New Testament scholar compares the 'Jesus of Hollywood' to the historical one

Who was Jesus and what is the true story of his life and death?

The haunting persistence of this question has been the driving force behind many scholarly and popular works, including last year's controversial film The Passion of the Christ. Co-writer and director-producer Mel Gibson claimed that the film was a historically accurate portrayal of the final hours of Jesus' life.

During a May 19 lecture titled "Jesus of Hollywood: Romans, Jews and Christians on the Silver Screen," New Testament scholar Paula Fredriksen begged to differ. Fredriksen delivered the Jewish Community Endowment Fund Lecture, sponsored by the Taube Center for Jewish Studies.

In her talk, Fredriksen, the William Goodwin Aurelio Professor of the Appreciation of Scripture at Boston University, investigated how films tamper with historical accuracy in order to achieve effects. Gibson's film is a prime example, she said.

"Gibson may genuinely believe that what he has presented in his film is the same as history, but the claim itself is demonstrably false," she said. "Gibson, in his script, picked and chose from among all four Gospels—an element here, an instance there—creating from his montage a fifth 'gospel' that has never existed."

Fredriksen was one of a select group of scholars gathered by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Anti-Defamation League to review the script after the filming was completed but while film editing was still under way. The team found a series of historical inaccuracies, including characterizations of Jews that would have been unlikely during the first century, she said.

Scholars distinguish between the Jesus of faith and the "historical Jesus," Fredriksen said. The "Jesus of Hollywood," however, has almost always been presented as an amalgam of cultural and theological interpretations placed in a historical setting.

Deliberate use of anachronism has a place as a cinematic tool, Fredriksen said. "Defiance of the text that a film is based on is the way that the film becomes unique," she said. The danger comes when anachronism is presented as truth, she said.

The scholarly review of the movie script was initiated out of concern that film might be anti-Semitic, Fredriksen said. Gibson told the scholars that the film was not intended to insult Jews in any way, she added.

Gibson's script subscribes to the common misconception that the Gospels are an indictment of the Jews who persecuted Christ, Fredriksen said. Under that interpretation, a film portraying Jews as "the bad guys" for the death of Jesus would be no more anti-Semitic than the Gospels themselves, Fredriksen explained.

Fredriksen does not think that the Gospels were intended to condemn Jews at all; in fact, she believes that the texts indicate that most of the writers were Jews themselves.

Reading the Gospels as "a blanket condemnation" of the Judaism of Jesus' contemporaries forgets that the historical Jesus was a first-century Jew engaged in disputes with other first-century Jews over issues important in first-century Judaism, Fredriksen wrote in an article about her experience with The Passion.

So how was this historical context for Jesus' life lost from the common consciousness? According to Fredriksen, the vilification of the Jews arose in the Middle Ages when religious artists moved away from Jewish texts as their source of inspiration and expanded upon the idea of the torture of the crucifixion. The idea of Christ's Passion—redemption through suffering—arose in the Middle Ages, she said.

"Allegorical images began to take on more literal meanings," Fredriksen said. The wine of the Last Supper became the literal blood of Christ, and medieval art depicted Jesus as "a grape being pressed," she said.

Fredriksen used images of Christian crucifixion art dating from the fifth through the 16th centuries to illustrate how the depiction of Jesus' death became more violent during the Middle Ages. The transformation of the image of Jesus, portrayed fully robed and "beneficent" on the cross in the fifth century, to "Christ as a cadaver" in the 15th century was the result of different theological interpretations of Jesus' life, she said.

Fredriksen emphasized that history and theology are different. History provides facts and theology infuses facts with meaning, she said. But theology ultimately depends on historical analysis. In her book From Jesus to Christ, Fredriksen wrote that "bad history will result in bad theology" and anachronism. Her hope is that the opposite also may be so: Good history—that is, accurate history—will result in good theology, she said.

Kendall Madden is an intern at the Stanford News Service.