Last year's The Passion of the Christ (re-released this year with violent parts shortened), after being rejected by all the major studios, turned out to be one of the biggest money-makers of the year. "They made six Police Academies, and they wouldnt make The Passion of the Christ," Chris Rock said at the Academy Awards, noting how out of touch the major studios are with the market. Amid a storm of controversy because of Mel Gibson's religious beliefs (he's Traditionalist Catholic), the movie went on to make over 400 million dollars.
Much of the criticism of the movie stems from its alleged anti-Semitic bent. Gibson's dad didnt help things any by being quoted as saying that the Holocaust never happened. Was it anti-Semitic?
I saw the movie last year. I found it beautifully made. The violence was brutal. Gibson didnt want to make an intellectual or 'spiritual' movie. He wanted a visceral movie that would wrench your guts. It was his answer to how the Passion has been depicted in art in the past. Mel Gibson wanted to make a movie that would make Christians cringe to better appreciate--if appreciate is indeed the right word--what Jesus went through. He did this because past films tackling this subject were so antiseptic. Robert Powell in Jesus of Nazareth and Max Von Sydow in The Greatest Story Ever Told were still pogi even after supposedly being brutalized. The most brutal passion scene Ive seen so far is in Martin Scorcese's The Last Temptation of Christ but that lasted only a few minutes and not an entire movie. Paintings and sculptures depicting the Passion also tend to be 'sanitized.' Take a look at Michelangelo's Pieta for example. There are of course some exceptions but in general, the Christ remains pogi.
The sanitized version of the passion is in the heads of most Christians. Mel Gibson wanted to shock them out of that mindset. The movie should be seen in the context of how the Passion has been depicted in art in the past. That Pieta scene towards the end is a not-too-subtle nod at Michelangelo and all the other artists of the past who sought to give us a sanitized version of the passion and death of Jesus.
Was it anti-Semitic? I would have to say yes. Not because of any malicious intent on the part of Gibson, but because of the historical inaccuracies in the movie. It served to perpetuate a false rendering of history that was used by early Christians as justification for the persecution of Jews. The movie was marketed as an accurate depiction of how the Passion was portrayed in the Gospels. But a cursory reading of the gospels would show you that the spectacle of the entire Jerusalem cheering on their Roman oppressors as they tortured Jesus was not there. Mel Gibson was clearly going with tradition and not the gospel accounts. The New Testament gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John indicated what kind of 'mob' there was during Jesus's torture. In them there are no indications of 'mob' or Jewish masses cursing Jesus on the street while he carried his cross while being tortured. No indication of how many cheered on the Romans. The word translated as 'crowd' in the gospels, the Greek ochlos could mean multitude, but could also mean just a gathering of people. Matthew 21:8 also used ochlos to depict the number of people that welcomed Jesus during his enrty into Jerusalem but he modified it with pleistos. Pleistos ochlos; a very great multitude. No such modifications on the number of people that insulted Jesus. Was there a Jewish mob?
Josephus's writings give us a picture of what it was like back then. He was right there. He chronicled the role of the Pharisees in opening the door to Roman occupation. Also notable are the works of Robert Eisenman. It was Eisenman's thesis that the anti-Roman parties in Palestine at that time united under the leadership of the people in the Qumran community, headed no less by James the brother of Jesus, bishop of the Jerusalem church. Using Josephus, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and other early writings, he drew a picture of occupied Palestine wherein nationalist sentiment was not only strong, but also popular. That the Romans had to put down rebellion after rebellion, some under the leadership of self-proclaimed messiahs, attested to this. The Pharisees in Rome-occupied Palestine were seen as makapili. The truth is, the Pharisees and their ilk were in the minority. The only reason they have so much clout was because of their dominance of the Rome-backed ruling council. Rome was almost universally hated by the Jews. The Pharisees were only able to survive because Rome liked them. The Herods were also seen as Roman puppets and were almost universally hated. After the destruction of the Temple, all the other sects disappeared, mopped up by the Roman occupying forces. Only the Pharisees remained. They bet on the right horse.
Crucifixions were fairly common in those days, and Romans usually crucified insurgents-- Jewish heroes! The Roman soldiers were out in force for Jesus's crucifixion, not to protect him from the crowd, but to prevent a rebellion. The spectacle of the Jewish populace cheering on as the Romans tortured rebels to the Roman occupation is an historical inaccuracy we have tolerated for so long because of tradition. More likely, the Jewish masses cursed the Romans, albeit under their breath for fear of being tortured themselves. Remember that a week before, Jerusalem welcomed him as the Messiah; the one who they thought would lead them against the Romans. And tradition would have us believe that barely a week later, these same masses who welcomed him would turn against him just like that?
Think about it. Here you have a people struggling under the yoke of foreign occupation. They wanted to believe in the Messiah that would free them from Rome and they believed Jesus was it and welcomed him as such. I can only compare the Roman occupation with the Japanese occupation of the Philippines. Were the Makapili in the majority? Or were they reviled? If a Filipino was captured by the Japs and publicly tortured, did the Manilenos cheer the Japs on? I'd say it is more historically plausible that the Jewish masses, seeing their hopes dashed to the ground yet again, seeing a fellow Jew tortured by the hand of the occupier, would not have cheered the Romans on. They would have wept in sypmathy. They would have been consumed by anger at the Romans, biding their time until they could make their move. Which they did around 66 AD. The Zealots, succeeded in mounting a wide-scale revolt which resulted in the burning of the Temple by Titus's armies. The Zealots were the ones who had popular backing. Zealots and Zadokites were anti-Pharisees. The Pharisees couldnt muster enough people to fill Pontius Pilate's court as depicted in passion dramas.
The whole traditional depiction of the Passion of Christ was a propaganda stunt to shift the blame for the killing of Jesus from the Romans, who by then dominated the Christian faith, to the Jews. And as propaganda stunts go, this was a masterpiece, enduring til this very day.