Saturday, February 28, 2004

Carl Anderson (Judas in Superstar) dies

Thanks to Helenann Hartley for this:

Jesus opera actor Anderson dies
Actor and singer Carl Anderson, best known for playing Judas in the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar, has died from leukaemia, aged 58.

An excerpt from the short article:
Anderson featured in both the original Broadway production of the show, written by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, and the film version in 1973.

He stepped into the stage version after actor Ben Vereen, who was originally playing Judas, fell ill.

Anderson also performed in revivals of the show in 1992 and 2002.

Paula Fredriksen article on The Passion of the Christ

Paula Fredriksen has been involved with the controversy over this film from the beginning -- I have mentioned her article Mad Mel here before. Now, after having seen the film, Fredriksen has gathered her thoughts, again in New Republic Online:

Pain Principle
by Paula Fredriksen

I think the article is subscription-only, but you can get a free trial subscription. Some of the article goes over the controversy over the "ad hoc committee" and the script. Although I have commented recently that the allegations of theft should not be made in the absence of a sustained case or an answer to Fredriksen's post, there is still one grey area here. I hadn't noticed it so clearly in the previous article, but there is a question here. How did Fisher get his copy of the script? Fredriksen only talks about his having "received" it and does not explain where it came from:
Later that spring, Gene Fisher, interfaith officer for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) contacted Icon, Gibson's production company, about having the movie's script reviewed by an ad hoc committee of scholars. Gibson was trumpeting the fidelity, historical and scriptural, of his film, and Fisher was offering him some free--and confidential--feedback. Fisher and Eugene Korn of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) assembled an ecumenical group of professors, which I was invited to join. Fisher informed William Fulco (the person who had translated the script into Aramaic and Latin and our main contact on the Icon side) on April 17 that he had received a copy of the script; on April 24, Fisher and Gibson spoke. Icon received our report in early May.
Perhaps we will never know. The rest of Fredriksen's review deals with Gibson's amazing achievement in marketing (what she sees as) a medieval Catholic vision of Christianity to many Protestants; and there is some reflection on the relationship of the film to the Gospels:
. . . . . The Christ that Gibson is selling is not the Christ of the first-century scriptures, though elements of his story are drawn from them. The first-century Christ, presented primarily in the four gospels, redeemed not through his suffering, but through his death and resurrection, which promised his return. The evangelists mediated historical traditions about Jesus' life and teachings, interpreting these through their own understanding of Jewish scriptures. Their meditations on ancient sacred texts especially shaped their presentations of the edges of Jesus' life--his birth and his death. The many narrative details of the gospels' passion stories deliberately echo various verses from the prophets and the psalms. Their point: that Jesus died, and was raised, according to the Scriptures. The matching of event to ancient prophecy established, for the evangelists and for their communities, the authority of their stories.

Gibson missed the evangelists' point. His opening screen flashes a verse from Isaiah 53: "He was wounded for our transgressions; by his stripes we are healed." What served as prophetic authorization for the gospels' proclamation, Gibson takes as an invitation to explore, in lurid and lingering detail, how a human body would look if pulped, pummeled, and flayed. Part of this orientation comes from the Catholicism of his childhood. Part of it, as he has repeatedly claimed, comes from the visions of an early nineteenth-century stigmatic nun, Anne Catherine Emmerich. (Knowing what my catechism classes were like in twentieth-century Rhode Island, I can only imagine what hers were like in eighteenth-century Westphalia.) Part of it, of course, is just Gibson's favorite visual vernacular, on display from Mad Max through Braveheart and beyond.

Thus Gibson's Christ, a theological figure whose origins lie in late medieval Europe, saves not through dying so much as through endless, unspeakable, unbearable suffering. That's the core of Gibson's movie. The rest is window-dressing. The costuming, like the music, is lushly theatrical. The bad guys wear black, their Jewishness coded by prayer shawls, big noses, and bad teeth. The Jewish soldiers who form the arresting party look like visiting Romulan dignitaries, or extras from the chorus of Nabucco. The faces of the two Marys are framed by nun-like veils. (I half expected Monica Belucci to whip out a rosary along the Stations of the Cross.) And Gibson's much-touted use of ancient languages, like the high quality of his celluloid gore, was a nod to verisimilitude, not real history. Pilate chatted in Aramaic; Jesus (at this point in the movie, I confess, I groaned aloud) in perfect Church Latin . . . . .

Newsnight Review on The Passion of the Christ

Last night, Newsnight Review had a feature on The Passion of the Christ -- thanks to David Mackinder for mentioning this. You can view the feature here:

Newsnight Review 27 February

Just click on "video" and the programme will begin. It is the first item on the programme and it lasts for about ten minutes. It's a useful discussion. Tim Lott, an atheist, thinks highly of the film and he says that it made him want to read the Gospels again. He also commented that the use of Aramaic helped to make the most retold of stories seem fresh and different. They all use the word "visceral" and Mark Kermode sees it as a horror film, speaking of the ominous dread of what is coming up next. There is also a clip of the film -- the first I have seen outside of the trailer. It is the arrest of Jesus and you get to hear some Aramaic. That's one thing I am looking forward to seeing (hearing) in the film.

Friday, February 27, 2004

Adele Reinhartz in the New Republic

There is a most interesting article by Adele Reinhartz in the latest edition of The New Republic. I may be wrong, but I think the only way to access the article is to subscribe and then download the whole issue (as a PDF); I've done so without having to part with money. Anyway, the reference is as follows:

Adele Reinhartz, "Jesus of Hollywood: From D. W. Griffith to Mel Gibson", The New Republic March 8 2004: 26-29.

An excerpt:
Does Gibson’s film, do all these films, foment anti-Semitism? The matter must be considered carefully. If the question is, do they intend to stir up hostile feelings toward Jews that under certain conditions might lead to physical violence, the answer is no. Each film has its own theme and emphasis, but none of them, Gibson’s film included, with the possible exception of Der Galiläer, aims to be anti-Semitic. But if the question is, do these films help to perpetuate certain beliefs and stereotypes that have been implicated in anti-Semitism, then the answer must be yes, Gibson’s film included. Whatever film-makers’ intentions might be, they cannot exert complete control of the message that people will take away from their films. I do not anticipate any anti-Semitic incidents at my neighborhood cineplex as viewers of Gibson’s melodrama leave the theater. But it is appalling that this film, like most of its predecessors, has added to the visual library of images in which the Jews are portrayed as conniving, bloodthirsty Christ-killers. The Passion of the Christ is morally careless, and now it, too, is upon us and our children.
Reinhartz, you may recall, is something of an expert on Jesus films in general, and the depiction of Jews in particular. See, for example:

Adele Reinhartz, “Jesus in Film: Hollywood Perspectives on the Jewishness of Jesus”, Journal of Religion and Film Vol. 2, Number 2 (Fall 1998).

Or more recently:

Adele Reinhartz, "Passion-ate Moments in the Jesus Film Genre", Journal of Religion and Film Vol. 8, Special Issue no. 1 (2004)

National Geographic on The Passion of the Christ

Thanks to Jim West for this link:

Christians, Critics Sound off on Gibson's Passion
Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News

This is a useful round-up of different views of the film.

Vermes article in full

I mentioned earlier Geza Vermes's comments on The Passion of the Christ now that he has seen a preview (see earlier blog entry). Vermes's full article is not in the on-line version of The Guardian but I've found a version elsewhere, on

Celluloid brutality, Mel Gibson's 'The Passion of the Christ'
Mel Gibson's film about Christ is horribly gory, historically wrong - and it will inspire judeophobia
by Geza Vermes
I am still in a state of shock having sat through two hours of almost uninterrupted gratuitous brutality, Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. I hope I will never be obliged to see something as dreadful again . . . .

. . . . . The light element in The Passion of the Christ is supplied by the use of Latin and Aramaic. Not only are Pilate and Jesus(!) fluent Latin speakers, but even the soldiers of the Jerusalem garrison, who were most probably Aramaic- and Greek-speaking recruits from Syria, converse happily in a clumsy Latin with Italian Church pronunciation. I did not find it easy to follow the Aramaic which was mixed with unnecessary Hebraisms . . . . .
Update (Saturday): Vermes article now available on the Guardian Unlimited web site:

Celluloid brutality
Mel Gibson's film about Christ is horribly gory, historically wrong - and it will inspire judeophobia
Geza Vermes

Heart attack during The Passion of the Christ, and Church Times forum

Helenann Hartley asks about the report that someone had a heart attack while watching The Passion of the Christ, something that was mentioned on Richard and Judy yesterday. Here's the story from Reuters, here reported on MSNBC:

Woman dies during ‘Passion’ screening
She had heart attack during the crucifixion scene

Helenann Hartley also draws my attention to the Church Times who are running a poll to see how many of their readers are planning to go to see the film. It is currently at 60.5% who are and 39.5% who are not. There is what I call a "round-up" article too, which won't tell you anything new if you've been following the news story in recent weeks and months:

Passions run high over violent act of faith by Mel Gibson
by Bill Bowder

BBC News review of The Passion of the Christ

Thanks to Helenann Hartley for sending over the link to this review:

Review: Gibson's The Passion of the Christ
By Victoria Lindrea

There is not a great deal of interest in this one.

