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The Passion

The Eternal Vessel for the Teaching of Contempt
Montreal 25 February 2004

“If any man be so addicted to his passions, that he neglects the common good, he is void of a sense of piety, and seeks profit to himself in vain. For whoever he be, he must live in the body of the Commonweal as much as in the body of the Church”


-Laud, Sermon before His Majesty, June 19,1621


The makers, distributors and propagandists of the current Passion movie are not illiterate or unlearned men. They are quite aware of the historical and theological inconsistencies and cautions that their very Catholic Church admits to. Their claim that they have a right to make any kind of movie they wish to is correct. If we believe in civil liberties we have to defend everyone’s right to be wrong. Free expression can have no limits, short of restricting incitement to violence. It would not be legitimate therefore to write a paper protesting the making of this film.


But when Mr. Gibson claims that the gratuitous gore ,visceral violence and programmed prejudices are justified because the film is an accurate reflection of the Gospels; and that the Gospels are coherent and correct in their literal entirety; that argument must be addressed and attacked at the source, because the propagation of myths can do damage to the soul and spirit of the body politic that could take years to repair.


Against the Background of the Ages


Bishop Berkeley once wrote that “Whatever the world thinks, he who hath not much meditated upon God may possibly make a thriving earthworm, but most indubitably will make a sorry patriot and sorry statesman.” When asked if he was suggesting the supremacy of a theocracy over the state he answered to the contrary. His point was that leaders of a state must have an intimate understanding of the eruptive potential of the religious passion of common men and must be learned enough to confront them, in order to protect the commonweal from the base rage of the mob stirred by these passions.


Long before cinema existed the Passion was used as a vehicle by agents of Church and State. The plays were often produced at times of crisis. Whether to deflect public opposition from political policies or personalities; whether to incite intimidation against Jews in order for Church and State to benefit from stolen Jewish property following brutal expulsions; or whether to inflame hatred against Muslims in order to raise armies for religious crusades.


In Karl Marx’ diaries he specifically referred to the Passion Play as the seminal example of religion being “…the opiate of the masses…” Christian theologians themselves were aware of its devastating potential. Father Joseph Bonsirven has written that “The Evangelists did not intend an accurate history but to create a vehicle of demonstration.”  In 1960 Father Leon-Dufour put it more frankly, “In the main the Jews were more and more accused, the Romans more and more excused, because the Christian apostolate was turning toward the pagans.” Even the Second Vatican Council long debated recommendations of great caution in the Passion’s production.


The Passion became the vessel into which was poured the bile of interposition and nullification that flowed from many in the Christian world frustrated with the failures in their own experiments at civilized societal development. Scapegoats were needed and the Passion provided the perfect piece of propaganda. During the hundreds of years of religious wars in Europe, it was even manipulated to turn one Christian denomination against another until, as historian C.V.Wedgwood put it, “Men grasped the essential futility of putting the beliefs of the mind to the judgement of the sword.”


The Irony and Tragedy of Jesus, Paul and the Nazarenes


The irony and tragedy of all this is that Jesus, according to all Judeo-Christian sources, lived as a Jew, leading a life faithful to the Masoretic traditions and the teachings of the prophets awaiting the Kingdom of God. He was called “Rabbi” and was a nationalistic, as well religious Jew, and angered the Roman authorities, precisely because of his integration of the two. After his death  his followers called themselves Nazarenes after Jesus’ birthplace of Nazareth. But they continued to observe Jewish laws. In Jerusalem it was James, Jesus’ brother, who headed the Nazarenes for the thirty years following his brother’s death until he too was put to death in the year 62 of the Common Era.


The great schism between this Jewish sect of Aramaic-speaking Nazarenes and the general community occurred years later when a Greek-speaking Jew from Tarsus named Paul, who was not impressed with the Nazarenes he met in Jerusalem and had never met Jesus, had a vision of Jesus as “Christos” (Greek for Messiah). He then traveled all over the eastern Mediterranean preaching his doctrines which were substantially different from that of the Nazarenes. Unlike the Nazarenes who followed Jesus’ dictum of “…preach only to the Jews for we are of them…”, Paul took his adapted message of Jesus teachings to gentiles and pagans as well as Jews and his “Christian”: congregations in Asia Minor and Greece.


The Nazarenes were outraged when they heard of Paul’s abandonment of fundamental tenets of Jewish law and summoned him to Jerusalem to appear before Nazarene elders and explain himself. In Jerusalem, he comported himself as a devout Jew observing all details of Jewish law. However, in his letters sent to his followers when he left Jerusalem  ( now collected in the New Testament) he went so far as to claim that the law of Moses was no longer necessary even or the Jews and that Jesus’ teachings alone were sufficient. When Nazarenes arrived at Paul’s church’s to attempt reconciliation, Paul denounced them as “Judaizers”.


The conflict was settled by a stroke of history. The fierce Jewish-Roman War of 66-70 C.E. which destroyed Jerusalem and its temple and killed so many Jews, also dealt a devastating blow to the Nazarenes from which they never recovered. Their traditions and writings were lost or forgotten. Paul’s churches survived and prevailed, many being outside the theatre of war, and these formed the foundation for a doctrine and a movement that became separate from, and hostile to, the Judaism out of which it emerged.


The Political Imperatives for the Inaccuracies of the Gospels


By the time the Gospels were completed it was almost the end of the first century of the Common Era. Nearly seventy years after Jesus’ death. Fierce rivalries existed between the Jews and the members of what was now know as Pauline Christians. The young churches of Paul also tried to distance themselves politically from the Jews because of the continuing distrust of the latter by the Roman Empire who still had fresh memories of the Jewish revolt some thirty years before. The battle was on for who represented the “true Israel”.


