Scholarly Smackdown: 'The Passion' (continued)

A liberal professor and a conservative professor debate Mel Gibson's movie, the Bible, theology and more.

BY: John Dominic Crossan and Ben Witherington III

 

Click for more Scholarly Smackdown.





Dear Ben,



Thank you for your response with which, as you probably expect, I disagree rather completely. I have some idea of Mel Gibson's intention for his film because I have heard (in person), read (in transcript), and seen (on television) his own explanation of its meaning. In any case, I am judging not purpose but result, not intention but execution.

I stand by my statement that this film is far, far worse in its contrast of Roman Pilate (very good) vs. Jewish crowd (very bad) than anything in that Hitler-approved Passion play of 1930 & 1934, 1950 & 1960. I also saw Oberammergau's changed 2000 production. The Gibson film is even farther from that version's attempt at some balance for and against Jesus. That version, of course, was only changed recently because Jews and Christians protested its excesses.

I do not question Mel Gibson's sincerity or integrity, but I repeat my "J'accuse" to his film. If this film is not anti-Semitic, I cannot imagine what an anti-Semitic drama (as distinct from statement or slur) could ever be. Ben, I have not introduced "fear" or "suspicion" or "distortion" into the discussion. All of that, and much worse, is there already in the film. I have simply called it by its proper name. In any case, you have made your position clear and I have made my own counter-position equally clear.

I now raise another question by going back once again to the gospel accounts. Josephus'

Jewish Antiquities

records that "Pilate . hearing him accused by men of the highest standing amongst us . condemned him to be crucified" (18:63-64). The gospels agree that the top Jewish and Roman authority were involved against Jesus, but they also emphasize Pilate's reluctance to condemn a Jesus he considered to be innocent.

I have raised the question of Pilate's positive portrayal in the gospels (heightened, but certainly not created, in the film). Since I do not consider that scenario to be historical, I ask why it was created by Mark and thereafter more and more emphasized through Matthew and Luke into John. In Mark, Pilate "realized that it was out of jealousy that the chief priests had handed him over" (15:10) and asked, "Why, what evil has he done?" (15:14). In Matthew, those two verses are repeated (27:18.23). But Matthew adds that Pilate's wife calls Jesus "innocent" (27:19), and has Pilate declare his own innocence: "he took some water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, `I am innocent of this man's blood; see to it yourselves" (27:24). In Luke, Pilate asserts three times that Jesus is innocent (23:4,14-15,22). In John, Pilate again declares Jesus innocent three times (18:38; 19:4,6).

Why insist, not just on the complicity of the top high-priestly aristocracy, but on the reluctant acquiescence of Pilate?

The usual answer is that the evangelists are playing to the Romans. They know full well that Pilate condemned Jesus to the Roman penalty of crucifixion. But they feared Roman authority more than Jewish authority--and/or they wanted a founder declared innocent by Roman, even if not by Jewish authority. So they created a governor who thought and declared that Jesus was innocent and who simply succumbed to the Jewish "crowd" in order to keep the peace.

I do not accept that solution because the evangelists did not think like that. They knew very well that both religious-Jewish and political-Roman authority often moved against them. As Jesus had warned them according to Mark 13:9, "they will hand you over to councils (

synedria

); and you will be beaten in synagogues; and you will stand before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them."

There is, I think, another reason--and one more in keeping with the purpose and nature of "gospel" as "good news," as updating the story of Jesus for later times and places, groups and problems. In other words, just as the words and deeds of Jesus were adopted or adapted, imagined or created for later application, so also were the friends and enemies of Jesus made creatively relevant for later situations.

Gerd Theissen's book "The Gospels in Context" dates the origins of the Passion story to "the persecutions that occurred during Agrippa I's reign" (p. 198). Agrippa I was a pious Jewish king who reigned from 41-44 C.E. In Jerusalem at that time, the greatest threat to early Christian Judaism was not from Roman authority (that threat was only indirectly present). Rather, the most direct threat was from Jewish high-priestly family backed by Jewish royal authority, Agrippa I..

Agrippa I, says Josephus'

Jewish Antiquities

, "enjoyed residing in Jerusalem and did so constantly; and he scrupulously observed the traditions of his people. He neglected no rite of purification, and no day passed for him without the prescribed sacrifice" (19.331). He also supported the ascendancy of the House of Annas (Ananus), whose first six high priests ruled from 6-42 C.E. That family was consistently opposed to Christian Judaism.

It was under Agrippa I and his appointed high priest Matthias that James of Zebedee was executed and Peter was imprisoned at Passover (Acts 12:1-3). Finally, when the family regained power in 62 C.E., Annas II had James the Just of Jerusalem, the brother of Jesus, executed in the Roman governor's absence. For that illegality, he was removed from office, according to Josephus'

Jewish Antiquities

20:201, under accusation by "those of the inhabitants of the city who were considered the most fair-minded and who were strict in observance of the law" (presumably Pharisees?).

In other words, when the first draft of the Passion story was created, the Romans looked very good to those early Christian Jews. Their most dangerous enemy was the high-priestly House of Annas, backed up by a pious Jewish king. All of that was retrojected from their own persecution in 41-44 C.E. onto Jesus' execution in 30 C.E., making Annas or Caiaphas villains--and Pilate a hero.

With best wishes, Dom

Continued on page 2: »

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