New Republic Online Review

Thanks to David Mackinder for this one from the New Republic Online. Again, these American film critics really know how to write. How about someone sets up a scholarship to send New Testament scholars to wherever it is that these American film reviewers learn their craft? This one is more akin than the previous one to the majority of the reviews that have emerged, pretty sickened by the obsession with blood. It is now the third time I have seen the word "pornography" in connection with the film, this time "pious pornography".

The Worship of Blood
by Leon Wieseltier
There are still some miracles that movies cannot accomplish. If, in the manner of the bleeding images of the old Christian legends, it were possible for Mel Gibson's film itself to bleed, and the blood with which it soaks its wretched hero to burst through the screen and soak its wretched audience, it would have done so. For The Passion of the Christ is intoxicated by blood, by its beauty and its sanctity. The bloodthirstiness of Gibson's film is startling, and quickly sickening. The fluid is everywhere. It drips, it runs, it spatters, it jumps. It trickles down the post at which Jesus is flagellated and down the cross upon which he is crucified, and the camera only reluctantly tears itself away from the scarlet scenery. The flagellation scene and the crucifixion scene are frenzies of blood. When Jesus is nailed to the wood, the drops of blood that spring from his wound are filmed in slow-motion, with a twisted tenderness. (Ecce slo-mo.) It all concludes in the shower of blood that issues from the corpse of Jesus when it is pierced by the Roman soldier's spear . . . .

. . . . . Gibson is under the impression that he has done nothing more than put God's word into film. No Hollywood insider was ever so inside. "Critics who have a problem with me don't really have a problem with me and this film," he told Diane Sawyer, "they have a problem with the four Gospels." From such a statement it is impossible not to conclude that the man is staggeringly ignorant of his own patrimony. For the Gospels, like all great religious texts, have been interpreted in many different ways, to accommodate the needs and the desires of many different souls; and Gibson's account of these events is, like every other account, a particular construction of them. The Passion of the Christ is the expression of certain theological and artistic preferences. It is, more specifically, a noisy contemporary instance of a tradition of interpretation that came into its own in the late medieval centuries . . . . .

. . . . . The Passion of the Christ is the work of a religious sensibility of remarkable coarseness. It is by turns grossly physical and grossly magical, childishly literalist, gladly credulous, comically masculine. Gibson's faith is finally pre-theological, the kind of conviction that abhors thought, superstitiously fascinated by Satan and "the other realm," a manic variety of Christian folk religion.

It will be objected that I see only pious pornography in The Passion of the Christ because I am not a believer in the Christ. This is certainly so . . . . .

. . . . . The Passion of The Christ is an unwitting incitement to secularism, because it leaves you desperate to escape its standpoint, to find another way of regarding the horror that you have just observed. This is unfair to, well, Christianity, since Christianity is not a cult of Gibsonesque gore. But there is a religion toward which Gibson's movie is even more unfair than it is to its own. In its representation of its Jewish characters, The Passion of the Christ is without any doubt an anti-Semitic movie, and anybody who says otherwise knows nothing, or chooses to know nothing, about the visual history of anti-Semitism, in art and in film. What is so shocking about Gibson's Jews is how unreconstructed they are in their stereotypical appearances and actions. These are not merely anti-Semitic images; these are classically anti-Semitic images. In this regard, Gibson is most certainly a traditionalist . . . . .

. . . . . . His notion of authenticity has no time for history. Historiographically speaking, after all, there is no such thing as gospel truth; and so his portrayal of the Jews is based on nothing more than his own imagination of what they looked like and sounded like. And Gibson's imagination has offered no resistance to the iconographical inheritance of Western anti-Semitism. Again, these things are not passively received. They are willingly accepted. Gibson created this movie; it was not revealed to him. Like his picture of Jesus, his picture of the Jews is the consequence of certain religious and cinematic decisions for which he must be held accountable. He has chosen to give millions of people the impression that Jews are culpable for the death of Jesus. In making this choice, which defies not only the scruples of scholars but also the teaching of the Catholic Church, Gibson has provided a fine illustration of the cafeteria Catholicism of the right . . . . .

Positive review of The Passion of the Christ in NRO

Thanks to Jeff Peterson for sending over this link from the National Review Online:

Violence to Scripture?
Viewing The Passion.
By S. T. Karnick

This is an interestingly different take on the film and argues that in spite of the brutality, nay because of it, The Passion of the Christ has a powerful message. My excerpts won't give the full flavour, but I give some anyway:
Rather less of the film is taken up with the violence and brutality toward the Christ than many critics are suggesting. During the atrocious flogging by the Roman guards, for example, the director cuts away from Jesus to Mary, and he follows her through the courtyard and concentrates on her reactions and experiences while we hear the lashes striking home in the background. He certainly leaves the scene of the beating not a moment too soon for most audience members, but he could, after all, have stayed to show the entire thing. Yet he did not. Moreover, during the scenes of torment he cuts away several times to flashbacks that connect aspects of Christ's suffering to moments of his life that once again draw the viewer to consider his own unrighteousness and consequent complicity in the suffering . . . .

. . . . . In addition, Jesus asks God the Father more than once to forgive his tormentors. If he can endure this unimaginable suffering and still not call down fire from Heaven, can we not at least be strong enough to watch it in a movie? The notion that we are too weak even to see a recreation of what Jesus managed actually to endure, and which he underwent without enmity toward his tormentors, is in fact utterly grotesque and fundamentally insulting in the lack of fortitude it assumes of us.

Hence, one could perhaps be forgiven for wondering about certain critics' likely motives in so "warning" potential audiences without sufficiently stressing the reason for this violence. Certainly they cannot wish to spare people the very experience of complicity in Christ's suffering that Gibson takes such pains to establish, can they? For that is the likely effect of their warnings — that some people will avoid the film as too intense. The Passion of the Christ is forceful indeed, and that power makes the film undeniably difficult to endure, but such intensity in films is precisely what these very same critics are usually most likely to praise . . . .

. . . . There are, moreover, positive moments in the film. An important one is the portrayal of Jesus astounding willingness to forgive his enemies even on the point of death and after suffering stupendous agony he did not deserve in the slightest. In addition, some of the visuals are startling in their beauty, inspired by medieval paintings redolent of great piety and faith. The overhead shot of Jesus as he expires on the cross is achingly beautiful, surely as close as mere cinema can come to being appropriate to the moment . . . . .

. . . . . This film is meant to be like the spikes that are so vividly and horrifyingly driven into the Christ's hands and feet as he is fastened to the cross. As Gibson portrays the scene, blood spurts up horrifyingly from Jesus palms, just as it surely must have done two millennia ago. The Passion of the Christ is as pointed as those spikes. It does one thing. It implicates the viewer in the suffering and death of Jesus Christ nearly 2,000 years ago, and it does so with undeniable power.

Africana Review

Here's an interesting review in Africana:

Africana Reviews: The Passion of the Christ
Mel Gibson has never presented viewers with an intellectual challenge, but with The Passion of the Christ that is exactly what he's done.
Reviewed by Armond White
. . . . Part of the confusion comes from the fact that there has rarely before been a mainstream movie that professed Catholic precepts. Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew was essentially a Marxist parable. Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ was a lapsed-Catholic extravaganza. Like Kevin Smith’s Dogma, it was more skeptical than spiritual. Scorsese’s overwrought and hermeneutically ponderous style ignited controversy from Christian spokesmen but his film was simply flashier than such films as King of Kings and The Greatest Story Ever Told.

Hollywood’s previous Christ films were Protestant or ecumenical in approach. Gibson’s movie is extremely Catholic in its focus on hideous/gorgeous suffering. He brings to life the bloody essence of the Crucifixion iconography . . . .

. . . . Gibson must also be defended against critics who suddenly complain about his violent style. It’s Gibson’s previous use of violence without impact that was unacceptable, in The Passion of the Christ the violent scenes are conceived ethically like the sacrifices shown in a war movie. Gibson connects to the old Negro spiritual “By His stripes we are healed” — the black gospel recognition of hideous/gorgeous suffering.

The most beautiful moment in the film is a flashback to Jesus the carpenter building a table that stands high off the ground. It symbolizes Christ elevating mankind from its meanest habits. But this is a rare moment of subtlety and loveliness. For the majority of the film, that proverbial art theme (Man’s Inhumanity to Man) is stressed, even over the primary fact of Resurrection. It proves Gibson has done things the Hollywood way for too long.

For black viewers it’s always been hard to get past the chauvinistic traditions of Christian art — even in Norman Jewison’s visionary 1973 film Jesus Christ Superstar we had to endure a black Judas (played by Carl Anderson whose earnest portrayal won him a Golden Globe nomination). Not even Scorsese could resist this tradition. His The Last Temptation of Christ abetted the idea of a blond, blue-eyed Jesus. (He went against Scriptural description, favoring European hegemony — even though Scorsese himself is a descendant of dark-eyed Southern Italians.) Believers who are moviegoers have to resolve the issue of spiritual representation for themselves, which is why Jesus Christ Superstar still has the most inquiring — most postmodern — moment of all movies about the Passion. During Christ (Ted Neely’s) Garden of Gethsemane aria Jewison edits-in a montage of various fine art renderings of the Passion. By that trope, Jewison opened up the Gospels culturally and aesthetically. Gibson’s movie is not that advanced. Instead, it is powerfully, earnestly traditional.
Nice to hear someone enthusing about Jesus Christ Superstar, still one of my favourite Jesus films.

