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.

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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

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

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