Sunday, June 8, 2003

Barbara Nicolosi has some inside scoop on Mel Gibson's Passion film.

Without seeing the film, I do want to weigh in briefly on the Jewish issue. It is an important issue, have no doubt about that. The plain fact is that certain aspects of the Gospel accounts have indeed been extrapolated and taken out of context by some Christians over the past two thousand years and used as an excuse for anti-Jewish attitudes and worse. This reality shouldn't be dismissed. It is a powerful echo through too much of Christian history.

What modern readers (and viewers, I suppose) need to understand is this:

The passion narratives were shaped, in part, by the context in which the evangelists were writing: namely enormous tensions within Judaism. Note that I say within Judaism, not between Judaism and Christianity. For while relations between those who saw Jesus as Messiah and those who didn't were fluid and more and more ambiguous as time went on, (culminating in the definite separation near the end of the century, clearly reflected in John) there is no doubt that the Synoptic evangelists, at least, saw the events of the passion and related them as people coming out of a Jewish tradition speaking to other Jews. In other words, they saw themselves firmly in the prophetic tradition - the tradition of Jeremiah, for example, who spent his prophetic career excoriating Jewish leadership for infidelity. It is important to note, as well, that during this period - especially in the wake of the failed Jewish rebellion and the destruction of the Temple, there was a great deal of mutual blame-throwing going on among various divisions in Judaism. This is part of the picture we can't forget.

Secondly, the people of Judea did not condemn Jesus to death, nor did the entire population of Jerusalem. Temple leaders did this work, Temple leaders who had their own agenda (part of which was their relationship to Roman authority) and to whom theological issues were of far less importance than other factors.

All of these factors demand that our reading of the passion narratives be extremely nuanced and extremely aware of every dimension of historical context. If you want more, this document from the Pontifical Biblical Commission has much of interest to say.

It would be a terrific challenge to get this across on film, and I find the comments of the priest Barbara cites to be quite interesting on this score.