Mel Gibson’s ‘The Passion of the Christ’ Twists the Tale

Gerrymandering the Gospels

Gwydion M. Williams describes how Mel Gibson’s ‘The Passion of the Christ’ twists the actual message that Jesus was recorded as preaching.

If they hadn’t gone way over the top with the flagellation of Jesus, I could have recommended this film while it was still in the cinemas. Some of the other scenes are rather good; an age-worn Mary was very convincing, and Peter was excellent as well. Judas was a flop, doing evil for no clear reason and repenting without due cause. But the portrayal of Satan was unconventional and unforgettable. And now it’s due out on DVD, where you’d be able to avoid the more brutal bits. (Some people will get it just for the brutality, of course, but that’s not my concern.)

The film proceeds from Jesus’s arrest to his death on the cross, and then very briefly to his resurrection. Bits and pieces of Jesus’s actual mission get shown in flashback, but small and very selective. Jesus’s hostility to wealth and commerce is left out, obviously. The ‘women taken in adultery’ is shown, since forgiveness plays well in Peoria (the archetypal US town that the cinema tries to please). And so, of course, does graphic violence

If anyone says ‘realism’, the real Romans typically stripped their victims naked before punishment. What the film reflects is US cultural values: unlimited gore but no genitals. Reservoir Dogmatists? It would have been quite possible to have shown suffering without showing so much of it, but that is not what the film was after. The bulk of Jesus’s positive teaching is omitted, as are key events like driving the money-lenders from the Temple. Which is why I call it gerrymandering the gospels. The various ‘fundamentalists’ are only fundamental about their own obsessions, and not what the gospel texts record Jesus as actually preaching.

Jesus said a lot in praise of wine: Protestant ‘Fundamentalists’ go for bans on alcohol. Jesus took a relaxed view of Sabbath law, which anyway applied to the period that Anglos would define as Friday evening and Saturday morning and afternoon. Sunday is Sun-Day, the first day of the ancient Babylonian calendar. It had become a day of rejoicing and release from toil for pagans in the Roman Empire. Many Christians did their own rejoicing on the same day, which would not have overlapped with the observances of those Christians who still kept Jewish law. From this evolved the traditional merry Catholic Sunday, whereas the Puritans invented something totally new and without authentic biblical sanction. They muddled up several different traditions, applying bits of Hebrew law to the wrong day.

Gibson is something different, a returnee to an extremist and puritanical sect within Roman Catholicism, a sect in which his father was a major figure. This sort of Catholicism is compatible with Puritan Fundamentalism, since they have the same mediaeval roots. As it drifted further and further from Gospel teaching on poverty and meekness, the mediaeval Catholic Church became more and more intense in the guilt and shame it tried to encourage. This trend actually culminated in Puritanism, which was a continuation of some of the crazier aspects of mediaeval Catholic theology. So Gibson as a hard-line Catholic can appeal to American Puritans.

‘Half-Christians’ would be a good term for all such characters. They are ‘fundamentalist’ about their Half-Christianity, not about the actual Gospel teaching. Saying The Christ is also a piece of jargon, pretentious emptiness; the Greek Christos might have been more sensibly Englished as ‘the Anointed One, but it wasn’t.

On the matter of ‘anti-Semitism’, there are lots of different types of anti-Jewish feeling, with Christian extremists normally happy to accept individual Jews who will abandon their cultural identity. Unlike racial anti-Semites, they see it as ‘never too late’ and welcome Jewish converts. This would account for most of those Jews who are portrayed sympathetically in The Passion, who might be assumed to be future converts. The selection is certainly biased; he takes the idea of blood-guilt from Matthew; only Matthew has Pilate washing his hand, and blood-guilt applying to those Jews who did not accept Jesus’s message. But Gibson (unlike Handel) is not dramatising the work as Matthew wrote it. He uses Luke’s version of Jesus’s punishment: the idea that Pilate tried to limit the punishment to a flogging. The film is broadly hostile to those Jews who remained Jews, yet has been hugely popular in the USA. Israelis might wish to take a good look at the film and wonder if their present alliances are a sensible idea.

A more basic objection to ‘Mad Max For Christ’s Sake’ is that it’s anti-Christian. A view of Christianity that concentrates on suffering and pain, evades most of the gentle, forgiving and humble element, and also gives no room for fellow human feeling with those who reject their particular vision. Mel Gibson has dramatises the bits of the Gospel that fit his viewpoint, and ignores the rest.

The hard-line creed that Mel Gibson’s father championed and to which Mel himself has returned is the flavour of Catholicism that was brewed after the French Revolution. In those days the Vatican championed Established Order and blaming everything on Jews and Freemasons. This in itself was an updating of some twelve centuries of meddling with politics and blaming someone else when this damaged Faith. (I count from the time when the Latin-Catholic tradition diverged from the Greek core in the 7th and 8th centuries.) Catholicism is quite a dynamic creed and changed drastically in reaction to the Reformation . People somehow forget that there had been a tradition since very early days of electing bishops and other high dignitaries, a tradition snuffed out by the Counter-Reformation.

