I am inclined to cut Mel Gibson some slack
ffeldman at bellatlantic.net
Sun Sep 14 07:43:01 MDT 2003
I want to say a word here in defense of Mel Gibson, which I may or may
not want to take back when I see his movie, The Passion. Frankly, the
critiques of this movie raise a fundamental and legitimate question:
Are the four gospels, which are the basis of the Christian religions,
This is rather more important from the standpoint of overall culture
than the character of his movie which is apparently guilty of some
kind of literal attempt to transcribe the gospels onto film, as
opposed to the usual safe and sane version we are used to
(George Stevens' King of Kings with a white movie heart throb (Jeffrey
Hunter, who won reasonably assured immortality in John Ford's Ford's
"The Searchers"). If they are, then a lot of Western culture and
morality are kind of up for grabs, at least among those who oppose
Actually the question that fascinates me most, is whether Mel Gibson's
Jesus will white unlike anyone who would have been located in the
territory at the time except on assignment from Rome? Will he be a
Western-style heartthrob or a clearcut Semite, and therefore,
decidedly non-Western and possibly partly Black (via Egypt or today's
Somalia) and certainly far darker-skinned than most Israeli Jews
today. From what I hear, I have hopes but not confidence.
I don't believe that Gibson is motivated by anti-Semitism. He is
obviously driven by commitment to the views of his sect which do not
center primarily on the Jewish question or the role of Jews. Is it
anti-Semitic to think Jews killed Christ? It wouldn't surprise me if
the debate over this boxes Gibson into statements that can be termed
anti-Semitic but I really don't think he intends or represents any
threat at all to the Jewish people.
Is it anti-Semitic to say that Jews killed Christ? (And if Jews did,
wasn't this their God-assigned role in an eschatological redemption
drama, as the Scorsese-Kazantzakis treatment of Judas and the Jews
suggested -- therefore a sacred act?) Is it anti-Semitic to think that
Jews killed anybody? Certainly in Palestine, a lot of people are
getting a lot of experience with Jews as people who can kill with as
much enthusiasm as anybody else.
I always felt embarrassed or even humiliated by the "debate" over
whether Jews should be "absolved" of having allegedly killed the
alleged Christ (well, their guilt certainly cannot be proven beyond a
reasonable doubt, to put it mildly). It made me angry, frankly, to be
absolved of some killing that supposedly took place more than 2000
years ago. I thought I could prove that I did not have either motive,
opportunity, or the weapon at the time -- although I might have
trouble lining up witnesses who could swear that I wasn't there when
the alleged crime was committed.
When Pope John XXIII officially absolved the Jews of guilt, I
responded with sheer nationalist irritability. I remember suggesting
to a friend that we should put up billboards reading, "We did it and
we're glad, and if he comes back, we'll do it again!"
Gibson is a very solid actor with major comic talent. He rarely gives
an unsatisfactory performance. He may not be one of the very, very
top strata of actors, such as Gene Hackman, Agnes Moorehead, the late
Ralph Richardson, Meryl Streep, et al., but he consistently very well
above the Hollywood average. In directing Braveheart, his epic version
of Jane Porter's now-forgotten (in the US anyway) classic The Scottish
Chiefs, he showed talent, commitment, and inspiration.
I will be interested to see his version. I very much liked Scorsese's
Last Temptation of Christ, which was also very controversial and
involved intra-Catholic heresy issues. I have never seen Pasolini's
The Gospel According to St. Matthew, although this discussion makes me
want to find it on video.
The real problem is that the main known literary version of the
events, the first four books of the New Testament, were written well
after the events and under the impact of a turn by the Christian sect
away from recruiting dissident Jews, where they had pretty much
exhausted the possibilities, and towards recruiting in the empire more
generally and in Rome in particular. This required certain
adaptations including taking the heat off the Romans for the killing
of Christ and placing it on the Jews. Without this, it would have been
hard for Christianity to ever become the established religion of the
Roman empire, as it did under Constantine.
