Life of Mel

by Belle Waring on February 26, 2004

The Washington Post review of Mel Gibson’s Passion is basically a pan which concedes there is more than a whiff of anti-semitism about the whole thing. (Based on the visions of a 15th-century german nun who “sets out to clear Pilate’s name, describing the famously ruthless governor as a weak and unwilling pawn of Jewish blood lust”? Oh, that sounds good.) But for some reason the author backslides into the trap of “journalistic objectivity”, which quoted item differs from real journalistic objectivity in consisting merely of empty formal gestures towards balance. It can be seen most vividly in articles about Bush economic policies, in which sentences starting “critics claim…” or “some Democrats argue” are followed by incontrovertible statements of fact. See Brad DeLong’s “Why Oh Why Can’t We Have a Better Press Corps” series, parts I-MMDCLXXIII. (And while I am digressing, I would like to encourage all readers to adopt the Poor Man’s pithy formulation of the current scandal, which he terms “WhatInTheNameOfAllThatIsHolyAreYouDoingToTheEconomyGate.”) The item I object to is here:

Gibson’s use of Aramaic and Latin is similarly helpful in grounding his story, although it’s been suggested that first-century Romans would more probably have spoken Greek.

Is there anything wrong with just saying “even though the characters in the film would actually have been speaking Greek, the lingua franca of the eastern Mediterranean”? (I realize that as a blanket statement about “first-century Romans” it’s false, but that’s what editing is for.) I mean, you’ve already accused Mel of a pornographic taste for violence, anti-semitism, being a hackneyed director (ooo, Judas tosses the thirty pieces of silver in slow-motion!), and trivializing the mysteries of the Christian faith. Is it necessary to bring out misleading qualifiers like “it’s been suggested” when accusing him of historical inaccuracy?



asg 02.26.04 at 2:26 am

FWIW, Roger Ebert says there’s nothing anti-semitic whatsoever about the film. (I suppose it might be worth adding that Ebert is quite liberal.)


Kevin 02.26.04 at 2:49 am

What I’ve read is that the Romans would msot likely speak Latin among themselves but speak Greek to non-Romans. I don’t know if that’s relevant.


GMT 02.26.04 at 3:23 am

first-century Romans would more probably have spoken Greek.

“How many Romans?”

Sorry, couldn’t resist.
The whole Jews as Christ Killers meme is leftover propaganda from the 3rd century anyways. Who gives a damn? (!)
If some anti-Vatican II mouthbreather has to shoot extra footage to actually add some “Nice Jews” at the eleventh hour while rambling about sneaky Jews stealing his scripts and lightning strikes his Jesus actor (twice) and his father talks about remote-control planes striking the towers on 9/11, well … more’s the amusement for us!
More wine! More women!
O! It’s so lonely on Olympus….


Alan 02.26.04 at 3:29 am

First century Roman aristocrats used Greek in preference to Latin the same way Tolstoy’s aristocrats used French in preference to Russian. The Greek koiné used in the eastern Med would not have been the same as the Attic the Roman elite cultivated. Caesar and Cicero were both thought radical for actually writing anything serious in Latin.


Danny 02.26.04 at 3:53 am

For a thorough exploration of Greek as a lingua franca in the eastern Mediterranean, see this post on Language Log by Bill Poser.


bob mcmanus 02.26.04 at 4:12 am

Is there any understanding of how Hellenistic Greek was pronounced? There just might have been difficulties in finding a consensus.

I understand there are arguments about how 1st century Latin was pronounced.


Vinteuil 02.26.04 at 5:35 am

Catherine Emmerich’s dates are 1774-1824, so she is not a “fifteenth-century German nun.”

More to the point, Gibson hardly needed to rely on her for his portrayal of Pilate as a “weak and unwilling pawn of Jewish blood lust.” See Matthew 27:11-24, Mark 15:2-15, Luke 23:3-25 and John 18:29-19:22. This is not an ambiguous point.

If there is “more than a whiff of anti-semitism” here, it originates in the gospels themselves.


Belle Waring 02.26.04 at 7:47 am

Sorry about the mistake on Catherine of Emmerich; I will update. As far as Pilate goes, though, we do have other historical sources besides the (often conflicting) gospels. Let me just say that to be regarded as a particularly brutal Roman provincial governor you have to do things which are pretty damn bad, and not just wander about the palace wringing your hands and having fits of conscience. If he was really conflicted about whther to crucify Jesus, it was probably the first time ever. Anyway, I haven’t seen the movie. The Post, Slate, and various Jewish leaders seem to think it’s pretty dicey, while Gene Siskel and the National Review say it’s all good. I’ll just be suspending my judgment for now, mmmkay?


