Millions of moviegoers who saw Mel Gibson's 2004 film Passion of the Christ were inundated with gory images of a man's bloody and beaten body, images that have been handed down through the centuries in Christian iconography and literature. The controversy the film ignited over the implications that the Jews were ruthlessly responsible for the killing of Jesus caused a surge in interest in the subject of Christian history. The award-winning prime-time news magazine show Dateline NBC capitalized on the popularity and contentiousness of the subject matter and produced a special report entitled "The Last Days of Jesus." The full film can be viewed in full online at the Dateline NBC website: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/4315203/. Narrated by NBC's Stone Phillips, the five-minute segment squarely and directly addresses the subject of whether or not the Jews killed Jesus. Thus, "The Last Days of Jesus" banks on invoking the kind of political stir that inevitably wins audiences. The piece targets audiences who might be concerned about anti-Semitism in general and those who are curious about Christian history. Stone Phillips' suave yet serious voice drives the film segment. His handsomeness also offers a visual and conceptual counterpoint from the older, scholarly-looking interview subjects selected for the piece; the selection of Stone Phillips over someone like Tom Brokaw was not an incidental production decision. Furthermore, "The Last Days of Jesus" is effective in its choice of interview subjects and its ancillary imagery including nighttime shots of Jerusalem, dark images of Church interiors, and a wide range of paintings and other forms of religious art. The juxtaposition of this powerfully evocative visual imagery with the informative content creates a compelling and concise piece of news drama.
The segment opens with a voice over by Stone Phillips saying, "Jesus's death on the cross and the belief that he was resurrected three days later gave birth to a religion that has raised and toppled nations and transformed lives." Editors skillfully worked specific images over the distinct portions of this sentence. For example, over "Jesus's death on the cross," the audience is shown a painted ceramic statuette of the Virgin Mary holding the dead Jesus in her arms, the familiar pieta scene. Over the words, "the belief that he was resurrected three days later," the editors present a view of a stained-glass rose window from the interior of a church. The stained glass contains representations of Jesus's resurrection. Finally, when Stone Phillips utters the phrase "transformed lives," viewers see ordinary people sitting in church, praying and reading from the Bible or their hymn books. The camera then switches to a bird's eye view of a modern church from a high wide angle as the narrator speaks, "Today the world's Christian population is some two billion strong." The introductory material lures viewers by underscoring the global and timeless significance of Christian history.
As Stone Phillips notes, "Many fought to worship beneath the symbol of what happened that day in Jerusalem," we are shown an image of the crucifixion. However, the editors quickly cut to a wide angle shot of Stone Phillips himself, strolling along the embankment of a wall in Jerusalem. Panning as he walks, the camera angle encompasses both Stone's stature as well as the grandeur of the city behind him. Stone says solemnly, "But the accounts of Jesus' days have sparked darker sentiments as well." The latter part of the sentence, and the words "darker sentiments" are complemented and enhanced by the nighttime ("darker") imagery of Jerusalem, as well as the metaphorical darkness surrounding the political upheavals that have plagued that city for millennia. Moreover, Jerusalem is in a way where it all began, the city in which Jesus was most likely placed on the cross.
Phillips continues, "Over the centuries the Gospel images ... have fueled the notion in some quarters that the Jewish people were responsible for Jesus's death. It's a perspective that has triggered anti-Semitic persecution and violence for almost 2000 years." Having reached the crux and thesis of the news segment, the editors now cut from the romantic and mysterious scene of Stone surrounded by the majestic city lights of the ancient Israeli city to the first interview subject.
No name or personal information is provided for the older Caucasian male. He is positioned to the left of the camera frame and looks highly professorial, donning glasses and gray hair, wearing a suit and tie.
'It troubles me as a Christian," he begins. "To hear Christians say things like, well, 'The Jewish people are Christ killers,' or something like that. That's outrageous. It's very wrong. It's bad theology. It's bad history."
As he utters that last sentence, the camera cuts to a mid-range shot of the interviewer, positioned in the right of the frame. Stone Phillips appears deeply concerned about what the subject is saying; the look on his face is one of almost exaggerated seriousness. To emphasize the gravity of the situation, he wears a dark suit and has slicked-back hair. In the background, a library of books is visible, adding to the academic atmosphere. The academic mystique leads the viewer to implicitly trust the interview subject, regardless of his background or credentials, neither of which are offered by the producers.
The subject continues, "Most Jewish people didn't even know who Jesus was, never even heard about it, and would have been horrified at what happened to him in Jerusalem."
Here the camera cuts instantly to another interview subject, who again does not have his name or position printed on the screen.
He states, "Even if everything in the New Testament was literally correct, there is no reason whatsoever to blame anyone but the people who were right there." Again the editors cut to a shot of Stone Phillips looking extremely concerned as he listens. Almost all the interview segments shown in "The Last Days of Jesus" are edited like this to include a concerned-looking Phillips. The look on his face is supposed to evoke in the viewer similar sentiments: of taking the subject matter, and thus the authority of NBC, seriously in spite of not being told who the interview subjects are and what credentials make them experts on Christian history.
Use of visual imagery and sound in "The Last Days of Jesus" is expert. For example, an interior shot of a primitive-looking Church and alter are accompanied by Gregorian chants. The haunting visual and auditory effects create curiosity in the viewer, especially as Stone then poses a question in a voice over: "So where did this notion come from?" As the camera shows close-ups of old manuscript illustrations (or their reproductions), Stone answers his own question.
"From the Gospels themselves," he states. "If you read the four books in the order in which they were most likely written, Jewish culpability seems to increase with each revision."
To counteract the potential controversy over blaming the Bible for inherent anti-Semitism, the editors quickly cut to the second interview subject, who explains why the writers of the New Testament were concerned with glorifying the Romans at the expense of the Jews.
"Those revisions most scholars agree were not over acts of anti-Semitism," he states. As the editors present a stunning shot of sunlight streaming through a stone archway in an ancient Christian church steeple, followed by a fade-through to a Church interior, the interview subject continues to explain that "the earliest Christians were trying to break away from Judaism and shield their budding religion from the watchful eye of Rome."
Throughout "The Last Days of Jesus," editors work closely with the content of the dialogue to present images appropriate and relevant. For example, a simple, stark shot of a man's hands holding a candle over a book suggests secrecy and the persecution of the Christians, at the same time that the interview subject refers to…