The ghosts of virulently anti-Semitic nuns may haunt Mel Gibson's new film about Jesus' final days, some Catholic and Jewish scholars are warning.
The growing hype concerns charges that "The Passion" blames Jews for Jesus' death. Gibson denies any anti-Semitic intent, and little attention has focused on the sources for his screenplay.
Scholars -- some of whom have seen an early version of the script -- fear it relies partly on the teachings of a 19th century nun who blamed Jews collectively for the crucifixion. These theologians also warn that the movie may splice the New Testament's multiple gospels about Jesus into a cinematically sharpened, but distorted, anti-Jewish passion play.
"Mel Gibson ought to take special care, because the people he is relying on [for the movie's narrative] are people who are very antagonistic toward Jews," said Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles.
The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) this week also endorsed a highly critical report by some of these scholars based on a pirated, early version of the script.
Media focus on the film increased after The New York Times published a lengthy article earlier this year about Gibson's fundamentalist Catholic sect, which rejects the Vatican's authority and its modern-day reforms.
Gibson has issued a single statement saying, "Neither I nor my film are anti-Semitic."
Gibson's spokesman, Alan Nierob dismissed the prerelease criticism.
"Just getting rabbis and priests and whomever to just guess on the issue -- they don't really know what they're talking about," Nierob said.
At the heart of the controversy lies the question of Gibson's intent, and the issue of which sources he is using to shape the film's narrative.
Now editing the film, Gibson said two weeks ago that the movie "conforms to the narratives of Christ's passion and death found in the four Gospels of the New Testament."
But some reports contradict that.
Several experts on Catholic-Jewish issues said one source of inspiration for the film seems to be Sister Anne Catherine Emmerich, a mystic in the late 1700s and early 1800s, who saw visions of Jews with "hooked noses," Hier said. According to a 1976 biography of Emmerich by the Rev. C. E. Schmoeger, Emmerich described one vision of an "old Jewess Meyr" who admitted "that Jews in our country and elsewhere strangled Christian children and used their blood for all sorts of suspicious and diabolical practices."
A March article about the film in The Wall Street Journal, written by Raymond Arroyo, said the movie also is based on a 17th century nun, Mary of Agreda, whom critics say is also anti-Semitic.
One of those critics is Philip Cunningham, a Boston College theology professor and executive director of the college's Center for Christian-Jewish Learning. Cunningham was on a nine-member, ad-hoc panel that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the ADL organized to review an early version of "The Passion" screenplay. Their assessment provoked Gibson to threaten a lawsuit. The Conference of Bishops later backtracked, claiming it did not authorize or review the report.
One concern for Cunningham is that an Italian Web site that claims to be an unofficial site for "The Passion" says the film "is based upon the diaries of St. Anne Catherine Emmerich."
"Any kind of drama based on such a work would be fraught with peril in terms of anti-Semitic sentiments," and would violate current church teaching, Cunningham said.
Emmerich's diary includes images of servants of the high priest bribing fellow Jews to demand Jesus' death, paying some of his killers and describing scenes of Jesus' crucifixion as more "brutal" than those in the New Testament, Cunningham said.
Rabbi James Rudin, another expert on Catholic-Jewish issues, said this material had served as the "toxic" source for centuries of anti-Semitic passion plays. Rudin likened such "extra-biblical" material to Jewish Midrash (post-biblical analysis).
"It's all Midrash. If Gibson uses that as kosher, than he is really going against the authorized Catholic teaching of the Vatican," Rudin said. "To use that is distortion and dangerous."
The scholars are equally troubled by references to Mary of Agreda, who blames Jews throughout the ages for Jesus' death.
Hier cites a passage from her writing that refers to Jews, saying: "Although they did not die, they were chastised with intense pain. These disorders consequently upon shedding the blood of Christ, descended to their posterity and even to this day continue to afflict this group with horrible impurities."
Such attitudes had a direct influence on modern anti-Semitism and even on the Holocaust, said the Rev. Michael Cooper, director of the Center for Catholic-Jewish Studies at St. Leo University in Florida.
Nierob said he had "never heard" of Emmerich or Mary of Agreda. He also questioned criticism of Emmerich.
"Is everything she wrote anti-Semitic?" he asked.
The scholars also voiced worries that Gibson might weave together the most anti-Semitic portions of the gospels into his film.
By editing the gospels into a single montage, Cunningham said, "you end up with a multiplication of anti-Jewish elements that ends up being more powerful than any one gospel would have been."
"It takes enormous sensitivity to strip [the gospels] of anti-Semitic teachings," Rudin added.
Hier, who recently wrote about the film in the Los Angeles Times editorial pages, said he had urged Gibson to meet with him and others to discuss their concerns.
Gibson's spokesman likened such calls to censorship.
"Are they filmmakers? Do they want to tell him how to make this film?" Nierob asked. "They can make a film if they want to."
Hier, in fact, is a filmmaker: The Wiesenthal Center won an Academy Award in 1997 for the Holocaust documentary, "The Long Road Home," which he co-produced. Ironically, as a voting member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Hier backed Gibson for best director for his 1995 film, "Braveheart."
Hier insisted that his aim was only to discuss with Gibson concerns about the film's story. He pointed out that he had consulted on other films, including the recent "Young Hitler." At his urging, Hier said, the filmmakers tacked on a series of documentary Holocaust images after the film.