|Cesar Ruiz Aquino|
|POSTED WITH PERMISSION FROM THE AUTHOR|
|The Son According to Gibson
The story of Christ’s Passion as told by the Gospels is powerful, fascinating material for the creative filmmaker. It took one to really see and show us just how.
Mel Gibson does a “cameo”—or more correctly, makes a statement—in the movie: his hands are shown nailing Christ’s hand to the cross. The statement: The Passion of the Christ is a work of creative passion as well as Christian piety. The statement is justified. You can’t help feeling he has felt his material with some depth.
But thorny seems almost every aspect of Jesus Christ—not just his crowning. And the thorns may be insurmountable for the novelist or the filmmaker, who must ask himself—is his intention to give us history or His Story? If it’s the former, people are bound to howl impious! If the latter, anti-Semitic!
Theology students put it this way: the former would give us the Jesus of history; the latter, the Christ of faith.
The twain does not meet. Or does it?
Never mind when exactly but somehow a monstrous question stirred in the Christian consciousness in modern times and it was no longer Was Jesus really God? but Was there really a Jesus? Off-hand one can say it was rationalism muttering hmm hmm. After all His Story contains one wondrous thing too many, not the least of which is that Jesus raised the dead—and not only raised the dead but himself rose from the dead, and not only rose from the dead but ascended to Heaven, and not only ascended to Heaven but sat at the right hand of God!
Did all this really happen or is it all only a story?
Historical investigation of the life of Jesus began in the 18th-century with a German scholar named H. Reimarus and ended in 1902 with Albert Schweitzer’s The Quest of the Historical Jesus.
At the outset, the questing scholar is up against a horrendous problem: the New Testament was not written as history. It’s on a par with stories like how Zoroaster of the Persians was born laughing and how Buddha turned the arrows flying towards him into flowers. But it’s not that simple, much of it is history. Can one be certain of this? Yes. Two historians from antiquity, the Roman Tacitus and the Jewish Josephus, mention a Messiah Jesus, who was crucified in the reign of Augustus Caesar. But very briefly. Yet, this precious little is the rock of historical certainty that the quester can cling to. Armed with this certainty he can then go to his prime source, the New Testament, and here he can sift history from metahistory. For the New Testament was not written by a Tacitus or a Josephus. At times Paul sounds like a poet – Jesus, all the time.
The Jesus of history was a healer, miracle-worker, holy man, prophet, and claimant to being the long awaited, prophesied Messiah or King but who suffered crucifixion by the Romans. The Christ of Faith is that self-same man but thereafter more than Messiah even—he was deified. Soon the faithful prayed to him, beginning with the Jesus Prayer of the Eastern Orthodox, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy upon me, a sinner.”
In that great transit Jesus the man disappeared. At the Resurrection, Jesus became the Lord whom one may no longer touch. He became the Christ of Faith.
But the Church, as if itself reacting to this, felt the need for another council. After the Council of Nicea that declared Jesus to be divine, the Church had to declare that Jesus was a man!
Truly man and truly God, said the Councils.
Yet buttressing the fact of Christ’s humanity by making it dogma may not have been just a reaction to whatever heresy was going on at the time. The truth is, since Jesus is divine, believers cannot picture him doing certain human things.
In the 1960s there came out a poster of him laughing heartily. The picture shocked. He looked devilish.
Lately there’s a Jesus film packaged for TV during the Holy Week showing him dancing in the street. This makes historical sense since he may have been a Hasid but is not likely to be taken well by the pious.
Then there was Martin Scorcese’s movie that deeply offended Christian sensibility because, even if it was only a scene from a dream, it showed Jesus making love to Mary of Bethany.
The dogma that Christ was a man can therefore be perceived as a safeguard against a natural tendency of the believer to think that He was not.
Two thousand years later it is a testimony that Jesus really existed.
But who was the man? Was it possible to see him not through the prism of the believing community? As he was before he became deified?
This was the quest and it was a Protestant undertaking—that ended, to repeat, in 1902 with Schweitzer. It ended because Schweitzer’s epochal work shattered the expectations of the rational pious.
