By Dr. Gerd Lüdemann
Georg-August-University Göttingen, Germany
This movie portrays the last hours of the life of Jesus of Nazareth – from his
arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane to the removal of his body from the cross.
Its depiction of the extreme brutality of his execution has great visual
impact. In his portrayal of the violence inflicted on Jesus, Gibson, who is a
practicing Roman Catholic, presents a historically accurate account of the
torments to which those condemned to crucifixion by the Romans were commonly
subjected. This staged orgy of deliberate maltreatment accorded political
rebels and slaves was a bloody reality repeated tens of thousands of times in
the Roman Empire. Indeed, Gibson’s movie offers a useful corrective to the
romanticized and mollycoddling treatments of the crucifixion, old and new,
that lead us to forget the cruelty of his execution and the fact that the
“Lord” of what is perhaps the world’s most widely influential religion died a
criminal’s death on the cross two thousand years ago.
The primary narrative basis for the film is the collective account found in
the four New Testament Gospels – the story that Christians call Jesus’
passion. Everything that the Gospels say about the circumstances of the trial
of Jesus – from the hatred of Jesus by the Jewish leaders and people to the
declaration of his innocence by Pilate – is skillfully staged in the film. Mel
Gibson simply translates the content of the biblical reports into action. But
here the problem begins. It has long been known that the early Christians
wrongly put the blame for the death of Jesus on the “unbelieving Jews.” By
translating this theological interpretation into powerful images on film,
Gibson is encouraging anti-Semitism, whether he intended to or not.
Here is what the historical study of the four Gospel narratives of the Four
Gospels reveals about the historical worth of the various narratives.
THE PASSION NARRATIVE OF MARK (MARK 14-15)
Anti-Judaism permeates the Gospel of Mark and also its passion narrative. This
cannot be understood without previously considering Jesus’ three prophecies
about his suffering (and his resurrection) that punctuate Mark’s story. They
appear in 8:31; 9:31; and 10:32-34. Either the author received the first from
tradition and he himself formulated the last two, or he created all three.
Their content is this: Jesus is going to Jerusalem to be put to death by
the Jewish authorities.
Mark also formulated a parallel passage in 3:6, according to which, after a
healing performed on the Sabbath, “the Pharisees went out and immediately
conspired with the Herodians to destroy him.” This motif runs through the
Gospel like a scarlet thread (note Mark 12:12: “They [the Jewish authorities]
tried to arrest him, but feared the multitude, for they perceived that he told
the parable against them”) and finds its fulfillment in the passion narrative.
In view of this, it is hardly surprising that in the Gospel of Mark the high
priests, elders, and scribes join in condemning Jesus to death (14:64) and
hand him over to Pilate (15:1). Unfortunately for them, Pilate wants to let
Jesus go because he “perceived that it was out of envy that the chief priests
had delivered him up” (Mark 15:10). But the Jewish authorities thwart his
intention by inciting the Jewish people to demand Jesus’ crucifixion.
(11) But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release for them
Barabbas instead. (12) And Pilate again said to them, “Then what shall I do
with the man whom you call the King of the Jews?” (13) And they cried out
again, “Crucify him.” (14) And Pilate said to them, “Why, what evil has he
done?” But they shouted all the more, “Crucify him.”
If Mark’s previous differentiation between the Jewish elite and the Jewish
people suggests that only the elite were to blame for Jesus’ death, this
passage contradicts such a conclusion.
THE PASSION NARRATIVE IN THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
Matthew’s aim can be discovered from a comparison of his account with that of
Mark, which served as his model. We find hardly any deviations, but several
1. Judas repented having handed Jesus over to the authorities for thirty
pieces of silver and returned the money to the high priests and elders saying,
“‘I have sinned in delivering up innocent blood.’ They said, ‘what is that to
us? See to it yourself.’ And throwing down the pieces of silver in the temple,
he departed, and went and hanged himself” (Matt. 27:4-5). Thus, by way of
anticipation, the action against Jesus is represented as being reprehensible,
and a devastating verdict is pronounced on the Jews who are hostile to Jesus.
The suicide of a disciple who despite his repentance can no longer live with
his guilt accentuates the moral degeneracy of the Jewish authorities, who do
not repent of their actions.
