Rabbi’s Essays

Pre-Viewing Mel Gibson’s “The Passion”

“The Passion” opened on Wednesday, February 25, 2004. This essay was written before its opening. Its purpose has been to frame an understanding of the film before it is viewed, rather than critique it in a review.

It is as it was

“The Passion” was certainly one of the most discussed unreleased films in years. The chatter began last Spring, when a panel of Catholic and Jewish scholars questioned the historicity and approach reflected in a shooting script of the film. The noise grew louder as the film received viewings before selected, mostly politically and religiously conservative groups, with many Jews and liberal Christians being barred. And certainly one of the high (low!) points in the hype came with a report that Pope John Paul II had commented “It is as it was,” following a special Vatican preview. The Vatican has since denied that the Pope or anyone else had said anything, and John Paul has steadfastly maintained its own counsel since.

For a brief while, however, “it is as it was,” was seized upon as an endorsement for the veracity of the film. The first question to ask, then: can “The Passion” be deemed to be an accurate depiction of the events that took place in the last twelve hours of Jesus’ life? Before taking the question seriously, we can ask just what sort of scholarly integrity are to expect from a person whose principal stake to fame are the Lethal Weapon movies? But, let us be serious.

This question can be understood in two ways. First, does the film comport with the historical record of the events that occurred in Jerusalem in the early mid-first century? To answer this form of the question, we need to refer to reliable historical data. What have we at our disposal? The specific actions are depicted in only one source book, the Christian Bible. Normally historians do not like doing history with only one source. While the details of Jesus trial and execution are only to be found in this one record, there are other texts that can corroborate or discount the general features of the story. I will get to a discussion of this material at the end of this essay, but before doing so, let me provide the second form of the question.

Does the film comport with the details of the written record, whether that record is historically accurate or not? Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy is a pretty close reading of Tolkien’s book. Obviously, 1300 pages of literature are not fully covered even by ten hours of film, and the difference between written text and film requires certain necessary liberties. Nevertheless, Jackson’s movie and Tolkien’s book are a good fit. Can we say the same about Gibson’s movie and the biblical record?

One does not have to see the film in order to recognize the problem that arises from this question. The last half-day of Jesus’ life is depicted in four separate versions: the four Gospels of the Christian Bible.

By way of comparison, consider attempting to film – say – Noah and the flood. The text for this event is to be found in Genesis, mostly chapters 6 and 7. Needless to say, this is not a historical record. Even more to the point, a close reading of the text reveals that it is actually two documents. Biblical scholars refer to them as the ‘J’ and ‘P’ documents. The two represent somewhat different traditions in the telling of the story. For instance, in one version the flood is created by forty days of continuous rain. In the other, it is caused by the bursting of the ‘walls’ that hold back the waters of the firmament above and the seas below the land. The two versions, however, have been carefully blended together by a later redactor. The editing job is good enough, that one has to be looking for the multiple documents in order to split them out one from the other. As a result, a filmmaker can produce a single coherent and reasonably accurate portrayal of the Noah story.

Now, return to the last hours of Jesus. Each of the four Gospels (Mark, Matthew, Luke and John) give their own version of the events. We may note a number of points of commonality among all of them: Jesus was arrested with the involvement of Jewish leaders, Peter denies knowing Jesus, Pontius Pilate examines him, releases Barabbas, Jesus is crucified along with two revolutionaries, and his cross labels him ‘King of the Jews.’ Beyond these points, there are all sorts of variations. Further, the information provided by the Gospels in total is very schematic. I doubt one can make a full-length film from just the Genesis text, yet the story of Noah and the flood is quite detailed in comparison to any one account of Jesus’ trial and death.

I think we can conclude that no definitive narrative can be created out of the text(s) of the passion of Jesus. The film must fill out in some creative fashion the account given in the Gospels.

