About The Passion

Tuesday, 09 March 2004 @ 07:25 am SGT

Contributed by: Anonymous

This commentary is about the accusation of Anti-Semitism against the movie "The Passion of The Christ". The accusation arises from the view that the movie portrays the Jews as the main culprit causing the death of Jesus. There is no doubt Mel Gibson did exercise artistic license in portraying Pontius Pilate as a just and fair ruler. In doing so, he is following a long line of illustrous European scholars and artists. After all, we have seen numerous paintings by great masters showing Jesus Christ as Caucasian with blonde hair and flowing silk robes while it is more likely that Jesus is of tanned complexion, black haired and dressed in linen in the attire of a travelling rabbi. Similarly, the movie shows the crucification as nailing through the palms while most modern scholars suggest that nailing through the wrist between the two bones of the forearm is the prevalent practice. Mel Gibson, like the artists before him, had chosen to fill in the details not specified in the Bible from his own imagination but whereever it is specifically written in the Bible, he stayed faithfully to the written word. The following is my interpretation of the situation.

It is widely held by historians that Pontius Pilate is a typical Roman governor found anywhere in the Roman world. He was a military commander of some note with administrative skill. His job was to maintain the integrity of the Roman empire in this corner of the world, to project the authority of Rome through the rule of Roman law locally, to keep the natives pacified and subdued, and most of all to keep the taxes flowing to Rome. As the governor, he was loyal, disciplined, ruthless and acutely political. He also took his job very seriously. So when Jesus was brought before him, convicted of sedition, one would expect him to hand down a harsh sentence just to make an example of him. After all, the Jews multiply extremely fast and these occasional executions did not have much impact on the population but would go a long way to strengthen his "rule of law". In this case, he did a very curious thing - he refused to deal with it but instead referred the matter to King Herod's court. This is like the Supreme Court refusing to deal with a case of sedition but instead referring it to the lower court to be dealt with as a civil matter. The Bible tells us Pilate was warned against it by his wife who had a dream about Jesus the night before [Matt. 27:19]. I believe Pilate personally harboured great misgivings about the way Jesus was convicted. After all, it was the morning after Passover and instead of staying indoors in reflection and contemplation the previous night, the high priests and their men were busy arresting Jesus and putting him through a trial that ended with a conviction all in one single night. Pilate must have felt uneasy enough to send the case to Herod for review lest he be seen as slacking in his duty.

King Herod in this case is the traditional king/judge of the Bible who presides over the arguments of his tribesmen and prescribes civil adjudication and penalty. His position was backed up by the presence of the Romans. But King Herod, although a puppet ruler, was a smart cookie who realised that this was a case where the high priests were gunning for Jesus. This is understandable because Jesus basically challenged the authority and establishment of the priesthood rather than Herod's right to rule. He also realised that nothing he dispensed as punishment to Jesus would satisfy the high priests and their horde of accusers who were baying for blood. So Herod decided not to get involved and referred the matter back to Pilate. This is exactly what the high priests wanted. They also piled on the pressure of public opinion by assembling a mob to force Pilate's hand.

When Jesus was brought back to him, Pilate realised he had a hot potato on his hand. Still, he loathed to rubber-stamp the conviction and to hand down the only punishment prescribed. (The Roman law is very precise. In fact, our respect for the way Romans promulgate their law is still evident today. Most court buildings are still adorned with Roman murals and columns.) He tried to wriggle out of it by offering to release Jesus if the people of Jerusalem so wished [Matt. 27:15-18, 20-25], but the crowd was determined to see an innocent Jesus put to death, and chose to have Barabbas (a true criminal) freed. Even the public flogging did not sway the crowd from their ultimate desire to have Jesus crucified. Thus faced with the prospect of a public riot, Pontius Pilate was cornered into handing down the only punishment prescribed. And so having been denied both a review and clemency, Jesus was handed to the Roman soldiers to be crucified.

So, as to the question of "Who killed Jesus?", it is true he was killed by Roman law and by Roman hands. However, we need to remember he was brought before Pilate by the crowd incited by the priesthood of the day. Furthermore, the accusation by which he was put to death was fabricated by the same people. So it is very hard not to conclude that the people responsible for his unjust death were indeed part of the Jewish populace of Jerusalem. The Bible, as well as the movie, however portrayed, did not detract from this truth but this does not make the Bible or the movie anti-Semite. So in a way, Pontius Pilate was right. This is indeed a local and civil dispute between different Jews. After all, the bottom line is, some Jews caused the death of another Jew in the occupation forces' court.

The reason I write all this is this: I believe some people today (not all of them Jews) are too quick to cry anti-Semitism. Most movie viewers came away with the view that Jesus died because of us (everybody) and our sins. For those few who hold the view that Jesus was killed by the Jews do not necessarily hate Jews. This brought to mind a CNN report on Easter 2003 about what a little girl thought when asked about what Jesus went through. She replied very matter-of-factly, "I hate God because He put Jesus through this suffering." Such sentiments of hating God, Jews, Romans or anyone for that matter, can only be dispelled by a closer understanding of the Bible and history. In short, the more we know, the less we are likely to seize upon a simple slogan to express our feelings. We certainly do not want to behave like the mob in Jerusalem during those few fateful days between Palm Sunday and Good Friday over 2000 years ago.