• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as preparation for a future work on Straub/Huillet's Moses und Aron and a few bits and pieces on biblical studies.

    Matt Page


    Friday, April 26, 2019

    Matriarchy and Feminism in Genesis

    I've been looking at the biblical Matriarchs on film and particularly how that is viewed from a feminist perspective. Part of the problem with this starts with the question of who exactly qualifies as a Matriarch in the Bible. For the men it is easy - the Hebrew patriarchs are Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the fathers of the nation. For the women though it is more complicated. The inclusion of Sarai and Rebekah is simple enough, but Jacob had two wives Rachel and Leah., Furthermore, some of his sons were the children of his servants Bilhah and Zilpah, should they be included? And if so what about Abraham's servant Hagar? And then there's the question of Eve, technically she is the mother of humanity itself, but there seems a stronger link somehow between her motherhood and Adam's fatherhood. Should she be included in such a discussion? Should Noah's unnamed wife?

    Like the biblical stories themselves, film adaptations of Genesis have tended to prioritise their Patriarchs over their Matriarchs. Cinema has tended to adopt a male point of view and done little to minimise the inherent sexist assumptions of the text.

    Perhaps the Matriarch, if we can call her that, who has fared least worst amongst the films based on Genesis is Eve, who typically enjoys as much screen time as her husband. That said Eve portrayal is typically no less problematic for two main reasons. Firstly, despite the fact that most theologians would tend to accept a metaphorical interpretation of the story of The Fall, the vast majority of film adaptations literalise it and hence tend to portray Eve as more culpable than her husband. This is frequently intensified by the number of films in which Eve is initially portrayed as the object of the male gaze. Several films emphasise this point further by ensuring the audience's first sight of Eve being via a shot from Adam's point of view.

    The second reason that portrayals of Eve are problematic is their sexualisation of Eve. Whilst Eve's nakedness is found in the text, it is often used as a form of titillation. Eve is typically depicted as a slim, beautiful, young, and often blond woman whose body is almost entirely exposed but for the odd strategically-placed plant. One imagines that pornographic films such as Bible (dir: Wakefield Poole, 1974), do not stray too far from the approach of the more mainstream releases.

    Sarai and Hagar
    In recent years more progressive visions of the women of Genesis have begun to emerge, in contrast to films such as The Bible (dir: John Huston, 1966) which, for example, leaves the text's repeated shaming of the childless Sarai very much unchallenged. One more recent film to draw attention to the problematic portrayal of Sarai in the text is 2003's comic The Real Old Testament (dir: Curtis Hannum) which juxtaposes ancient values against modern ones by relocating the characters from Genesis in the format of a reality TV show (specifically The Real World which has been running since 1992). As there is so little biblical material to define her, Sarai (Kate Connor) naturally channels modern values and thus appears as a more sane, rational character than her more awe-struck and compliant husband or than the egotistical "God". The narrative sticks closely to the Bible, but the camera gives Sarah more time and a fairer hearing than most films she is presented as the wittiest and most attractive character of the three. When God and Abraham talk about circumcising Abraham's entire tribe or sacrificing Isaac, she double-takes or raises an eyebrow to the camera expecting viewers will see the same peculiarity as she does.†

    Sadly the next major portrayal of Sarah, in the TV series The Bible (2013) (pictured) reverts very much to type, unmoved by the fifty years of feminism since Huston's earlier film. Few films seek to understand Sarai, let alone sympathise with her, often depicting her dealings with Hagar in an even poorer light than the texts, for example making Hagar carry heavy loads even when very heavily pregnant.

    However. the portrayal of Hagar is often similarly unsympathetic. Whereas the text says only that she "despised" Sarai, several films show her criticising Sarai to her face for being barren. I wrote more about this in my piece on films about Ishmael a few years ago.

    The intention here consistently seems to be to portray Abraham as decent, sympathetic and essentially good. Unfortunately given that he would have been her social superior. He comes across as weak and controlled by Sarah, rather than the master of his own destiny. The consistently shrewish portrayals of Sarah are bolstered by many films using a voice-over to inform the audience that God has also reassured Abraham that he is making the correct decision. The efforts to beatify Abraham also extend to the portrayal of Ishmael's conception. Almost universally this is depicted as Sarah's suggestion, for example in Abraham (Joseph Sargent, 1994).

