March 1, 2004

'Passion' Stirs Campus Discussion

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Opening nation wide on Ash Wednesday, Mel Gibson’s controversial new film The Passion of the Christ has elicited much media attention: in Wichita, Kan., a woman died while watching the climactic crucifixion scene; apparently the pope enjoyed the film, according to anonymous Vatican sources; and many Jewish groups have taken offense to the film’s treatment of the Jews’ role in the death of Jesus.

On the Cornell campus, the film has generated much discussion.

“Discussions about religious views can be a good thing,” said Prof. Kimberly Haines-Eitzen, near eastern studies. Haines-Eitzen specializes in the study of early Christianity and Judaism. In the class “Judaism, Christianity & Islam”, co-taught by Haines-Eitzen and Prof. Ross Brann, chair, near eastern studies, they have been discussing early Christianity and its roots in Judaism.

Much of the controversy in the film relates to the portrayal of the Jews and their role in the punishment and execution of Jesus.

“I’m not going to contribute to anything that’s anti-Semitic,” said Rob Cossin ’03, when asked why he would not see the film.

Gibson, when responding to allegations of anti-Semitism, responded by saying he was only showing what was in the gospels.

According to Haines-Eitzen, in the thirty year period between the collection of the Gospel of Mark and the Gospel of John, attitudes regarding the role of the Romans and the Jews in the death of Jesus changed considerably, as shown in the texts.

Haines-Eitzen sees the trend as being increasingly favorable to the Romans and less favorable to the Jews. The Romans in the later gospels come across as being much more reluctant to execute Jesus and the Jews appear more bloodthirsty. Indeed in the film, Pilate does appear to be very reluctant to execute Jesus, proclaiming to the crowd of Jews that Jesus has not done anything wrong. However, when the crowd began to riot chanting “crucifixion” over and over he gave in to their demands.

Haines-Eitzen has not seen the film, but based on what she had heard, she said thought that Gibson was probably influenced by the later gospels.

The use of ancient languages by Gibson also made the film quite unique. The Jews and Jesus spoke in Aramaic while the Romans spoke in Latin. However Haines-Eitzen added that there is still a lot of debate about what languages officials in Palestine and the broader public would have spoken. In the cities, there was a large mixture of people from Jews to non-Jews to Roman occupiers. Haines-Eitzen said that it has been verified that Jesus spoke in Aramaic, but little is known about what else was spoken. Recently, there has been much research into Hellenistic influence in the area. Indeed, it is possible that many people would have spoken Greek as well.

Actor James Caviezel, who played Jesus, was accidentally whipped twice leaving a 14 inch scar on his back, had his shoulder dislocated after dropping the 150 pound cross, was struck by lightning twice once filming the sermon on the mount scene and again filming the crucifixion scene and got hypothermia.

Indeed much of the brutality in the film has also been an issue.

“To me the movie was about human suffering. Without excessive brutality, there would have been no movie,” said Marielle Newsome ’07.

“[The film] was defiantly hard to follow. If you don’t know the story then you are basically lost,” said Giorgio Piccoli ’07.

The first half of the film before the long punishing and crucifixion scenes involved the turning in of Jesus and other story elements not familiar to people without a related religious background. Also at the end of the film, the events taking place after the death of Jesus might not be familiar to non-experts.

“I’m not going to pay for [seeing the film] because it seems sort of religious fundamentalist to me. But, I want to go see it so I can see what all the fuss is about,” said Javed Qadrud-din ’07.

“But I’m not going to pay,” he added.

Archived article by Ted Van Loan