Did Jesus Get Lost in Translation?

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On February
25, 2004, Mel Gibson’s movie, The
Passion of the Christ
, better known as The Passion,
hit the movie theaters. This was Ash Wednesday. For most attendees,
Ash Wednesday is not part of their vocabulary, but it is part
of Mel Gibson’s. Clearly, he did not schedule this release date
for commercial reasons.

The movie
is shown without previews of coming attractions. This fact alone
would have made it an oddity. Something very strange is going

As the producer,
Gibson made an entrepreneurial decision when he put up $25 million
of his own money. He also made an aesthetic decision as both the
screenwriter and the director, which I will get to shortly. Finally,
he made a theological decision as a Roman Catholic layman. This
combination of decisions makes The Passion like no other
movie ever produced for commercial release.


The movie
is about the crucifixion of Jesus. This immediately raised commercial
issues. The American movie industry is dominated by Jews, meaning
secularists whose parents or grandparents had historic roots in
Judaism. Neal Gabler’s book, An
Empire of Their Own
, is a history of this almost exclusively
Jewish industry. only significant gentiles in the industry in
the 1930’s, until Disney made his breakthrough with Snow White
in 1938, were Joe Kennedy and Daryl Zanuck. Kennedy came in as
a partner of David Sarnoff, the founder of RCA. They created RKO,
the smallest of the majors. Zanuck established Twentieth Century
Pictures with Joseph Schenck, whose brother was with MGM. They
later bought Fox Film. Zanuck is described by Gabler: “. . . he
had been in Hollywood so long he might have been called a Jewish
fellow traveller. . .” (p. 349). On a Jewish Web site devoted to Jews
in the movies
, we read of Zanuck that he was “the only prominent
non-Jewish producer.”

The problem
of economic problems for Gibson was distribution. How could he
persuade theater chains to distribute his movie, when he and they
knew that it would get just the kind of attacks that it has received
from theologically liberal mainstream reviewers, which all but
Michael Medved are, many of whom would wave the flag of anti-semitism?

With respect
to distribution, Gibson was facing a gentlemen’s agreement which
would have to be overcome with the only thing that could break
it: the lure of money. But he was the movie’s producer, not its
star. He could not rely on his name to bring in paying customers
who like to see him act. He had to persuade them to trust his
artistic judgment as a director. The only other actor-director
who normally can pull in crowds on the basis of his name is Clint
Eastwood. (I am not counting Rob Reiner, who is a good director
but hardly a box office star.) So, this was a venture laced with
uncertainty, which is the essence of the entrepreneur’s challenge.

He had to
provide lots of “buzz” — I mean Buzz Lightyear-type buzz:
to infinity and beyond. He did it. Some of his more ruthless critics
helped out by targeting the opinions of his father regarding Jews
and their influence. These shouts of rage have penetrated the
normal daily fog that we all wander in. Millions of Americans
have thought, “I wonder what this is all about.” They can now
pay money to find out.

Rabbi Daniel
Lapin, who is an Orthodox Jew, identified the issue.

has a film aroused such hostile passion so long prior to its release
as has Mel Gibson’s Passion. Many American Jews are alarmed by
reports of what they view as potentially anti-Semitic content
in this movie about the death of Jesus, which is due to be released
during 2004. Clearly the crucifixion of Jesus is a sensitive topic,
but prominent Christians who previewed it, including good friends
like James Dobson and Michael Novak who have always demonstrated
acute sensitivity to Jewish concerns, see it as a religiously
inspiring movie, and refute charges that it is anti-Semitic. While
most Jews are wisely waiting to see the film before responding,
others are either prematurely condemning a movie they have yet
to see or violating the confidentiality agreements they signed
with Icon Productions.

Rabbi Lapin’s
most famous congregation member is Michael Medved, who has come
to the movie’s defense artistically.

Here is
one of those strange aspects about modernity: besieged religious
conservatives in their respective theological camps jointly support
one another because they see that American society is under assault
by liberals and moral libertines who are technically part of their
respective theological traditions, but who are in fact allied
in a full-scale frontal assault against traditional society and
its culture. It is not that politics has made strange bedfellows.
It is that the prevailing culture war has made strange bedfellows.
Politics is secondary to the besieged, though not to the besiegers.

