Variations on the Passion of Christ
If the mark of a great myth is the number of different writers and thinkers who have offered varying interpretations of it, then the story of the Passion of Christ must rank as one of the most fruitful of all stories ever told. It's not just that the Passion has been the subject of some truly exquisite art, though it has, of course. Starting from the different versions of the tale in the New Testament itself, and taking in the wonderful settings of the Passion according to Matthew and John by Johann Sebastian Bach, the innumerable number of painters who have inspired by the scenes from the New Testament, the many cinematic versions (of which Mel Gibson's execrable movie is but the latest version; see, for instance, Scorsese's Last Temptation of Christ) and the sheer number of short stories and novels written about the Passion (all the way from Chekhov to Borges), the Passion has long fascinated artists and thinkers of all times and talents.
Part of this, is, of course, the vagueness of the whole thing. Unlike the Old Testament, where the meaning of the text is often clearly spelled out (what other religion will offer you ten basic rules in bullet-point format?), the New Testament is filled with opaque, often contradictory parables, the meaning of which (it seems to me) is left largely open to the reader. What exactly is the Passion of Christ? What does her martyrdom consist of? What does it achieve? What are we to take away from it?
Before I get into my own theory on the matter (which is, after all, the point of this blog) let me highlight some other interpretations I find fascinating. Perhaps the most interesting (if only because the most fanciful) of all comes from a Borges short story, where Borges argues that it is not Jesus but Judas who is the true Messiah - it is Judas who truly suffers, being driven by his own demons to hang himself, and (presumably) being damned forever. Yet isn't Judas's betrayal necessary for the martyrdom and eventual glorification of Jesus? And if this interpretation is true, doesn't Judas suffer further in being misunderstood forever by the very people he died to save; and isn't that misunderstanding a part of the conspiracy?
Scorsese's Last Temptation of Christ (based on the novel of the same name) takes somewhat the same point of view - at one point in the movie, Jesus (played brilliantly by William Defoe) points out that Judas (Harvey Keitel) has the harder part to play, because he has to betray a loved one, while Jesus has only to die. (The movie, which starts with incredible promise, then proceeds to lose it's way in some fairy tale about Jesus being offered the chance of living a normal life and having to refuse it and choose the death on the cross instead, in order for his martyrdom to work; this is interesting, but a trifle trite)
While I'm unconvinced about this interpretation, I think it highlights the central problem with the Jesus myth - how is it possible that the finite suffering of one man (even a semi-divine man) at one particular point of time is enough to pay for all of the sins of the world forever? Especially when this suffering consists of a few brief hours of pain with the certainty of salvation and rebirth and the joys of heaven afterwards? The idea of Judas as Messiah does away with this problem by arguing effectively that it is Judas who has been suffering (and will continue to suffer eternally) for the sins of the world.
A second problem this discussion leads to is the problem of what the suffering of Christ really amounts to. As Bergman points out (through one of his characters in the movie Winter Light) what is the big deal about physical pain? Surely there are hundreds, nay thousands, who have suffered great physical pain at one point or the other; in the history of the world there must be millions who have died more painful deaths than a flogging followed by a crucifixion. Indeed, one of my key takeaways from Gibson's ghoulish movie was precisely that the treatment meted out to Christ, far from being cruel and unusual, was pretty much par for the course at the time. In fact, watching the movie, I found my sympathies entirely with Pilate and Herod - what would you do with some scruffy vagabond who came along and declared he was the Son of God and the King of Heaven?
(In some ways, Christ's belief in his own status as Messiah is a problem in itself. For surely to believe that one is the Messiah, the saviour of the world, the one who will sit in Judgement over all mankind, is to give in to the temptation of Pride. Even to choose to be sacrificed, to be martyred for a cause is to be tempted - see, for instance, Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral)
Bergman's answer to this problem is that the real suffering of Christ consists in being deserted on the cross - the physical pain is nothing, it is the knowledge that he has been abandoned by everyone, that he must die, as every man does, alone. That is why Christ cries out "Lord! Why have you forsaken me?".
In this, I think, Bergman is close to the answer, but he doesn't quite develop the idea sufficiently. My own idea is that the entire story of Christ is about God's deliberate deception and betrayal of his own son. God deliberately plants his Son on earth, lets him grow up believing himself to be the Messiah, brings him to a point where Jesus believes sufficiently in his Father to be willing to sacrifice himself, and then abandons him utterly on the cross. There is, for Jesus, no pity, no place in heaven - only barren emptiness and oblivion. What God could not bring himself to demand of Abraham (how could he? what had he ever done that compared?) he now commits himself.
