They’re calling it the most explosive movie on the life of Christ ever made, but as millions flock to see The Passion, sceptics and evangelists are again at loggerheads over the truth of the Gospel story. IAN WISHART analyses the arguments.
“Do you still not see or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes, but fail to see; and ears, but fail to hear? And don’t you remember…?” The words of history’s most controversial figure echo down through twenty centuries and onto cinema multiplexes worldwide this month, yet the question Jesus Christ posed to the world back in AD 33 is as pungent now as it was then.
Could Christ really have been the Son of God, the Messiah, the Anointed One? Or was he just an itinerant preacher who happened to come up with what even critics regard as an impeccable moral code?
Mel Gibson’s move makes no apologies for painting Christ as the Messiah.
Newsweek magazine, Time and the NZ Herald, to name just a few media outlets, make no apologies for attacking the Christian gospels as fairy stories and The Passion as an anti-Semitic hate film.
So which is it to be – fabrication or fundamental truth? Newsweek’s basic premise is that Gibson’s movie relies on an “unreliable” source: The Bible.
“The Bible can be a problematic source,” writes Newsweek’s Jon Meacham in the Feb 16 cover story. “Though countless believers take it as the immutable word of God, Scripture is not always a faithful record of historical events; the Bible is the product of human authors who were writing in particular times and places with particular points to make and visions to advance.”
Meacham’s criticism is similar to those expressed by liberal theologians and sceptics everywhere, and naturally in the Newsweek article it goes unchallenged. But is it really true?
“Scripture is not always a faithful record of historical events,” he wrote in the anchorpoint to both his paragraph and the entire premise of his article. However, Meacham is just plain wrong.
“Archaeology,” writes William Dever, a professor of Near Eastern archaeology and anthropology and regarded as one of the world’s leading experts in his field, has been unable to “disprove the Bible’s assertions of the meanings of events.” Further, he writes in a scathing critique of liberals who recently tried to claim the Old Testament was a complete myth and there really was no “ancient Israel”, the liberals overlook the fact that the Bible writers “got right virtually every detail [of history] that we can now confirm”. And William Dever is an atheist.
In other words, the Bible has not only survived the heaviest onslaught critics could throw at it during the 20th century, it has passed absolutely unscathed in regard to its accuracy.
Nor is Dever the secular humanist alone in making such claims defending the historical accuracy of Scripture. So too does Norman Geisler, widely regarded as one of Christianity’s leading philosophers and historians.
“Not one error that extends to the original text of the Bible has ever been demonstrated,” says Geisler, who takes the accuracy of the world’s most popular book seriously. So what would Geisler say to the second part of Meacham’s premise, where he wrote:
“The Bible is the product of human authors” – automatically implying not just the capacity for error but also deliberate deception in the comments that followed, even though no errors have actually been discovered.
Geisler sets out the logic behind the claim like this:
“Some biblical scholars argue that the Bible cannot be inerrant, through some faulty reasoning:
1. The Bible is a human book
2. Humans err
3. Therefore, the Bible errs.
“The error of this reasoning,” says Geisler, “can be seen from equally erroneous reasoning:
1. Jesus was a human being
2. Human beings sin
3. Therefore, Jesus sinned.”
But of course, there is no indication either inside the Bible or outside it that Jesus Christ ever sinned, and Geisler uses this as an example of where the liberal logic goes astray.
“The mistake is to assume that Jesus is simply human. Mere human beings sin. But Jesus was not a mere human being. He was also God. Likewise, the Bible is not merely a human book; it is also the Word of God. There can no more be an error in God’s written Word than there was a sin in God’s living Word.”
Where Geisler does acknowledge that difficulties can arise is in human interpretation of the Bible.
But Meacham’s chief line of attack against The Passion is that Gibson took the New Testament “too literally” and his film is therefore “anti Semitic”. Meacham lays the blame for that not just with Gibson but also the Gospel writers themselves.
