History of the World According to the Movies: Part 5- Early Christianity


Of course, I had to post a bloody Jesus picture from The Passion of the Christ directed by Mel Gibson. Though most historians agree Jesus really existed, he probably didn’t look like this at his crucifixion (save for the blood). I mean he’s just too white but I thought you already knew that. Still, this post is all about him and the religion he founded.

In my post of Ancient Rome, I deliberately left out the history of early Christianity because not only does it play a key role in Roman history and history in general (as well as one of the most prominent religion with so many sects and followers of different denominations), but it’s also a popular subject with filmmakers and one of the reasons why so many movies take place in Ancient Rome. There have been countless movies made about Jesus as well as take place in first century Palestine (including Life of Brian pictured in my last post). Heck, there are even movies about people even remotely associated with Jesus like Salome, Judah Ben Hur, Marcellus who crucified him, or Brian born down the street from Jesus. Don’t forget to see appearances of St. Peter and St. Paul (who should totally get his own movie), Pontius Pilate, the Virgin Mary, Judas Iscariot, St. Joseph, and those three kings of Orient are. Nevertheless, while Christianity began as a religion of martyrs as well as an offshoot of Judaism, it soon became the dominant and official religion of the Roman Empire (and later the one of the most dominant religions in the world). Yet, even filmmakers can get things wrong in the life of Christ as well as the early years of Christianity which I shall list as follows to make sure you understand why God may inflict his wrath on some of them over wrong information (of course, some of it was taken from the Bible and many of these movies do well at the box office but still).

The Story of Jesus:

Pontius Pilate remained neutral during the trial of Jesus and even says that he found nothing treasonable in Jesus’ actions. (Out of most of the biblical characters in the Passion narrative, I’ve always had a problem with the characterization of Pontius Pilate. In the gospels, Pilate seems all too reluctant to condemn Jesus to death, which I don’t find believable. I mean would someone in Pilate’s stature be all too reluctant to sign the death warrant of a man who has basically spoken against almost everything he and the Roman Empire stood for? I think he’d either not give a damn or be all too happy to crucify him. Perhaps his portrayal was the intent of the authors to characterize him in one of least offensive way possible but not make him seem like a good guy or maybe the whole thing was an act, at least in the Gospels anyway for perhaps the writers were playing it safe to depict Pilate that way. The Jewish perception of Pilate seems much more believable as well as their notion that Pilate didn’t last long in Jerusalem after Jesus’ crucifixion because the Romans thought he was too brutal.)

Jesus was a rather good looking man. (In the Bible, it’s best to say that he wasn’t very remarkable looking but certainly not butt ugly either. Thus, Jesus’s looks were about average that he wouldn’t stand out as far as history and the Gospels were concerned. He looked no different than what you’d expect from any Palestinian Jew in his 30s with tan skin, dark eyes, short dark hair, and a beard. Yet, most actors who portray Jesus look straight out of a fitness magazine. If he was seen as attractive, the events in the Gospels might’ve went quite differently, particularly when he greets his disciples after the resurrection.)

Mary was a teenage girl when she had Jesus. (She probably would’ve been no younger than 16, though it was possible that she would’ve been between 12-14 during her betrothal to Joseph, maybe even younger than that {like when they were kids}. St. Joseph probably would’ve been no older than 30 and most likely would’ve never married or have any kids. Thus, Jesus’s “brothers and sisters” would’ve been actually his cousins and other close relatives like aunts or uncles {this is according to my religious interpretation}.)

Herod the Great ordered the slaughter of babies in a mad quest to find the baby Jesus. (This is said in the Gospel of Matthew but there’s no record to support this. Besides, it’s fair to say it’s only included in Matthew because the author was writing for a Jewish Christian audience with his Gospel portraying Jesus as a “new Moses.” Herod slaughtering infants around Jesus’ birth was included to draw parallels with Moses’ birth birth story under the Pharaoh. However, though Herod may not have slaughtered any infants, this doesn’t mean he was a crazy or brutal king for he certainly was. In fact, he’s known for killing members of his own family out of paranoia, including a wife and 2 sons.)