The Guardian on The Passion of the Christ

An interesting article in today's Guardian:

Gibson film ignores vow to remove blood libel
Director keeps in infamous line - but in Aramaic only
Stephen Bates and John Hooper in Rome

The claim relates, of course, to the inclusion in the film of Matthew 27.25, "His blood be on us and on our children", though not in the subtitles:
Mel Gibson has reneged on a promise to remove the infamous scriptural blood libel, in which the Jews allegedly accepted responsibility for the crucifixion of Jesus, from his film The Passion of the Christ, according to one of the world's foremost scholars, who saw a preview showing yesterday.
The scholar concerned is Geza Vermes, who is very critical of the film
Geza Vermes, a former professor of Jewish Studies at Oxford and the author of five books on the life of Christ, writes of the film in today's Guardian: "I have never seen anything so dreadful and I hope I never will." . . . .

. . . . Prof Vermes immediately picked holes in the film, criticising its use of "Catholic church Latin" by the Roman soldiers instead of the Greek they would have spoken, pointing out that Pilate is referred to as the "governor" rather than the prefect of the province and spotting that the wrong Aramaic word for God is used throughout.
And there is critique of the film from British Jews
The British Board of Deputies of British Jews said: "It would have been better if this film had never been made. The glorification of violence and bloodshed and the reinforcement of medieval stereotyping of the Jewish people are extremely dangerous."
But as a Jesus film buff, I am most interested in the following comments from Franco Zeffirelli:
In Rome, the veteran Italian film director Franco Zeffirelli, who himself made a controversial film about the life of Christ, said Gibson was "sinisterly attracted to the most unrestrained violence".

In an article for the newspaper Corriere della Sera, Zeffirelli wrote: "[In America] mothers want at all costs for their children to see the film... What conclusion will children in particular be able to draw from it other than that the Jews were to blame for all that bloodshed? This way we set ourselves back centuries."
It will be worth seeing if it is possible to dig out an internet version of Zeffirelli's article. Let's see next if someone can grab Martin Scorsese for his opinion!

Thursday, February 26, 2004

Crossan and Witherington on the Passion, Part 3

Beliefnet have now posted part 3 of the John Dominic Crossan and Ben Witherington III exchange on The Passion of the Christ and, in particular, the theological issues surrounding it:

Scholarly Smackdown Part 3: Christ's Death: Because, From or For Our Sins?

Witherington has now seen the film. Some comments later.

William Fulco, S. J. Interview

I have mentioned William Fulco, S. J. a few times in connection with The Passion of the Christ. On Xtalk, Jeffrey Gibson posts a link to this interesting interview with him:

Father Fulco's Baptism of Fire
What happens when a Jesuit scholar gets deeply moved in a controversial film
Loyola Marymount's William Fulco and Ed Siebert in conversation

The interview is not recent; it's a badly produced PDF, sometimes difficult to follow, but there are some interesting bits and bobs in it and it is easily the most detailed material from Fulco I have seen. One tidbit is that "We (Fulco and Gibson) discussed whether it should be Latin or Greek" and they decided on Latin "for artistic reasons".

What would be interesting to see now would be a fresh interview with Fulco now that the film has been released. What does he make of the final version? What does he make of the criticisms, especially with regard to historical accuracy?

New Yorker review

I mentioned this review in quoting from another, but Dwight Peterson helpfully provides the URL for the review:

Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ.”

It's all worth reading, but here's his concluding paragraph:
What is most depressing about “The Passion” is the thought that people will take their children to see it. Jesus said, “Suffer the little children to come unto me,” not “Let the little children watch me suffer.” How will parents deal with the pain, terror, and anger that children will doubtless feel as they watch a man flayed and pierced until dead? The despair of the movie is hard to shrug off, and Gibson’s timing couldn’t be more unfortunate: another dose of death-haunted religious fanaticism is the last thing we need.
Will people really take their children to see this? I really hope not. I wouldn't dream of taking mine, not the remotest chance.

Aside from the content of these reviews, which I cannot judge until I've seen the film, some of these reviewers have such a wonderful command of the English language that I am beginning to think I read too much academic prose. I don't suppose I've ever read so many reviews of just one film, let alone over such a short period of time, but my goodness have some of these reviewers got a nice turn of phrase!

The Passion of the Christ in the UK

With a month to go until the release of The Passion of the Christ here in the UK, it is finding its way increasingly into our media, if primarily to cast a glance on the way that Americans are reacting to it. I woke up this morning to a report from Los Angeles on the film on the Today programme. And today's Guardian has a feature:

Passion pulls in the multitudes
Opening of film depicting Christ's last hours inspires and inflames US
Tania Branigan, and Dan Glaister in Los Angeles

This is a good round-up article, with highlights from the reviews. It suggests that the film will not make anything like the same impact in the UK, which I think is right.

Update: Thanks to Helenann Hartley for sending this one over from BBC Online:

Crowds and protests greet Passion
The Passion of the Christ, Mel Gibson's controversial film about Jesus, took about $20m (£11m) at US box offices in its opening day, according to a report.

Update: Today's Daily Telegraph has The Passion of the Christ above its main headline, just under the header. There are two articles on-line:

US in awe as The Passion is released
By Oliver Poole in Irvine, California

British Jews angry at Gibson film

Update: Richard and Judy (not a programme I normally watch -- my Mum rang me up!) even had a feature on The Passion of the Christ tonight; three people in the studio chatting about the film, two Jews who hated it and one Catholic who liked it; sorry -- didn't get their names.

Blogwatch: Biblical Studies Resources

Jim West has set up a new blog to accompany his Biblical Studies Resources pages:

Biblical Studies Resources
A Resource Weblog for all areas of Biblical Studies

Blogwatch: Beliefnet's Passion Weblog

Beliefnet have set up a weblog for news about The Passion of the Christ:

Beliefnet's 'Passion' Weblog
A continuing update of the latest news and commentary relating to Mel Gibson's 'The Passion of the Christ.'

There is no RSS feed, though, so you will have to visit specially.

Beliefnet: What's not in the Bible

In Paleojudaica, Jim Davila draws attention to this useful piece at Beliefnet:

'The Passion': What's Not in the Bible--and Why?
Gibson drew from extrabiblical sources to create his version of the Passion. A look at how those sources influenced his film.
By the Beliefnet Staff

Blogwatch: Andrew Sullivan on the Passion

It seems that the competition for the most negative review is hotting up (see earlier blog entry). Thanks to David Mackinder for sending this one over, also mentioned on Paleojudaica: Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish. They echo the sentiments of George Pevere, blogged yesterday and use the same word, pornography:
At the same time, the movie was to me deeply disturbing. In a word, it is pornography. By pornography, I mean the reduction of all human thought and feeling and personhood to mere flesh. The center-piece of the movie is an absolutely disgusting and despicable piece of sadism that has no real basis in any of the Gospels. It shows a man being flayed alive - slowly, methodically and with increasing savagery. We first of all witness the use of sticks, then whips, then multiple whips with barbed glass or metal. We see flesh being torn out of a man's body. Just so that we can appreciate the pain, we see the whip first tear chunks out of a wooden table. Then we see pieces of human skin flying through the air. We see Jesus come back for more. We see blood spattering on the torturers' faces. We see muscled thugs exhausted from shredding every inch of this man's body. And then they turn him over and do it all again. It goes on for ever. And then we see his mother wiping up masses and masses of blood. It is an absolutely unforgivable, vile, disgusting scene. No human being could sruvive it. Yet for Gibson, it is the h'ors d'oeuvre for his porn movie. The whole movie is some kind of sick combination of the theology of Opus Dei and the film-making of Quentin Tarantino. There is nothing in the Gospels that indicates this level of extreme, endless savagery and there is no theological reason for it. It doesn't even evoke emotion in the audience. It is designed to prompt the crudest human pity and emotional blackmail - which it obviously does. But then it seems to me designed to evoke a sick kind of fascination. Of over two hours, about half the movie is simple wordless sadism on a level and with a relentlessness that I have never witnessed in a movie before. And you have to ask yourself: why? The suffering of Christ is bad and gruesome enough without exaggerating it to this insane degree. Theologically, the point is not that Jesus suffered more than any human being ever has on a physical level. It is that his suffering was profound and voluntary and the culmination of a life and a teaching that Gibson essentially omits. One more example. Toward the end, unsatisfied with showing a man flayed alive, nailed gruesomely to a cross, one eye shut from being smashed in, blood covering his entire body, Gibson has a large crow perch on the neighboring cross and peck another man's eyes out. Why? Because the porn needed yet another money shot.
The whole review available here. On the theological problem here, see the related comments of Gerald Caron and John Dominic Crossan.

