Gibson, Gospel Facts and Anti-Semitism

By Miller, Edward Jeremy | National Catholic Reporter, March 19, 2004 | Go to article overview

Gibson, Gospel Facts and Anti-Semitism


Miller, Edward Jeremy, National Catholic Reporter


'Passion' stirs passion

Even before it opened, Mel Gibson's movie "The Passion of the Christ" was controversial, with some claiming the movie was anti-Semitic or could fuel latent anti-Semitism. The controversy has not been put to rest with the movie's opening. In their discussion of the historical truth of the Gospels, the movie's portrait of Christ and Christianity and the charge of anti-Semitism, the writers on Pages 21 and 22 reflect some of the divergent responses the movie has occasioned.

--Margot Patterson, opinion editor

Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" is arriving at movie theaters with more buzz in the air than at a coffee break of an auctioneers convention. The loudest clamor concerns whether the film is anti-Semitic or unwittingly fosters it.

I think there are tougher topics for Gibson to handle in producing a seemingly accurate film. The Gospels were written in Greek. Jesus and his Palestinian disciples spoke Aramaic. How can you retroject from Greek accounts what Jesus actually said in Aramaic? Here's a higher hurdle to scale: The four Gospels were never meant to be harmonized, thereby capturing a clear picture of what happened when. Jim Bishop's famous book of years ago, The Day Christ Died, crashed for this reason.

Because the question of anti-Semitism has gotten pushed, unfairly to my mind, to center stage, I want to offer a few observations on it and on the nature of Gospel materials. I'm going to term my observations "facts" in the sense that they reflect the insights of mainstream biblical scholarship. A fact is like a basic idea. Around the edges of the idea there is scholarly debate and disagreement, but the main shape of the idea is generally accepted.

It is a fact that some of the Jewish leaders reckoned Jesus to be such a threat to their religious convictions that they pressured the Romans to execute him. It doesn't mean that all Jews, or most Jews, sized up Jesus to be a dangerous blasphemer. It doesn't mean the Romans were merely innocent pawns. It doesn't mean that the trial scenes in the four Gospels are word for word factually accurate. John's account, to take just one case, doesn't agree with Matthew, Mark or Luke as to the day on which the trial happened. (Was it on Passover or on the day before Passover?)

What the fact does mean is that Jesus' ministry of healing and preaching, in and of itself, would not have caused the Romans to pluck him out for execution as being seditious. The Romans did not care if a Jew called himself the Messiah or a prophet or challenged interpretations of the Torah, the Law of Moses. They only cared when one's behavior crossed over into upsetting the political status quo, Roman civil peace and rule in Palestine. Let those make the case who claim that Jesus simply provoked the Romans, so that Gentiles alone are responsible for his death. This flies against facts and common sense.

It is another fact that the Gospel writers were not eyewitnesses to what they describe. Between Jesus' Passion and the four evangelists stand at least 40 years of preaching by people who did know Jesus and had received resurrection appearances. It is a fact that the preached memories of Jesus' life and death were shaped by later events and the pastoral needs of good preaching during those 40 or more years. The Gospel writers preserve such modified memories. So, for instance, the Jesus of John's Gospel speaks like a non-Jew while Matthew's Jesus is very Jewish, because Jews who believed in Jesus had been officially expelled from the synagogue by the time the Gospel of John took shape in the last decade of the first century. …

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