Saturday, February 28, 2004


2/26 -- My account of Mel Gibson's film (immediately below this post).

2/21 -- Gibson's failure to go all the way on one point.

2/10 -- Schizophrenic Scholarship.

Thursday, February 26, 2004


I saw it. Yesterday, 2:30 in the afternoon. At Loew's Theater on Broadway near 84th Street in Manhattan. The whole day was quite an experience. The film, the conversations I had afterwards in the street with Jews and Christians, the small demonstration of Jews protesting and a few Christians jeering at them (this began while we were watching the film; they were not there when I arrived), and then recounting all this to my friends Mark and Mary afterwards.

I'm not going to give a blow by blow description of the film or what is inaccurate about it (both as to history and as to what is literally in the Gospels). I'll just mention a few things. Gibson has always been honest about two things: This is not a film for children and, as he has repeatedly said, this is his personal vision. Indeed, a very dark vision it is.

The first thing I said to everybody after seeing it is that this is an exceptionally sadistic, violent, bloody, gory movie. I always have to disconnect from violence in any movie by telling myself it's only acting, it's only make-up and special effects, none of this is really happening. (I can't even watch a hypodermic needle going into someone's arm in a film.) But for most films, I don't have to spend over an hour and a half doing this. It really was disgusting and relentless.

So it is shocking to hear many Christians embrace this (almost happily, it seems) and say it is true, that's how it was. Gibson really seems to revel in the raw, bloody wounds and every bit of agony. Even when he has a Roman officer say enough and stop it, it doesn't stop for Gibson, but goes on and on.

I understand the Christian belief that Jesus suffered and died for all of humanity's sins, but that belief does not say it is necessary to pour it on to this extreme. This is something extra, beyond any of the usual theology. Yet some Christians seem to feel that this is exactly what is required of Christ.

I predict that a lot of other Christians will be very turned off by this. They will be shocked by the fact that some faithful Christians lap this stuff up. A Fox TV news reporter with whom I had a casual conversation about this in front of the theater said that there are many evangelical Christians in his family and that they've been sending him emails about how much they love everything in this film. He found this a little appalling. I think that, in the long run, this film may turn out to be more divisive amongst Christians than between Jew and Christian. (It is only the loud controversy over Jewish protests that has drowned out Christian concerns. For the moment anyway.)

Is the blood and gore accurate? Some of the Christians I spoke to afterwards said that it absolutely is and, in fact, two separate people I spoke to compared it to the necessity of showing real violence in a war movie like "Saving Private Ryan". I agreed that portraying violence accurately in a war movie is important, but not all crucifixions were preceded by all the extreme torture that Gibson's Jesus is put through. The two others crucified with Jesus in this film look pretty decent compared to him. But the Christians I met felt Jesus must have had all this inflicted on him.

Is this historically likely? We cannot know for sure, but one major fact speaks against it. As I have reiterated often enough and as occasionally other scholars observe (notably Paula Fredriksen), one of the most solid facts we have about Jesus is that the Romans executed only him and none of his followers (which is not what they did in important cases). That means Jesus was a fairly trivial case to the Romans. If Jesus had been a big-time rebel, the Romans might have brutalized him beyond belief before nailing him to a cross. But as a small potatoes case, Jesus would be unlikely to arouse the fear or the wrath of the Romans that much. He was a joke to them. Severe brutality would have been unlikely is all I can say.

Actually, it does not even make much internal sense in the film. Gibson depicts so many Romans (not just Pilate) as sympathetic to Jesus, it is hard to understand how a few sadistic Romans are allowed to go to town on Jesus like this -- and for this long!! I have a feeling that Gibson realized it doesn't make a lot of sense -- which is why he puts the devil in it. The devil (inexplicable evil) seems to be the reason why all this bizarre cruelty happens to Jesus. There are moments in this movie that feel more like a horror flick than a religious film.

