By Don Burrows
Don Burrows, a Ph.D. candidate in Classical and Near Eastern studies, has done work in biblical studies and American religious history in conjunction with his minor in religious studies. He has used this research to examine how American films in the postwar era depicted ancient Rome in light of the "Judeo-Christian tradition" and how those depictions have affected the popular perception of the ancient Romans.
Students raise the topic of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ each semester during my Latin courses. Like most, I bristle at the excessive violence of The Passion, its inaccuracy with respect to the Latin language and who might speak it (especially in the eastern empire where Greek was used) and its anti-Semitic overtones. But an appreciation of past treatments of Rome and Christianity on film helps illuminate what makes The Passion such an interesting specimen in American religious cinema.
Many probably remember scholars such as Paula Fredriksen finding themselves in the midst of a heated controversy over some of The Passion's biggest problems--not only its questionable historicity but also those parts of it deemed anti-Semitic. And many probably remember the public martyr made of Gibson prior to his truly anti-Semitic meltdown during a 2006 DUI arrest. But what struck me as most fascinating, having studied The Passion's Roman-biblical precursors in postwar American film, was how awkward much of the discussion over The Passion's perceived anti-Semitism proved to be for Gibson's staunchest defenders, many of whom regularly invoke the "Judeo-Christian tradition" in America's culture wars.
The reason is obvious--it highlighted a contention between the tradition's Jewish and its Christian aspects, which the hyphen failed to elide. Yet in earlier film adaptations, especially those in the postwar period, filmmakers more or less successfully strove to reflect not the "Christian tradition" of the United States, as they did in movies from the 1920s and 30s, but the newly discovered "Judeo-Christian tradition" that emerged among Protestants, Christians, and Jews in World War II and the postwar period. Instead of the wholly Christian persecution narrative of 1932's Sign of the Cross, the similar 1951 movie Quo Vadis explicitly identified Jesus and his followers as Jews. Instead of a penitent Pontius Pilate and the Jewish high priests mocking Jesus under the cross in 1927's King of Kings, the 1961 remake of the same name identified the Romans as the executioners and also as oppressors of Israel. And rather than a message of Christian grace over Jewish law as in the original Ten Commandments in 1923, the 1956 remake focused on an antislavery narrative of men belonging "under God" rather than to "the state." Indeed, postwar biblical movies have often been read as anticommunist scripts where Rome most often serves as a stand-in for the communist state (usually through references to slavery), while Christians and Jews actively resist it in much the same way the "fighting faiths of democracy" resisted Hitler and communism. Thus in this period Rome becomes not only the executor of Christ, but also the persecutor of Christians and, finally, the oppressors of Jews, who in later films reflect the Zionism of the times by resisting Rome 2,000 years earlier. The best example of this is Ben-Hur, at the end of which the Hur family is miraculously healed following the crucifixion, but which gives no overt indication (unlike the book) of which faith group can lay claim to them. The movie conveniently ends at sunset after the crucifixion but before the resurrection--at that small window in time when Christians were not yet Christians and Jews like the Hurs had not yet had the chance to become Christians--that one Sabbath in history when all Jews were potential Christians and all Christians still Jews.
Gibson's reliance on the Gospel narratives, with little added historical context, left those defending his "positive movie about Christ" in an awkward position: they were forced to defend the movie's divisive script while still invoking the "Judeo-Christian tradition" in culture-war disputes. Ultimately, the discomfort that arose thanks to this incongruity of message revealed more about how much American religious identity had changed since the postwar period than anything about the historical attitudes of Romans, Christians, or Jews.