What, you may ask, would be the point of such a sacrifice? Precisely that a God who would go so far is beyond question. How dare a mere mortal demand an accounting for his sorrows, for his suffering, from a God who would willingly send his own son to be butchered? And conversely, what sacrifices, what excesses can such a God not demand in his name? Jesus is to God what Iphigenia was to Agammemnon - a sacrifice made not so much to propitiate the Gods as to establish the supremacy of one over all others. Imagine going into battle with someone who would cut off his own fingers. Who could possibly accuse such a person of being self-interested, of letting others suffer for his / her own good? Who could accuse him of giving orders without understanding, without knowing what it is to suffer? And at another, cruder level, how can one help admiring such a being's courage, his intensity. If someone is willing to sacrifice his son for a cause, then surely that cause, however illogical, however difficult, must be right.
In one master stroke, then, the story of Christ puts the Christian God beyond all human interference - he may demand whatever he wishes and yet nothing he does may be questioned. Before the New Testament, it was possible to become disillusioned with God - if you believed in him fervently and kept his edicts and still continued to suffer in misery, for instance. After the New Testament, all such questions were moot, and endless sacrifice was legitimated.
Who would make such a sacrifice? Someone who was hungry, no, desperate for power. There are two ways you can look at this of course - one that the story of Christ is one manufactured by the religious interests of the day, in a master stroke of politics, enabling them to win popular support (you're suffering? come to us - we have a God, a Messiah, who suffers too; we REALLY feel your pain). The other is that God (or at any rate the Christian God) actually is that megalomanical, so completely cold-blooded that he would sacrifice his own son to put any questions about his supremacy to rest once and for all (though that of course raises the question of whether it's really worth while believing in so cold-blooded a God).
But wait, you say, what about the resurrection? What about the return of Christ? If he was not saved, how could that have happened? It's always struck me as strange that Christ, when he returns, doesn't bring any particularly cheerful messages about the other side (I mean to say, you've just got back from a weekend trip to the afterlife; you think you'd have a few interesting anecdotes, maybe even a postcard or two). In fact, he doesn't really say anything about heaven or the next world at all (there is a passage that speaks of him being risen, but these words are spoken by an angel not by Jesus himself). So two possibilities exist - either he doesn't know what is in store for him - after all, it's not as though he's seen the Kingdom of Heaven or knows that it exists - maybe this is God's last, most cruel trick - to lull him into a false sense of triumph when all the while oblivion waits for him on the other side (if this were not true, why does he not return again, after those first three times? If he's really in heaven, and he really wants to convince people of this, why not come back more often, why not show himself to a larger audience? The testimony of a dozen people, and those the very ones close to him is hardly convincing evidence).
The other possibility is that he does know, but has been forced to come back by God, just to show himself (which is why he has nothing positive to say about the next world). Even disregarding the presumed omnipotence of God that would enable this, could not Jesus have been talked into coming back precisely in the name of the benefits believing in the lie would have for his followers? Suppose I said to you that everything you believed was a lie, but that you could save your closest friends and loved ones the pain of making this discovery by joining in the lie and helping to maintain the deception? Would you not do it? And wouldn't this be the most ironic, the most poetically sadistic way to do it?
Or perhaps it isn't even really Jesus but just an illusion sent by God to take his place. In any event, this is a classic carrot and stick - having effectively put God beyond human questioning, theology now offers the common man a sop, a glimpse of hope. This is a particularly clever carrot, because in essence it promises nothing and is by definition never going to happen to anyone else (I mean, this is special treatment reserved for the Son of God, right - why assume it has anything to do with ordinary mortals?)
It's also interesting, of course, how much this notion of Christ, of (as Eliot puts it) some 'infinitely gentle, infinitely suffering thing' though manifestly illogical has become so firmly entrenched in our pysche. Did this sympathy, nay, this respect, for those who suffer in silence always exist (what possible anthropological basis could there be for it?) or is it in fact an artifact of the Christ myth. And without this idea, would other political movements based on non-violence (such as India' struggle for Independence, for instance) have had any hope of working?