In the UK, Reformation and Counter-Reformation are played-out creeds. In the UK, there has been no passion for The Passion. It made 8 million in 5 weeks, less than a mediocre remake of Starksy & Hutch, less than Scooby Doo 2 made in its first week. But in the USA, Gibson’s Christ outsold Scoobie-Doo by a margin of more than 5 to 1, was way ahead of everything except Lord Of The Rings. Yet I don’t think it chimed anywhere outside of the USA. Maybe Britons distrust God more than most nations, but Europe has absorbed Christianity and is moving on, while the rest of the world are going back to their own older traditions.

In Britain, at least, there were a lot of criticisms of the choice of languages. Having Jesus speak in the original Aramaic was bold and interesting, but why so much Latin? Pilate would undoubtedly have spoken both Greek and Latin, because Greek was the normal administrative language in the Eastern Roman Empire. It’s perfectly possible that Roman soldiers would have spoken Latin to each other, just because none of the local population were likely to know it. But conversations between Romans and Jews would probably have been in Greek. It is also ludicrous for Jesus to speaking fluent Latin to Pilate.

You could argue that Jesus as Son of God would have had the power to speak Latin, or Etruscan or Tibetan or Sanskrit, for that matter. But it would have been odd enough for a Galilean carpenter to speak Greek, and really bizarre for him to speak Latin. Even Jews living in Rome spoke much more Greek than Latin, to judge by their grave-inscriptions. Fluent Latin from a Galilean carpenter would have been miraculous enough to have been noted in the Gospels, which of course it wasn’t. If direct conversation was wanted, there was no reason why Pilate should not have picked up Aramaic, in the same way that many officials in the British Empire became fluent in the local language.

Of course Latin is central to the identity of traditional Catholics. Christianity in Western Europe was originally a backward fringe of a sophisticated Greek-speaking creed that had picked up Greek philosophy and merged Jesus and Paul with Plato. The Gospels come from an early, non-philosophical version of the creed, which itself may have diverged a lot from the Aramaic-speaking originals. The Gospels and other works were intermittently translated into Latin, with St Jerome completing a definitive edition. It was known as the Vulgate, the vulgar popular tongue of the crude yet powerful West, a step down from the learned refinements of Greek.

It may however have been Roman power that unintentionally boosted the followers of Jesus, who might have seemed discredited with the death of their founder. It mattered that the Romans had proclaiming Jesus a king, however mockingly. Roman officials had been setting up kings and queens in West Asia for a couple of centuries, and also bullying or destroying them. The dynasty of King Herod were a reduced remnant of the Maccabean kingdom, which had previously revived Jewish nationalism. Jews returning from their Babylonian Exile had been a sect that was protected by the Persian Empire and accepted as another Oriental oddity by the Macedonian-Greek rulers who replaced the Persians. In Jesus’s day, Romans had replaced Greeks and it was they who decided who was a king and who was not a king.

The Maccabean revolt was itself part of the changing power-political balance as Rome gradually rose to power. It was sparked by Antiochus IV imposing Greek-style pagan worship on the Jerusalem temple and then trying to extend it to the rest of his Jewish territories. But Antiochus had done this after being forced to abandon his conquest of Egypt under Roman orders. One writer compared his subsequent action against the Jews as like a man kicking a cat after being humbled by a policeman. Only he picked the wrong cat to kick, with Jews recovering the military skills they had had before the Babylonian exile and forming a minor empire of their own. An empire that was however unable to stand against Roman power, and was gradually being digested by it. Jesus’s predictions of the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple are suspected of having been added after that Temple actually was destroyed. But the threat to Judaism in Palestine was obvious.

I agree with those who interpret Jesus as a Jewish enthusiast trying to save this doomed tradition. If he was unworldly as later Christians now like to make out, he could have told Pilate ‘I am a prophet, not a king’. If the Temple Elders viewed this as blasphemous, then they could have stoned him to death, as they stoned some of his followers, notably Stephen. (Stephen’s death is described in Acts Chapter 7, witnessed by Saul of Tarsus who will later become St Paul.) If religion was the issue, then the Jewish Elders didn’t need the Romans, at least not if they were as united as the Gospel accounts show. But it may have been just one faction, without enough authority to condemn Jesus under Jewish law and also with good grounds for telling Pilate that Jesus was infringing Roman authority by claiming royal power. So the Romans crucified him as a defeated claimant, without thinking what impact this might have upon a rebellious and a humiliated people. Maybe not very different from the present-day USA elevating Moqtada Sadr from fringe fanatic to Islamic hero.

