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By Cathy Schultz, 8/30/04

Here in the sleepy dog days of summer, this winter's passionate controversy over Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" seems a hazy memory. Was that just six months ago? And did we all really get so riled up?

Or perhaps we just want to forget, since reaction to the film was so painfully polarizing.

Few movies in recent memory generated as much controversy as did Gibson's "Passion." Enthusiastically embraced by many, fervently denounced by others, the film astounded friend and foe alike at the boxoffice, amassing over $600 million worldwide.

"The Passion of the Christ" generated many historical questions about what actually happened on that day in Jerusalem almost 2000 years ago. With its DVD release upon us, and with the benefit of a cooling six-month respite from the heat of the controversy, it's time to revisit some of those questions.

Q. The film shows us three leaders in Jerusalem: Caiaphas, Pontius Pilate, and King Herod. Who had the authority, ultimately?

A. Definitely Pontius Pilate. Judea was ruled by Rome, who had conquered pretty much everyone in the known world at the time. To govern their far-flung provinces the Roman emperors appointed procurators, and Pilate served as Caesar's voice in Judea. To a lesser extent, Herod (also Roman-appointed) ruled over Galilee. But Pilate had the ultimate political clout, even though Jewish religious leaders like Caiaphas retained some religious and cultural authority over Judeans.

Q. The movie mirrors the Gospels in depicting Caiaphas and other Jewish leaders trying to persuade a reluctant Pontius Pilate to execute Jesus. Is that how it happened?

A. We'll never know. But this, of course, is the heart of the film's controversy. The Gospel accounts describing Jewish leaders and their supporters calling for Jesus' death were used by Christians over the centuries to blame all Jews past and present for deicide-the "killing of God"-and served as the justification for vicious persecution.

As a response, in part, to this misreading of the Gospel accounts, some scholars have recently argued that the Gospels' authors overstated the involvement of Jewish leaders in Jesus' death. But the sources from the era seem to indicate some involvement by both Roman and Jewish leaders.

Q. What are the sources from the era, and what do they say about Jesus' death?

A. There aren't many sources, and all that survive were written decades after Jesus' death. We have the four Gospels, which portray both Jews and Romans having a hand in Jesus' death. We have Tacitus, a Roman writing in A.D. 115, who mentions Pontius Pilate as the one who executed Jesus. There is also Josephus, a Jewish historian, who in his Antiquities (a history of the Jewish people written around A.D. 98), said that Pilate condemned Jesus after Jewish leaders requested his death. Besides these sources, we have passages from the Jewish Talmud that discuss the role of Jewish leaders in Jesus' execution. So, there's evidence that both Jewish leaders and Romans were probably involved.

But two other things to remember here. Jesus was crucified, a decidedly Roman mode of execution, rather than being stoned, a more typically Jewish execution style. Also, sources like Josephus stress how vile Pontius Pilate was during his reign in Judea. Thousands of Jews were crucified on his orders, many for political "crimes."

Q. Gibson's "Passion" film has been likened to "Passion Plays." Why are those controversial?

A. Passion Plays began in Europe's Middle Ages as a way to teach illiterate common people the story of Jesus' death and Resurrection. Over time they became hugely popular, all-day affairs, sometimes using jugglers and performing animals as side show entertainment.

The dark side of that history, though, is their ugly portrayals of Jews. Caiaphas and the Jewish crowd calling for Jesus' death were depicted as stereotypes of contemporary Jews, and often bore horns to suggest a satanic alliance. By reinforcing the false notion of collective deicide, Passion Plays often led directly to riots against Jews, resulting in the destruction of Jewish property and lives.

Modern day Passion Plays, like that in Oberammergau, Germany, have revised their plays in recent decades to avoid the anti-Jewish stereotypes that had such tragic consequences.

Q. A minor point, but why did all the Jewish men have beards, and all the Roman men were clean shaven?

A. The Romans saw shaving as a mark of civilization, and scorned the bearded look favored by most of the peoples over whom they ruled, like the Jews. In fact, the connection was so strong, it used to be thought that the word "barbarian" (used by Romans to refer to everyone who wasn't Roman) came from the Latin word "barba," for beard. It doesn't, but comes instead from the Greek word, "bárbaros," which roughly means, "those funny sounds foreigners make."

Q. What's a good book for recent scholarship on Jesus' last days?

A. Try Luke Timothy Johnson's The Real Jesus.

Daily Southtown, September 1, 2004.
Also see Malibu Times 8/25/04

© 2004 History in the Movies