“So why was the Gospel story – the story Gibson has drawn on – told in a way that makes “the Jews” look worse than the Romans? The Bible did not descend from heaven fully formed and edged in gilt. The writers of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John shaped their narratives several decades after Jesus’ death to attract converts and make their young religion – understood by many Christians to be a faction of Judaism – attractive to as broad an audience as possible.”
Again, Meacham’s key assumption, that “the Bible did not descend from heaven fully formed and edged in gilt”, colours his whole approach, as does his subsequent comment that the Gospels were written “decades” after the events in question. In fact, even liberal scholar John A. T. Robinson has gone on record as being convinced that the whole of the New Testament must have been written and completed before the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70 – less than 40 years after the death of Christ and well within the lifetimes of eyewitnesses who could have contradicted any errors in the Gospel accounts.
However, Meacham goes on to develop the theme further when he accuses the Gospel writer Matthew of being “partisan” for including the line at Matt 27:25, “Let his blood be upon us and on our children” in reference to taunts from the Jewish crowd when Pilate was deciding whether to crucify Christ.
From the end of a phone line 10,000 kilometres away, leading New Testament scholar Craig Blomberg is saddened by those trying to make capital out of alleged anti-Semitism in the movie.
“They’ve interpreted that as somehow a condemnation of the entire Jewish race,” comments Blomberg – author of the books The Historical Reliability of The Gospels and Jesus and the Gospels – currently based as a Professor of the New Testament at Denver Seminary, Colorado.
“As a historian, the important thing to stress is that Jesus was a Jew, all his first followers were Jewish, this was an internecine Jewish debate. The crowd was simply using the standard Hebrew idiom for saying ‘we accept responsibility for this person’s death’. In no way is it an indictment of the whole race or even the entire Jewish leadership.”
Like many others, Blomberg is well aware of the anti-Passion spin the media have been creating at every opportunity. He’s also aware that attacking the movie has become somewhat of a cause celebre for liberals wanting to redefine and limit Jesus Christ.
In the Newsweek article, for example, there are many pointers to the writer’s hidden agenda.
“The Gospels were composed to present Jesus in the best possible light,” writes Meacham, “and to put the Temple leadership in the worst possible light.” He adds that Matthew must have been writing after the fall of Jerusalem because he presumes the “blood be on us” comment to refer to the Jewish rebellion that culminated in the events of AD 70.
And it is here in the Newsweek story that Meacham begins to proffer his own version of who Christ was – not a spiritual leader but a political one who posed a direct threat to Rome, not the Jews and who, presumably, got his comeuppance.
To back up this line of reasoning, Meacham first argues that the two men crucified beside Jesus were not criminals but freedom fighters.
“In the age of Roman domination, only Rome crucified. The crime was sedition, not blasphemy—a civil crime, not a religious one. The two men who were killed along with Jesus are identified in some translations as “thieves,” but the word can also mean “insurgents,” supporting the idea that crucifixion was a political weapon used to send a message to those still living: beware of revolution or riot, or Rome will do this to you, too.”
Meacham does not reveal the source of his “insurgents” interpretation, but the most authentic ancient texts use the Greek words “kakourgos” – or “worker of evil” – and “lestes” – or “robber, brigand, one who plunders openly and by violence”. The clear context in both cases is of a criminal, “for profit” motive.
In fact, the New Testament provides an ideal contrast in the language it uses to describe Barabbas, a man who was an insurgent and who stood beside Christ as a fellow Roman prisoner when Pontius Pilate asked the Jewish crowd which prisoner they’d prefer to see released on Passover. Luke’s Gospel records Barabbas had been arrested by the Romans for murder and trying to lead a revolution.
“If Jesus had not been a political threat,” writes Meacham, “why bother with the trouble of crucifixion? There is also evidence that Jesus’ arrest was part of a broader pattern of violence or feared violence this Passover. Barabbas, the man who was released instead of Jesus, was, according to Mark, “among the rebels in prison, who had committed murder in the insurrection”—suggesting that Pilate was concerned with “rebels” and had already confronted an “insurrection” some time before he interrogated Jesus.
