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Seattle Catholic
A Journal of Catholic News and Views
4 Oct 2004

History and the Gospels

by J. D. Palmer

Tintoretto, 'Christ before Pilate' (1566-67), Sala dell'Albergo, Scuola di San Rocco, Venice
Tintoretto, 'Christ before Pilate' (1566-67)
Sala dell'Albergo, Scuola di San Rocco, Venice

From the very moment the Prince of Peace was revealed, those who would reign supreme in the world stood athwart God's plan, and when they could not use force against the faithful they honed the use of words. Worldly wile became the weapon of choice and it proved the more successful tactic, as evidenced by the popularity of Monophysitism and Arianism. Proud men tried to divide Christ's flock, convincing one man that Jesus was not God, and another that He was not man.

In our day, if the enemies of Christ acknowledge that He walked the earth at all, they will invoke prudence, and caution us not to publicise the fact. Such was nakedly apparent in the controversy surrounding Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ". This lone movie dared to take the Gospels seriously, and the resulting imbroglio served to highlight the folly of the world's so-called wisdom, and underscore the extent to which post-modern assumptions about the purpose of history and the nature of religion have influenced believers and non-believers alike.

In Germany, for example, Catholics and Protestants sided with Abe Foxman, et al, denouncing Mel Gibson's film "The Passion of the Christ" for its "overly negative portrayal" of Jews. Further,

"There is a danger the film will revive anti-Semitic prejudices," they said.

"This is especially explosive in view of the situation in Europe with a noticeable increase in anti-Semitism. Whether its intention was anti-Semitic or not, there is a danger it could be used as anti-Semitic propaganda." 1

In Russia, where the film recently premiered, similar concerns were raised:

"Some Jewish organizations and private individuals have appealed to us in the belief that this film fans ethnic hatred and cultivates xenophobic myths that the entire Jewish race is guilty of the crucifixion of Christ," Alexander Brod, director of the Moscow Human Rights Bureau, told Interfax earlier.

The Bureau was considering a lawsuit, he said.2

In the foregoing, the bishops, ministers, rabbis, etc., might just as well have criticised the Gospels themselves. Do they not contain the hated line—"His blood be on us and on our children!"—that Mel Gibson removed from his script, as well as many others that remained to form the bulk of the dialogue in this allegedly dangerous film? Responding to the latter statement, Archpriest Valentin Asmus was quite astute in noting that "the intended suit against the author and distributors of the film, which reproduces Gospel events with complete historical, even archeological, accuracy, does, of course, mean that it will be a suit against the Gospel itself. And it is not only the Gospel that will go on trial but all of Christendom as a whole; in other words, all Christian denominations that seek to follow the Gospel are accused of preaching anti-Semitism." 3

Writing on the "The Passion", American columnist Charles Krauthammer seemed to lend credence to the contention of Archpriest Asmus that this controversy is, at least partially, about the Gospels themselves:

Why is this story different from other stories? Because it is not a family affair of coreligionists. If it were, few people outside the circle of believers would be concerned about it. This particular story involves other people. With the notable exception of a few Romans, these people are Jews. And in the story, they come off rather badly.

Because of that peculiarity, the crucifixion is not just a story; it is a story with its own story—a history of centuries of relentless, and at times savage, persecution of Jews in Christian lands. This history is what moved Vatican II, in a noble act of theological reflection, to decree in 1965 that the Passion of Christ should henceforth be understood with great care so as to unteach the lesson that had been taught for almost two millennia: that the Jews were Christ killers.4

Leaving aside questions of toleration toward the Jews, let us not overlook Krauthammer's thesis: an event must be depicted in such a way as to not give offense (even if this involves distorting the event in question). Needless to say, if his reasoning were ever transformed into law—if, say, the United States adopted the sort of far-reaching "hate crime" laws found in the U.K. or Canada—then it would severely restrict any kind of artistic expression. This is confirmed by Krauthammer's secondary premise: a religious story should only be repeated within its own community when it involves the negative depiction of non-believers. Since this could refer to virtually any religious text, particularly Krauthammer's own scriptures (wherein the uncircumcised are sometimes reviled), we can deduce that Krauthammer envisions film directors, painters, and novelists confined to drawing their inspiration from the equivalent of a "Jefferson Bible."