That book concluded that Jesus was a failed Messiah and that’s the farthest we can see into history. Beyond that it becomes a matter of faith, not historical knowledge.
Jesus—according to Schweitzer—accepted that he was the Messiah who will bring in the long awaited reign of God (Thy Kingdom come). At a later stage, he came to the conviction that he would have to suffer greatly before the present age would violently end. In more concrete terms, this means God would step in and wipe the Roman Empire out. But nothing of the sort happened (My God! My God! Why hast thou forsaken me?) and Jesus expired on the cross.
The Christ of Faith rose out of this defeat—first as the scattered circle of disciples that had re-grouped and soon prevailed against great temporal odds. This was the circle that waited for Jesus to return while, as he promised, some of them would still be around. When that too didn’t take place, the circle became the Primitive Church, sustained by the spiritual power, namely the belief that Jesus rose from the dead, that would continue—and will continue—to sustain it across the centuries (I shall be with you always).
But is it possible to ever recover the Jesus of those who lived in his own lifetime? Schweitzer said no.
Amen, said the Spanish existentialist Miguel de Unamuno, a Catholic. The quest was a lost cause. “For there is no recovering the Galilean,” Unamuno wrote in Paradoxes and Perplexities, like an imprimatur to Schweitzer’s conclusion.
For the Catholics had not joined in the quest. While Protestants regard the Bible as sole authority, Catholics hold Tradition as the necessary guide to reading it. In the Catholic view the New Testament is a fruit of or complement to Tradition and a meditative aid—which must be why he is not too fond of reading it! As for the problem of Christ’s historicity there’s always Tacitus and Josephus—and the Church. There’s always the dogma established by the Church at the Council of Chalcedon—to wit, that Christ was truly man, meaning of course that there really was a man named Jesus. Where did the 5th-century Council get this? From Tradition dating back to people who personally knew Jesus. For the Catholic the problem of Christ’s historicity is not a problem. It’s either you believe it or not. What do you believe?
In the Creed the historical Jesus is almost nowhere to be found. But he’s there, all right: suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried.
The man just won’t go down.
The autumn of the twentieth-century saw the returning spring of the quest. In 1994 a contemporary theologian, the late G.B. Caird of Oxford, could say “those who accept the humanity of Jesus as a dogma...do not grasp it as a historical fact.”
The quest continues and it is not modern hunger for facts but rather timeless hunger for the fascinating. For the fact is the story of Jesus is a fascinating one.
And indeed the quest has the habit of coming up with the darndest ideas! Jesus Christ was a magician. No, he was a Tibetan Buddhist. No, he was a Hukbalahap—or maybe just a Liberation Theologian? No, he was a mushroom!
The crucifixion was a hoax. He was married and had children and his descendants are very much around.
No, he was not a Jew but an Egyptian—a la Moses according to Freud! But much more shockingly so than even the pan-sexualist father of depth psychology could ever have imagined—for Jesus was not married to Mary Bethany or Mary Magdalene in the way we know married. He was her consort in the fertility cults of Egypt! In other words, he practiced Tantric sex!
Even a comparatively more disciplined “biography” as I. A. Wilson’s Jesus can play with an intriguing idea: Paul may have met Jesus. Not only that, the servant of the high priests, Malchus whose ear was cut by Peter’s sword, may have been Paul! Says Wilson: “If I had the chance to return in time and meet Paul, I should take a close look at his ears.”
It’s almost as if the historical searchers were competing with the novelists and saying to the them, “Look, the historical truth about Jesus is stranger than fiction!”
For just as bizarre are some of the things we read in the novels.
If the Jesus quester can relax, there are the works of the novelists, the latest of whom, Norman Mailer, is so improbable one review bore the title He Is Finished.
In Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Grand Inquisitor, Christ has returned. Immediately the Grand Inquisitor arrests him. His crime? Rejecting the Three Temptations and now interfering with the work of the Church!