Is this film bad for Jews? It is. Terribly so. Gibson makes it very clear that he blames Jews for Jesus' death far more than he does the Romans. And he has invented things (or borrowed from the inventions of others) -- things which are not in the Gospels at all -- to drive this point home.

There are probably more than a dozen items in this film (maybe two dozen) which have no foundation in the Gospels. I won't recount them all. I will just list a few of the more egregious:

1) One of the worst is a line that Gibson gives to Jesus, completely inauthentic. As a bloodied Jesus and Pilate stand before the crowd, Jesus says to Pilate, "It is he who delivered me to you who has the greater sin." I believe that is verbatim, as I copied it down on an index card as soon as I heard it (or rather, saw it in the subtitles). Gibson's Jesus is assigning more guilt to Caiaphas, the high priest, than to Pilate. By implication, all the Jewish leaders with Caiaphas are indicted, judged guilty, and sentenced (in the court of public opinion) in one fell swoop.

2) When Jesus is arrested by Jews, his mother runs to Roman soldiers and appeals to them for help to save her son. It is not in any Gospel and it is completely unbelievable that any Jew would ask Romans for help like this. It is outrageously wrong.

3) When Jesus is first brought to him (he is already badly bloodied from a beating by Gibson's Jews), Pilate rebukes Caiaphas with a line something like this, "Do you punish people before judging them?" As if Romans had more humane standards of justice. Despicable nonsense and certainly unGospel-like as the Gospel Pilate says nothing like this. Jewish standards were quite high and would not allow defendants to be mistreated.

(The historical Pilate, by the way, was accused of sometimes executing Jews without trial. When Diane Sawyer asked Gibson [in the recent ABC "Prime Time" interview], where this brutal historical Pilate is in his film, Gibson answered that Pilate's weakness [i.e., giving in to Jewish pressure] was monstrous. Not a glorious answer for Gibson.)

4) Gibson's Jesus appears to be taken to some official Jewish chamber, but all the Gospels make it plain that it was a high priest's private home where Jewish authorities spoke to him (not interrogated him). As I have reviewed elsewhere and quite often, a lot of information in the Gospels makes for a good case that Jesus was not subjected to a hostile Jewish trial, but an informal, friendly meeting. Just one such piece of evidence is John 18:19-24 which has Jesus being questioned not by the high priest in power, but by a retired high priest, possibly indicating a much lower level encounter.

Gibson is crystal clear that he believes this was all due to Jewish initiative. His Pilate is surprised when he is informed of the arrest of a Jewish prophet. He had no idea of what is going on. This does not tally with John 18:3 which tells us that Roman soldiers were at Jesus' arrest.

Gibson's Pilate is unwilling to execute Jesus (this is one point where Gibson is not far off from the Gospels which do contain a reluctant Pilate). It is the hatred of Gibson's Jewish leaders -- and only their hatred -- that makes this happen. A little bit of this too is in the Gospels but not to this extreme. That Gibson had to invent things not found in the Gospels -- because the Gospels are not anti-Jewish enough for him -- is shameful.

I have made the same complaint about many Christian scholars. The truth is that the Gospels tell a much more complicated story than the simple one we have been led to believe. I am always amazed that more Christians do not complain that their own scriptures are frequently rewritten to make them more anti-Jewish than they are.

Significant too is what the Gospels relate which Gibson leaves out. I have already mentioned John 18:3, the Roman soldiers at the arrest. By omitting this, Gibson makes the arrest of Jesus an exclusively Jewish event (as do other Jesus films, including Franco Zeffirelli's 1977 TV mini-series "Jesus of Nazareth").

Also, Jesus is frequently called rabbi in all the Gospels. In Gibson's film, only once by Judas. You might say that Gibson is implying that anyone who regards Jesus as a rabbi is a traitor.

What else does Gibson leave out? In a sense, the Jews. Older Hollywood films treated indigenous cultures and minority groups as if they did not exist. They were there for backdrop. We learned nothing about them. Gibson's "The Passion" is like that. We have no idea of who Jews are, what they believe and teach, what they celebrate and value, what their culture is really like. They are just venomous, vicious people who want this wonderful man to die.

