of the woman is entirely secondary.

At the trial and calling for the release of Barabbas, he is called simply a murderer with no mention of his rebellion, significant because the rebellion would have explained why the people would want him released. When the choice is presented to the crowd, it is presented by the film as a choice between which to condemn – Jesus or Barabbas – as opposed to which to free, and when Barabbas is released he is largely ignored by the crowd. Thus the crowd is clearly portrayed as one who doesn’t care one way or another about Barabbas but wants Jesus dead.

Once the Jewish leaders have finally succeeded in having Jesus condemned to death, they remain watching the rest of the torture.  A few times they flinch at the suffering, but for the most part – especially Caiaphas – they are seen staring calming at the scene.  Caiaphas even steps up to taunt Jesus while on the cross.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.

  • Mike

    “These religious leaders are immediately set apart with the costuming choices, elegantly dressed in large ornate robes.”
    It’s interesting how little has changed among religious ‘leaders’ since the time of Christ. Nothing signals a red flag faster than a preacher in a new suit.

    • Good point. It may not be nearly as dramatic as it is in Passion, but I do get uneasy when a church has a pastor regularly getting new high-end outfits while some of the people s/he shepherds are having trouble getting food.