Despite Mel Gibson, the Gospels Aren't Gospel

By Paul Ginnetty
February 11, 2004


From: Deke Barker
Date: Sun, 22 Feb 2004 09:31:49 -0700
Subject: "Passion"

The following is a reasoned article on why Gibson's film will not be "historically and theologically accurate", contrary to Gibson's claim that, "The Holy Spirit was working through me on this film, and I was just directing traffic."

Shlomoh: Recall our recent comments on Bible study. Most Evangelical Protestants are taught that read the "plain meaning" of the words in the Bible. Translated into ordinary English, that means that evangelicals should read the Bible in a contextless vacuum. Of course, that's the *ONLY* way most evangelicals and most other Xians *CAN* read the Bible without study helps, since the average Xian is totally unaware of the context of 1st-century Palestine, of 2nd-Temple Judaism, and of the primitive Xian community.

The more I read about "Passion" and Gibson, the more I am becoming convinced that Gibson is at best completely indifferent to the issue of anti-Semitism, and at worst is consciously promoting it. The arrogance and self-righteousness that so characterizes the true believing religious fundamentalists -- be they evangelical Protestants, traditionalist Catholics, ultra-Orthodox Jews, or Osama bin Laden -- is reason enough to distrust anything they say or do.


Despite Mel Gibson, the Gospels Aren't Gospel
By Paul Ginnetty
Paul Ginnetty is the director of the Institute for the Study of Religion and Community Life at St. Joseph's College, Patchogue.
February 11, 2004

'It is as it was." That was supposedly how Pope John Paul II characterized the realism of "The Passion of the Christ," Mel Gibson's graphic portrayal of the final hours of the life of Jesus.

Such a pronouncement must have been a film publicist's dream, albeit a short-lived one. The Vatican quickly released a strenuous disavowal of the papal quote, understandably concerned about the ways in which the alleged endorsement (a pontifical thumbs-up?) might be exploited in marketing blurbs.

This papal controversy highlights broader concerns about Gibson's claim to have produced "the most authentic and biblically accurate film about Jesus' death." He regards his movie, which opens Feb. 25, as being historically accurate in that it is painstakingly faithful to the Gospels which, from his literalist perspective, are always obvious and unequivocal in their meanings.

Gibson cites a high authority for his work's presumed inerrancy. "The Holy Spirit was working through me on this film, and I was just directing traffic." One of his supporters, Don Hodel, president of Focus on the Faith ministries, has called the movie "historically and theologically accurate." Actually, the verdict is still out as to theological accuracy, given what some previewers of rough cuts of the film found to be its anti-Semitic tones and, thus, dreadful theology. The claim to historical accuracy is at best naïve, at worst disingenuous, reflecting a muddled understanding of art, history, and the nature of Scripture.

First, it fails to appreciate that every work of art - even one that attempts to boost its authenticity quotient with Aramaic dialogue - is of necessity an interpretation, filtered through the prism of the particular artist's sensibilities.

Second, such a mindset fails to comprehend that the supposedly "historical" biblical sources are complex documents that, however inspired, must be viewed and carefully interpreted as products of a particular time, place and level of human consciousness. This has, in fact, been the official Roman Catholic approach to Scripture scholarship dating back to the 1943 encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu issued by (the hardly radical) Pius XII.

Gibson's rear-guard Traditionalist Catholic movement apparently does not subscribe to such engines of modernity as historical and textual criticism. His approach fails to understand that the Gospels are not, and do not purport to be, dependable historical documents in the sense that people of our time have come to understand that _expression. They are vibrant testimonies of a community's ongoing experience of the Christ of Faith but not particularly reliable biographies of Jesus of Nazareth.

Tireless, reverent work by mainstream scholars has illuminated much about the timetable of the composition of these stories, the different audiences they targeted and, often, the particular theological points they were trying to make. Whether Gibson realizes it or not, the fact is that these documents were not simply transcribed from the 1st-century equivalent of a reporter's steno pad or camcorder.

Nobody was taking dictation during the Sermon on the Mount. The actual Gospel manuscripts are fairly late developments, the eventual fruit of a few generations of evolving oral tradition about the risen Christ and his earthly ministry. The earliest story line, Mark, was not committed to writing until 30 to 40 years after the death of Jesus; John, the latest and the one with the most conspicuous theological program, does not arrive on the scene until shortly before 100 A.D., which leaves plenty of time and s pace for facts to fade and for particular theological agendas to become more prominent.

Such a realization helps to account, for example, for what is the oft-observed harshness of John's treatment of "the Jews." We now know that the author of this Gospel had been influenced by the increasingly polemical atmosphere associated with the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., a time when those Jews who had become followers of Christ's Way were increasingly differentiating themselves from the traditions and rites of Judaism. After years of comfortably practicing both faiths, they were faced with a forced ch oice and were, in many cases, leaving or being expelled from the synagogues. Such background information helps to explain, but not excuse, this Gospel's at times anti-Judaic edge.

Uncritical reading of John had for centuries fanned anti-Semitism among the naïve and the willfully ignorant. Despite cuts of some potentially offensive material, there remains concern that Gibson's unsophisticated equating of text with accurate history could resuscitate such error. Were that to happen, recourse by Gibson to a glib defense of The-Bible-Made-Me-Do-It will be less than convincing.

His blithe portrayal of biblical texts as uncomplicated history suggests an ideologically driven attempt to define any problematic elements of the film as being beyond criticism, cloaked in biblical inerrancy, Spirit-dictated history and his own piety.

Copyright 2004, Newsday, Inc.


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