New Testament scholar Darrell Bock recently spoke with Beliefnet about Mel Gibson's film "The Passion," which dramatizes the last hours of Jesus. Critics--including Catholic biblical scholars and the Anti-Defamation League--have raised concerns about the movie's historicity and its portrayal of Jewish authorities. Bock saw a rough cut of the film in late August.

What is your analysis of the controversy over "Passion"?

The controversy is not about the film. It's about the content--the biblical portrait of the Passion. The gospel accounts agree that the Jewish leadership with Pilate are ultimately responsible for Jesus' death. They agree that Pilate had the technical final decision. But they also suggest that Pilate's sensitivities would not have risen to the level they did had it not been for the relationship and influence of the Jewish leadership.

It's not an attempt to blame all Jews. It's an attempt to historically explain what put Jesus on the cross. Jesus was put on the cross for what was fundamentally a dispute with Judaism about who he was, according to the biblical portrait.

What you have going on with some of the scholarship is a reflection of a kind of critical/skeptical reading of the biblical accounts. These people are claiming to be historical critics and being very careful about the history on one hand, but they're also reading these accounts very skeptically on the other.

There's another kind of conservatism that claims not to be quite so skeptical about the quality of the accounts. Those people, the second group-critical, not skeptical-would look at this film and say "I think it's fundamentally biblical." I think I heard a quote from someone yesterday, a Catholic, who said, "If this film really were anti-Semitic, I'd complain about it but I won't because basically it's fundamentally biblical."

If you're going to understand the discussion going on between Christianity and Judaism over the centuries, you have to understand the biblical portrait of these events. You can't whitewash them. You can't go around it. This has been the debate that has existed between Christianity and Judaism for centuries. It's a difficult discussion, but it's a real discussion.

I actually think some of the protesting is reaching such a level that it risks exacerbating the problem rather than helping it. The suggestion I heard on TV that "this is going to lead to violence against Jews" risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. Not because of the film, but because of the reaction to the film.

The film is about the biblical portrayal of the difference between what became Christianity--which emerged out of Judaism-and Judaism. It's a dispute among Jews. Judaism has a strong history of disputes. You can read the Old Testament prophets, and Israel doesn't come out smelling like a rose. So this kind of religious confrontation is part of the first-century world, and it's actually been part of the biblical world. It's a world that is a little bit foreign to the modern world in that what we try to have is a level of tolerance in engaging each other. But sometimes that can be disingenuous, because we wash over what may be real differences in how we see things.

We're learning that lesson now in our culture with Islam. So we better learn how to talk directly about these things, instead of pretending these differences don't exist.

What is your involvement with the movie?

[In late July,] I was contacted by someone connected with the movie. They were interested in my taking a look at the content of the film. I saw a screening in the afternoon of the same day the screening was held in Houston, where the Anti-Defamation League was present. There were about 45 people--arts people, film, and religious leaders as well.

It's somewhat unprecedented to get all this reaction to a film that actually hasn't been seen by very many people. It's still a rough cut, and they're still deciding what scenes should go in, what scenes should come out.

Were there any Jewish scholars at the Dallas screening?

No. All Christians of various sorts as far as I know, or arts and film people.

Any liberal Christians?

My guess would be no. I didn't know everyone who was there, but the bulk of people I saw would have been evangelical or Roman Catholic.

What was your overall impression?

It's a very, very powerful film. I was watching the film for accuracy, while also understanding the nature of the film-it's about the last 12 hours of Jesus' life and it's based on a narrative that weaves together various Gospel accounts. There are parts where the filmmakers had to figure out "How do we actually visualize the presence of Satan?"--that kind of thing.

That's interesting. How did they visualize Satan?

There was an androgynous character-if you look at the trailer, you'll see her. She's hooded--you don't know it's a woman until the very end of the film. It's one of the surprises of the film. This figure lurks in and out of the film in certain scenes. She roams the crowd, watching what's going on. It's a very well-done, artistically.