Pontius Pilate was bullied by the Sanhedrin to crucify Jesus. (This is very unlikely for the Sanhedrin were only Roman puppets of the period and knew they only existed at Rome’s pleasure. Also, it would’ve been very unlikely for a Roman prefect to accept such actions. It’s probably safe to say that Jesus’ execution was one thing that he and the Sanhedrin could agree upon.)

Mary was with Jesus during most of his ministry. (Movies tend to depict this, but her appearances vary in the Gospels {in terms of certainty}. In Matthew, she’s only present in the infancy narrative. In Luke, she only appears up until Jesus is 12. However, Luke has her appear at the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles for the Ascension and Pentecost, so it’s possible she traveled with him during his ministry in his Gospel. In John, she’s at the Wedding of Cana and present at Jesus’s crucifixion {the only Gospel she’s present at this event}. However, in Mark, she’s only seen in Nazareth with other family members who were obviously not happy with what Jesus was doing. Nevertheless, having Mary with Jesus during his ministry seems to make a lot more sense.)

Salome was the voluptuous stepdaughter of Herod Antipas who had designs on John the Baptist and his refusal was the reason why he lost his head. (Of course, Salome has suffered the same fate as many women in history like Pocahontas, Cleopatra, and Catherine the Great, called the sex up, which consists of making historical figures much more physically attractive than they were in real life. Yet, unlike the characterization, the Gospels portray Salome as a young girl who probably never met John the Baptist but asks for his head on a platter at the request of her mother and she presented his head to her when the deed was done. She was her mother’s pawn and she wasn’t a sexy young woman either.)

Mary Magdalene was a prostitute. (She wasn’t but she was from a sea town which didn’t have the best reputation. And she wasn’t the woman who anointed Jesus either. She was probably the Mediterranean Jewish equivalent to the American white trash girl from a trailer park. The mentioned “harlot” in the Gospels is another woman. Also, the woman who anointed Jesus’s feet was Mary of Bethany who was the sister of Martha and Lazarus.)

Jesus was crucified with a loincloth over him. (In most crucifixions, the victim was completely naked, which was done to disgrace and humiliate the victims. I know Jesus wasn’t depicted as such in religious art but there’s probably no reason to believe he was spared of this. Still, I don’t think religious authorities should be upset at a naked depiction of Jesus on the cross for some say that shame and humiliation was an issue that Jesus dealt with as separation from God. But hey, to each his own, but I know how Hollywood has striven to make history family friendly and I would preach against depicting Jesus’ crucifixion in that historically accurate fashion for you will never hear the end of it. Yet, at least Jesus gets depicted on the cross nearly naked for whenever someone other than Jesus is crucified, he or she usually has their clothes on like Spartacus or anyone crucified in Life of Brian except Brian but that was due to cold temperatures.)

Jesus and his disciples drank out of a metal chalice during the Last Supper. (The Holy Grail is never mentioned in the Bible. Besides, I think he and his disciples probably drank out of a wooden chalice which didn’t look anything special.)

Jesus was white. (He was Jewish and had Semitic features. If you saw him at the airport in the US, it’s possible he’d be subjected to extra profiling by the TSA to see he wasn’t an Islamic terrorist.)

Jesus had long hair and a beard. (He had dark hair and beard, but most men of his day had short hair. Also, remember that Judas Iscariot had to kiss him in order to identify them. So if you were to see Jesus at the Last Supper, he’d probably look almost indistinguishable from his disciples.)

Jesus and Joseph were carpenters. (We’re not sure whether they were or just itinerant workers.)

Judas didn’t really believe Jesus was the son of God. (Who knows if he did?)

Mary didn’t want to marry Joseph. (Her view on her impending marriage to Joseph did not matter at the time, even after she became pregnant when he was the only one who took her in as his wife. Still, she could’ve done worse. Nevertheless, according to tradition, being the mother of Jesus was ultimately Mary’s decision {though she was chosen by God out of many different women}.)

