History is Beside the Point: Deconstructing Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ"

"The film has nothing to do with historical debates; it is a passion play, both successful and abysmal in representing that genre...Mr Gibson has fashioned a blunt instrument of propaganda, edged with artistry, whose visceral power gives it the potential to become his most lethal weapon of all.... And, as in the case of any passion play, the artistry consists of what is invented, not in fidelity to the Gospels, and history is beside the point."

By Jacques and Carol Kriel
July 2004

Several of our friends, both Christian and non-Christian, have asked us what we made of Mel Gibson's film. This is our personal response to that question. In responding to the film, we have however found ourselves responding also to the master narrative of the Christian faith. The Christian tradition is faced with the challenge of a paradigm change of cosmic proportions. This film highlights essential aspects of that challenge.

The film caused controversy even before it was released. The controversy related to the role ascribed to the Jewish authorities in the arrest and trial of Jesus. This is an important aspect insofar as the charge of deicide long levelled by the Christian Church (both Roman Catholic and Protestant) against the Jews of Jesus' time (and generalized to Jews of all ages) has formed the ideological basis of genocidal anti-Semitism for nearly 2000 years. We will return to this problem later.

Following the film's release, the controversy has continued regarding its historical accuracy and artistic merits. Two opinions from academics illustrate the divergence of opinion. Michael Novak, who, like Gibson, is a committed Roman Catholic, considers it a genuine work of art that, in its artistic integrity, dwarfs any previous biblical film. "The mood The Passion generates is meditative and contemplative. The tone is awe."[1] Bruce Chilton, Professor of Religion at Bard College, considers it a "libellous farce, poor art, and an incentive for credulous viewers to confuse Christian faith with hatred."[2] Public reaction varied from nationwide emotionalism in the USA to indifference in the UK.

The genre?

In order to assess the film, it is essential to decide on its genre. It presents itself as, and Church leaders claim that it is, a historically accurate and truthful retelling of the gospel story. Is it therefore a documentary? According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, a documentary is "a motion picture that shapes and interprets factual material for purposes of education or entertainment." Because a documentary "shapes and interprets" factual material, it can of course also be used for ideological and propaganda purposes.

But, in spite of its veneer of factuality, this film is not a documentary. There is no attempt to present, shape, and interpret factual events. There is no discussion, no development of insight or of differing perspectives – there is only the presentation of a series of pre-interpreted events. Chilton believes that this picture promotes the interpretation of Jesus of the Roman Catholic Counter Reformation (to which both Gibson and his father subscribe). They are essentially opposed to the changes brought about in the Roman Catholic Church by the Second Vatican Council.

So is it a cinematic reconstruction of historical events – a historical drama such as his previous films Braveheart and The Patriot? Such a genre is the historical novel of the cinema. It allows, within limits, for invention, imagination, and interpretation. This is probably the genre which best describes The Passion. Chilton suggests that it is an example of a subgenre of the historical drama, namely a passion play. This is a very ancient form of drama in which the death (and resurrection) of a god or martyrdom (and vindication) of a holy person is re-enacted.

Passion play as genre

Passion plays are not a Christian prerogative. They have a long history in most religious traditions.[3] Probably the world's earliest report of a dramatic production is that of a passion play that took place in approximately 2000BCE. In a stone tablet from the banks of the Nile, Ikhernofret, a representative of the Egyptian king, portrays his participation in a play that recounted the suffering and triumph of the wise king-divinity Osiris. He was treacherously murdered, his body cut into pieces and scattered. His wife, Isis, and his son avenged the murder, won back the throne, and established the cult of Osiris-worship. The re-enactments of the battle scenes were so vivid that many actor-warriors died of their wounds.[4]

The principal object of the passion play is not to portray historical accuracy but to keep vivid in the minds of the faithful the sufferings and the triumph of a god or holy person, to invite identification with and participation in that suffering and eventual triumph. In the Christian tradition, passion plays probably developed from the international pilgrimages initiated by Bishop Cyril of Jerusalem. He urged Christians to follow the way of the cross in the city where Jesus died. Those who could not do so participated in the liturgical re-enactment of The Stations of the Cross in cathedrals or parish churches. In medieval times, the passion plays took the liturgy out onto the streets to entertain, instruct, and draw the audiences into the sufferings of Jesus. Then, as today, they had nothing to do with historical accuracy. As Chilton puts it:

These efforts indulged in flights of fancy and superstition, manufacturing perfidious Jews, assorted demons, buxom Magdalenes, gargoyle-faced demons, and the like ...

