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Details, Details

posted by awelborn

Before you start reading my thoughts, you should probably go read what Charlotte Allen has to say in the LA Times.

Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” may well be the best movie about Jesus Christ ever made. Yet, though he claimed to be striving for historical fidelity — to the point of re-creating ancient Jerusalem in the southern Italian town of Matera and insisting that all dialogue be in Aramaic or Latin — the film contains so many minor but distressing historical and linguistic inaccuracies that the overall effect is one of cognitive dissonance for anyone who has deeply studied the Roman and Near Eastern world of the 1st century. That includes me, although I am a medievalist by academic training.

I loved “The Passion,” but I wanted to love it even more….

These are all niggling mistakes, to be sure, but they come up constantly in “The Passion.” Furthermore, there are academics who combine sophisticated New Testament scholarship and genuine Christian faith and could have helped Gibson make a more persuasive film. To name a few: Luke Timothy Johnson, a Catholic; N.T. Wright, an Anglican; Ben Witherington, an evangelical Protestant. But their voices have been drowned out, leaving Gibson to follow his own misapprehensions about Jesus’ world, by the John Dominic Crossans who have managed to persuade us that faith and scholarship don’t go together.



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Carrie

posted March 1, 2004 at 8:18 am


Perhaps Gibson decided that the revelations of a seer would be more accurate than the revelations of an historian?



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Elena

posted March 1, 2004 at 8:43 am


Minor historical inaccuracies? WHO CARES! Frankly I don’t care if every Roman soldier in the flogging scene forgot to take off his wrist watch – I was too into the story and the drama, as well as what all of this meant to me as a Catholic woman, to care!! Jeesh- sometimes I think it pays to be a dumb layperson!!



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Gerard E.

posted March 1, 2004 at 9:21 am


Too many scholarly cooks could have spoiled the broth. Too much Monday morning quarterbacking in this case. If the Crossans hogged the media spotlight in the weeks before TPOTC’s release, they only proved the nuns’ old edict, ‘empty barrels make the most noise.’ Or those who teach, do. Those who don’t, go on MSNBC.



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Don Boyle

posted March 1, 2004 at 9:38 am


Speaking as a know-it-all myself, I recall what St. Paul said in 1st Corinthians, ch. 1:
“God chose the foolish of this world to shame the wise.”



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Henry Dieterich

posted March 1, 2004 at 10:17 am


I haven’t seen the film yet, but I am the world’s greatest pedant. I sat through all three episodes of The Lord of the Rings thinking about how this and that was not like the book, but I had to admit that I enjoyed it, and that while I didn’t agree with all of Mr. Jackson’s decisions, I could understand why he made them. I steamed during Shakespeare in Love at the anachronism of plantations in Virginia during the reigh of Elizabeth I. I have known since I heard about The Passion that everyone should be speaking Greek most of the time, not Latin or Aramaic (at least the Romans and the urban Jews), and that there are many different interpretations of Pilate. There is always something in a movie a pedant can criticize , but from what I hear the effect of the movie is powerful and stimulates faith. Thank God that we pedants are a minority.



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Peggy

posted March 1, 2004 at 10:18 am


I guess that’s too bad, but about 99% of viewers probably did not notice. I’m pretty sure it’s gonna be okay! ;-D



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Henry Dieterich

posted March 1, 2004 at 10:21 am


I haven’t seen the film yet, but I am the world’s greatest pedant. I sat through all three episodes of The Lord of the Rings thinking about how this and that was not like the book, but I had to admit that I enjoyed it, and that while I didn’t agree with all of Mr. Jackson’s decisions, I could understand why he made them. I steamed during Shakespeare in Love at the anachronism of plantations in Virginia during the reigh of Elizabeth I. I have known since I heard about The Passion that everyone should be speaking Greek most of the time, not Latin or Aramaic (at least the Romans and the urban Jews), and that there are many different interpretations of Pilate. There is always something in a movie a pedant can criticize , but from what I hear the effect of the movie is powerful and stimulates faith. Thank God that we pedants are a minority.



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Meggan

posted March 1, 2004 at 11:16 am


You could take many many movies and nit-pick the accuracy of the details. It seems too bad to say that no one but experts will know the difference. But, it’s true. Although I could pick out a few phrases here and there in the movie, it was all greek to me!
I’ve heard critics say that Jesus wouldn’t have had long hair. But – most people think of Jesus as having long hair. For him to have short hair in the movie would have been kind of distracting to the average movie-goer.
The world was not in Black and White during World War II, but one of the reasons Steven Spielberg filmed Schindler’s List in B&W is that people think of it that way.
I understand the nit-picking, though. I don’t mean to trivialize The Passion by this comparison, but there was a movie about a girl and a pet seal a few years ago. The movie makers chose to use a sea lion in the film because sea lions are easier to train and they look better on camera. I never saw the movie, but I was very bothered by the switch in animals. Someone told me, “it doesn’t matter because most people won’t know the difference.” I thought that they should know the difference between a sea lion and a seal.
So, I suppose I can understand the historians’ irritation with the inaccuracies in the Passion.



