Memo To: Frank Rich and Mel Gibson
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: The Passion: What’s Missing
To tell you the truth, fellows, my wife and I were planning to see The Passion of the Christ two weeks ago at the local theatre in Morristown. What happened? I was put off, Frank, by your commentary in the Sunday NYTimes, which continues your feud with you, Mr. Gibson, over whether the film is or is not anti-Semitic. Why put off? Because you spent so much of your review on the relentless violence, i.e. the graphics of the crowning of thorns, the flogging, nails hammered into hands, etc. Patricia thought she might not be able to handle it, so we decided to hold off for a bit. My son Matthew, who writes a regular Thursday film review for this website, at least concluded that in his opinion the movie is not “anti-Semitic,” either in its intent or in the effect it might have on the many tens of millions of people here and abroad who will see it. I’m still not sure about that, given all the reviews I’ve read, and I do take your opinion seriously, Frank, but this memo is about something else I’ve discovered about the film: What it left out.
My first suspicions were aroused when I read that the film only covers the last day in the life of Jesus -- although there were flashbacks to his missionary work as a young Jewish rabbi roaming the countryside preaching to the masses and performing miracles. When my son Matthew told me there was no flashback of Jesus chasing the moneychangers from the temple in Jerusalem, I knew the movie would not satisfactorily cover the story, to my satisfaction or to Frank Rich’s. The crucifixion does not make any sense at all unless you know it was triggered by Jesus rousting secular Jews from the Jerusalem temple -- for the second time! We can of course assume they were secular, not religious Jews, or they would not have been peddling their goods and services inside and outside the city’s Temple, the equivalent in Judaism to a Catholic’s Cathedral. This was an act that took place only five days before the crucifixion, not months or years months before.
I even wonder, Mr. Gibson, if you knew about this time sequence when you were inspired to make the movie. My son suggests that it might not have been convenient for you for Jesus to show a harsh side, that all your other flashbacks showed him as a peacemaker, a Good Shepherd. The scene is critical, though, because it shows Jesus the rabbi distinguishing between religious Jews and secular, i.e., political Jews. There are a number of reasons why the Jewish leaders at the time worried about this “miracle worker,” but until he took up a whip at the Temple during Passover week, they really did not have a “case” to make against him. There is, I’ll admit, some confusion, because two years earlier Jesus had also gone to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover and had chased the peddlers from the Temple. I’ll bet most Catholics, like myself and Patricia don’t appreciate the link between the Temple scene and the crucifixion -- because we have fused the two separate events into one.
Catholics tend not to “read the Bible” as Protestants do. We hear gospels at Sunday Mass where the time sequence becomes fuzzy as the readings bounce around from one week to another. This is something there is no reason you should know about, Frank. Here, though, is the first Temple scene:
And the pasch [Passover] of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. And he found in the temple them that sold oxen and sheep and doves, and the changers of money sitting. And when he had made, as it were, a scourge of little cords, he drove them all out of the temple, the sheep also and the oxen, and the money of the changers he poured out, and the tables he overthrew. And to them that sold doves he said: Take these things hence, and make not the house of my Father a house of traffic. And his disciples remembered, that it was written: The zeal of thy house hath eaten me up. The Jews, therefore, answered, and said to him: What sign dost thou shew unto us, seeing thou dost these things? Jesus answered, and said to them: Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up. The Jews then said: Six and forty years was this temple in building; and wilt thou raise it up in three days? But he spoke of the temple of his body. When therefore he was risen again from the dead, his disciples remembered, that he had said this, and they believed the scripture, and the word that Jesus had said. Now when he was at Jerusalem, at the pasch, upon the festival day, many believed in his name, seeing his signs which he did.
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It’s important to be aware of this earlier event because we can then see how the Sanhedrin didn’t act precipitously during Holy Week, but were stewing for two years over this troublemaker. Here is the second Temple scene two years later as described by Mark:
And they came to Jerusalem. And when he was entered into the temple, he began to cast out them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the chairs of them that sold doves. And he suffered not that any man should carry a vessel through the temple. And he taught, saying to them: Is it not written, My house shall be called the house of prayer to all nations? But you have made it a den of thieves. Which when the chief priests and the scribes had heard, they sought how they might destroy him. For they feared him, because the whole multitude was in admiration at his doctrine.
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And for one comparison, here is Luke’s version.
And when he drew near, seeing the city, he wept over it, saying: If thou also hadst known, and that in this thy day, the things that are to thy peace; but now they are hidden from thy eyes. For the days shall come upon thee, and thy enemies shall cast a trench about thee, and compass thee round, and straiten thee on every side, and beat thee flat to the ground, and thy children who are in thee: and they shall not leave in thee a stone upon a stone: because thou hast not known the time of thy visitation. And entering into the temple, he began to cast out them that sold therein, and them that bought. Saying to them: It is written: My house is the house of prayer. But you have made it a den of thieves. And he was teaching daily in the temple. And the chief priests and the scribes and the rulers of the people sought to destroy him: And they found not what to do to him: for all the people were very attentive to hear him.