If the filmmaker must guess or extrapolate details, he can still claim to produce a historically accurate film. Certainly, this is Gibson’s intent, and thus we can take up the question of reliable sources. In this case, we do indeed have more than the Gospels to draw upon. There are the Latin and Greek documents that give scholars a rather full understanding of Imperial Rome in the first century. These texts do not speak directly about Jesus, and only touch incidentally on Jerusalem and Judea, but we can deduce certain truths about the role of procurators and the level of political, military and religious control exercised by the Empire. The other sources that illuminate first century Judea are—surprise!—Jewish. They include rabbinic literature (midrash, Mishna and Talmud), the historian Josephus (an invaluable source), the Dead Sea Scrolls, and some material stored in the Ben Ezra synagogue in Cairo (known as the Cairo Genizah).

This is a wealth of material that gives us both a rich portrait of first century Roman occupied Judea, and a context in which one can evaluate the historicity of the Gospels themselves. In an addendum to this essay, I will briefly construct a historical presentation of Jesus’ trial and death. At this point, it suffices to point out the logical contradiction that Gibson faces in attempting an accurate film.

In brief, history is one thing, and theology is another. This statement cannot be truer with respect to sacred texts. Consider, for example, the ‘history’ of the Torah. There are certainly events presented in the five books of Moses that are depicted as truly happening. The authors of the Torah, however, were not eyewitnesses to these events. They trust and believe that all they wrote down actually occurred, but they also knew that the factuality of the Flood, or Joseph in Egypt, or the crossing of the Sea, was beside the point. They were not recording these events for posterity (they probably thought they did not have to bother as the stories were so popular and enduring), but rather attempting to teach in religious terms what one should learn from them. The fundamental question is not ‘what happened and how,’ but ‘what does it mean?’

The very same thing can be said about the Gospels. None of the authors were eyewitnesses to the events that happened before they were born. They accepted the factuality of the stories they had heard, but they were more interested in framing these stories within a new religious context. Again, it was not what happened, but what it means.

History, as we understand it today, did not exist as a discipline when either the Torah or the Gospels were put to writing. Historians utilize different (sometimes contradictory) techniques for drawing historical truth out of a document. A filmmaker, however, has to make a fundamental decision: either search for the historic elements of a biblical tale, or reflect one’s own expression of faith. Gibson, by his own admission, has chosen the later. In doing so, he is no longer attempting to depict what might have happened according to the best historical evidence, but rather what one should believe based on the lessons he is drawing from a theological text.

The Crucifix and the Cross

Mel Gibson is not presenting history, but this failure is not particularly important. Films might be “based on a true story,” or “suggested by true events,” and we viewers know that we are getting an imaginative depiction. What really is being revealed on the screen is the creative mind of the filmmaker. I now want to ask, what is Gibson attempting to depict, and in what way should this be a concern to Jews?

All I know about Gibson’s intent is what he has said, and I have no reason to doubt his forthrightness and honesty. First, he wants to portray as directly as possible the pain and suffering Jesus endured in his last hours. Both Romans and Jews were involved in Jesus’ death, but he claims that he wants the viewer to feel implicated as well. We all killed the messiah. This is the essence of the filmmaker’s intent. All fine and good, but we still have some fundamental problems to confront.

First, there is the intentional fallacy. Just because an author or filmmaker articulates what exactly he or she has in mind in the presentation of their work, the reader or viewer might see something quite different. What Gibson wants (and does not want) us to get out of the movie is almost beside the point. We are going to walk away from the film with our own impressions.

