It’s the Gospel according to Gibson

  • Carol Eisenberg / Newsday
  • Friday, February 27, 2004 9:00pm
  • Life

Filmmaker Mel Gibson has lauded his $25 million labor of love, “The Passion of the Christ,” as the most authentic re-creation of “what happened to Jesus Christ” ever filmed.

“The Holy Ghost was working through me on this film, and I was just directing traffic,” said Gibson, a devout, ultra-traditionalist Roman Catholic.

But while Christian luminaries like the Rev. Billy Graham have praised the film’s evocation of Jesus’ final 12 hours, there is no mistaking that this is the Gospel According to Mel.

Some of the film is a literal, if selective, rendering of the Bible, but there are also scenes that go far beyond anything described in the New Testament Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John:

  • Jesus confronts a satanic figure in the Garden of Gethsemane, crushing the head of a serpent that slithers out from beneath Satan’s robes.

  • In an excruciating crucifixion sequence, a rope is tied around Jesus’ wrist and his arm is pulled out of its socket to make it reach to the spot where the nail will be hammered.

  • A black raven pecks out the eyes of the thief crucified alongside Jesus who has mocked him, in what appears to be divine retribution.

    But it’s not just the extra-biblical scenes or the unflinching and grisly focus on Jesus’ torture that bear the imprint of the creator of “Braveheart.” Scholars say Gibson’s take on the story of Jesus’ betrayal and crucifixion is filtered through the lens of medieval Catholic lore that developed more than 1,000 years after Jesus’ death.

    Such a vision may reflect Gibson’s personal faith as a Catholic who attends a Latin Mass and rejects the reforms of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). But his vision should not be confused with sacred text or definitive history, scholars say.

    “It’s disingenuous for anyone to think they could give the most authentic representation of the passion narratives. Period,” said the Rev. Timothy Friedrichsen, professor of New Testament at Catholic University of America.

    Most scholars believe the four gospels in the New Testament were written 30 to 70 years after his death. Their accounts differ and they don’t provide key details.

    Other long-suppressed versions of Jesus’ teachings, like the gospel of Thomas, which was discovered in an earthen jar in Nag Hammadi, Egypt, in 1945, raise many more questions about who Jesus was and what he preached.

    And with the explosion in knowledge about first-century Jewish life drawn from excavations in Israel over the past 50 years, the gap between the Jesus of faith and the Jesus of history has widened.

    “I think that once the smoke clears, people will be asking more important questions than ‘Who killed Jesus?’ and ‘Is the movie anti-Semitic?’ ” said James Shapiro, author of “Oberammergau: The Troubling Story of the World’s Most Famous Passion Play.”

    “We’ll be asking how do we know that ‘it is as it was’?”

    Gibson’s film stresses the Jewishness of Jesus, who is called a rabbi. But he gives short shrift to the views of modern scholars, who contend that Gospel authors transposed their own, much later battles with rival Jewish sects onto Jesus himself. For instance, Jesus shared many beliefs with the Pharisees, scholars say, and is unlikely to have considered them his enemies.

    “What you had (at the time the Gospels were written) was a nasty, imperial pressure cooker in which various Jewish groups – the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Zealots, the Essenes and the followers of Jesus – are all struggling with one another for leadership of their people, under the domination of Rome,” said John Dominic Crossan, author of 20 books on the historical Jesus, and professor emeritus of religious studies at DePaul University in Chicago.

    Some of those debates, reflected in Gospel accounts, sound “anti-Jewish” today, but could hardly be understood as anti-Jewish or anti-Semitic in their own time, Crossan said.

    “It would be like having a knockdown brawl in the Israeli Knesset tomorrow,” he said. “You couldn’t call it anti-Semitic … because you have Jews struggling with Jews.”

    How one understands Jesus’ arrest and death influences how one understands his life, scholars say. From a theological perspective, of course, Jesus goes willingly to his death as a sacrifice to atone for the sins of all humanity – the view reflected in Gibson’s cinematic meditation on his final hours.

    But from a historical perspective, Jesus was executed by the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate with the punishment Rome reserved for political insurrection, not blasphemy.

    “If we’re asking why Jesus was crucified, you can forget the idea that it was because he told parables or that he healed people,” said Ben Witherington III, professor of New Testament interpretation at Asbury Seminary in Wilmore, Ky.

    “He was crucified because there were very specific claims made by him or about him. He was seen as a pretender to a crown, which would have usurped the legitimately installed power of the land.”

    If so, then the Roman prefect Pilate played a larger role in Jesus’ death. Gibson’s film, however, vilifies Jewish leaders, but portrays the Roman administrator as a reluctant and conscience-stricken figure who recognizes Jesus’ innocence but feels pressured to execute him – a view that reflects Gospel accounts but is doubted by historians.

    No doubt, Witherington said, there was collusion between the Jewish chief priests and Pilate, who appointed them. But the Pilate described by the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus and the Roman writer Tacitus was a ruthless and inflexible military governor.

    From the perspective of Jesus’ earliest followers who saw him as the messiah, the prospect of his execution was incomprehensible.

    “First century Jews had not been expecting a crucified messiah,” Witherington said. “That’s an oxymoron. People believed then that how a person died most revealed their character. So the Gospel writers had to focus … on explaining his death. Otherwise, no one was going to believe their story.”

    And so, in the next generation, the passion stories – from the Latin passus, meaning “having suffered” or “having undergone” – were first articulated and then written down. Believers needed to explain how Jesus’ horrible end was part of a divine plan to redeem all mankind.

    For all that, it was not the crucifixion that captured the imagination of believers in the first few hundred years, but the resurrection.

    “For early Christians, the images that begin to appear are of Christ the King, triumphant over sin and death, and of the good shepherd tending his flock,” said the Rev. John O’Malley, a professor of church history at Weston Jesuit Seminary in Cambridge, Mass.

    All that began to change in the Middle Ages, a bleak time marked by plagues, political instability and the carnage of the Crusades, when a preoccupation with Jesus’ violent death reflects a broader preoccupation with suffering and death.

    German crucifixes began picturing grotesquely twisted figures with gushing blood. Believers made pilgrimages to trace the steps of Jesus on the Via Dolorosa. They also began re-enacting the story of Jesus’ passion in local churches and, most famously, in Oberammergau, Germany, distilling the conflict between Jesus and his accusers into a battle between God and Satan.

    Those images were so powerful that many of them have endured to modern times.

    For instance, the picture of Jesus that appears in the trailer to “The Passion” – a man with a bare and twisted torso, bleeding from multiple wounds – harks back to treatises written from the 12th through the 15th centuries to help the pious visualize what happened at Calvary, Shapiro said.

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