    In contrast to Sarai, the Bible portrays Rebekah in marginally more positive light. She hears God for herself (indeed her husband is bypassed) and takes an active role in ensuring the words she has heard from him come to pass. Yet, if anything, Sarah's daughter-in-law Rebekah fairs even worse in cinema and television. Things started well enough, with Henri Andréani making a film for Pathé in which she was the lead character. Rebecca (1913) told the story of Abraham's servant meeting with her at the well in village of Nacaor. She has featured in few films since, however, with Marcello Baldi's Giacobbe: L'uomo che  lottò con Dei (Jacob: The Man who Fought with God, 1963) and Peter Hall's Jacob (1994) being notable exceptions. In both she is shown as the initiator of Jacob's deception of Isaac in order to fulfil his mother's prophecy. In Baldi's film, Jacob view's Esau selling of his birthright for a bowl of soup as "just a joke", but Rebekah has the foresight to see it as a fulfilment of her prophecy. Hall's film further justifies Rebekah's actions by giving her the additional insight that, of her two sons, Jacob would make the better leader of the tribe after her husband death. Giving her the additional insight that Jacob would make a better leader of the tribe than his brother because he is "a man who cares about the tribe", emphasising her wisdom rather than her deception.

    Leah and Rachel
    Unsurprisingly both films also feature Rachel and Leah. The actresses playing the role in Baldi's film looks so physically different that it is hard to imagine they are sisters. Rachel is blonde and fair-skinned, whereas Leah has looks more typical of the region, but also has noticeable hair on upper lip. Given the way that the Bible contrasts Rachel's beauty with her supposedly "plain" sister (Gen 29:17-19), it is not difficult to interpret the differing appearance of these two actresses as reinforcing racist/sexist western notions of perceived beauty.

    One incident that tends to get very little coverage in bilical film is the passage from Genesis 30 dealing with the birth of Leah, Rachel, Zilpah and Bilhah's children. Typically the important and more human, fallible details of the passage tend to get glossed over to produce a mere genealogy on the "sons of Jacob" (when his involvement would have been relatively minor compared to that of the four women). There is an significant amount of potential human interest in this story which rarely gets picked up by dramatists. There's also a slight comic undertone to the text's portrayal of Jacob's wives trading sex with him for the hallucinogenic fertility-aid mandrake plant (Gen. 30:14-17). Only two films depict this incident, the word-for-word adaptation Genesis (director unnamed, 1979), produced by John Heyman for The New Media Bible and The Real Old Testament which makes the most of the peculiarity of the passage. Again the spoofing of both the biblical text and 90s youth culture mean that the incident is played as a bunch of college students getting high, where sex is a far lower ranking commodity than drugs.

    Having died before the start of the film, Rachel is physically absent from La Genèse (Cheick Oumar Sissoko, 1998), yet her absence (along with the 'loss' of her son Joseph) haunts the film, which charts the woes of Jacob's clan later years. Beset by grief, Jacob remains in his tent for much of the film, only being persuaded to leave when relations with the neighbouring tribes come to a crisis point. Unwilling or unable to cope with his troublesome sons and in fear of his brother the tribe is cast into crisis which manifests itself in various ways not least the story of another kind-of-Matriarch Tamar, and her dealings with her husband's father.

    Leah, however, has survived, making La Genèse the only film to depict her but not her sister. It gives voice to the unfair treatment she has received from Jacob. In her opening line she exclaims "I have no husband! My children are fatherless. I have no place in your heart." She is also shown as an active character protesting about the rape of her daughter Dinah by interrupting and disrupting the conversation between Jacob and Hamor, overturning Hamor's gifts and also complaining about her sons failure to respond properly to Dinah's rape.

    Dinah is the subject of arguably the most radical retelling of the Matriarch's stories, The Red Tent (Roger Young, 2014) which not only tells various stories from the latter part of Genesis from her perspective, but also places the other women in the stories at its narrative centre. Dinah describes her mother Leah as "strong and capable and splendidly arrogant" and Zilpah and Bilhah as aunts, rather than mere slaves. At the centre of the story (and it is implied the tribe) is this community of women and their private space, the red tent of the title. It also takes the radical step of making the bridal night swap Rachel's idea, to which Leah acquiesces, unbeknownst to either man. The series over- idealises the way these four women share one husband, however, alternatively it could be read as highlighting the impossible expectation that one woman should embody all qualities: wisdom, beauty and motherhood.