Gibson has been clear that he does not want to single out the Jews as primarily responsible for Jesus’ execution. On the other hand, he is not shying away from depicting Jews as being involved. How confident can he be that his presentation will be so clear that ordinary viewers will be able to distinguish between Jewish involvement and Jewish responsibility? There have been a number of reports from previewers that scenes focusing on the culpability of the High Priest, and having Pilate wash his hands of guilt, were indeed made. Frankly, I expect the final print to refrain from any explicit accusation of the Jews. [Since the film has now been released, my earlier confidence has turned out to be overly optimistic.] Yet, neither Mel Gibson nor I can predict what conclusions filmgoers are going to reach when they see any involvement of Jews at all. All I can expect is that Gibson not wash his hands of the matter, either. He cannot say, ‘I can’t control individuals reactions, that they will believe what they wish to believe.’ This statement is true, but immaterial. If people respond to the film with assertions, ‘Aha, The Passion does show that the Jews killed Jesus!” Gibson must be forthright in stating that that is a misinterpretation of his intent.

The issue of anti-Semitism is really a minor one. Those harboring anti-Jewish animus will not need the movie produced by the star of Conspiracy Theory in order to stoke their dark thoughts. If the film represents a crisis, it is not in Christian-Jewish relations, but rather in Christianity’s relationship with all non-Christians.

Western Christianity split into camps about 450 years ago: Protestant and Catholic. The Catholic Church had, and still preserves, as its dominant symbol, the crucifix. Protestants changed that symbol in a very fundamental way. They took a depiction of the dying Jesus off it, thus turning it into the cross. For non-Christians, the distinction is virtually invisible, but it is quite important. The crucifix portrays Jesus’ suffering and death as the central symbol of Christian faith, while the cross is vacant, representative of Jesus’ resurrection and salvation.

In the earliest days of the Christian Church, the notion of the risen Christ was dominant. Jesus’ resurrection was emphasized, pointing toward the imminence of the “Kingdom of Heaven.” As described by the historian, James Carroll, in his Constantine’s Sword, a shift took place when the Emperor Constantine declared Christianity as the official faith of the Roman Empire. Constantine himself was probably quite indifferent to the religion – his mother, Helena, however, had become a devoted seeker of Christian relics – but he did see the unifying value in bringing everyone under a single religious devotion. Moreover, by changing the focus from resurrection to crucifixion, Constantine could better demand sacrifice and risk of life on the part of his troups. The Church therefore became the Church Militant.

Nothing was more important in Christian thought than Jesus’ death. Through his suffering and sacrifice, a broken and wicked world could be redeemed. No personal sacrifice on behalf of the Church (or the king as a national embodiment of the Church) was unacceptable, and no act, including murder, on behalf of the Church was out of bounds. Fired by this article of faith, Popes could send hundreds of thousands of soldiers marching across Europe in four Crusades.

The centrality of the symbolism of the crucifix began to change under the Second Vatican Council. While crucifixes have not been replaced by crosses in Catholic Churches, the idea of love and compassion, concepts associated with the both living and resurrected Jesus, were brought forward. The Passion, with all its fierce and dark power, was either reinterpreted or, in the case of many Passion Plays, eliminated altogether.

And now Gibson has brought back the Passion with a vengeance. Life, once more, is returned to death; salvation to suffering; compassionate love to bloody sacrifice. All this in the age of clash of civilizations! It is not the Jews who have to be concerned about the passions that are aroused by “The Passion,” it is all of us infidels. As we have been told again and again, by Gibson and supporters of his film, the movie emphasizes that we all are guilty for the death of Jesus. What they do not say: us Christians, of course, have been forgiven.

In the final analysis, Mel Gibson and his passions are a Christian problem. Alas, it is dangerous and perhaps inevitable one. In these days of intense religious chauvinism and ‘clashes of civilizations,’ Christians may choose once more to wave the bloody cross of death and, not salvation, but damnation of those who do not believe. Or they may return once more the Pauline vision of rebirth and salvation. If they tend to opt for the former, all we – that is all of us who do not profess to Christian soteriology [salvation through Jesus], and perhaps even Christians who do not sufficiently believe – can do is duck.

As I noted, the conflict might be inevitable. Arrogance and demagoguery seems to be in vogue. It is not just emanating from the White House. As I write this, Vladimir Putin is consolidating his grip on Russia, and the feeble fires of democracy in Iran are barely flickering. Maybe, “The Passion” will bring these ugly passions to a head and lead to their dissipation. May it be God’s will.

