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Canadian Excellence

Critics are wrong, not filmmaker


Mel Gibson's new movie presents reasonable account of Jesus' last hours

DAVID HASKELL
FOR THE RECORD
1,197 words
25 February 2004
Kitchener-Waterloo Record
Final
A15
English
Copyright (c) 2004 Kitchener-Waterloo Record.

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I've been reading and listening to the debates surrounding Mel Gibson's film The Passion Of The Christ and I've been driven to the perplexing question: Was anyone responsible for Jesus' death?

Not since the evening soap opera Dallas left me wondering "Who shot J.R.?" has a media event caused me such vexation.

Those who have spoken out against this movie -- many of them liberal Christian theologians -- say that Gibson's depiction of the last hours in the life of Jesus is wrong because he takes the biblical account too literally. Particularly inaccurate, they say, is the movie's (and the Bible's) assertion that Jewish religious authorities concocted the scheme to murder Jesus. That, they say, never happened.

I'm not a biblical literalist, nor is theology my area of expertise, so I'm willing to believe these theologians when they say the movie and, even the Bible, got it wrong. But as yet, none of the nay-saying religious pundits I've read or listened to have given me what they believe to be the "real story."

In this vacuum of facts, I've been left to wonder: If Jewish authorities weren't responsible for Jesus' death, then who was?

To be fair, a few theologians did offer a pseudo-answer to my question, saying that, "We are all responsible. We all put Jesus up on the cross." From a strictly spiritual point of view, I can appreciate how that statement holds validity for those of the Christian faith. But I'm interested in the history and not the theology of this issue. Lacking answers, I went seeking, hoping to find.

The two greatest authorities in the world today on the historical life of Jesus are professors Bart D. Ehrman and John Dominic Crossan (at least that's what it says on the dust-jackets of their books). Ehrman is a professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and has published eight books on historical Christianity. Crossan is a professor of biblical studies at DePaul University in Chicago and is the leading scholar in the Jesus Seminar, a group of academics who have met to determine the authenticity of the sayings of Jesus in the Gospels.

Based on the historical evidence, both Ehrman and Crossan come to similar conclusions regarding the death of Jesus. They say his execution was instigated by the Jewish religious authorities in Jerusalem.

Ehrman and Crossan, in independent works, state that Jesus travelled to Jerusalem from Galilee to celebrate the Passover feast. While in the capital city, his preaching began to gather larger and larger crowds. At one point, while preaching in the temple, Jesus caused a disturbance and that brought down upon him the wrath of the Jewish high priests.

Sensing the explosive atmosphere of the Passover crowd and fearing an uprising "the priests decided to have (Jesus) taken out of the way," says Ehrman in his lecture series The Historical Jesus. "They could not handle the matter themselves, however, because the Romans did not allow Jewish authorities to execute criminals." So they planned to have Jesus arrested and delivered to the Roman governor Pontius Pilate to be put to death.

Ehrman thinks it is plausible that prior to his trial before Pontius Pilate, Jesus was brought before the chief priest, Caiaphas, and his ruling council for questioning, as is indicated in the Gospels and shown in Gibson's movie. Only on this point does Crossan disagree. Crossan feels it is more historically plausible that Jesus was taken quickly and executed with "casual brutality."

"I do not presume at all any high-level consultations between Caiaphas or Pilate about or with Jesus," writes Crossen in his book Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography. "They would no doubt have agreed before such a festival (Passover) that fast and immediate action was to be taken against any disturbance and that some examples by crucifixion might be especially useful from the start." Jesus' trial before Pilate, adds Crossan, would have been a forgettable administrative task lasting no more than a minute or two.

So it turns out the liberal theologians who have been dominating the media the last few weeks, and not Gibson's movie, are the ones who have gotten their facts wrong, at least with regard to the conspiracy surrounding the death of Jesus.

But how can that be? How can men and women who have made the study of the Bible their life's work not know what I was able to discover in one trip to the library? I can only assume that in fact, they do know . . . they just don't want to tell anyone.

I think their silence stems from noble intentions. They are afraid if they admit that a select group of Jews played a part in the Crucifixion it will lead to a groundswell of anti-Semitism. The terrible libel of the Jews as Christ-killers will, they believe, once again become commonplace.

It is unfortunate that these academics have so little faith in the average person's ability to understand and interpret the historical facts.

Rather than deny that any Jews played a part in the death of Christ, theologians of all stripes should be discussing the issue directly within its historical context. I envision the dialogue going something like this:

It's true that one group of Jewish men, interested in preserving the peace and status quo in Jerusalem, took it upon themselves to permanently silence the message of Jesus. It's equally true that another group of Jews, the disciples of Jesus, loved him dearly and took it upon themselves to spread his message to all the world.

Christianity owes its life to that latter group of Jews. To say that the Jews, as a people, were responsible for the death of Jesus is utterly ridiculous. In a modern context it's akin to saying the Americans killed John F. Kennedy or Martin Luther King.

If faith groups are to be judged according to the actions of a few of their members over the course of history --Christianity is open to the greatest criticism. As a Christian, I wish I could re-write history and expunge such atrocities as the Crusades, the Inquisition, and church residential schools -- just to name a few -- but I can't.

Faith groups are made up of people and inevitably some of those people do unthinkable things. Others, however, do tremendous good. Personally, I choose to focus on the good, but I refuse to pretend that the unthinkable things never happened.