rilkefan 02.26.04 at 9:25 am

Belle, if Gene Siskel has announced the film is ok, I guess I’ll have to believe it. I didn’t know they were showing the film in the hereafter…
You can add Newsweek, Newsday, and the NYTimes and New Yorker to your list of pans – also Andy Sullivan and Hitchens, both of whom are in my opinion spot on at least occasionally.


msg 02.26.04 at 10:36 am

Whoever pulled the strings to get Christ crucified it was not the poor people among whom he lived, and to whom he preached, who were Jews.
His mother was a Jew.
And there there may be some small bridge through this. Mary’s transformation from young Jewish girl to the mother of whatever it is Christ was to her at the time of his death. Son. Champion. Hero.
It’s not that she became a Christian.
Christ was executed by the state, which seems to have been both Roman and Jewish.
So the Romans and the Jews killed Jesus.
But the United States is occupying an invaded nation right now, after having invaded it militarily last year.
The Americans invaded, amd now occupy, Iraq.
But I’m an American and I reject that, I didn’t do it.
Something smaller than America did it.
The government, some men.
Some men who were threatened, and wanted to keep their power intact.

Making pronouncements about anyone who lived that far back in time seems close to magical thinking.
Believing that a real man lived then, who taught that love was superior to blind obedience, and was killed for teaching that, doesn’t seem unreasonable, given the treatment that same teaching receives today.


John Isbell 02.26.04 at 2:16 pm

msg, that’s my favorite post of yours.


baa 02.26.04 at 2:34 pm

Good gravy, can’t we even kill the saviour without dragging Iraq into it?


Chris Martin 02.26.04 at 4:36 pm

It’s odd that Mel went through all the trouble of getting a screenplay in Latin and Aramaic, but didn’t bother to get actors of the historically correct ethnicity. I still remember the PBS show on the historical Jesus in which everyone but the historian claimed that Jesus was blue-eyed. *sigh*
We wouldn’t cast Denzel Washington as George Washington or Margaret Cho as Abigail Adams, would we?


John Smith 02.26.04 at 4:48 pm

Presumably, the top Romans would have spoken Latin with each other. But wouldn’t it have been Vulgar Latin, rather than the Cicero/Caesar variety?


Jimmy Doyle 02.26.04 at 4:55 pm

This, from Not a Fish via Norm, cracked me up:

A Jew was walking down the street when he was attacked and beaten up by a Christian. The Jew asked why on earth he had been beaten. The man replied,
“The Jews killed Christ!”
“But that was 2000 years ago!”
“I know, but I only heard about it today!”


Vinteuil 02.26.04 at 5:04 pm

Belle Waring: actually, as far as the portrayal of Pilate goes, the gospels are *not* in serious conflict. Moreover, on this particular point, we do *not* have other historical sources. There is *very* little documentary evidence of any sort about Pilate, and none that mentions the Christian sect.

We learn that he set up standards bearing the image of Tiberius in Jerusalem, and that this caused Jewish unrest until he backed down. We also learn that he attacked a group of armed Samaritans who apparently turned out to be on a sort of treasure hunt for the sacred vessels of Moses. The jewish scholar Philo of Alexandria says he was cruel and merciless, but is not exactly an impartial observer. Thirty years after the fact, the jewish historian Josephus repeats similar things about him, but is even harder on other Roman authorities.

And that’s about it.

In short, we have no good reason to suppose that Jesus was *really* persecuted by the Romans for political subversion rather than by the jewish authorities for blasphemy. Rather the contrary, I would think, since, after all, he wasn’t particularly politically subversive, but was most definitely blasphemous.


John Isbell 02.26.04 at 6:12 pm

AFAIK Jesus is not actually terribly blasphemous, if you stick to his words. The Talmud permits what he did on the sabbath (of course that’s later, the Sermon on the Mount insists on following the Law (i.e. Torah), which no Christian does. What gets me is his two commandments. The rest seems usual: consorting with low people, being rude, then the Temple invasion which I see as a key moment.
Eli, eli, lama sabachtani are from the Psalms of David, says a Lubavitcher rabbi I asked, since the words worry me. How can the Lord say that in accomplishing his stay here in Creation? Different if it means, I am a Jew.


Vinteuil 02.26.04 at 7:27 pm

Mark 14:61-64:

…the high priest asked him, and said unto him, art thou the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?

And Jesus said, I am: and ye shall see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of power, and coming in the clouds of heaven.

Then the high priest rent his clothes, and saith, What need we any further witnesses?

Ye have heard the blasphemy…


ChrisO 02.26.04 at 9:45 pm

I think it’s interesting that:

– A movie about Jesus is setting the new standard for violence in cinema–Ebert said it was the most violent film he had seen.

– All these Baptists/Born Agains/Etc. are going to see an ultraviolent film some Catholic guy did.

– Somehow all current events can be tied to the Bush Administration and the war in Iraq. There must be some way to prove that mathematically.

– All the controversy around this film is likely more facinating that the film itself.

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