But nobody knows what happened. Was Jesus Christ (a
Latinization-Greekification of some very different name, for sure)
part of a Jewish rebellion against Roman rule? Did the establishment
Jews turn on heretical teachings of some kind? Nobody even knows if
there was a Jesus. There is no solid evidence. My own suspicion is
that all the major legends, including those of the gods, have roots
in some actual individuals who existed and did things, which may or
may not have much in common with what is attributed to them.
In my opinion, the most accurate cinematic portrayal of the period and
therefore the most accurate portrayal of Jesus so far is in Monty
Python's Life of Brian, with the social crisis and discontent, Jews
spouting apocalypses all over the place, and nationalist or tribalist
(whatever would be accurate at the time) plotters striving to get the
Romans out by any means necessary.
So if there is going to be a boycott of Gibson's movie (none has been
proclaimed yet, fortunately), I will walk through the picket lines to
see it, just as I did with Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ.
-----Original Message----- From: rad-green-admin at lists.econ.utah.edu
[mailto:rad-green-admin at lists.econ.utah.edu]On Behalf Of shniad at sfu.ca
Sent: Saturday, September 13, 2003 3:49 PM To: shniad at sfu.ca Subject:
[R-G] Scholars back charges against Mel Gibson
Globe and Mail September 13, 2003
Scholars back charges against Mel Gibson
A confidential study by Catholic and Jewish academics of a script for
Mel Gibson's Jesus film finds anti-Semitic overtones, Michael Valpy
Who killed Jesus? The question suddenly is centre-stage controversy in
the North American entertainment industry, exemplifying U.S.
Christianity's weird edges and the widening gulf between conservative
religious fundamentalism and contemporary biblical scholarship.
The Passion, actor and Catholic traditionalist Mel Gibson's film about
the arrest and execution of Jesus, has set off a firestorm of debate
dividing liberal and conservative Christians. A group of leading U.S.
Roman Catholic and Jewish scriptural scholars have labelled it an
intolerable historical and theological travesty that is at risk of
promoting anti-Semitism. The scholars made their criticisms in a
confidential 18-page report sent to Mr. Gibson and obtained by The
Globe and Mail.
Lawyers for Mr. Gibson's production company, Icon, in turn accused
them of being in possession of a stolen copy of the script and
demanded it back.
(The script had found its way to one scholar in a plain brown
Mr. Gibson's film is one of two major movies on their way to cinemas
this year. Both lay claim to absolute biblical authenticity. The
other, produced by an impresario Jew -- Canadian Garth Drabinsky's The
Gospel of John -- relied on an advisory board of biblical scholars to
tiptoe carefully through the polemics of the Christian New Testament
The fundamental difference between the two films is that Mr.
Drabinsky's John, which had its premiere on Thursday at the Toronto
International Film Festival, tells viewers they are not watching an
account of the historical Jesus but rather a late-first-century
narrative -- the Gospel as read by actor Christopher Plummer -- of a
new religion trying to fend off theological challenges and state
repression. Mr. Gibson's The Passion, scheduled for release next
Easter, implies that viewers are watching historical verity.
In other words, the issue is scriptural interpretation: Are the
Gospels history or not? The mainstream academic view is that they're
not. Or not in any conventional sense.
Boston University's Paula Fredriksen, one of the world's leading
experts on the historical Jesus and a participant in the scholars'
group that analyzed The Passion, characterized the film as the blood
and gore of Mr. Gibson's Braveheart and Lethal Weapon set in Roman
Jerusalem, with cardboard Jewish bad guys.
Which, interestingly enough, is pretty much exactly how the Christian
Gospel-writers portrayed the death of Jesus -- more than half a
century after the fact and without much concern for historical
The four Gospel accounts of Jesus's arrest, trial and execution (his
"passion," from the Latin passio, meaning suffering) finger the Jewish
religious hierarchy as the instigators, the Jerusalem Jewish crowds as
the mob baying for his death and the Roman governor of Palestine who
ordered the crucifixion, Pontius Pilate, as a reluctant dupe of the
Jewish high priest Caiaphus.
