Tuesday, April 06, 2004

Ann Widdecombe on The Passion of the Christ

British readers will know the Tory MP Ann Widdecombe well and will not be surprised to see that her views on the controversy about The Passion of the Christ are themselves pretty outspoken. Thanks to David Mackinder for the link to this article from the New Statesman:

Why the Jews are wrong
Observations on Mel Gibson and The Passion
By Ann Widdecombe

After a some-of-my-best-friends-are-Jewish style introduction, Widdecombe writes:
What with Pharaoh, the diaspora, the pogroms and the Holocaust, it is not surprising that Jews are alert for any outbreak of ill-feeling; and the rest of us should be vigilant on their behalf. But there is a line between alertness and over-sensitivity, and they have well and truly crossed it in their reaction to this film. They cannot credibly propose to make it a crime to deny the reality of the Holocaust, while themselves denying the reality of a shameful episode in their history. You do not have to believe that Jesus was the Messiah to recognise the illegality of His trial or to wince at His suffering. A bit of wincing would not come amiss from the leaders of the Jewish community whose principal concern appears to be not that Christ suffered, but that Mel Gibson should have the gall to portray those sufferings.
Where does one start with such a catalogue of error and confusion? It is probably unnecessary for me to mention these things, but here goes anyway. (1) The title, which may not be Widdecombe's own, is especially unhelpful. A rule of thumb: the negative use of the term "the Jews" in dialogue focusing on anti-Semitism is a very bad sign. (2) To equate holocaust denial with asking critical historical questions about the Gospels is outrageous. (3) Talk about "the illegality of His trial" simply begs the question. One of the key issues for all scholars is what to make of such historical difficulties. (4) The implication that it is only Jews who have expressed concerns about the film is incorrect. Some of its most outspoken critics, for example, are Christians. This article is careless and inflammatory.

Update: Jim Davila comments in Paleojudaica. Specifically, he draws attention to Widdecombe's remark that "it is difficult to see how Gibson could give the Jews a fairer deal". And he answers:
How about by leaving out the fantasy material from the Emmerich visions? And he could even have left out altogether that "most damning line of all" (most damning to whom?) from Matthew's Gospel, which almost certainly was made up by the writer of Matthew. (But it's in the Bible! How could he have left it out? Well, for starters, Mark, Luke, and John did.) As for the omitting of the subtitle, want to make any bets on how long it takes for the line to be added back in when the subtitles are retranslated into other languages? I haven't seen the movie yet and I don't know whether I'll think it's anti-Semitic, but I know that those two things are there.
I wish that Gibson had omitted the line from Matt. 27.25, though I must admit that I am only taking people's word for it that it is there at all. I was listening out very carefully for it on each viewing and you can just hear Caiaphas mutter something in a distance shot after Pilate has washed his hands. I assume that it is that line, but my impression is that it would be very difficult to subtitle in the film's present form, so I am not too concerned that it is going to get added in again. But this is subject to correction, of course. I am going to see the film again tomorrow so I am going to have another look and listen. Can any readers shed any light here? Can anyone actually hear what Caiaphas is saying at that point?

On Jim's other point, about Catherine Emmerich's visions, I think the key question is whether the ones that are used are themselves anti-Jewish. In other words, was the film itself influenced by her anti-Semitism? William Fulco (translator and theological consultant) and Benedict Fitzgerald (co-screenwriter) emphatically deny this (see the blog entry on this). I think there may be grounds for their denial. I have recently begun reading Catherine Emmerich's Dolorous Passion and was particularly struck by the similarities and differences between her depiction and the film's depiction of Simon of Cyrene. It is clear that the film is influenced by Emmerich at this point, specifically Simon's exhorting the soldiers to leave Jesus alone, but crucially where Emmerich clearly depicts Simon as a pagan, Gibson insists that this heroic figure was a Jew.

Update: See now Jim Davila's additional comments in Paleojudaica, drawing attention to Beliefnet's description: "In a very brief scene, money is seen changing hands, with the implication that people are being paid to testify against Jesus" and quoting from Emmerich as follows:
"The Dolorous Passion" says "The High Priests now sent for those whom they knew to be the most bitterly opposed to Jesus, and desired them to assemble the witnesses ...The proud Sadducees ...whom Jesus had so often reproved before the people, were actually dying for revenge. They hastened to all the inns to seek out those persons whom they knew to be enemies of our Lord, and offered them bribes in order to secure their appearance."
The reference is to Dolorous Passion Chapter IV. On this, let me first say that it is one of those parts of the film that I think is regrettable. I would add it to my list of things that I would have preferred not to have seen because it inevitably evokes, for those familiar with Emmerich, the fuller more troubling context there. Having said that, it is not clear that the film carries forward anything of that context. The brief scene depicts someone looking rather puzzled at the arrival of the man at his door; there is nothing of hastening to the inns, seeking out known enemies of Jesus etc. In other words, I think this falls into that category of material that I find more careless than malicious on the filmmakers' part.

Jim also comments on the throwing off the bridge just after the arrest, also from Emmerich. I'm not sure what to make of that other than to comment that it is an element in the brutalising of Jesus that is evident throughout the film, though the Roman brutality is far, far greater in this film than anything else. What The Passion of the Christ uses this scene for is Jesus' encounger with Judas Iscariot at the foot of the bridge, a kind of parallel to Jesus' looking at Peter after his denial.

Further, Ed Cook emails Jim with the following comment:
With reference to your note, "Mark also says he couldn't hear the blood libel line from Matthew in the movie." I heard it; Caiaphas speaks it, in Aramaic, in the middle of a throng yelling "Let him be crucified!" (yitstalev), so it's easy to miss. There was no subtitle. Do the foreign versions make their translations from the English subtitles (as I think likely) or do they translate them directly from the soundtrack? If the latter, do they include some of the Latin by-play among the soldiers at the scourging, which also wasn't subtitled?
It is interesting to hear that it is possible to hear this line; put my failure down to my worse than elementary Aramaic! But my point is that the way in which this scene is filmed, with the long shot and the cacophony, would make it difficult to subtitle straightforwardly.

Jim goes on to comment:
As far as I know there are no translations of the subtitles yet. When someone gets around to them I don't know how they will proceed. I am just confident that if ideological anti-Semites know that the blood libel line is there in the Aramaic, they will be sure to include in their translation, no matter what the English subtitles say.
That may be right but I hope that it is not. Presumably there are lots of translations of the subtitles already for the showings in the international market, German, French, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish etc.?
Incidentally, if it's Caiaphas saying the line, that's an important departure from Matthew 27:25, which has "all the people" saying it. Instead of being an impulsive cry by a riotous crowd, it becomes a statement by the high priest himself.
I would read the departure differently. The very reason that Matt. 27.25 can be so troubling is its invocation of blood guilt by and on "all the people". It is that factor that has allowed the line to have such a particularly toxic effect in the history of anti-Semitism. But my strong preference would be for this to be omitted altogether, Caiaphas or crowd, subtitle or not, along with Pilate's hand-washing and several other features in the film.

Let me just repeat my position on this film lest I am misread. My view remains that while there are troubling elements present here, as there are in all the Jesus films, the case that it is anti-Semitic has often been greatly overstated, and features that argue against its anti-Semitism are routinely being ignored.

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