February 27, 2004
What does a movie like The Passion say about American Christianity?
Dennis Robbins, a member of our extended pack and a theologian, offers the following commentary on Why Gibson’s Passion Provokes so Much Concern Among Jewish Americans.
I saw The Passion, the other day, with a couple of students and left after an hour. So much gratuitous violence. Such a sadistic vision of piety. I wonder, what does a movie like that say about American Christianity? I can explain, however, why Gibson’s Passion provokes so much concern among Jewish Americans.
Many Christians in the United States have a hard time understanding why the anticipated release of Mel Gibson’s new film, The Passion of the Christ, is provoking so much concern among Jewish Americans. Fears that certain elements of the film might leave movie-goers with the impression that Jews are responsible for the death of Jesus and arouse hostility and anti-Semitism in the United States and around the world are met with genuine disbelief. In fact, when the question of responsibility for the death of Jesus is raised, many Christians, including Gibson himself, eagerly embrace the idea that we all are responsible for the death of Jesus. But to Jewish Americans this response misses the point. Though it is offered with pious sincerity and well-intentioned solidarity, it reveals a fundamental difference in the way in which Christians and Jews perceive the death of Jesus.
Christians perceive the death of Jesus theologically. For them it is an act of redemption. In the words of the Gospel of John, Jesus is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of world.” The reason why Christians can admit they are responsible for the death of Jesus is because their culpability is first among a long list of sins for which Jesus’s death on the cross makes atonement. In one of the great ironies of Christian faith, the horrific death that Jesus suffers at Christian hands becomes the very means by which Christians are offered salvation. Perhaps this is the reason why there is a scene in Gibson’s new film when the left hand of the director himself is filmed holding one of the spikes a Roman soldier is preparing to drive into the flesh of Jesus’ extended arm.
But this irony has no interpretive power for Jewish Americans because they do not perceive the death of Jesus theologically. They perceive it historically. For Jews the death of Jesus is an act of execution suffered at Roman hands because like the prophets of old and other Galilean charismatics of the time Jesus undermined the absolutism of Empire by preaching a more fundamental loyalty to the kingdom of God. To Jewish Americans who understand the Passion of the Christ from an historical perspective, the theological idea that we are all responsible for the death of Jesus is a logical absurdity.
It is also a theological idea embraced by those who espouse it with dangerous inconsistency. During periods of economic expansion and social stability just about everybody it seems is willing to claim theological responsibility for the death of Jesus. And why not? There is nothing to lose and everything to gain. But during periods of economic contraction and social unrest when peoples, tribes and nations need a scapegoat, theological responsibility is forgotten and historical responsibility for the death of Jesus falls squarely and repeatedly on Jewish shoulders with lethal consequences.
When they are told not to worry about the repercussions of a film that portrays Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, as a reluctant judge ready to acquit Jesus were it not for the machinations of a group of vindictive Jewish priests and the volatility of a Jewish crowd, it is understandable if Jewish Americans feel some apprehension. Though there are reports that Gibson has deleted from the English subtitles of his film the infamous blood libel found only in Matthew’s Gospel in which the Jewish crowd demanding Jesus’s crucifixion cries, “His blood be on us and on our children,” the phrase remains in the film in Aramaic as does an innovation inspired by the visions of an 18th century Catholic mystic to have the cross upon which Jesus is crucified constructed in the courtyard of the Temple, the center of Jewish piety and worship.
Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ is a provocative film that raises deeply unsettling questions for Jewish Americans. Given the long history of persecution Jews have suffered as a result of the charge of deicide, it is understandable, I think, if Christian assurances that we are all responsible for the death of Jesus ring a bit hollow in Jewish ears.
February 25, 2004
Well, I am still waiting rather impatiently for one of our near-flung correspondents to send me an email about her viewing of the Mel Gibson movie last night. I have said a few times that I won't comment on it until I see it. Which means I won't comment on it at all. But, until that review comes in, I have this from another of our not-so-near correspondents, a member of the extended pack.
Dennis Robbins says the following:
The faulty history contained in the gospels can be illustrated in the efforts of the gospel authors to connect the birth of Jesus to the legacy of King David. The following examination was co-authored by myself, and two of my students K. Gallacher and B. Stolpen
A common hope among Jews living in Palestine in the first century C.E. was the expectation of a Messiah. Though different Jewish groups envisioned the Messiah in different ways, modern biblical scholars have put together a composite portrait of the Messiah that many Jews shared. Understanding this portrait and appreciating the determination with which the disciples of Jesus sought to portray Jesus' life in light of it are at the heart of understanding why the Gospels were written as they were and why they cannot be regarded as biography in the manner in which we normally understand that word.
To understand the origin of the idea of the Messiah, one must go back in history to approximately 1000 B.C.E. There one finds a biblical hero whose prestige is second only to that of Moses. David's legend is well known. The youngest son of Jesse of Bethlehem, as a boy David kept watch over his father's sheep. As an adolescent he slew a Philistine giant named Goliath. As a man, he became an accomplished warrior-king. Among his accomplishments are the following: He unified the Israelite tribal confederacy, centralized both government and worship in the former Canaanite stronghold of Jerusalem and prepared the groundwork for the construction of a temple his son Solomon would later build.