The piece also has an interesting comment on the debate over the film's anti-Semitism. One of the questions I sometimes ask of a Jesus film to get some debate going is whether the depiction of Jesus' Passion in any way enhances the negative depiction of the Jewish leaders, or accentuates the innocence of Pilate. Sullivan is essentially asking this question of The Passion of the Christ:
Is it anti-Semitic? The question has to be placed in the context of the Gospels and it is hard to reproduce the story without risking such inferences. But in my view, Gibson goes much further than what might be forgivable. The first scene in which Caiphas appears has him relaying to Judas how much money he has agreed to hand over in return for Jesus. The Jew - fussing over money again! There are a few actors in those scenes who look like classic hook-nosed Jews of Nazi imagery, hissing and plotting and fulminating against the Christ. For good measure, Gibson has the Jewish priestly elite beat Jesus up as well, before they hand him over to the Romans; and he has Jesus telling Pilate that he is not responsible - the Jewish elite is. Pilate and his wife are portrayed as saints forced by politics and the Jewish elders to kill a man they know is innocent. Again, this reflects part of the Gospels, but Gibson goes further. He presents Pilate's wife as actually finding Mary, providing towels to wipe up Jesus' blood, arguing for Jesus' release. Yes, the Roman torturers are obviously evil; yes, a few Jews dissent; and, of course, all the disciples are Jewish. I wouldn't say that this movie is motivated by anti-Semitism. It's motivated by psychotic sadism. But Gibson does nothing to mitigate the dangerous anti-Semitic elements of the story and goes some way toward exaggerating and highlighting them. To my mind, that is categorically unforgivable. Anti-Semitism is the original sin of Christianity. Far from expiating it, this movie clearly enjoys taunting those Catholics as well as Jews who are determined to confront that legacy. In that sense alone, it is a deeply immoral work of art.

Blogwatch: Paleojudaica on Aramaic in the Passion

Jim Davila has collected together and commented on some interesting pieces on the use of Aramaic in The Passion of the Christ:

Aramaic speakers go to see the Passion of the Christ

Bob Schacht's comments on The Passion

On Xtalk, Bob Schacht has some fascinating reflections on The Passion of the Christ. If you are not subscribed, the previous link will take you to his message; here is an excerpt:
Here's my insight(?) on the best way to understand this movie. In Jungian psychology, there's a process of meditation called Active Imagination. When applied to Christian meditation, it means imagining yourself in the situation you're reading about. You read the pericope, then you sit back, close your eyes, and try to visualize the situation, and make it come to life. The text is your starting point, but you are not limited to what is in the text. The goal is to 'flesh out' the text, projecting yourself into its Sitz im Leben.

Gibson comes from a traditional Catholic background. Therefore his texts for the Passion are not just the Gospels as we have them, but the Stations of the Cross, and the Pieta. If you were to do a survey of traditionalist Catholic churches, I'll bet you'd find a Pieta in most of them (there's one in the Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary a few blocks down the street from the Episcopal Church that I attend), as well as Stations of the Cross-- at least during Lent. As I think of the movie, I think every one of the Stations is represented. Although there is some variation about the stations, perhaps the most popular traditional Catholic version is that of St Alphonsus de Liguori (1696-1787), with 14 stations (For an illustrated online version, see The importance of this for present purposes is that 5 of these 14 are non-scriptural (i.e., not to be found in the canonical Gospels), and Gibson has all 5. The other 9 are taken from, or implied by, passages from all 4 canonical Gospels (e.g., John 20:25 is used to imply that he was nailed to the Cross). Michelangelo's Pieta is not one of the Stations, but its place in Catholic Tradition is so great that any visualization of the Passion can scarcely ignore it.

In addition to the Stations and the Pieta, the whole thing is framed by a quote at the beginning of the movie from one of Isaiah's Servant Songs, 53 . . .

. . . . . So the basic script for the movie, IMHO, was set by Isaiah 53, the Stations of the Cross, and the Pieta, fleshed out by Gibson's own "active imagination." In his active traditionalist imagination, Romans speak Latin (isn't that what they're taught in school?), so that's what they speak in the movie. The quote from Isaiah at the beginning tells us that it is irrelevant whether the Jews or the Romans were to blame; Jesus' suffering was required by the doctrine of Atonement, and since our (collective) sin is so great, his suffering had to be great enough to match. This accounts for the gratuitous extra images of suffering, such as the Roman soldier who pulls Jesus' shoulder out of its socket in order to stretch his hand out before nailing it to the cross, which are part of Gibson's act of Active Imagination."
I've not seen the film yet myself, but from what I've read and heard, this sounds like a pretty compelling way of looking at it. It sheds light on Gibson's reticence to have named academic advisors for the film.

Update: see this article on Beliefnet for more on the relationship of the film to the stations of the cross:

What's Catholic About 'The Passion'? A Lot
The Stations of the Cross, the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary, and Catholic mystics' visions shape Mel Gibson's work.
By Jennifer Waters

The true horror: Passion of the Christ merchandising

Holger Szesnat referred me to a the Mikra discussion group for some ebay links to some extraordinary merchandise, mugs, oval pewter pocket reminder (pocket piece), an oval pewter lapel pin, and a pack of 25 witness cards. I suppose one should have expected all this, but it hadn't occurred to me that we'd be experiencing the true horror of Passion mugs! I'm afraid there's a whole web site devoted to this stuff, The motto used on all this tat is "Dying was his reason for living", which, if you ask me, is pretty dubious theologically.

Wednesday, February 25, 2004

John Paul Heil homepage and article on Matt. 27.25

Thanks to Holger Szesnat for sending over a link to John Paul Heil's homepage. I have added this to the NT Gateway Scholars: H and in due course I will link to several useful on-line articles he has made available. In the mean time I wanted to draw attention to this topical piece:

John Paul Heil, "The Blood of Jesus in Matthew: A Narrative-Critical Perspective", Perspectives in Religious Studies 18 (1991): 117-24

His conclusion (since there's no abstract):
Our investigation of the theme of the blood of Jesus in the Matthean narrative has led to the proposal of a new, additional meaning to the whole Jewish people's calling down of the blood of Jesus upon themselves and their children (27:25). The innocent "blood" of Jesus that all the Jewish people are willing to accept the full responsibility for shedding is the same "blood" that Jesus at his last supper designated as "my blood of the covenant, which will be shed for many for the forgiveness of sins" (26:28). Precisely and paradoxically because the whole Jewish people brought upon themselves the tragic "price" as well as the salvific "value" for shedding the innocent blood of Jesus as a "prophet" and the suffering "righteous one" of God, they make possible the forgiveness of the sins of all people, including Peter who wept bitterly in remorse after denying Jesus (26:59- 75), Judas who repented his sin of betraying Jesus' innocent blood (27:3-10), and the whole Jewish people who invoked his atoning blood upon themselves and their future generations.
Update (1 March): link to this article added to Matthew: Books, Articles and Reviews page.

Larry Miller piece

Thanks to Jeff Peterson for sending over the link to this funny and poignant take on the Passion hullabaloo by a Jewish actor and humorist in the Weekly Standard

We're all holding our breath on this one.
by Larry Miller
. . . . JESUS KNEW he had to suffer and die on the cross. He wasn't alone, by the way. Two hundred and fifty thousand other Jews were crucified by the Romans in the same period. (Probably not according to Mel's father, but still . . .) Yet out of all the victims of this astonishing cruelty, Jesus Christ was the only one who rose and became God to two billion people, unless you count Miramax . . . .

Most negative review?

I referred to Geoff Pevere's Toronto Star review of The Passion of the Christ as the most negative I'd seen so far. David Mackinder refers me to Gregg Easterbrook's widely-read Easterblogg. In the entry dated 02.25.04, he refers to Mel Gibson's deeply cynical accomplishment and says:
"The Gospels emphasize Christ's suffering on the cross; Gibson has decided to emphasize Christ's suffering via the whip. Strange that Gibson should feel he understands Jesus' final hours better than the Gospel writers did. Maybe this is simply his artistic interpretation--but remember, Gibson is presenting his movie as the long-suppressed truth, not as an artistic interpretation that may or may not be right.

Beneath all the God-talk by Gibson is a commercial enterprise. Gibson's film career has been anchored in glorification of violence (the Mad Max movies) and in preposterous overstatement of the actual occurrence of violence (the Lethal Weapon movies). Gibson knows the sad Hollywood lesson--for which audiences are ultimately to blame--that glorifying or exaggerating violence is a path to ticket sales. So Gibson decides to make a movie about Jesus, and what one thing differentiates his movie from the many previous films of the same story? Exaggerated glorification of violence."

National Geographic on Mary Magdalene

National Geographic has an article on Mary Magdalene featuring some comments from Karen King; it is spurred on, as usual, by the Da Vinci Code:

Da Vinci Code Spurs Debate: Who Was Mary Magdalene?
Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
February 25, 2004

Interview with Caviezel

Thanks to David Mackinder for this link from PBS's Religion and Ethics News Weekly

INTERVIEW: Jim Caviezel by Kim Lawton

You can read this story or watch a four minute feature combining the the interview with clips from the trailer and some kind of news conference.

Toronto Star review

This is pretty much the most negative review I've seen so far, and the first from Canada, from the Toronto Star:

A dark and bloody spectacle
As sex is to the body in hardcore porn, violence is to the ruin of the body of Christ in The Passion
. . . . Even from my position of relative spiritual impoverishment, I have no doubt that Gibson believes completely and utterly in the divinity of his mission. From precisely the same position however, I also believe, just as completely and utterly, The Passion Of The Christ to be a work of fundamentalist pornography. What graphic sex is to the use of the body in hardcore porno, graphic violence is to destruction of the body of Christ in this Passion . . . .