Are you aware that it's the devil as you watch?

At first, you probably aren't entirely aware of who it is. As it continues, you get a sense of who this is. There's no dialogue. She may whisper some things at certain points, maybe in the Gethsemane scene, but she really says very little.

Biblical allusions are woven through it. You're not just getting the Gospels, you're getting a biblical portrait. In the Gethsemane scene, -there's Jesus stepping on the head of a snake, which is an allusion to Genesis 3. And there are other allusions designed to pull in other texts and biblical imagery alongside the actual gospel story.

"The reason he was suffering was not because of a problem Jews or Romans had, but because of a problem humanity had."

While I was watching, at certain points I could say, "That's Mark 14--I can tell you what passage that is." At other points, they're filling time between events. I think it's done with a reasonable amount of artistic imagination.

What do you make of the dispute involving the use of work by the medieval Catholic visionary, Sister Emmerich? Her writing includes a mystic vision of the cross being built in the Jewish Temple. Apparently that scene has been removed from the movie?

I don't know if it's been removed--it's been discussed. I've not only seen the movie, I've seen the report [of the Catholic-Jewish scholars' group]. That was one of [their] complaints, that this scene was happening in the Temple at night. There was a huge crowd associated with this initial trial scene.

I spent a year researching the historicity of the Jewish examination of Jesus and wrote a monograph on it. I don't believe it's a trial scene; it's more like a grand jury investigation. The Jewish high priests were trying to gather information to take to Pilate. They were seeking a political charge, because if they get a political charge and Rome agrees to Jesus' guilt, they're protected.

So this is what happened in the film?

This is what happened in the film, because this is what happened in the biblical story. I think it's what happened historically. There are Jewish historians who say that their leadership was responsible for the death of Jesus. Josephus wrote a very famous passage in Antiquities, in which he says the Jewish leadership shares blame for the death of Jesus.

Caiaphas and Pilate had an ongoing relationship. Pilate appointed a high priest every year, and every year he ruled for Rome, he appointed Caiaphas. It was a very close relationship.

Was that usual?

Caiaphas came from a family that had five different relatives over a three-decade period who were high priests. Caiaphas was high priest for 9 or 11 years out of that total. This family had a lot of power and a very good relationship with Rome.

Pilate also had a very sensitive relationship with Jews because twice he was insensitive to them. He put standards in the city of Jerusalem, little ensigns with the Roman eagle on them, which the Jews viewed as idols. When they reacted he removed them.

In one of the passages from Josephus, Pilate threatens to kill Jews who protest. They all lay down in front of him, saying that if he wanted to cut their heads off, he could go ahead. The story as Josephus tells us is that [Pilate] was so impressed with their devotion to the law that he backed off. There are two incidents of this in Pilate's rule.

And there's a third one that Philo, yet another Jewish historian, writes about. The Jews come in and say, "If you don't do what we want, we will write the emperor." And he doesn't do what they want, they do write to the emperor, and he's called back to Rome. Of course, by the time he gets back there, the emperor has died, so he's spared. But the point is, the claim in the [USCCB scholars'] work that the Jewish leadership could not influence Pilate is false, according to ancient Jewish writers.

There are several points about which the scholars have challenged the film. One is the use of Latin by the Romans-in that, the scholars are almost certainly correct.The language would have likely been Greek, and the everyday street language would have been Aramaic. Although I think in terms of the substance of the film, it doesn't make much difference. It's the feel of the foreignness that artistically drives this film. So that didn't bother me that much. If I'd been asked, I would have told them to use Greek, but in terms of what the film is doing visually and conceptually, that's a minor detail.

The other thing was the gathering in the evening in the Temple. That wasn't the location of the meeting where the Jewish examination of Jesus happened. The Gospel accounts have them meeting initially in the house of the high priest of the family of Annas and Caiaphas. But whether there was a larger meeting in another location--that's possible--because there were a series of meetings portrayed on the last evening.

