Will Mel Gibson Baptize Chanukhah?

In a recent blog post for Andrew Breitbart’s Big Hollywood, Jeff Dunetz laments that “Mel Gibson’s Catholic Faith Completely Contradicts Story of Judah Maccabee.” The blogger feels that this highly-troubled entertainer is the wrong choice to direct a film about an ancient Jewish hero. True, Mel Gibson’s Catholic faith contradicts many things, including Catholicism. Dunetz acknowledges that “Gibson is a passionate member of the Catholic Traditionalist movement, a minority Catholic sect that rejects the reforms of the Second Vatican Council in 1964-65,” so his concern isn’t about Catholicism per se, just Gibson’s particular approach to it:

The real question is:  based on his religious beliefs could Mel Gibson do the story of the Maccabees justice? Personally, I do not see how a man who prays that Jews convert can do a movie about a civil war waged to prevent Jews from losing their faith.

I have no desire to defend Mel Gibson, his anti-semitic rants, or his fringe religious group. While I certainly pray for the conversion of all souls to Christ, I can also see how singling out particular religious and ethnic groups might be tacky or worse.

I was rather ambivalent when I heard Mel Gibson wanted to direct this film. Part of me thought it sounded like a blatantly obvious attempt to repair his damaged public image, but part of me was excited about the prospect of an awesome Maccabees movie. As a Catholic—or rather because I’m a Catholic—I’m something of a Maccabees fanboy.

Dunetz’s references to Catholicism, even just a group calling itself Catholic, might underestimate our Church’s relationship with Judah Maccabee.

Dunetz rightly notes that the story of the Maccabees is one of counter-cultural resistance. Judah leads a ragtag band of Jewish rebels to thwart an emerging Hellenization of Jewish populations in the wake of Alexander the Great’s conquests. The colonization of Jewish culture by Macedonian Greek culture threatened to bring the extinction of a distinctly Jewish people. So Dunetz has a point when he is worried that Judah Maccabee could be reduced to just another action hero in the tradition of Western pop culture, or that a non-Jewish director might miss important aspects of the hero’s character.

But Dunetz misses a bigger point — that the story of Judah Maccabee broke out from Jewish culture over a thousand years ago. Whereas Hellenic culture failed to colonize the Maccabees, the Maccabees have colonized Western culture. At the very least, biblical accounts of Judas Maccabeus are very important — one might even say more important — to Catholicism than to Judaism.

For starters, the Catholic Church designates two whole books on Judah Maccabee as part of its canon (1 and 2 Maccabees, to be precise, although some Orthodox canons have us beat by including 3 and 4 Maccabees). These books are regarded as apocryphal in Protestant canons and – here’s the shocker – aren’t even considered “canonical” in the Jewish Bible (see Jewish Study Bible, p. 2076). As anyone familiar with Bible history knows, Catholics uphold the authenticity of these texts because they were included in what is known as the Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible that was a source for St. Jerome’s Vulgate. The Septuagint had preserved texts that had been lost among the Hebrew scrolls, and the Catholic Church had fewer hang-ups about the Greek language than medieval rabbis. Thus, Catholics have had a special relationship with Judah Maccabee long before Mel Gibson came on the scene.

Judah’s resistance to secular and pagan influence is inspirational to all people of faith, but his biblical tales have proven especially relevant for Catholics, and even more so during times of persecution. Perhaps the most famous example of his importance to Catholicism is 2 Maccabees 12:38-46. This passage includes a tale in which Judah discovers that some of his fallen rebels died while wearing idolatrous amulets — superstitious good luck charms that violated Jewish law. Judah’s response? According to this text, he has his surviving men pray for their comrades’ souls: “Turning to supplication, they prayed that the sinful deed might be fully blotted out…[Judas] then took up a collection among all his soldiers, amounting to two thousand silver drachmas, which he sent to Jerusalem to provide for an expiatory sacrifice…Thus he made atonement for the dead that they might be freed from sin” (NAB). The parallels to praying for the souls in Purgatory and making sacrifices for indulgences were not missed during the Reformation. Indeed, it is arguable that this story was one of the reasons that Protestant churches classified the apocryphal books as non-canonical. The translators of the Douai-Rheims certainly argued that their Protestant rivals did as much.