“Clear evidence of the political nature of the execution—that Pilate and the high priest were ridding themselves of a “messiah” who might disrupt society, not offer salvation—is the sign Pilate ordered affixed to Jesus’ cross. The message is not from the knowing Romans to the evil Jews. It is, rather, a scornful signal to the crowds that this death awaits any man the pilgrims proclaim “the king of the Jews.”
The problem for Meacham and liberal critics of The Passion, is that – based on their argument – Pilate would presumably have sent an even stronger message to “the pilgrims” if he’d nailed the more popular Barabbas to the cross, not Christ. There is no suggestion in the Gospels, or outside the Bible, that Christ led “insurgents” in any political campaign against Rome. In fact, every reference to Christ outside the Bible talks more of Jesus’ alleged “sorcery”, and people worshipping him “as to a god”, rather than a political campaign.
“On the eve of Passover Yeshu was hanged,” records a Jewish Sanhedrin document from around 90 AD. “He has practiced sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy [rejection of orthodox Judaism].”
The Roman governor Pliny, writing to the Emperor Trajan around the same time, records: “[the Christians] were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, when they sang in alternate verses a hymn to Christ, as to a god, and bound themselves by solemn oath, not to any wicked deeds, but never to commit any fraud, theft or adultery, never to falsify their word, nor deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up…”
Now, if that’s a political rebellion in the making then the Moon is made of green cheese.
Another Roman historian, Suetonius, writing of the period after Nero’s great fire of Rome about thirty years after the crucifixion, says “After the great fire at Rome…punishments were also inflicted on the Christians, a sect professing a new and mischievous religious belief.”
Meacham is right in only one respect, that Rome ultimately had much to fear from the spread of Christianity. But to argue as Newsweek does that Pontius Pilate was fearful back in 33 AD of the impact of a non-violent itinerant Jewish preacher named Jesus who might lead an “insurgency” is widely regarded as laughable by many historians.
Meacham writes: “It was as the church’s theology took shape, culminating in the Council of Nicaea in 325, that Jesus became the doctrinal Christ, the Son of God “who for us men and our salvation,” the council’s original creed declared, “descended, was incarnate, and was made man, suffered and rose again the third day, ascended into heaven and cometh to judge the living and the dead.”
But if Meacham is correct here, how does he reconcile his claim that Christ only became “the Son of God” in 325 AD, when the passages above show Christ being worshipped as God virtually from the moment of his crucifixion almost three hundred years earlier?
Even more troublesome for Meacham is perhaps the oldest passage in the entire New Testament, Paul’s dissertation on the divinity of Christ at 1 Corinthians 15:3, where he says:
“For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance – that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter and then to the Twelve.”
Denver Seminary’s Craig Blomberg explains the significance.
“You have somebody like Paul describing Christian traditions and beliefs that were passed on to him from Day 1 of his conversion, which was within two years of the death of Christ! So you have full belief in the divinity and resurrection of Jesus two years, not 325 years, after the death of Jesus.
“Now, can you still dispute the truth of those claims even in that short period of time? Sure, but to say that no one believed in the divinity of Jesus or the exalted view until 325 AD is simply a flat out factual mistake. It simply is a flat-out lie and untrue to history to say that nobody made this claim until 325, when they’d made it long before 50 AD.”
So the liberal claim that Christ only “became God” hundreds of years later because of the Church is a myth with no factual backing, yet it repeatedly goes unchallenged.
Meacham and Newsweek’s disdain for Christ’s claim to be God is clear from his article.
“The climax comes when [Jewish High Priest] Caiaphas asks Jesus: “Are you the Messiah?” and Jesus says, “I am…” and alludes to himself as “the Son of Man.” There is a gasp; the high priest rends his garments and declares Jesus a blasphemer… There is much here to give the thinking believer pause. “Son of God” and “Son of Man” were fairly common appellations for religious figures in the first century. And it was not “blasphemy” to think of yourself as the “Messiah,” which more than a few Jewish figures had claimed to be without meeting Jesus’ fate, except possibly at the hands of the Romans. The definition of blasphemy was a source of fierce Jewish argument, but it turned on taking God’s name in vain—and nothing in the Gospel trial scenes supports the idea that Jesus crossed that line.”
