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Philippe Antonello
'The Holy Ghost was working through me on this film,' Gibson has said of his work on 'The Passion.' 'I was just direct­ing traffic'
Who Killed Jesus?
Mel Gibson's powerful but troubling new movie, 'The Passion of the Christ,' is reviving one of the most explosive questions ever. What history tells us about Jesus' last hours, the world in which he lived, anti-Semitism, Scripture and the nature of faith itself.
By Jon Meacham

Feb. 16 issue - It is night, in a quiet, nearly deserted garden in Jerusalem. A figure is praying; his friends sleep a short distance away. We are in the last hours of the life of Jesus of Nazareth, in the spring of roughly the year 30, at the time of the Jewish feast of Passover. The countryfirst-century Judea, the early 21st's Israelis part of the Roman Empire. The prefect, Pontius Pilate, is Caesar's ranking representative in the province, a place riven with fierce religious disputes. Jesus comes from Galilee, a kind of backwater; as a Jewish healer and teacher, he has attracted great notice in the years, months and days leading up to this hour.

His popularity seemed to be surging among at least some of the thousands of pilgrims gathered in the city for Passover. Crowds cheered him, proclaiming him the Messiah, which to first-century Jewish ears meant he was the "king of the Jews" who heralded the coming of the Kingdom of God, a time in which the yoke of Roman rule would be thrown off, ushering in an age of light for Israel. Hungry for liberation and deliverance, some of those in the teeming city were apparently flocking to Jesus, threatening to upset the delicate balance of power in Jerusalem.

The priests responsible for the Temple had an understanding with the Romans: the Jewish establishment would do what it could to keep the peace, or else Pilate would strike. And so the high priest, Caiaphas, dispatches a party to arrest Jesus. Guided by Judas, they find him in Gethsemane. In the language of the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, there is this exchange: "Whom do you seek?" Jesus asks. "Jesus of Nazareth." The answer comes quickly. "I am he."

Thus begins the final chapter of the most influential story in Western history. For Christians, the Passionfrom the Latin passus, the word means "having suffered" or "having undergone"is the very heart of their faith. Down the ages, however, when read without critical perspective and a proper sense of history, the Christian narratives have sometimes been contorted to lay the responsibility for Jesus' execution at the feet of the Jewish people, a contortion that has long fueled the fires of anti-Semitism.
Join Jon Meacham on Thurs. Feb. 12 at noon ET to discuss why The Passion still fascinates so many people and infuriates so many others. Submit questions anytime.

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Into this perennially explosive debate comes a controversial new movie directed by Mel Gibson, "The Passion of the Christ," a powerful and troubling work about Jesus' last hours. "The Holy Ghost was working through me on this film," Gibson has said. The movie, which is to be released on Feb. 25, Ash Wednesday, is already provoking a pitched battle between those who think the film unfairly blames the Jewish people for Jesus' death and those who are instead focused on Gibson's emotional depiction of Jesus' torment. "It is as it was," the aged Pope John Paul II is said to have remarked after seeing the film, and Billy Graham was so moved by a screening that he wept. One can see why these supremely gifted pastors were impressed, for Gibson obviously reveres the Christ of faith, and much of his movie is a literal-minded rendering of the most dramatic passages scattered through the four Gospels.

But the Bible can be a problematic source. Though countless believers take it as the immutable word of God, Scripture is not always a faithful record of historical events; the Bible is the product of human authors who were writing in particular times and places with particular points to make and visions to advance. And the roots of Christian anti-Semitism lie in overly literal readingswhich are, in fact, misreadingsof many New Testament texts. When the Gospel authors implicated "the Jews" in Jesus' passion, they did not mean all Jewish people then alive, much less those then unborn. The writers had a very specific group in mind: the Temple elite that believed Jesus might provoke Pilate.