The Douai-Rheims translation, the English edition of the Bible imported by recusant Catholics in Renaissance England, further attests to the significance of Maccabees for persecuted Catholics in its glosses. For instance, the annotation on the passage above emphasizes an identification between the Catholic Church and Judah Maccabee:

It is also most worthy of consideration, that Judas Machabeus, (who did this charitable act for his soldiers slain in the holy warres) was the High priest, or chief Bishop of the Church at that time, and defender of true faith and Religion. Judas was high priest when he caused prayers and sacrifice to be offered for the dead. It was the general practice of the Church. And is yet observed by the Jews. Finally we may also observe that he did not any new thing, but practiced the usual custom of the whole Church. (Douai-Rheims passages adapted from Cornell’s digital library.)

Seventeenth-century Catholics saw themselves as direct descendents of Judas Maccabeus. Indeed, by describing him as the “chief Bishop of the Church at that time,” they have done no less than suggest that he is a kind of proto-Pope.

The Catholic translators themselves strongly identify with the Jewish author of 2 Maccabees. At the end of the text, the original scribe apologizes for any roughness in his style, and the English annotators echo his sentiment in their annotation:

But we, who by God’s great goodness have passed now to the end of this English old Testament justly fearing, that we have not worthily discharged so great a work: and in no wise presuming that we have avoided all errors, as well of doctrine as history: much more we acknowledge that our style is rude and unpolished. And therefore we necessarily, and with all humility crave pardon of God, and al his glorious Saints. Likewise of the Church militant, and particularly of you right well-beloved English readers; to whom as at the beginning we directed and dedicated these our endeavors: so to you we offer the rest of our labours, even to the end of our lives: in our Sauiour Jesus Christ, to whom be all praise and glorie. Amen.

As a Catholic, I want there to be a Maccabees movie. But, if Gibson has to be the director, maybe he should display this annotation from the Douai-Rheims at the end of his opening credits.

Catholicism’s relationship with Maccabees has been long and rich and sincere. We have been moved and inspired by his story, invoking him not as a means of colonizing Jewish culture, but as a means of strengthening ourselves against the threats to our own religious identity. We see our identity rooted in the faith of our Jewish brothers and sisters, whose continued existence, as Pope Benedict has observed, stands not as an obstacle to Providence but as a living witness to the veracity of God’s covenant.


Peter Freeman is an assistant professor of Renaissance English Literature at a liberal arts college in the United States.

  • Carl

    Oh, lighten up on Mel already! Would you prefer Ron Howard, Micheal Moore, James Cameron, or Oliver Stone?

    • Drew

      Potato Potahto

      • Carl

        Name one film from the other four that come’s even close to Mel’s Passion production.

        Moore and Stone are far left hacks.
        Howard is irreligious.
        Cameron is anti-religious.

        Howard and Cameron while gifted story tellers and have the ability I believe to do a good job; I don’t think could resist the temptation to tweek the story!

        • Carl

          Peter Jackson, Director of the three Lord of the Rings, would appear to be a canidate. But Peter is busy with the Hobbit films now.

          And besides Mr. Jackson has no known religious affiliation and got his start making depraved horror films.

          I’m sure we can find some skeletons in his closet to disqualify his participation for Maccabees too—or any other religious production!

  • Deacon Ed Peitler

    To all those who like to hold Gibson in his sin, what, besides your prayers, will you do to help restore this child of Christ to the faith? Isn’t it enough that we have Obama playing the ‘class hatred’ game that we Catholics also play a similar game with our brothers in faith?

    You will know they are Christians by the love they have for one another.

  • John Zmirak

    The point of the author isn’t to beat up on Gibson, I think; he’s using this controversy as a teaching moment about the Maccabees. I think Gibson would make a bang-up movie about the Maccabees–but that he isn’t the man to do it. He has squandered his right to talk about the Old Testament by engaging in public anti-Semitism. (Not The Passion, the drunken rants.) It’s in the WORST of bad taste for him to take on this project. It’s like Susan Sarandon directing a life of Pope Benedict (unless she did so explicitly as an act of reparation).