2. In Matthew, Pilate’s wife tells her husband: “Have nothing to do with that
righteous man, for I have suffered much over him today in a dream” (27:19). A
Roman woman becomes witness to Jesus’ innocence, whereas the Jewish people,
spurred on by the authorities, call for Jesus’ death. Since it is sheer
invention of Matthew’s part, this scene is an important indication of his
3. According to Matthew, when the Jewish crowd insists on the crucifixion of
Jesus, Pilate washes his hands before them (cf. Deut. 21:6; Ps. 26:6) and
says, “I am innocent of the man’s blood; see it to yourselves” (Matt. 27:24).
Accordingly, Pilate endorses his wife’s judgment: as a righteous man, Jesus is
innocent. This performance by a pagan Roman of the Jewish expiatory rite of
washing the hands strikingly demonstrates Matthew’s intention to foist blame
for the death of Jesus on the Jewish people.
4. This purpose is yet more vividly expressed when the Jewish people next call
down a curse on themselves – a feature to be found only in Matthew: “And all
the people answered, ‘His blood be on us and on our children!’” (Matt. 27:25).
Granted, Pilate ordered the crucifixion, but according to Matthew, all Israel
assumed the blame for Jesus’ death and in so doing finally forfeited its
special status as God’s elect. Convinced of Jesus’ guilt, they have uttered a
limited curse on themselves, but since Jesus is clearly innocent, they will be
responsible for the consequences, and Jesus’ blood accordingly is charged to
them and their children.
THE PASSION NARRATIVE IN THE GOSPEL OF LUKE
In his account of the trial before Pilate (Luke 23:2-5), Luke generally
follows Mark, but with significant changes. To Mark’s account, he has added
verse 2: “And they began to accuse him, saying, ‘We found this man perverting
our nation, and forbidding us to give tribute to Caesar, and saying that he
himself is Christ a king’” – an obvious allusion to the well-known saying
about paying taxes to Caesar (Luke 20:25).
By making this connection, Luke shows that the accusation of the Jewish
authorities is a falsehood, for Jesus had explicitly endorsed the payment of
taxes. The Jewish action against Jesus is therefore grounded in a malicious
lie, but Pilate did not fall for it. This is clear from two other statements
of his that Luke has added to the Markan scenario:
And Pilate said to the chief priests and the multitudes, “I find no crime in
(13) Pilate then called together the chief priests and the rulers and the
people, (14) and said to them, “You brought me this man as one who was
perverting the people; and after examining him before you, behold, I did not
find this man guilty of any of your charges against him; (15) neither did
Herod, for he sent him back to us. Behold, nothing deserving death has been
done by him; (16) I will therefore chastise him and release him.”
It is further clear from these
two added details that, like his predecessors, Luke sees the Jewish elite
and the people as being of one mind; accordingly, the designation “the
Jews” is undeniably hostile in the context of this assignment of guilt.
This reaches a climax in Luke’s assertion that it was the Jews, not the
Romans, who executed Jesus. He deliberately omits the scourging scene (Mark
15:16-20) so that Jesus is taken away immediately after he has been handed
over. Accordingly, the story reads as follows: Pilate handed over Jesus to the
will of the Jews (23:25); they led him away (26); they crucified him (33). It
follows from this that those who call for Jesus’ death also execute him (Cf.
Luke 24:20; Acts 3:15).
In short, Luke’s account of the passion heightens both the anti-Judaism and
the innocence of Pilate that he found in Mark.
THE PASSION NARRATIVE IN THE GOSPEL OF JOHN
The hearing before the Sanhedrin related by all three Synoptic Gospels does
not appear in John. The Fourth Evangelist reports only a hearing before Pilate
Earlier, the high priest Annas has interrogated Jesus (John 18:19-23) and sent
him in fetters to the high priest Caiphas (18:24). From there Jesus goes to
Pilate. Although no real hearing is held by the Sanhedrin, the Jews are
directly involved in the trial of Jesus. Moreover, they are further
incriminated because they have handed Jesus over to Pilate (John 18:35), to
whom Jesus explicitly presents this as wickedness: “He who has delivered me to
you has the greater sin” (19:11).
Exoneration of Pilate goes hand in hand with the heightened attribution of
guilt to the Jews. Pilate expresses his conviction of Jesus’ innocence several
times (18:38; 19:4, 6) and repeatedly attempts to set the prisoner free.