In the gospels?

In the gospels, yes. When you string everything together, all four accounts, there are as many as six. There's debate on the meeting with the Jews at which they finally get the charge, because the time is in the evening in a couple gospel accounts, and in the morning in Luke. There are debates about whether there were two separate meetings, an inquiry and then the more official one, or whether there was just one meeting that stretched from evening into morning.

What do you think happened, based on your research?

I think it could well be one meeting. Some scholars will play those two facts against one another, saying that since we have an irreconcilable contradiction, we really don't know what happened. But I think the likelihood of knowing what happened at this meeting is pretty good. Although we only get one side of the debate in the New Testament, in the public square at the time, there certainly would have been a Jewish position as to why Jesus would have been crucified.

This was part of an ongoing debate. Annas the Second, who was a member of Caiaphas' family, in the 60s C.E. executes James, Jesus' brother. It's a three-decade-long family feud. There's a long history and a long debate. These facts would have been known even if-and the more skeptical scholars point this out--there weren't any disciples at the scene. Another contributing fact is that you may have had some members of the leadership at the scene who may have become Christians afterward, someone like Paul. In all likelihood, this trial scene wouldn't have taken place in the temple and would not have involved a crowd.

So you did see that as an inaccuracy?

Again, the question is how much does this affect the substance of the film. I don't think it does so significantly.

Even though it's in the temple?

Even though it's in the temple, because the ultimate decision is made in the public square, where Pilate is interacting with the leadership, and that's a very biblically-grounded scene.

The other thing to appreciate about the movement of these events in the gospels is that we move from a situation in which the Jewish leadership determines that they're going to take Jesus to Pilate and present the case for Pilate's examination, and then it's in that exchange between Pilate and the leadership that the actual decision about crucifying Jesus is formally made.

That means Rome is technically responsible for the death of Jesus through Pilate, but it also means that in the historical background, part of what was driving Rome to act was the sensitivity that Jesus' presence was creating for the Jewish leadership. One of the scenes we're not told about in the movie is Jesus' cleansing of the temple. But that is the background of what took place in the movie. The temple cleansing would have been very disturbing to the Jewish leadership. The Sadducees had authority for that temple.

Is the temple-cleansing scene in all four gospels?

In all the synoptic Gospels, it's in the last week [of Jesus' life]. It's very early in the Gospel of John. The Sadducees had responsibility for keeping peace in the temple. They would also have been sensitive because any uprising in the temple that they couldn't control, the Romans would definitely come in and take control, take over.

It would have made sense to include that in the movie.

I don't remember it being in the film, though I did walk out for 5 minutes. There are certain things that are not in the movie that could have been that would have made it even more sensitive for Jewish people. The famous saying in Matthew, "May his blood be upon our generation," is not in the movie. The scene where the Jewish leadership argues with Pilate about the placard that goes above Jesus [on the cross], "Jesus, King of the Jews," is not in there-at least in the cut that we saw.

I've made a mental note of the passages that have a history behind them, and I've said to myself, "That's not there, and that's not there." You haven't heard that mentioned by the people who are complaining about the movie.

So the issues you raised were the use of Latin vs. Greek and the trial scene in the temple. Any others?

I raised-informally--five scenes. It's difficult to talk about this without undercutting the power of the movie, but there's a scene involving an exchange of a glance between Judas and Jesus that has an element of violence. The glance sets up the crucifixion, but that doesn't have a biblical [basis]. I'm trying to be vague without giving the whole thing away.

There's a scene in which one of the thieves on the cross is punished through nature, if you will, for mocking Jesus. That's not biblical.

There's a scene during which the cross is set up for the crucifixion. It's very vivid, but it doesn't have a biblical detail connected to it. It has to do with the way in which Jesus is placed on the cross, and something that happens in the midst of that process.

I would raise questions about those five points. Having said that, I don't think any of these points significantly undercuts the biblical core of the film.