As Jesus is led off to be killed, Matthew's Gospel infamously has the
Jewish mob chant in unison: "May his blood be upon us, then, and upon
our children." (Mr. Gibson put the line in Caiaphus's mouth and later,
reluctantly, removed it from his script.)
The accounts led to 1,900 years of teaching by the Christian church
that the Jews collectively were responsible for deicide, the killing
of Jesus, and thus cursed by God.
Christian violence against Jews is one of the plinths of European
history. Passion plays of the Middle Ages focused on Jesus's pain and
were used to incite hatred of Jews and trigger pogroms. Prof.
Fredriksen, in an interview, referred to the Holocaust as one of the
"great Christian ecumenical movements."
In 1965, the Roman Catholic Church's reform council, Vatican II, made
a Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian
(Nostra Aetate) that officially nixed the deicide charge: "The Jews
must not be presented as rejected by God or accursed as if this
followed from Sacred Scripture."
Both the Vatican and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops
subsequently issued detailed guidelines on dramatizations of the
Passion. The Pope, when he visited the Middle East in 2000, prayed at
the Western Wall of the Jerusalem Temple for God's forgiveness of
Christians for their crimes against Jews.
The leading U.S. Catholic and Jewish biblical scholars who read the
purported Passion script, Prof. Fredrickson included, unanimously
concluded that it contained multiple guidelines violations. (See
sidebar for excerpts from their 18-page report.)
They say Mr. Gibson has borrowed from the diary of a stigmatic,
19th-century German nun, Anna Katharina Emmerich, who recorded visions
of Jesus's cross being made in Caiaphus's court, of the high priests
bribing the Jerusalem crowds to demand Jesus's death and of soldiers
putting a bag over Jesus's head to drag him through the streets --
none of which is found in the Gospels.
Select groups of conservative Protestant and Catholic Christians who
have been invited by Mr. Gibson to see drafts of the film -- and have
praised it -- accuse the Catholic and Jewish scholars of condemning a
movie they have not seen. The scholars, in turn, have suggested that
Mr. Gibson and those who have seen his film don't understand the
It may or may not be fair to report at this point that the
traditionalist Catholic sect to which Mr. Gibson belongs opposes many
of the teachings of the Vatican II and holds, among other things, that
no legitimate pope has sat on the Throne of St. Peter since those
Mr. Gibson has vehemently denied his film is anti-Semitic. He says he
is being sandbagged by anti-Christians. He also has accused "modern
secular Judaism" of trying "to blame the Holocaust on the Roman
Catholic Church" -- to which Abraham Foxman, executive director of the
U.S. Jewish Anti-Defamation League, adds: "Whatever that means."
Peter Richardson, recently retired as a University of Toronto theology
professor, headed the scholars' committee that advised Mr. Drabinsky
on this season's other Jesus film -- which is a narrative, and only a
narrative, of the John Gospel, considered at once the most
theologically complex and beautiful and the most "anti-Jewish" of the
four scriptural accounts of Christ's life.
His committee, he said, "struggled with how to represent and explain
the anti-Judaism of the fourth Gospel. We had a huge discussion about
it. We each wrote three or four paragraphs, [which were] reduced to
three-line, pithy statements."
Those six statements are shown at the film's beginning "as a kind of
distillation of the scholarly concerns we have. It's an effort to deal
responsibly with it."
The statements say Jesus and all his Disciples were Jewish, that the
Gospel was written at a time of intra-Jewish debate, that crucifixion
is not a Jewish form of punishment, and that the Gospel was written
two generations after Jesus's death and has more to do with a
polemical context of the new religion of Christianity being separated
from a Jewish matrix than it does with a historical Jesus.
For the film's narrative, Prof. Richardson's committee selected the
American Good News Bible because it was most easily dramatized. It
also, fortuitously and unlike other Bibles, translates the 60-odd
mentions of Jews in John as "Jewish authorities."
