I find it offensive when much of the marketing of the movie has insisted on its biblical accuracy when, in fact, much of what's good and bad about the movie comes either from an 18th-century nun or from Mel Gibson's own imagination.
By Jason Byassee
Pastor, Shady Grove United Methodist Church
Gerd Ludemann’s critical review of The Passion of the Christ in these pages begins from the same supposition as many of the movie’s advocates: “Mel Gibson simply translates the content of the biblical reports into action.” He then argues that historical-criticism has shown the Gospel accounts on which Gibson relies to be wrong, especially on the question of who killed Jesus, so the movie itself must also be wrong, or at least naïve.
My own starting point as a practicing Christian and preacher is quite different since Christians must find some way to accord trust to the biblical narratives, however chastened by modern critical sensibilities. I’d like to take issue with the presumption that the movie is simply a recasting of the biblical stories, a sort of Hollywood Diatesseron. My parishioners have often asked me about particular scenes in the movie and whether these are biblical—often the answer is “no.” So, in this essay, I will ask several related questions: is the movie biblical? An important and quite related question is whether it is anti-Jewish? There is another corollary to our original question: is the movie too violent? If it is, at least in part, extra-biblical, what are its other sources? Finally, what do we make of the incessant marketing effort, both by the movie’s producers and by its advocates in the religious right, that so shrilly insist upon its biblical accuracy? We shall address each issue in turn.
Is the movie biblical? Not exactly. But that’s ok.
The use of ancient languages and Hollywood’s extraordinary talents for costume and setting make the movie feel authentically biblical. Much of what faithful Christians have enjoyed in the movie has been the stunning visual depiction of much of their beloved Gospels.
But it’s not actually true to say that the entire movie comes straight from the Bible. To give a few examples—in the Bible, Satan does not appear in the Garden of Gethsemane to tempt Jesus. Satan is also not depicted in the Bible as he or she or it is in the movie—a hybrid man or woman with worms coming in and out of its nose. Whatever was going on with the baby nursing at Satan’s breast in the scourging scene is nowhere in the Bible. The demon children who torment Judas—nowhere in the Bible. Satan appearing again during Jesus’ procession to the cross—nowhere in the Bible. The scene where the crow lands above the non-repentant thief on the cross and plucks his eyes out—that’s nowhere in the Bible. These are rather additions cooked up by Mel Gibson or his fellow writers. Do you remember when Jesus is making a table? One that looks like our tables? (Ancient tables were lower, built for reclining on one’s elbow). That’s actually a lot like a carpentry scene in the beginning of the Gibson movie The Patriot, where Mel Gibson is the carpenter! Obviously, none of that’s in the Bible. Jesus may well have been a stonemason rather than a carpenter; we don’t know. And that’s fine—that’s what artists do: they take historical events and fill in the details. But already we can see the claim to literal biblical depiction is a bit overblown.
Some of the extra-biblical material was the strongest content in the movie. When we first see Mary, Jesus’ mother, and Mary Magdalene, they’re preparing to celebrate Passover. One says to the other, “Why is tonight unlike any other night?” -- the question that begins the Passover celebration in Jewish homes. I read where the actress who played Jesus’ mother, who’s Jewish and a descendent of Shoah survivors, suggested that line herself. In the garden, my own favorite scene takes place—there’s a snake slithering around, and Jesus crushes its head. That’s not only a symbol of the defeat of Satan he’s about to accomplish—it’s a subtle reference to the Bible. In Genesis 3:15, as God curses Adam and Eve and the serpent, God says, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers, you will strike his heel and he will crush your head.” Christian writers have long taken this action as a prophecy of Jesus’ victory over Satan. After Judas betrays Jesus, we see him violently trying to wipe the kiss off his lips; he can’t do it no matter how hard he tries. And when Peter is being asked if he knows Jesus and is denying it, he can see Jesus getting the tar beaten out of him in the background—no wonder he swears he doesn’t know the man. Those things don’t happen quite that way in the Bible, but those strike me as faithful changes, creative license used to heighten the gospel story, and those were some of my favorite points in the movie.