    • Carl

      I think of Mel as a crazy uncle and this crazy uncle has certain God given talents; so until someone comes up with a better director—I am all for Mel doing this project. Until Gibson actually applies bigotry or drunken rants into his movies I don’t have a problem.

      I love the Sherwood Baptists and the Kendrick Brothers (Facing the Giants, Fireproof, and Courageous Movies).

      Have I committed a sin for enjoying and supporting these Baptist’s productions?

      Quite frankly these Baptists have filled a HUGE hole left by everybody else!

      Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins and Sean Penn made an excellent movie, Dead Man Walking, Yea, Yea, Susan played an abortion supporting Nun but this wasn’t portrayed in the movie. At least two of them are fallen away Catholics.

      Meryl Streep did an excellent job in Doubt.

      Robert Deniro made The Mission.

      I can’t stand listening to their liberal tripe when speaking outside of movie scripts but their God given ability is apparent.

    • John S

      If you have no chronic sin, nothing that keeps tripping you up, then you are blessed!

      If your chronic sin is a private one, or because you are not a public figure, then your chronic sin is not splashed about in the news papers, then you are doubly blessed!

      If no one denies you the right to forgiveness, the right to reconciliation with God, you are triply blessed!

      Mel Gibson is a child of God, as are we all. The Passion was a magnificent film, made by a flawed man. As are all films. Choose any other director, and you’d have a man just as flawed as Mr. Gibson, though perhaps not so publicly.

  • Thomas C. Coleman, Jr.

    Yes, I know this article is not about the Tradtionalist movement, which, contrary to Mr. Dunets’s assertion, is not a sect, The first the that should tip everyone off about Dunets’s understaning of the chruch is his referecne to Vatican II as being “1964-1965.” Much of what followed at lest chronologicall from VAtican II was hardly what the the Council Fathers intended and has had to be furtively inserted into Catholic life under the disguise of “the Spirit of the Council.” Just tow years after the close of the councilthe great theologian Dietrich Von Hildeband warned of these dangers; now today young Catholic no oly do not know his name but seem to think that anyathing written by any pope or theologian before the council apocryphal at best probably refelctive of pre-millenial class-conscious sexist patriarhical values that Christ, if he actaully ever existed would have driven from the Temple of Eternal Equality and Materialism. Gibson, like all Traditionalists, knows that Our Savior wants all people to accpet Him as Savior and that praying for the conversion of the Jews is an act of charity. regardless of what Abrahman Foxman thinks.

  • A Mitchell

    “He has squandered his right to talk about the Old Testament by engaging in public anti-Semitism”

    Umm. While extremely drunk. Unless I missed something.
    Has Mr. Gibson made public derogatory statements regarding Jews? I imagine considering the innumerable, unfair accusations against him after TPOTC, it might have been understandable for him to lose his temper, but he didn’t.
    Maybe we should talk less about any of us “squandered his right to talk about the Old Testament “. Especially those of us who are lucky enough not to have our repented speech endlessly repeated.

    • John Zmirak

      He also made statements about the Holocaust which struck many as minimizing it — rather than simply contextualizing it– and did so (as the quote cited in the article indicates) in a peevish tone inappropriate to such a grave topic. I just think it’s impolitic for him to be the one to handle Maccabees. I wouldn’t have had Bill Buckley give a talk on humility, either….

      • J’Neane

        I was under the impression that it was Mel Gibson’s father who made statements about the Holocaust that struck many as minimizing. Besides, St. Peter was cold-stone sober when he denied Christ three times, yet he received forgiveness and became pope. Mr. Gibson was drunk and apologized for his rant. I include Mr. Gibson in my prayers now and then and look forward to seeing his movie about the Maccabees.

        • John Zmirak

          Sadly it was also Mel. Here’s the quote from Dunetz’s article:

          In 2004, Gibson was interviewed by Peggy Noonan for Readers Digest. Noonan asked Gibson if he believed the Holocaust happened. He answered by questioning the number of Jews slaughtered by the Nazi’s and seemed to downplay the Holocaust as a Jewish experience.

