The hullabaloo over Mel Gibson’s new biopic on Jesus of Nazareth is so over the top, that it is just begging for a reality check. So, here goes…
Let’s first take a look at the source material. With upwards of 2 billion adherents, encompassing 33% of the world’s population, one might imagine that a goodly number of these Christian believers would be at least somewhat informed on the Passion narrative. After all, as was noted years ago by the Medved brothers, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were extremely lax in guarding their intellectual property rights, so this nearly 2000-year-old story has been disseminated perhaps more than any other work in human history.
To be sure, just about every crucial element for a good screenplay is there: A rebel going up against the system, intrigue, betrayal, and a happy ending. All that’s missing is sex and token minorities, but that would seem to be more than made up for by the appalling violence. It’s all there in the Gospels! Jesus is beaten by soldiers, severely whipped, impaled with a crown of thorns, is crucified, and is even thrust through with a lance after He dies. In one way or another, most of these atrocities have already been depicted in earlier films and scores of Passion Plays, dating back to the medieval times.
That Gibson seems to be striking a chord on the violence angle only reflects our sanitized age, and even more fundamental denial. While the bare Cross has always been the universal symbol, without the corpus it is easy for fainthearted believers to forget how Jesus suffered. Yes, He died for our sins, but His excruciating death underscores the extent of our sinfulness, not to mention His love for us. It is only quite recently that this virile hero has been transformed, in the minds of far too many, into a Galilean flower child, who somehow incurs the wrath of the Jews and the Romans sufficient to merit the most extreme death sentence carried out at the time.
So, if the movie’s violence comes as a shock to the viewer, maybe he should read the Gospels a wee bit more carefully. An obvious analogy could be made to the horrific procedure called “pregnancy termination” or abortion, discussed in only the most abstract terms in polite society, but that is a subject for another day.
The same advice about reading the Gospels can also be given to the cynically opportunistic Jewish fund raising organizations making hay on the “anti-semitic” nature of the pic. The Gospels are quite explicit in relating that the Jewish hierarchy wanted Jesus out of the way, and needed the Roman authorities to carry out the capital sentence. But they also express vividly that Roman governor Pontius Pilate, never known as a gentle soul, and indeed rather renowned for his lack of respect for the Jews, makes no attempt to break up the mob asking for Jesus’ death. Quite uncharacteristically, Pilate capitulates to the Jewish leadership, and executes an innocent man. This coming from one who would normally have taken considerable pleasure in using deadly force to break up the mob, to say nothing of giving the big middle finger to the Jewish establishment.
These feckless rabble-rousers, searching for anti-semites, or at least marketable anti-semitic threats, under every rock, would want us to forget that divine forces were at work here! It was God the Father’s plan for Jesus to die and rise again. That’s the whole point of the story, isn’t it?
I have no doubt that the film will be compelling, and am confident that some conversions will occur. Still, it should be noted that many people believed in Jesus before the movie industry or even mass media ever existed—as hard as that may be to accept for some of us moderns.