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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, September 6, 2003

'Gospel of John' averts controversy

By Richard N. Ostling
Associated Press

"The Gospel of John," a $15 million film produced by Visual Bible International, premieres Thursday in Toronto. Religious consultants in the filmmaking included two Jews.

Photos via Associated Press

Henry Ian Cusick is Jesus in "Gospel of John," a less controversial film than Mel Gibson's "The Passion."
TORONTO — Mel Gibson, take note: There's another new film about the life of Jesus that depicts Jews' involvement in the events leading to the Crucifixion. But this one has several Jewish producers and has attracted less controversy.

While Gibson's "The Passion" won't be released for months, Jewish and Christian commentators already are debating whether its gory treatment of Jesus' death will rouse anti-Semitism. By contrast, there's no advance acrimony surrounding "The Gospel of John," which premieres Thursday at the Toronto International Film Festival.

"John" is a Canadian-British production made for $15 million, roughly half the cost of Gibson's film. It opens in four U.S. markets Sept. 26, then in 75 others mostly across the Southeast.

Gibson's film, which he financed, co-wrote, produced and directed, puts all the dialogue into the ancient Aramaic and Latin languages.

The script for "John," written in English, is word-for-word John's Gospel. Yet that doesn't sap the drama and sometimes enhances it, creating thought-provoking cinema.

Still, thanks to Gibson's film, many will be less curious about whether "John" is a good film than how it treats first-century Jews. Answer: It's done just as in John's Gospel — which raises age-old issues of fairness and literary intent.

Garth Drabinsky, the Canadian producer who heavily shaped "John," is Jewish. He thinks John's Gospel, which most scholars believe was written around the end of the first century, is an inspirational masterpiece in which one of the themes is the conflict over Jesus among Jews.

The John film "will illuminate understanding of both religions, and make a stronger Christian-Jewish relationship," says Drabinsky, who is fighting fraud charges stemming from an unrelated bankruptcy case.

In making the film, Drabinsky hired University of Toronto retiree Peter Richardson to enlist an advisory board of scholars consisting of five Protestants of varying views, a Roman Catholic sister and two Jews.

One of the Jewish scholars, Alan Segal of Barnard College, called the John film "stunning and illuminating." But he acknowledged that of the four Gospels, John is "the most Jewish in its subject matter, and the most anti-Jewish in its perception."

John emphasizes Jesus' own claims to be the Messiah and the Son of God, which sets up a sharp conflict among Jews. By John's account, the Temple authorities plotted early on to kill Jesus and pressed a hesitant Pilate to give the Roman go-ahead for crucifixion.

The scholars provide words of explanation that scroll down the screen before the action begins, noting that crucifixion was a Roman punishment not sanctioned by Jewish law and that Jesus and all his early followers were Jewish.

The scholars' words also tell viewers that John was written "two generations after the Crucifixion" and reflects a period of growing friction between early Christians — who were living within Jewish communities — and Jewish leaders. That view follows the widespread scholarly opinion that John portrays an era outside of what actually happened during Jesus' lifetime.

Liberals will like that spin, but conservatives triumph in the film's final seconds when visual twists underscore the Gospel's assertion that it relied on an unnamed eyewitness (not necessarily John the apostle) to offer a true account of Jesus' life.

In another film-making choice that will reduce Jewish objections, the script uses the American Bible Society's 1966 "Good News Bible." The scholars say the main reason was the accessible language, but it's also significant that, in the original Greek, John used "Ioudaioi" ("the Jews") 67 times, suggesting collective Jewish involvement in opposing Jesus. The "Good News Bible" routinely translates the word as "the Jewish authorities," thereby avoiding the idea that all Jews conspired against Jesus. Some academics have said it's wrong to change John's wording for the sake of political correctness.

Segal and others involved in the John film think that seeing the whole story of Jesus will leave a less harsh impression than Gibson's passion play.

"John" comes from Visual Bible International, a Toronto-based, loosely Christian company that previously issued low budget, word-for-word versions of the Gospel of Matthew and Acts for church and home video markets.

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