Magazine article The Christian Century

Crowd Control

Magazine article The Christian Century

Crowd Control

Article excerpt

EVERY VERSION of the Passion story deviates fundamentally from the New Testament, which contains four divergent Gospels rather than one conflated version. The Gospels also emphasize the life before and the resurrection after the death. The life/death/resurrection proportions, judged by the number of chapters devoted to each part, vary--from a 13:2:1 ratio in Mark to 25:2:1 in Matthew--but a Gospel never sums it all up as Passion.

Making a Passion film, therefore, involves choices that reveal prejudices. If Jesus is scourged in Mark, Matthew and John, but not in Luke, which option will you choose and why? Or, to take an even more explosive example, when the Gospel has a "crowd" demanding Jesus' crucifixion from Pilate, how many extras will you hire? How many is a "crowd" and how do you decide that number? The term is, of course, always relative to the situation ("two's company, three's a crowd"). What is the identity, purpose and number of that "crowd" before Pilate?

When you read the Gospels you can leave the "crowd'" vague and indeterminate in your mind, but viewers of The Passion of the Christ see a crowd that fills the Jerusalem streets and the theater screen. How did Mel Gibson know that? From the Gospels?

Reread the account in Mark 11-14 and then 15:6-9. Remember that Mark is not only the earliest of the four Gospels but is almost certainly the source for Matthew and Luke and possibly even for John. Follow the story's narrative logic, whether you consider it a historical event or a Markan parable. Think about the identity, purpose and size of that crowd demanding Jesus' crucifixion before Pilate.

Identity: The film does not begin at the start of Holy Week, on Palm Sunday, with Jesus' antitriumphal entry into Jerusalem--as happens, for example, in the classic Oberammergau Passion play. The film omits, therefore, the accounts of those days from Sunday morning to Thursday evening. On every one of those days, the Jewish "crowd" is described as directly supporting and indirectly protecting Jesus against the high-priestly authority which opposes film, according to Mark's Gospel.

On Sunday, "many people [polloi] spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, 'Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in tire highest heaven!' (11:8-10). On Monday, after the temple incident, "the chief priests and the scribes ... kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd [pas hi ochlos] was spellbound by his teaching" (11:18). On Tuesday, after Jesus' praise for John the Baptist, "they were afraid of the crowd [ochlon], for all regarded John as truly a prophet" (11:32). Later, "the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders ... realized that he had told this parable [of the evil tenants] against them, they wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowd [ochlon]. So they left him and went away" (12:12). Still later that same day, "the large crowd [polus ochlos] was listening to him with delight" (12:37).

Finally, on Wednesday, "the chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him; for they said, 'Not during the festival, or there may be a riot among the people [tou laou].'" That, of course, is why the services of Judas and a secret nighttime move are required to arrest Jesus--the point where the Gibson film begins. But if Mark 11-14 emphatically insists on that pro-Jesus "crowd," whence comes the anti-Jesus "crowd" in Mark 15? Is Mark writing about some different "crowd"?

Purpose: Mark says, first, that Pilate had established an open Passover amnesty: "At the festival he used to release a prisoner for them, anyone for whom they asked" (15:6). It was open because they and not the governor chose the individual to be released. …

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