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Accuracy and controversy have followed Mel Gibson's journey to Calvary in The Passion Of The Christ. NOEL VERA reflects. Illustration by Sonny Liew.

 

Click here: For Noel Vera's The Perversion Of Christ

Click here: A reader writes in; Noel Vera replies

See Below: "Bloody Good"

Mel Gibson and his publicists have repeatedly claimed that his The Passion Of The Christ is the most historically accurate of all pictures made on Jesus.

Actually - no. Historians have pointed out various inaccuracies - that Jesus would have spoken to Pontius Pilate in Greek (the lingua franca of the time), not Latin, and so would the Roman soldiers (who were conscripts from various nearby regions, not actual Romans); that Jesus would have carried a crossbeam and not the entire cross (which weighed something like 350 pounds); that he would have been nailed through the wrist and not the palms (his weight would have pulled the nails through his palms); that his cross used a projecting seat and not a footrest to support him; that his fellow convicts should have been scourged, as is standard Roman practice, instead of him alone.

"The picture promotes the view that 'God had to be satisfied or appeased for the countless sins of humanity by subjecting his son to unspeakable torments,' which isn't the case — Christ's crucifixion is meaningless without his resurrection."
- Philip Cunningham, Executive Director of the Center for Christian-Jewish Learning at Boston College

Gibson in reply has said that he has read many accounts and that as they often conflicted with each other he felt free to choose a "middle way," so to speak. It's significant, though, that Gibson's choices are often consistent with classic depictions of Jesus and his passion, rather than with the latest archeological findings.

Accuracy isn't the only controversy associated with this picture; there is also the charge that Passion is anti-Semitic, that it promotes the old idea that the Jews as a race are responsible for killing Christ. Gibson's publicist Paul Lauer puts an ingenious spin to this accusation, saying that to call the movie anti-Semitic is "to call the New Testament Gospels anti-Semitic," implying along the way that the movie is a faithful adaptation from the New Testaments (the marketing campaign has also trumpeted the picture as being the most biblically accurate yet made).

Is it? I mean — is it historically and biblically accurate, and are the charges of anti-Semitism false? The answer to these questions, interestingly enough, seem interrelated.



Mel Gibson (right) directing Jim Caviezel.

Some elements in the picture are definitely not from the Bible — an androgynous Satan (in interviews Gibson refers to him as a "Satanic" figure) tempting Christ in the garden of Gethsemane and walking among the Jews who watch Jesus being whipped; an effeminate Herod, heavily rouged and eyelinered, mocking Jesus as he's brought before him (strange how few critics have noted the picture's homophobia); a Pilate and his wife, wringing their hands over the death of an innocent man.

To be fair, Gibson can't help but rearrange and insert extra scenes: the four Gospels offer varying, sometimes even contradictory, accounts, and their coverage of Jesus' final hours is sketchy when it comes to physical details about crucifixion and scourging. Sometimes when making a picture you have to add or make changes, for dramatic impact and narrative clarity.

But as Catholic teaching — or at least mainstream Catholic teaching — declares: "It is not sufficient for the producers of passion dramatizations to respond to responsible criticism simply by appealing to the notion that 'it's in the Bible.' One must account for one's selections" (National Conference of Catholic Bishops, "Criteria for the Evaluation of Dramatizations of the Passion," 1988).

Philip Cunningham, Executive Director of the Center for Christian-Jewish Learning at Boston College, makes some interesting points in his "The Passion Of The Christ: A Challenge to Catholic Teaching." He points out that in the movie's pivotal scene, Gibson selected a passage from the Gospel according to John, where Pilate orders Jesus scourged, hoping to appease the crowd demanding his crucifixion. When this tactic fails, Pilate appeals to Jesus for help, to which Jesus replies "He who delivered me to you (Jewish high priest Caiaphas) has the greater sin."

Gibson then tacked on a passage from Matthew where Caiaphas calls out in Aramaic "Let his blood be on us and our children!" (Gibson's claim to have cut this scene is false; he merely removed the subtitles). Pilate washes his hands (the scene is found in Matthew), in effect absolving him of the whole affair, granting the Jewish crowd what they want — Jesus' crucifixion.

The net result of this joining of scenes from John (the scourging, the 'greater sin') and Matthew ('blood be on us and our children,' hand-washing) is to shift blame away from Pilate onto Caiaphas and the Jewish crowd; the net result is a depiction of Pilate as more compassionate and of the Jews as more determinedly bloodthirsty than is actually found in either John's or Matthew's Gospels. The net result is a heightening of Jewish guilt, and a relative exoneration of the Roman (of senior Roman officials, at that).

"Adolf Hitler praised the Passion Play at Oberammergau, declaring it 'vital that it be continued… for never has the menace of Jewry been so convincingly portrayed'..."

True, most of the passages cited can be found in the Bible and even taken separately they seem to indicate a common trend. Now is as good a time as any, then, to ask the question implicit in Lauer's earlier assertion: is the New Testament anti-Semitic?

