Flavin’s Corner
March 2004

The Fashion Flay or Cashing In on the Christ

A 1985 mosaic presented to the UN by Mrs. Nancy Reagan;
based on "The Golden Rule" by Norman Rockwell, 1961.

Mel Gibson’s bloody imagining of the death of Jesus, The Passion of the Christ, is going to make a lot of money.  I congratulate Mr. Gibson for having the courage to personally invest approximately thirty million dollars to produce this film and begrudge him not in the least his profits.  Christians have been cashing in on the death of Jesus (c. 27 CE) from at least the time of the ministry of Paul the Apostle (c. 35-67 CE), and as such Mr. Gibson is simply following an established tradition.  That the tradition doesn’t concern the wise and generous teachings of an itinerant philosopher, but rather how best a small group may profit from a larger group, is a matter of economics (and gullibility).  Well done, Mr. Gibson; I look forward to your next film.

All details accepted as historical by Christians of the final hours of Jesus are derived from four Greek texts (called “gospels” < ME godspell; good spell or good news < Gr. euangelion; a reward for bringing good tidings) composed in the last decades of the first common-era century (c. 70-100 CE).*  In the 50s CE, Paul wrote in his “letters” of the crucifixion of Jesus, but didn’t provide any narrative background information.  Josephus is believed by many to have mentioned the crucifixion of Jesus in his Antiquities, written in the 90s CE, but no details are provided and the account is too problematic and open to later interpolation to be dependable.  Tacitus and Suetonius, early second century Roman historians who mention Christ (as Christus and Chrestus), do not specify crucifixion, though Tacitus references Pilate as responsible for his death.  An early Jewish commentary (Baraitha Bab. Sanhedrin 43a, thought to have been written no later than 220 CE), claims Jesus was hung and not crucified.  That Jesus died is certain; why and how are not.  *A fifth text, the so-called "Gospel of Peter" which is dated to c. 150 CE, contains a crucifixion narrative with original elements and though some scholars believe portions predate Mark, the consensus is that the overall text is an uninspired pastiche of gospel accounts.

The Gospel of Mark, the earliest written text containing alleged details of the death of Jesus and which served as the basis for later variations (Matthew, Luke and John), was composed shortly after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE and should be regarded as a Greek tragedy set in the Roman Palestine of four decades before.  Its author is unknown and first attributed to a companion of Paul (2 Tim 4:11) by Eusebius (d. 325 CE), who was reporting on a lost suggestion of Papias (c. 130 CE).  Burton L. Mack (retired John Wesley Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins; Claremont School of Theology) praised Mark’s gospel as:

...a literary achievement of incomparable significance.  Before Mark there was no such story of the life of Jesus.  Neither the earlier Jesus movements nor the congregations of the Christ had imagined such a portrayal of Jesus’ life.  It was Mark’s composition that gathered together earlier traditions, used the recent history of Jerusalem to set the stage for Jesus’s time, crafted the plot, spelled out the motivations, and so created the story of Jesus that was to become the gospel truth for Christianity.  All the other narrative gospels would start with Mark.  None would change the basic plot.  And the plot would become the standard account of Christian origins for the traditional Christian imagination.  What an achievement!  [Mack, Burton L.  Who Wrote the New Testament?: The Making of the Christian Myth.  New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1995; pp. 151-152.]

While after his death oral traditions among Jesus' followers certainly continued his unique philosophical views of humility and forgiveness, and written collections of his sayings are highly likely to have existed before the gospels, the fictive verisimilitude of Mark in combining political abuse, social injustice and religious intolerance was of such genius that nearly two thousand years later the narrative* remains and the philosophical views are all but forgotten.  *Though the Jesus Narrative best resembles Greek tragedy in form (with choral sections and monologues an exciting avenue of investigation), a personal thesis allows for comparison with the Argosy and the Labors of Heracles, narratives which were modified to reflect knowledge of the twelve signs of the zodiac.  For my online article, “The Zodiacs: Maps of Heaven and History,” click here.

Most historical conclusions about early Christians are, like the details of the death of Jesus, dependant upon the veracity of gospel accounts.  The gospels tell of disciples, the occasional mutitude or crowd, financial supporters and secret followers.  In the Acts of the Apostles (which many regard as simply the second half of the Gospel of Luke) and the writings of Paul a centralized movement at Jerusalem headed by James (called the brother of Jesus) and Peter is described as the beginning of the Christian religion and church.  Money seems to play an important role and Paul apparently had difficulties with returning all the money he collected through his travels without spending some.  If historians follow such accounts, deducing financial goals for the church from its inception is unavoidable and probably true to a limited extent.  Maybe it’s always been about the money when it comes to church and scripture, as rent must be paid and papyri and ink aren’t free.  But what about the early followers of Jesus who were peasants, slaves, the dispossessed and the destitute and who had little or no money and couldn't read or write?  Well, to them was given the Kingdom of God, of course.

