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Saturday, July 26, 2003

Subtitling the Gospel.

Is Mel Gibson just a goofball for Christ? Or is he also a dirty rotten scoundrel? We'll know the answer to the first question next Easter; we already know the answer to the second.

New Testament scholar Paula Frederiksen (author of Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews: A Jewish life and the emergence of Christianity) describes the earnest but naive interest she and a handful of other scholars brought to their attempt to save Mel Gibson's Jesus movie from floundering in neo-medieval anti-Semitism. ("Mad Mel," New Republic 7.28.03 sub req'd.; for a bit more context on the film, see Christopher Noxon's New York Times Magazine article, "Is the Pope Catholic... enough?" 3.9.03 reg req'd.)

According to Frederiksen, the film's producers knew about the scholars' interest in the film's content and supplied copies of the script to the working group assembled by the Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Anti-Defamation League. They were in regular contact with the Jesuit who had translated Gibson's script into Aramaic and Latin (a curious choice: see below). But once the scholars completed their review of the script, things took an ugly turn.

In early May, they sent their report to the production company; within days, they were receiving hostile letters. And then the lawyers weighed in:

"As you are fully aware, you are in possession of property stolen from Icon, namely a draft of the screenplay for the Picture," the letter began. "At no time did Mr. Gibson authorize the release of this material to you or to any other third party for dissemination to you." The lawyering went on for another page: "You have admitted that you came into possession of this stolen property by means that are illegal." "You are now attempting to force my clients to alter the screenplay to the Picture to suit your own religious views." Our side was threatening to discredit the film, and to intimidate Gibson. ("This act is itself illegal—it is called extortion.") All scripts were to be returned by 5:00 p.m. on May 13. (Poor organization, since this letter was faxed three days after its own deadline.) Court orders, lawsuits, reserved rights and remedies, and all sorts of terrible consequences might and could and would follow. Very truly yours, et cetera."

What fun! But Gibson is really truly honestly motivated by a passionate desire to present the Gospel account just as it actually happened. Which is why he disregards the discrepancies between the four Gospel accounts and relies on the visions of 19th-century nuns!

That script—and, on the evidence, the film—presents neither a true rendition of the Gospel stories nor a historically accurate account of what could have happened in Jerusalem, on Passover, when Pilate was prefect and Caiaphas was high priest. Instead Gibson will apparently release what Christopher Noxon, in his article for the Times, had correctly described already in March: "a big-budget dramatization of key points of traditionalist theology." The true historical framing of Gibson's script is neither early first-century Judea (where Jesus of Nazareth died) nor the late first-century Mediterranean diaspora (where the evangelists composed their Gospels). It is post-medieval Roman Catholic Europe. Fulco could have spared himself a lot of trouble and just put the entire script into Latin. Not pagan Roman Latin, but Christian Roman Latin. For that is the true language of Gibson's story. . .

Those four of us have posted a review of these events on the Boston College website. We have also posted there an analysis of the mystical writings of Sister Anne Catherine Emmerich (1774-1824), one of the visionary nuns whose writings Gibson used for his script. Emmerich wrote in her diary that she had "seen" the high priest ordering the cross to be made in the courtyard of the Temple itself. The high priest's servants, in her visions, bribe Jerusalem's population to assemble in the Temple at night to demand Jesus's death; they even tip the Roman executioners. Emmerich's Pilate criticizes the high priests for their physical abuse of Jesus, but finally he consents to crucify him, because he fears that the high priest wants to start a revolt against Rome. And so on.

But in the midst of all this hubbub, what really caught my attention was this linguistic fact, which I somehow managed not to grasp fully even when I was a seminarian:

And while Aramaic was indeed the daily language of ancient Jews in Galilee and Judea, Latin would scarcely have figured at all. When the Jewish high priest and the Roman prefect spoke to each other, they would have used Greek, which was the English of antiquity. And Pilate's troops, employees of Rome, were not "Romans." They were Greek-speaking local gentiles on the imperial payroll. Gibson's pious evocations of historicity rang more than a little hollow. How much homework had he actually done?

Meanwhile, watch how the movie has already become a prop in the culture wars: According to this Catholic News Service article, the guest list for a special screening of the movie in Washington included "political commentators Peggy Noonan, Cal Thomas, Kate O'Beirne, Michael Novak and Linda Chavez; film director William Peter Blatty; Jack Valenti, head of the Motion Picture Association of America; David Kuo, deputy director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives; former Republican congressman Mark Siljander of Michigan; and Mark Rodgers, staff director of the Senate Republican Conference." And one of the film's defenders calls Paula Frederiksen a "demogogue"! Um, unlike Cal Thomas and Michael Novak, I'm sure.

Of course, Gibson isn't really interested in defusing concerns about the movie's anti-Semitism. Instead he has made the right-wing rebuttal to "The Last Temptation of Christ," a rallying point for Christians — anti-Vatican II Catholics and fundamentalist Protestants, a weird mix — who can get a whole lot of mileage out of pissing off the secular and liberal elite. The national director of the Anti-Defamation League is right: "Here's a man who appeals to the mass audience, but he feels he has to surround himself with a cordon sanitaire of people who back him theologically, and maybe ideologically, and will stand up and be supportive when the time comes."

Copyright © 2003 by Philocrites | Posted 26 July 2003 at 5:16 PM

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Stephan Pickering:

February 19, 2004 09:51 PM | Permalink for this comment

As a Jew raised by a Dachau survivor in Horrorwood, it is no surprise to me that Mel Gibson, raised by a protonazi antisemite, has made an antisemitic film, a deliberately antisemitic film. Why? The answer is in my first sentence: Mel Gibson is a vituperative antisemite, who, using the millions made from sheep who watch his otherwise banal movies (serious ideas are in none of them because they do not occur to him), wants to further the Reich's 1933 laws.


May 12, 2006 11:17 AM | Permalink for this comment

I just came across one of Fredriksen's colleagues' response to the film. Mary C. Boys is one of the Roman Catholics who worked with Fredriksen on the memo that naïaut;vely tried to help Mel Gibson avoid the anti-Semitism the film embraced. Her essay in the Winter 2003 issue of CrossCurrents is "'I Didn't See Any Anti-Semitism': Why Many Christians Donít Have a Problem with 'The Passion of the Christ.'"

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