    I've not had a chance to survey all the films based on Genesis for this piece, but I find it interesting how more recent films have attempted to grapple with some of these issues, even as others manifestly have not. There's a challenge at the heart of it all however: given that this was a deeply patriarchal society and the similarly patriarchal nature of the texts, how should these stories be portrayed. Whilst the approach of The Red Tent has its admirable qualities, it does just end up making things a little too cosy. Jacob is a good man and the women generally get on and so the potential issues are glossed over. At the other end of the scale The Real Old Testament is so scathing in its approach it rejects and space for genuine spirituality despite the patriarchal society and assumptions of the times the story occurred in and was written about. La Genese perhaps manages a good balance of the two - the nature of the society is exposed, but that is very much at a human level, allowing the film's finale to still allow for the possibility of a God who may one day right these wrongs.

    †In one of my favourite moments in this film God visit's the couple's tent in the middle of the night whilst Sarai is sleeping, involved much shrugging and mugging for the camera. Later in a camera diary moment she observes "It's like, he invented time…can he tell it?"

    Labels: ,

    Saturday, April 20, 2019

    Jesus: His Life (2019)

    It's not unusual for Easter to feature a new biblical documentary and 2019 is no exception. This year it's the turn of The History Channel whose latest offering Jesus: His Life begins in the UK tomorrow, having recently completed it's run in the States (for those of you wondering where my coverage has been).

    Jesus: His Life though is a little different in that according to The History Channel's description, it's "part drama, part documentary". They've no doubt used this phrase in preference to "docudrama" because of the confusion surrounding the latter term. Many, for example, applied the docudrama tag to Killing Jesus (2013) even though many queried it's factual basis. The approach here is different again in that it intersperses dramatised sections with talking heads from various scholars and church leaders.

    The series is different to Killing Jesus in another key respect. Whereas that film sought to provide a more sceptical take on the events in the gospels, His Life aims for a more traditional version of the story. For one thing, amongst its executive producers is mega-church leaders and televangelist Joel Osteen and he and a number of other church leaders offer their thoughts in between scholars such Ben Witherington III, Robert Cargill, Shively Smith, Nicola Denzey-Lewis, Candida Moss and Mark Goodacre. That said the church leaders are drawn from wider perspectives than mega-church evangelicalism including Episcopalian Bishop Michael Curry and Roman Catholic Fr. James Martin.

    Such an approach will please some and disappoint others. For example, the opening episode, which tells the story from Joseph's perspective, never raises some scholars' opinion that Joseph never existed. It's possible to do that without derailing the programme's overall thrust. Sceptics will find this makes the series difficult to take too seriously: Conservatives will be pleased that it is more respectful of the Gospels.

    That said, I have only seen the first two episodes and a few clips from the final episode. Everything so far suggests this traditional approach, including shots of the resurrected Jesus. That said two or three of the episodes may present an alternative approach. The series' innovative set-up is that each episode is made from the perspective of a different character in the Gospels (though not Jesus himself). As mentioned above Joseph is the focus of the first episode, with subsequent instalments being based on the perspectives of John the Baptist, the Virgin Mary, Judas, Caiaphas, Pilate, Mary Magdalene and Peter. It's the docudrama equivalent of Jesus Christ, Superstar in that respect I suppose, and just as that film includes more sceptical solos from Judas, Caiaphas and Pilate later episodes may go that route as well.

    This approach goes quite far as well. It is not just that the episodes shown are those that centre on each of the protagonists, and that their perspectives are given by the various interviews, it's also that the characters get to speak in the first person. For example, in the closing scenes of the second 'hour' John the Baptists asks "Did I do enough?". That question also reflects the programme's use of more contemporary language. I think this is one of its strengths. At times it completely works the biblical language in a way that stays true to the original but transforms and enlivens it.

