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A newsmagazine, Mel Gibson and the Bible
February 23, 2004
By R. Albert Mohler Jr., President, Southern Seminary
Newsweek magazine has launched a frontal attack upon Mel Gibson’s movie, “The Passion of the Christ,” but the real target of the magazine’s article is the truthfulness of the Bible itself. In “Who Really Killed Jesus?: What History Teaches Us,” Newsweek’s Feb. 16 cover story, writer Jon Meacham labels Gibson’s movie “controversial,” “powerful” and “troubling.” More seriously, Meacham blasts the movie as anti-Semitic and potentially dangerous. Newsweek raises the specter of a new wave of anti-Semitism spreading across the world, directly due to the influence of Gibson’s film.
The movie is to be released Feb. 25, Ash Wednesday. According to Meacham, the movie “is already provoking a pitched battle between those who think the film unfairly blames the Jewish people for Jesus’ death and those who are instead focused on Gibson’s emotional depiction of Jesus’ torment.” Meacham concedes that Gibson “obviously reveres the Christ of faith” and then criticizes Gibson for “a literal-minded rendering of the most dramatic passages scattered throughout the four Gospels.”
Why would Meacham be surprised that Gibson turned to the Bible as the historical source for his movie? According to Newsweek, the Bible is simply not to be trusted. Mincing no words, Meacham describes the Bible as “a problematic source.” In his words: “Though countless believers take it as the immutable word of God, Scripture is not always a faithful record of historical events; the Bible is the product of human authors who were writing at particular times and places with particular points to make and visions to advance.”
Making this argument, Meacham reflects the trend of liberal biblical scholarship over the last half century. In the wake of the Holocaust and with the rise of modern sensitivities, liberal biblical critics have sought to distance themselves from the clear teachings of the Gospels. Furthermore, they have increasingly lambasted the Gospels as unreliable, anti-Semitic and largely fictional accounts intended to justify the early church’s separation from Judaism.
Beyond this, such scholars argue that the Gospels have themselves fueled anti-Semitism throughout European history and that a literal presentation of the biblical material is inherently dangerous.
In the magazine’s opening pages, editor Mark Whitaker justifies the cover story by claiming that Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” raises “disturbing questions” about who killed Christ. Pressing his point, Whitaker argues that Gibson blames the Jews of Jerusalem, rather than the Roman leadership, for the death of Christ. In Whitaker’s words, “we thought it was worth a clear-eyed review of the evidence.”
Unfortunately, Newsweek offered anything but a “clear-eyed review of the evidence.” Instead, the magazine took the opportunity to continue the slander of anti-Semitism against the Gospels and to fuel the very passions the magazine condemned.
Whitaker remarked that he had chosen managing editor Meacham to write this article because he is “an observant Episcopalian” who studied biblical history at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn., and “has remained a close follower of religious scholarship.”
Meacham may be a follower of religious scholarship, but his interest seems directed only at scholarship of a liberal bent. Whitaker stated that Meacham “dusted off his old textbooks and spoke to Christian and Jewish leaders and experts” in the development of his story. It is too bad he did not consult more conservative sources.
Without doubt, Gibson has based his movie on the New Testament accounts. He drew his narrative largely from the Gospels of John and Mark, though passages from Matthew and Luke also appear. The movie is a graphic account of the crucifixion and suffering of Christ, and the violence of the movie -- true to the biblical accounts -- has earned the film an “R” rating. Nevertheless, Meacham judges that Gibson’s literal reading of the Gospel accounts will “give most audiences a misleading picture of what probably happened in those epochal hours so long ago.”
In order to make this judgment, Meacham must assume that historical sources apart from the Bible -- sparse as they are -- are more reliable than the Bible itself. Actually, Meacham bases most of his argument on speculative readings of the biblical texts and efforts by modern liberal historians to reconstruct the historical and religious context of first-century Judaism -- not even on actual historical texts.
At the bottom of all of this lies antipathy toward the Christian Gospel, the four New Testament Gospels and the “scandal of particularity” that lies at the core of the Christian faith. The New Testament is very clear in presenting the death of Christ not as a tragedy of world history, but rather as the accomplishment of God’s saving purpose.
The question “Who killed Jesus?” should direct us to the historical reality, clearly presented in the Gospels, that complicity between the Jewish leaders and Roman authorities led to Christ’s crucifixion. But the larger point -- and the essential theological point -- is that Christ died for our sins. Thus, the correct answer to the question “Who killed Jesus?” is -- “We did.”
Christ died for sinners. That is the central theme of the New Testament Gospel and it is the essential answer Christians must give not only in the face of this controversy, but as the essence of our Christian witness.
The death of Christ was not a tragedy that befell Him. As Christ declared, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11). Further, “No one takes it from me, but I lay it down at my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father” (John 10:18).
The cross does not represent defeat, but victory. Jesus Christ did not have His life taken from Him -- He gave it willingly for sinners.
Regrettably, Newsweek decided to use this release of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” to level its attack upon the New Testament. The controversy over the movie will produce many opportunities for truth-telling in the midst of the confusion. It’s up to us to tell the rest of the story.