Truth Behind Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of Christ” Pt. I

Aquarian Weekly 2/25/04 REALITY CHECK

Film Art, Anti-Semitism and Gospel Lore

Salvador Dali's Christ of St. John of the Cross Editor’s Note: The following is part one of a two-part series on the social impact of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of The Christ”, the charges of anti-Semitism therein, and its New Testament sources, while the second segment will concentrate on the film after the author attends a screening this week.

Once again, Jesus of Nazareth, the peasant artisan from ancient Palestine turned social and spiritual radical, turned miraculous healer, turned martyred rebel, and finally turned religious icon gets dragged from the altar and into the news with the release of “The Passion of the Christ”, a Mel Gibson-produced-directed epic. The film is getting free publicity because of its alleged “controversial” depiction of the arrest, trial and subsequent murder of the impoverished first-century Jewish radical cum messiah. Controversial because of what some deem its subliminal, others its overt anti-Semitic stance. But how much of it is warranted?

To merely make art about religious subject matter is to seduce controversy. This is fact. From DaVinci to Scorsese, the list is long, and the results similar: furor.

Having released my own “controversial” book, “Trailing Jesus” (Published 11/02) I understand all too well the impossibility of escaping belief systems based on cultural traditions, familial binds and unyielding devotion. This is true of any faith in any era, and for some this is good. But just as true is espousing one true faith in a world of several – in this case three mega-popular monotheistic faiths – managing to propagate an ignominious history of bating, bashing and violence between them.

I may have humbly sparked much of my own engaging discussion under the radar this past year, but Gibson, super-celebrity, comes to the party with some baggage.

Gibson, an Oscar-winning filmmaker in his own right, is a self-proclaimed Traditionalist Catholic, an ultra-conservative sect of a multi-billion dollar industry that harkens its tenets back to the Middle Ages. His asides about being moved by God to produce what he deems is the definitive artistic expression of The Passion of Christ not withstanding, Gibson’s vociferously opinionated father has gained him a mound of negative publicity. Hutton Gibson is an oft-quoted lunatic bigot with virulent stances on everything from Holocaust denial to Pope smearing.

This explosive combination of religious fanaticism and noisy prejudice has caused raucous mouthpieces for the Jewish Anti-Defamation League to charge the explicit violence in Gibson’s film – the protagonist being beaten to a bloody pulp and executed replete with cheering on by the predominantly Jewish populace of the period and orchestrated by its leadership – to be a form of rampant Jew-bashing during a time ripe with anti-Semitic rumblings in Eastern Europe and the whole of the vastly radical Islamic world.

I dare you to try and figure a convicted soul whose core philosophy is “love your enemy”, gets murdered by those enemies, ends up being worshipped by the descendents of said enemies, and come out without controversy.

On the surface it looks like more religious kooks using preconceptions to attack the work, not unlike the tumult over 1988 Martin Scorsese mediocre film version of Nikos Kazantzakis’ brilliant novel, “The Last Temptation of Christ”, wherein the fictitious depiction of Jesus is seen making babies with Mary Magdalene. Back then Christian protestors were having fits over the irreverence given to their Lord, wherein now they laud what many critics have described as “gruesome” scenes of the Christ’s suffering and crucifixion. (Even the Pope has checked in with a thumb’s up). But the subtext of the ADL’s argument is well founded, because in a way Gibson had no choice in creating an anti-Semitic depiction of this story no matter what his belief or background.

For almost 2000 years, at least roughly 1700 years since the Roman Empire gave Christianity its stamp of approval, the hazily constructed events leading up to and surrounding the death of Jesus of Nazareth has given the perpetuators of genocide a nicely formed excuse: The Jews, leadership and populace, killed Jesus. The Romans were in charge and could have done something if not so utterly duped by those evils plotters, but dropped the ball. Until the last half-century or so this nonsense was not officially denounced by major sects of Christianity, and in some circles exists today – leading to some of the most heinous crimes rendered by humankind

But, again, how much of it origins ring true?

Let’s step back for a moment and massage the parameters of the volatile climate that inexorably follows the legacy of this Jesus of Nazareth wherever it has tread for the past two thousand years.

Here’s what we know of what modern Biblical scholars are willing to accept as history from the Jesus story:

A peasant artisan (most likely a mason) named Yeshua or Yeshu (Hebrew moniker meaning salvation) from the rebelliously volatile region of the Galilee in the Roman province of Judea gained the fanatical allegiance of mostly vagabonds, miscreants and the terminally infirmed with a mystical healing power and an engaging philosophy that grew to dangerous numbers around the thirtieth year of the first century. He was by all accounts a Jew, and knew well his culture’s customs and beliefs. During the Passover holiday of that spring, he stomped into the crowded corridors of King Herod’s Holy Temple in the hub of ancient Jerusalem, challenged the religious political order, pronounced himself some sort of omniscient authority and wrecked the place. Religious leaders at the time, the Sanhedrin, a corrupted and fractured congress of Jewish cultural affairs, and the Roman power-base, Pontius Pilate, the murderous prefect of Judea felt this behavior inexcusable in the wildly incendiary ambiance of a culture celebrating its independence from Egyptian slavery while under the oppressive yoke of a ruling empire.

As a result, Jesus of Nazareth was crucified – a popular mode of execution the bloodthirsty Romans borrowed from the equally insidious Assyrians – by order of the state. The fact is the Jewish culture of antiquity had no evidence of using crucifixion as a means of any kind of punishment. They were partial to stoning.

So Jesus is dead, and thirty years pass with much rumor and innuendo – both glowingly positive and horribly pejorative – between warring Jewish faiths: one that believed somehow that the slain Jesus of Nazareth was the promised Messiah of scripture, and the other that wished to wait a little longer for something more tangible. In other words, sans a couple of gentiles and Samaritans, the whole philosophical battle was between Jews: those who didn’t deem Jesus the Anointed One or Christ, and those who did.

Later in the century and beyond, four sources of the life, teachings, doings and death of Jesus of Nazareth emerged as pillars of what was then the burgeoning Christian faith. Dubbed gospels from the Greek (the language in which they were written) meaning “good news”, they were sonnets, frameworks, and commentary directed toward ancient communities about the meaning of religious oppression and political ruin. Mark (read some forty years after the death of Jesus), Matthew and Luke (read some fifty or sixty years later) and John (over a century later) are in essence arguments between ancient Jewish sects about the priority of the Christ. But when added to the Bible, fused with the global power structure of Rome and worshipped as the immutable Word of God they are something else.

Here Jesus Christ becomes the sacrificial lamb of the world, borrowed from the ancient practice of sacrificing innocent farm animals as an elixir to societal and familial sin. His cause is just, his death and purported resurrection seals the deal. Those who come aboard gain the fruits of the sacrifice. The rest are doomed.

The irony of Gibson’s ambitious undertaking and the IDL’s protest is laughable in its wake, and its time someone copped to it. If Jesus of Nazareth were alive today he would likely march into the Vatican scream and yell, trash the place and, speaking for the source of the universe, call the Pope a fraud. He wouldn’t be executed for that today, but I’m sure the penalty, cheered on by Catholics, would not be pleasant.

Because you see it’s difficult pinning this story down neatly, and impossible to encapsulate 2000 years of insanity and misrepresentation in 1,300 words or a two-hour film. But simply, having based an organized religious system on a man who despised the whole idea is nuts, dangerous and downright confusing to us, and will be for some time to come.

Hey, I dare you to try and figure a convicted soul whose core philosophy is “love your enemy”, gets murdered by those enemies, ends up being worshipped by the descendents of said enemies, and come out without controversy.


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