Our Feb. 16 cover story on the crucifixion of Jesus, and the controversy surrounding Mel Gibson's movie "The Passion of the Christ," drew hundreds of responses. Many thanked us for tackling the subject. "I haven't read such an unbiased and scholarly article on a religious issue in a long time," said one. Another, wary of the movie, recommended that our analysis "be required reading before anyone sees the less-than-historical and ever-so-slanted film." Others criticized, some vehemently, our assertion that the Bible isn't necessarily historically accurate and was written by humans. "Yes, mere men wrote the Bible," one argued, "but the Holy Spirit guided them." Others defended "The Passion" as "a bold attempt to produce an accurate documentary on a subject in which Gibson strongly believes," as an Oregonian said. "Shouldn't we be challenged by an artist's convictions, even if they aren't trendy?" A sampling:
Jon Meacham's article on the death of Jesus is simply the best feature-length piece on a Biblical topic ever to appear in a major American news magazine ("Who Killed Jesus?" Feb. 16). He demonstrates an understanding of historical studies of Biblical subject matter that is far superior to any other major magazine's usual fare on religion. His writing is not only clear for the lay reader, it is also deeply informed by the scholarship of the past 200 years. The way this solidly researched and plain-spoken article undresses the pretense of Mel Gibson's movie "The Passion of the Christ" without resorting to caricature will be very helpful to a wide range of the public.
Hal Taussig, Visiting Professor of New Testament
Union Theological Seminary
New York, N.Y.
As a Christian pastor I am well aware of the periodic blaming of "the Jews" for having "killed" Jesus. That phrase--"the Jews"--presents a rather foolish argument. Jesus and his followers would never have referred to their own people as "the Jews" without there being some kind of distinction, as Jon Meacham notes. More important, it is downright silly to enter into an argument over who killed a person whom you believe did not remain "dead" and whose suffering Friday we call "Good." We are 2,000 years removed from the event, and the human knowledge gained since then should tell us that the cross was not there to drive a wedge between Jews and Christians. The Crucifixion was, for all its horror, an act of God's love now covered with the junk of thousands of books and varying theologies to the point where it is almost completely buried. One more movie should not make much difference.
Rev. Richard I. Learned (ret.)
Jon Meacham suggests that Mel Gibson should have followed the suggested Roman Catholic instructions that Passion plays not pick and choose among Gospel narratives. Yet the gist of Meacham's analysis seems to be not that Gibson picked and chose what to include and exclude from the Gospels' accounts, but that Gibson chose the wrong things. Gibson, the filmmaker, has creative control over the film's content. Meacham may not like the film, but it wasn't his to make.
Ronald A. Jones
Though your cover story on "the Passion of the Christ" was ostensibly about the movie, Jon Meacham was actually critically reviewing the Bible itself. As Meacham states, "the Bible can be a problematic source," and "Scripture is not always a faithful record of historical events." Meacham expresses the age-old view that the Bible is man's word about God, rather than God's word to man. Subsequently, if he believes the Bible is problematic, he will indeed find "The Passion of the Christ" problematic. Without the infallibility of the Scriptures, there would have been no Reformation. Without sola scriptura, our faith becomes a man-made "religion" rather than faith in the Word who became flesh (John 1:14).
As long as there are Christians like Mel Gibson who focus their energies on Jesus' suffering and death, instead of on his life and teachings, there will always be Christian anti-Semitism and a need to assign guilt to someone. Only when Christians learn to "turn the other cheek," "love thy neighbor as thyself" and "forgive thine enemies" can they truly say they are followers of Jesus.
Stuart M. Rappaport
Heartfelt thanks and congratulations to Jon Meacham for skillfully navigating the tempestuous waters of religious righteousness. I am an Episcopal Christian with close relationships to many Jewish people. My spiritual journey is ongoing, and I am curious and interested to see "The Passion of the Christ" for that reason alone. Meacham's rational explanations of historical context combined with kindness, temperance and hope are a wonderful example of how we might best explore one another's faith.
Susan E. Matelich
It strikes me as inappropriate that Jon Meacham takes a dry, detached, journalistic tone in making such pronouncements as "Scripture is not always a faithful record of historical events" and the claim that the Bible's authors "shaped their narratives several decades after Jesus' death to attract converts and make their young religion--understood by many Christians to be a faction of Judaism--attractive to as broad an audience as possible," without a disclaimer that this is a view held only by some. Why work such a dismissive note of authority into his far from universally held understanding of the Bible's origins and accuracy? I'll match my credentials as a textual critic with his any day, and I accept the Bible's accuracy and reject the claim that it pushes a human agenda.
Doyle Srader, Ph.D., Dept. of Communication
Stephen F. Austin State University
In an age when the "scariest" and most polarizing thing in America is a seconds-long flash of bare breast on television, I find it upsetting that religious leaders are wasting so much time on Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ." Are Americans really so closed-minded today that they are afraid people will accept one man's artistic impression as a representation of reality? I would like to think, were I a Christian or Jew, that my faith would be strong enough not to be threatened by a film or painting. But the furor and offense over "The Passion," a film, as I write this, not even yet released, says otherwise about the nature of people. Religion is the one aspect of society that refuses to evolve, clinging in fright to its ancient superstitions and archaic antifeminist stereotypes, wearing its millenniums-old inflexibility and adherence to tradition above all as a badge of honor. But institutions must change as the needs of people change over time; perhaps religious leaders should wrangle with the question of what is important about being religious and stop being so touchy about what other people think.