Addendum: What Really Happened?

I. Methodology

When confronting the question of trying to determine what really occurred at some time and place in history, we need to consider a pair of issues first: How do we know anything happened; in other words, that the story we have received is something more than just a story? If we are confident that the event took place, what is the method we should employ in order to distinguish fact from fiction?

In an answer to the first question, which can be framed as ‘did Jesus really live, preach and die on a Roman cross?’ I think we can say yes. First, on what basis should we disagree with the proposition? There were Jewish preachers in first century Judea (Israel), and people—maybe as many as a quarter-million inhabitants of Judea—were crucified. Second, we have a non-Gospel source of the existence of Jesus: a reference in the history written by Josephus. On to the second question, methodology.

The biblical text tells a story. The historian then attempts to evaluate the truth-value of the story. All historical accounts, we know, are a mixture of objective representation of the actual occurrence and personal bias that consciously or unconsciously alters the tale. The historian’s task is to determine just what the narrator’s biases might have been, and in what way they cause the related tale from deviating from objective truth. (Note that objective truth itself is probably impossible. After all, the historian also has biases.)

The historian might go about the task at hand by triangulating: take two or more eyewitness accounts and, in discerning their differences, determine what contributed to the distinctions, what it says about the eyewitnesses and about the event itself. A second method is contextualization: the historian places the event itself within the larger cultural and societal picture. What are the principal social and philosophical forces at a time, and how would they serve to frame the depiction of the event in question. The event of the crucifixion of Jesus requires this second method.

The Gospels are the sole depiction of the life and death of Jesus. All of them were written fully a generation or two after Jesus. Although none of the Gospel writers themselves were eyewitnesses, we can assume that they did draw upon the narrative accounts of those who knew Jesus personally, and were with him. These accounts would have been second or third-hand, but they certainly would have contained the basic features of what really occurred.

One more critical aspect of the Gospels is that between them and the actual historical Jesus was the Apostle Paul. Paul’s understanding of Jesus, which can be drawn from his Letters (Epistles) and the Book of Acts (attributed to one of the Gospel writers, Luke), is a fundamental and unmistakable influence on how all of the Gospels treated the narrative accounts they had at their disposal.

The historian’s task is to take the Gospel narratives, and utilizing all first century literature at their disposal, establish the context in which the distorting influences on the accounts can be separated from the depiction of the actual events. The “history” that I am about to provide has been taken primarily from two works: What Crucified Jesus? by Ellis Rivkin, and The Mythmaker by Hyam Maccoby. Both, the works of Jewish historians, were written in the mid-1980s, well before the current controversy. As non-Christians, Rivkin and Maccoby were capable of some critical distance. The soundness of their historical reconstruction has been affirmed by Christian scholars.

Rivkin and Maccoby take somewhat different approaches. Rivkin relies to a great extent on the writings of Josephus, while Maccoby focuses on an analysis of the Christian Scriptures. Thus, they diverge in their speculation as to what really happened. They nonetheless agree more than they disagree.

A Historical Reconstruction

The brief answer to the title of Rivkin’s book is that the Roman Imperial system crucified, not the Jews, or any particular individual or group of Jews, or even the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate. Jesus’ death, as was the case with every crucifixion, was a matter of Roman political calculation. All of the Gospel’s attest to a sign being affixed to the cross, “Jesus, King of the Jews.” The key word is ‘King,’ a clear indication that Jesus posed a perceived political challenge to Roman hegemony.

One may raise a few questions here: Could there nonetheless have been Jews who opposed Jesus on religious grounds, and would have attempted to frame that opposition in political terms that suited Roman interests? Is it not possible that Rome’s execution of Jesus was done in order to appease a local population during unsettled times?

The answers lie in determining whether Jesus said or did anything that Jews would consider worthy of execution. And whether Rome ever felt obligated to appease local populations. Scriptural and historical evidence suggest that in both cases it is no.