In Nikos Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation of Christ, Paul not only meets Jesus, they collide in the novel’s great penultimate scene. Paul is telling an incognito Jesus about the good news of Christ’s resurrection. Jesus naturally cries “Liar! I was never crucified!” Paul replies in panic, “Shut your mouth!” When finally Jesus identifies himself, the apostle flees shouting, “Who cares what really happened? The world needs visions not facts!” And Jesus weeps, saying he could not bear the knowledge that the only way to save the world is through Paul’s lie.
In Jose Saramago’s The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, Jesus looks down from the Cross and pleads, “Men, forgive Him for He knows not what He has done.”
In Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, Jesus appears to be some kind of idiot-savant.
In Robert Graves’ King Jesus, Jesus is the sole legitimate claimant to the Davidic kingship by reason of his being the secret son of Herod Antipater! He is doomed, however, by his understanding of the meaning of the kingdom. Seeing the sheer impossibility of overcoming Rome by force, he came to the conclusion that only if one of his disciples will slay him with the sword, to fulfill Zechariah’s prophecy, will the Kingdom of God be realized. He did not convey this to his disciples directly, veiling his message as usual like a riddle. They did not catch on, except one—Judas. Graves’ book bristles with insights. One particularly brilliant instance is his version of the famous “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s.” Graves proposes that the original is “Do not pay God what is Caesar’s, nor Caesar what is God’s.”
The current rage is a concert of scholars called the Jesus Seminar; its most impressive scholar, John Dominic Crossan.
The Seminar’s avowed aim is to collect all the acts and words ascribed to Jesus and to determine which are authentic. Their most solid work appears to be The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus. Five, not four? Yes, the fifth is the Gospel of Thomas. The Jesus Seminar has kissed the idea of canonicity goodbye. It will give everyone a chance to be heard, including the mortal enemy of the Orthodox in the first centuries—the Gnostics.
Crossan is an Irish Catholic like James Joyce, a priest until he left the order. His “most controversial” work is Who Killed Jesus? the most shocking idea of which is that we cannot have certainty that Jesus’ body was not in fact eaten by carrion birds and dogs. Crossan is not playing the iconoclast—he calls this possibility a “terror” in which the present-day believer must live.
But the real import of his book is the answer he gives to the question. Crossan says it was the Romans, not the Jews.
The thesis is not new though Crossan may have brought it up to date. In fact, it has been fairly intellectual mainstream for quite some time. Ben-Zion Bokser, a rabbi, presented the case with exceptional clarity and plenitude in his 70s or was it 80s book Judaism and the Christian Predicament.
Why did the writers of the four gospels distort history?
The reasons advanced are two. One, Christians were writing the gospels while still under the Romans. It was impossible to write to the latter’s faces that they, the Romans, did it. Two, the Christians who wrote the gospels were projecting the deadly antagonism between Jews and Christians in their time to their recollection of something that had happened half a century or so before. Thus the Jews shouting “His blood be upon us and our children!”
But even a casual glance at the political picture in Judea at the time makes one uncomfortable with this long-held traditional view.
There was poverty all over the country and while the people groaned under Roman taxation as well as additional Temple dues, the Sadducees were wealthy and Herod Antipas positively decadent. Caesar was Rameses and Nebuchadnezzar all over again.
In the late 1940s the filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer of The Passion of Joan of Arc fame wrote a script for a movie which was to have been his masterwork. He died before he could film it. But the script was published in 1971 under the title Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Jesus. In the book, Dreyer relates how he could relate to the story of Jesus because Israel under the Romans was exactly like his homeland Denmark under the Nazis. Dreyer might be said to have a “first-hand” knowledge of how the Jews hated the Romans.
The Jewish populace hated not the occupying Romans alone but the Jewish collaborators, specifically Herod Antipas of Galilee and the high priests or temple officials in Jerusalem—the Sadducees. Inversely they took favorably to the prophet, the one who keeps alive the flame of God’s ethos as well as pathos for the trampled and the dispossessed. Such a one was John the Baptist and after him Jesus.
And all awaited the Messiah which meant, if you push the word to the limit, the legitimate blood heir to the vanished kingship of David. Israel was waiting for the return of the king.