Why do they want his death? It is not at all clear. (In fact, nobody has ever been able to satisfactorily explain something that is really a historical lie.) The devil is the only explanation that Gibson gives for most things that happen in this film. But I cannot remember whether Gibson uses the devil to account for this imaginary Jewish hatred. The devil is there when Jesus is tortured by the Romans. Is he there when Gibson's Jewish leaders interrogate Jesus or when Gibson's Jewish crowd calls for his death? I cannot recall. If the devil is not there, Gibson would be saying that Jewish evil exists on its own and does not need the devil as an explanation. I would appreciate anyone who sees it to confirm or refute whether Gibson uses the devil in the Jewish scenes.

But as I was saying, almost nothing of Jewish culture comes through in this movie. The Gospels may not do a great job at conveying contemporary Judaism, but they do something. Gibson's film is almost totally empty of this -- as is true of his Jesus about whom we learn very little. He is not much more than a bloody pulp for most of the film, and the few brief flashbacks do not change that impression.

Gibson says that the point of the film is what Jesus suffered to save humanity and that all of humanity is responsible for his death. I would really like to know from anyone who believes this: What scene or scenes in the film send this message? Where does humanity in general make an appearance in the film? (One slight attempt by Gibson to do this is something of a cop-out -- as I explain in the post immediately below.)

Well, there's a whole lot more to say. The bottom line is that this film is Mel Gibson's personal vision and has way too much in it that is contradicted by history and the Gospels. It is sad that someone who made as beautiful a film as "The Man Without A Face" could also make this. "The Man Without A Face" has a wonderful, sensitive spirit to it. It gets profounder and more touching each time I see it. Jesus would have loved it.

Near the end of that film, if memory serves, the boy is confronted by his teacher (played by Mel Gibson) who wants to know why he's been avoiding him. The boy demands to know if the accusations (of child abuse) about his past are true. What do you think?, asks the teacher. Why can't you just tell me?, his student shouts back. Did you do it or didn't you? What do you think?, the teacher asks again. You've spent so many hours and days with me. What does your head and heart tell you? But the student wants to be given a plain answer. No, says the teacher. I want you to figure it out for yourself. The boy is in agony, but his teacher will not let up.

It is as powerful a moment as any great scene in any great movie and it is beautifully directed by Gibson. You can find the truth with your own resources when people try to ram a falsehood down your throat. You can think things through. Jesus would have loved it.

Saturday, February 21, 2004


Mel Gibson has almost, but not quite, fulfilled a point I made six months ago. On my blog for August 13, 2003, I said that if Gibson were really serious about his belief that all people are guilty in the death of Jesus (i.e., that Jesus died for the sins of all) and if he had any courage to make this theology come alive, what he would do is give himself a cameo in his movie as a Roman soldier who eagerly helps to nail Jesus to the cross. That would send a powerful message.

Well, apparently, he has come close to doing that. But he did not go all the way. In the ABC Prime Time interview with Diane Sawyer (last Monday night on Feb. 16), when he was talking about everyone sharing in responsibility for Jesus' death, he said that it is his left hand in one of the close-ups of a hand holding a spike as someone else pounds it into Jesus' hand.

Very subtle, isn't it? This very profound theological belief is put forth in a way that is so understated, the typical viewer would have no way of knowing it unless they heard Gibson explain this in an interview. But you can bet that he will not be so subtle about blaming Jews. I haven't seen the film yet (it opens in another four days), but, by all accounts, he is very vivid about sticking it to the Jews more than to the Romans. A vivid historical falsehood. That's what this movie may give us.

Jewish leaders never pressured or helped Romans to get rid of Jesus. But I doubt that, as in many another Passion Play, you will be able to forget this falsely imagined role of Jews. Yet how many people will leave the theater all shook up about the role of Gibson's left hand? "Did you see what his left hand did to Jesus?" That'll be the day that this becomes the main topic of conversation.