Jesus spoke Aramaic which is a language that can be spoken today. (Yes, Jesus spoke Aramaic, but the “Aramaic” you hear in Mel Gibson’s holy gore fest is mostly educated guesswork on what it might’ve sounded and is probably as “authentic” as it’s going to get. However, the real pronunciations and intonations are lost to time that even linguists don’t exactly know how it sounded. Besides, the New Testament was originally written in Greek.)

Jesus celebrated the Passover with a seder of leaven bread sitting upright at a table. (It would more likely be matza or stuff made for Communion wafers. Also, a Seder is supposed to be eaten while reclining not in dining room fashion. Of course, you may have plenty of artists to blame because this is how the Last Supper is usually depicted.)

The crowd of Jews and Sanhedrin gave the order to crucify him. (Despite the Bible may tell you, there are only four death penalties permitted according to Jewish Law- beheading, stoning, burning or strangling. Crucifixion wasn’t one of them, yet it was probably more or less Pilate’s idea. Thus, no Jew would ever give the order to crucify Jesus, assuming if other execution methods were available then. Also, the Sanhedrin had no authority to execute anyone since Jesus was a kid and had to turn Jesus to Pilate to be judged by Roman law {and the Roman governor probably wouldn’t hesitate to crucify him whether the Jews wanted it or not}. Also, only the Temple security could use deadly force and only to those caught trespassing. Then the Torah says part of the death penalty was to hang a criminal’s corpse on a tree until evening after killing him so perhaps this is what the crowds and Sanhedrin chanted for instead. Then again, “Kill him and hang him to a tree!” doesn’t seem to have the same ring to it as “Crucify him!” Besides, Rome would rather save time by killing Jesus by hanging him on a tree anyway.)

Jesus was nailed to the cross with nails driven through his hands. (Nails would be driven through is wrists since palm tissue is too soft to support the weight of the victim.)

Romans and Judeans would speak to each other in their native tongues. (They’d more likely be communicating in Koine Greek to each other, the lingua franca of the Mediterranean.)

Herod Antipas was a depraved homosexual. (There’s no way of knowing this. However, according to the Gospels, he ran off and married his sister-in-law, Herodias while she was still technically married to his brother {also called Herod} and was his niece. John the Baptist was put in prison and later executed for criticizing Herod over this, {explaining why Herodias wanted Salome to ask her stepfather for his head}. Then again, Josephus says that Herod was worried that John the Baptist’s public influence would instigate a rebellion so he had him put to death. Still, he was said to have a notorious reputation for womanizing and Hellenizing royalty, which the Jews didn’t like. Also, dumping his first wife would later lead to a war between him and her dad.)

Herod Antipas only beheaded John the Baptist at the insistence of Salome as Herodias’s pawn. (Only in Mark’s Gospel he’s personally reluctant. In Matthew’s Gospel, Herod wants John the Baptist dead but worries that executing him might start an insurrection. Thus, in Matthew, Herod is reluctant to kill John the Baptist because he doesn’t think it’s good policy.)

Peter was a middle aged man with graying hair at the time of Jesus. (He’s usually depicted this way {save in The Robe} but he was probably not much older than Jesus. Also, Jesus and his disciples all looked alike, remember?)

“Christ” is Jesus’ surname. (It’s a descriptive title used by the Greeks to mean “anointed one.” Also, Jesus didn’t actually have a surname like most people of common birth at the time. Surnames were reserved for nobles.)

There were three magi. (Matthew doesn’t necessarily say how many they were, but most nativity usually go with three for gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Oh, and he says they visited him when he was two years old in a house somewhere else.)

Peter, James, and John were tempted by snakes as Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane. (They were tempted by sleep, not snakes. And yes, Peter, James, and John all fell asleep anyway. Also, Jesus wasn’t tempted at all.)

Jesus invented the dining table. (Dining tables existed before Jesus and there’s quite a lot of evidence for that.)