The rabbinic and other Jewish literature portrays a religiously diverse population in Judea. By the beginning of the Christian era, the Pharisees had risen to dominance. Pharisees promoted the idea of both a written Torah and an oral Torah of teachings that originated from God speaking to Moses at Sinai. They also argued on behalf of bodily resurrection for the righteous in the world-to-come. Finally, they were strong supporters of free inquiry and the value of disputation. At the time of Jesus, the Pharisees were substantially divided into two schools of thought, that of Hillel and of Shammai. While the two schools agreed on written and oral Torahs and resurrection, they differed on many ideas, and even certain ritual practices. Their disagreements were not condemned, but rather celebrated. Further, while the Pharisees would have been more fundamentally opposed to the ideas of such Jewish groups as the Sadducees, whose chief proponent was the High Priest, they never engaged in any effort to suppress opposition.

The Sadducees, and the High Priest, were clearly opposed to the religious vision of the Pharisees. They, in turn, never made any effort to take advantage of any influence they had within the Imperium to oppress their opponents. If Jesus was indeed put to death because of religiously objectionable ideas, we would almost certainly have evidence within the Jewish literature of other Jews executed on similar grounds.

The real divisions within the first century Jewish community of Judea were political. They principally had to do with the dominance of Rome. Since the reign of King Herod toward the end of the previous century, Jews had been feeling keenly the loss of the political independence that had been achieved by the Maccabean revolt. Herod’s rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem was especially controversial. While the Temple was one of the largest and most magnificent buildings in the Empire outside of Rome, Jews wondered whether it was a true successor to Solomon’s structure, or a sacrilegious edifice actually attesting to the glory of Rome. The presence of an Imperial eagle over one of the gates did not help matters.

The main feature of the debate was: should Rome be confronted actively, or should Jews rely on God to bring about the restitution of Israel’s national independence? Within this overarching debate, there were a number of positions. Some supported active defiance. (By the year 66, this position won out and the Jews were in full revolt.) Some promoted a more passive resistance that entailed withdrawing as much as possible from public activity that could be construed as supporting Roman hegemony. And others sought to divide themselves intellectually and emotionally: rendering that which is Caesar’s unto Caesar, and that which is God’s unto God.

The divide between active and passive opposition to Roman rule was most significant. The ‘pacifists’ could either attempt to remain as neutral as possible regarding the activities of fellow Jews to throw the Romans out. They could promote separation of Jewish faith from the reality of Roman governance. Or they could cooperate with the Romans in order to maintain stability in the land. The High Priest was in this last camp. Josephus notes that if a High Priest tried to act independently of the Roman governor, he would be sacked from his post, and replaced with someone more pliant.

Sometime around the year 30, Jesus was caught, tried and executed for fomenting opposition to Roman rule. Depending on how you want to read the sources—here Rivkin and Maccoby diverge—Jesus was an overenthusiastic Pharisee, one who thought that he himself was the messiah (christ in Greek), in accord with some elements of Pharasaic thought, and who would lead the Jews to a newly restored commonwealth of Israel. He would not have feared the prospect of crucifixion, expecting either that God would save him before death, or bring about his resurrection in order to complete his task.

Or he might rather have been more eccentric, part of what Josephus called the Fourth Philosophy (after Pharisee, Sadducee and Essene). He was a charismatic who employed a self-image as an Elijah-like prophet, but his message was deeply pacifistic and accommodationist. Jewish tradition must be internalized as one learned to endure, Isaiah and Jeremiah-like, the indignities of Roman rule. Although his preaching did not entail opposition to Rome, his popularity and the crowds he attracted led the authorities to consider him dangerous. Given his self-identification with the biblical prophets, who were willing to suffer for the sake of God’s truth, Jesus accepted his gruesome fate.

