“WHAT IS TRUTH?” Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, famously asked Jesus in the Gospel according to John. For the Evangelist it was a moment of supreme irony: the chief of the powers that be, as the New Testament calls the lords of this earth, was face to face with truth incarnate, and refused to recognize him. The irony is more prosaic in the Gospel according to Mel. When Pilate asks his question in Mel Gibson’s monumental bloodbath, The Passion of the Christ—a film dedicated to being “as true as possible,” according to its press kit—the governor speaks in Latin, a language Jesus would not have understood. In any version Pilate does not wait for an answer, but spins on his heels and departs, leaving his existential question to reverberate through the millennia. The Christ of faith has proved difficult enough for his followers to grasp; the Jesus of history remains even more elusive.
Not for Christian traditionalists, of course, who do not distinguish between the two. The Passion, a fundamentalist epic from its antique title—most Christians have half-forgotten that “Christ” is not a surname but a descriptive meaning “the anointed one”—to its uncritical embrace of the Gospels as history, is made for them. It’s an intriguing question to what extent conservative American Protestants— Passion’s intended audience—will embrace the film’s blood-soaked medieval Catholicism. The early signs are positive for Gibson. While film critics have been overwhelmingly repulsed, prominent pastors and many of their congregants have emerged enthralled. Christian stores that received their Passion merchandise after the movie’s Ash Wednesday opening-when it grossed US$23.6 billion in North America—reported brisk advance requests, particularly for tiny pewter replicas of crucifixion nails to be worn as pendants. But evangelical Christians who hoped the film would work as outreach—that is, converting others to the faith—are liable to be disappointed. The gulf in world views seems too great, not just between secular and religious, but between the Christians who see their Scriptures as literal history and those who view them as metaphor.
For 200 years, scholars conscious of the Gospels’ forthright agenda—detailing the transformation of Jesus of Nazareth into Jesus Christ—have tried to peel back the finished product to find what lies beneath. It’s called, portentously enough, the quest for the historical Jesus, or at times in the U.S., the Jesus Wars. The search has been frustrating. Time and again it crashes against the cliff face that looms before all New Testament historical inquiry. There is sufficient third-party evidence brief references by Roman observers, for the most part to convince even the most secular historian that Jesus lived, preached, outraged the authorities and was crucified, probably in 30 CE.
And that’s it.
Everything else comes from within the faith tradition: the 27 books of the New Testament and an equal number of so-called apocryphal works. The latter are writings that were not allowed into the canon—the authorized Christian texts—when it was finally hammered out in the fourth and fifth centuries. Like the canon itself, which ruthlessly pruned among the texts that were accepted by early believers to create a tightly woven narrative, so too are the individual Gospels selective. John concludes with “there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books.” There’s still more than enough for those within the communion. But for many historians the burning questions—what did Jesus believe about himself, what did he say and do as opposed to what others said about him—seem forever beyond their grasp.
Scholars have no choice but to try to read between the lines, seeking knots in the narrative thread, evidence of the Evangelists tying up loose ends or stretching a point to make their accounts square with Old Testament predictions. “That the Scripture should be fulfilled” is one of the most common phrases in the New Testament, seen for instance where Roman soldiers inexplicably toss dice for the privilege of winning the bloody rags of clothing taken from the crucified Christ. The Gospel of John found their actions odd enough that its author created a special seamless garment for Jesus, something worth gaming for.
Most Biblical experts sweep away much that is beloved in the Christian tradition, including the whole of Jesus’ childhood. No virgin birth—it’s in only two Gospels, and St. Paul, the earliest writer in the New Testament, rejects the idea—no wise men, no heavenly choir of angels, no debating the elders at age 12. All of it retroactively applied by followers who believed so astonishing a figure must have shown signs and portents throughout his life. (Many scholars would allow that Jesus was a carpenter, since the description is in averse of Mark, the oldest of the Gospels. Even so Matthew, borrowing from Mark, seemingly found it unworthy of the Saviour, and made him a carpenter’s son.) But emotionally important as the Christ child accounts might be to millions, they do not go to the heart of the Gospel story.
The Resurrection does. And the passion stories are one of the main focuses of historians’ interest. Around one unquestioned historical fact—crucifixion—the Evangelists weave the mystical climax of their transformation of the Jesus of history into the Christ of faith. And those same stories have also been for centuries the sharp edge of Christian anti-Semitism. The reaction inspired by Gibson’s graphic violence in Passion is a hiccup in comparison to the storm of anti-Semitism accusations brought on by his narrative fidelity to the Gospels, complete with scenes of scheming priests and a Jewish mob howling “crucify him, crucify him.”
Since the Holocaust, Christians have looked at their anti-Semitic past in horror and wondered just how much of it was necessarily rooted in the Gospels. The Evangelists do include a handful of poisonous comments, pregnant with future persecution, particularly Matthew’s notorious cry from the crowd: “His blood be upon us, and on our children.” Outside of those barbs, and taken on their own terms, the Gospels can be read as describing the vicious repression exercised by a corrupt power elite.
But the Gospels can’t now be taken only on their own terms. History since the texts were written obliterates the stories within them. The Gospels, especially John, are the gateway to centuries of murderous anti-Semitism. Medieval Passion plays, popular versions of Christ’s death and resurrection whose villains were Judas and the high priests of Jerusalem, frequently led to anti-Jewish rioting and outright pogroms. Prudent civic leaders, Jewish and Christian, often barricaded the entrances to Jewish ghettos at Easter time.