Early Christianity:

Christians were martyred at the Roman Coliseum. (Yes, there were possibly Christians martyred on the land before the place was built but they weren’t martyred in the building. It is said that Pope Benedict XIV made that up because he didn’t want the coliseum to be destroyed by developers who wanted to build a wool factory there. Still, he was right to say that it was a historically significant place even if he did make a few things up.)

Hypathia was a scientist and atheist. She was killed by Christians in the name of knowledge and science and because she was a woman. Her death ushered the Dark Ages. (She was a philosopher and a monotheistic pagan and she was killed as sixty-five, not young and pretty as in most depictions. I mean she believed in God in some sense, but she didn’t believe in Jesus or in the Bible. She believed in Neo-Platonism and her teachings appealed to a broad range of people whether they be Christian, Jew, or fellow pagans like herself. Also, Germanic tribes ushered in the Dark Ages since they were the ones who sacked Rome, not Christians and that happened in Hypathia’s lifetime. Besides, the ancient Christians weren’t against science either and she even had Christian students, one later becoming a bishop. Not only that, but Orestes and Socrates Scholastics were also Christians and she was known to be respected by Christians and pagans alike because of her learning, virtue, and dignity. As to the motive of death, she was killed on account of politics and revenge {or because her friend Orestes tortured and killed a monk and that Cyril of Alexandria saw her as an obstacle for reconciliation between the two of them}, not science, not philosophy, not because she was a woman, and certainly not rationalism. Not to mention, despite the fact that Cyril of Alexandria was a bishop and that she was killed by a Christian mob, religion had nothing to do with her murder since it was a feud between two prominent Christians fighting for power. Besides, everyone was horrified upon hearing her death, at least in Alexandria. As for the female part, there was another highly renowned female scientist a generation later named Aedisia who practiced science unmolested. Sorry, atheists, but Carl Sagan lied on this one. Just because he’s a scientist doesn’t mean you can believe him when it comes to history.)

The Great Library of Alexandria was destroyed by Christians and Jews. (It was more likely burned down by Julius Caesar in 48 B. C. which was way before Christianity or Hypathia. Actually the destruction of the Great Library of Alexandria was part of a long process of degradation and decline. Also, I’m not sure if the peoples of the antiquity ever cared for their libraries at all and I don’t think people in Hypathia’s time would’ve used scrolls either since books were available. However, there was a temple called the Serapeum which served as a “daughter library” at some point, but in 391, it was said to have contained only pagan idols. Also, the Christians were more interested in destroying pagan religious artifacts, not books. Nevertheless, the librarians of Alexandria weren’t said to be more like thugs concerned with securing power and prestige in Egypt than with the place being a haven of knowledge during the Ptolemic period. Whenever a ship came to port, the librarians would seize all the books on board, take them to the Library, and made rushed, cheap copies which they returned. This book-stealing stunt almost caused a war with Athens. In times of plague and famine, they would pressure book owners in exchange of food or medicine. And even then, there were repeated attempts to burn the place down.)

Christians were a single united sect during the time of the Roman Empire. (Even in the time of Saint Paul, there were different Christian sects depending on how closely it should be tied to Judaism. Paul’s original letters reflect this, particularly to the Galatians. Also, there were movements of Gnosticism, Arianism, and Nestorianism but they took storm outside the Empire and were later swallowed up by orthodox movements and Islam. Then there’s the presence of the Orthodox Church in the Byzantine Empire. Interestingly, the guys who brought upon the Reformation didn’t know this.)

The Romans persecuted Christians because they didn’t understand Christianity and acts performed by Christians. (This may be true but it’s misinterpreted. The Romans were sickened by Christians rescuing newborns not because they thought they were performing a human sacrifice, but because they believed saving exposed newborns was immoral and indecent for they saw the weak, disabled, and illegitimate as a drain on the Empire’s resources and keeping them alive was viewed as stealing food from the healthy. And they didn’t persecute Christians who refused to sacrifice because they didn’t understand the Christian viewpoint but because to a Roman, refusing to sacrifice was equivalent to an American refusing to say the Pledge of Allegiance or stand for the national anthem or flag burning {or worse as TTI says, “many Romans believed that if humans failed to perform sacrifices the gods would destroy the earth via earthquakes, volcanoes, plagues, and other disasters.” Not to mention, some Christians were persecuted because they avoided conscription and there was no such thing as Conscientious Objector status exemption then. Once Christianity became the official Roman religion, the Christians would end up persecuting the pagans. Other reasons why as TTI implies are:

     “The Romans also felt that Jews and Christians were probably the most intolerant religion ever, since they did not accept other gods as real. They could understand a god having other gods as rivals or enemies, but not one claiming to be the only God of all creation.

