Byline: Jon Meacham
It is night, in a quiet, nearly deserted garden in Jerusalem. A figure is praying; his friends sleep a short distance away. We are in the last hours of the life of Jesus of Nazareth, in the spring of roughly the year 30, at the time of the Jewish feast of Passover. The country--first-century Judea, the early 21st's Israel--is part of the Roman Empire. The prefect, Pontius Pilate, is Caesar's ranking representative in the province, a place riven with fierce religious disputes. Jesus comes from Galilee, a kind of backwater; as a Jewish healer and teacher, he has attracted great notice in the years, months and days leading up to this hour.
His popularity seemed to be surging among at least some of the thousands of pilgrims gathered in the city for Passover. Crowds cheered him, proclaiming him the Messiah, which to first-century Jewish ears meant he was the "king of the Jews" who heralded the coming of the Kingdom of God, a time in which the yoke of Roman rule would be thrown off, ushering in an age of light for Israel. Hungry for liberation and deliverance, some of those in the teeming city were apparently flocking to Jesus, threatening to upset the delicate balance of power in Jerusalem.
The priests responsible for the Temple had an understanding with the Romans: the Jewish establishment would do what it could to keep the peace, or else Pilate would strike. And so the high priest, Caiaphas, dispatches a party to arrest Jesus. Guided by Judas, they find him in Gethsemane. In the language of the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, there is this exchange: "Whom do you seek?" Jesus asks. "Jesus of Nazareth." The answer comes quickly. "I am he."
Thus begins the final chapter of the most influential story in Western history. For Christians, the Passion--from the Latin passus, the word means "having suffered" or "having undergone"--is the very heart of their faith. Down the ages, however, when read without critical perspective and a proper sense of history, the Christian narratives have sometimes been contorted to lay the responsibility for Jesus' execution at the feet of the Jewish people, a contortion that has long fueled the fires of anti-Semitism.
Into this perennially explosive debate comes a controversial new movie directed by Mel Gibson, "The Passion of the Christ," a powerful and troubling work about Jesus' last hours. "The Holy Ghost was working through me on this film," Gibson has said. The movie, which is to be released on Feb. 25, Ash Wednesday, is already provoking a pitched battle between those who think the film unfairly blames the Jewish people for Jesus' death and those who are instead focused on Gibson's emotional depiction of Jesus' torment. "It is as it was," the aged Pope John Paul II is said to have remarked after seeing the film, and Billy Graham was so moved by a screening that he wept. One can see why these supremely gifted pastors were impressed, for Gibson obviously reveres the Christ of faith, and much of his movie is a literal-minded rendering of the most dramatic passages scattered through the four Gospels.
But the Bible can be a problematic source. Though countless believers take it as the immutable word of God, Scripture is not always a faithful record of historical events; the Bible is the product of human authors who were writing in particular times and places with particular points to make and visions to advance. And the roots of Christian anti-Semitism lie in overly literal readings--which are, in fact, misreadings--of many New Testament texts. When the Gospel authors implicated "the Jews" in Jesus' passion, they did not mean all Jewish people then alive, much less those then unborn. The writers had a very specific group in mind: the Temple elite that believed Jesus might provoke Pilate.
Gibson is an ultraconservative Roman Catholic, a traditionalist who does not acknowledge many of the reforms of the …