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.)