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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

Dear Dom,

I must first say that I do agree in part with your complaint about the portrait of Pilate in Gibson's movie. It portrays him as weak and too wishy-washy. I much prefer the portrayal of Rod Steiger in Zeferelli's Jesus of Nazareth.

I think that part of the problem is that we have no context to the portrayal of Pilate in this movie. We don't, for example, have the clue of Lk. 13.1-that Pilate was a vicious anti-Semite, and that it's unlikely that he would have hesitated to execute Jesus because he was a fair-minded soul.

I would urge two considerations that do not resort to your form-critical scenario about how and why the Gospel accounts developed as they did-something that involves an undue amount of pure speculation without historical foundation.

First, it needs to be said that people, especially when under pressure and in crisis, do not always react according to type or according to their usual character. Unlike you, I do not think that the portrayals in, for example, Luke or John need to be seen as later embroidering of the story without historical warrant. It is perfectly plausible to argue that Pilate does not give Caiaphas what he wants precisely because: 1) he likes to antagonize Caiaphas and the Jewish authorities, being of an anti-Semitic bent; and 2) he likes to flaunt the fact that he, not Caiaphas, has the power to call for capital punishment; and 3) Pilate, however vicious, was not stupid, and did not like to be manipulated-especially when he felt what was being asked was too extreme. In other words, we don't need the form-critical speculations you offer to draw historical conclusions about these stories.

Secondly, by the time the Gospels were acually composed, indeed probably by the time the Passion narrative was composed, Pilate was already disgraced! He had been sent into exile. So I quite agree that it will not wash to argue that the Gospel writers were worried about the portrait of Pilate, and tried to ameliorate it lest Romans objected to the Gospel story.

Sticking with the Gibson portrayal for a moment, what especially skews the account, in my judgment, is the amplification of the role of Mrs. Pilate. She is depicted as a compassionate person who even doantes cloths so Mary and Mary Magdalene can sop up the blood of Jesus after he is flogged. This creates the impression that that Pilate and his wife were good and fair-minded folks, which is far from the historical truth.

So let me be plain-I think there are some real and troubling historical distortions in this movie. The one that bothers me perhaps the most is that each Gospel account devotes exactly one verse to the flagellation of Jesus; they do not emphasize it or highlight the fact. It's almost mentioned in passing. The enormous amplification of this to an unbearable extent in the movie is way beyond what poetic license should allow. For me, this is especially egregious since it is not the flagellation that produces the atonement for sins, but rather the death of Christ on the cross. In the movie, this somehow manages to be less gruesome than the flagellation. It seems an odd strategy to amplify the violence beyond biblical proportions in order to exalt the Prince of Peace!


Dear Ben,

At least we agree that Pilate1s exculpation was not a product of Christian fear (or evangelical lying), but we clearly disagree on how to explain its gospel presence. You speak of my interpretation as having "an undue amount of pure speculation without historical foundation."

On one hand, my view of Pilate1s character is based on historical foundations in Philo and Josephus. On the other, you continue with something you find "perfectly plausible" by giving three reasons that contain exactly what you alleged about my reconstruction: "an undue amount of pure speculation without historical foundation." I used Philo and Josephus along with an analysis of gospel-sequence, gospel-change, and gospel-purpose to understand Pilate's innocence, but your imaginary reconstruction of Pilate's action is no better or worse that Mel Gibson's.

By the way, you have now mentioned twice that scene between Mary, Claudia, and the wiping up of Jesus blood. Why does that bother you so much? Because it's fictional? About 5 percent of the film is Gospel account (the general outline), 85 percent is Emmerich1s fiction (the specific detail), and 10 percent is Gibson's fiction (the extra brutality). Because it's feminist? The reason the women are so splendidly better than the men in this film is not because Gibson knows what women want but because Anne Catherine Emmerich, his early 19th-century scriptwriter, was, of course, a woman. It is, for example, a Jewish woman in the Jewish crowd on the way to Calvary who cries out, "Somebody stop this!"

