more on the passion

A reader in Bellingham, Washington suggested that I check out yet another article on Mel Gibsons film, The Passion of the Christ. This one is from the new issue of the New Yorker and, for the most part, its built around an interview with Elaine Pagels, a renowned historian of the early Christian period, conducted after she watched the film with friends. Here are a few quotes from the piece:

Pagels explained that the four gospel writers of the New Testament probably wrote between 70 and 100 A.D. These were the years following the Roman defeat of the Jews, which left the Temple and the center of Jerusalem in ruins. Acts of sedition by the Jews against their conquerors were met with swift execution. As a result, Pagels said, the Gospels, which were intended not as history but as preaching, as religious propaganda to win followers for the teachings of Christ, portrayed the conflict of the Passion as one between Jesus and the Jewish people, led by Caiaphas. And, though it was the Roman occupiers, under Pontius Pilate, who possessed ultimate political and judicial power in Judea, they are described in the Gospelsand, more starkly, in Gibsons film–as relatively benign

Our first informed comment on Pilate comes from Philo of Alexandria, a wealthy, influential Jewish citizen who was part of a delegation sent to Rome to negotiate with the emperor, Pagels said. The delegation saw the Emperor Caligula in the year 40, seven to ten years after Jesus death, and Philo writes that Pilate was stubborn and cruel and routinely ordered executions without trial. The other great historian of the period is Josephus, who wrote the history of the war between the Romans and the Jews. He tells us many episodes about Pilate that also go against what the Gospels tell usthat he robbed the public treasury, that he deliberately incited the Jerusalemites. Josephus tells us that when people rioted in protest Pilate sent his soldiers to beat and kill them. So he was far from the man depicted in the Gospels.

Mel Gibson denies any anti-Semitism, and I cant speak to his motives, Pagels went on, but there are narrative devices that are clear. The more benign Pilate appears in the movie, the more malignant the Jews are. To deflect responsibility from the Romans for arresting and executing Christ, which Gibson takes from the Gospels and makes even more extreme, is contrary to everything we understand about history. It is implausible that the Jews could be responsible and Pilate a benign governor. There are many examples in the film of a preposterous dialectic: the bad Jews and the good Romans. When the Temple police arrest Jesus, Mary Magdalene turns to the Romans as if they were the policemen on the block, benign protectors of the public order. But the very idea of a Jewish woman turning to Roman soldiers for help is ridiculous.

Id like to explore these ideas in greater depth, but theres a made-for-TV movie about Charlies Angles on right now, and I have a weakness for Kate Jackson. Please excuse me.

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