This segregation necessitated the political motive behind the hostility towards the Jews exhibited in the Gospels. Their stories paint the Jews, not the gentiles or even the Romans, as the real enemies of Jesus. The Gospel According to Mark, the first written shortly after the Jewish-Roman War, actually credits a Roman centurion, not even Jesus’ disciples, as the first who recognized his worth. (Mark 15:39)  Mark also portrayed Pontius Pilate, the bloodthirsty Roman procurator who put Jesus to death, as someone who did his best to be nice to Jesus. Mark would have us believe that Pilate was prevented from releasing Jesus by a bloodthirsty Jewish mob when all historical accounts of the time demonstrate that the Jewish people cheered Jesus entry into Jerusalem several days earlier.


The impartial historian Marcel Simon has put it very succinctly, “The authors of the Gospels, anxious to humour Rome, visibly took pains to present the Passion in such a way that the Roman government, represented by Pilate, comes out of the affair practically spotless.”


The amount of historical inaccuracies and inconsistencies may also be traced to political imperatives.  The most startling of these is that the name of the High Priest, the supposed arch-enemy of Jesus, the primordial focus of Evangelical hatred, is unknown by some of the Evangelists, and incorrectly known by the others. This man to whom the Evangelists assigned the leading role and gravest responsibilities has no name.


Their uncertainty is especially strange since the High Priest then in office, according to Josephus, was Caiphas, who held this position from 18-36 C.E. (Jesus was killed in 33 C.E.) , a length of tenure so extraordinary that it clearly implies great submissiveness toward the Roman Procurator who was Pontius Pilate from 26-36 C.E. Strangely, of Pilate’s name, the Evangelists have no doubt.


Mark gives no name to the High Priest. Luke and John inaccurately give the name of Annas. In Matthew, the name of Caiphas was added as an emendation an put into the text. In later emendations to John, Caiphas was  interpolated as the son-in-law of Annas but in John 18: 19-33  he has Annas officiating as High Priest. Everything relating to Caiphas was ineptly added post-facto. Sentence first, trial after. The noted historian Paul Winter writing in “The Trial of Jesus” deduced that “…the High Priest’s part in the proceedings against Jesus was far from being as prominent as the Evangelists suggest.”


As for Pilate, the distinguished philosopher Philo of Alexandria, Jesus’ contemporary, writes as witness of  “…the crimes of Pilate, his rages, his greed, his injustices, his abuses, the citizens he had put to death without trial, his intolerable cruelty.” Flavius Josephus, by then a Roman General, writes in his “Wars of the Jews” of three communal massacres committed by Pilate. Even Luke  (13:1) mentions the massacre of Galileans by Pilate. A leading modern Catholic exegete, Father Léon-Dufour, admits that “…the behaviour of Pilate in the Gospel accounts seems to be out of keeping with the data of history.”


This is not to say that the High Priest at the time of Jesus is worth defending anymore than Pierre Cauchon, the Catholic Bishop of Beauvais at the time of Joan of Arc. There is enough evidence, too long for this paper, that we have alluded to of a submissive relationship between Caiphas and Pilate. But it is incontestably clear that Jesus died the victim of Roman authority, sentenced by Pilate, crucified by Roman soldiers. Nothing, not even the co-operation of the Jewish authorities in bringing Jesus before an assembly for questioning, can extenuate the significance of this historical fact whose certainty is beyond question.


The Pauline Christian Evangelists transformed a bloodthirsty tyrant into a gentle man. The successful metamorphosis of the stake of Mephistopheles turned from crucifier to crucified. All this may be have been in the interest of catechism, but clearly not in the interest of truth.


Infamous Acts: A Reflection and A Warning


Crucifixion was a Roman, not a Jewish, penalty. The most ignominious and painful penalty, and how many Jews had suffered its fate since the Roman occupation. Are we now to witness, in this modern age of instant communication, and instant destruction, crowns of thorns pressed down on the brows of Jews for the resurrected lie of deicide?


What is the reason for the gory description of the scourging of Jesus? This takes up no more than a few sentences in Luke (22: 63-65 and 23:22) and half a sentence in John 19:1. Matthew and Mark speak only of mocking not flogging. What was the reason for the film’s more than half-hour of horrific scenes?


And why the demonization of the Jewish children? First as the instruments that drive Judas to suicide, and secondly as the child that derides the nearly unconscious Jesus. The account found in the Book of Acts I speaks of Judas’ death as an accident. Only Matthew reports it as a suicide but, contrary to the movie, this happened only after Judas repented (Matt. 27:3). Where did Gibson get his information and conclusions?


Why Mr. Gibson and his associates chose to make this movie at a time in history when the liberal free-thinking West is in global war against a barbaric terrorism directed by theocratic tyrants seeking to enforce an allegiance to their own catechisms of hate, can be known only to them.


But what is known to us, is that enlightened and engaged men of goodwill shall never  acknowledge, will not abide, and will never acquiesce in the restoration and resurrection of  infamous calumnies reminiscent of the dark ages.


All should take heed of the warning implicit in Bucer’s words in

De Regno Christi:


“Neither the Church of Christ, nor  a Christian Commonwealth, ought to tolerate such men as prefer private gain to the public weal, or seek it to the hurt of their neighbors. For such men merely perpetuate the perversity of habit.”


Beryl P. Wajsman


Institute for Public Affairs of Montreal






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