    Jesus: His Life is also interesting visually. For one thing it is lushly shot with real attention played to composition, lenses, filters and lighting, take the above shot of Jesus' time in the wilderness for example. But the costumes, locations and sets are all impressive as well. Again I can't comment on the bigger scenes in Jerusalem towards the end of the series, but certainly it's a very good start.

    But aside from its cinematic quality there are also other notable visual choices. For one the ethnicity of the actors involved is from a wider range of backgrounds than is typically the case, and it generally attempts to give the actors a western Asia appearance. It's also notable that British actor Greg Barnett, who plays Jesus has his hair cropped relatively short. This was an observation that was made in the BBC's 2001 documentary Son of God, but it's rarely been taken up in more dramatic portrayals, even as more recent films have sought to move away from the old blond hair, blue eyes stereotype.

    That said perhaps the most memorable shot from the two parts I watched was the depiction of John the Baptists severed head. It's something that's never really been done well before. There have been some bizarre depictions, but never something as well, um, executed as is the case here. It's all the more gruesome for coming after so little blood up to this point. I wonder how the trial and crucifixion scenes will play out.

    So there are many strengths to this one. If the frequency of new insights it brings are perhaps a little pedestrian, there are many other plus points. The visuals, dialogue and performances are good - so often a let down with this sort of project - and giving each episode its own narrative arc, enables the series to keep up the interest across what is the longest portrayal of Jesus for quite some time.


    Wednesday, April 17, 2019

    Easter UK TV Schedule 2019

    In years gone by I used to post the schedules of any films/productions/programmes that might be of interest to readers of this blog. I must admit I thought I'd done it far more recently than 2011, when the last of my holiday previews posts was. Certainly I've been checking more regularly than that, but admittedly there's not been a huge amount.

    For whatever reason, this year I'm resurrecting the tradition. It turns out there are a few things of interest this year and I somehow found myself in a position both to check out what was coming up as well as having a moment to blog it all. So here goes


    The Robe - BBC2 - Good Friday - 2:35pm
    The first film in the Cinemascope widescreen format in many ways typifies the Biblical epic. There's some magnificent scenes, some moments that are genuinely moving and some unbelievably hammy acting. Newman's score is terrific. Martin Scorsese fondly remembers the impact of the curtain pulling back and back and back. My review is here.

    Androcles and the Lion - Talking Pictures TV - Easter Sunday - 10:30am
    Talking Pictures TV is available on Freeview and deals with classic era films and TV. This is a little tangential for this blog, but we'll let it squeeze in, if only because prior to Life of Brian it was the leading satire of Biblical epics. Plus if you've not hand enough of Jean Simmons and Victor Mature after The Robe here's a chance for another helping.

    Risen - C4 - Easter Sunday - 11pm
    Released only three years ago, Risen will always have a special place in my heart as being the film that brought me to Rome for the first time. Like The Robe it has some good aspects, such as the tension in parts of the first half, but the interest fizzles out part-way through. Worth a watch if you've not yet seen it. My review is here and you can also read a piece I wrote for Peter Chattaway's blog on the filmmakers views of the film.

    Jesus: His Life
    Jesus: His Life is an eight part mix of drama and documentary that has just finished airing in the US (you can read Mark Goodacre's tweet stream here). The series begins here on Easter Sunday and I it seems that it will run an episode a week thereafter. Each chapter tells the story from the point of view of a different character, the docu-drama equivalent of Jesus Christ, Superstar, perhaps. Here's my review.


    Britain's Easter Story - BBC1 - Good Friday 9am & Easter Sunday 9:10pm
    I know very little about this so I'll just quote from the BBC press release. The programme will star "choir master Gareth Malone and gospel choir conductor Karen Gibson. They travel across the UK to explore the stories behind our Easter traditions, looking at how different celebrations have developed over the years, and how music remains a big part of those celebrations."

    Pilgrimage: The Road to Rome - BBC2 - Good Friday - 9pm
    (Final episode, repeats of parts 1 & 2 on BBC2 at Wed 17th at 12:15am and Wed 24th 2:05am on BBC2 respectively, or on iPlayer)
    I really enjoyed last year's Pilgrimage: The Road to Santiago so I was pleased to see them reworking the formula and going for the big one this year. I'm a little slow to the party so I've not yet had a chance to catch the first two episodes. Whether Les Dennis, Stephen K Amos and Katy Brand can provide the humour that Ed Byrne and Neil Morrissey did last year remains to be seen. It will be interesting to see how the dynamic will change without a TV vicar this year.

