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Newsweek EntertainmentNewsweek  
Who Killed Jesus?
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As moving as many moments in the film are, though, two NEWSWEEK screenings of a rough cut of the movie raise important historical issues about how Gibson chose to portray the Jewish people and the Romans. To take the film's account of the Passion literally will give most audiences a misleading picture of what probably happened in those epochal hours so long ago. The Jewish priests and their followers are the villains, demanding the death of Jesus again and again; Pilate is a malleable governor forced into handing down the death sentence.

In fact, in the age of Roman domination, only Rome crucified. The crime was sedition, not blasphemya civil crime, not a religious one. The two men who were killed along with Jesus are identified in some translations as "thieves," but the word can also mean "insurgents," supporting the idea that crucifixion was a political weapon used to send a message to those still living: beware of revolution or riot, or Rome will do this to you, too. The two earliest and most reliable extra-Biblical references to Jesusthose of the historians Josephus and Tacitussay Jesus was executed by Pilate. The Roman prefect was Caiaphas' political superior and even controlled when the Jewish priests could wear their vestments and thus conduct Jewish rites in the Temple. Pilate was not the humane figure Gibson depicts. According to Philo of Alexandria, the prefect was of "inflexible, stubborn, and cruel disposition," and known to execute troublemakers without trial.

Mel Gibson's 'The Passion of the Christ'
So why was the Gospel storythe story Gibson has drawn ontold in a way that makes "the Jews" look worse than the Romans? The Bible did not descend from heaven fully formed and edged in gilt. The writers of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John shaped their narratives several decades af-ter Jesus' death to attract converts and make their young religionunderstood by many Christians to be a faction of Judaismattractive to as broad an audience as possible.

The historical problem of dealing with the various players in the Passion narratives is complicated by the exact meaning of the Greek words usually translated "the Jews." The phrase does not include the entire Jewish population of Jesus' dayto the writers, Jesus and his followers were certainly not includedand seems to refer mostly to the Temple elite. The Jewish people were divided into numerous sects and parties, each believing itself to be the true or authentic representative of the ancestral faith and each generally hostile to the others.

IMG: Claudia Gerini (right)
Newmarket Releasing / Courtesy Everett Collection
Claudia Gerini (right) plays the wife of Hristo Shopov (left)'s Pilate

Given these rivalries, we can begin to understand the origins of the unflattering Gospel image of the Temple establishment: the elite looked down on Jesus' followers, so the New Testament authors portrayed the priests in a negative light. We can also see why the writers downplayed the role of the ruling Romans in Jesus' death. The advocates of Christianitythen a new, struggling faithunderstandably chose to placate, not antagonize, the powers that were. Why remind the world that the earthly empire which still ran the Mediterranean had executed your hero as a revolutionary?

The film opens with a haunting image of Jesus praying in Gethsemane. A satanic figureGibson's most innovative dramatic devicetempts him: no one man, the devil says, can carry the whole burden of sin. As in the New Testament, the implication is that the world is in the grip of evil, and Jesus has come to deliver us from the powers of darkness through his death and resurrectionan upheaval of the very order of things. Though in such anguish that his sweat turns to blood, Jesus accepts his fate.

In an ensuing scene, Mary Magdalene calls for help from Roman soldiers as Jesus is taken indoors to be interrogated by the priests. "They've arrested him," she cries. A Temple policeman intervenes, tells the Romans "she's crazy" and assures them that Jesus "broke the Temple laws, that's all." When word of the trouble reaches Pilate, he is told, "There is trouble within the walls. Caiaphas had some prophet arrested." It is true that the Temple leaders had no use for Jesus, but these lines of dialoguewhich, taken together, suggest Jewish control over the situationare not found in the Gospels.

The idea of a nighttime trial as depicted in Gibson's movie is also problematic. The Gospels do not agree on what happened between Jesus' arrest and his appearance before Pilate save for one detail: Jesus was brought before the high priest in some setting. In the movie, Jesus is interrogated before a great gathering of Jewish officials, possibly the Sanhedrin, and witnesses come forth to accuse him of working magic with the Devil, of claiming to be able to destroy the Temple and raise it up again in three days, and of calling himself "the Son of God." Another cries: "He's said if we don't eat his flesh and drink his blood, we won't inherit eternal life." Gibson does indicate that Jesus has supporters; one man calls the proceeding "a travesty," and another asks, "Where are the other members of the council?"a suggestion that Caiaphas and his own circle are taking action that not everyone would agree with. The climax comes when Caiaphas asks Jesus: "Are you the Messiah?" and Jesus says, "I am..." and alludes to himself as "the Son of Man." There is a gasp; the high priest rends his garments and declares Jesus a blasphemer.

Religion: Gibson, Jesus, and the Jews

Jim Caviezel, Star of Mel Gibsons, The Passion of the Christ, Abraham Foxman, Director, The Anti-Defamation League and John Meacham, Newsweek Managing Editor

There is much here to give the thinking believer pause. "Son of God" and "Son of Man" were fairly common appellations for religious figures in the first century. The accusation about eating Jesus' flesh and bloodobviously a Christian image of the eucharistdoes not appear in any Gospel trial scene. And it was not "blasphemy" to think of yourself as the "Messiah," which more than a few Jewish figures had claimed to be without meeting Jesus' fate, except possibly at the hands of the Romans. The definition of blasphemy was a source of fierce Jewish argument, but it turned on taking God's name in vainand nothing in the Gospel trial scenes supports the idea that Jesus crossed that line.

The best historical reconstruction of what really happened is that Jesus had a fairly large or at least vocal following at a time of anxiety in the capital, and the Jewish authorities wanted to get rid of him before overexcited pilgrims rallied around him, drawing down Pilate's wrath. "It is expedient for you," Caiaphas says to his fellow priests in John, "that one man should die for the people" so that "the whole nation should not perish."

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2004 Newsweek, Inc.


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