Jesus fitted the bill. Robert Graves suggests that Pilate instructed his soldiers to place the inscription King of the Jews above the head of the crucified one because he knew Jesus was the legitimate claimant to the Davidic throne. He was truly mocking. His job was to wipe out any semblance of a threat to Rome’s presence in Israel. When Jesus did not deny that he was the Messiah, his fate was sealed.
The dolorous Christian belief is that indeed Jesus knew he was the One—but no longer in ordinary terms—not even in those of Robert Graves’.
Historically considered therefore it doesn’t add up to say the Jews crucified Jesus. Of the mob that shouted for his blood, both the scholar and the novelist have a ready explanation. Bokser says minions of the High Priests were planted in the crowd—hakot! Scholem Asch says it was “remainders” of the bands of Bar Abba.
Whatever. The point is that neither the mob nor the ruling hierarchy was Israel. Therefore—who crucified Jesus? The Roman occupants of Israel and their Jewish collaborators.
But Dreyer, taking the liberated view that Jesus was crucified by the Romans for political offense, totally exculpates the Jews! The scene where the Jewish mob shouts for Jesus’ blood and forces a reluctant Pilate to pronounce the death sentence is missing. As for the high priests, we see them saddened by Jesus’ decision to answer in the affirmative when asked the necessary question Are you the Messiah?
That politically correct film would not have been as powerful as Gibson’s.
Gibson decided to tell His Story, not history.
With imaginative touches of his own, true. In one swoop the camera takes us to two gardens—the Garden of Olives and the other, where it all began. Talk about in media res! The face of the Apostle John as he takes it all in, the shot and the angle of the shot telling us what the Church means by the word “Tradition.” The flashbacks that really flash. The cuts that really cut – and make whole.
But in the quarrel between the historian and the faithful or the pious, he took the latter’s side. The Son according to Gibson is the Son according to the New Testament, according to the Creed, according to the Councils, according to the Church that’s more Roman Catholic than Eastern Orthodox or Protestant—the Protestant Son being the preacher and healer and friend, the Eastern Orthodox Son being the Risen Lord, and the Catholic Son being the man of sorrows. Perhaps because he is a believer, Mr. Gibson put stock in the violent visions of the German mystic Catherine Anne Emmerich. But it is safe to say it is because he is a visual artist that he took to these—and took these—with, I can see it, flaring eyes.
This Son is not only physical—He is luridly physical. True man, says Chalcedon. Crucified says Tacitus, says Josephus, says the Creed. Shown shaking in agony and terror on the movie screen, He rivets the viewers. The paradox is that, though Gibson chose Sacred History over history, it is the crucifixion that, according to the scholars, is “the one undoubted fact in the history of Jesus.”
A little more history wouldn’t have hurt (though of course it would the conservative believers). A pity Gibson couldn’t take his cue from the Creed: suffered under Pontius Pilate. The Creed mentions neither Annas nor Caiaphas.
As a consequence, the historians are howling anti-Semitic! Fortunately Gibson’s cinematic rendition of the idea that no one felt and no one can ever feel the pain of seeing a crucified Jesus as much as his own mother is a wonderful argument that the movie is not as the sticklers for political correctness say it is. “Flesh of my flesh, heart of my heart. Let me die with you!” cries Mother Israel at the foot of the crucified Jew.
The movie’s arguable sin, which may not be original as I have not read St. Catherine Anne’s work, is not one of omission. The high priest takes a dig at Pilate and the crowd laughs. This touch conveys an image of a Sadducee so sure of his standing as a reliable collaborator. But a Pilate so genteel he can be trifled with may be a bit too much and the gibe could be on Gibson. One could wonder a bit—just a teeny weeny little cynical and uncharitable and fantastic bit—if this treatment of the Roman isn’t in fact a subliminal whitewash of a latter-day imperialism. Or maybe it is an unconscious remembrance of an earlier-day Hollywood centurion? That centurion drawled: “Truly this was the Son of God!” Well, the Aramaic and the Latin are certainly a hell—I mean heaven—of an improvement.
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