The debate is not about the film. It's a debate about the biblical portrait of these events. The film places the blame on a conspiracy of sorts --the Jewish leadership's influence leading Pilate to make the decision. The Romans actually come out as far more brutal.

Is it historically accurate that Romans at that time would have whipped a man that much?

Yes. Ancient writers talk about how gruesome a death crucifixion is, how brutal it is. It's so brutal that Roman citizens are not allowed to experience it. There's a tradition that has the whipping of at least 39 lashes beforehand-leather whips with steel-tipped points. You're not only whipped, you get a wrapping effect-a pull.

Would the Romans have actually come up with something like a crown of thorns?

Some things are traditionally associated with crucifixion. Other things may have been the result of peculiar circumstances. With Jesus, you're getting a crown of thorns as mocking. I don't think it's out of character for the Romans. Part of the point of the exercise was to make an example of the person.

The example would be "Don't come in and cleanse the temple"?

Yes, and "Don't disturb the peace in this way. We will stop you."

When there was invented dialogue-such as Pilate speaking with his wife-did it ring true?

All you get in Matthew is the summary that she had this dream and she told Pilate not to do anything to Jesus. Here's how I'm trying to evaluate the film: 1) Is this coming directly from the Bible? 2) Is this filling in something the Bible suggests but doesn't give us a lot of detail, and does the fill-in match the direction and tone of the Bible? Generally speaking, the answer is yes.

There are four or five snippets in two hours of film, probably not equaling two minutes of the entire thing.

You've been an eloquent defender of the film. Given what's going on in the world-such as the clash between Islam and the West--does it make sense to produce a film like this now?

The protest is skewing and framing the way in which people will see the film. People are viewing it as a Jewish-Christian statement. That's not the film. At no point in the entire time when I was watching the film was I getting angry at what people were doing to Jesus. The reaction I had watching the film was this suffering he's going through is terrible--but I also understood, seen theologically, that the reason he was suffering was because of a problem humanity had. Not because of a problem Jews or Romans had, but because of a problem humanity had.

Did the film frame it that way theologically?

The film is so focused on what Jesus is going through, with the cause of it coming from such a variety of angles. If you think through who the "bad guys" are in the film-if you want to put it in those terms-the Jewish leadership to a degree are the bad guys, the Romans are certainly the bad guys, but the major bad guy figure is this lurking devil in the background, who at key points shows up. This is a theologically-framed statement of what the gospels are about: a huge conflict between God and the forces of evil, in which Jesus was in the vortex, and got crucified in the process. He did it on our behalf.

It's a film that is pro-humanity. It's a film about forgiveness, about what God did through Jesus.

One viewer suggested that if you didn't know much about Christianity or Jesus-the backstory, Jesus' preaching and healing-the movie might give you a weird impression of the religion, as if it's all about Jesus getting beaten up.

Conceivably--although I don't think that's how people will react to the film. They will see the story and will ask the question, "What got us to this point?"

The subject of the film is what Jesus goes through, not who did it to him. In saying that, it causes us to think through "Why has this man's story had such an impact on our culture and history?" This story is a very important part of that overall impact. The film does go through to the resurrection. There's a five-minute stretch at the end: it has a stone rolled away, an empty tomb.

So you didn't think there's so much emphasis on violence that it masks the other things Jesus stands for?

It's a very violent death. The film can't get away from the violence-it's in the nature of the event. Having said that, the judgment about when you've portrayed enough to make the point-I don't think I have enough artistic experience to make that judgment, other than to say that the overall power of what is portrayed comes across very effectively.

It's about Jesus' suffering, not just about Jesus, and the nature of that suffering is part of the story. The Bible, generally speaking, doesn't spend a lot of time talking about the details, but I think that's in part because most of the people who read those accounts knew what crucifixion was. They knew the details.

How was money handled in the movie?

You had the scene where Judas agreed to betray Jesus, and there's the scene where Jesus throws the money back at the priests. That's biblical, in Matthew.

