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Who Killed Jesus?
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As the day dawns, Jesus is taken to Pilate, and it is here that Gibson slips farthest from history. Pilate is presented as a sensible and sensitive if not particularly strong ruler. "Isn't [Jesus] the prophet you welcomed into the city?" Pilate asks. "Can any of you explain this madness to me?" There is, however, no placating Caiaphas.

The scene of a crowd of Jews crying out "Crucify him! Crucify him!" before Pilate has been a staple of Passion plays for centuries, but it is very difficult to imagine Caesar's man being bullied by the people he usually handled roughly. When Pilate had first come to Judea, he had ordered imperial troops to carry images of Caesar into the city; he appropriated sacred Temple funds to build an aqueduct, prompting a protest he put down with violence; about five years after Jesus' execution, Pilate broke up a gathering around a prophet in Samaria with cavalry, killing so many people that he was called to Rome to explain himself.

Jesus seems very much alone before Pilate, and this raises a historical riddle. If Jesus is a severe enough threat to merit such attention and drastic action, where are his supporters? In Gibson's telling, they are silent or scared. Some probably were, and some may not have known of the arrest, which happened in secret, but it seems unlikely that a movement which threatened the whole capital would so quickly and so completely dwindle to a few disciples, sympathetic onlookers, Mary and Mary Magdalene.

In the memorable if manufactured crowd scene in the version of the movie screened by NEWSWEEK, Gibson included a line that has had dire consequences for the Jewish people through the ages. The prefect is again improbably resisting the crowd, the picture of a just ruler. Frustrated, desperate, bloodthirsty, the mob says: "His blood be on us and on our children!" Gibson ultimately cut the cry from the film, and he was right to do so. Again, consider the source of the dialogue: a partisan Gospel writer. The Gospels were composed to present Jesus in the best possible light to potential converts in the Roman Empireand to put the Temple leadership in the worst possible light. And many scholars believe that the author of Matthew, which is the only Gospel to include the "His blood be on us" line, was writing after the destruction of the Temple in 70 and inserted the words to help explain why such misery had come upon the people of Jerusalem. According to this argument, blood had already fallen on them and on their children.

IMG: Mattia Sbragia
Philippe Antonello
Mattia Sbragia's sinister Caiphas is at the center of anti-Semitism charges against 'The Passion.'

A moment later in Gibson's movie, Pilate is questioning Jesus and, facing a silent prisoner, says, "You will not speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?" Jesus then replies: "... he who delivered me to you has the greater sin." The "he" in this case is Caiaphas. John's point in putting this line in Jesus' mouth is almost certainly to take a gibe at the Temple elite. But in the dramatic milieu of the movie, it can be taken to mean that the Jews, through Caiaphas, are more responsible for Jesus' death than the Romans arean implication unsupported by history.

The Temple elite undoubtedly played a key role in the death of Jesus; Josephus noted that the Nazarene had been "accused by those of the highest standing amongst us," meaning among the Jerusalem Jews. But Pilate's own culpability and ultimate authority are indisputable as well. If Jesus had not been a political threat, why bother with the trouble of crucifixion? There is also evidence that Jesus' arrest was part of a broader pattern of violence or feared violence this Passover. Barabbas, the man who was released instead of Jesus, was, according to Mark, "among the rebels in prison, who had committed murder in the insurrection"suggesting that Pilate was concerned with "rebels" and had already confronted an "insurrection" some time before he interrogated Jesus.

Except for the release of Barabbas, there is no hint of this context in Gibson's movie. "The Passion of the Christ" includes an invented scene in which Pilate laments his supposed dilemma. "If I don't condemn him," he tells his wife, "Caiaphas will start a rebellion; if I do, his followers will." Caiaphas was in no position to start a rebellion over Jesus; he and Pilate were in a way allies, and when serious revolt did come, in 66, it would be over grievances about heavy-handed Roman rule, not over a particular religious figure, and even then the priests would plead with the people not to rebel. In the movie, far from urging calm, the priests lead the crowd, and Pilate, far from using his power to control the mob, gives in. And so Jesus is sentenced to death.

Mel Gibson's 'The Passion of the Christ'
Clear evidence of the political nature of the execution that Pilate and the high priest were ridding themselves of a "messiah" who might disrupt society, not offer salvationis the sign Pilate ordered affixed to Jesus' cross. The message is not from the knowing Romans to the evil Jews. It is, rather, a scornful signal to the crowds that this death awaits any man the pilgrims proclaim "the king of the Jews."

The Roman soldiers who torture Jesus and bully him toward Golgotha are portrayed as evil, taunting and vicious, and they almost certainly were. Without authority from the New Testament, Caiaphas, meanwhile, is depicted as a grim witness to the scourging and Crucifixion as Gibson cuts back to the Last Supper and to moments of Jesus' teaching. After Jesus, carrying his cross, sees the faces of the priests, he is shown saying: "No one takes my life from me, but I lay it down of my own accord." Is this intended to absolve the priests? Perhaps. From the cross, Jesus says: "Forgive them, for they know not what they do."

As clouds gather and Jesus dies, a single raindropa tear from God the Father?falls from the sky. A storm has come; the gates of hell are broken; back in the Temple, Caiaphas, buffeted by the earthquake, cries out in anguish amid the gloom. Then there is light, and a discarded shroud, and a risen Christ bearing the stigmata leaves the tomb. It is Easter.

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