Friday, April 30, 2004

The harmonizing tradition in Jesus films

In Hypotyposeis, Stephen Carlson comments on the recent Crossan story about The Passion of the Christ in which there seems to be some criticism of the act of harmonizing the Gospel accounts for the film. Stephen writes (excerpted):
I certainly agree that having four gospels instead of one harmonized text has proven to be much richer theologically and historiographically, but I'm taken aback at the apparent per se objection to any harmonization of the gospels. Unless one is to film a single gospel straight through, which is not common, film treatments of Jesus are going to use a blended combination of the gospels. Does this mean that the genre of the Jesus film is fundamentally illegitimate? I just don't get it.
I share this surprise at the strong reaction amongst some scholars to the harmonizing in The Passion of the Christ, not least because this is an age-old tradition in the Jesus films and The Passion of the Christ is far from unique in this regard.

There are essentially four important exceptions to the general rule about the Jesus films harmonizing the four Gospels to produce their narratives, The Gospel According to St Matthew, Jesus (based on Luke), Matthew and The Gospel of John. Otherwise, the Jesus films have narratives in which characters, scenes, motifs and more are drawn together from all four Gospels and none of them. One could give many, many examples but one that I have drawn attention to in the past is Mary Magdalene in the number "Everything's Alright" in Jesus Christ Superstar:
The various stories of the anointing of Jesus (Matt. 26.6-13, Mark 14.3-9, Luke 7.36-50, John 12.1-8) are rolled into one in the number 'Everything's Alright', and unlike any of the Gospels, the one who anoints Jesus is Mary Magdalene (cf. Luke 8.2). And shortly before this, Jesus' reply to Judas' criticism of Mary ('Strange Thing Mystifying') utilizes another story still, the Woman Taken in Adultery (John 8.1-11):

'If your slate is clean, then you can throw stones
If your slate is not, then leave her alone.' (Do You Think You're What They Say You Are?)
I think it's important to understand not only the principle of harmonizing in Jesus films, but also the elements that are repeatedly found appealing by the different film-makers. Certain motifs from the Gospels repeatedly prove popular to the film-maker and can be seen again in The Passion of the Christ. The trial before Herod (unique to Luke, see 23.6-12); Pilate's hand-washing (unique to Matthew, 27.24) and "we have no king but Caesar" (unique to John, 19.15) are all very common in film depictions of the Passion, and not surprisingly crop up again in The Passion of the Christ.

But the issue of harmonizing is clearly one that strikes a real chord with many scholars viewing this film and it does make me wonder whether it is a result of their general lack of familiarity with the Jesus film tradition. Consider, for example, Emily Cheney in Gibson's Gory Story on the SBL Forum. She notes that "It is primarily Mel Gibson's Passion Play, not an accurate portrayal of Jesus' death and the events leading up to his death because we have four versions in the New Testament, not one" and adds:
He harmonizes the four gospels, not respecting how each gospel is emphasizing different aspects and is written for different audiences, at different times, in different places.
Or consider Ched Myers, Mel Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ,” Anti-Semitism and the Gospel: Mark’s Trial Narrative as Political Parody, who remarks:
One of the many problems with Gibson’s film is that it weaves in strands from all four of our gospel versions (not to mention his own gratuitous additions). Attempts to “harmonize” what are four very different versions of the Jesus story have long been discredited because they give the editor such wide license to pick and choose. This effectively creates a “fifth” gospel—or in Gibson’s case, anti-gospel. The only way to unravel Gibson’s fabric is to examine each gospel separately, in order to see their different emphases and purposes.
I am intrigued by the comment here that harmonies have "long been discredited". Of course it is the case that we academic types love to pour over the Synopsis, but we are not marking an undergraduate essay on the Historical Jesus when we are looking at The Passion of the Christ but at a film that is part of a tradition of Christian story-telling. Or from an article interviewing Francis Moloney, Moloney: 'Scene After Scene is Just Wrong' in Passion Film, we read:
Moloney argued against the way in which Gibson selected different verses from different gospels. "Each passion story has its own point to make," he said, adding that if the film puts a selection of all of them together, what you get is a "juxtaposition of material that doesn't belong together." A classic example he mentioned was that the last words of Jesus in the gospels of Matthew and Mark, "My God my God, why have you forsaken me?" are "words of despair." The two writers "really wanted to show that Jesus really died an agonizing death, and that the answer of God to this death is the Resurrection in the very next chapter."
As with the other Jesus films, the cry from the cross "My God, my God . . ." is effectively recontextualized by the harmonizing, drawing in a selection of -- and sometimes all of -- the words from the cross. I quite agree that the harmonizing of the words on the cross does not allow us to understand the way in which Mark's narrative works, but then the film is not attempting to give us an exposition of Mark's Gospel.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

i am not a fan of mr. mel gibson but i think we should stop critizising his movie.infact, in our local church, "passion of the christ" helped gave revival to many of our member's soul. and not only that, this movie helped us to an effective evangelism. i see that you have so much great wisdom about the bible and that is good. but even king solomon, wisest king, fall short before GOD. why don't we just put our FAITH over WISDOM? i believe that FAITH sees good things in our NOT SO GOOD world. let's look on how we and others can benefit from it and not on the negative side of it. if JESUS were on earth, HE may scold us for what we are doing. we are HIS and we should be one. instead of critizising, be an encouragement to our siblings in CHRIST. yes, rebuke but with love of GOD!