'The Passion' and its historical context

By Mark Goodacre

Good history can generate great drama and one of The Passion's virtues is its sensitivity to historical detail. Where it would have been easy to have lapsed into cliché and caricature, Frank Deasy's scripts instead show a fine understanding of Jesus' first century Jewish context. It is not just that the characterisation of key figures is so much more sympathetic and rounded than we might have expected but also that the interactions between characters become intelligible against the background of authentic details.

When Pontius Pilate (James Nesbitt) and Caiaphas (Ben Daniels) first meet, the tense but tolerant relationship between the men is explained against the background of a conversation over the High Priest's robes, which are kept by the Roman prefect. The scene is not in the Gospels but is based on information derived from the Jewish historian Josephus whose writings, which date to the end of the first century, provide a wealth of information about the Judaism of Jesus' day. The Passion draws a good deal from this valuable historical source.

If ancient sources like Josephus provide helpful historical detail, The Passion's storyline is put together by combining such material with the Gospels, which themselves, when read carefully, offer important details that illuminate the religious and political context. The action takes place in the period leading up to Passover, a great pilgrim festival when many Galileans, like Jesus and his disciples, will have made pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Pilate, normally stationed by the sea in Caesarea Maritima, reluctantly comes to Jerusalem to keep an eye on the crowds.

Jerusalem is full of pilgrims, and the theme of the Passover festival is the liberation of Israel from foreign oppression. On such occasions, it would be surprising if Pilate did not fear a riot (Matthew 27:24), a fear the chief priests would have understood (Mark 14:2). In The Passion, Pilate's concerns are enhanced because his wife Claudia (Esther Hall) dreams about Jesus (Matthew 27:19) and pesters him about his reputation back in Rome.

But attempting to understand the historical context of the story is inevitably a sensitive task because of the appalling history of anti-Semitism, which has often been associated with ill-conceived depictions of the Passion narrative in the past. Good history involves understanding the motivations of the characters and avoiding potentially incendiary material. Thus here, Pilate is not cleared of guilt, the crowd does not say "His blood be on us and on our children", Caiaphas is not motivated by evil, and Judas is not demonised. Jesus and his disciples are Judeans among other Judeans, who share the same aspirations, the devotion to God, the respect for their ancestral traditions, their participation in the Temple cult and their hope for the coming of the kingdom.

The Passion dramatises the events that Christians celebrate at Easter but understands them in the context of the Judaism that was at the heart of Jesus' thought and practice.

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