The irony
of this is that Lapin, as an Orthodox Jew, is self-consciously
an heir of the Pharisees, who took over the leadership of Judaism
after the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. The Sadducees disappeared.
The cultural and judicial conflict between Orthodox Jews and Christians
lasted until the mid-nineteenth century. Then theological liberals
in both camps adopted the same strategy of attack: a denial of
the divine authority of the Bible. This academic procedure is
called higher criticism. In their defense of the Hebrew text,
the orthodox of both camps found that they could help each other
and would have to rely on each other’s academic efforts with respect
to issues grammatical. The defense of the authority of the Hebrew
text against its critics became more important to the defenders
than their ancient rivalry regarding the interpretation of the
text, i.e., the Talmud vs. the New Testament.

This brings
me to the next topic: Gibson’s aesthetic decision regarding the


as a director and screenwriter, had to deal with the issue of
translation. I mean this in two senses: grammatical and media.

the media. A movie is seen and heard. A written account is read
and, in a few cases, heard. The mind deals with different media
differently. Usually, a movie is capable of being more emotionally
compelling than a written text. So, when you go from a written
text to a movie by means of script writing, photography, music,
and editing, something is added in translation. The question is
this: Is something also lost in translation?

The director’s
responsibility — rarely fulfilled — is to maintain faithfulness
to the text while creating a unique movie experience. The standard
complaint — “The book was better” or “The movie wasn’t faithful
to the book” — is a movie director’s occupational hazard.
Rare is the praise: “The movie was even better than the book.”
(Example: Shane.)

Add to this
innate problem of media translation the problem of the text. The
New Testament’s accounts of Jesus’ life are found mainly in the
gospels: the three synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) and
John’s gospel, which is more heavily based on Jesus words, especially
the account of the Last Supper (John 13—17). The accounts
vary, which can be seen as testimonies to their accuracy. (Journalist
Otto Scott became a Christian late in his life, he says, in part
because of the discrepancies in the gospels. He says that, as
a reporter, he learned early that whenever he was told exactly
the same story by several witnesses, he immediately should suspect
both collusion and deception.)

How can
the screenwriter, the cameraman, the score’s composer, and the
director/film editor remain faithful on-screen to a story that
was written down two millennia ago? How can they produce a final
product that can serve multiple purposes as a movie, yet also
retain the integrity of the text?

If someone
produced a movie of your life’s most important legacy, based on
the short diaries of four people, two of whom had never met you,
how accurate do you think the movie would be? Add two millennia.
How much of your story would the viewers grasp, let alone relate
to emotionally, if the movie added nothing aesthetically to the
screenwriter’s composite of the four diaries. How interesting
are you, anyway? Enough to keep awake 50 million paying attendees
in 4004?

This was
Gibson’s challenge: to remain faithful to the text, yet keep viewers
awake. Add to this another challenge: get them to understand what
was going on — the event’s historical context and its significance
at the time. Without this awareness, the viewer cannot make an
assessment of the event’s significance today. And, believe me,
Gibson wanted viewers to assess the story’s significance today
— in their lives. That was why he put $25 million on the

But wasn’t
he in it for the money? I don’t think he was. I conclude this
because of the third aspect of the translation. This movie is
performed in Aramaic. Aramaic was the common language in Israel
in Roman times. It was a cognate language to Hebrew, one spoken
in the ancient Near East. Chapters 2—7 of the Book of Daniel
are in Aramaic.

When I first
learned of this decision, months ago, my first reaction was “box-office
bomb.” How could any director hold the attention of an American
audience with subtitles? With a $25 million price tag, in order
to make a profit, this movie had to be shown outside of those
few New York City art theaters that are run by gentiles.

Why did
he do it? Here, I must play amateur psychologist, for all that
is worth. I can think of only one plausible answer: Gibson
intended this movie as a universal film — not as an American
film. Americans would have to suffer subtitles, just as the
rest of the viewers must suffer them. He forced his actors to
perform in a dead language. He, as the director, and the actors
would have to create a universal experience by means of a non-universal
language — a language universal in the region in its day
but no longer a living tongue.