While, I grant that an artist has a duty to use his talents for the public good, and that he must be prudent, I also believe that he is not responsible for the fallacies that arise when the weak-minded ruminate upon his art. John Rao, in his "World Turned Upside Down" column, recently propounded upon what we might call this "human factor" in historical interpretation:

the film did me a favor, personally, by reminding me of the obvious answer to one of my old childhood confusions about Good Friday: namely, how earthquakes and Temple shakings might be ignored by sources other than the Gospels. After viewing The Passion, I am now confirmed in the opinion that it is a miracle that significant historical events and their meaning are noticed or recorded accurately by anyone under any circumstances in our uncomprehending, naturalist world. After all, critics that I read talked about the film's "unforgiving" and relentlessly anti-Jewish character, even when the chance to see on screen that these were blatant lies was available to them. Moreover, their demand for correction of historical inaccuracies amount, in practice, to a call for an historically untenable assignment of ultimate culpability to the Roman agents of the Passion. In fact, the only nasty "racist" comment that I heard in the film was uttered by a Roman soldier about Simon of Cyrene, hardly a Sanhedrin fellow-traveler. And blaming the Roman agents for the Crucifixion is analogous to the Sophists' claim that the real reason for Socrates sitting in prison was because he had lowered his weight upon a chair and had his legs crossed. Our naturalist world and its anti-spiritual elite perpetually see only what they want to see, and with precisely the kind of black-and-white, cynical, absurdly limited tunnel vision that they perpetually ridicule their enemies for possessing. They "miss" the reality and the meaning of practically everything happening around them, whether they be the essential meaning of a film or the tearing of the Temple veil. It is only when events can no longer be denied by them that they sometimes recognize their existence and truth, though even then they are continually "surprised by the obvious".5

Here, Rao reminds us that human beings have an almost limitless capacity for self-deception. It is a certainty of life that any story, even one with an undeniably transparent meaning, will be misunderstood by someone. Indeed, Krauthammer gave us an example of his own willful misinterpretation:

The most subtle, and most revolting, of [the film's scenes] has to my knowledge not been commented upon. In Gibson's movie, Satan appears four times. Not one of these appearances occurs in the four Gospels. They are pure invention. Twice, this sinister, hooded, androgynous embodiment of evil is found . . . where? Moving among the crowd of Jews. Gibson's camera follows close up, documentary style, as Satan glides among them, his face popping up among theirs—merging with, indeed, defining the murderous Jewish crowd. After all, a perfect match: Satan's own people.6

What he overlooked is not only the fact that Jesus, Mary and nearly all the other heroes of the film were also Jews, but also the fact that St. Mary, in that very scene described, is seen moving through the crowd on a parallel course with the Devil. Why doesn't Krauthammer conclude, then, that in doing so she sanctifies the Jews? Why didn't he mention that in the scourging scene Satan glides through the ranks of the Roman soldiers as well? Krauthammer's is precisely the sort of willed blindness Rao mentioned above. At any rate, it is apparent from the foregoing that Krauthammer's position, in its current, unqualified form is untenable.

I. What is History?

Leaving this aside, the underlying assumption in the Catholic-Protestant statement is that history must be suppressed or sanitised when an event is displeasing to a group that, rightly or wrongly, believes itself directly disenfranchised by the outcome. Recently, for example, authorities at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, Spain, tried to remove a statue of St. James the Moor-Slayer from the premises. According to Alejandro Barral, of the cathedral council, "a sword-wielding St James cutting the heads off Moors is not a very sensitive or evangelical image that fits the teachings of Christ..." 7 The 19th-century statue commemorates the appearance of St. James to the Christian army at the Battle of Clavijo, in 844. The message from Cathedral officials was clear: Spain's patrimony is to be denied when it offends.

Echoing this sentiment, Krauthammer wrote:

Vatican II did not question the Gospels. It did not disavow its own central story. It took responsibility for it, and for the baleful history it had spawned. Recognizing that all words, even God's words, are necessarily subject to human interpretation, it ordered an understanding of those words that was most conducive to recognizing the humanity and innocence of the Jewish people.8

Here he praises the Church for adopting an evolving, politically-inspired method of interpreting Scripture, and for guiding its faithful away from an interpretation he alleges held all Jews culpable for the death of Jesus. Regardless, nothing can clarify this issue better than Scripture itself. Concerning Jesus' condemnation, the Gospels leave us with the unmistakable impression that almost everybody (from the Romans, to one of Jesus' own) had a share in the guilt, but they are also unambiguous concerning the fact that the majority of the people present, who happened to be Jews, made the decision to hand Jesus over for punishment. Knowing this does not imply any guilt on the part of today's Jews. Besides, the issue is not one of Jews versus Gentiles, for Jesus was a Jew by ancestry and by rite of circumcision. In granting that the ethnic identity of the people in the crowd is irrelevant in this regard, however, I do not suppose that there is some mystery about it either. We must not put on historical blinders. Remember Rao's earlier point: "blaming the Roman agents for the Crucifixion is analogous to the Sophists' claim that the real reason for Socrates sitting in prison was because he had lowered his weight upon a chair and had his legs crossed." Some biblical passages simply cannot be interpreted in such a way as both 1) to preserve the integrity of the text (not to mention the events) and 2) to please Andy Rooney.

