THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST
By Cathy Schultz, 8/30/04
Here in the sleepy dog days of summer, this winter's passionate
controversy over Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ"
seems a hazy memory. Was that just six months ago? And did we all
really get so riled up?
Or perhaps we just want to forget, since reaction to the film was
so painfully polarizing.
Few movies in recent memory generated as much controversy as did
Gibson's "Passion." Enthusiastically embraced by many,
fervently denounced by others, the film astounded friend and foe
alike at the boxoffice, amassing over $600 million worldwide.
"The Passion of the Christ" generated many historical
questions about what actually happened on that day in Jerusalem
almost 2000 years ago. With its DVD release upon us, and with the
benefit of a cooling six-month respite from the heat of the controversy,
it's time to revisit some of those questions.
Q. The film shows us three leaders in Jerusalem: Caiaphas, Pontius
Pilate, and King Herod. Who had the authority, ultimately?
A. Definitely Pontius Pilate. Judea was ruled by Rome, who had
conquered pretty much everyone in the known world at the time. To
govern their far-flung provinces the Roman emperors appointed procurators,
and Pilate served as Caesar's voice in Judea. To a lesser extent,
Herod (also Roman-appointed) ruled over Galilee. But Pilate had
the ultimate political clout, even though Jewish religious leaders
like Caiaphas retained some religious and cultural authority over
Q. The movie mirrors the Gospels in depicting Caiaphas and other
Jewish leaders trying to persuade a reluctant Pontius Pilate to
execute Jesus. Is that how it happened?
A. We'll never know. But this, of course, is the heart of the film's
controversy. The Gospel accounts describing Jewish leaders and their
supporters calling for Jesus' death were used by Christians over
the centuries to blame all Jews past and present for deicide-the
"killing of God"-and served as the justification for vicious
As a response, in part, to this misreading of the Gospel accounts,
some scholars have recently argued that the Gospels' authors overstated
the involvement of Jewish leaders in Jesus' death. But the sources
from the era seem to indicate some involvement by both Roman and
Q. What are the sources from the era, and what do they say about
A. There aren't many sources, and all that survive were written
decades after Jesus' death. We have the four Gospels, which portray
both Jews and Romans having a hand in Jesus' death. We have Tacitus,
a Roman writing in A.D. 115, who mentions Pontius Pilate as the
one who executed Jesus. There is also Josephus, a Jewish historian,
who in his Antiquities (a history of the Jewish people written around
A.D. 98), said that Pilate condemned Jesus after Jewish leaders
requested his death. Besides these sources, we have passages from
the Jewish Talmud that discuss the role of Jewish leaders in Jesus'
execution. So, there's evidence that both Jewish leaders and Romans
were probably involved.
But two other things to remember here. Jesus was crucified, a decidedly
Roman mode of execution, rather than being stoned, a more typically
Jewish execution style. Also, sources like Josephus stress how vile
Pontius Pilate was during his reign in Judea. Thousands of Jews
were crucified on his orders, many for political "crimes."
Q. Gibson's "Passion" film has been likened to "Passion
Plays." Why are those controversial?
A. Passion Plays began in Europe's Middle Ages as a way to teach
illiterate common people the story of Jesus' death and Resurrection.
Over time they became hugely popular, all-day affairs, sometimes
using jugglers and performing animals as side show entertainment.
The dark side of that history, though, is their ugly portrayals
of Jews. Caiaphas and the Jewish crowd calling for Jesus' death
were depicted as stereotypes of contemporary Jews, and often bore
horns to suggest a satanic alliance. By reinforcing the false notion
of collective deicide, Passion Plays often led directly to riots
against Jews, resulting in the destruction of Jewish property and
Modern day Passion Plays, like that in Oberammergau, Germany, have
revised their plays in recent decades to avoid the anti-Jewish stereotypes
that had such tragic consequences.
Q. A minor point, but why did all the Jewish men have beards,
and all the Roman men were clean shaven?
A. The Romans saw shaving as a mark of civilization, and scorned
the bearded look favored by most of the peoples over whom they ruled,
like the Jews. In fact, the connection was so strong, it used to
be thought that the word "barbarian" (used by Romans to
refer to everyone who wasn't Roman) came from the Latin word "barba,"
for beard. It doesn't, but comes instead from the Greek word, "bárbaros,"
which roughly means, "those funny sounds foreigners make."
Q. What's a good book for recent scholarship on Jesus' last
A. Try Luke Timothy Johnson's The Real Jesus.
Daily Southtown, September 1, 2004.
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