Aaron R. Davis
Why doesn't your article mention the historical details that suggest no one is responsible for the death of Jesus because he never existed? Radical, New Age thinking? Not at all. The argument is as old as Christianity itself. The early Christians, known as Gnostics, saw Jesus as a myth whose story was told for its allegorical undertones. In fact, myths of a crucified and resurrected god-man can be found in just about every culture, many predating--sometimes by thousands of years--the time when Christ was supposed to have lived. The similarities between some of these myths and the New Testament's Jesus of Nazareth are often so close as to make them indistinguishable. Some may consider this blasphemy, but some churches have not denied these connections, explaining that the Devil has placed these myths in the past in order to confuse us.
Mel Gibson ought to send a bouquet of flowers to the Anti-Defamation League as a thank-you for helping to turn his doomed-to-failure, Aramaic and Latin, anti-Jewish, Bible movie into a social phenomenon that made the cover of NEWSWEEK. Now millions of people who would have ignored the movie will rush out to see what the fuss is all about. The ADL did a disservice to the Jewish community that they pretend to protect.
New Brunswick, N.J.
I subscribe to NEWSWEEK for my waiting room, but felt the Feb. 16 cover was too gruesome and inappropriate for the children who frequent my office. After placing the copy where children would not see it, it occurred to me that I could remove the cover and return it to the waiting room. But I was horrified to see yet another bloody picture of Jesus' torso. Too gruesome for adults, as well as children.
St. Clair Shores, Mich.
As a conservative pastor I read with frustration your predictable slant regarding Mel Gibson's movie "The Passion." Your prejudice is clear to those who study and believe the Bible to be the infallible Word of God. Who were the scholars you consulted for your information? Are Billy Graham, Pat Robertson or the pope not scholarly enough? They have all seen the movie. Hollywood takes no responsibility for the moral filth it produces, so why does it believe now that this particular movie will affect society and cause anti-Semitism? Such hypocrisy is mind-boggling. Never in my life has hearing or studying the passion of Christ caused anyone I know one bit of anger toward the Jewish faith. The church I am familiar with prays for the safety of Israel, supports it in its struggle and is probably the best friend it has in America. I am equally astounded that some of Hollywood is charging the movie with being too violent and too graphic. Has anyone paid any attention to the graphic violence that is produced today and hailed as art? The liberal media and Hollywood should admit their hatred for Jesus and his church and be done with the charade.
Lake Isabella, Calif.
I am a Roman Catholic and am looking forward to Mel Gibson's new movie. I find it difficult to believe that in this day and age anyone would accuse the Jewish people of killing Christ. There were some men who happened to be Jewish and some Romans who made the decision. People seem to forget that Jesus, Mary (his mother), all the apostles and all his followers were Jewish and certainly not responsible for his death. The sins of the world are responsible for the death of Jesus.
I find it hard to believe that anyone would trust Mel Gibson to produce a truly accurate portrayal of the last hours of Jesus Christ. Here is a man who says he attends mass every morning--only to turn around and make violent films like "Lethal Weapon 4" and "The Patriot," which glorify the violence that he so condemns in "The Passion." Thanks, but I'd rather take lessons in history and morality elsewhere.
Mark A. Sawchuk
I'm afraid Jon Meacham understates the case when he says that the Jewish people were persecuted by "some Christians" for allegedly killing Jesus. In fact this idea was promulgated by the Catholic and Protestant churches; otherwise there would have been no need for the Second Vatican Council to repudiate it. This charge was at the least a contributory factor to major persecution by the church. The Catholic Church in Italy forced Jews to live in the first ghettos, requiring them to attend conversion sermons and establishing laws that are not unlike the Nazi Nuremberg Laws that came later. The Catholic Church also brought about the Spanish Inquisition. That the Christian churches are no longer teaching that "the Jews" killed Jesus is good news. However, that doesn't negate the damage that was done in the past or the fear of what horrors a revival in the popularity of this charge might cause.
How do Jon Meacham and the scholars he cites know that the account of "The Passion" did not occur as Mel Gibson portrays it? Were they there? Surely it is better to go by the accounts of the people who were there as written in the New Testament.
Union City, N.J.
The title of your cover story "Who Really Killed Jesus?" appears to have been chosen primarily for its shock value and attempts to create controversy where none exists. In simple terms, God is perfect. Man is imperfect (or sinful) and therefore unworthy of eternal life in the presence of God. However, God gave us the gift of salvation through Christ. His suffering and death on the cross atoned for all our sins. Had there been no execution, there would be no salvation.
The more important issue that "The Passion of the Christ" brings to light is the incomplete nature of all Passion dramas. They tell only half the story. No one denies that crucifixion is a horrible death, but death on the cross is not what makes Jesus unique. (In one instance alone, the slave revolt of Spartacus, 6,000 prisoners were crucified along the Appian Way.) What makes Jesus unique is the Christian belief that on the third day he rose from the dead and "that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations" (Luke 24: 47). Passion dramas emphasize blood, blame and death, and leave Jesus hanging on the cross. Jesus is important not because of how he died, but because of how he lived and lived again! That is why in Protestant churches we believe in the empty cross and that affixing blame to any one group or individual is, frankly, very un-Christian.