In some respects, it sounds like a noble theology, blaming everyone for the death of Jesus. The trouble is that no one believes it enough to dramatize it in a personal way. It has no reality. It is only an abstract concept. It is only lies (like blaming Jews) that we endow with all the detail that grips us and deceives us into thinking they are real. Lies and truth -- and how real or unreal they are to us. If anything, I hope Gibson's film gets people to thinking about that.

Tuesday, February 10, 2004


There are two realities in the world of Gospel scholarship, i.e., in the study of the historical Jesus. These two realities never communicate with each other, even if they appear in the same sentence. They come from opposite ends of the universe and remain there.

I have been writing about this for a long time, but only recently did I realize a new way to understand this. What I used to say is that scholars give lip service to one set of ideals (e.g., acknowledging that Jesus was a Jew) and then spend most of their time contradicting it (e.g., deemphasizing Jesus' Jewishness and exaggerating hostility between him and other Jews).

But this crystallized for me in a new way when I read an article in a recent issue of "The New Yorker" (Jan. 5). Lawrence Wright recounts his brief experience training journalists for a newspaper in Saudi Arabia. He met many Saudis who described themselves as schizophrenic (p. 54). One Saudi explained to him that there are two Saudi Arabias. For example, in virtual Saudi Arabia, there is no satellite TV because the law does not allow it. In reality, Saudis are the biggest consumers of satellite TV in the Middle East.

That's how it goes in Gospel scholarship. Almost every Christian scholar on the historical Jesus lives in a dual world. They occasionally express a virtual or ideal world as a nice principle to live up to, but they immediately turn around and assert the reality they really live in. In the virtual world, Jesus is pro-Jewish. In the real world of scholarship, he is anti-Jewish.

Marcus Borg implies that he believes in studying Jesus within Judaism when he criticizes modern scholarship for often speaking of Jesus against Judaism rather than within Judaism ("Jesus in Contemporary Scholarship", 20). But in the very next sentences, he rebukes E.P. Sanders for making Jesus too congruous with Judaism. If Jesus is fully a part of the Jewish world, then "there is little that puts Jesus in conflict with his Jewish contemporaries" (21).

As Borg and most scholars make clear, it is that conflict with Judaism that, for them, defines Jesus most of all. This extreme conflict between Jesus and Judaism exists only in the imagination of scholars, but it is their real world. A primary indication of how real it is for them is how frequently they express it. It is on practically every page of their writings.

The virtual or ideal world of Jesus at home in Judaism and in harmony with other Jews is expressed maybe once every couple of hundred pages. It serves the purpose of making scholars feel good about themselves -- convincing themselves that they are no longer antisemitic in their approach to Jesus as previous generations of scholars had been.

They do the same exact thing when they discuss responsibility for Jesus' death. Here is Bruce Chilton in the foreword to his book "Rabbi Jesus", announcing his belief in a virtual world: "the Gospels pin the death of Jesus in their dramatic presentation for Greco-Romans on 'the Jews', not the Roman government. That is historically inaccurate, but the popular acceptance of that error has fueled the fallacious belief that Jesus rejected Judaism and wanted to found a new religion" (xxi).

And that's it. You won't bump into this thought for the rest of the book. Nowhere does Chilton return to the theme of Roman responsibility for Jesus' death. Instead, he is relentless in blaming some Jews. He depicts Jesus as constantly harassed by Pharisees and priests (e.g., 85-90, 117-23). He describes Jesus as alienating other Jews, even among his own popular following (250). In reference to Pharisees, Chilton states, "Conflict with Jesus was inevitable" (85). The Pharisees and priests whip up a mob against Jesus (122).

Where is Pilate in all this? He is being pressured by the high priest to arrest Jesus (231-34, 241, 248). Like the traditional Pilate, Chilton's Pilate is extremely unwilling to take action against Jesus (233-34). It is only Jewish pressure that makes him to do it. That is the real world of Christian scholarship. "Don't blame Jews" is merely their virtual world.