There are also two significant plotlines in the movie that are based on single verses of the Bible. Gibson spends a great deal of time focused on the relationship between Pontius Pilate and his wife, Claudia (she’s not named in the Bible itself). This seems to be based on Matthew 27:19, which reads “while Pilate was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent word to him, ‘have nothing to do with that innocent man, for today I have suffered a great deal because of a dream about him.’” That’s it: one verse, an interesting and suggestive verse, but only one. Gibson takes that one and expands it. Claudia is in a number of scenes; she tries repeatedly to persuade her husband to release Jesus; she comforts Mary and Mary Magdalene during Jesus’ scourging by giving them towels. All interesting—and none of it in the Bible. The other example is more brutal—the scourging of Jesus is mentioned in two places, Matt 27:26 and Mark 15:15, and then only briefly. In the movie, this is the most brutal part of it—it goes on forever, with blood everywhere and maniacal guards laughing as they torture Jesus brutally. Again, here is one verse, greatly expanded upon. If asked whether these scenes are biblical, the strongest possible response would be “sort of.”
The final thing to notice is this—the Bible doesn’t actually focus much on what happened to Jesus in his execution. The Gospel just says, “[A]nd they crucified him, one on his right, and one on his left.” There is very little in the way of gory detail there; even when it describes Jesus’ torture, it spends more time on the soldiers’ mocking him than on the blood or his agony. Christians ever since have tried hard to imagine those details, as this movie does.
This movie is, in fact, most interesting when it departs from the biblical narrative. Precisely then we should ask, “why?” What precise theological claim is being made by the emendations? Last year a film on the Gospel of John that quoted the book verbatim flew under the popular and even ecclesiastical radar precisely because it was boring! No good movie could be so slavishly literal. Interesting conversation about this one only begins when we ask why certain changes have been made. The movie’s advocates have then done us no favor with their relentless insistence on its Biblicism.
Is the movie anti-Jewish? It comes dangerously close: and that’s a problem.
Ludemann’s essay helpfully points out that the movie simply trusts the Gospels’ accounts of Jewish initiative in Jesus’ execution. The only addition I would make is that on this score when we see departure from the biblical account, it actually serves to make the Jews look worse even than the Bible does. And that’s a problem.
Now, that is not to say the criticism of this movie for this reason has been insightful. Much of it has been simply silly. It often comes from people who don’t understand or like religion in general, so their displeasure is neither surprising nor interesting. Some of it comes from religious leaders (like me) trying to tell everyone else what to think. But some of it has come from Jewish leaders—and this is serious. Christians care what Jews think, not just because we come from them but also because Jesus and Paul cared what their fellow Jews thought. Jesus preached only to his fellow Jews, never to Gentiles—and many of them followed, forming the beginning of the church. Paul wrestles mightily with the question of why most Jews do not recognize Jesus as the Messiah and comes to the conclusion that all Israel will eventually be saved, according to Romans 9-11, especially 11:26. Neither Jesus nor Paul nor anyone else in the New Testament speaks of himself as a former Jews—they were to their dying day Jews who recognize Jesus as Messiah, as they think all Jews should. So Christians, even Gentile Christians, ought to care mightily about what Jews think. Think of it this way—Christians love the Gospels, we love Jesus, we love this story more than anything. So the fact that many people, especially many Jews, fear this story and see it as a threat ought to break our hearts. It shouldn’t make us mad at them; it should rather make us sorrowful and should make us do everything we can to present the story to Jews in ways that are fair, honest, and helpful.
The movie doesn’t always do that, unfortunately. In the movie, only the Jewish leaders are dressed like modern orthodox Jews—with prayer shawls and hair locks over their ears, as though these are the only bad guys and the rest of the people are good. In truth, everyone in this movie, except the Roman soldiers, was Jewish; they should have all been depicted in prayer shawls and with hair locks like the leaders to indicate that every single one of them was Jewish, including Jesus. In the very beginning, there’s a scene in which something is being carved in the temple. That something is the cross itself—Gibson cut the scene out because of outside pressure, but to suggest the Jews built Jesus’ cross himself is not only non-biblical, it’s also historically false and slanderous.
