Apr 14, 2004 — Following are excerpts from a lecture delivered in March by Dr. Louis Feldman, Abraham Wouk Family Professor of Classics and Literature at YU, on the recent Mel Gibson film, “The Passion of the Christ.” Dr. Feldman made his remarks at the Jewish Community Center (JCC) in Manhattan. The excerpts are taken from the March 25, 2004 edition of The Commentator, the official student newspaper of YC and Sy Syms School of Business. To read the full transcript of Dr. Feldman’s speech, please visit www.yucommentator.com.
Who Really Killed Jesus: A Critical Response to “The Passion.”
By Dr. Louis H. Feldman
Thank you very much. As Eli Wiesel has said, the world is willing to forget the slaughter of six million innocent Jews sixty years ago, but it will never let the Jews forget the execution of that one Jew two thousand years ago.
What we have in the film “The Passion” is a passion play of the sort that used to be put on in Oberammergau and which was always an occasion not merely for the production of the play, but also for raising the population against the Jews. And I believe that the danger of such a film is tremendous, precisely because it is a passion play type, and this will be the most watched passion play in history. Billy Graham has remarked that this film is a lifetime of sermons in one movie.
Now, what has Mel Gibson done in this movie? He himself has said that his intention is to make “a responsible, historically accurate movie.” And that is what I want to talk about, whether it is historically accurate, whether it is a responsible movie. The fact that he chose to have the movie in two languages which most people don’t know — the Jews speak Aramaic and the Romans speak Latin — is I think a key to his intention. He wanted to have people think this is the way it really was, this is what really was said by both the Jews and by the Romans.
Now, the fact that he chose Latin is a very interesting point because at that particular time, in that particular place in Judaea, Latin was not the prevalent language. Certainly most of the soldiers we know in the Roman army came from the immediate area, and they spoke Greek. So why should Gibson have chosen to have the Roman soldiers speaking Latin? The answer, I think, is that he was very much upset by Vatican II forty years ago, and he wants to turn the clock back.
Now, one of the things that Vatican II did was to make it optional for the mass to be conducted in various languages, whereas originally, as you know, it was certainly for many, many centuries in Latin. So he wants to have the Latin brought back. And the Latin in the film, I might say, is not the Latin that was spoken by Cicero. It is church Latin. He wanted to have this film as a religious experience, not as an intellectual experience, an emotional experience.
I thought to myself, as I was watching the film, how could the actors have memorized their lines in a foreign language? It must have been very difficult for them. They didn’t know Aramaic; they didn’t know Latin. Then I realized, as I watched the film, why it was not really so difficult. Because the film actually has very few spoken lines, has very little dialogue. It’s basically an attempt to present these people as people who have faces, and there are a tremendous number of shots of individuals, particularly, as we’ll see, the high priest, shots of the high priest. The film, in effect, is much more than the words. It is really a panorama.
Now, the film, of course, claims to be accurate in the sense that from Mel Gibson’s point of view, it is a correct representation of the account of the last hours in the life of Jesus according to the Gospels. However, the fact that it depends upon the Gospels immediately raises a number of questions. Because, after all, when you say the Gospels, there are four different accounts in the Gospels and they don’t agree with one another in a number of respects. For example, there are different genealogies of Jesus. They have different accounts of the trial of Jesus. And we’ll see there are other discrepancies.