          “I mean when the war was over they said it was 12 million. Then it was six. Now it’s four. I mean it’s that kind of numbers game. I mean war is horrible. The Second World War killed tens of millions of people. Some of them were Jews in concentration camps. Many people lost their lives. In the Ukraine, several million people starved to death between 1932 and 1933. During the last century 20 million people died in the Soviet Union. Okay? It’s horrible.”

          That is no way to talk about the Holocaust. Nor about the Ukrainian famine. It’s flippant, and disrespectful to the dead. I’m not saying Gibson should be damned for it, or driven into hiding, or prohibited by law from making the Maccabees film. I just think he should have the good grace to refrain.

          • Deacon Ed Peitler

            Seems to me that he was “contextualizing” the holocaust. I have often drawn a parallel between it and the 50 million slaughtered pre-born babies that we seem to yawn about here in the USA. And if you consider the “one-baby China policy” and all the abortions in Europe, Australia and elsewhere, we’re likely talking about hundreds of millions of slaughtered innocent lives. That in no way minimizes the horror of the Jewish massacre during WWII but it does give a more complete picture of things.

            We should spend less energy on Mel Gibson and more time talking about the slaughter of hundreds of millions still going on right this very minute.

            • Ann

              Deacon Peitler makes a good point. And do we know for sure what Gibson thinks now at this moment in his life? Perhaps past statements reflect where he was then but not where he is now or where he is going.

        • Drew

          Indeed and Mel, when asked about his own view on that highly debatable (to some like Ahmadinejad) subject observed that his father “never lied to him”. Of course he may have been drunk at the time, so who really knows what passes for coherent thought there

  • RK

    The Old Testament (and the Book of Maccabees especially) is primarily about the pre-figuring of Christ, despite the sometimes virulent insistence to the contrary by some non-Catholics. Could it be that they object to Gibson making this movie because he’ll make this point without apologizing?

    Based on his brilliant portyrayal of Christ’s passion, how could there be anyone better to make a movie about Maccabees? We’ll recall that there was similar gnashing of teeth when he made The Passion. The odds are that he’ll hit a homerun with this Macabees flick and then he can tell the same critics and naysayers to take another flying leap.

  • carl
  • paris-dakar

    Mel bashing is tacky and inappropriate. Unchristian too, since it basically amounts to piling on to someone simply because it’s socially acceptable.

    • John Zmirak

      Mel Gibson is a profoundly talented, troubled man–flawed like the rest of us. In that capacity, he deserves our empathy and prayers. I’m one of the few Americans who rushed out to see “The Beaver” because I want to see his career take off again. (And I do recommend it.)

      When he made the Passion, however, he didn’t just put out a movie. He marketed it USING the Church’s institutions to sell tickets, with the implication that if we didn’t support this movie, we were endorsing Hollywood’s secularism. He turned himself, for the first time and as a business decision, into a public icon of Catholicism. Fine; the movie had a certain power, and it did some people a lot of good. But once you (as an artist) DO that, and claim an institutional mantle, you take on new obligations.

      Before I started teaching at a Catholic college, I wrote more casually and light-heartedly, sometimes using a type of sarcasm and snarkiness that were no longer appropriate, thanks to my institutional affiliation.

      I’m only holding Mr. Gibson to the same standard I hold myself. Considering how well he did from The Passion (which I certainly don’t begrudge him–I defended him in print at the time of the movie’s release: http://www.theamericanconservative.com/article/2004/mar/15/00007/ ) I don’t think that’s too much to ask of a PUBLIC FIGURE who has presented himself as a Catholic artist, and who is considering taking on another explicitly Catholic project.

      In other words, his scandalous statements MADE WHEN SOBER concerning history and the Jews are OUR BUSINESS.

      • paris-dakar

        I’m a bit unclear about the point you’re trying to make. Mel Gibson is without a doubt a flawed person – he’s been admirably frank about that – so are you saying that only certain types of people are fit to express themselves as Catholics? That seems kind of shortsighted; after all, it’s precisely the fact that the artist is a flawed person that brings value to their work. Dostoevsky was an inveterate gambler and made questionable statement regarding Jews (and Germans and Poles). Does that mean Christian literature would have been better off without his works? Augustine was a heretic who had an out of wedlock child. Does that mean Catholic literature would have been better off if he had not written?
        I can’t help but believe that most of the problem some people have with Gibson is due to the fact that he’s a cultural conservative. If Gibson had chosen to embrace some of the more ‘proper’ socially liberal issues like pacifism, Marxism, anti-capital punishment, ecumenicism et al, I’m sure his personal issues wouldn’t be so important.
        More to the point, if he had been more circumspect about couching his anti-Semitism in the ‘anti-Israel’ language that the Christian Left, Mel would probably be a hero (like so many others in Hollywood).