I want to think, in this final interchange, about how to reconstruct the Holy Week liturgy of execution and resurrection in order to avoid both the human venom of anti-Judaism and the divine savagery of Mel Gibson1s film. Liturgy in song and rite is dramatization and must surely come under those same criteria suggested for its counterpart in play and film. My suggestion is to restore (not create) the communal aspect of both Jesus' crucifixion and Jesus' resurrection. He was not the first nor the last Jewish martyr, and so he did not die alone but died (for Christian Jews) as the suffering climax of all those who had died from human injustice. And, therefore, he did not and could not rise alone--but rose (for Christian Jews) as the liberating leader of all those who had waited for divine justice.

We can today, therefore, with utter integrity create an interactive dialectic between our New Testament narratives of Jesus1 passion and our Old Testament psalms of the suffering righteous ones. (To create such a liturgical scenario, I suggest as basis the late Ray Brown1s The Death of the Messiah, Appendix VII, pp. 1445-67). But within the limits of here and now, I give but one example.

Mark 15:23-24 has three parts: (1) "And they offered him wine mixed with myrrh; but he did not take it," (2) "And they crucified him," (3) "and divided his clothes among them, casting lots to decide what each should take." Notice that very brief mention of crucifixion (only the first half of a verse in all four gospels!) framed with two longer items. That former one in Mark 23:23 = Matt 27:34-35 is based, as is also Mark 15:36 = Matt 27:48 = Luke 23:36 = John 19:29, on Psalm 69:21, "They gave me poison for food, and for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink." The latter one in Mark 15:24b = Matt 27:35b = John 19:23-25a is based on Psalm 22:18, "they divide my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots."

You know that, of course, Ben, just as well as I do--but it is the implications I want to emphasize. In Mark and, from him into Matthew and Luke, those foundational psalm texts are not made explicit. Non-Jewish hearers or readers could easily miss them, but Jews who had grown up with the psalms as their prayers would almost certainly recognize those deliberate echoes.

Jesus is described as dying within a tissue of resonances to the suffering past of Israel. I take those psalm-echoes, and all others like them in the passion narratives, as tremendously important. They were, in other words, how the first Christian Jews located Jesus' fate within, and as the climax of, his people's sufferings. They were not originally arguments proving that the scriptures had foretold Jesus's birth, suffering and death centuries before his advent.

I notice, however, that they are on their way to that later position as proof rather than basis by the time you get to John's gospel. There the psalm-echoes are made very explicit, on the drink in 19:28-30 and on the clothes in 19:23-24. But my proposal is that all those "hidden" psalm echoes (of which I have given only two examples) were originally not arguments, but interpretations, and they were not polemical proofs but foundational bases for Christian-Jewish faith in the meaning of the crucifixion. It was the climax of Israel's suffering righteousness.

I have addressed this final interchange not just to you, Ben, but to anyone who wonders how to worship God in Christ this first Holy Week after God in Gibson. My suggestion is to remake the liturgy toward a corporate crucifixion and a corporate resurrection. Here, because of space, I have spoken only of corporate crucifixion. But, in conclusion and farewell I point also to the communal resurrection. Its most beautiful chant is in the Odes of Solomon 42. Its most magnificent image is in the Chora or Kariye Monastery/Mosque/Museum in Istanbul--which I leave with you as an early Easter greeting.

With best wishes,

Dear Dom,

What a wonderful suggestion to do something creative-forming a new liturgy for Passion week services! I like this idea.

I definitely have no problems with highlighting the roles of women in the Passion events, since, as you may know, I did my doctoral work on Women in the Ministry of Jesus (later published by Cambridge U. Press) precisely because I thought their roles were underappreciated and had positive implications for the roles of women in ministry today. In my view, if the risen Jesus himself commissioned Mary Magdalene to be first to proclaim the Easter message, that's more than enough historical precedent for me, answering definitively whether women should be ministers and proclaimers or not.