The film as passion play

This is the dramatic tradition in which Gibson's film must be viewed. The fact that it is a passion play is clear in the very first scene in the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus wrestles emotionally with the realization of his imminent arrest and probable execution by the Romans.[5] Contrary to the biblical stories, Gibson makes Satan appear at his side, ridiculing the belief that one man can suffer so as to expiate the sins of others. As Jesus lies on the ground, Satan releases a snake. But once again on his feet, Jesus crushes the snake's head as if to reassure the watching faithful that, in spite of what they are going to see, he will not and cannot fail.[6]

The problems of accuracy and historicity

So the film is not a documentary or even historical drama, but a passion play. However, the problem of historicity is so central that it cannot be ignored in assessing the film. Gibson presents the events as having really happened, as historical. Most Christians believe that that is how it happened.

Very few Christians are aware of the very profound historical problems surrounding the gospel accounts and the doctrinal interpretations of those accounts. The problem of the historical accuracy of the film takes two forms: how accurately does it portray the gospel accounts, and how accurately do the gospel accounts portray "what really happened." Both of these are highly complex problems in scientific methodology. The most profound question, though, is that of the relationship between the Christian "master narrative" and the biblical texts from which they were constructed.

Gibsonian inventions

As mentioned above, the film is shot with scenes and events that do not appear in any of the gospel narratives. Mention has been made of the repeated appearances of Satan. There are more Jewish tormentors than in the Gospels. The scenes of the tormenting of Judas by the children, his confrontation with the dead donkey and then hanging himself from a tree overhanging a cliff, the meeting of Pilate's wife with the two Marys who then proceed to mop up the blood after Jesus' scourging, Pilate's philosophical discussion with his wife about what is truth, Veronica's meeting with Jesus on the Via Dolorosa to have her piece of linen imprinted with the bloody face of Jesus[7] are just some of the inventions (allowed in a passion play!) of Gibson.[8] One wonders, though, how many viewers recognized them as such.

A unitary passion narrative?

The problem is, however, more profound than simply that of accuracy of representation. There are four gospel accounts of Jesus' arrest, trial, and execution. In each, the story of the passion is embedded in a larger narrative interpretation of the life and meaning of Jesus. Although both Matthew and Luke base large parts of their stories on that of Mark, each of the four gospel writers recounts the story for a specific community in its specific circumstances and with that community's specific problems in mind. Each story therefore interprets Jesus differently. For Mark, he is the suffering prophet (reflecting the sufferings of Mark's own community); for Matthew, he is one greater than Moses (reflecting his community's struggle against Rabbinic Judaism to interpret the history and future of Judaism – a struggle they would eventually lose). Luke is interested in demonstrating that the Holy Spirit has moved its headquarters from Jerusalem to Rome.[9]

For John, Jesus is the Cosmic Christ, the Eternal Word who became flesh, who knows everything that is going to happen to him in advance, who will "embrace that pain as his personal sacrifice and payment for the sins of the world" (Chilton 2). His Jesus is not the victim of Hebrew intrigue or Roman violence. He is in command of the proceedings, the one who decides that the time has come to breathe his last.[10] John's gospel demonstrates that Christianity has taken root in Hellenic-Greek culture, but all four of the gospels imbed the passion narrative in a wider story that is meaningful to the time and place of the community in which it originated.[11]