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Hunk Hondo

posted March 1, 2004 at 11:41 am


There oughta be a law agin us historians going to see historical films. We’re always fretting about what they get wrong. When I went to see *Gladiator* I got hung up on the fact that Commodus did not die in the arena, that the protagonist was fictitious, and that Commodus had Maximus’ family crucified, whereas EVERYBODY KNOWS that Roman citizens were not crucified and that women, of whatever rank, were NEVER EVER crucified. And suchlike. Even so, it’s great–and a pleasant surprise–to see Charlotte Allen published in a place like the LA Times.



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JACK

posted March 1, 2004 at 12:09 pm


Not a bad piece, actually. Of course, some of her points have been answered. (That’s the problem these days with newspaper stories. Few people actually bother reading the whole lot before writing their own piece. And so many just get picked up and repeated off the wire without correction of errors.)
The issue of not using Greek was addressed by Fr. Fulco long ago when he acknowledged that it was an artistic choice that the filmmakers made not to add the third language. I suspect if pressed Gibson would probably give a similar answer for why the cross was the whole cross and not the crossbeam (theological and artistic reasons, not historical ones.)
I’ve seen long debates over the classical vs. church latin pronounciations and have never seen conclusive proof of when one began and the other faded.
It is amazing that that one comment of Gibson’s over a year and a half ago has been constantly pulled out to criticize his film. If people actually go back and read some of his early comments they would see that although, yes, he wanted to make a film that was as historically accurate as possible, he never suggested this would be a documentary or that historical accuracy would trump artistic decisions. In context, his comments are fairly clear.



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John Murray

posted March 1, 2004 at 12:09 pm


I wanted to like Charlotte Allen’s column. I would have liked it more if she, as a religious journalist writing about a movie, had consulted with, say, Roger Ebert before writing it.



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Charlotte Allen

posted March 1, 2004 at 2:45 pm


Here I am in person defending–or trying to defend myself. I’m sure, as many of you point out, that Gibson had thelogical and even practical reasons for trying to make the passion iconographically traditional. Hence the full cross that Jesus carried, for example (in real life, a full cross would probably have been too heavy for anyone to drag–and I don’t understand the nails in the palms, although Gibson made their placement more credible by also tying Jesus’ wrists to the cross). And Fr. Fulco’s explanation for omitting Greek dialogue in the movie makes sense as well: People would have been hideously confused. Unlike, say, Paula Fredriksen, who think is quite misinformed on this issue as well as many others, it’s my conclusion that Roman legionaries during the mid-first century did not speak Greek. To serve as a Roman legionary, you had to be a Roman citizen, and during Jesus’ time, Roman citizenship had been extended only to residents of the Italian peninsula. (By the second century, citizenship had been vastly expanded, and the army was full of soldiers whose first language was Greek.) The Romans did have non-citizen auxiliary troops, but I doubt that they would have been assigned to carry out a crucifixion in a political tinderbox like Judea. Going back to the Greek issue, however, Gibson could have solved that problem by letting us hear some spoken Greek from some of the crowd (many of whom were undoubtedly pilgrims from the Jewish disapora in Jerusalem for Passover). And he should have had the titulus on the cross in the three languages of Hebrew, Greek, and Latin that the Gospel of John mentions. That alone would have finessed the Greek problem nicely.
As for the Latin pronunciation, Jack’s right: Spoken Latin during the first century was already in the long process of phonological transition that eventually yielded the romance languages. Even in Virgil’s time, people were dropping “m”‘s off the end of words (“multum” was becoming “molto”) and turning “i”‘s between vowels into “y”-sounds. But even spoken Latin didn’t sound like Italian back then! This was especially disconcerting for me, because I teach college Latin, and I’m constantly correcting my students’ church-Latinese (I’ve got some traditionalist seminarians) into classical pronunciation. I think again that Gibson probably had his theological reasons for the church Latin: to establish a connection between Jesus’ Latin words and the Mass. Still, the inaccuracy was grating. I loved “Gladiator” myself–but almost everything about it–the history, the geography, the costumes, strained credulity. And I would have groaned had I ever gotten around to seeing “Shakespeare in Love.” Plantations in 16th-century Virginia? Puh-lease!



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Steve Jackson

posted March 1, 2004 at 8:09 pm


So far as I know, neither Wright, Witherington or Johnson is a believer in Biblical inerrancy. So what they have to say is of limited value. That’s all we need, a film based on “higher criticism.”



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Miguel

posted March 2, 2004 at 5:40 am


Wow! I’m amazed! I’m 55 and never in my life have I seen a movie that so many people wanted to make THEIR WAY. Forget the director, forget anything else. The Passion should have been shot with five million different versions to suit everyone. Amazing, really.



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Steve Jackson

posted March 2, 2004 at 5:34 pm


Joseph,
You are in error. Inerrancy refers to the idea that the Bible is without error. It doesn’t mean that you must interpret all portions literally. I don’t think Rev. 20 is to be taken literally. It generally includes, however, the belief that those parts of the Bible that are clearly historical are historically accurate. For example, when Cardinal Kasper denies that Jesus walked on water or raised the dead, it is fair to say that he denies inerrancy.



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Barbara O'Brien Arato

posted May 19, 2005 at 12:51 pm


I would like to say the Our Father, Hail Mary and Glory Be in Aramaic. Where can I find a copy of it? I can not read the Aramaic alphabet so you know it has to be in the English alphabet, but of course Aramaic words.
Anxiously awaiting your reply,
Barbara



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