History Through a Faith-Based Lens

When I was in graduate school, my dissertation adviser returned an early draft of my thesis — a treatment of how Quaker theology influenced the origins of public schooling in Philadelphia — and remarked: “You’re religious! What else is wrong with your thinking?”

While my passion to defend my Quaker faith was admirable, my bank account wasn’t. So I yielded to his demand to abandon my own interpretation and adopt his in order to secure my doctorate. Only those who are truly committed to their religious faith can understand the pain of that decision.

Mel Gibson is paying a similar price for his just-released movie, “The Passion of the Christ.” His most vocal critics are Jewish leaders who view his work as anti-Semitic and they are taking their case to the court of public opinion.

“Passion” is Gibson’s interpretation of the final 12 hours of the life of Jesus. The film quickly earned the wrath of interfaith leaders who read the script and saw an early cut of the movie, which lays sole responsibility for the crucifixion on the Jews — not just the high priests, but all Jews for all time. Responsibility for Jesus’s death, they argue, was shared with the Romans. Moreover, they say that blanket condemnation of the Jews was rejected by the Vatican four decades ago.

Especially offensive to Jewish leaders is a scene in which Caiaphas, a high priest, delivers a curse on the Jews for condemning Jesus to crucifixion, saying: “His blood be on us, and on our children.” Although the passage is a direct quotation from the Gospel of Matthew (27:25-26) and the cast speaks only in Aramaic and Latin, Gibson, yielding to the criticism, removed the quotation’s offensive subtitle from the film.

Gibson may not possess the credentials of a historian, but his right to interpret the life of as he understands it is not debatable.

Some may argue that Gibson, an ultraconservative Catholic, falls victim to the same error that has befallen many believers who try to interpret the life of Jesus — the inability to reconcile the legend of the Christ with the critical methods of inquiry and historical evidence that fail to support it. In other words, their work lacks historical objectivity.

Those who criticize Gibson, however, ignore the fact that history is an interpretation and that believers as well as non-believers have not a only a right, but a responsibility, to write it. Films that are based on historical figures and events are also interpretations of those who write the screenplay. While an interpretation of the past must be supported by historical documentation, it also reflects the understanding and views of the individual who wrote it.

Gibson, who has been accused of the single-mindedness of a fundamentalist, might have easily fallen victim to Paul’s statement to the Philippians that it doesn’t matter how or why the teachings of Jesus are spread, as long as they were gaining the attention of others. Such a statement places little emphasis on the accuracy and documentary evidence that must substantiate a historical interpretation.

This is not the case with Gibson, whose interpretation of Jesus is based on the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John as well as on accounts and interpretations by other saints, nuns, and religious scholars. He has been a serious student of the scriptures for most of his adult life and has gone to great lengths to portray the environmental context of ancient Rome and the Hebrew culture in his film.

Why can’t the critics take him at his word when Gibson insists that his intention in bringing “Passion” to the screen is “to create a lasting work of art and engender serious thought among audiences of diverse faith backgrounds.” Indeed, films, as much as historical monographs, can be powerful educational vehicles that reveal truth in matters of human affairs and force us to go beyond the political correctness of our contemporary society.

At the same time, historians like filmmakers respect the intelligence of their audiences enough to know that their work is, indeed, an individual’s interpretation of history and not the definitive treatment of it. My experience with religion has taught me that man can only arrive at part of the truth; only God possesses an understanding of the whole truth.

It might be well, then, to view “Passion” as a part of a truth that brings us closer to each other, no matter what our faith, by learning about how Jews and Christians interpret the life of Jesus.

Perhaps, in the process, we can become closer to a common God.

William C. Kashatus's is a writer for the History News Service. His most recent book is "Money Pitcher: The Tragedy of Indian Assimilation."

February, 2004