Round 5: Ben Witherington III
It remains interesting because Witherington is obviously no great fan of the film, so it is not as if we have Crossan anti- the film and Witherington pro. Their divisions are tending to relate more to why they have problems with it, Crossan largely because of its theology, its alleged anti-Semitism and its violence, Witherington because of its relative lack of fidelity to Scripture. Witherington agrees with Crossan's comments on the depiction of Pilate in the film and makes the useful point that without anything like Luke 13.1 there is no context for the portrayal. He prefers Rod Steiger's portrayal in Jesus of Nazareth.
Unfortunately, Witherington does not engage with Crossan's interesting material about the origins of the Passion Narrative during the reign of Herod Agrippa and makes one of those all-too-easy scholarly put-downs (smackdowns?!), that it is "an undue amount of pure speculation without historical foundation". I don't think that Crossan's remarks can be so lightly thrown aside. They are based on Gerd Theissen's excellent study of the Passion Narrative and represent, as far as I can see, something of a shift in Crossan's own view, which had previously seen very little of the Passion narrative as having an historical origin. They deserve more attention than that, especially if one of the points of the exchange is to demonstrate how the process of academic dialogue should take place. One of the things I like to try to discourage students to do is to use the throw-away one-liner as a substitute for engaging with one's critics.
Witherington concludes by commenting on the familiar theme of the scourging of Jesus:
So let me be plain—I think there are some real and troubling historical distortions in this movie. The one that bothers me perhaps the most is that each Gospel account devotes exactly one verse to the flagellation of Jesus; they do not emphasize it or highlight the fact. It's almost mentioned in passing. The enormous amplification of this to an unbearable extent in the movie is way beyond what poetic license should allow. For me, this is especially egregious since it is not the flagellation that produces the atonement for sins, but rather the death of Christ on the cross. In the movie, this somehow manages to be less gruesome than the flagellation. It seems an odd strategy to amplify the violence beyond biblical proportions in order to exalt the Prince of Peace!Similar comments have been made in the reviews. All I can say of my experience of the film is that I did not find the crucifixion any less gruesome than the scourging scene and the comment puzzles me. I found the crucifixion itself far and away the most emotional part of the film. I also do not feel completely at ease with the language about what "produces the atonement for sins". Witherington is right that the Gospel writers place no emphasis on the scourging, though I can't help wondering whether the lack of detail is because readers are expected to have some idea of what this would have meant, in a culture in which fear of persecution was a reality.
Finally, Witherington and / or Beliefnet need to spell-check these messages before uploading. (I know, I can talk, but bear in mind that a daily blog takes much more writing time than a weekly email and it's just me -- no editor).