(I stated earlier that Josephus does mention Jesus. It is a curious citation that focuses mostly on his brother James. Jesus is simply noted in passing as one who had been called a messiah. Josephus possibly knew nothing more about him or did not consider his story particularly unusual. After all, there were many others, before and after, who proclaimed themselves messiahs.)

Whether Jesus can be placed fully within or just outside the Pharisaic Movement, he would not have raised much ire among the dominant group of Jews of the time. Pharisees would certainly have engaged in argument with him, as they did with everyone else. Nothing – absolutely nothing – in Jesus’ philosophy would have been considered outside the pale of acceptable Jewish thought. This includes claims of prophecy or messiah-ship. Many Jews might have thought he was wrong, but that is quite different from considering him un-Jewish.

The High Priest and his coterie would certainly have opposed Jesus, but hardly on religious grounds. The positions of the Pharisees in general were already quite objectionable. Jesus was a threat, either by his direct challenge to Rome, or the simple disturbance he raised in the populace. The High Priest was both philosophically and by dint of self-interest concerned about docility in the Jewish population. Jesus had to go.

The decision to crucify Jesus was solely in the purview of the Roman authorities. Pilate would have had very little compunction about executing this person. He sent thousands to their deaths. Rivkin, however, gives a fascinating twist to the story of the procurator placing the onus of the execution on the Jews. It was a psychological game. Jesus had drawn a following as a purported liberator. Pilate would have considered it in his interest to get the Jews, who knew that their fate was in the procurator’s hands, to disavow publicly this self-proclaimed messiah.

A Final Word: The Twisted Tale

Jesus lived, preached and died as a Jew. His death was one of many that occurred as part of the Roman attempt to maintain control and obedience within this eastern enclave of their empire. How, then, does the Gospel tale twist to suggest that Jesus’ death was due, at least in part, to his opposition to Jewish leadership of his day?

There are two parts to an answer. One is that the Gospels were written during or after the Jewish revolt against Rome. It was in the interest of the writers to achieve some separation between their religious beliefs and those of the Jews (or, more accurately, of the leadership of the Jewish revolt. It is hard to tell whether any of the evangelists identified themselves as anything other than Jews!) For this reason, the Pharisees, already a virtually anachronistic term as the rabbinic era was coming into its own, became the principal enemies of Jesus.

The much more significant reason, however, is Paul. The Apostle Paul, who lived and preached in the generation between Jesus and the Gospels, fully altered all subsequent understandings of just who Jesus was. Paul never met Jesus. Hyam Maccoby makes a strong argument that he was a gentile from Tarsus (perhaps in Asia Minor), who grew up in a family of ‘God-fearers,’ those who believed in the One God of Israel, but did not become Jews. Paul, however, engaged in conversion, and might have become associated with the office of the High Priest, particularly as it sought to defend its interests of keeping Jews loyal, or at least docile, within the Empire.

The dramatic change came when he experienced a vision of Jesus. This was not the living Jew who preached throughout Judea, or even the one who suffered on the cross. It was a vision of the heavenly Jesus, revealed no longer as a human redeemer, but rather as the divine Savior. Paul probably knew all the stories of the charismatic leader who had been crucified, and for whom followers were still awaiting his return. The vision (and subsequent revelations) put all this history into a radically different light. Jesus’ earthly mission could no longer be understood purely in terms of Judea and Rome. It now had to be explained as being meaningful to all God-fearers, particularly those who were not Jews. In this context, Paul affected a fundamental break with Pharisaic/rabbinic Jewish thought. He proclaimed Jesus as bringing God’s blessing to those who had not accepted the Torah. Indeed, through Jesus’ sojourn on earth, the Torah itself had become superceded.

Paul’s vision, and its translation through his letters and speeches, created Christianity. One can argue that without this vision, the reality of the One God of Israel would have been far more difficult to propagate to a potentially believing gentile world. The stories of the human and wholly Jewish Jesus were also filtered through that vision, turning history into theology.

The rest is, of course, history.