There are actually irreconcilable contradictions between the various accounts, but since the days of the Greek and Latin Church Fathers, a single story has been constructed which ignores the incompatibilities. It is this single story that Gibson sets out to tell in his passion play. We believe that the time has now come to challenge this portrayal of a unified "historically true" account of Jesus' passion and the stories of his resurrection. We must admit that not only the beginnings of Jesus' life are enveloped in cultural metaphors and myth, but also the end.[12]

The ethics of passion plays

What is as significant as the inventive additions by Gibson is what he has left out. Chilton points out that the portrayal of the burial completely eliminates the role of Joseph of Arimathea, a role that is pivotal in the Gospels: "an opportunity to portray crucial sympathy by one of Jesus' contemporaries in Judaism is squandered." This, plus his portrayal of Caiaphas as a "stock villain" (Chilton 2), makes one suspicious that Gibson (following in the footsteps of his father) rejects the repudiation by the Second Vatican Council in 1965 of the passion as Jewish deicide and of all forms of anti-Semitism. In 1988, a Catholic Bishops Committee in the USA stressed that passion plays must avoid caricatures of the Jews and falsely opposing Jews against Jesus. It concludes "the Church and the Jewish people are linked together essentially on the level of identity." The organizers of the Oberammergau Passion Play have been working with the Anti-Defamation League and Catholic theologians on changes to the script (without any changes to the text of the New Testament) and presentation of Jewish characters in the play to avoid any presentation that might project anti-Judaism or anti-Semitism.[13]

Gibson is clearly unaware of the position of his own Bishops. So he portrays Caiaphas as one blinded by hatred "with no specific complaint against Jesus, simply miming hatred and finally whimpering in his destroyed temple after the crucifixion when an earthquake destroys the place"[14] (Chilton 2). Caiaphas' colleagues are darkly dressed and their corruption is further emphasized by one who wears an eye-patch.[15] As in Jesus Christ Superstar, Herod Antipas is shown in an environment more suggestive of an opulent brothel than a palace, but Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd-Webber at least let him sing a rollicking rock-and-roll number which completely redeems the scene.[16] The organizers of the Oberammergau Passion Play have been working with the Anti-Defamation League and Catholic theologians on changes to the script (without any changes to the text of the New Testament) and presentation of Jewish characters in the play to avoid any presentation that might project anti-Judaism or anti-Semitism.

The Roman execution process

Gibson spends the greatest amount of time on the scourging, a process which is mentioned in only one sentence in each of the gospels, and he (Pilate) handed him over to be flogged. The gospel writers clearly knew that the flogging was an integral part of the Roman judicial process.[17] All people who were condemned to death were scourged,[18] tortured, and humiliated by Roman soldiers. Thousands upon thousands of Jews were scourged and crucified by the Romans, especially after the final Jewish war. Jesus was just one of these thousands. Gibson shows the Roman soldiers as taking particular delight in flogging Jesus; the other two who were condemned are relatively unscathed. According to Roman practice, all those condemned to crucifixion had to carry the top bar of the cross to the site of execution, as the other two are shown doing in the film. But Jesus is shown as having to carry his whole cross. The process as depicted by the gospel writers was standard procedure for anyone condemned to crucifixion. Gibson seems to suggest that Jesus had to endure more than the other Jews condemned with him. It is more in line with his admiration for heroism (as depicted in his other films) than with the biblical descriptions.

These facts make one doubt the integrity of Gibson's researchers. Much is made of the fact that the original languages are spoken (Aramaic and Latin). But Chilton points out that "the Semitic-language scenes are a wild brew of Aramaic, Hebrew, and Syriac with grammatical mistakes in all three. The Latin is pretty good, but to have Jesus conversing learnedly with Pilate in that language is just too funny for words" (Chilton 3)

History remembered or prophecy historicized?