Secular history and Christian writings of the first and second common-era centuries only minimally acknowledge the underclasses.  Roman oppression and local social stratification exploited the poor to a breaking point and then, wonder of wonders, word went out that the systems behind oppression and exploitation were to blame and all men and woman were equal before God (in theory).  Jesus preached that the Kingdom of God was then, now, there, here, all around and wherever one looks.  He criticized the Roman and Jewish systems of oppression and exploitation by identifying them as based on human failures, not divinely ordained, and taught a program with only one rule.  No, the rule wasn't “Don’t talk about the program,” but rather one of universal love, hope and justice.  All cultures know it, many have ancient and honored variations, and Jesus probably wasn’t the first to say it, but he gets credit for dying because of its unassailable profundity (as part of his Kingdom of God teachings).  It’s a shame more of Jesus' sayings are not in Mr. Gibson’s film.  It was, after all, the sayings which began his program, but then again, the film is not meant for peasants, slaves, the dispossessed and the destitute; it’s meant to make money and owes nothing to either history or religious philosophy.  A fine horror film, though.  Cool special effects and Monica Bellucci always shafts a stiff sliver in my eye.

The difference between Jesus and Jesus Christ is that the former taught a program of individual empowerment through communal commiseration and reciprocity and was put to death as a revolutionary, while the latter was the son of the Jewish god who wanted to experience death on the cross, was resurrected from death and rose to heaven to join with his father.  Jesus’ program was in place and practiced before his death.  The crucifixion of Jesus Christ was a cosmic event which twisted history and Greek tragedy together and was used to start a new religion with laws, rules, punishments, monies owed and due, ad nauseum.  Jesus was part of the expendable underclasses and probably knew that his program might get him into trouble and bring about his death, yet he was steadfast in his convictions and took his message to Jerusalem.  Jesus Christ knew he was going to be resurrected.  One is respected and the other is worshiped.

reality  art

Jesus’ program wasn’t dependent on documentation, but rather on the fairness shown between his followers and householders when they exchanged healing conversation for food and temporary shelter.  Indeed, many historians suspect Jesus could neither read or write.  The parables and sayings which Jesus shared were remembered and passed on by word-of-mouth alone and without the need for written versions (i.e., scripture).  As the wandering early followers and those who heard the message of the Kingdom of God were probably illiterate, like Jesus, texts and clever textual arguments would have been pointless.  For many years Jesus’ program remained unchanged and then some followers decided that the program could benefit from documentation, which was closely followed by laws, rules, punishments, monies owed and due, ad nauseum.  The Jesus movement became the Christian religion.  A program which exposed systems of oppression and exploitation couldn’t survive when a new system arose, supported with scripture, and which turned a man into a god.  Perhaps it was an economic eventuality that a small group would come along to make money off of the charity of a larger group, but it’s sad nonetheless. 

My answers to the questions implied earlier as to why and how Jesus died must be as empty as that certain tomb on Easter morning.  I don’t know either answer.  He was accused of a crime and was killed by Roman authorities.  Was there a trial or theological and political debate between Jewish priests, Jesus and Pilate?  Of course not.  At such a brutal time if one accidently bumped a soldier in a crowded Jerusalem street one’s life could be forfeit in a response as heartless as that Vietnamese police chief executing a Vietcong in the 1968 Pulitzer Prize winning photograph by Eddie Adams reproduced above.  If Jesus was crucified, as opposed to being immediately run-through, he likely died alone.  No witnesses, no details and his body was abandoned as carrion for dogs and vultures. 

Skeleton from Givat Hamivtar, early or mid-first-century CE.
All three methods of Roman punishment for extreme crimes (burned alive, fed to the beasts and crucifixion) were designed not to simply kill by execution, but to insult the criminal after death by leaving no remains to bury. Examples of bodies being claimed from the cross are rare (Josephus Life 75) and of the thousands of victims from Jerusalem during the first common-era century only a single skeleton of a crucified man has been discovered.  Contained in an ossuary (bone-box) unearthed in 1968 from a burial cave in Givat Hamivtar, north of Jerusalem, was a heel bone with a piece of olivewood and a 4 ½" nail still attached.  The name 'Yehochanan' (John, in English) was inscribed on the ossuary. One example from so many victims... 