Gibson is an ultraconservative Roman Catholic, a traditionalist who does not acknowledge many of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). He favors the Latin mass, does not eat meat on Fridays and adheres to an unusually strict interpretation of Scripture and doctrinea hard-line creed he grew up with and rediscovered about a dozen years ago. "He began meditating on the passion and the death of Jesus," James Caviezel, the actor who plays Jesus in "The Passion," told NEWSWEEK. "In doing so, he said the wounds of Christ healed his wounds. And I think the film expresses that." Gibson set out to stick to the Gospels and has made virtually no nod to critical analysis or context. As an artist, of course, he has the right to make any movie he wants, and many audiences will find the story vivid and familiar.

The film Gibson has made, however, is reviving an ancient and divisive argument: who really killed Jesus? As a matter of history, the Roman Empire did; as a matter of theology, the sins of the world drove Jesus to the cross, and the Catholic Church holds that Christians themselves bear "the gravest responsibility for the torments inflicted upon Jesus." Yet for nearly 2,000 years, some Christians have persecuted the Jewish people on the ground that they were responsible for the death of the first-century prophet who has come to be seen as the Christ. Now, four decades after the Second Vatican Council repudiated the idea that the Jewish people were guilty of "deicide," many Jewish leaders and theologians fear the movie, with its portraits of the Jewish high priest Caiaphas leading an angry mob and of Pilate as a reluctant, sympathetic executioner, may slow or even reverse 40 years of work explaining the common bonds between Judaism and Christianity. Gibson has vehemently defended the film against charges of anti-Semitism, saying he does not believe in blood guilt and citing the church teaching that the transgressions and failings of all mankind led to the Passionnot just the sins of the Jewish people. "So it's not singling them out and saying, 'They did it.' That's not so," Gibson told the Global Catholic Network in January. "We're all culpable. I don't want to lynch any Jews... I love them. I pray for them."

The fight about God, meanwhile, has been good for Mammon: Gibson has made what is likely to be the most watched Passion play in history. Prerelease sales are roaring along. Evangelical congregations are buying out showings, and religious leaders are urging believers to come out in the film's opening days because of the commercial and marketing significance of initial box-office numbers. The surprising alliance between Gibson, as a traditionalist Catholic, and evangelical Protestants seems born out of a common belief that the larger secular worldincluding the mainstream mediais essentially hostile to Christianity. Finding a global celebrity like the Oscar-winning Gibson in their camp was an unexpected gift. "The Passion of the Christ," Billy Graham has said, is "a lifetime of sermons in one movie."

Shot in italy, financed by Gibson, the $25 million film is tightly focused on Jesus' final 12 hours. In the movie there are some flashbacks giving a hintbut only a hintof context, with episodes touching on Jesus' childhood, the triumphant entry into Jerusalem, the Sermon on the Mount, the Last Supper. The characters speak Aramaic and Latin, and the movie is subtitled in Eng-lish, which turns it into a kind of artifact, as though the action is unfolding at a slight remove. To tell his story, Gibson has amalgamated the four Gospel accounts and was reportedly inspired by the visions of two nuns: Mary of Agreda (1602-1665) of Spain and Anne Catherine Emmerich (1774-1824) of France; Emmerich experienced the stigmata on her head, hands, feet and chestwounds imitating Jesus'. The two nuns were creatures of their time, offering mystical testimony that included allusions to the alleged blood guilt of the Jewish people.

The arrest, the scourging and the Crucifixion are depicted in harsh, explicit detail in the R-rated movie. One of Jesus' eyes is swollen shut from his first beating as he is dragged from Gethsemane; the Roman torture, the long path to Golgotha bearing the wooden cross, and the nailing of Jesus' hands and feet to the beams are filmed unsparingly. The effect of the violence is at first shocking, then numbing, and finally reaches a point where many viewers may spend as much time clinically wondering how any man could have survived such beatings as they do sympathizing with his plight. There are tender scenes with Mary, Jesus' mother, and Mary Magdalene. "It is accomplished," Jesus says from the cross. His mother, watching her brutally tortured son die, murmurs, "Amen."

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