This meant
that the creative process involved these stages of translation:
foreign words (Greek) to English words (New Testament) to a screenplay
(English) to foreign words (Aramaic) to English (subtitles). But,
far more important and far more risky, Gibson had to honor these
three elements of translation:

  • Written
    words to visual words (grammar)
  • Written
    words to conceptual word (logic)
  • Written
    word to perceptual word (rhetoric/image)

The movie
would have to remain faithful to the text’s message. Could it
also remain faithful to the text itself? Would the spirit of the
text survive the multiple translations?

I have a
friend who plays an e-mail game with a French lady. He takes a
French letter from the lady, runs it through an on-line translator
(BabelFish), and back again into French. He then sends her the
two French versions. The result is always the same. The woman
goes into fits of laughter.

Mel Gibson
had to do this at several levels, yet not send his audience into
fits of laughter. The subject matter is no laughing matter.

So, he added
things: the devil, for example. There is no mention in the text
of the devil after his entrance “into” — do we really understand
this? — Judas, just before Judas went to the Sanhedrin to
betray Jesus. Yet the presence of the devil in the film is powerful
aesthetically. Gibson has the devil begin the movie with the heart
of the story: Jesus’ bearing of the sins of the world. Without
this bedrock theological explanation, the Christian interpretation
of the crucifixion is meaningless. How could Gibson get this message
across without tampering with the text? He added to the text in
order to convey the text. Amazingly — and fittingly —
he has the devil present it.

a man who is willing to play this practical joke on the devil
is surely not afraid of other critics. He is also highly skilled
at practical joking. This one is a whopper — a metaphysical
whoopie cushion for Old Nick himself.

When you
mess with this text, you risk upsetting people who believe that
the text is sacred. Nevertheless, I don’t think Gibson will get
many complaints from Christians about this particular instance
of text-tampering. There is no textual evidence that Satan was
in the garden of Gethsemane, but I doubt that you could find a
Christian who would attempt to make a case that Satan wasn’t there.
If Satan wasn’t there, he was really asleep at the wheel. This
is not how Christians think of the devil.

handling of the devil throughout the film is creative, though
sometimes confusing, such as the image of him in a crowd, carrying
an infant with an evil-looking adult face. I wonder: How did Gibson
produce that on-screen image? (A midget?) And why? Is this a perverse
Madonna and child image? I think so, but I am not sure. But the
viewer gets this much clear: malevolence was alive and well in
Jerusalem on that fateful day.

handling of Barabbas is nothing short of brilliant. There is nothing
in the text about Barabbas’ presence, but the actor who portrays
Barabbas pulls off one of the most memorable scenes in movie history,
yet without saying a word. The scene adds greatly to the movie,
yet it is wholly invented. It is believable, yet nothing like
it has ever been suggested, as far as I am aware. It conveys the
truth: choosing Barabbas to go free rather than Jesus was an appalling
collective decision.

Are these
scenes lies? No. Are they true? Not so far as the text reveals.
So, what are they? They are part of the translation process. The
goal was to produce a movie that remains true to the story. These
additions convey truth.

Have I fallen
into the trap of higher criticism? Have I said that the saga is
true, yet the words are false? With respect to a piece of entertainment,
I am willing to risk this. Maybe the movie will get the viewers
to read the book. I will say it here and now: the book is better
than the movie. I will also say this: you will not soon forget
the movie. Too many people have forgotten the book.


The tip-off
is the Aramaic. Gibson is doing what no other movie producer in
history has ever attempted. He has self-consciously attempted
to make this a universal movie: equally closed to all grammatically,
yet equally open to all through subtitles. We are all equally
dependent on the subtitles. We are all equally riveted (or appalled)
by what we see on-screen.

This is
not an American movie. This is a universal movie. I have never
heard of anything like this before. This movie is to movies what
the Latin mass used to be to Roman Catholic liturgy. It is a self-conscious
attempt to separate the film’s words from today’s linguistic context,
and also tomorrow’s, no matter who you are or where you live.
Gibson, by adopting an Aramaic screenplay in the name of historical
accuracy, has universalized the film. A Protestant would not have
attempted this. Only a Latin mass Catholic would have. Gibson
understood what language is all about.