Jesus was crucified, which means he was seen as an enemy of Rome, not a rival to the Jewish Temple hierarchy. Crucifixion had begun as a Phoenician sacrificial ritual, part of the rival Semitic tradition that the Jews had fought for centuries. The Romans got the idea from Carthage, a Phoenician settlement—a lot of Greek civilisation was built on Phoenician models, including the alphabet and the idea of self-governing cities. Romans, indifferent to the racial stereotypes that 19th century Europeans would eventually project upon them, recognised Carthage as a rather similar state, an older and rather more corrupt Republic. They picked up lots of useful ideas, including crucifixion as a neat means of mass-producing torture and humiliation. But in the case of Jesus, crucifixion while being named as the Jewish king could be seen as confirming his status as Redeemer of Israel. This was probably how the early Christians saw it. On this understanding, the original Christianity perished quite early. What survived was a Greek-speaking offshoot which lost its original connection with Jewish nationalism.

Kautsky in Foundations Of Christianity gives good evidence that Christianity was not originally pacifist. That this was just what it turned it into, after the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of its Temple and Jewish traditions. If such a transition seems impossible, we have pretty solid evidence that the pacifist sect of Quakers arrived at their pacifism only after the fall of Cromwell’s Commonwealth and in the face of a sweeping triumph by Royalist and Anglican forces. The reverse process has also happened; the Sikhs began as a peaceful faith and switched over to militancy in the face of persecution. It is also thought that the early Muslims were non-violent before Muhammad moved from Mecca to Medina and was faced with the necessity of fighting the Meccan pagans. That’s the view presented in 1976 film The Message, one view of the rise of Islam.

Pasolini’s 1966 film The Gospel According to St. Matthew was the first and so far the only cinematic attempt to tell the tale more or less as one Gospel-writer saw it. This fitted in with a project that actually failed: a reconciliation between Catholicism and Marxism that would have preserved more of the substance of Christianity than is currently surviving with the spread of Sub-Americanisation. Extremist Christians like Gibson are no more abnormal than the aggressive liberalism which they oppose. They are the Yin and Yang of a messed-up culture.

[With the papacy of Pope Francis, this seemingly dead project may have revived.  At least revivied as a reconciliation between Catholicism and Radical Socialism: abstract Marxism is moribund, as I have said elsewhere.]

The Monty Python team have responded to Gibson’s Passion by re-issuing their Life Of Brian, which is fine as far as it goes. And that isn’t very far. Monty Python was a kind of ‘Higher Punk’ that went along with the sour and disenchanted sequel to 1960s rebelliousness. Punk itself is vastly more interesting than it looks at first sight: it is not just a bunch of kids out to shock, that was just the surface of the phenomenon. I freely concede that things I said a few years back reflected mostly the bafflement of the pre-Punk rebels when events went very differently from what we expected. Punk was alien to 1960s values, indeed. It was also the first popular culture to bridge middle-class and working-class values. Hippies were members of the elite who wanted to drop out; it was aptly said that Punk represented those who wanted to ‘drop in’, assert themselves as important in a world that didn’t seem to care about them. But kids behaving badly can’t be expected to make much more than a big noise, and indeed they didn’t. And rather more 1960s music is still being played, than anything from earlier or later versions of popular culture.

The 1970s also saw a working-class attempt to take over the substance of British society, with moves towards Workers Control. Sadly, this was sabotaged by the Labour Right because they thought they could continue forever with 1950s Corporatism, and by the Communist Party and the Trotskyists because they thought Workers Control would be saving Capitalism when it was just about to collapse.

1960s radicalism was Terminal Liberalism: most of the ‘alternative society’ had the standard Liberal notion of making everything just like them, but no clear idea of how to do this. What we have actually got is a continuation of 1950s Corporatism, run more for the benefit of the rich and with an overstressed and unhappy culture. Gibson is part of the problem, indeed, but he has shown that the interest is there. He preaches a very different message from the ‘Christianity’ of Blair and Bush. Not a message with any huge response in Britain, but in the USA, the Republican Party’s current ‘United Front of Saints & Sinners’ is stupid and should disintegrate.

In the meantime, what could a serious film-maker do with the life of Jesus? Why not start from the era when the Gospels were being written? Call it A Gospel for Theophilus, and centre it on Luke of Luke’s Gospel as an elderly scribe telling it his way. He brings the finished manuscript to ‘Theophilus’, who for the film would be assumed to be a real person and a rich sympathiser who could get the work copied for the various Christian churches. You would show Luke’s version in flashbacks, but also other views, such as that developing around Matthew’s Gospel. Among other things, you could disentangle the two very different Nativities presented by Matthew and Luke, which conventional accounts mix and gloss over and ignore the gross differences.

Dramatising the two incompatible tellings of the birth of Jesus could be symbolic of wider differences—you could follow Kautsky’s interpretation of Matthew as a bitterly sectarian type of Christianity, hostile to the rich and philosophical in the Greek world, but also decidedly hostile to those Jews who did not take Jesus seriously. And bring in yet another viewpoint around John’s Gospel, mystical and mentally preparing for the later reconciliation with Plato and Greek sophistication, thought to be later than Luke but not provably so. Make it a kind of Rashomon; there are several different tellings and who knows what the truth was? But you could easily show what it wasn’t, and how Gibson and similar extremists are playing fast and loose with their own tradition.

First published in Labour & Trade Union Review, 2004

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