- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 11, 2004

NEW YORK — Another war of religious words erupted over Mel Gibson’s movie “The Passion of the Christ,” but this time it was Jew versus Jew.

A Manhattan debate over “Who Really Killed Jesus” drew an intense crowd of 1,000 as traditional Jews — those awaiting the Messiah — and Messianic Jews — those who believe the Messiah already has arrived in the person of Jesus — appraised Mr. Gibson’s film.

“I want to speak to my Jewish people and say, ‘Between us and God there is still an issue. … The simple issue is this: We have missed our Messiah,’” said Michael Brown, a Messianic Jew who faced off Tuesday night with Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, an Oxford-educated scholar.

To drive home his point, he said, “If, in fact, he is the Messiah — and I say ‘if’ for your sake — then to this day you are rejecting the Messiah.”

The rabbi countered: “It was the Romans and solely the Romans that put Jesus to death. It was the Christians who crucified Christ.”

At this point and throughout the debate, applause broke out in the Hilton Hotel’s Beekman suite where those who couldn’t get seats stood or sat on the floor.

The movie, a chronicle of the last 12 hours of Christ’s life, already had stirred animosity between Jews and Christians over whether it promotes anti-Semitism by conveying the impression that Jews are responsible for the death of Christ.

As Mr. Brown emphasized the validity of the Scriptures, Mr. Boteach stressed the discrepancies in the four Gospels.

Although many expected the debate to end in a shouting match, the exchanges were marked by polite and even courtly presentations.

“Jews too often have the victim mentality,” Mr. Brown said. “It is not anti-Semitic to tell the truth, to say that Jesus was the Messiah and as a people we rejected Him and missed Him.”

The two speakers traded biblical verses at a lightning pace as they built their case for or against the question of Jewish involvement in the crucifixion.

“He took all the New Testament quotes out of context,” Mr. Brown said of the rabbi. “The Jewish crowd said, ‘His blood be on us and our children,’ and the Jewish followers of Jesus said, ‘No, the blessing be on you and your children.’” he added.

“Yes, you rejected Him, but here’s the good news: His death serves to bring forgiveness to the entire world,” Mr. Brown said.

Neither man has seen Mr. Gibson’s movie, which opens nationwide on Ash Wednesday, Feb. 25. The actor, a traditionalist Catholic, made the movie with $25 million of his own money. For months, he has held private screenings of the film, especially among evangelical Christians.

The debate sponsor was Chosen People Ministries Inc., an evangelical group founded in 1894 by a New York rabbi who came to believe that Jesus was the Messiah.

Mitch Glaser, the group’s president, said in an interview that some in his group wish the movie had never been made because they fear the rise of anti-Semitism, although he said the New Testament text is not anti-Semitic.

The organization has established 30 Messianic congregations, including one in Reston and another in Rockville. He estimated that there are between 70,000 and 80,000 Messianic Jews worldwide.

Mr. Boteach appealed to Christians everywhere to oppose Mr. Gibson’s film, which he believes to be “scandalous and defamatory.”

“What is this film all about?” he asked. “Why are people getting behind it? Isn’t this the past? I ask you, can the human mind even conjure up a more heinous allegation — not that someone is a mass murderer like Hitler having killed millions of humanity — but that a nation snuffed out the source of life itself?”

Finally, the rabbi asked: “Where are the Jewish Hollywood celebrities to protest this film?”

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