As a Protestant,
I rejoiced at Vatican II’s liturgical reform. I knew that this
shift to the vernacular would do more to de-legitimize Catholicism’s
claim of universality than anything the church had done since
1054 (the East-West split). A vernacular liturgy was John Wycliffe’s
reform. I could not have been more pleased. So far, I think I
have been correct. The Roman church is now as plagued by guitars
as Protestant churches are. Nashville has invaded Rome.

Mel Gibson
is not pleased. I regard The Passion as his personal statement
sent to Vatican II’s surviving promoters: “This story is worth
telling in a dead language. It is better told in a dead language.”
On this point, I side with Mr. Gibson rather than Mr. Wycliffe.
But remember: it’s a movie. That’s entertainment.


The movie
begins with this passage written on-screen:

he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our
iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with
his stripes we are healed (Isaiah 53:5).

This is
what Gibson sees as the theological heart of the story. Isaiah
53 has always been the church’s most cited Old Testament passage
with respect to the crucifixion — its reality and its meaning.

Gibson fills
the screen with violence. Most of this violence is imposed by
Roman soldiers. The Sanhedrin buffets Jesus, but this is what
the text says happened (Matthew 26:67). There is no textual evidence
that they beat the disciples. The movie is incorrect here. It
is also weak aesthetically. Peter’s betrayal of Jesus in the text
takes place when he is not being threatened, outside the court
(Matthew 26:69—75). The movie has him inside, being pushed
around. This was an aesthetic and conceptual mistake on Gibson’s
part. It weakened the text’s message: Peter’s betrayal without
an immediate threat.

The actor
who portrays Jesus looks like an actor, not like the rest of us
average Joes. This has always been a mistake in Hollywood movies
about Jesus. Isaiah wrote: “For he shall grow up before him as
a tender plant, and as a root out of a dry ground: he hath no
form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty
that we should desire him” (Isaiah 53:2). But, scene by scene,
beating by beating, the actor becomes less and less of a pretty
boy. Before our eyes, his visage is transformed.

This is
why I regard this movie as the ultimate Passion play, which is
a tradition going back to medieval times. We see what we have
never seen before: the extent of the suffering. The movie has
an R-rating because of it. I say, take along your younger children,
but not if you don’t intend to explain to them before and after
the movie why this event took place. Death is ugly. It is ugly
for a reason. Mankind really has angered God. It is this reason
that appalls theological liberals.

Pilate has never been more of a politician in a Hollywood version
of the crucifixion. If you ever had any doubts about the motivation
of most politicians, see this movie.

For its
portrayal of the activities of occupying foreign troops, see this

The words
of Jesus on-screen are generally accurate versions of what the
texts say.

I saw only
one gigantic error. The movie has the Roman soldiers ripping Jesus’
garment. We can hear it rip. The text says otherwise.

the soldiers, when they had crucified Jesus, took his garments,
and made four parts, to every soldier a part; and also his coat:
now the coat was without seam, woven from the top throughout.
They said therefore among themselves, Let us not rend it, but
cast lots for it, whose it shall be: that the scripture might
be fulfilled, which saith, They parted my raiment among them,
and for my vesture they did cast lots. These things therefore
the soldiers did (John 19:23—24).

There are
still too many old-timers around who watched Richard Burton stink
up The
in 1954. The story centered around the unripped robe
of Jesus. Why Gibson inserted this, I cannot fathom.

Then there
was the rip that we do not see: the ripping of the veil of the
temple (Matthew 27:51), which had separated the people and the
priests from the holy of holies. Gibson gives us the earthquake,
but the ripping of the veil makes no visual impression. Maybe
the viewers would not understand the significance of that rending
of tapestry: the end of the holiness of the Temple, in preparation
to its burning by Romans a generation later. Gibson should have
made this symbolism clearer on the screen.


OK, I had
to get around to it sometime. Is this movie anti-Semitic? My answer:
no more than the New Testament is.