In the movie, it is Caiaphas the high priest who shouts at Jesus on the cross, “If you are the son of God come down from the cross.” However, he’s not the one who says that in the Bible; he’s not at the cross. And in historical point of fact, none of the Jewish leaders could have been present at an execution because of the biblical belief that contact with the dead defiles. In the movie, the Jewish leaders are depicted as completely cruel and corrupt; in the Bible, they’re not only cruel and corrupt, but they also have moments of sympathy as when Jesus compliments one or the other for getting something right, when he sides with the Pharisees against the Sadducees, when Nicodemus, a Jewish leader, secretly decides to follow Jesus. John 4:22 reads that “salvation is of the Jews,” and this movie would have been more biblical if it worked harder to show Judaism as the root of the tree into which the church is grafted.
It would have also been more sensitive to the historic Christian sins of anti-Judaism. For millennia in the church, we would perform passion plays where we would reenact Jesus’ suffering. And inevitably after these, Christians would storm out in the streets and attack Jews. Up until the 20th century, Jews knew to stay at home on Good Friday out of fear of being attacked. Adolf Hitler saw one of these passion plays at Oberammergau in 1942: “One of our most important tasks will be to save future generations from a similar political fate and to remain forever watchful in the knowledge of the menace of Jewry. For this reason alone it is vital that the Passion Play be continued at Oberammergau, for never has the menace of Jewry been so convincingly portrayed as in this presentation of what happened in the time of the Romans.
There one sees in Pontius Pilate a Roman racially and intellectually superior, there he stands out like a firm, clean rock in the middle of the whole muck and mire of Jewry.” The Oberammergau play continues to run every ten years in Germany today, the only one left (though it’s much reformed). And it worries me that Pontius Pilate is indeed portrayed so sympathetically in this movie, as though without blame, and the Jewish leaders as completely bloodthirsty. In the Bible, Pilate actually gets a bit more blame, and the Jewish leaders a bit more sympathy, even than in Gibson’s movie. And that’s a problem, especially when anti-Semitism is on the rise again in Europe, and, of course, the Middle East. So instead of portraying the Jews as more guilty and the Romans as less than they are in the Bible, Gibson should have gone the other way.
Now, to his credit, Gibson indeed changed some of the worst parts of the movie—he took out the historically false and slanderous scene of the making of the cross in the temple. You’d have to know it was once there to spot the glimpse of it that remains, and he did not subtitle the historically terrible scene where the mob shouts, “His blood be on us and on our children.” He’s insisted, when asked, that it’s improper to say the Jews killed Jesus; we all did by our sins. It’s indeed Mel Gibson’s own hand that raises the hammer that sends the first nail into Jesus’ hand. Several significant Jewish leaders have supported the film and insisted Gibson himself is no anti-Semite. Christians in general must find some way to see the NT as life-giving and not simply death-dealing, else we should cease reading it. The way forward is in something like the Latin adage that abusus non tollit usus. There must be a “right” use of the NT, one that invites Christian repentance and inquiry of how Jews hear our telling of our story in light of our history of slandering and murdering them. Its frequent wrong use cannot be taken to close off the possibility of a right one, the possibility of which is suggested by instances in which faithful Christians have interacted with Jews in life-giving ways.
Is it too violent? Sure, but so was crucifixion.
This isn’t the first time Mel Gibson’s movies have been accused of excessive violence. He was criticized for the violence in Braveheart as limbs and heads were hacked off by Scots and Brits; also for The Patriot as British soldiers and American revolutionaries shot at each other; and then again in We Were Soldiers Once, and Young for graphically portraying the violence in Vietnam. I myself have been grateful for these movies’ willingness to be honest about how violent war is. And in a similar way I’m glad for a movie willing to suggest that crucifixion might hurt. Other movies about Jesus have so sanitized the cross it’s not clear why anyone would die on it. In this movie, it’s not clear how on earth Jesus lives through the scourging, the beatings, the carrying of the cross, in other words, all the pre-crucifixion torture. I for one am glad it’s more honest. I’m told that in a previous Jesus movie years ago they had the actor shave his armpits so no one would be offended by such an unseemly sight as body hair! This movie has no problem offending us by its violence. And that’s good—crucifixion was violent. This might be the genius of this movie—modern movies can display incredible things on film with makeup and special effects in a way that was never possible before. This I suspect is why so many people love the movie so much.