Some scholars have correctly approached the Jesus and Christ movements as separate communities, while John Dominic Crossan, S.T.D., S.S.L. (Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies, DePaul University) extends the difference as between a Life Tradition, which dealt with Jesus and his sayings, and a Death Tradition, which emphasized the passion of Christ’s execution and resurrection. [See: Crossan, John Dominic. The Birth of Christianity: discovering what happened in the years immediately after the execution of Jesus.  New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1998; pp. 407-417.]  Though Christianity soon put an end to Jesus movements and eventually became a tolerated religion under the Roman Emperor Constantine in 313 CE, only a single early image of Jesus on the cross survives.  Dozens of images of Jesus are extant which feature Jesus engaged in healing, preaching, being baptized by Baptist John, etc., but no scenes of the crucifixion are known until after Constantine.  It remains a point of Christian consternation that the image of Jesus on the cross bears the head of a donkey, an allusion to an old slur that the Jews secretly worship an ass-headed god.  Click here for more.

Roman graffito, c. early second-century CE.

A model of gospel accounts as Greek tragedies is supported with the introduction of medieval Christian liturgical dramas and miracle plays.  At first these reenactments were part of the church service, but when they began to incorporate several characters and increase in complexity and length of performance, as with the Easter and Passion plays, the reenactments were held separate from church services and soon achieved a distinct identity.  The Oberammergau Passion Play, said to have been performed with regularity since 1633 and in gratitude for the people’s survival of one of the last outbreaks of the Black Death (bubonic plague) in Europe, is perhaps the best known example of this religious genre.  Adolf Hitler attended a 1934 performance and later commented: “...it is vital that the Passion Play be continued at Oberammergau; for never has the menace of Jewry been so convincingly portrayed as in this presentation of what happened in the times of the Romans.”  [See: Mork, Gordon R.  "Christ’s Passion on Stage - The Traditional Melodrama of Deicide," Journal of Religion and Film; Vol. 8 No. 1, February 2004; section 18.]

The embellishment of the details of the crucifixion of Jesus, and the affixing of blame for his death, isn’t limited to church sermons or the theatrical stage, as so-called divinely inspired literature was still being penned and published in the nineteenth century by a bedridden stigmatic German nun and a poet who acted as her secretary.  Ven. Anne Catherine Emmerich’s “The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ” (Das bittere Leiden Jesu Christi. Nach den Betrachtungen der seligen Anna Catharina Emmerich; Sulzbach,1833) was inspirational to Mr. Gibson’s film, in fact he even lifted an entire scene in which Roman soldiers toss a chained Jesus off of a bridge from Emmerich’s mystical visions (Chap. 3, p. 131). 

Organized religion and Hollywood share a robust predilection for money and power, yet they seldom work together, so as not to further incite the paranoid conspiracy theorists.  John Wayne played the Roman centurion in George Steven’s 1965 film, The Greatest Story Ever Told, delivering perhaps his most famous line, “Aw, truly this was the Son of God,” but wasn’t credited for the performance.  Some mysteries will never be solved.

Recently, the tension between religion and Hollywood was discussed in  Film, Faith, and Cultural Conflict: The Case of Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ, by Robin Riley (New York: Praeger, 2003).  Reactions by religionists to Scorsese’s 1988 film adaptation of Niko KazantzakisThe Last Temptation of Christ (Peter A. Bien, tr. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1960) were extreme.  Many supporters of the film dismissed the controversy by claiming that Scorsese was merely following the Kazantzakis novel, yet only the dualism of man and god made it into the film and the allegory of the struggle between socialists and communists in post WWII Greece, written as Jesus and Judas who resembled one another in appearance, was either unrecognized or deemed too complex for the audience to understand.  So, we got David Bowie as Pontius Pilate and a soundtrack by Peter Gabriel.  It was a fine enough film, challenging conservative convention by promoting popularism and it prepared the way for Mr. Gibson’s film. [Note: For an insightful overview, "Jesus in Film: Hollywood Perspectives on the Jewishness of Jesus," click here.]

Scorsese is justly famous for incorporating realistic violence in several of his films.  The topnotch quality special effects used by Scorsese seldom elicite the screams and giggles of the slasher and zombie movies.  They evoke emptiness; perhaps what the director intended.  Later, the standard for realistic violence was raised with Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, a film Mr. Gibson often refers to in interviews.

Mr. Gibson’s film is a fashion flay and a homage to video violence.  Claims that the Holy Spirit moved within him as he made the film make me wonder if heaven offers any tips on stocks or other investments, as the film was not made to lose money or break even, but rather to make a profit.  Merchandising tie-ins bear this out.  Give Hollywood its due, but look for Jesus elsewhere. 

Recommended Reading:
Carroll, James.  Constantine's Sword: The Church and the Jews.  Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001.  Online review of Mr. Gibson's film by Carroll here.
Crossan, John Dominic. Who Killed Jesus?: Exposing the Roots of Anti-Semitism in the Gospel Story of the Death of Jesus.  New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1995.  Critique of the crucifixion scene in Mr. Gibson's film by Crossan here

Dedicated to Peggy Law Scott

joining the passersby (Th 42),

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