"I would have serious reservations [about using the Good New Bible] as
a scholar, but for this purpose it works wonderfully well," Prof.
Mr. Gibson, conversely, has made it clear he believes that what the
Gospels say about Jesus's passion is historically and theologically
accurate. It's this claim, said Prof. Fredriksen, that bothers her
most about the film.
Her irritation begins with the fact that Mr. Gibson's script has
Pilate and all the Romans speaking Latin. The working language of the
eastern Roman Empire was Greek, she said.
The script's portrayal of Caiaphus as the real power in Jerusalem able
to manipulate a weak and waffling Pilate is historically inaccurate,
she said. Caiaphus depended on Pilate for his job. Pilate, for his
part, was known to be trigger-happy and was subsequently fired for
too-brutal repression in neighbouring Samaria.
The scholars' report says the script gives no motive for either Pilate
or Caiaphus wanting Jesus dead, but Prof. Fredriksen said in an
interview that she believes Pilate had a clear motive: "The pilgrims."
Pilate, she said, would have known Jesus was harmless and his
pacifistic movement no threat to Rome. But the thousands of Passover
pilgrims who greeted him enthusiastically when he entered Jerusalem
were another matter.
Palestine at that time was under direct Roman rule. Passover was a
high holiday linked to Jewish freedom. Although nothing happened in
the aftermath of Jesus's triumphal entry into the city, Pilate would
have perceived the risk of a pilgrims' uprising with Jesus as the
spark. Secretly arresting Jesus at night and quickly executing him was
the way of dealing with it. Crucifixion was the Roman punishment for
Prof. Fredriksen said that if the Gibson script's account of Jesus's
death didn't sadden her, she would find the controversy around the
film fascinating. "But to have this kind of a movie coming out now, it
just makes me, oh, so sad."
Judaism shown as 'locus of evil'
Excerpts from the Report of the Ad Hoc Scholars Group, which reviewed
a script of Mel Gibson's unreleased film, The Passion:
Members of the Ad Hoc Scholars Group concluded unanimously that a film
based on the present version of the script . . . would promote
[The Jewish] Temple -- and by extension Judaism -- is presented as a
locus of evil: Jesus's unusually large cross is manufactured there and
Jesus is physically abused there at night before a violent mob of
Jews. This torment is said to occur adjacent to the Holy of Holies, a
locale seemingly targeted by dramatic earth tremors when Jesus dies.
Collectively, these elements uniformly project a negative view of
Judaism and the Jewish people.
High priests are shown delighting in the physical abuse inflicted upon
Jesus, while [the Roman governor] Pilate is shocked by it. [The high
priest] Caiaphas's machinations will too easily be seen as epitomizing
A Jewish mob is shown in ever-increasing size and ferocity. The mob is
plainly identified as representing the Jewish people as a whole,
portraying them as such as "bloodthirsty," "frenzied," and
The Roman soldiers who flay Jesus are depicted as urged on by demonic
forces, while Jews need no such supernatural stimulation for their
wickedness. The few Jewish characters sympathetic to Jesus do not
offset the disproportionately numerous hostile Jews.
Jewish figures are particularly associated with evil uses of money.
The high priest, e.g., is careful to signal an underling to collect up
the "blood money" that a distraught Judas [who betrays Jesus to the
authorities] has flung at his "opulent robes." While it is true that
the priestly elites were rich, the script also shows them using their
wealth to corrupt a large number of ordinary Jews, something for which
there is scant historical or biblical evidence.
[The script adds] scenes, without any historical or even biblical
warrant, that increase the guilt of Jewish characters.
Viewers without extensive knowledge of Catholic teaching about
interpreting the New Testament will surely leave the theatre with the
overriding impression that the bloodthirsty, vengeful and money-loving
Jews simply had an implacable hatred of Jesus.
Michael Valpy covers spiritual matters for The Globe and Mail.
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