There is at least one upside to the brouhaha over Mel Gibson's controversial film, "The Passion of the Christ": It has led to some serious probing of current Jewish-Christian relations and given many Jews a crash course in the varieties of Christian theology.
On Feb. 10, more than 750 Jews and Christians gathered in a Manhattan hotel to listen and participate in a debate between a rabbi and a messianic Jew on the question of who killed Jesus.
On the same evening in Los Angeles, a similarly mixed audience of approximately 400 at the University of Judaism (UJ) attended a more scholarly discussion on "Crucifying Jesus," ranging from the New Testament Gospels to contemporary interpretations and anxieties. The panel consisted of four academicians -- three Christian, one Jewish -- and if the Jews in the audience drew one lesson from the presentations it is of the diversity of views among Christians on the history and theology of their faith.
There are vast differences between denominations and between "radicals" and "conservatives" in the same church, said Dr. Kathryn Smith, who chairs the biblical studies department at the evangelical Azusa Pacific University. Besides not being monolithic, Christian views also change and evolve. "We are a theology in process," she said.
From the audience, UJ lecturer J. Shawn Landres put the case more graphically, observing, "Episcopalians, Mormons and Southern Baptists have even less in common than Reform Jews and Chabadniks."
The different views of Jesus' life and teachings are already apparent in the four Gospels of the New Testament by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, from which Gibson supposedly drew for his film. The Gospels are not history, and there are large variations among them, said professor Gary Gilbert, the lone Jew on the panel, who teaches a course on Jesus at Claremont-McKenna College.
"We don't even know whether Jesus was actually crucified," he said, adding, "There was no Jew more frum [religious] than Jesus."
For their indictment of Jewish culpability, two of the Gospel writers, Matthew and John, drew heavily on the pronouncements of the ancient prophets of Israel, who scourged their people for their sinfulness and shortcomings, observed Smith.
One panelist who had actually seen "The Passion of the Christ" was professor Jeffrey Siker, who heads the theological studies department at Loyola Marymount University.
"The film is not directly anti-Jewish," he said. "It reflects Gibson's highly personal testimony that Jesus, in dying for the sins of mankind, saved him [Gibson] as a sinner."
Siker likened Gibson's perspective to a T-shirt he saw, with a picture of a bloodied Jesus on the front and on the back the words "His Pain, Your Gain."
Professor John K. Roth, a prominent Holocaust scholar at Claremont-McKenna College, testified to his own deep Christian faith. At the same time, he acknowledged that while the Holocaust could not be solely blamed on Christianity, it was a "necessary condition" for the tragedy of the Shoah.
All the speakers agreed that Jesus was put to death primarily as a political rebel who threatened the political stability of Roman rule, although the leading Jewish priests, who owed their jobs to the Romans, encouraged Pontius Pilate's decree. The panelists also agreed with a questioner that while the film would hardly inflame scholars of Christianity, the impact might be quite different on the man in the European or Arab street.
Professor Michael Berenbaum, director of the UJ's Sigi Ziering Institute, which sponsored the event, added a provocative thought from the perspective of a Jewish historian. One or two centuries from now, he said, Jewish scholars might well look back on their people's fate in the 20th century and see in it an analogy to Jesus' progression from crucifixion to resurrection.
The final word came from Landres, who currently teaches the first course at the UJ on the theology and history of Christianity.
He has prepared a list of 10 dos and don'ts to guide Jewish responses to the issues raised by Gibson's film, which opens Feb. 25.
The first "commandment" reads: "Do what Jews do best. Study the sources. Read the Gospels for yourself, as well as Paul's letters, especially his letter to the Romans."
Another is, "Don't be afraid to stand up for yourself and the Jewish people, but do not be surprised if Christians wish to do the same for their faith."
And finally, the shortest and perhaps most practical suggestion of all is: "Don't forget that it isn't always about the Jews."