New York Times on The Passion

Thanks to David Mackinder for these links in today's New York Times:

Good and Evil Locked in Violent Showdown
A. O. Scott
. . . . . What makes the movie so grim and ugly is Mr. Gibson's inability to think beyond the conventional logic of movie narrative. In most movies — certainly in most movies directed by or starring Mr. Gibson — violence against the innocent demands righteous vengeance in the third act, an expectation that Mr. Gibson in this case whips up and leaves unsatisfied.

On its own, apart from whatever beliefs a viewer might bring to it, "The Passion of the Christ" never provides a clear sense of what all of this bloodshed was for, an inconclusiveness that is Mr. Gibson's most serious artistic failure. The Gospels, at least in some interpretations, suggest that the story ends in forgiveness. But such an ending seems beyond Mr. Gibson's imaginative capacities . . . . "
Do You Recognize This Jesus?
Kenneth L. Woodward

In this "op-ed" piece, Woodward argues that many evangelicals as well as other Christians will be shocked by what they see:
. . . . . Indeed, Mr. Gibson's film leaves out most of the elements of the Jesus story that contemporary Christianity now emphasizes. His Jesus does not demand a "born again" experience, as most evangelists do, in order to gain salvation. He does not heal the sick or exorcise demons, as Pentecostals emphasize. He doesn't promote social causes, as liberal denominations do. He certainly doesn't crusade against gender discrimination, as some feminists believe he did, nor does he teach that we all possess an inner divinity, as today's nouveau Gnostics believe. One cannot imagine this Jesus joining a New Age sunrise Easter service overlooking the Pacific.

Like Jeremiah, Jesus is a Jewish prophet rejected by the leaders of his own people, and abandoned by his handpicked disciples. Besides taking an awful beating, he is cruelly tempted to despair by a Satan whom millions of church-going Christians no longer believe in, and dies in obedience to a heavenly Father who, by today's standards, would stand convicted of child abuse. In short, this Jesus carries a cross that not many Christians are ready to share . . . .
Then this piece reports on a panel of experts from different religious backgrounds who were invited to watch the film and then discuss it earlier this week:

'Passion' Disturbs a Panel of Religious Leaders

This one is an interesting read and, incidentally, answers my question about Matthew 27.25; David Sandmel in this article confirms that the line is in the film but the subtitle is dropped.

If you still want more, New York Times has also made a special collection of annotated links available:

Spotlight on "The Passion of the Christ"

Christianity Today's Passion coverage: more on-line

The next few articles in Christianity Today's March issue, in which The Passion of the Christ is the cover story, have now been posted on-line. The first is an interesting piece by Michael Medved, a Jewish writer and broadcaster who has spoken out vociferously against the Anti-Defamatiion League's stance on the film over the last year or so:

The Passion and Prejudice
Why I asked the Anti-Defamation League to give Mel Gibson a break.
by Michael Medved

Medved mentions the Paula Fredriksen article just mentioned, commenting:
The rumors about the movie reached such intensity that The New Republic published "Mad Mel," an attack by Paula Fredriksen, a professor at Boston University who had not seen the picture.
Though Fredriksen's polemical language is clearly a bar to any possibility of reconciliation between the two sides, Medved's implication that Fredriksen's attack was unprovoked may be incorrect. The article mentioned was written some time after the events Medved goes on to describe (the ad hoc committe's report on the script) and not before (see previous blog entry).

The next piece is the second instalment of Holly McLure's "Behind the Scenes" series. This is less interesting than the previous one; its main purpose is to tell us what a great chap Mel Gibson is. He wears a red nose and clowns about, apparently:

Behind the Scenes of The Passion
On the set with Holly McClure

The Stolen Script

I commented earlier that since the question of stolen script comes up repeatedly in news stories and now even in an academic review, I would like to comment on this. The gist of the accusation is this. In March-April last year, a committee assembled to look at a script of (what was then being called) The Passion. This "ad hoc" group was made up of Eugene Fisher from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), Eugene Corn from the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and seven New Testament scholars, four Catholics and three Jews. The group issued a fairly critical report on the script, in particular drawing attention to alleged anti-Semitism. It was this report, just under a year ago, that began the controversy that has surrounded the film ever since. Now, was the script which the "ad hoc committee" obtained stolen? This appears to have been alleged by Icon Productions after the group had published their report but to my knowledge the accusation was not investigated or followed up in any way. Two members of the ad hoc committee, on the other hand, have commented on the accusation in print. The first is Paula Fredriksen, who in an article published in The New Republic On-line on 25 July 2003, explained the situation from her perspective at some length. She uses some rather polemical language at points, but the article is detailed and specific and leaves little doubt that as far as she is concerned, the script was not stolen:

Mad Mel
by Paula Fredriksen

Here are the relevant parts excerpted:
. . . . . On March 25, the day before they invited me on board, Fisher and Korn exchanged communications with one William Fulco, S.J., who teaches in the department of classics and archaeology at Loyola Marymount University, a Jesuit institution in Los Angeles. He had served as Gibson's librettist, translating the script from English into Aramaic and Latin. His intimacy with the script was perhaps the reason that he assumed, or was assigned, his role; for as long as the dialogue lasted, Fulco was the main contact on the Icon side.

Fisher and Korn had faxed Fulco two documents on criteria for evaluating dramatizations of Jesus's Passion, one issued by the USCCB in 1988, the second produced jointly by the USCCB and the ADL in 2001. In response, Fulco thanked them, and assured both men that the script was devoid of any hint of antiJewishness. In fact, he claimed, it was "totally in accord with the [USCCB/ADL] documents." Fulco's struggles with the translation, he says in this e-mail, had engraved the script in his memory. ("I know [it] almost backwards.") Shooting had concluded, Fulco said, only the prior week. Fulco then added two points of information relevant to future events--that he was "preparing accurate subtitles" (what had happened to Gibson's "point of honor"?) and that "the film follows the script quite faithfully." (Since the reporter from The Wall Street Journal had mentioned seeing "a first look at a rough cut of the film," it must have been substantially assembled before March 7.)

A few weeks later, on April 14, Fisher wrote to the group of scholars and to another USCCB officer: "I have just received the good news that we will receive the script for our analysis and comment within the next couple of days." The scholars had to promise confidentiality: we could not circulate the script outside of our group, "though of course your comments can be public." On April 17, Fisher informed Fulco that he had received the script and had sent copies out to the scholars. We received them and read them over Easter weekend.

The whole group heard again from Fisher on April 25. "Gibson called me last night," Fisher began. "He had with him McEveety [another Icon producer] and Fulco." Gibson said that he wanted Fisher to convey to the scholars that he does not share his father's views, that some of his best friends are Jewish, that he is sensitive to anti-Semitism and opposed to it. "As an Irish Catholic Australian," wrote Fisher in his e-mail, Gibson "knows more than a bit about religious and social prejudice and [he] relates to Jews as fellow sufferers from it.... He's open to what we have to say, but still a bit cautious." At this point Fisher still thought that we could work with Gibson to try to improve his film . . . . .

. . . . . The script, when we got it, shocked us. Nothing of Gibson's published remarks, or of Fulco's and Gibson's private assurances, had prepared us for what we saw. Each scholar, independent of the others, wrote his or her own comments on the document. We then boiled them down, bulleted our points, and made the whole discussion easy to digest. The first section of our report explained the historical connection between passion plays and the slaughter of European Jews, the dress rehearsals for the Shoah. Then we summarized our responses to the script. We pinpointed its historical errors and--again, since Gibson has so trumpeted his own Catholicism--its deviations from magisterial principles of biblical interpretation. We concluded with general recommendations for certain changes in the script. Four short appendices--two historical, two directly script-related--traversed this same terrain from different directions. A final appendix provided excerpts from official Catholic teaching.Receiving criticism is never easy. As teachers and as scholars, who regularly give and get criticism, we knew this. We also knew that we were asking Gibson to revise his script substantially. We knew that we were working against his enthusiasm, his utter lack of knowledge, and his investment of time and money. We pinned our hopes on his avowed interest in historicity, on his evident willingness to hear what we had to say, and on his decency. In retrospect, we also functioned with a naïveté that is peculiar to educators: the belief that, once an error is made plain, a person will prefer the truth.

Fulco knew by April 27 what the substance of our response had been: Fisher had already communicated privately with him. By May 2, we had our eighteen-page report assembled. Fisher and Korn co-wrote the cover letter on USCCB stationery, and sent the report to Icon by May 5. On May 9, members of the group received our copies. We waited. Icon was silent. When Korn phoned Fulco on May 12 to get his sense of the report, Fulco declined to share his views. He did mention that he, Gibson, and other Icon executives were scheduled to meet the following day. More silence.

