Thursday, February 19, 2004

YET MORE MEL: Aruzt Sheva has an Opinion piece by Gerald A. Honigman on Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ (heads up, David Meadows), which aims to explain why many Jews are opposed to the movie. Lately I've been trying to cover other things and leave the Gibson movie to Mark Goodacre, who has been covering it very well. But I do have a few comments on Honigman's piece. I agree with much of his analysis of awful passages in the Gospels and the horrible effect they had on Jews later. These include John 8:44 (which Honigman misquotes, but the correct version, "You are of your father the devil" is bad enough) and, of course, Matt 27:25. But there are some places in the essay that need correction and nuancing:
Regardless of how you spin the Gospel of John's words, the masses knew what he meant. One of the first pictures of a Jew in Europe was entitled, "Aaron, Son of the Devil."

Hundreds of years later, Michelangelo placed Devil's horns on his famous sculpture of Moses. It is estimated that such "religious" teaching led to the death of millions of Jews prior to the Holocaust.

Those horns on Moses' head come from a literal translation of Exod 34:30, 35, which describes the skin of Moses' face being changed somehow as a result of seeing God on Sinai, using a verbal form (qaran)of the Hebrew root for "horn" (qeren). One intepretation, going back to the Jewish Greek translation of Aquila, is that Moses grew horns. Jerome's Vulgate also takes it this way. It originated as an artistic motif in 11th century Britain. Some critical scholars today still think this is the correct interpretation (perhaps going back to a ritual mask with horns or the like). Others go with another ancient interpretation that goes back to Pseudo-Philo and Paul (cf. 2 Cor 3:7-18), that "rays" of splendor shown from Moses' face. This is based on a rather unlikely reading of a difficult passage in Habbakuk 3:4. And back in the 1980s, Professor William H. Propp of UCSD argued that Moses' skin was "made horny" or scorched by the divine radiance. For more on this whole subject, see his fascinating article: "The Skin of Moses' Face � Transfigured or Disfigured?" Catholic Biblical Quarterly 49 (1987): 375-86. Bottom line: the portrayal of Moses with horns came about through a particular, not entirely impossible, reading of the biblical text, not as an attempt to demonize him.
Not only do the Gospels differ among themselves about some very important details, but all Christian doctrines were subjected to the approval of Rome � the very executioners of Jesus, as well as thousands of other Jews whom they perceived as "trouble makers" � after the emperor Constantine converted and the Council of Nicaea was convened in 325 C.E.

I think it's a bit facile historically to equate the Rome of the pagan emperors (who also persecuted the followers of Jesus) with the empire of Constantine or the authority of the Council of Nicea. Each had their own agendas but the agendas were very different.
Versions of Jesus' life � and interpretations of what that life meant � that differed from that approved by Rome were banned and destroyed.

Again, a bit facile. The development of the New Testament canon was a very complex process that happened at different rates in different places. But there was widespread agreement on the four gospels early on, although many other gospels also were popular in various places. These were gradually supressed, for different reasons and at different times in different places. For good or ill, the canonizing of the four gospels was a done deal by the time of the Council of Nicaea, although other gospels continued to be copied and read for many centuries. The NT bloggers may have more to say about this.

I'm not very comfortable with some of Mr. Honigman's rhetoric, which I think is at times over the top, no matter how legitimate his concerns may be. But I think I'll stop with the factual observations above.

I repeat, I have serious reservations about the movie from what I've heard so far, but I'm not going to judge it until I see it. But let's keep the discussion accurate in the meantime.

As an aside, you may find the recent comments of Andrew Sullivan (a gay, Catholic, conservative/libertarian blogger) interesting.

UPDATE (20 February): More here on Moses' horns.

Stephen C. Carlson comments on the four-Gospel canon.

UPDATE (21 February): Gerald A. Honigman replies.

UPDATE (22 February): More here.

UPDATE (25 February): There are still more posts on the subject above, but I'm tired of adding links. Just do a search (search engine is to the right) for "Moses' Horns" to find later posts.

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