So enamored were the prophets and priests of Israel with the leadership of this handsome and charismatic warrior-king, that they called him "a man after God's own heart." In addition, a tradition emerged that David's kingdom would never end. In the Book of Samuel a story is told in which God promises David that there will always be an heir sitting on his throne in Jerusalem. Though there was a period of about 400 years in which it appeared to be true, this promise came to an abrupt end in 587 B.C.E. when the armies of the King Nebuchadnezzar of the Neo-Babylonian Empire besieged Jerusalem, breached its walls, pillaged and destroyed the temple, and carried off Jerusalem's nobility into exile. Among the group of Jews led into captivity was David's descendent, King Zedekiah.
Though the Babylonian Exile necessarily modified the promise made by God to David in the Book of Samuel, it did not nullify it. Rather the promise re-emerged in the shape of a hope, then an expectation, and finally, a certainty that a descendent of David would reappear who would liberate Israel from foreign domination and re-establish a kingdom of justice and peace whose glory would be so celebrated that even Gentiles would come as pilgrims to Jerusalem to honor and worship Israel's God. This future deliverer became known as the Messiah (derived from a Hebrew word meaning anointed one).
Evidence of these permutations can be found in the prophetic books of the Hebrew Bible. For example, the prophet Isaiah compares David's lineage to a tree, and though he concedes that David's majestic line has been felled by a Babylonian ax, he predicts that out of this "stump of Jesse" a shoot will come through which the Davidic kingdom will be re-established. The prophet Micah also expresses the confidence that an heir of David will appear. Where is this heir to be born? Obviously, the same place where David was: in a little town south of Jerusalem called Bethlehem.
The disciples of Jesus knew these prophecies. What distinguished them from other Jews of the first century, however, was their conviction that Jesus had fulfilled them. But here is the rub: When the details of Jesus' life did not fit these messianic expectations, his disciples modified them or created new details for his life to fit these messianic expectations. An instructive example of this is to be found in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Both Gospels admit that Jesus came from Nazareth. Both also know that the Messiah is expected to come from Bethlehem. How to reconcile Jesus' place of origin with this messianic expectation became an important consideration in the way in which each Gospel tells the story of Jesus' birth.
One has only to think of the stories celebrated at Christmas to know how this contradiction is resolved. In the Gospel of Luke, Joseph and Mary live in Nazareth. But because of a census created for the purpose of taxation under the Emperor Augustus, Joseph and Mary take an arduous trip south of Nazareth to Bethlehem, to the town in which Joseph was born. While there, because of a lodging shortage, Mary gives birth to her baby in a stable. Then shepherds, told of the child's birth by a host of angels, appear to pay homage to the child. Shortly after that, Joseph registers, pays the Roman tax and returns with his wife and son to Nazareth. It is a poignant story about the humble origins of the Messiah. On the surface, the story possesses a great deal of plausibility. There is only one problem: the story of the birth of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke is completely irreconcilable with the story of the birth of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Joseph and Mary already live in Bethlehem. There is no need for a trip south. In fact, the census that Luke uses as a vehicle to get Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem will not occur until 6 C.E., 10 years after the historical setting of Matthew's Gospel. What brings the birth of Jesus to the attention of the reader is not a host of angels or excited shepherds, but the appearance in Jerusalem of a group of Persian astrologers looking for a baby born to be king of the Jews. King Herod and the religious leaders of Jerusalem are caught completely off guard. Then follows one of the great stories of the literature of the world.
Anxious to protect his claim to the throne, Herod tells the Persian astrologers about an ancient prophecy that links the birth of the Messiah to Bethlehem. Herod then asks the wise men to find the baby, honor him and send word back to Jerusalem so that he, too, might pay homage. The magi, of course, see through Herod's transparent plot and ignore him. Enraged by the magi's treachery, Herod orders the slaughter of all of the children of Bethlehem under two years of age. Forewarned in a dream, Joseph, Mary and Jesus flee south to Egypt where they remain until Herod's death. When Joseph returns to Israel, he decides to resettle in Nazareth, not Bethlehem, because the son of Herod, to whom Rome has given dominion of Judea, is an even greater despot than his father.
The writers of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke create a couple of stories to connect Jesus historically to Bethlehem. This is where the Messiah is supposed to be born. The distinctive ways in which they attempt to accomplish this feat are so different that both stories cannot be considered true. The consensus among modern biblical scholars is that neither are. This is not to say that these stories are without merit. Anyone familiar with the power of literature knows that factuality is not the only yardstick of the truth. This is to say, however, that these stories are not historical accounts. They are marvelous legends designed to fill in some of the biographical gaps of a man whose ministry and message resulted in the creation of one of the world's great religious traditions. They are still worth celebrating for those who believe. But they must never be used as evidence of some deficiency among those who do not.
February 16, 2004
Gospels provide faulty history
Here in the bible belt, Paul Harvey's commentary on Gibson's film "The Passion" is being widely circulated via email. A fatal flaw in Harvey's pro-Catholic, pro-Christian perspective is found in his assertion below:
"Yes, its producer is a Catholic Christian and thankfully has remained faithful to the Gospel text; if that is no longer acceptable behavior than we are all in trouble. History demands that we remain faithful to the story and Christians have a right to tell it. After all, we believe that it is the greatest story ever told and that its message is for all men and women. The greatest right is the right to hear the truth."
The problem is, of course, that the Gospels themselves grew increasingly anti-Semitic as the years lapsed between the penning of the first and the last of the Gospels. Which is to say that Christians have not "remain[ed] faithful to the story" and the beginnings of this faithlessness or diversion from the truth can be seen in the increasingly anti-Semitic tone of the Gospel of John when compared with the earlier Gospels. The Gospels, thefore, are a poor source of history. The value of Gibson's work is found in that it contributes to the market place of ideas. Its value is not found in that it is either meets history's demands or that it is "the truth."