    Jesus' Female Disciples - C4 - Easter Monday 2:45am
    Last year's Channel 4 documentary, released to coincide with the UK release of Mary Magdalene, gets another outing here. It stars Prof. Joan Taylor (who advise on Magdalene) and Helen Bond (who literally wrote the book on Jesus TV documentaries. My review is here.


    Monday, April 15, 2019

    An Introduction to The King of Kings

    Last week I had the pleasure of introducing Lobster films' new restoration of The King of Kings (1927) at its UK premieré in Bristol Cathedral, courtesy of South West Silents. As it was only a short intro, I thought I'd post it here to supplement my other posts and my podcast on the film.


    Whenever I come to these kinds of events I'm always intrigued as to what specifically attracts people to them. Are we film fans? People of faith? Both? Have we come because of our love of music? Or for something else? It's kind of ambiguity that cuts to the heart of Cecil B DeMille. He could oil up Charlton Heston, put him in chains and tell you that that was Moses, or begin his film about Christ with a woman in a gold coil bra stroking her pet leopard.

    It's easy to deride DeMille's mix of titillation and piety, or see them as being cynical, but for him the combination was very real. As Fritzi Kramer puts it:

    DeMille is an almost perfect split between his flamboyant actress mother and his bookish lay minister father... DeMille's religious beliefs were not exactly in the mainstream but they were from the heart. The conflict between faith and trash was very real for him. He loved both.
    Indeed DeMille was critical of those who proposed more staid portrayals of the Gospels, arguing that "they must have read them through the stained glass telescope which centuries of tradition and form have put between us and the men and women of flesh and blood who lived and wrote the Bible."

    We tend to think of cinema's silent era as time of beginnings, but in fact by 1927 when The Kings of Kings was released it had been around for quite some time. The first Jesus films came out in 1897, meaning they had been making them for 30 years by the time The King of Kings came along. It was DeMille's 51st film, and incredibly whilst today his name is synonymous with the biblical epic, at this point in time he was known mainly for melodramas and westerns. Only one of his previous 50 films had been biblical.

    The film itself was written by one of DeMille's most trusted collaborators, Jeanie MacPherson. In contrast with the majority of Jesus films both before, and, indeed, after, it starts neither with Jesus birth, nor his baptism, nor even at the beginning of Holy Week, but instead it begins as Jesus' ministry is already in full flow. In that sense it's different from any of the Gospels, or the earliest creedal confessions found about him in Paul. As a whole the film blends elements of all four gospels together citing each in the various subtitles, though often wildly out of context. It opens quoting its role in the Great Commission from Matthew's Gospel, focuses its portrayal of Jesus as the healer of Luke's Gospel, whilst its lighting emphasises John's "Light of the World" and it depicts a young boy called Mark, with the implication that it is he who will go on to write the earliest gospel. Our first sighting of Jesus is a famous shot which I won't spoil for those of you who don't know it, but is paired with its opposite at the end of DeMille's Samson and Delilah 22 years later.

    Another DeMille regular was H.B. Warner who played Jesus here, Mr Gower in It's a Wonderful Life. At 51 he remains the oldest actor to play the lead in a mainstream Jesus film, considerably older than the traditional 33. To us he seems a bit paternal but at the time he was hugely more human and approachable than the film Jesuses that had gone before. DeMille insisted Warner remained in character the entire time he was on set, he knew the damage that bad publicity could do to the film.

    The film did cause some controversy, though not for Warner's hardened drinking. Various Jewish organisations were concerned about potential anti-Semitism, for many of the same objections to Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. If it's tempting to dismiss such criticisms out of hand then I think it's worth remembering that the two previous mainstream Jesus films released before DeMille's were both from Germany. The Jews were demonised and squarely blamed for Jesus' death. It's sobering to remember that just as people today picture Jesus as Robert Powell or James Caviezel, the German people in the 20s, 30s and 40s pictured those films when they thought of the gospels. Those anti-Semitic movies contributed to a cultural seachange that led to the Holocaust. After some discussion DeMille made changes and avoided most of those pit falls.

