Rabbi Michael J. Cook, Ph.D., Sol & Arlene Bronstein Professor of Judeo-Christian Studies at HUC-JIR and Professor of Intertestamental & Early Christian Literatures, writes:
I believe we're are skirting the problem of what Mel Gibson is likely to do with his Judah Maccabee film. Drawing on the experiences of those of us who "got to know Mel and his lawyers personally" during 2003-2004, and who may be called upon by the press for advance reactions -- as I already have -- should we not be doing more by way of serious anticipation?
Mind us, this is certainly a more realistic concern for Jewish scholars who may be asked to navigate a new mine-field far more difficult to address. That is to say, while the "Passion" was identifiably Christian as well as Jewish (so we all shared in the discomfort), Judah Maccabee is identifiably Jewish. This time the disproportionate press requests may come to the Jewish side.
To illustrate what I'm getting at, I surmise that Mel will rely heavily on the graphic violence of 2nd Maccabees replete with its vitriolic condemnation of the corrupt Hellenized Jewish priesthood and other Jewish Hellenizers among the Jerusalem populace (see, there's room for antisemitism even here). That is to say, I foresee Judah, in Mel's mind, as a Jesus figure castigating a group of obtuse Jewish masses -- sound familiar?
Assuming Mel's heavy reliance on 2nd Maccabees' gore, I envision much play on Heliodorus, on the death of 7 children graphically displayed, on the scene where one fellow rips out and flings his own intestines, and what not.
If it's Judah (= Jesus?) against the Hellenized Jewish masses, how will Judah himself be displayed? On horseback, without a doubt, but I suspect more in line with the warrior-king on a white horse (of Rev 19:15): possible approaching the image of “his eyes ... like a flame of fire ... clad in a robe dipped in blood ... a sharp sword” issuing from the mouth—the diametric opposite of the teacher of Nazareth who warned: “all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Mt 26:52). And who knows how Mel will present Judah's death?
Beginning the film on a "calmer" note, however, Mel will no doubt borrow the opening of 1 Maccabees, exalting as it does Mattathias (whose historicity AS DEPICTED I personally question), replete with his battle cry to his 5 sons to rise up against the tyrant, Antiochus IV -- whose (coded) profile, in the book of Daniel, became the basis of the Beast (Antichrist) of Revelation. Maybe Mel won't catch on to this! :-)
What, however, is to be articulated by Jewish scholars relative to the above? Or do we just shirk the matter? Since 1 Maccabees (Sadducean) and 2 Maccabees (Pharisaic) contradict each other and neither dates from anywhere near Judas' time, we are thus aeons away from straight-forward history here and at a disadvantage explaining what Mel's sources actually mean because they are so complicated.
So while we may rightly joke about Gibson's new project, I suspect that it COULD be fraught with P-R complications especially for Jews. Jewish Federations were stymied in 2003-2004 because they knew next to nothing about what to say concerning the "Passion". Now they will want scholars to create for them a 10-sentence posted response in order that Jews can refer their Gentile neighbors where to look for a Jewish reaction to Gibson, again.
This time crafting such a response will be more trying still. This is especially true because Hanukkah today espouses values quite removed from what Gibson will likely portray.
A REQUEST: Naturally, if any of us receives a leaked "stolen manuscript" of the advanced script, kindly inform the rest of us pronto so we can read it before Mel's lawyers come after us again and take it away.
Rabbi Michael Cook is author of the book "Modern Jews Engage the New Testement, available here.