There's another scene in which some Jewish soldiers, at the instruction of the high priest, bribe some people to come out against Jesus. That's not so explicitly biblical. I'm being careful here, because there is discussion in the gospels about the Jews persuading the crowd to speak against Jesus, but they don't say how they did it. Some people who've commented on the film have noted that scene.

Were any Jewish leaders presented in positive light? Did Joseph of Arimathea make an appearance?

I don't think you see Joseph of Arimathea laying Jesus in the tomb. [The broader question] is being discussed, and I don't know quite where that stands. The latest discussion I heard was that they were working their way through the film again to see how much the balance is between what you might call the sympathetic Jewish characters, who are sensitive to what Jesus is going through, and those who are hostile to him. I don't know where that stands.

What all this shows is that there is a terrific sensitivity on the part of the people making the film to do so in a responsible way without giving up the fundamental premise, which is to present this biblical portrait of the Passion. Here's the problem: if you don't create a film based on the biblical portrait of the Passion, what kind of portrait are you going to present? And would that kind of portrayal reflect the essence of Christianity? The answer to that question is no. You can try to reconstruct this as best you want; you might hand the script over to a group of scholars and let them hammer away at it and see what you get. If you tried to place all the blame on Pilate, I would write a report saying that would have been historically inaccurate.

What's your take on the issue of what this now does for relations between evangelicals and Jews? Ted Haggard, the president of the National Association of Evangelicals, has been critical of the hullabaloo, saying we should really be worried over other things.

He's basically correct. I also think there's a cultural question about how we have these discussions across religious traditions. I think we're much better off having frank discussions about where our differences are.

There's a kind of tolerance that our culture elevates because it fears religious conflict. But at the same time, this tolerance can create misunderstanding, because when we talk about tolerance all the time, it makes it hard for people of different religions to understand why a particular issue means so much to different people--and why we get into the conflicts we do. I don't see anything wrong with sitting down at a table and talking. If a Jewish person were to say to me, "What you believe about Jesus is blasphemous, because there's only one God," I could accept that because I understand where he's coming from. I'm not offended.

Just as if I were to say to him, "I really think Jesus died for the sins of all people and I think there's story about the compassion and forgiveness of God that was preached to Jews and that Jesus wanted Jews to understand as well." I don't think that message is anti-Semitic. To say that God vindicated that message by exalting Jesus and giving him a place at his side-which is what Christian tradition says--as a way of underscoring the truthfulness of what he was claiming, I don't think that's anti-Semitic either. It might be theologically offensive to a particular view of God. But I think we're better off having an exchange about those facts than my sitting back and saying "Well, it really doesn't make any difference whether it's one God as I conceive of it or as you conceive of it, we're all trying to do a good thing."

At a thin layer that's true, but the differences that cause people to react differently when they see certain things--it won't explain any of that if you pretend it's not there. If you wash it away, you remove the reason why we have these different religious traditions in our world. I don't think it's helpful in the long run.

Why do you think Mel Gibson made this film?

My understanding is that this story changed his life, and because it changed his life, he wanted other people to know it. There came a point in his adult life, 10 or so years ago when he had walked away from [his faith] and was really struggling in his life. The way he got his life back together was by meditating on what the story of Jesus is all about. So he wants to tell this story.

Did Gibson intend this as a piece of entertainment or something more like the Jesus film?

I don't think it belongs in either category. This is not normal Hollywood. It strikes me as having a touch of European-ness. In European films, they don't have a lot of glitz and jazz. There's the dialogue, the personality, there's what's happening, and nothing else going on in the background. You're getting the raw event put in front of you.

It has more of that feel to it. You wouldn't tell someone "go and enjoy." It does something completely different to you.

But it's not the Jesus Film either. The Jesus Film is a very straightforward walk through the gospels with very little added. Done visually. But isn't done with sense of drama and conflict that you sense in this film.

This film is extraordinary. I've never seen a film quite like it.

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