History, Archaeology, and Mel Gibson's Passion

By D, Gordon | Shofar, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

History, Archaeology, and Mel Gibson's Passion


D, Gordon, Shofar


Whatever else The Passion of the Christ is about, it is about history. Thus, it is important to examine the film from the perspective of history, and see how, and if, the film incorporates what we have come to know about that era. A great deal of progress has been made into the recovery of the first century C.E. in the last several decades, and much of it has been done by archaeologists. In my few pages in this section, I propose to examine the films depiction of the last few hours of the life of Jesus in the larger context of the world in which his crucifixion took place. It must be admitted that our sources are not very good. What passes for most of our written sources were written well after the death of Jesus, many by followers who did not witness the crucifixion and who were anxious to demonstrate how the world had changed because of his life and death.

The early 30s C.E. were relatively quiet ones in Roman history -- as far as hot wars were concerned. There were no major conflicts. Domestically, however, they were years full of turmoil. Tiberius, the princeps, now in his 70s, was living a comfortable semi-retirement on the island of Capri, but in Rome the furor over the removal from power and execution of Sejanus, his notorious Praetorian Prefect, raged on. One might have suspected that high treason and domestic politics might have overshadowed Roman foreign policy concerns, but such was not the case. There was a state that had been at the center of Roman planning since 64 B.C.E. -- Parthia.

Located in what is now Iraq, parts of eastern Syria, Iran, and Afghanistan, Parthia was rich and powerful. It sat astride profitable trade routes connecting East and West, and had obliterated a Roman army in 53 B.C.E. at Carrhae in Syria, where over 30,000 men were lost. Ever since, various Roman leaders, including Julius Caesar, had considered plans for retaliation. Bruised egos, profits, and worries about Parthia's plans for its western neighbor kept Roman planners busy over the years, but other events got in the way of a Parthian campaign. While Augustus may have eased the tension with Parthia a bit, taking advantage of an "unstable political situation in Parthia and forcing [the Parthians] to withdraw from Armenia,"(9) the eastern frontier of the empire remained a concern. A result of all this was that there were four full Roman divisions based in the Syro-Palestinian Levant. Most of the troops were billeted in the north, a convenient placement because of the converging highways and trade routes leading east -- west, and a good spot for watching events in Anatolia and Armenia farther north and east.

In the south, however, Judea was not so heavily guarded. The nearly impassable desert to its east made it unlikely that a Parthian attack would come from that direction, or that it would be a good jumping off point for a Roman invasion. At the time, Judea had a puppet king -- Herod Antipas (who has only a bit part in the film) -- but the real authority was the Roman procurator, Pontius Pilate, who governed from 26 to 36 C.E. By the way, we have his name on an inscription from Caesarea which reads [Pon]tius [P]ilatus -- one of the few direct contemporary witnesses to this story. Roman sources also confirm his presence.

As procurator, Pilate was under the authority of the curator based in Damascus. Curator and procurator are the titles of those men who governed imperial provinces -- that is, provinces under the direct control of the princeps and not the Roman senate. They were provinces that were either rich -- Egypt, for example -- or where there were serious military concerns. For Pilate, however, the military concerns were not so important. He had more serious domestic problems.

His world comprised the small entities of Judaea proper, Idumea (Biblical Edom) to the east, Samaria in the hilly country to the north, and Ituria (the Galilee region farther north and east). Relations between these small entities were often violent, and banditry was common. …

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