Paulos: Gibson's Film Disregards Hazy Historical Fact

By now, more than a month since its release, Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ has elicited countless reactions from Catholics, Jews and fundamentalist Christians. Millions of viewers have so far contributed to the movie's nearly $300 million in gross earnings. Film critics and cultural commentators have weighed in on it in large numbers. Scientifically flavored responses, however, have been relatively sparse. Here's mine.

Even about modern day mega-stories we're often clueless. Forty years ago in the full glare of the modern media, John F. Kennedy was assassinated, and we have only a hazy idea of the motivation of the killer or, possibly, killers. Only a bit more than 30 years ago, the Watergate controversy erupted before a phalanx of cameras and microphones, and we still don't know who ordered what nor the identity of Deep Throat. And only two and half years ago, well into the age of the Internet, the World Trade Center and Pentagon were attacked, and we have yet to learn the complete story.

These (and many, many other) examples of our ignorance of the details of recent events don't seem surprising. We're accustomed to suspending judgment, to estimating probabilities. We realize that people dissemble, spin, exaggerate, and misinterpret. And we know that even more frequently events transpire with no witnesses, and so we've developed an appropriate skepticism about news stories (and personal opinion pieces such as this).

Absence of Historical Evidence

But such skepticism sometimes deserts people when they consider more distant historical happenings. This is very odd since historians are subject to even more severe limitations than those facing contemporary journalists and writers. After all, printing presses and Palm Pilots haven't been around that long, but hearsay and unreliable narrators have.

The occasion for these observations is Gibson's gory movie and an under-reported fact about its basis: There is little, if any, external historical evidence for the details presented in the somewhat inconsistent biblical versions of the Crucifixion.

Unless we take literally and on faith the New Testament accounts written many decades afterward (between 70 and 100 A.D.), we simply don't know what happened almost two millennia ago, at least in any but the vaguest way. (This, of course, is part of the reason that Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, which purports to fill in the details of the story and its aftermath, has been No. 1 on Amazon, selling about 7 million copies to date.)

But, just for the moment, let's pretend that compelling historical documents have just come to light proving that a group of Jews was instrumental in bringing about the death of Jesus, that Pilate, the Roman governor, was benign and ineffectual, etc. Even if all this were the case, does it not seem hateful, not to mention un-Christian, to blame contemporary Jews? Blame is all the more inappropriate if Jesus' suffering is, as many Christian theologians claim, a condition for others' being saved.

Comparison With Socrates’ Death

We can gain a little perspective by comparing the Crucifixion of Jesus with the killing of another ancient teacher, Socrates — the Passion of the Christ versus the Poisoning of Socrates, if you will. Again the standard story is somewhat problematic, but even if we give full credit to Plato's 2,400-year-old account of Socrates' death, what zealous coterie of classicists or philosophers would hold today's Greeks responsible?

To ask the question is to dismiss it. It would be absurd, not to mention un-Socratic, for anyone to attribute guilt to contemporary Athenians. (Incidentally, Socrates needs a Mel Gibson or Dan Brown; the Amazon rankings of the various editions of The Trial and Death of Socrates range from poor to abysmal.)

The case of Socrates suggests another comparison. Would a cinematic account of his death focus unrelentingly on his clutching his throat and writhing in agony on the ground after drinking the hemlock? Would such an imagined film's moving cinematography and its actors speaking in archaic Greek do anything at all to increase the likelihood that the events really occurred as depicted?

Whatever one's beliefs or lack thereof, Socrates and Jesus were great moral leaders, whose ideas constitute a good part of the bedrock of our culture. Their lives and teachings are, in my avowedly secular opinion, more important than the details of their deaths, which are likely to remain nebulous at best.

Many important stories of the recent and distant past contain large holes and blank spots. Acknowledging uncertainty about them requires a braver heart than denying it.

Professor of mathematics at Temple University and winner of the 2003 American Association for the Advancement of Science award for the promotion of public understanding of science, John Allen Paulos is the author of several best-selling books, including Innumeracy and A Mathematician Plays the Stock Market. His Who’s Counting? column on appears the first weekend of every month.