If it was quite common for people to call themselves the Son of God, why then did Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin react the way they did?
Meacham may attempt to shrug off the context, but Luke’s Gospel tells a different story:
“At daybreak the council of the elders of the people, both the chief priests and the teachers of the law, met together, and Jesus was led before them. ‘If you are the Christ,’ they said, ‘tell us.’
“Jesus answered, ‘If I tell you, you will not believe me, and if I asked you, you would not answer. But from now on the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the mighty God’.
“They all asked, ‘Are you then the Son of God?’
“He replied, ‘You are right in saying I am’.”
And in the Gospel of Matthew, it is recorded this way:
“The high priest said to him, ‘I charge you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God.’
“ ‘Yes, it is as you say,’ Jesus replied. ‘But I say to all of you: In the future, you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven’.
“Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, ‘He has spoken blasphemy!’ ”
It wasn’t a case, as Newsweek and the Herald imply, of a casual Messianic claim. The exchange between Jesus and the Sanhedrin is electric, loaded and definitive.
Sure, others may have claimed to be Messiahs, but none of them raised people from the dead, exorcised demons or healed the blind at a touch.
In another attack on the credibility of The Passion, the Associated Press wire service posted a feature claiming to debunk the movie’s depiction of the crucifixion. Among its many dubious claims was this pearler from Israeli anthropologist Joe Zias:
“Zias said the question of whether Jesus was nailed to the cross or simply tied to it remains a mystery. “There is no evidence whatsoever he was nailed,” he said. “The Gospels say he was crucified and leave it at that.”
“Zias criticized “The Passion of Christ” for accepting the standard version of three nails being used.”
The AP feature was sent to thousands of newspapers worldwide, but apparently no-one at AP bothered to actually check Zias’ claim that nails were not mentioned in the Bible.
At John 20:25, the disciple Thomas greets the news that Jesus has risen from the grave with scepticism: “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were…I will not believe it.”
So much for Biblical silence on the question of nails.
The other “expert” quoted in the story was John Dominic Crossan, one of the leading lights behind the now discredited “Jesus Seminar” of the 1990s. Again, no mention by AP of this.
Craig Blomberg admits that many of the “Death of God” theologians and leading lights in the Jesus-wasn’t-divine movement are elderly men and women whose own theological training came decades ago when less was known about the New Testament than today. Like tall trees in a forest, their out of date biblical knowledge is overshadowing the real work on biblical scholarship.
“That tide is slowly turning. Certain views are accepted as standard and the time by which a generation of pastors trained under other folks retires and is replaced by new people who are familiar with the new scholarship, that takes time.”
As to Bishop John Spong, whose recent New Zealand tour received extensive media coverage:
“Bishop Spong is neither trained as a New Testament scholar, nor do his writings ever read as if he’s giving a representative take, even on more liberal criticism. He’s just trying to debunk the whole thing, relegating virtually everything to ‘myth’.”
But, says Blomberg, the ‘myth’ idea is itself outdated.
“In many ways they are the ones appealing to an outmoded worldview, going back to [theologian] Rudolf Bultmann nearly 100 years ago when in some of his earliest writings he talked about how modern man in an Age of Science could no longer believe in the supernatural. That’s certainly not what philosophers of science are saying in the 21st century. They’re leaving the question of God very much open.”
In 29 years’ time, it will be exactly two thousand years since the man who claimed to be God incarnate was nailed to a Cross by Roman soldiers, at the instigation of some members of the Jewish high priesthood who wanted rid of “this turbulent priest”. And after 1971 years, Jesus is still managing to do what he predicted all those years ago:
“I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled…Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division.”
And as debate rages about The Passion, that division has never been more apparent.