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Do you see what I mean, Mr. Gibson? This takes place on Monday of what we now call Holy Week, with Good Friday and the Crucifixion only four days away. Can’t you imagine why the Jews whipped out of the Temple by Jesus would want to destroy him? In some biblical translations, the softer term “destroy” comes out as “kill.” I’m using the Douay Bible that Catholics preferred to the King James version. In other words, the commercial Jews would of course go to those in Jerusalem with political clout and make the case not for a slap on the wrist, but for capital punishment.
Now you, Frank, seem to think that the high priest of the Jewish Sanhedrin, Caiphas, was misrepresented in Mel’s film. You argued that Mel made Pontius Pilate a good guy and Caiphas the bad guy, when the reverse was true. But I can’t buy that. My wife Patricia says maybe it’s because, being Jewish, you have spent little time reading the New Testament, while I’ve been listening to the Gospels since I was a little kid, and I’ve always known Pilate wasn’t so bad, trying to give Jesus a break, while Caiphas pulled no punches. Here is John’s account:
But some of them went to the Pharisees, and told them the things that Jesus had done. The chief priests therefore, and the Pharisees, gathered a council, and said: What do we, for this man doth many miracles? If we let him alone so, all will believe in him; and the Romans will come, and take away our place and nation. But one of them, named Caiphas, being the high priest that year, said to them: You know nothing. Neither do you consider that it is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not. And this he spoke not of himself: but being the high priest of that year, he prophesied that Jesus should die for the nation. And not only for the nation, but to gather together in one the children of God, that were dispersed. From that day therefore they devised to put him to death.
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Now I’m not a biblical scholar by any means, but I understand politics, and what I see here is the high priest of Jerusalem willing to throw Jesus to the wolves in order to save the Jewish nation. Yet it is by no means clear why the Roman authorities would cause the Sanhedrin any problems over Jesus if the Jewish leaders could resolve the conflicts within their own ranks over how to handle him. Because the Sanhedrin had both religious and political authority, they might be irked with Jesus taking it upon himself to police the Temple at Passover. But they had to be even more upset that he was attracting the admiration of the Jewish masses with his non-traditional messages of charity and forgiveness. Worse yet, he was also willing to tend to the needs of non-Jews. It occurred to me some years ago that “Christianity” began the very first time Jesus agreed to do this, when a Canaanite woman begged him to save her daughter who was possessed by a demon. Here is the moment:
And behold a woman of Canaan who came out of those coasts, crying out, said to him: Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou son of David: my daughter is grievously troubled by the devil. Who answered her not a word. And his disciples came and besought him, saying: Send her away, for she crieth after us: And he answering, said: I was not sent but to the sheep that are lost of the house of Israel. But she came and adored him, saying: Lord, help me. Who answering, said: It is not good to take the bread of the children, and to cast it to the dogs. But she said: Yea, Lord; for the whelps also eat of the crumbs that fall from the table of their masters. Then Jesus answering, said to her: O woman, great is thy faith: be it done to thee as thou wilt: and her daughter was cured from that hour.
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Are you still with me Frank, Mel? It was Benjamin Disraeli, the Prime Minister of the British Parliament and a Jew who once described Christianity as “Judaism for the Masses.” And here in Matthew was clearly the breakthough. The Good Shepherd of the Jewish faith would now tend to all the sheep, but the faith itself would change in a new organized religion. Where Judaism was exclusive, Christianity would be inclusive, even evangelical. [Islam, an outgrowth of both, is clearly the most ecumenical.]
This brings me back to Caiphas. The idea of sacrifice is one of the themes of the Old Testament, with Abraham willing to sacrifice his own son. But the sacrifice would be to God, and at the last minute, God intervened to spare the boy’s life. Caiphas, on the other hand, was willing to make a sacrificial lamb of Jesus, not to God, but for his own political reasons, with Rome the superficial excuse. This is the Bad Shepherd, leaving the 99 to go back to destroy the one!
What can we take from this exposition, filling in the pieces missed in the film? It is clearly that Jesus did not die at the hands of the masses of Jews, who were following him around through Judea and being cured and fed by his miracles. If there were a secret ballot back then, Jesus would have won hands down. I think you, Frank, object to Mel Gibson putting the burden on “secular” Jews, but I wouldn’t even go that far. It was, after all, a small group of rabbinical Jews who ultimately decided that Jesus was a threat to the established order, religious and political. As for the Jews being “Christ killers,” it was my father who taught me otherwise, when I was not much older than seven or eight. And it was Jesus himself who said in his last moments on the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” That’s always been good enough for me.