    As a filmmaker DeMille doesn't get the credit he is perhaps due. He reproduces 300 paintings in the film going to huge lengths to perfect the lighting. The shot of the sandstorm as Jesus dies was technically immensely difficult. We'll be able to appreciate the intricacies of the design on the massive sets and the picture is full of memorable images, the expressionistic approach to the miracles. And the experimental use of two-strip Technicolor.

    The film was so successful at the box office that screenings continued for years, well into the sound era. Missionaries took it with them abroad leaving a delighted DeMille to claim that "more people have been told the story of Jesus of Nazareth through The King of Kings than through any other single work, except the Bible itself"

    And what about us? It's easy to dismiss the film for its soft-focus piety or moments of over-the-topness, but it's also a chance to see things in a new light. For theologians it's a chance to let the left brain and right brain to work together, for Christians it’s a chance to view the gospels from someone else's perspectives and notice things that might never have occurred to us on our own. For film fans a chance to reconsider the work or the motives of one of the most pivotal characters in the silent film era. And It's a chance for all of us to look back 90 years, to be enraptured, to be entertained, and to connect to those who have gone before us, and their faith, fears, hopes and dreams of a better world.

    Labels: , , , ,

    Saturday, April 06, 2019

    Why "the Crowd who welcomed Jesus on Sunday" weren't "the same as those who rejected him on Friday"

    There's a sermon that you often hear at this time of year on Palm Sunday that goes something like this: "The people who cheered and welcomed Jesus on Palm Sunday were the same ones who jeered and called for his death on Good Friday". It's hugely popular and also hugely problematic. Why? Well there are three main reasons...

    Firstly, because it's inaccurate. Jerusalem in the week leading up to Passover was a very busy place. Josephus, prone to wildly exaggerate, suggests the figure is around three 3 million.1 Writing more recently, Sanders offers his calculation that "the Temple area could accommodate about 300,000 to 400,000 pilgrims, which is a more reasonable figure".2 With such huge figures in play the chances of even a good proportion of the Good Friday crowd being part of those welcoming Jesus on the Sunday is fairly small. The Golden Gate through which Jesus entered was relatively small, and it was located close to his destination, the Temple. Factor in the narrow streets and the packed-ness of the city and the numbers couldn't have been that large. The Bible doesn't tell us how many turned up for Jesus' Triumphal entry, but the biggest recorded attendance at one of his events was 5,000. He'd grown in popularity since then, but even if he drew five times the size of that crowd, he would still be well below a tenth of the numbers that would be in Jerusalem by the time the festival hit its peak.

    Now factor in the logistics of Good Friday. The Bible doesn't tell us much about the space at Pilate's palace in which the crowd gathered. Jesus films love to portray a huge courtyard, packed out with an angry mob, but even in one of the most extreme examples of this - Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ (2004), there are only around 300 (yes, I counted them once). But the space could have been significantly smaller, and quite a bit less full and still qualify as a crowd. A crowded room at a party can almost be single figures. I'm not suggesting the figure is as low as that, but let's bear in mind that any idea of size we have is at best a guess, and at worst just adopting the casual assumptions of Christian art, which has a historical link to ant-Semitism.

    So let's do the maths.

    Let's say Sanders' lowest number is correct, and that six times the numbers of those that fed on Jesus' loaves and fish turned up for his triumphal entry. That would be around a tenth (10%) of the population of Jerusalem who turned up. And let's say that Gibson's vast, cinematically impressive, crowd is coincidentally close to the actual numbers, then, at a very generous estimate, that tenth equates to only around 30 people would have been at both events.

    Now lets look at the other extreme. Let's say Josephus is correct about the numbers in Jerusalem, and also assume that the number turning up om the Sunday was only 3,000, now we're only talking about a thousandth (0.1% i.e. a tenth of 1%) of those present on Good Friday. And if the number in the crowd was only 50, then it's hugely unlikely that even one person was at both events.

    Of course, we know some people were at both events (Jesus for one) and presumably some of his enemies and followers, but the reality is that in terms of the neutral (and this is who the sermon is talking about) perhaps fewer than 10 would have been at both events.

    But were they neutral? well this leads me onto my second point....