Gibson manifestly tried, within the overarching Gospel narrative, to be sensitive to Jewish concerns. He even went outside the Biblical box to keep the blame fixed on particular individuals, Roman and Jewish. Scenes not attributable to the Evangelists show a Temple guard bribing civilians to ensure the high priests have an anti-Jesus rent-a-crowd at the ready when they call on Pilate. And at the Sanhedrin trial, two priests try to speak on Jesus’ behalf, but are forcibly silenced. However, Gibson falls down badly—probably without ever realizing he was in danger—with the fate of Judas. Expanding wildly on Matthew, who writes only that after repenting the betrayer “went and hanged himself,” Gibson has a group of children, some whose faces briefly morph into Satanic visages, harass a remorseful Judas into suicide. It’s unclear what the director was trying to express, but Jewish and Christian critics are appalled by what Gerald Caron, a Catholic priest who teaches Biblical studies at the Atlantic School of Theology in Halifax, calls “demonized Jewish children.” That’s a charge echoed by Ruth Klein, an official with B’nai Brith Canada, who denounces those same “vile images.”
It hardly matters that the leering, sadistic Roman soldiers who actually carry out the torture and crucifixion come off as badly as any group of Jews; as Caron notes, they’ve left no direct descendants to be outraged by, or persecuted over, their portrayal. Pilate is played in the film exactly as he is laid out in the Gospels’ deliberate—and delicate—whitewash. As much as they wanted to emphasize, for the safety of their nascent Christian communities throughout the Roman Empire, that their founder was not guilty of breaching imperial law, the Evangelists could not ignore the governor’s role. If there was one thing universally known about Jesus Christ, it was that Pontius Pilate signed the death warrant. The Roman historian Tacitus mentions it, as does his Jewish counterpart Josephus (who adds that he did so on the urging of the Temple elite). Pilate is the sole figure from Jesus’ trial to become part of the Nicene Creed, the most widely accepted capsule statement of Christian faith: “For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate.”
What the Evangelists made of the governor—the only man in Jerusalem with the power to crucify—has since invoked rage and despair in Jews accused of deicide, and a far more ambiguous response from Christians. In the Coptic Church, Pilate, having finally realized the right answer to “what is truth,” repents and becomes a saint. For most Christians, though, he became the eternal vacillating politician, a man who knows he’s doing wrong but caves into expediency. Pragmatically, the Gospel writers make Pilate at best a weakling, at worst a judicial murderer, even though it was necessary, in fulfillment of the Scriptures, for somebody—in Christian theology, everybody—to kill Christ. Only then could Jesus accomplish his purpose and bear the sins of the world.
It’s axiomatic among historians that Pilate killed Jesus, and without hesitation. On what happened next—physical, spiritual or metaphorical resurrection—there’s no agreement. Just an acknowledgment that Jesus left behind a small band of followers who began working out the meaning of the most shattering moment in their lives. Similarly, scholars strive to find a way to evaluate the sayings and deeds ascribed to Jesus, sometimes with peculiar results.
The best-known force in the quest has been the media-savvy Jesus Seminar in California, once thought cutting edge and now considered an embarrassment by many mainstream academics. That’s primarily because of its method of deciding whether a particular Gospel saying was uttered by Jesus or added to the account by an Evangelist. Participants voted, using coloured beads, on whether the saying was certain, probable, improbable or impossible. Their weirdly cheery language (red meant “that’s Jesus! ”) amused some of their peers, but the procedure’s flawed methodology—statistically it’s skewed to the wishy-washy maybe/maybe not responses—offended far more. Especially since it meant the Seminar ended up being sure Christ said only about 18 per cent of what is attributed to him. Nor was the reasoning impressive. After the Seminar voted that Christ did not compose the Lord’s Prayer, one participant explained that elsewhere the Gospels showed Jesus disliked religious formulas. On what basis those parts of the text were deemed authentic was not explained. Too often the quest descends to this, reconstructing a historical Jesus based on no more than what appeals to the writer.
Modern writers have done better in the area of emphasizing Christ’s Jewishness and in reconstructing the society of first-century Palestine. Scholars by no means agree on what kind of Jew Jesus was—a decade ago the American Catholic expert John Dominic Crossan counted no fewer than seven distinct varieties ranging from political revolutionary to charismatic seer in recent books. But the new studies do provide ever richer context—what kind of living marginalized peasants like Christ, his family and friends could have scraped; what they would have been raised to believe, pray and proclaim.
But context, however valuable in helping purge Christianity of residual anti-Semitism, is a matter of “could have, should have.” What of the long-sought hard historical fact is on offer? Precious little. Experts may have lately expanded their tool kit—the body of material they can mine—to include the Apocrypha on an equal basis to the New Testament, but their evidence is still from within the religious tradition. Crossan, whose own 1991 book, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant, is a milestone in the quest, describes the widely divergent Jesuses he saw in other works as evidence that too many in the field write “theology and call it history.” But from a more secular-minded position, Crossan shows as much unhistorical thinking as any other Biblical scholar.
More than a century ago the first wave of modern Biblical historians made a major conceptual breakthrough, postulating a lost gospel—known as Q, meaning Quelle, German for “source”—to explain material common to the Gospels of Matthew and Luke but missing from Mark, their main source. A century is long enough to have made the idea of Q so familiar to scholars that a majority of them, including Crossan, treat it as an actual document. At one point Crossan writes that Q and the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas have about a third of their material in common—a head-spinning thing to say about a hypothetical text.
When even the most prominent of the scholars remains locked in this closed loop, doing theology rather than history—and with a faith that rivals the fundamentalism they reject—it may be that their labour will never yield more plain “fact” than what is known now. Jesus lived, taught, was crucified. And rose again, millions of people worldwide would add. The rest—no matter how often the life of Jesus is recreated in books or films—is silence, and faith.*