That is
really where the rub is. The critics — sometimes Jews and
always liberals — just don’t like the New Testament. They
resent this movie with the same intensity that Canaanites would
have resented a movie about Joshua. I am tempted to write a satirical
movie review along these lines. “Mr. Gibson’s handling of traditional
Canaanite religious beliefs is grossly insensitive. And, when
he creates scene after scene based on Deuteronomy 7:16, he violates
artistic propriety.”

Rabbi Lapin
has understood an old point of Rabbinic theology known by the
phrase, “for the sake of the peace.” For the sake of the peace,
Jews are not to give unwarranted offense to the people in whose
land they live. This is a good rule for minorities to honor. The
Apostle Paul, an ex-Pharisee, told the churches to honor it when
he wrote, “I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications,
prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all
men; For kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may
lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty”
(1 Timothy 2:1—2). Rabbi Lapin has applied this ancient and
practical principle as follows:

I believe the attacks on Mel Gibson are a mistake because while
they may be in the interests of Jewish organizations who raise
money with the specter of anti-Semitism, and while they may be
in the interests of Jewish journalists at the New York Times
and elsewhere who are trying to boost their careers, they are
most decidedly not in the interests of most American Jews who
go about their daily lives in comfortable harmony with their Christian
fellow citizens. You see, many Christians see all this as attacks
not just on Mel Gibson alone or as mere critiques of a movie,
but with some justification in my view, they see them as attacks
against all Christians. This is not so different from the way
most people react to attack. We Jews usually feel that we have
all been attacked even when only a few of us suffer assault on
account of our faith.


This review
began with a question: Did Jesus get lost in translation? My answer:
no. The disciples did, but this does not matter much. They remained
so lost that weekend that they forgot about Jesus’ prophecy of
resurrection. The Sanhedrin remembered, which is why they asked
the Romans to put a stone over the tomb’s entrance. They thought
the disciples would steal the body and claim resurrection (Matthew
27:62—64). Nothing could have been further from the disciples’

Most of
what Jesus said in the texts is on the screen, with one remarkable
exception. A movie in Aramaic did not record the only Aramaic
words that are literally presented in the Greek text. “And at
the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, Eloi, Eloi,
lama sabachthani? which is, being interpreted, My God, my God,
why hast thou forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34). These were Aramaic words
that cited Psalm 22, which begins: “To the chief Musician upon
Aijeleth Shahar, A Psalm of David. My God, my God, why hast thou
forsaken me? why art thou so far from helping me, and from the
words of my roaring?” Later in this Psalm we find the relevant
passage that lets us know Why Jesus said what he did:

bulls have compassed me: strong bulls of Bashan have beset me
round. They gaped upon me with their mouths, as a ravening and
a roaring lion. I am poured out like water, and all my bones are
out of joint: my heart is like wax; it is melted in the midst
of my bowels. My strength is dried up like a potsherd; and my
tongue cleaveth to my jaws; and thou hast brought me into the
dust of death. For dogs have compassed me: the assembly of the
wicked have inclosed me: they pierced my hands and my feet. I
may tell all my bones: they look and stare upon me. They part
my garments among them, and cast lots upon my vesture (Psalm 22:12—18).

I regard
this grammatical omission as the oddest fact of the movie. Performed
entirely in Aramaic and Latin (“veritas,” says Pilate, for “truth”),
the one New Testament passage that is in Aramaic is not spoken.
Or if it was, I did not hear it, and I was listening for it. The
subtitle was there, but not the New Testament’s actual Aramaic
words. The words “eloi, eloi” were heard by those close to Jesus.
“And some of them that stood by, when they heard it, said, Behold,
he calleth Elias” (Mark 15:35). In Hebrew, “eli” means “my God.”
In Greek, “eloi” could be mistaken for “elias,” meaning Elijah.
There is no “j” sound in Greek.

So, on the
whole, I recommend this movie. But I do not intend to see it a
second time. It too faithfully portrays the agony of the event.
Once is enough — aesthetically as well as historically.

27, 2004

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is the author of Mises
on Money
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