The problem of "what really happened" is an even more profound one than the methodological indefensibility of the construction of a unified account of the passion story. This is not the place for a full exposition of the problem, but we have been convinced by Crossan's argument that "those who knew did not care and those who cared did not know."[19] In other words, the disciples of Jesus had only very minimal knowledge of the judicial processes that Jesus underwent because they had all fled and because those processes were not "open to the public." They recreated the events in line with what they considered to be prophecies about Jesus in their Hebrew scriptures. They were convinced that Jesus' death had not taken place outside the will of God. This was their way of expressing that conviction. The passion narratives are not history remembered but "prophecy historicized."[20] The fact that the gospel writers, writing 40 to 60 years after Jesus' execution, frame his execution in a story of conflict between him and the Jewish religious establishment is a reflection of their historical experience, not of the reality of Jesus' life.

The longest lie

Crossan points out that the conflict depicted by the gospel writers was not a conflict between Christians and Jews – it was a conflict between Jews and Jews. When they write about "the Jews," they mean "you other Jews who disagree with us about the future of Judaism." But by the time of the gospel writers, they were coming under increasing pressure from Roman authorities. This explains the sympathetic picture painted of Pontius Pilate. We think it is apt to quote extensively from his book Who Killed Jesus?:

Internally, divergent groups within Judaism opposed one another in those same centuries with everything from armed opposition through rhetorical attack to nasty name calling. Christianity began as a sect within Judaism and, here slowly, there swiftly, separated itself to become eventually a distinct religion. If all this stayed on the religious level, each side could have accused and denigrated the other quite safely forever. But, by the fourth century, Christianity was the official religion of the Roman Empire, and with the dawn of Christian Europe anti-Judaism moved from theological debate to lethal possibility. (32)

But it is not just a question of how the passion narratives were misused or misread, but of what they were in the first place. What is actual history and what is creative polemic in those stories? When a Roman general insists on Jesus' innocence and a Jerusalem crowd insists on Jesus' crucifixion, is that factual history or Christian propaganda? It is quite possible to understand and to sympathise with a small and powerless Jewish sect writing fiction to defend itself. But once that Jewish sect became the Christian Roman Empire, a defensive strategy would become the longest lie. The passion narratives challenge both the honesty of Christian history and the integrity of Christian conscience (36).

Facts or interpretations: the biblical basis of the Christian "grand narrative"

Mel Gibson has taken the passion narratives out into the global community, into the interfaith environment. We believe that this forces the issue of the historicity of the founding narratives of the Christian church on to center stage. Well founded scientific historical, anthropological, and archaeological research have now shown that not only the beginning of Jesus' life (as depicted in the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke) but also the passion narratives are mythical in character. This does not mean that they are untrue, but their truth lies on a different level. As Crossan points out:

We argue that we have facts not interpretations, that we have history not myth, that we have truth and you have lies. That will not work any longer, not for us and not for anyone else. We need to compare one another's myths and metaphors to see how fully human is the life they engender, but we cannot deny that everyone builds firmly on such inevitable foundations. Christians, like all other human beings, live from out of the depths of myth and metaphor. But there still remains, now especially, the urgent challenge to accept our own foundational myth without shame or denial and that of others without hate or disparagement. (218)

This is the real issue raised by Mel Gibson's film and which must be faced by the Church which has been hiding this debate from its members. We realize that many will not be able to deal with it, but the process has to start if Christians wish to live with integrity in a religiously and morally diverse world which is rapidly destroying its own sustainable natural base. Crossan depicts the presentation of the trial of Jesus as opposing Jewish guilt and Roman innocence as "the longest lie." This term can, however, be extended to the assumption that the four gospel accounts can be combined into a unified account. And it can be applied to the claim that the Church's master narrative of the Christian faith is in complete accord with the Hebrew and Greek scriptures.