WHO REALLY CONDEMNED JESUS TO DEATH?
Jesus’ death by crucifixion, a Roman form of execution, is an assured fact.
From this we can safely draw three conclusions:
a) Jesus’ death came at the hands
of the Romans; b) his execution followed upon Roman legal proceedings, however
summary; c) Jesus was condemned for a political crime.
Further historical details can be
extracted only by means of source criticism. Literary-critical analysis leads
to the conclusion that both Matthew and Luke – and probably also John – are
dependent on Mark’s report. That means that only the Markan narrative can
be used in establishing facts.
In any case, Mark’s account of the trial and condemnation by the Jewish
authorities is secondary and was composed either by Mark himself or by a
predecessor. To see that it corresponds item by item to the hearing before
Pilate (Mark 15:1-5, 15b-20), one need only compare the following parallel
|Jesus before the Sanhedrin
||Jesus before Pilate
It follows from this that the hearing before the Sanhedrin has been based on a
tradition of the hearing before Pilate and therefore cannot be considered a
The apologetic features (note 15:10) and indications of hostility to the Jews
(see 15:11-14) contained in the accounts of the hearing before Pilate are
certainly to be deleted. The three remaining historical data are a trial
before the Roman prefect Pilate, a false political charge by the Jerusalem
priesthood that led Pilate to intervene, and the crucifixion of Jesus.
PILATE – A MILD AND PERCEPTIVE RULER?
The New Testament Gospels depict Pilate as a perceptive man who sees through
the Jewish authorities and recognizes Jesus’ innocence. What is the historical
likelihood of such a portrait? The available sources show quite a different
picture from that sketched in the New Testament. Here are but two of many:
a) The Jewish philosopher Philo, an older contemporary of the apostle Paul,
quotes from a letter of Agrippa I to the emperor Caligula that Pilate’s
administration was characterized by “corruption, acts of violence, robberies,
maltreatments, insults, continual executions without trial, endless and
intolerable cruelties” (On the Embassy to Gaius 38).
b) Josephus, a younger contemporary of Paul, relates that Pilate misused the
temple treasures in Jerusalem to build an aqueduct into the city. He writes:
At this the multitude were indignant; and when Pilate came to Jerusalem, they
gathered at his palace and made a great uproar. Apprised beforehand of this
impending disturbance, he ordered armed soldiers disguised as private
individuals to mix with the multitude, and not to use their swords, but with
their staves to beat those who raised the clamor. When he gave the signal from
his palace, the Jews were so savagely beaten that many of them perished from
the blows they received, and many others were trodden to death by one another;
by which means the multitude was astonished at the calamity of those that were
slain, and held their peace (Jewish War II, 175-177).
In keeping with these pictures of a cruel Roman official is Luke’s report
(13:1) that Pilate had a number of Galileans killed when they were presenting
their offerings in the Jerusalem temple.
Clearly, the New Testament portrait of Pilate as a just and perceptive ruler
is a great deception. The Gospel report that Pilate was merely a tool by which
the Jews carried out their death sentence is sheer wishful thinking.
THE CLAIM THAT THE JEWS WERE GUILTY OF THE DEATH OF JESUS
The learned church father Origen (185/6-254 CE) wrote on Matt. 27:25 and the
consequences it had for the Jews:
Therefore they not only became guilty of the blood of Christ ... Therefore the
blood of Christ came not only on those who lived formally but also on all
subsequent generations of Jews to consummation.
These words contain the typical Christian view of the Jews that was
predominant from earliest Christianity to modern times. Today, scholars have
at last shown that the indictment of Jews found in the Gospels is historically
untrue and results from their apologetic tendency. One need only read Psalms
22, 38, 69, and 110 to see that the Gospel writers created much of the passion
account from ancient scriptures. As Paul Winter aptly observes, their aim was
to exonerate the Romans and to present “unbelieving” Jews as enemies.
Any discussion of Gibson’s movie should pay attention to three important
facts: 1. The key statements and representations about Jewish responsibility
for Jesus’ death that we find in the New Testament passion narratives have no
historical foundation, but are rooted in Christian propaganda. 2. Most of the
details of the passion narratives derive from later “theological”
interpretations and bear no relation to historical truth. 3. Jesus had no idea
of dying for the sins of the world.
He looked for the kingdom of God, but the church arrived instead.
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