Daily Archives: February 18, 2004

The Passion and its sources

One of the defenses Mel Gibson has used in the controversy over his film The Passion of the Christ is to say, basically, that he’s just using the source material of the four Gospel accounts of Jesus’ death. Take for example the spurious quote of the Pope, “It is as it was.” But as it was is a very complex matter, and I figured I’d go into it for the benefit of Jews, Muslims, pagans, anyone who simply isn’t readily familiar with the New Testament (I see you, Roy!), and all the rest of us doomed-to-Hell types.

The problem with putting together an “accurate” account of the last days of Jesus of Nazareth is that the earliest known account of his life, the Gospel of Mark, was only written forty years or more after his death, and all other accounts of those last days are apparently derived from that one source. None of the Gospels was written by anyone who knew Jesus; quite likely none of them was written with anyone who knew Jesus as a direct source. (All the New Testament books were written in Greek; Jesus and his immediate followers spoke Aramaic as their day-to-day language.) Mel Gibson probably doesn’t believe this, but the Catholic Church does. It’s been accepted by the Church since Vatican II at least, and I think earlier. I myself was taught this in a Catholic high school theology course. (Note: I’ve dumped a lot of explanatory material about the relations between the Gospels under the “MORE” window.)

Basically put, the two earliest Gospels are Mark and Matthew; the narrative of the latter is closely based upon the former. (I use italics for these books because the authors are always anonymous and certainly not the early Church figures to whom they were later attributed.) It’s clear that the other two are even later. It’s equally clear that Mark was only written after the destruction of the Temple (and the rest of Jerusalem) in 70 AD, probably only a couple of years after. Jesus was executed (by the Roman authorities!) in 30 AD, most likely. (The date isn’t clear, but it could only have been in a few different years and this is the best fit.) Matthew was written a few years later, and Luke and John probably early in the second century. While the general story of Jesus’ execution is the same in all four, they vary in the details. And the details are precisely what’s in question here.

The thing is that anti-Jewish polemic (as opposed to attacks upon specific Jewish leaders or sects) is pretty much limited to the latter two books. In Mark (Chap. 15), the “chief priests” are accused of stirring up “the multitude” to demand Jesus’ execution. Similarly, Matthew (Chap. 27) says that it was the “chief priests and elders”… but includes the scene where Pilate (who historically never flinched from brutality) washes his hands of the matter. In Luke (Chap. 23), there’s apparently no need to stir up the multitude, and Pilate seems to be trying to hold them back. And in John (Chap. 18-19), the latest Gospel, the priests and elders aren’t even there, and it’s not the multitude but “the Jews” who force a reluctant Pilate’s hand.

(UPDATE: It’s been pointed out that my account of John 18-19 is a bit misleading. It’s true that the “chief priests and elders” are mentioned as arresting Jesus and bringing him to Pilate, so they’re “there”. They indeed make the case against him. But throughout, it’s “the Jews” who condemn Jesus and call for his crucifixion. “The Jews” is used of Jesus’ opponents nine times in the scenes before Pilate, “the chief priests” three times. And in one of the latter occasions, Pilate says “your people and your chief priests”. In John, the guilt is clearly laid at the feet of the Jewish people as a whole in a way it is not in the other Gospels.)

In summary, the later you go in time, the worse the Jewish people come off in the Gospel stories. In the earliest, they aren’t blameless, but are being manipulated by their leaders into something they wouldn’t otherwise do. By the latest Gospel, they’re being blamed en masse. It’s fairly certain that this reflects not the situation of the time of Jesus, but the situation of the time of the writing of the Gospels. In 70 AD, Christianity was still deeply embedded in the Jewish tradition, and many Christians were born Jewish — or their parents had been — and they still considered themselves Jews; Christians no doubt hoped that soon enough the “other” Jews would see the light. By 100 AD, this was no longer so.

All this depends upon not seeing the Biblical stories as literally true. The Catholic Church no longer insists upon this. Mel Gibson’s “traditionalist” Catholicism does. Is it any wonder that he’s marketing his film to fundamentalist Protestants?

(Lots more below.)
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The Holy Roman Empire of launch vehicles

Space plane cancellation made official

It wasn’t a plane, it couldn’t get to space on its own, and like the Holy Roman Empire it is now officially extinct. An awful lot of work is now down the drain, but it was time to cut their losses, I guess.

They’re moving onto the Crew Exploration Vehicle, and there’s a good chance that the design work will be done in Huntsville again. I can’t wait to see what’s wrong with this one.

Bird Flu spreads

Thailand report ends hope of limiting spread of bird flu

Bird flu is “resurgent” in Thailand and has spread to seven new areas in China, including Tibet. The Thai cases are apparently the result of fighting cocks that weren’t culled because their owners wouldn’t turn them over. Meanwhile, in a zoo east of Bangkok, a leopard has died and a tiger is now recovering from the virus. Among humans, the death toll is now 22. Japan was going to declare itself free of the disease but it’s popped up again.

What, another one?

Court Upholds Neb. Commandments Ruling

One of those fifties-vintage park monuments this time. Its various supporters were making the same claim that this wasn’t about establishment of religion, even though it’s a text from the Bible and there are Magen Davids on the monument. Again, when you put the Commandments up all by their lonesome, it’s a pretty obvious religious statement. If its about “historical, cultural, moral and literary qualities”, then it should be part of a display with other documents of the type, not a five-foot tall granite monument in the middle of a park. Or the state judicial building, for that matter.

Sutton Too

CNN.com – Treasure hunters find possible Viking burial boat – Feb. 18, 2004

Bear with me, but I think this sort of thing is just neat. “Amateur metal detector enthusiasts” — is there any other kind? — found a few little ninth-century artifacts in Yorkshire. Some of the findings were nails normally used to build boats; archaeologists think it’s the site of a longship burial.

We’re past that

Southern Research to test SARS serum

A SARS vaccine? That is so 2003. We’re on to bird flu now. Anyway, the Canadians don’t have the facilities to test vaccines (oh, my, I hope the Canadians don’t come after me for pointing this out!) so they have to ask Southern Research Institute in Birmingham for help.

Gentlemen, start your obituaries!

CNN.com – Source: Dean to suspend campaign – Feb. 18, 2004

What a strange campaign. How can you go so quickly from runaway frontrunner to not winning any primaries? I was hoping he’d drop out last night. The pundits were talking like he was staying in, but I heard his “we’ll carry on the fight”-type statements as “The Presidential campaign is over, let’s try to change things another way.”

I was gratified to see that Edwards did so well. Those early returns that had him in the lead… Well, that could have changed everything. I thought that the campaign was over after Virginia and Tennessee, but I may have jumped the gun. At the least, Kerry has to consider Edwards a serious contender, and as a VP candidate. And maybe, just maybe, we can still pull this off.

Edwards is still playing the nice guy, but did anyone catch the mini-slam he came up with on Larry King? I flipped over during a commercial break on 24, and he was talking about the other candidates beside him and Kerry: “Dennis Kucinich, and Al Sharpton, and Howard Dean”. Oooh.

I don’t think Edwards can rely upon winning Georgia and other Southern states to maintain him on Super Tuesday. He has to win a big, non-Southern, prize: California, New York, or Ohio.