Even if things happened exactly as described in the gospel accounts, that does not "prove" the theological truth of the Christian master narrative.[21] According to Prof IJJ Spangenberg of the University of SA (my translation - see footnote for original)

The (Christian) master narrative is not a shortened version of the Bible narratives, but an interpreted narrative. It does not correlate precisely with the Biblical narratives. It is informed largely by a Christian philosophy and Christian view of human nature, and that philosophy and that view of human nature comes from the Greek and Latin church fathers.[22]

This master narrative, or theory, as constructed by the Church Fathers in the 4th century, has become the basis of Christian fundamentalism. Scientific research as embodied in modern biblical and literary scholarship is a much greater challenge to Fundamentalist Christian theology than the traditional conflict between "science" and "religion." We believe that, to be a Christian in the modern world, cognizance must be taken of that debate, and its full implications must be confronted.[23] If we do not do so, we are living a religious lie.[24] And that is our biggest problem with this film. It presents a picture of the foundational event of Christianity that is now being challenged by well founded biblical and historical research. The Church is hiding this challenge from its members and from non-Christians alike. It is as if Gibson made a historical film showing how God made man out of mud, as depicted in Genesis 2, ignoring all scientific evidence for evolution.

We wish to end with a final quote from Chilton:

By mixing together the genre of the passion play with the pretension of historical accuracy, Gibson has inadvertently made his passion play into pious vaudeville. Claims that this film reflects the Gospels or history are cynical. Critics who treat it as historical work have confused their profession with self-promotion (5).

Chilton says that after seeing Gibson's Passion he went home to watch Die Hard with his younger son. He felt morally uplifted. We felt that Jesus Christ Superstar was a much better passion play – it was enjoyable, thought provoking,[25] made the viewer identify with the characters, had some wonderfully moving lyrics and tunes and made no pretence at historical accuracy – everything that a passion play should be doing!

Isle of Wight
June 2004



Chilton, Bruce. "Mel Gibson's Passion Play." (The University of Chicago Press will publish an expanded version of this article in a book with the provisional title "The Passion of the Christ. Biblical and Theological Perspectives.") www.bibleinterp.arizona.edu/articles/Chilton_Passion.htm.

Crossan, John Dominic. Who Killed Jesus? Exposing the Roots of anti-Semitism in the Gospel Stories of the Death of Jesus. HarperCollins paperbacks, 1996.

Egyptian "Passion" Playswww.theatrehistory.com/origins/egypt001.html.

Novak, Michael. Passion Play: The controversy over Mel Gibson's forthcoming movie on the death of Jesus Christ. August 25, 2003 issue of The Weekly Standard. www.weeklystandard.com.

Passion Plays in History and Theology. June 24, 2003. www.adl.org/Interfaith/passion
 (Anti-Defamation League).

Retief, F.P. and L. Cilliers. "The History and Pathology of Crucifixion," SA Medical Journal 93:12, 938-941. 2003.

Spangenberg, I.J.J. Wat moet ons weet, en wat kan ons glo? Ned. Geref. Teologiese Tydskrif 44 (1&2) 147-160.

Spong, John Shelbey. A New Christianity for a New World. Why Traditional Faith is Dying and How a New Faith is Being Born. HarperSanfrancisco. 2002.



[1] Michael Novak, Passion Play: The controversy over Mel Gibson's forthcoming movie on the death of Jesus Christ. From the August 25 issue of The Weekly Standard. (www.weeklystandard.com) He is Professor of Religion, Philosophy, and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute.

[2] Bruce Chilton, "Mel Gibson's Passion Play." www.bibleinterp.arizona.edu/articles/Chilton

[3] So, for example, the martyrdom of Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Mohamed, is re-enacted annually in certain Islamic traditions.

[4] Egyptian "Passion" Playswww.theatrehistory.com/origins/egypt001.html

[5] We accept the view of prominent New Testament scholars that the reason for the arrest and execution of Jesus was his action recounted in all four of the gospels as the so-called "cleansing" of the temple. The Romans would have interpreted this as an act of insurrection which would have led to summary arrest and execution. Shortly before Jesus, another Jewish rebel was crucified for a similar action. If the garden story is history, then Jesus would have known that the Romans were looking to arrest him.

[6] Considering the present lack of biblical knowledge (and the power of the visual image), we wonder how many Christians realized that Satan and his snake are a piece of Gibsonian imagination. It is a (completely faulty) Christological reading of Genesis 3:15 where God proclaims enmity between humans and snakes. As Chilton puts it: "That is allowed in a passion play, as are all the scenes Mr. Gibson invents from legend and imagination."