The presumption that we should do so is breathtaking. It reminds me of what Maritain once said: we moderns are in the habit of seeking a truth which serves us. God's words are not "subject" to human interpretation. Rather, human beings owe a certain reverence to every word in so far as it in some way reflects The Word. The only way to interpret Scripture or any text is in that way which is "conducive" to the very words. All other concerns are secondary.

It follows, then, that I do not regard sanitised history as history at all. Some may object to my use of the word "history" since we are talking about the Gospels, but I will defend it. While it is true that the Gospels are not purely historical documents, it is also true that they are chronologically-organised records of actual events. It was the adherents of the Modernist heresy that sought to drive a wedge between the two elements. They held that the events recorded in the Gospels were a mixture fact and "mystical contemplation", post-apostolic "corrections" and "profitable" tales.9 Such language signaled a change in critique. The books of The Bible were held to a different standard of verification than other ancient texts, and doubted until their authenticity was confirmed by archeology or the discovery of some other contemporary, non-Christian document. This view is implicit in the remarks of both Krauthammer and movie critic Michael Medved about "The Passion":

There is no single Gospel story of the Passion; there are subtle differences among the four accounts...Gibson's personal interpretation is spectacularly vicious. Three of the Gospels have but a one-line reference to Jesus's scourging. The fourth has no reference at all. In Gibson's movie this becomes 10 minutes of the most unremitting sadism in the history of film. Why 10? Why not five? Why not two? Why not zero, as in Luke? Gibson chose 10.10


For the record, let me make clear that I agree with Rabbi [Shmuley] Boteach that the Christian scriptures provide an often unreliable, occasionally contradictory account of the persecution and execution of Jesus of Nazareth. If I believed that the Gospels represented an unfailingly accurate report of the events of two thousand years ago, I'd be a Christian, not a Jew.11

Now I strongly suspect that if only one Gospel had been written, the gentlemen above would be critical of the lack of corroborating testimony, but let us leave that aside. The fact is that we have four documents that support the general claims of each others. They may differ in certain details—one sentence about the scourging or none at all—but there is a marked lack of variance on the important events and themes. Concerning the topic of variation, Lord Macaulay in his essay "History" wrote

Diversity, it is said, implies error: truth is one, and admits of no degrees. We answer, that this principle holds good only in abstract reasonings. When we talk of the truth of imitation in the fine arts, we mean an imperfect and a graduated truth. No picture is exactly like the original; nor is a picture good in proportion as it is like the original. When Sir Thomas Lawrence paints a handsome peeress, he does not contemplate her through a powerful microscope, and transfer to the canvas the pores of the skin, the blood-vessels of the eye, and all the other beauties which Gulliver discovered in the Brobdingnagian maids of honour. If he were to do this, the effect would not merely be unpleasant, but, unless the scale of the picture were proportionably enlarged, would be absolutely FALSE. And, after all, a microscope of greater power than that which he had employed would convict him of innumerable omissions. The same may be said of history. Perfectly and absolutely true it cannot be: for, to be perfectly and absolutely true, it ought to record ALL the slightest particulars of the slightest transactions—all the things done and all the words uttered during the time of which it treats. The omission of any circumstance, however insignificant, would be a defect. If history were written thus, the Bodleian Library would not contain the occurrences of a week. What is told in the fullest and most accurate annals bears an infinitely small proportion to what is suppressed...

No picture, then, and no history, can present us with the whole truth: but those are the best pictures and the best histories which exhibit such parts of the truth as most nearly produce the effect of the whole. He who is deficient in the art of selection may, by showing nothing but the truth, produce all the effect of the grossest falsehood. It perpetually happens that one writer tells less truth than another, merely because he tells more truths. In the imitative arts we constantly see this. There are lines in the human face, and objects in landscape, which stand in such relations to each other, that they ought either to be all introduced into a painting together or all omitted together...

History has its foreground and its background: and it is principally in the management of its perspective that one artist differs from another. Some events must be represented on a large scale, others diminished; the great majority will be lost in the dimness of the horizon; and a general idea of their joint effect will be given by a few slight touches.

In this passage, the celebrated historian wrote that we must not think of history writing as a science that is capable of producing exact results, or, even, one that intends to. In saying that there is no such thing as an "unfailingly accurate report", Lord Macaulay did not intend to suggest that the truth of events cannot be reconstructed to some degree. Rather, he wanted to convey that there is an element of interpretation involved in much of what historians do.