Putting aside the anachronism of the question (the term 'anti-Semitism' was coined in the 19th Century), it must be noted that the Gospels were originally oral traditions written from 50 to 70 years after Christ had died, and that they reflected the times of the writers as much as of Christ — times when the early Christians were struggling to reply to unbelieving Jews and reach out to the Romans.

Bible historians and theologians know this, and what's more the Vatican (whose authority Gibson rejects) admits this as well, saying "The Gospels are the outcome of long and complicated editorial work… Hence it cannot be ruled out that some references hostile to the Jews have their historical context in conflicts between the nascent church and the Jewish community" (Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, "Notes on the Correct Way to Present Jews and Judaism in Preaching and Teaching in the Roman Catholic Church" 1985).

Cunningham writes: "Honesty demands the recognition that Christians have used (and abused) the New Testament over the centuries to claim that "the Jews" were cursed for rejecting and crucifying Jesus." He notes that from the late Middle Ages onwards, passion plays much like the one Gibson has adapted (with additions) to the big screen were performed every Holy Week, and that these plays "regularly inspired violence against Jews."

Rabbi David Fox Sandmel, leader of Chicago's KAM-Isaiah Israel Congregation, reminds us that Adolf Hitler praised the Passion Play at Oberammergau, declaring it "vital that it be continued… for never has the menace of Jewry been so convincingly portrayed as in this presentation of what happened in the times of the Romans" (the play was revised several years ago, with the help of Jewish advisers).

Catholic teaching warns that "Jews should not be portrayed as avaricious; blood thirsty (for example, in certain depictions of Jesus' appearances before the Temple priesthood or before Pilate); or implacable enemies of Christ (for example, by changing the small "crowd" at the governor's palace into a teeming mob)" (National Conference of Catholic Bishops, "Criteria for the Evaluation of Dramatizations of the Passion," 1988).

It stresses the "overriding preoccupation to bring out explicitly the meaning of the (Gospel) text while taking scriptural studies into account" (Vatican Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, "Guidelines and Suggestions for Implementing the Conciliar Declaration 'Nostra Aetate,'" 1974). To, in other words, consider what today's biblical scholars have to say as well and not read the Bible too literally, as Gibson's movie has done.

How then is one — in this case, Gibson — to "account for one's selections?" Granted Gibson is of a Traditionalist sect that refuses to recognize the authority of the pope in Rome (which makes his trumpeting of said pope's endorsement of his movie — since withdrawn — all the more disingenuous), and the validity of Vatican 2. Still, the idea is sound, whether you believe in the Vatican's authority or not: one must be responsible for the choices one makes in telling a story, and must be able to give good reasons as to why they were made, especially when said choices come together to create a false and harmful image.

"The soul of the old Jewess Meyr told me on the way that it was true that in former times the Jews, both in our country and elsewhere, had strangled many Christians, principally children, and used their blood for all sort of superstitious and diabolical practices."
- The above is taken from The Life And Revelations Of Anne Catherine Emmerich, the book that inspired Gibson's film

Actually, Gibson is perfectly capable of accounting for his choices; he just doesn't seem at all eager or even willing to do so. As Cunningham puts it, "Gibson has actually created a cinematic version not so much of the Gospels but of Anne Catherine Emmerich's purported visions of the death of Jesus." Anne Catherine Emmerich was a 19th century Augustinian nun known for her visions of the life of Christ. The German Romantic poet, Clemens Brentano, offered to write down her visions and the result was The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ after the Meditations of Anne Catherine Emmerich, published in 1833.



The Dolorous Passion Of Our Lord Jesus Christ by Anne Catherine Emmerich (below)

The book was internationally renowned, as much for its violent, rather exaggerated imagery of Christ's suffering as for being full of closely observed details of Palestine that (as some readers who visited the country noted) a simple German nun could not have possibly imagined. The question arose, however, whether the visions are truly Catherine's or embellished by Brentano; when German experts sifted through his papers after his death, their general conclusion was — after finding travel literature and biblical apocrypha among his papers — that only a small portion of the text is Emmerich's.

Emmerich's name was submitted for beatification in 1892; the process was halted in 1928 because of the questions on her visions' authenticity. The process was resumed in 1979, but with the explicit provision that her writings be excluded. Father John O'Malley, SJ, in his article, A Movie, a Mystic, and a Spiritual Tradition: Anne Catherine Emmerich & the Passion of the Christ, tells us: "The official opinion on the writings has thus for a long time been sober and even skeptical." He adds: "I would not recommend it to anybody today. It is anti-Semitic to the degree (sometimes considerable) that virtually all 19th-Century retellings of the Passion, whether by Catholics or Protestants, were anti-Semitic."

