Princeton Scholar Elaine Pagels Gives Mel Gibson a Low Grade for Accuracy

Roundup: Talking About History

David Remnick, in the New Yorker (March 8, 2004):

Last week, while the critics, the clergy, and the professional opinion-providers were caught up in the opening, on Ash Wednesday, of "The Passion of the Christ," it seemed a good idea to ask Elaine Pagels, a renowned historian of the early Christian period, to see the film and offer her reaction. Scholarship on the quick, admittedly. Professor Pagels, who teaches at Princeton and is the author of "The Gnostic Gospels" and "The Origin of Satan," seemed hesitant at first. But one evening she viewed "The Passion" with some friends, and afterward she called to say that she was, well, disturbed. And not just because of the unremitting and brutal flaying of Christ, "though my friends said that anyone who had really endured that kind of torture would have been dead a lot earlier in the movie."

Pagels is both a scholar and, in her way, a practicing Christian. Usually, she is measured, soft-spoken, but there was the slightest tone of agitation in her voice: "It's important to remember that this is Lent, and meditations on the Passion of Christ are an important part of the cultural interpretation of human suffering. There's a context for the movie in the history of art. When Christians read the Gospels as historical acts, they will say what Mel Gibson says: that this is the truth, this is our faith. But the important thing is that this film ignores the spin the gospel writers were pressured to put on their works, the distortions of facts they had to execute. Mel Gibson has no interest whatsoever in that."

Pagels explained that the four gospel writers of the New Testament probably wrote between 70 and 100 A.D. These were the years following the Roman defeat of the Jews, which left the Temple and the center of Jerusalem in ruins. Acts of sedition by the Jews against their conquerors were met with swift execution. As a result, Pagels said, the Gospels, which were intended not as history but as preaching, as religious propaganda to win followers for the teachings of Christ, portrayed the conflict of the Passion as one between Jesus and the Jewish people, led by Caiaphas. And, though it was the Roman occupiers, under Pontius Pilate, who possessed ultimate political and judicial power in Judea, they are described in the Gospels-and, more starkly, in Gibson's film--as relatively benign.

"Our first informed comment on Pilate comes from Philo of Alexandria, a wealthy, influential Jewish citizen who was part of a delegation sent to Rome to negotiate with the emperor," Pagels said. "The delegation saw the Emperor Caligula in the year 40, seven to ten years after Jesus' death, and Philo writes that Pilate was stubborn and cruel and routinely ordered executions without trial. The other great historian of the period is Josephus, who wrote the history of the war between the Romans and the Jews. He tells us many episodes about Pilate that also go against what the Gospels tell us-that he robbed the public treasury, that he deliberately incited the Jerusalemites. Josephus tells us that when people rioted in protest Pilate sent his soldiers to beat and kill them. So he was far from the man depicted in the Gospels.

"Mel Gibson denies any anti-Semitism, and I can't speak to his motives," Pagels went on, "but there are narrative devices that are clear. The more benign Pilate appears in the movie, the more malignant the Jews are. To deflect responsibility from the Romans for arresting and executing Christ, which Gibson takes from the Gospels and makes even more extreme, is contrary to everything we understand about history. It is implausible that the Jews could be responsible and Pilate a benign governor. There are many examples in the film of a preposterous dialectic: the bad Jews and the good Romans. When the Temple police arrest Jesus, Mary Magdalene turns to the Romans as if they were the policemen on the block, benign protectors of the public order. But the very idea of a Jewish woman turning to Roman soldiers for help is ridiculous."

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