It is one thing to state, for example, that Julius Caesar wrote war commentaries, but it is another to ask why he wrote them. Gelzer had his theory, and others have theirs. Again, it is one thing to say that the Goths migrated into Roman territories but another to explain the significance of these events. Protestant historians of the 19th century framed them as a warm-up to the Reformation: hearty northerners (translate, Germans) descended upon the thin-blooded inhabitants of the western half of the Roman Empire and swept them and their decadent (translate, Catholic) society away.

Lest we imagine that today's historians are immune to such ideology or that they are more capable of getting at the truth of history, let us look at the modern reception of the Travels of Sir John Mandeville. Historians until very recently scoffed at the work. Undeterrred, author Giles Milton went to the trouble of visiting some of the locations mentioned in the medieval account. In doing so, he uncovered important clues attesting to Sir John's partial veracity.

Mary Settegast, meanwhile, has convincingly mined Plato's account of Atlantis—heretofore pigeon-holed as purely allegorical—for information about pre-historic Europe. Even Herodotus has got his makeover: some of the previously neglected or disputed parts of The History have been found to have merit, and social historians have come to view him not as the "father of lies" but as an important cross-cultural observer.

We can easily put aside any academic pretensions that confront us, then, when we realise that reputations continue to be dashed upon the shoals of historical inquiry. I could go on and on in this vein, calling your attention to the fact that people still squabble over the causes of the Great Depression, or pointing to the release of a new book which purports to explain, as none have before, why the world went to war in 1914.

Before closing, allow me to offer a few observations on another passage from Lord Macaulay. In it, he invokes the aforementioned "Father of History":

Herodotus wrote as it was natural that he should write. He wrote for a nation susceptible, curious, lively, insatiably desirous of novelty and excitement; for a nation in which the fine arts had attained their highest excellence, but in which philosophy was still in its infancy. His countrymen had but recently begun to cultivate prose composition. Public transactions had generally been recorded in verse. The first historians might, therefore, indulge without fear of censure in the license allowed to their predecessors the bards.

Between the time at which Herodotus is said to have composed his history, and the close of the Peloponnesian war, about forty years elapsed—forty years, crowded with great military and political events. The circumstances of that period produced a great effect on the Grecian character; and nowhere was this effect so remarkable as in the illustrious democracy of Athens. An Athenian, indeed, even in the time of Herodotus, would scarcely have written a book so romantic and garrulous as that of Herodotus. As civilisation advanced, the citizens of that famous republic became still less visionary, and still less simple-hearted. They aspired to know where their ancestors had been content to doubt; they began to doubt where their ancestors had thought it their duty to believe. Aristophanes is fond of alluding to this change in the temper of his countrymen. The father and son, in the Clouds, are evidently representatives of the generations to which they respectively belonged. Nothing more clearly illustrates the nature of this moral revolution than the change which passed upon tragedy. The wild sublimity of Aeschylus became the scoff of every young Phidippides. Lectures on abstruse points of philosophy, the fine distinctions of casuistry, and the dazzling fence of rhetoric, were substituted for poetry. The language lost something of that infantine sweetness which had characterised it. It became less like the ancient Tuscan, and more like the modern French.

I take the foregoing to be a caution against cultural snobbery. We should be wary of casting aspersions on the ancients and their way of recording history. For, the same harsh critique may rebound to us. Macaulay's point is that every person is, to a degree, a product of his culture. To dismiss Herodotus because he does not live up to our ideal of a historian is foolish. Someday our descendants will similarly parse the works of our most esteemed historians and they will elevate some at the expense of others, just as the 20th century historical elite elevated Thucydides over Herodotus. Whether they will be justified in doing so, another generation will have to decide.

II. Faith, Knowledge and the Gospels

It seems that a lot of the confusion which attends any effort to classify the Gospels is related to a colloquial understanding of Faith. The reasoning goes like this: since the Gospels are the sacred texts of a religious tradition, they should be classified under the heading of "Faith", not history. Now, it is common for people to associate "blind" and "Faith", and, in doing so, suggest that Faith's articles are assented to without the benefit of some socially acceptable form of verification. In this way the Gospels are viewed as un-historical.

First, it should be pointed out that there is nothing more certain than Faith, for the content of Faith is from God. While it is true that the content of Faith is not verifiable in the same way that the hardness of a melon is, it is nevertheless trustworthy. After all, no one can report more accurately on the state of things in the universe than the One who makes them to be.

