Tuesday, March 23, 2004
Now here's what I think would be ironic about a Mel Gibson Maccabee movie.
The big objection a lot of Jews have to The Passion is the relative assignment of blame for Jesus' death. Caiphas, the Jewish High Priest, is treated as a thorough villain, determined to kill Jesus, whereas Pilate is presented as morally ambivalent, anguished about Jesus' fate. Foxman and others have objected to this "blaming of the Jews" for the killing of the man whom Christians worship as God.
(I do not want to get into a discussion of whether this objection is legitimate, or whether other objections are legitimate. I haven't seen the movie, and I don't intend to; I don't like ultra-violent films, of which Gibson's Passion clearly is one.)
But who was Caiphas? Is he someone Jews should be eager to call their own?
Caiphas was the High Priest of the Temple in Jerusalem. The Temple was, at the time, in the hands of the Sadducees. From Josephus and other sources, we know the primary factions among the Jews of the Land of Israel at the time, of which the Sadducees were only one. The Sadducees were the Temple party, the establishment. They had significant religious differences with the Pharisees, who were especially active in the Galilee (and dominated the religious and cultural environment in which Jesus was raised), among the most notable being that the Sadducees rejected the idea of eternal life, which the Pharisees affirmed. The Essenes, whom we know primarily from their writings found at Qumran, were a quietist and ascetic sect that rejected civilization and retreated into the wilderness. The Zealots, about whom we know a great deal from Josephus and also know from the Talmud, were a political party agitating for independence from Rome. And then there were the Hellenizers and others who had, to one extent or another, assimilated to the surrounding civilization.
Why do I bring up this factionalism? Well, the Pharisees are the ancestors of rabbinic Judaism. Rabbinic Judaism traces its lineage back to Moses, through the subsequent prophets and, particularly, the scribes who were elevated by King Hezekiah to reform the religion under his reign, through the era of Ezra and Nehemiah and their reforms down to the Pharisees of the Second Temple period, and the rabbis who emerged in that period. The rishonim - the first rabbinic exegetes, the rabbis who opine on the law in the Mishnah - among whom the most prominent are Hillel and Shamai, were the leading lights among the Pharisees. And the Pharisees were opposed to the priestly party, the Sadducees. Caiphas, in other words, is not the ideological ancestor of modern Judaism; he's someone modern Judaism's ideological ancestors were opposed to.
So where did the Sadducees come from?
From the Maccabees!
The Maccabean revolt against the Seleucid Empire and its Hellenizing Jewish satraps in the Land of Israel ended with victory for the rebels, who seized Jerusalem, cleansed the Temple, and restored traditional Jewish religion. This is the story behind the festival of Hanukkah.
But after seizing power, the Maccabees changed. First, they seized offices that they did not have traditional title to. They proclaimed themselves kings, though not in the Davidic line of succession, and they proclaimed themselves High Priests, though not in the Aaronic succession. The descendents of Zadok, the legitimate heirs to the High Priesthood, were stripped of office; one scholarly theory for the origin of the Essenes is that these were disgruntled Zadokites who retreated into the wilderness after their dispossession. The Maccabees, once in power, also began to embark on Hellenizing programs not too different from those of their predecessors against whom they had revolted. For all these reasons, the scribal or Pharisee party, who did not hold political power but operated as the custodians of religion outside of the Temple and the officials of a non-state religious legal system, turned against the Maccabees, whose priestly echelons had by now restyled themselves Sadducees (or, "righteous ones").
So the irony of Gibson's film project is twofold.
He made a film about Jesus' death that, in the mind of many Jews, slandered the Jewish High Priest with the crime of deicide. But ironically, this High Priest was someone opposed by the ancestors of today's Jews, the Pharisees. And now, to "make up" to the Jews, Gibson is proposing to make a film that glorifies the Maccabees. Normally, this would be a topic modern Jews would love, as Zionism has rehabilitated the Maccabees from their traditional rabbinic disparagement, though it's unlikely most Jews will appreciate the gesture coming from Gibson. But ironically, these Maccabees whom Gibson will celebrate are the ancestors of the same Caiphas who is the villain of Gibson's Passion!