Here's a sample of one of her visions: "The soul of the old Jewess Meyr told me on the way that it was true that in former times the Jews, both in our country and elsewhere, had strangled many Christians, principally children, and used their blood for all sort of superstitious and diabolical practices. She had once believed it lawful; but she now knew that it was abominable murder. They still follow such practices in this country and in others more distant; but very secretly, because they are obliged to have commercial intercourse with Christians" (The Life and Revelations of Anne Catherine Emmerich).
 

Cunningham asserts in his article that Gibson owes many of his non-biblical images (Jesus thrown off a bridge, Pilate admonishing the Jews on their abuse of Jesus, an effeminate Herod, Pilate's wife giving Jesus' mother cloth to wipe away his blood, Jesus falling seven times, Christ's arm dislocated to fit holes drilled into the cross), and even the ordering and selection of scenes from the Gospels to Emmerich (John joined with Matthew to form Christ and Pilate's meeting). Gibson has reportedly denied using Emmerich as a source and does not consider her anti-Semitic (!); in a February 16 television interview, however, he said Emmerich "supplied me with stuff I never would have thought of," and admitted to carrying what he thinks is a relic of her.

"He may not be consciously anti-Semitic but by pointedly ignoring the principles set by orthodox Catholic teachings on dramatizations of Jesus' passion and by depending instead on the visions of an outspokenly anti-Semitic nun, Gibson has created a movie remarkably open to abuse by anti-Semitics..."

It's possible that Gibson doesn't believe himself anti-Semitic — DW Griffith didn't think he was racist when he made Birth Of A Nation — and probable that he didn't intend his picture to be such; to his credit he does include a prominent role for Simon of Cyrene, who helps carry Jesus and his cross on the way to Golgotha (though you can't help but notice, from the way Gibson presents Simon, that he's practically on his way to becoming a Christian convert, and that no positive depiction of a character who supports Judaism can be found). For his picture, unfortunately, Gibson has chosen to translate onscreen an old theatrical form known to have inspired hatred for Jews; has chosen scenes from the Gospels in a way that heightens Jewish guilt; has tried to polarize debate so that anyone not for his movie is against Christianity and the Bible.

He may not be consciously anti-Semitic but by pointedly ignoring the principles set by orthodox Catholic teachings on dramatizations of Jesus' passion and by depending instead on the visions of an outspokenly anti-Semitic nun, Gibson has created a movie remarkably open to abuse by anti-Semitics, much as the Gospels themselves have been abused in the past, as a justification for persecuting the Jews.

Putting aside, the question of anti-Semitism, is the movie still to be recommended, theologically? Cunningham says the picture promotes the view that "God had to be satisfied or appeased for the countless sins of humanity by subjecting his son to unspeakable torments," which isn't the case — Christ's crucifixion is meaningless without his resurrection; it's the whole reason for his suffering. Gibson's movie upends this emphasis, focuses on Christ's physical sufferings (including much that was added thanks to Emmerich), and confines the resurrection to a few quick moments onscreen. Fr O'Malley points out that this emphasis and, at times, overemphasis of the crucifixion and of Christ's suffering are a trend of recent centuries, and that "The reforms of the Easter triduum that began with Pius XII and were continued with the liturgical changes during and after Vatican II were, among other things, an attempt to redress the balance."

So what can be done about this picture? I don't believe in censorship, or outright banning, and I doubt if the Movie and Television Ratings and Classification Board (MTRCB) will ban it either (I expect glowing praise of the movie on the copy of their decision posted outside theater gates). Rumor has it that they will give the picture a rating of PG 13 — which would be awful; bringing anyone younger than 16 into this movie is, I think, tantamount to cruel child abuse.

Rabbi Sandmel may have the most sensible answer — he proposes converting the movie into a "teachable moment" for Christians and Jews (mainly Catholics, here in Manila), to watch the picture, be aware of its errors, understand both the context in which the movie was made, and the proper context in which Jesus' Passion should be seen and understood.

(With thanks to Philip Cunningham, Executive Director of the Center for Christian-Jewish Learning at Boston College for permission to quote extensively from his article, The Passion of the Christ: A Challenge to Catholic Teaching, found online at: http://www.bc.edu/cjlearning)

Click here:
Fr. John O'Malley's article, A Movie, a Mystic, and a Spiritual Tradition: Anne Catherine Emmerich & the Passion of the Christ

Click here:
To compare Gibson's movie with Emmerich's visions

(Comments? Email me at noelbotevera@hotmail.com)

The film opened in the United States in March, the month of the first anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq.


"BLOODY GOOD"



The nation-builder press, March 31, 2004.

$ingapore's Roman Catholic Archbishop, Nicholas Chia, who has been busy testifying against his priest in court, took time off to watch Mel Gibson's The Passion Of Christ. He told the nation-builder press, he rated the movie four out of five stars.

He said: "I don't think there is any anti-Semitism." When asked how he reacted to the film, the Bishop said: "I did not cry. I am not that emotional."

Mel Gibson invested US$30 million to make the film. So far the film has grossed US$315 million.

Anything [and that includes a casino] that can make hundreds of millions of dollars must be bloody good.



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