Secondly, no Faith was required on the part of Ss. John, Mark, or Matthew in order to witness the events recorded in the Gospels. The only thing required of each was a pair of eyes. We may chose to trust their perceptions or discard them, but, for us, there is no difference between trusting that Jesus walked on water, or that Socrates was put on trial. We did not witnesses either event and have only varying accounts to rely upon.

A clever person, however, will object that there are two different levels of credulity required. In the case of Socrates, there is nothing unusual about people being put on trial. In the case of Jesus, it requires a miracle that someone walk on water. Now, it seems to me that such an objection is rooted in the view that the "laws" of nature are iron-clad laws, and not mere probabilities. While it is true that walking on water is not an ordinary event, it is also true that there is nothing in the nature of the event itself that suggests it is impossible in the same way that a square-circle is impossible. The fact that people do not ordinarily walk on water does not rule out the possibility that they may. For, the fact that humans sink into water is a mere fact. Things could be otherwise—that is, God could have created the soil to be liquid and water unyielding. St. Thomas Aquinas frames this discussion the proper way: a miracle, he said, is different from any other event only in the sense that God brings about its existence without recourse to a secondary cause.12 Therefore, "a miracle is not to be thought of as a matter of God doing violence to the created order." 13 Let us then be clear on one point: there is no sense in which God can be conceived of as intruding into the unfolding process of creation. This is because He is already present in it, creating. Everything that exists owes it existence to God's creative act. The only possible difference is in the method of creation.

My point is that if it requires Faith to accept the events witnessed by the Gospel writers, then it must require Faith to accept the reports of Plato, Xenophon and others about Socrates' trial. Clearly, this would be silly. I am not saying that we know Jesus walked upon the water or that Socrates stood trial in the same way that we each know the contours of our own hands, but, rather, I am saying that there is only a superficial reason to classify the former two events differently. Barring some assertion on the part of the Gospel writers that, for example, violates the law of non-contradiction—e.g. Jesus creating a square-circle—the only way to really cast doubt on the Gospels is to challenge the motives or methods of the writers. Someone who endeavours to do so, however, must be careful. If he applies his critique consistently, he will soon begin to suspect that all of history is little more than a fable.14 That way lies madness.

An unassailable account of history, if it can be achieved, requires no small effort. Partisans of the historico-critical method of Biblical interpretation are quick to suggest that Scripture is coloured by the impressions and agendas of the writers but, as I have attempted to convey, the same could be said of any other ancient or modern chronicle. Plato was just as much an interested observer in recording the trial of Socrates as were the apostles in recording Christ's walking on the water. If we are going to accuse them of naked self-interest, then we must be aware that they are not unique in this regard. The rolls of historians are populated with writers of varying motives.

Christians are blessed to have four, rich and stylistically unique accounts of The Christ. We could even speak of a fifth account in so far as St. Paul's letters contain the testimony of St. Peter and others. Few events in the ancient world were so well documented as the earthly life of Jesus. Leaving aside the topic of divine inspiration it is absolutely true that, on a purely natural level, the very historians who comment on the Bible are no different than the writers they critique. All events must pass through a filter of human perception before they are recorded. Whether they pass cleanly through that filter, or whether something becomes mixed with them in the process, is another question. It is important, therefore, that we not allow historians to railroad us into erecting a methodological barrier between the study of events recorded in Scripture and those recorded in other ancient sources. For, in reality, such a barrier is merely an ideological one.


The author writes from New York. Mr. Palmer holds degrees from St. Mary's College and The Dominican School of Philosophy & Theology, both in California.

1 "German Churches Join Jews in Attack on 'Passion'", Reuters, March 18, 2004.
2 "Russian church stands up for 'The Passion of The Christ' ", Interfax online, June 21, 2004.
3 ibid.
4 Charles Krauthammer, "Mel's Movie Isn't Gospel", New York Daily News, March 7, 2004, p.42.
5 John Rao, "Some (Hopefully) Final Words on 'The Film,' " March 7, The Roman Forum website.
6 Krauthammer, ibid.
7 "Church to remove Moor-slayer saint", BBC News Online, May 3, 2004.
8 Krauthammer, ibid.
9 Denzinger, 2014-2016.
10 Krauthammer, ibid.
11 Michael Medved, "When Theology and Pragmatism Clash: Falling into the Passion Pit," The Jerusalem Post, Feb. 19, 2004, online edition.
12 Summa Theologica, I.105.6
13 Brian Davies, O.P., The Thought of Thomas Aquinas, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992), p. 173.
14 A wonderful example of how any event can become easily distorted is related in the book Wittgenstein's Poker, an attempt to reconstruct a confrontation between Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl Popper, from the often wildly contradictory accounts of eyewitnesses.
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