Meanwhile, disturbances began to accrue. After a story about Gibson's movie ran in the Los Angeles Times, one of the group's members, Mary Boys, S.N.J.M., received "three vicious letters filled with personal attacks and anti-Semitic drivel." (Boys is a chaired professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York, an adviser on ecumenical affairs to the USCCB, a member of the Catholic Biblical Association, and a tireless worker in the area of Catholic-Jewish relations. She knows anti-Semitic drivel when she sees it.) At the same time, another member of the scholars group, Father John Pawlikowski, O.S.M., professor of social ethics at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, mentioned an unhappy encounter that a friend of his--like Fulco, a professor at Loyola Marymount--had had with other Jesuits following Loyola's commencement ceremonies on May 11. On that day, Gibson had received an honorary doctorate. These Jesuits informed Pawlikowski's colleague that "Father Fulco has written a beautiful script; how could we possibly attack him? How could anyone criticize the story of the Passion? They were all aware of our report, so Fulco is obviously spreading the word."

We were surprised: we had understood that, for the time being, our report, like Gibson's script, was meant to be kept between us and Icon. "They"--Fulco, Gibson, and company--"are simply going to discredit us," Pawlikowski concluded. On May 16, the truth of his words, and the reasons for Icon's silence, became clear. On that date, Fisher, Korn, the ADL, and the USCCB received a letter from Gibson's attorney. Dated May 9, written within days of Icon's receipt of our report, the letter had sat for a week while we waited for their response, and Gibson collected his degree, and Fulco avoided Korn, and the Icon executives and Fulco conferred.

"As you are fully aware, you are in possession of property stolen from Icon, namely a draft of the screenplay for the Picture," the letter began. "At no time did Mr. Gibson authorize the release of this material to you or to any other third party for dissemination to you." The lawyering went on for another page: "You have admitted that you came into possession of this stolen property by means that are illegal." "You are now attempting to force my clients to alter the screenplay to the Picture to suit your own religious views." Our side was threatening to discredit the film, and to intimidate Gibson. ("This act is itself illegal--it is called extortion.") All scripts were to be returned by 5:00 p.m. on May 13. (Poor organization, since this letter was faxed three days after its own deadline.) Court orders, lawsuits, reserved rights and remedies, and all sorts of terrible consequences might and could and would follow. Very truly yours, et cetera.

"Gibson, Fulco and McEveety were all on the phone with me well before," Fisher wrote to me on May 20. "They knew we had the script, as they had known for some time, and did not ask for it back." Icon's new claim also made nonsense of the earlier condition of confidentiality to which we had assented before seeing the screenplay: who else would have required that? No matter. Lawyers were in the saddle; reason was dying . . . . ."
If Fredriksen's perceptions are right, there is little doubt -- the script was not stolen. Her report is backed up by a second member of the ad hoc committee, Amy-Jill Levine:

The Real Problem with "Passion"

This was published on Beliefnet also last summer, but it is not dated. Levine writes:
After questioning our panel's motives, Mr. Medved referred to the Gibson camp's charge that we used a "stolen" script. Indeed, Mr. Gibson's backers have consistently accused this committee of being underhanded and immoral: first, they claim, we obtained the script illegally. This is wrong: Gibson's company, Icon Productions, knew we had it, and Mr. Gibson personally expressed interest in hearing our views.
As far as I know, there have been no published attempts to refute Levine's and Fredriksen's explanations of the matter. They remain the only accounts, and Fredriksen's is the only rigorous, blow-by-blow account available. Until any published refutations of these accounts appear, I would suggest that the accusation of theft is dropped by those who comment on the film.

Update (22 July 2010): the link to Fredriksen's article above is no longer active and the New Republic's online version of the article is unreadable (Mad Mel), but there is a good PDF reproduction on Paula Fredriksen's home page.

Update (16 July 2012): the links to Fredriksen's article died again, so I have resurrected them in the above post, and in the update above.

Passion of the Christ released today

The Passion of the Christ is released today in the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. I won't get a chance to see it myself until a preview screening next week, so if any blog readers who see it soon would like to offer their thoughts, please send me an email. (Please note, of course, that I cannot guarantee that I will reproduce your thoughts). I'd be particularly interested to hear a couple of factual things that haven't been cleared up yet: (1) Does the film have a postscript as petitioned here and discussed frequently in this blog? (2) Has Caiaphas's "His blood be on us and on our children" been included in the film or not? You might need some Aramaic for this since the most recent report said that the line was included but not subtitled. Many thanks.

First Things review of The Passion of the Christ

Instead of adding to my continually updated mega-post of yesterday, Passion of the Christ: News and Reviews round-up, I'll begin fresh posts for news and reviews today. Thanks to Jeff Peterson for the link to this overwhelmingly positive review:

Gibson’s Passion
Russell Hittinger and Elizabeth Lev
First Things 141 (March 2004): 7-10.

It finds it "the best movie ever made about Jesus Christ"; here are some excerpts:
. . . . . Zefferelli’s movie is comparable to a Ghirlandaio painting—exquisite, but the figures occupy only half the canvas. By contrast, Gibson’s figures are in the style of Michelangelo, filling the screen, looming over us, threatening to enter our space. It is unnerving art. When the Roman soldiers call out “vertere crucem” the audience tenses. The soldiers lift the cross, prop it on its side for an agonizing moment, and then let it fall over towards us. As it crashes to the ground, an audible gasp sounds in the theater. The viewer is denied the detachment of looking through a window into a faraway world and is drawn into the scenes as a humble, perhaps helpless, participant . . . .

. . . . . But all of this makes Gibson’s Passion nearly the opposite of the arcane and politically fraught tradition of the passion play. Such performances were often staged to incite the audience to choose sides, to “save” the integrity and honor of Christ by constituting a kind of party against Judas, the Jews, and the mob in Pilate’s courtyard. Had Gibson used the power of film to give this twisted but all-too-human political stereotype a new lease on life, concerns about the film stirring up anti-Judaism or hostility against nonbelievers would be justified. To his credit, however, Gibson denies the audience any shred of political or religious triumph, or, for that matter, defeat. Even a viewer who already knows and religiously believes in the final outcome of the story must struggle to keep watching, which is humiliating in its own right. There might be reason for scholars and religious authorities to raise questions about Gibson’s synthesizing of distinct scriptural accounts of the passion, or about his use of extra-biblical iconography. But it is hard to imagine anyone coming out of Gibson’s movie with an appetite for a religiously politicized passion. If anything, this is the definitive post-passion-play passion . . . . ."
The review also comments: "theological criticisms and concerns were expressed on the basis of an unofficial script apparently stolen from Gibson’s production company". Since this material about a "stolen" script is still getting regularly repeated, in my view unfairly, I will add a comment on this later.

Tuesday, February 24, 2004

Petros Vassiliadis homepage

Thanks to Holger Szesnat for sending over the link to this homepage:

Petros Vassiliadis

I've added the link to my Scholars: U-Z page. Vassiliadis is at the University of Thessaloniki and he has made his homepage available in Greek and English versions. I am know him from his stuff on Q. The good news is that he has lots of full text reproductions of his own articles (though the font is absolutely awful -- you might need to copy and paste); go to his Detailed Bibliography and scroll down a bit.

Passion of the Christ: news and reviews round-up

With the release of The Passion of the Christ in the USA tomorrow, it's time to round up some of the news and reviews. I commented earlier on Christianity Today's coverage; the second of the two articles there mentions that Mel Gibson's feet appear in the stoning of the woman taken in adultery scene; so now we know that we see both his hands (crucifixion scene) and his feet.

Thanks to Helenann Hartley for these two from BBC News:

Christ film 'riddled with errors'

Bible belt devoted to Christ film

The first of these is a version of the Reuters story commented on earlier.

This Reuters story provides a useful round-up of all the early reviews of the film, which show some interesting variety:

Critics Pan and Praise Gibson's 'Passion'
By Arthur Spiegelman
. . . . "One of the cruelest movies in the history of cinema," says the New Yorker's David Denby in a negative review that also calls the film "a sickening death trip, a grimly unilluminated procession of treachery, beatings, blood and agony."

Critic Denby adds, 'For two hours ... we watch, stupefied as a handsome, strapping, at times half-naked young man is slowly tortured to death. Gibson is thoroughly fixated on the scourging and crushing of Christ and is so meagerly involved in the spiritual meanings of the final hours, that he falls in danger of altering Jesus's message of love into one of hate.". . . . .

. . . . . Daily Variety's reviewer Todd McCarthy was more positive about the film, saying, "If an age produces the renditions of classic stories that reflect those times, then 'The Passion of the Christ,' which is violent, contentious, emotional, extreme and highly proficient, must be the Jesus movie for this era.

"It is also gravely intense and the work of a man as deeply committed to his subject as one could hope for or, for that matter, want.... (The picture's) notoriety might soon be mitigated for mainstream audiences by word of mouth centered on the prolonged suffering and very vivid gore; at the same time, many true believers ... will be deeply moved. ..."

McCarthy rejected the idea that the film was anti-Semitic and added, "The passion according to Mel is potent stuff, but rather like a full course of bitter herbs without as much as a taste of honey." . . . . .

. . . . . Newsweek's David Ansen said, "Relentlessly savage, 'The Passion' plays like the Gospel according to the Marquis de Sade. The film that has been getting rapturous advance raves from evangelical Christians turns out to be an R-rated inspirational movie no child can, or should, see. To these secular eyes at least, Gibson's movie is more likely to inspire nightmares than devotion."