[7] See Chilton's review. Not being versed in Catholic tradition, we did not recognize that this was what was happening at that point!

[8] The picture of Pilate struggling desperately to save an innocent Jesus from a vengeful mob goaded on by the Chief Priests could be constructed from the story as told by John but does not accord with the other gospel accounts nor with what is known of Pilate's temperament and style of governance!

[9] According to Crossan, Luke records "how the Holy Spirit took Jesus from Galilee to Jerusalem and then the church from Jerusalem to Rome. Good news: the Holy Spirit has moved headquarters from Jerusalem to Rome." Who Killed Jesus? p.19.

[10] John 19:30: "When he had received the drink, Jesus said, 'It is finished.' With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit."

[11] In his review, Novak formulates the common Christian conviction that "all Christian accounts agree that Jesus Christ suffered and died for the sins of all human beings of all time, under the command of the Roman consul in Jerusalem, Pontius Pilate" (1). This is simply not true. Only the Gospel of John can remotely be interpreted in this manner. The other gospels agree that he died under Pontius Pilate but do not interpret it in this Christological manner – they only interpret his death as being in accord with prophecy (see also Crossan Who killed Jesus?). As mentioned above, the standard Christian doctrine of Jesus' death dates from the 4th century and the theology of Augustine.

[12] See John Shelbey Spong: A New Christianity for a New World.

[13] See Passion Plays in History and Theology on the website of the Anti-Defamation League www.adl.org/Interfaith/passion_theology.asp.

[14] This too, of course, is not in the Gospels. Only Matthew mentions the symbolic tearing of the curtain in the temple (Matthew 27:31).

[15] Chilton is moved to comment: "Pirates of the Caribbean meets Ben Hur."

[16] In spite of all of this, Novak still maintains that "Gibson's film is wholly consistent with the Second Vatican Council presentation of the relations of Judaism and the Christian church" (Novak 2).

[17] See F. P. Retief and L. Cilliers: "The History and Pathology of Crucifixion," SA Medical Journal 93:12, 938-941.

[18] Except women, ex-soldiers and senators! (See Retief and Cilliers).

[19] Who Killed Jesus? 219.

[20] Who Killed Jesus?: "Does the abuse of Jesus come from history remembered or from prophecy historicized? Does it come from Christians investigating their sources to know what happened as historical event, or does it come from Christians searching their scriptures to create what happened as prophetic fulfilment?"

[21] The master narrative of the Christian faith interprets mankind as inherently sinful on the basis of a faulty interpretation of the story of Adam and Eve. The rest of the Hebrew Bible is seen as God's preparation (through history and prophecy) for the coming of His Son, Jesus Christ, who through his preordained death and resurrection offers salvation to all who believe in him.

[22] "Die meesterverhaal is nie ‘n verkorte weergawe van die Bybelverhale nie, maar ‘n geïnterpreteerde verhaal. Dit korreleer nie presies met die Bybelverhale nie. Daar sit ‘n stuk Christelike filosofie en Christelike mensbeskouing daarager en daardie filosfie en daardie mensbeskouing kom van die Griekse en Latynse kerkvaders." (IJJ Spangenberg: Wat moet ons weet, en wat kan ons nog glo?)

[23] As for example, Bishop John Shelbey Spong presents in his book: A New Christianity for a New World. Why Traditional Faith is Dying and How a New Faith is Being Born. HarperSanfrancisco. 2002.

[24] Crossan calls the persistent presentation of Roman innocence and Jewish guilt in the Christian master narrative "the longest lie" (John Dominic Crossan: Who Killed Jesus? Exposing the Roots of anti-Semitism in the Gospel Stories of the Death of Jesus. HarperCollins paperbacks, 1996.)

[25] Here too the Jewish leadership is presented in a rather dark light, but so are the disciples!

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