  • Ann

    “He has squandered his right to talk about the Old Testament by engaging in public anti-Semitism”

    I thought he apologized and recanted those statements. If he did, isn’t it up to us as Christians to forgive him and to let him move forward? Or are you making the judgement that his apology was insincere and that he is not trying to amend his life? I had understood that this movie was perhaps his way of making amends.

  • John Zmirak

    It really isn’t up to me to judge if his apology is sincere or not. That’s up to the people he offended, who by and large seem unconvinced. Insofar as Gibson is telling stories as an artist, he’s completely within his rights. Insofar as he’s representing himself as a teller of Catholic stories, we at Crisis are within our rights to cringe and ask him to please leave the Jews alone.

    • Deacon Jim Stagg

      Let it go, John. You said correctly…it is not up to you.

      Judging by past movies, Gibson would do an excellent job on Judah Maccabee. Let him do it, and then you can comment on the results. Based of the Passion, it will be a runaway hit.


      • Rebecca

        I very much doubt it would be a runaway hit. Don’t forget that many Protestants and Evangelicals turned out to watch The Passion of the Christ. They would never show up to see a movie about Judah Maccabees.

        • Deacon Jim Stagg

          We’ll see, Rebecca, won’t we?


          • Rebecca

            What would make the Protestants and Evangelicals show up to see a movie about the Maccabees? The books of Maccabees aren’t in the Protestant cannon.

  • For Catholics in England, the story of the Maccabees is very important, telling of the survival of the faith under persecution, and its eventual triumph.

    The martyrdom of Eleazar (2Maccabees 6) is particularly striking, especially with reference to the martyrdom of St John Fisher, on whose feast day it is read as the first reading.

    • Peter Freeman

      That is an excellent point, Fr. Finnegan. Thank you very much! I wish I had thought of that catch while writing the piece.

      As John Zmirak has pointed out, my purpose was to raise awareness among Catholics about just how important this story is to us and our history, and why we mean no disrespect to our Jewish brethren when we recount it.

  • Artaban7

    “But Jesus said, “Do not hinder him, for there is no one who will perform a miracle in My name, and be able soon afterward to speak evil of Me. For he who is not against us is for us.”–Mark 9: 39-40

    If we can agree that “The Passion” was a powerful and excellent film that God was able to use in spite of the sinfulness of the humans (Gibson included) who made it, doesn’t it stand to reason that the same is possible for Maccabees?

    If Gibson does nothing more than adhere to the story itself and historical accuracy–as he did with “The Passion”–it will be a profoundly powerful movie.

    Much better for us to have this made in a medium that can appeal to many than for it not to be made at all.

  • RK

    Gibson made a public act of contrition, asked for forgiveness, and has made penance. I can’t really think of anybody in public life who has lived their Faith as perfectly as he did insofar as he handled this particular transgression. The Jews and anybody else who isn’t satisfied need to get over it.

  • P

    I’m still waiting for an apology from the Anti-Defamation League, and many others, for predicting massive pogroms against Jews as result of Christians watching “The Passion Of The Christ.” No such incidents were reported, and no apologies were tendered for the anti-Christian slander.

  • Deacon Ed Peitler

    One somewhat famous person once said: “I came to heal those who are sick.” Thankfully, we have a God who came as a savior for sinners.

    We should all be appreciative for Mel Gibson’s reminding us of the very reason for celebrating Christmas.

    Mel, what would we Catholics do without a sinner like you to remind us of our righteousness ? 🙂

  • Cranberry

    I dont see how Mel Gibson shouldnt do the movie the maccabbe. Of all the hollywood producers he si most certainly the best equiped both in capacity, knowledge fo the religion, artisitc talent, and estyonishing mocie director and actor, the best equiped and therefor the best choice to make that movie.