He added, "It's the sadism, not the alleged anti-Semitism, that is most striking. (For the record, I don't think Gibson is anti-Semitic; but those inclined toward bigotry could easily find fuel for their fire here.)"

Time Magazine's Richard Corliss, in a review headlined "The Goriest Story Ever Told," said the audience for this film is fairly narrow: True believers with cast-iron stomachs; people who can stand to be grossed out as they are edified. And a few movie critics who can't help admiring Mad Mel for the spiritual compulsion that drove him to invent a new genre --- the religious splatter art film -- and bring it to searing life, death and resurrection.
There are some great one-liners there -- "the goriest story ever told" sounds like something that is going to stick. There is a theme that crops up repeatedly in the reviews -- the graphic, brutal violence -- and makes a much stronger impression than anything else.

The article briefly mentions the following review from the Chicago-Sun Times, which is also blogged by Stephen Carlson on Hypotyposeis:

Review of The Passion of the Christ
Roger Ebert
. . . . . If ever there was a film with the correct title, that film is Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ." Although the word passion has become mixed up with romance, its Latin origins refer to suffering and pain; later Christian theology broadened that to include Christ's love for mankind, which made him willing to suffer and die for us.

The movie is 126 minutes long, and I would guess that at least 100 of those minutes, maybe more, are concerned specifically and graphically with the details of the torture and death of Jesus. This is the most violent film I have ever seen . . . .

. . . . . David Ansen, a critic I respect, finds in Newsweek that Gibson has gone too far. "The relentless gore is self-defeating," he writes. "Instead of being moved by Christ's suffering or awed by his sacrifice, I felt abused by a filmmaker intent on punishing an audience, for who knows what sins."

This is a completely valid response to the film, and I quote Ansen because I suspect he speaks for many audience members, who will enter the theater in a devout or spiritual mood and emerge deeply disturbed. You must be prepared for whippings, flayings, beatings, the crunch of bones, the agony of screams, the cruelty of the sadistic centurions, the rivulets of blood that crisscross every inch of Jesus' body. Some will leave before the end.

This is not a Passion like any other ever filmed. Perhaps that is the best reason for it. I grew up on those pious Hollywood biblical epics of the 1950s, which looked like holy cards brought to life. I remember my grin when Time magazine noted that Jeffrey Hunter, starring as Christ in "King of Kings" (1961), had shaved his armpits. (Not Hunter's fault; the film's Crucifixion scene had to be re-shot because preview audiences objected to Jesus' hairy chest.) . . . . .

. . . . Pilate is seen going through his well-known doubts before finally washing his hands of the matter and turning Jesus over to the priests, but Caiaphas, who also had doubts, is not seen as sympathetically. The critic Steven D. Greydanus, in a useful analysis of the film, writes: "The film omits the canonical line from John's gospel in which Caiaphas argues that it is better for one man to die for the people [so] that the nation be saved.

"Had Gibson retained this line, perhaps giving Caiaphas a measure of the inner conflict he gave to Pilate, it could have underscored the similarities between Caiaphas and Pilate and helped defuse the issue of anti-Semitism." . . . . .

. . . . . Is the film "good" or "great?" I imagine each person's reaction (visceral, theological, artistic) will differ. I was moved by the depth of feeling, by the skill of the actors and technicians, by their desire to see this project through no matter what. To discuss individual performances, such as James Caviezel's heroic depiction of the ordeal, is almost beside the point. This isn't a movie about performances, although it has powerful ones, or about technique, although it is awesome, or about cinematography (although Caleb Deschanel paints with an artist's eye), or music (although John Debney supports the content without distracting from it).

It is a film about an idea. An idea that it is necessary to fully comprehend the Passion if Christianity is to make any sense. Gibson has communicated his idea with a singleminded urgency. Many will disagree. Some will agree, but be horrified by the graphic treatment. I myself am no longer religious in the sense that a long-ago altar boy thought he should be, but I can respond to the power of belief whether I agree or not, and when I find it in a film, I must respect it.
Next, thanks to David Mackinder for this link from the New Republic Online

Passion Players
by Reihan Salam

This article describes itself as "TNR's "Guide to the Passion Pundits" in which "we explain what the most prominent players on both sides of the Passion debate have said, and what you can expect them to say in the weeks to come."

This article from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has some good informed comment from NT scholars -- John Dominic Crossan, Marcus Borg and Amy-Jill Levine:

What do the Gospels say?
Mel Gibson's 'The Passion of the Christ' raises anew the question of why Jesus was crucified

There is a useful line or two in this opinion piece from yesterday's Daily Telegraph, including one I excerpt below:

Mel Gibson's 'Passion of Christ' is an act of faith, not hatred
By Barbara Amiel
. . . . . It puzzles me that someone as bright as Mr Foxman can still fall into the "Banned in Boston" trap. Audiences who would never dream of going to see a film with dialogue entirely in Aramaic and Latin – as this film is – have now had their attention drawn to it by this controversy. No one can seriously believe that dormant anti-Semites will be awakened by this film, no matter how villainous the depiction of the Sanhedrin or bloodthirsty the mob. Any latent anti-Semite has far more virulent snake charmers to bring him out of his basket . . . . .
Here's another interesting review of the film, this time from; it is wonderfully written with a great turn of phrase; I've added a couple of excerpts afterwards (I'm updating this blog entry as I spot stuff, so I apologise for the relatively haphazard order here):

Movie review: 'The Passion of the Christ'
By Michael Wilmington
Chicago Tribune Movie Critic
2-1/2 stars (out of 4)
. . . . . No movie version of Christ's crucifixion and resurrection — a story filmed many times in many ways by directors as various as Cecil B. DeMille (1927's "The King of Kings"), Pier Paolo Pasolini (1966's "The Gospel According to St. Matthew") and Scorsese (1988's "Temptation") — has ever immersed us in such a cinematic torture chamber, spilled so much believable blood or focused with such savage insistence on Christ's wounds and manhandling. When the crown of thorns stabs Jesus' forehead or the nails crunch into his palms, I felt less epiphany than empathetic pain . . . . .

. . . . Gibson is a talented, ambitious filmmaker who takes real chances, playing "Hamlet" or directing "The Man Without a Face" — and though he didn't really deserve the Oscar he won for directing "Braveheart," it's good to see him taking even riskier shots here. "Passion" certainly avoids the picture-postcard religiosity of the standard Hollywood Bible epic, and it's not at all boring. But though Gibson's vision — so tactile and violent — may be a world away from the sometimes saccharine treatments of DeMille or Franco Zeffirelli ("Jesus of Nazareth"), it's also distant from the transcendence that might have made this either a great film or moving religious testimony.

"Passion," for all its high intent, lacks artistic and even spiritual balance. At the risk of being glib, this "Passion" has more power and gore than power and glory, more blood and guts than blood and redemption. Focusing on the excruciating agony of the flagellation and crucifixion, Gibson and Caviezel never really take us deeply into Jesus' heart or soul, as Scorsese did in his much-reviled but richer film of Nikos Kazantzakis' "Last Temptation." . . . .

Blogwatch: Gibson and Holocaust denial

In Paleojudaica, Jim Davila comments on the question of Mel Gibson and holocaust denial, pointing to the Volokh Conspiracy blog, which had commented on Peggy Noonan's Reader's Digest interview with Gibson. In my own opinion, too much has been made of Gibson's comments in this interview. David Bernstein says:
An interviewer asks, do you believe the Holocaust happened? Gibson doesn't just say, "yes, it did, of course." He doesn't even say, yes, of course, and we should remember it, along with other great tragedies of the 20th century.
Actually, Gibson does say "yes, of course"; the problem arises from the fact that he says it halfway through the paragraph in question:
Peggy Noonan: "You're going to have to go on record. The Holocaust happened, right?"

Gibson: "I have friends and parents of friends who have numbers on their arms. The guy who taught me Spanish was a Holocaust survivor. He worked in a concentration camp in France. Yes, of course. Atrocities happened. War is horrible. The Second World War killed tens of millions of people. Some of them were Jews in concentration camps. Many people lost their lives. In the Ukraine, several million starved to death between 1932 and 1933. During the last century, 20 million people died in the Soviet Union." (emphasis added).
What one has to remember is that this is not a carefully worded, written response to a question but an orally delivered answer. The unequivocal answer to the question comes half-way through the paragraph. This is actually pretty natural in orally delivered answers. When one reads transcripts of radio interviews, for example, it is remarkable to see how often the written version loses a key element that the ear picks up instinctively. I think Gibson is trying to answer the question unequivocally with his "Yes, of course" but is prefacing it by saying that that this is not just hearsay -- he knows it personally from friends and parents of friends. Bear in mind that Maria Morgenstern, who plays Mary the mother of Jesus in the film, is the daughter of a holocaust survivor; her grandfather died at Auschwitz (see blog entry on).

The reason I am sure that this is the right way to read the comments above is that more recently, his answer has been even clearer -- the ABC interview with Diane Sawyer, e.g. reported by WNBC:

'Passion' Strife Swells With Gibson's Dad's Holocaust Dispute
Mel Gibson has largely remained silent when asked about his father in interviews. He told ABC's Diane Sawyer Monday, "Gotta leave it alone, Diane," when the interviewer probed him about Hutton Gibson's reported anti-Semitism.

