As I’ve indicated, this semester I’m teaching my course on Jesus in Scholarship and Film; in it we read and analyze a number of Gospels (the canonical four and six others); we discuss how scholars have reconstructed the life of Jesus; and we seen how Jesus has been portrayed on film. One of the ultimate goals of the class is to show that every Gospel, every scholar, and every film presents Jesus in a *different* way. There’s not One Jesus out there, but a large number of Jesuses.
Most of the students have not seen any of the films we’re discussing in class (from Cecil B. DeMille’s King of Kings up to Jesus of Montreal). And they will have an assignment to write a film critique of other films we don’t deal with directly. I give them the choice of Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ or Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ.” If experience is any guide, most of them will choose Gibson. And most of them will find it deeply moving. It certainly is moving, especially if you’re moved by gore. But what about it as a film? Apart from the bloodthirst, most students don’t find anything wrong with it.
What about biblical scholars? For what it’s worth: I don’t think I know a single scholar of the historical Jesus, or of the New Testament, or – well of any academic topic taught at universities whom I’ve ever spoken with – who likes the movie. Most of the objections raised to it have involved its portrayals of Jews and its apparent embrace of the kinds of anti-Semitism that is all too easy to overlook, and therefore re-embrace without thinking.
I am completely sympathetic with these objections. But here I’ll talk about other issues. I find the movie problematic (also) because Gibson maintained *both* that he stayed faithful to the accounts of the Gospels *and* that he showed events “as they really were.” Neither is true.
First, as to being faithful to the Gospel accounts. The one thing that struck every single person who saw the movie and that kept most everyone else away from seeing it was the horrifically gruesome violence done to the body of Jesus, not only at the crucifixion but even more during the episode of his flogging, where he is literally beaten to a pulp until he can’t stand, but then finds strength to arise and more or less tell them to bring it on again some more (he HAS to suffer, so he’s in for the full treatment – KEEP IT COMIN’ BOYS), which they do, blow after blow after blow until he is little more than a throbbing blob of blood.
So, is this being faithful to the Gospels? Actually, no. Not even close. Realize the Gospels *could* have given a blow by blow (literally) account of what happened when Jesus was tortured before his execution. They could have gone on for pages describing this lash of the Roman thongs and its effect on his battered body, and then the next, then the next, for pages – just as Gibson’s version goes on minute after minute after minute after minute. But they don’t. How do the Gospels themselves handle Jesus’ flogging? By saying: “and they scourged him.” That’s *IT*. No detailed account. No blow by blow. Nothing. Just a simple statement. And why is that? Because the Gospels – unlike Gibson – were not INTERESTED in the gory second-by-second details. They were interested in other things. That is, they were interested in things other than Mel Gibson is interested in. So let’s not say that this gruesome account is being true to the Gospels. (This, of course, is just one example).
But, second, you could say: OK, so the Gospels don’t give all the details – but Gibson is telling it like “it really was.” If a prisoner was scourged, this is what it was like. This movie gives us a realistic account of Jesus’ last hours. Right? Well, no, wrong.
This was quite obvious to me the first time I saw it. As you all probably know, the dialogue in the movie is actually delivered in Aramaic (with subtitles for those of us who are a little rusty on our spoken Aramaic). But what you may not know – or didn’t notice – is that Jesus, the Aramaic-speaking Jew – when he is taken before Pontius Pilate for his trial, suddenly shifts and begins to speak in flawless Latin! Yup, that’s right, LATIN!! Jesus!!! What’s *that* all about?
Gibson of course is thinking that the Roman governor would speak Latin, and so Jesus would speak to him in his native tongue. But how in the world would Jesus have learned Latin? (Some scholars have suggested that Jesus knew a smattering of Latin given the Roman presence in the land; but that has been shown to be almost certainly false. There were no Romans present in Jesus’ town of Nazareth, and prior to his arrival in Jerusalem the last week of his life, he probably never encountered a Roman) (yes, I do know there are stories about him and centurions and so on in the NT; I have my doubts about them. but in any event, these were not occasions for him to take some Latin lessons).
Anyway, back to my question: what is Gibson *thinking* in having Jesus speak fluent Latin? In fact, it is not an innocent question. For this reason.
Gibson belongs to a sect of Roman Catholicism that is opposed to all the advances and changes that have taken place in the religion since Vatican II in the 1960s. In particular, his group of sectarians are opposed to the saying of the Catholic Mass in the vernacular (i.e., local) languages. They insist that the mass is to be said in Latin. Why? Because Latin is the sacred language.
If Latin is the sacred language for the sacred rites centered on remembering Jesus’ death and resurrection (the mass), the language that God has ordained should be used for the sacred rite – then surely Jesus himself could have spoken Latin. Right?!? That appears to be the logic behind the strange shift in Jesus’ tongue at his trial. Jesus of course was fluent in Latin. It’s the sacred language.
Yikes. This isn’t history. It’s theology transposed onto the past to make it say what one (Mel) *wants* it to say.
There are all sorts of other anomalies and odd moments in “The Passion of the Christ” (including the pious legend that when “Veronica” wiped Jesus’ face on the way to Gethsemane that an image of his face was miraculously transferred to the cloth! So much for sticking to the message of the Gospels….).
In short what we have in this movie is not an accurate retelling of the accounts of Jesus’ trial and death as found in the Gospels; and it is not an accurate portrayal of things “as they really happened.” What is this movie then? It is the Gospel according to Mel.
I have no problem with Mel writing his own Gospel. Each of us is perfectly free to write his or her own Gospel. What I object to is a millionaire actor and director who is himself obsessed with violence and blood and gore and torment and death, and who cannot separate these obsessions from his own religion, pushing these obsessions on unwary viewers who are supposed to think think that this Gospel of Mel is in fact the Gospel of Truth.
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