The only problem is this—was the actual torture that violent? The Romans famously thought that someone could only survive 39 lashes with a cat-o’-nine-tails; in the movie Jesus gets more than twice that number. I’ve been told by more than one health professional that an Olympic athlete couldn’t have survived one-third of that abuse, let alone still be able to carry his cross and talk. The recent scandal surrounding Vancouver hockey player Todd Bertuzzi’s assault on Colorado player Steve Moore is instructive—one punch from Bertuzzi and one tackle of Moore to the ice led to a fractured vertebrae and concussion—and that to a professional athlete skilled in taking punishment. Jesus is punched many hundreds of times in this film. Gibson may indeed have overdone it.
His point was to be honest, but it’s also a religious point. Look at how much Jesus suffered for you and me. Look at how much God loves us to have his son be so brutally mistreated. I think this is the primary force of the movie—the graphic portrayal of the violence inflicted on Jesus is meant to move us to love God in return. Preachers often do the same thing on Good Friday, as we describe what happened to Jesus in such detail so as to move us, their hearers, to love God more. Gibson is simply better at it than most of us!
Here’s the question to ask—does it work? Does seeing the extent of the violence indeed move us to love God more? Many reviewers, especially secular ones, have been repelled by the movie, and we can see why: Jesus is a bloody mess. It’s hard to watch the thing. The question is whether as Christians we think it’s good or helpful to show that to ourselves or to non-believers. Further, does it matter theologically how much Jesus suffered? Would his sacrifice for us have worked if he’d been quickly beheaded by a sword, as Paul was? Or does the extent of the torture do something extra? Perhaps more troubling, is it simply a sort of sick voyeurism that wishes to see this sort of torture in such detail? If it is—and the movie may have shown me as much—I for one may change my preaching practice when the lectionary directs me to the cross.
Is it a Catholic movie? Yes, deeply so, and that’s its greatest strength.
Gibson famously practices a particular brand of ultra-conservative Catholicism that says mass in Latin and rejects Vatican II. This is a perfectly respectable position—not a few Catholics quibble mightily or minorly with recent church attempts to modernize. What’s fascinating is how deeply evangelicals have taken to this movie done by a stalwart Catholic. Traditionally Protestants and evangelicals have discouraged visual portrayals of Jesus. This is why Protestant crosses are empty and Catholic ones have a body on them—Catholics have been more into focusing on what Jesus looked like, in all the gory detail. Protestants have been worried that visually portraying Jesus could be idolatrous—a violation of the Second Commandment against graven images. But Protestant evangelical leaders and pundits have adored this movie and denounced any criticism of it. I suspect it’s gratifying to have a Hollywood star acknowledge orthodox Christianity. The true story of this movie may be how it changes the entertainment industry—if a religious film in subtitles can make hundreds of millions of dollars, you can be sure more will follow.
Yet much of what’s most interesting about the movie is its most Catholic material. Catholic practices of meditating on specific events in Jesus’ passion, especially during Holy Week, deeply inform the film. The film’s dramatic portrayal of Jesus’ falling while carrying his cross is quite important in the “Stations of the Cross” prayers Catholics pray during Holy Week. In these prayers, Jesus’ traditional three falls are narrated (there are more in the film). The woman who wipes Jesus’ face during one fall is Veronica, a saint in Catholic tradition, who again in the stations of the cross comforts Jesus, and the image of his face miraculously remains on her shawl (producing his veron icon, his true image). That’s in the movie, not in the Bible, and it’s beautiful. The deep intimacy between Jesus and his mother is deeply Catholic and quite beautiful—remember when he falls and Mary runs to him, then it’s spliced with him falling as a boy and Mary running to him? I sobbed in that scene—deeply Catholic. Many other scenes are quite important in Catholic piety and art—the scourging is one on which Catholics often mediate as they pray the rosary. The scene where Jesus descends from the cross and lands in Mary’s lap is very important in traditional Catholic art, as Michelangelo’s Pieta demonstrates. If you notice while he’s on the cross, Jesus has his first two fingers extended and the others pulled back, a Catholic sign of blessing. (It’s how priests hold their fingers when they bless people; the pope’s fingers are always like that.)