    Romans also believed that Christians performed brother-sister Incest because followers addressed each other as “Brother” and “Sister” and said that they loved each other, and believed that Christianity was some kind of death cult, because they used an execution platform as one of their symbols and their followers were often eager to be executed. Let’s not even get into how Jesus being his own father impacts his relationship with his mother.

       The Roman rumor mill managed to combine the Christian practice of calling their savior “the baby Jesus” (which despite popular belief isn’t a carryover from Christmas, but a reference to his child-like innocence) and their eating the “body and blood of Christ” during communion, and led Romans to think Christians ceremonially killed and ate babies.

        Which makes it all more ironic that blood libel became a very common accusation against Jews in Medieval (and early modern) Europe.

        Romans were extremely disturbed by the phrase “washed clean by the blood of Christ,” taking it to mean that Christians (as essentially a springoff of Judaism) had murdered their own god and bathed in his blood.

        This was further propagated by the Jewish tradition of having no idols, or emptiness where an idol would be. The Roman reaction ranged from horror at the implication to said belief that the Christians had killed Him.

        To Romans, religion was mostly done out in the open (or in publicly accessible temples), unless it was a mystery cult, which usually were offshoot religions that still worshiped well-known gods (Isis, Marduk, etc.). Christians only celebrated indoors, away from the public eye, and this was viewed as highly suspicious.

        Early Christians also had a tendency to require recent converts to essentially cut themselves off from their non-Christian relatives and only associate with their new Christian brothers and sisters. Today, that would be viewed as classic cult behavior.”})

St. Paul was originally known as Saul. (He had both names throughout his life. Saul was his Hebrew name while Paul was his Roman name. He was a Jewish Roman citizen by the way. As an Apostle to the Gentiles, we mostly call him Paul.)

Constantine the Great and the Council of Nicea made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. (Constantine the Great only made Christianity a legal religion while the Council of Nicea decided on questions like the divinity of Christ. Emperor Theodosius would only declare Christianity the state religion 65 years later. Oh, and Constantine approached Christianity as if it was just an inclusive pagan religion.)

Peter and Paul met each other in Rome. (I don’t know whether they were in Rome at the same time or whether they did meet there. However, Peter and Paul did meet in Antioch though and it didn’t end well. It’s in St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians {which is one of the seven Pauline letters actually written by him}.)

The Roman Empire was run by the Church near its end. (Actually it was more like the Empire was running the Church. Check your religious history.)

Christianity brought on the fall of the Roman Empire. (Even if someone like Edward Gibbon said this, doesn’t mean it’s true. Also, he actually didn’t since Rome’s seeds of destruction were present before Christianity became the Empire’s official religion anyway {and Rome had been on the decline by then, too}.)

Catacombs existed in Rome during the early first century. (They didn’t exist until decades later when there was a larger Christian community. Actually would’ve been more accurate if Roman Christians met in each other’s houses.)

The first Christian persecution was under Caligula. (It was under Claudius.)

St. Peter was in Rome at the same time as Caligula. (Peter mostly spent Caligula’s reign as prisoner in Judea and wasn’t in Rome until after the guy’s reign.)

Persecution of Christians in Rome was continual. (It was intermittent and rare with periods of many decades between attacks. Well, state sponsored persecutions anyway. Hate crimes may have been a different story.)


One response to “History of the World According to the Movies: Part 5- Early Christianity

  1. Pingback: The Lord is with us | daily meditation

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