DENVER, Colorado, MAY 30, 2003 ( Though Mel Gibson's latest film "The Passion" isn't scheduled to appear in theaters for another eight months, it is already arousing heated debate.

This week Archbishop Charles Chaput devoted his column in the Denver Catholic Register to defending Gibson's movie from those who charge that a cinematic portrayal of Christ's passion and death could stir up flames of anti-Semitism.

"I find it puzzling and disturbing that anyone would feel licensed to attack a film of sincere faith before it has even been released," Archbishop Chaput writes. "When the overtly provocative 'The Last Temptation of Christ' was released 15 years ago, movie critics piously lectured Catholics to be open-minded and tolerant. Surely that advice should apply equally for everyone."

The column follows on the heels of a string of recent attacks on Gibson's film, culminating in an 18-page report of an ad hoc committee of the U.S. bishops' Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs criticizing the script of the movie.

The ad hoc scholar's group that produced the report was assembled by Eugene Fisher of the bishops' conference and Rabbi Eugene Korn of the Anti-Defamation League, and comprised a mix of nine Jewish and Christian academics. One of the signers, Amy-Jill Levine of Vanderbilt University describes herself as "a Yankee Jewish feminist ... with a commitment to exposing and expunging anti-Jewish, sexist and heterosexist theologies."

The group's report, dated May 2, criticized everything from the size of the cross used for the crucifixion scene, to the languages spoken, to poor character development. The document's central complaint, however, is that "a graphic movie presentation of the crucifixion could reawaken the very anti-Semitic attitudes that we have devoted our careers to combating."

The report takes issue with director Gibson's decision to focus on Christ's passion rather than presenting a broader vision of "the ministry of Jesus, of his preaching and teaching about God's reign, his distinctive table companionship, his mediation of God's gracious mercy."

The report furthermore disapproves of the film's treatment of the Gospel accounts of Jesus' passion as historical facts. According to the signers, Gibson disregards exegetical theories that the Evangelists' accounts represent later efforts of the Christian community to "shift responsibility from Pilate onto Jewish figures," and accuses the script of utilizing the four distinct passion narratives "without regard for their apologetic and polemical features."

Yet Gibson has recently received support from the Jewish sector as well.

Writing in the New York Jewish weekly Forward, Orthodox Jewish author David Klinghoffer defended Gibson's efforts and chided his co-religionists for adhering to the historically dubious account of Jesus' death handed down by Jewish officialdom.

Such an account absolves the Jews from complicity in Jesus' death and places the blame on the shoulders of the Romans. "Our loyalty should be to Judaism and to truth," Klinghoffer writes, "not to an officially sanctioned, sanitized version of Judaism or the truth -- which may be neither Jewish nor true."

The ad hoc group report follows on a series of stories that appeared in different news media across North America, criticizing the movie along similar lines.

Boston Globe columnist James Carroll, for example, denounced Gibson's film for its literal reading of the Biblical accounts of Christ's passion. According to Carroll, "Even a faithful repetition of the Gospel stories of the death of Jesus can do damage exactly because those sacred texts themselves carry the virus of Jew hatred."

Such opinions are not shared by other scholars in the field. Jesuit Father William J. Fulco, National Endowment for the Humanities professor of ancient Mediterranean studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, not only read the script, but translated it into Aramaic and Latin.

In a recent Los Angeles Times article, Father Fulco points out that "the Jewish community portrayed in the film consists of people both sympathetic to Jesus and hostile to him, just as the Roman community is portrayed. Indeed, if anyone does not come off well in this film, it is the Roman community and governing establishment. ... I would be aghast at any suggestion that Mel is anti-Semitic."

This is not the first time the bishops' committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs has gone out on a limb in its interpretation of scriptural texts.

Last August, the committee published "Reflections on Covenant and Mission," which stated that Jews' witness to the Kingdom "must not be curtailed by seeking the conversion of the Jewish people to Christianity." The document immediately came under heavy fire from Catholics and Protestants alike, as betraying the message of the New Testament.

Cardinal William Keeler, the U.S. bishops' moderator for Catholic-Jewish relations, was quick to point out that the committee's findings did not represent a formal position of the bishops' conference.

Given that no one has yet viewed the film, Archbishop Chaput recommends prudence. "We'll get a chance to love or criticize 'The Passion' soon enough," he writes. "In the meantime, between a decent man and his critics, I'll choose the decent man every time -- until the evidence shows otherwise."