One of Gibson’s sources for this movie is a Catholic nun from Germany in the 18th century named Anne Catherine Emmerich. She is said to have had visions of the passion of Christ, among other scenes. This was not unusual among medieval Catholic men and women—many mystics had visions of events in Jesus’ life, and that’s where much of the material in the movie comes from. She is a fascinating figure in her own right—a medieval figure living in aggressively modern times in Germany under the imposed King of Westphalia Jerome Bonaparte, who closed her monastery. Did you notice how the soldiers all have names? Abenadar is the centurion, for example; Dismas and Gesmas are the two crucified thieves. Those come from Catholic sources like Emerich. The scene where Simon of Cyrene insists the soldiers stop mistreating Jesus or he won’t carry the cross any more is in Emmerich’s work. The scene where Jesus’ arm isn’t long enough for the nail to go into the nail hole on the cross and the men stretch his arm, dislocating his shoulder is also in Emmerich. Emmerich goes into great detail about each of the two embellishments I mentioned earlier—the movie’s focus on the wife of Pilate, Claudia, and on the scourging.
For example, the moving scene where Claudia gives the towels to Mary and Mary Magdalene and they wipe up Jesus’ blood after the scourging is straight from Emmerich. Interestingly, Emmerich seems to have worried that some would take her meditations as historically accurate! The man who wrote down her visions also wrote this about them: “These meditations will probably rank high among many similar works which the contemplative love of Jesus has produced; but it is our duty here plainly to affirm that they have no pretensions whatever to be regarded as history. They are but intended to take one of the lowest places among those numerous representations of the Passion which have been given us by pious writers and artists, and to be considered at the very most as the Lenten devotions of a devout nun.” Emmerich insisted what she was saying was not based on some time-travel visit back to Jerusalem in 33 AD. Her visions were a sort of holy imagining of what happened to Jesus and were intended to make her readers love him more.
As is clear thus far I have no qualm with using an 18th-century Catholic nun as an imaginative source for depicting the Passion. But it’s wrong to suggest, against Emmerich’s own will, that these reflections are all in the Bible or historically accurate. I suspect that the movie’s advertisers and supporters have done that because they want people like you and me, Bible-believing evangelical Protestants, to go see it. And to bring our friends. And we have, in droves, to the tune of several hundred million dollars. That’s fine—I’m all for religious art being rewarded like secular art; Lord knows trash has made twice that and not done the good this movie has and will. But I find it offensive when much of the marketing of the movie has insisted on its biblical accuracy when, in fact, much of what’s good and bad about the movie comes either from an 18th-century nun or from Mel Gibson’s own imagination.
I would have preferred evangelical leaders in this country to say they’re surprised that a conservative Catholic would be the one to portray the Passion so movingly. We’re also impressed by the material added to the biblical story from Catholic piety and history. We’d like to learn more about that. So, if you’d like to see the best Hollywood can do in portraying the Passion of Jesus, based on the Bible but enriched by material from outside the Bible, then come. That would have been more honest, though it would have scared some Protestants away and made less money.
This movie has its brilliant moments. I had low expectations based on critical reviews from religious sources I trust, yet I sobbed several times and emerged changed somehow. It also had material that made me want to pull my hair out, mostly in its refusal to depict the Jewish leaders differently. The most interesting stuff was in fact the stuff not in the Bible, though its marketers would have suggested otherwise. In all, it seems to me like a good sermon! It challenged me, made me think, moved me, made me mad, I didn’t agree with all of it; in fact, I strongly disagreed sometimes, but hey—if I can have that effect, even partially on a Sunday morning, then maybe I’ve done my job. So I suggest Mel has also done his.