Magazine article The New Yorker

PASSIONS, PAST AND PRESENT; GROVES OF ACADEME Series: 2/5

Magazine article The New Yorker

PASSIONS, PAST AND PRESENT; GROVES OF ACADEME Series: 2/5

Article excerpt

Last week, while the critics, the clergy, and the professional opinion-providers were caught up in the opening, on Ash Wednesday, of "The Passion of the Christ," it seemed a good idea to ask Elaine Pagels, a renowned historian of the early Christian period, to see the film and offer her reaction. Scholarship on the quick, admittedly. Professor Pagels, who teaches at Princeton and is the author of "The Gnostic Gospels" and "The Origin of Satan," seemed hesitant at first. But one evening she viewed "The Passion" with some friends, and afterward she called to say that she was, well, disturbed. And not just because of the unremitting and brutal flaying of Christ, "though my friends said that anyone who had really endured that kind of torture would have been dead a lot earlier in the movie."

Pagels is both a scholar and, in her way, a practicing Christian. Usually, she is measured, soft-spoken, but there was the slightest tone of agitation in her voice: "It's important to remember that this is Lent, and meditations on the Passion of Christ are an important part of the cultural interpretation of human suffering. There's a context for the movie in the history of art. When Christians read the Gospels as historical acts, they will say what Mel Gibson says: that this is the truth, this is our faith. But the important thing is that this film ignores the spin the gospel writers were pressured to put on their works, the distortions of facts they had to execute. Mel Gibson has no interest whatsoever in that."

Pagels explained that the four gospel writers of the New Testament probably wrote between 70 and 100 A.D. These were the years following the Roman defeat of the Jews, which left the Temple and the center of Jerusalem in ruins. Acts of sedition by the Jews against their conquerors were met with swift execution. As a result, Pagels said, the Gospels, which were intended not as history but as preaching, as religious propaganda to win followers for the teachings of Christ, portrayed the conflict of the Passion as one between Jesus and the Jewish people, led by Caiaphas. And, though it was the Roman occupiers, under Pontius Pilate, who possessed ultimate political and judicial power in Judea, they are described in the Gospels--and, more starkly, in Gibson's film--as relatively benign.

"Our first informed comment on Pilate comes from Philo of Alexandria, a wealthy, influential Jewish citizen who was part of a delegation sent to Rome to negotiate with the emperor," Pagels said. …

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