The real world and the virtual world collide in the same sentence in the Catholic Church's 1965 "Nostra Aetate" which supposedly exonerated Jews of the death of Jesus. That it does in the second half of the sentence, but not before it slammed it to the Jews in the first part of the sentence: "Even though the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ (cf. John 19:6), neither all Jews indiscriminately at that time, nor Jews today, can be charged with the crimes committed during his passion."

Note that the Church could not just pin it on Jewish leaders. It had to include a vague "those who followed their lead", thus conjuring up a wider contingent of Jews. The second half of the sentence which attempts to make nice-nice with Jews does not really wipe away the "reality" that the Church and perhaps most Christians believe in. The document never even mentions Rome as a factor in Jesus' death. So much for historical reality.

This vision of history (blaming Jews more than Rome) is repeated in the official "Catechism of the Catholic Church" (1992) which barely refers to Pontius Pilate and makes Jewish religious authorities the chief culprits (Nos. 574, 591, 596; 597 partially repeats the statement in "Nostra Aetate"). Jesus' offensiveness to Jewish teachings is made much of (e.g., Nos. 576, 581). In fairness, the Catechism mentions some of the Gospel information which presents Jesus' positive relations with other Jewish teachers (No. 575), but it does not receive the same emphasis as the negative stuff.

I could multiply these examples of a split reality by a thousand. By ten thousand. It's tedious, but it takes almost no effort. Ben Witherington III announces that "a non-Jewish Jesus is a non sequitur" ("The Jesus Quest", 41). And true to the mere virtual reality that this is, you won't find this thought expressed very often in Witherington's work (not to mention his immediate modification of it, when he declares in the next sentence that "in certain ways he stood out from most of his contemporaries").

Instead, what you get from Witherington is a Jesus who challenges and threatens the fundamental points of Judaism, i.e., Torah, temple, and territory, ("The Christology of Jesus", 116; on 107, Witherington calls these the three fundamental foci of Judaism, which I would dispute). He constantly characterizes Jesus as a threat to Judaism (twice on 77). Like the traditional Jesus, Witherington's Jesus abrogates Torah (80, 273); he is above Torah, against it (69).

You have to ask yourself: With Jesus opposed to Torah, Temple, and Pharisaic/rabbinic interpretations thereof, what is Jewish about this scholarly Jesus? The answer: Nothing.

Scholars say Jesus was Jewish, but then give no details to explain his Jewishness. That is why it is a virtual world. It is denuded of all details that would make it truly real. It is simply an abstract statement -- an Ideal -- uttered to make the scholar feel good. How Jewish Jesus is is of no interest. It is, in fact, considered rather off-putting, a threat, a diminishment of Jesus. That is what Christian scholars believe. That is their real world.

Scholars say the Romans killed Jesus. But they rarely explore this thought. What kind of threat was Jesus to the Romans? Why did they kill only him and none of his followers? How long did they hunt him? Scholars dismiss or ignore all such questions about Rome and assume that the Romans were merely the hired hit men for the Jewish leaders. They speculate endlessly on the threat Jesus posed to Jewish leaders, not to Rome, and on his offensiveness to Jewish religious teachings ("offensive" is the most popular adjective used by scholars to describe Jesus, as I discuss in "The Offensive Jesus" on my Web site). And that is all it is -- speculation -- because no one has ever made a rational argument for it. That is the real world of scholarship -- imagining Jesus as a religious martyr of Jewish leaders, not as a political martyr of Rome.

Scholars believe that their virtual world of professed ideals, though expressed only once in a rare while, is very real. It serves excellently for self-deception. They use their so-called belief in Jesus' Jewishness to hide from themselves how much they continue an antisemitic or racist interpretation of his life and death in which Jesus is superior to the Jews who persecute him and act violently towards him.

It is a split mentality and is indicative of how sick our culture still is on this point. There will be no deep healing between Christian and Jew and no truthful investigation of history until we face this schizophrenia. We will have to face it before we can cure it.

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