Monday, April 19, 2004

James Tabor on The Passion of the Christ

When commenting on Waco earlier today, I noticed that James Tabor has flagged up a new entry on his Jewish Roman World of Jesus:

Personal Reflections on My Viewing of Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ"
James Tabor

One or two comments, though these will be familiar already to regular readers of this blog:
Jesus carried this unbelievably huge full cross, just like in all the traditional paintings, and at times that part of the film bordered on the ridiculous. This portrait, however appealing to tradition, is unsupported in either the Gospels (Greek word stauros means stake) or what we know of Roman history. It is worth noting that the two “thieves,’ crucified with Jesus, as this film portrayed things, had only to carry the “cross beam” to which the arms would be tied or nailed, not the entire cross. This would be in keeping with Roman practice, so why have Jesus bend and break for nearly 30 minutes of the film, carrying a “cross” that surely would have weighed over 100 lbs. Here, as in other places, presumably Gibson read his English Bible where the term “cross” is used, and guided by Sister Emmerich’s visions and Church tradition, decided that this was the way things were.
The source for Jesus carrying the whole cross rather than the cross beam is the report in the Synoptics that Simon of Cyrene helped with carrying Jesus' cross, something that has informed the traditional Christian depiction.

Tabor also writes, with reference to the article by Joe Zias:
Gibson also had Jesus’ nailed to the cross in the hands and feet, rather than through the wrists and the heel bones, as we know was actually the case.
But do we "know" this? The Zias article suggests that this particular victim's arms were tied -- he was not nailed through the wrists or hands. And we do not know, of course, how typical this one victim was. Josephus' evidence in War 5.11 is that victims were crucified in a variety of poses. In fact that passage is interesting also for another element in The Passion of the Christ:
So the soldiers, out of the wrath and hatred they bore the Jews, nailed those they caught, one after one way, and another after another, to the crosses, by way of jest, when their multitude was so great, that room was wanting for the crosses, and crosses wanting for the bodies. [Courtesy of James Tabor, Josephus' References to Crucifixion]
I am interested here in that phrase "by way of jest", something that shows that the horrifying depiction of Roman soldiers deriving pleasure from torturing Jesus may not be far off the mark. It is a truly chilling thought.

Tabor also comments on the fact that it would normally take days for the victims to die and that crucifying victims involved making sure that the death was prolonged and agonising. But there is one thing here that is interesting in Jesus' case -- that the Gospels record that Jesus' death was relatively quick (six hours in the Synoptics and three in John). In John, the two other men needed to have their legs broken to bring about a speedier death.

Tabor also comments that "Not a single Jew is presented with any kind of character development". I think that this is incorrect, as regular readers will know. Simon of Cyrene, the only character whose Jewish identity is explicitly commented upon in the film, shows real character development, from reluctance to get involved with a random criminal to exhorting the soldiers to stop the violence.

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