I would not want, however, to pursue this liturgical trajectory in quite the way you are suggesting. The Gospel accounts of Jesus' crucifixion, at least those that mention the bandits, distinguish Jesus' death from that of the others who are dying with him on that occasion. In other words, they do not identify the bandits with the echoes from the Psalms, only the death of Jesus. Why is that? Precisely because Jesus is not merely the climax of all Israel's suffering righteousness, though that is of course also true.

I am perfectly happy with the idea of emphasizing that Jesus is not only the climax of prophecy but also of the foreshadowings in the so-called messianic psalms as well. But when we do that, then we realize that in fact Jesus alone experienced our God-forsakenness for us. This is why we have the cry "My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?" on Jesus' lips alone in our earliest Gospel Mark, and then in Matthew as well.

What makes that quotation of Psalm 22.1 so poignant on the lips of Jesus is not merely that he is yet another Jew suffering an injust death, though that is also true. It is that here is the only place in Mark that Jesus calls God 'God' rather than Father or Abba.

In other words, our earliest portrayal of this event makes perfectly clear that the One who had had ongoing and abiding intimacy with Abba throughout his life experienced God-forsakenness-our alienation from God--for us while on the cross. This is a part of what Jesus had in view when he asked the cup of God's wrath to pass from him in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Furthermore, since I believe there are good arguments for the idea that Mark 10.45 goes back to Jesus himself, it seems clear to me that Jesus would encourage us to see his death as indeed a fulfulliment of Isaiah 53, in a way that would distinguish him from even what some of the Maccabees thought about their deaths. Jesus died alone for our sins, though it is also true to say that he died in solidarity with other Jews who had suffered unjustly. In short, both the continuity and discontinuity between Jesus' death and other deaths of Jews in similar situations need to be emphasized, not just the continuity. I quite agree with you, however, that this new liturgy needs to do a good job of stressing the Jewishness of Jesus, and the goodness of that fact.

Apparently unlike you, I do not take these Gospel accounts to have been largely created out of the Psalms and other such texts. In my view, they are not prophecy or psalms that are later 'historicized' and applied to Jesus. Rather, the story is an example of showing how the actual historical events of Jesus' death make sense in light of the old prophecies and psalms.

It is the Passion events themselves which made Christian interpreters scramble back to the Old Testament, looking for where the Passion could have been predicted. This led to some very creative uses of that Old Testament material, some of which was, of course, not prophecy in the first place.

The reason there was a need for such creative use of the Hebrew Scriptures is that the earliest followers of Jesus were not looking for a crucified messiah! They apparently did not intepret even Isaiah 53 this way. It was Jesus, both as intepreter of the text in application to himself (Mk. 10.45) and in the events which climaxed his life, which led to such creative use of the psalms and the prophecy by his earliest Jewish followers.

I like your suggestion to use Ray Brown's material in "The Death of the Messiah" to create a liturgy, and will want to ponder that some more. In the meantime, I will tell you a story. Not long before his death, Father Brown came to Asbury to give four lectures during Lent on each of the four passion narratives. These were very rich lectures, not least because they made very clear indeed that Father Brown believed that those Passion narratives were historically substantive, especially in regard to the claim that Jesus' death was in important ways distinctive, uniquely redemptive, and atoning for sin. I would not want to create a liturgy using his material that would obscure his own stresses on these Gospel truths.

In the meantime, I wish you and your family a blessed Easter in the name and spirit of the One who died once for all atoning for all sins past, present and future, and arose alone on Easter morning, not merely in the hearts of the disciples or in their own subjective visions, but in the flesh and in space and time. He was the first fruits of the future resurrection of all believers, as Paul was later to say, not the merely the last fruits of earlier ideas about corporate death and corporate resurrection.

Ben W.