    The Crowd were not neutral
    The sermon assumes that the second crown was neutral, or perhaps only nominally in favour. After all, this is what the sermon addresses. That the same fickle observers who joined in the hype of Sunday, changed their minds over the course of the week.

    Those lobbying against Jesus didn't like what they saw on Sunday. Conversely, we're told Jesus' most dedicated supporters either slunk off (in the case of the men) or (in the case of some of the women) were still committed enough to turn up for his death. The only real defector was Judas.

    But it turns out that "the crowd" were not at all neutral. The account is covered at length in all four gospels, and with a great deal of repetition. The problem with this volume of material is that we tend to take in the big picture and skim over the minor details. But they matter, not least because they tell us a great deal about the crowd.

    Mark's gospel is generally considered the oldest and therefore the most reliable when it comes to small details and there's a vital detail in Mark 15:6-8. These are the verses that tells us about Pilate's custom of releasing a prisoner, and they tell us that one of those prisoner's was Barabbas. And then the passage says "So the crowd came and began to ask Pilate to do for them according to his custom" (NRSV). In other words the crown weren't just picked randomly from the street. They certainly weren't there because the wanted Jesus to be killed. (Many have made the point that whilst there was, at times, heated disagreement between the various Jewish factions, the last thing most people wanted was to see another of their own strung up the hated Romans).

    No, Mark is clear that the crowd come because they wanted to persuade Pilate to free Barabbas. This suggests they were probably amongst Barabbas' followers. Jesus was just collateral for them. Better Jesus die than their leader.

    Anti-Semitism and "the crowd"
    There has been a lot of discussion about anti-Semitism is the last year or two. In my experience, Christians, at least in the UK and other westerns English-speaking countries, tend to be horrified by it, but simultaneously somewhat naive about its role in their history. The reality is, though, that anti-Semitism is so wrapped up in Christian history - Passion Plays leading to pogroms; slandering Jewish people as Christ killers; and the reinforcement of these ideas in more creative approaches to telling the story (e.g. Christian art) - that most people don't realise the anti-Semitic traditions that they accept unquestioned at face value.

    Perhaps the most dominant element of anti-Semitism has been the blaming of Jews for Jesus' death. Whilst the majority would probably view it as ridiculous to blame Jewish people today for the acts of the Jews from the first century, they fail to see that this is precisely what has happened again and again throughout Christian history. If each generation is to avoid failing as horrifically as those in Nazi Germany, then each nation and generation need to take a stand against any elements of those myths that have a history of turning into anti-Semitic violence.

    So let me put it plainly. The Jews of Jesus' day did not think as one. They did not act as one. It's not implausible that the majority of them never heard his name during his lifetime. Crucifixion was a Roman act. The New Testament suggest a very small proportion of Jewish people (150 out of 300,000?) had some role in Jesus' death. It's is neither biblically or historically accurate to say that the majority of Jewish people in that era wanted Jesus to die, or that those who may have had some role in it were in anyway representative of their nation for their own generation, let alone their descendants 2000 years later.

    Perpetuating this sermon, that somehow a huge crowd welcomed Jesus on the Sunday and then condemned him on the Friday, does precisely this. Rather than being individuals, or a series of movements or sects, the sermon lumps all the Jewish people of Jesus' day all together and then blames them for Jesus' death. Accept that premise and you are already several steps along the path that can lead to blaming today's Jews and a repeat of the horrific violence of the not too distant past.


    I know this sermon is usually well intended. I know it's meant to cause us to look at ourselves and address our own weaknesses; to encourage Christians to be loyal to their Lord, to stick with him through difficult times; to reflect on the frailties of humanity. But there are other ways to do that. Sadly this sermon rests on a whole range of assumptions that have their origins in anti-Semitism (and bad maths), and have been allowed to grow up unchallenged. It's time for it to stop.

    1 - Sanders, E.P. (1991) The Historical Figure of Jesus, London: Penguin Allen. p.249, (though see Sanders' Judaism: Practice and Belief, 63 BCE-66 CE, London and Philadelphia, 1992 pp.125-8 for a more detailed explanation.)
    2 - Josephus The Jewish War 6.9.3, cross reference with the numbers he cites at an arguably less popular festival in The Jewish War 2.14.3