Mel Gibson did tell Sawyer, however, his viewpoints about the Holocaust.

"Do I believe that there were concentration camps where defenseless and innocent Jews died cruelly under the Nazi regime? Of course I do, absolutely," Mel Gibson told Sawyer. "It was an atrocity of monumental proportions."

"And you believe there were millions -- 6 million?" Sawyer asked, to which Mel Gibson responded, "Sure."
My own feeling is that this is something of a red herring in the discussion of The Passion of the Christ. It seems likely that we may need to take the charges of anti-Semitism in The Passion of the Christ seriously -- I don't know until I go to see the film next week -- but I don't think Gibson is a holocaust denier.

Update (22.45): On Paleojudaica, Jim Davila updates his piece with reference to the Diane Sawyer interview.

Christianity Today's Passion coverage

Christianity Today has now posted on-line more of the material from its latest issue, in which The Passion of the Christ is the cover-story. This interview was released on-line yesterday:

'Dude, That Was Graphic'
Mel Gibson talks about The Passion of The Christ
by David Neff and Jane Johnson Struck

In it Mel Gibson talks about the "spiritual warfare" involved in producing the film, from successful prayers for its success, to the technological problems in post-production. There is an interesting detail on the creative process and the adherence to Scripture:
Wow, the Scriptures are the Scriptures—I mean they're unchangeable, although many people try to change them. And I think that my first duty is to be as faithful as possible in telling the story so that it doesn't contradict the Scriptures.
Now, so long as it didn't do that, I felt that I had a pretty wide berth for artistic interpretation, and to fill in some of the spaces with logic, with imagination, with various other readings.

For example, Judas goes to kill himself and I had him being tormented by children. I made up the children idea and that they were somehow diabolical, so they weren't real children. And that he was on a hillside and he looked at a dead goat, and then he goes and kills himself, hangs himself with a halter. I thought, so where's he going to get the halter? Well wait a minute, it should be a dead donkey with a halter on. I mean there's nothing that said there was a dead donkey there, but why not? It just says he "hung himself with an halter" [Matt. 27:5, Douay].
Next, there's a "Behind the Scenes" insight from Holly McLure:

Behind the Scenes of The Passion
On the set with Holly McClure

McClure acted as a kind of consultant on the film and explains how she contributed to the depiction of Mary Magdalene:
. . . . . Two weeks later Mel called me and asked me what I thought. I told him it was brilliant, and that Christians would love it. He asked if I had any suggestions. And I did.

I saw a potential problem with Mary Magdalene. Mel had her in every scene with Mary (Jesus' mother) and John, but there was no scene to connect this woman to Jesus. I asked, "Is she his sister? His wife? A lover? You have to pretend like no one knows this story. You have to ask why this woman would follow Jesus so faithfully."

After a pause, Mel said, "You're right. I need a flashback to connect her relationship to him. I've been working on this script for almost nine years and no one has ever pointed that out to me."

I smiled and said, "Well maybe it takes a woman to see that Mary needs an introduction—and so people don't get the wrong idea. Maybe you could add a scene like the one where men are going to stone a woman and …" Mel jumped in excitedly and said, "Yeah, Jesus steps in and saves her, and I'll show the guys dropping the stones one by one and Mary looks up at Jesus!"
So it seems that the film perpetuates the identification of Mary Magdalene with the woman taken in adultery in John 8, which is in so many of the Jesus films and really milked in Last Temptation of Christ. So in spite of all the publicity Mary Magdalene has received in the popular media recently, her rehabilitation has been put on hold and the image of her as an adulterer and a prostitute looks set to be reaffirmed once again. Incidentally, the woman taken in adultery is played by a different actress from the one playing Mary Magdalene in The Gospel of John.

Role of Fulco

Further to my previous blog entry, I've dug around a little more on William Fulco. This is from an article published in on Saturday, an articled headed "Director Mel Gibson defends his Passion":
Once the script was written (in English), Gibson brought in a Jesuit scholar who specializes in Aramaic and Latin — the Rev. William Fulco of Loyola Marymount University — to translate. Fulco also offered technical advice and occasionally served as chaplain for the cast and crew.

Fulco became aware of Gibson's more conservative views, but the priest says it never bothered him.

"My viewpoint is that the church is a very big tree in which many colorful birds make their nests. And Mel is a pretty colorful bird."
This article from of January 21 fills in a little more:

TERRY MATTINGLY: The passion of Mel Gibson
Jesuits rarely receive frantic calls from Hollywood megastars rushing to finish movies that are causing media firestorms. But the Rev. William Fulco is getting used to it, as Mel Gibson completes his cathartic epic, "The Passion of the Christ."

While mixing dialogue the other day, Gibson hit a scene in which a man standing at a door lacked something to say. The director needed a line - right now. Fulco's first question was unique to this project: Was this character supposed to speak Latin or first-century Aramaic? "Mel said the camera was not on the speaker's face, so we did not need to synchronize what he said with the movements of his mouth," said Fulco, who translated the screenplay into the two ancient languages, with English subtitles.

"The character needed to say something in Aramaic in the ballpark of, 'What do you want?' So I had him say in rather colloquial early Aramaic, 'MAH? MAH BA'EH?' That is literally, 'What? What wanting?'" That worked.

It has been nearly two years since Fulco answered the telephone and heard a strange voice blurt out: "Hey, Padre! It's Mel!" Gibson's proposal was unusual, but fit the Jesuit's skills as a professor of ancient Mediterranean studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. Fulco began digging into Hebrew texts seeking the roots of the now-dead Aramaic language, while simultaneously exploring dialects such as Syriac spoken today in tiny Christian enclaves in Iran, Syria and Turkey.

He also stepped into heated academic debates between those who favor a more Italian-friendly Latin and those who reject this approach.

"I'm getting hate mail about Latin pronunciations," said Fulco. "On guy wrote who was angry about what he called 'these ecclesiastical bastardizations' of the Latin. Not only was he going to boycott the movie, he said he was going to call his high-school Latin teacher and tell her to boycott the movie as well. ... I have to keep reminding people: This is not a documentary. We had to make artistic choices."
The latter comments echo Crossan's (previous blog entry).

Scholars find fault with The Passion

On RogueClassicism, David Meadows draws attention to this Reuters piece (which you'll find syndicated elsewhere):

Scholars find fault in Gibson's "Passion"
Megan Goldin

John Dominic Crossan has again been on duty:
"Jesus talking to (Pontius) Pilate and Pilate to Jesus in Latin!" exclaimed John Dominic Crossan, a professor of religious studies at the Chicago-based Roman Catholic De Paul University. "I mean in your dreams. It would have been Greek."

Latin was reserved for official decrees or used by the elite. Most Roman centurions in the Holy Land spoke Greek rather than Latin, historians and archaeologists told Reuters."
Crossan adds that it was "so badly pronounced in the film that it was almost incomprehensible". And one of the points I made in the reconstruction of "the face" is echoed here by both Joe Zias (who also worked on "the face") and Lawrence Schiffman:
"He has a long-haired Jesus...Jesus didn't have long hair," said physical anthropologist Joe Zias, who has studied hundreds of skeletons found in archaeological digs in Jerusalem. "Jewish men back in antiquity did not have long hair."

"The Jewish texts ridiculed long hair as something Roman or Greek," said New York University's Lawrence Schiffman.

Along with extensive writings from the period, experts also point to a frieze on Rome's Arch of Titus, erected after Jerusalem was captured in AD 70 to celebrate the victory, which shows Jewish men with short hair taken into captivity.
The article goes on with more detail on the crucifixion and here again they are asking the right person, Joe Zias:
The depiction of the crucifixion was the part of the film most riddled with errors for Zias, who studied the skeleton of a crucified Jewish man from Jesus's time -- the only remains ever found of a crucified victim from antiquity.

Zias said Jesus would not have carried the entire cross to the crucifixion as vertical beams were kept permanently in place by the ever efficient Romans.

"Nobody was physically able to carry the thing (the entire cross).It weighed about 350 lb (159 kg)," Zias said. "He (Jesus) carried the cross-beam, maximum."

Nor would Jesus have worn a loin-cloth in the crucifixion as did actor James Caviezel who portrayed him in the film.

"Crucifixion was a form of state terror. They humiliated the crucified victim. Everybody was naked. Men, women and children," Zias said.

Jesus, he added, would have been tied or nailed to the cross through the wrists, not the hands as shown in the film.

"You cannot crucify a person through the hands because there is nothing there but skin and muscle. It will tear."
This picks up on earlier pieces about the crucifixion, also featuring Crossan and Zias (see blog entry February 20). David Meadows comments:
Seriously, though ... I haven't been able to find any mention of the historical advisers (if any) to this one. I'd be curious to know whether a Classicist was consulted ...
Agreed. One of my own repeatedly expressed concerns about this film is that it does not use an academic advisory board, unlike the two most recent Jesus films, The Gospel of John and The Miracle Maker, both of which avoided many of the problems now dogging The Passion of the Christ. The only named historical consultant on The Passion of the Christ appears to be William Fulco of Loyola Marymount University, who has been named as the person who did the retroversions to Latin and Aramaic. Whether he had any wider role (e.g. in a broader advisory capacity) is not clear, but appears unlikely.