The Passion, Pornography and Polemic: In Defense of The Passion of the Christ

While there are some troubling elements in the film, as there are in all the Jesus films, the case that the film is peculiarly anti-Semitic, or, more accurately, anti-Judaic, has been seriously overstated.

By Mark Goodacre
Senior Lecturer in New Testament
Department of Theology,
University of Birmingham, U.K.
April 2004

    Like many other viewers, I went to see The Passion of the Christ with a sense of real concern. I was troubled that so popular a film could be undoing some of the considerable advances made by New Testament scholarship on the passion narrative in the Gospels, specifically over issues connected with the depiction of Pilate, the role played by the Jewish leadership, and the nature of the crowd. Reading the passion narratives in a post-holocaust context has rightly made us sensitive to the appalling uses made of them by many throughout history. Our disgust has helped us to face up to the tough questions about the content of those narratives and the ways in which they have often been read. Scholars have become more sensitive to the troubling things the Gospels say, the important things that they do not say, the striking ways that they spin their traditions, and the problematic ways in which they represent the key characters. And now, scholars, whose views I respect, were suggesting that this film, far from being sensitive to such points, was peculiarly anti-Jewish – it sounded like it had gone out of its way to offend Jews and to treat such delicate subject matter with utter indifference.

    On a personal level, I was also particularly worried about the alleged violence in the film. I hate watching violent films. I find the depiction of violence on screen deeply upsetting and will choose to avoid seeing it as far as possible. So when the reviews began to roll in claiming that the violence in The Passion of the Christ was excessive, gratuitous, even pornographic, I began to dread seeing it. I am not alone in feeling this way. One colleague has told me that he has no intention of viewing the film at all. “I don’t do violence,” he said. Another academic emailed me and suggested I take a stand and not go. But this was not a realistic option. I have followed Jesus films since I was a child. I have always been fascinated by the attempts to depict Jesus’ life. As a child, I remember gathering round with the family to watch Franco Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth on Sunday nights in 1977, something of a major national event. I always loved seeing King of Kings (Nicholas Ray, 1961) when it was shown every Easter and learned to think of Jesus as looking like Jeffrey Hunter. Later, as a teenager, I loved Jesus Christ Superstar, the film, the soundtrack, the stage show; I could not get enough of it. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons I also loved Life of Brian when it came out in 1979. I had grown up on Monty Python and Jesus films, and here were the two combined!

    In teaching, I have found that using clips of Jesus films were a useful way of sparking off discussion, of getting students interested in the subject. The Last Temptation of Christ (Martin Scorsese, 1988) is in this respect the lecturer’s dream, so full of interesting scenes to spark discussion, whether historical, theological, or filmic. When I began lecturing on Jesus films, I often used to say that it was unlikely that we would get a major Jesus film following the old Hollywood epic tradition. How wrong I was. First came The Miracle Maker (Hayes and Sokolov, 1999) and the CBS mini-series Jesus (Roger Young, 1999); then The Gospel of John (Philip Saville, 2003); and now The Passion of the Christ. I simply had to see this new film, albeit allegedly one of the most violent films ever made.

Is The Passion of the Christ Pornographic?

    Given this background, I was surprised to find the film very powerful and many of the reviews overstated. In particular, the repeated charge of “pornography” is quite out of place. Yes, the film is horribly violent but while it is graphic it is never gratuitous. Pornography is all about titillating the viewer, drawing him/her to want more to satiate their appetite for flesh. Mel Gibson does not encourage the viewer to want to see more. All the time he is asking you to turn away, to think about what is happening, to be appalled at the Roman guards’ brutality, to share both of the Marys’ grief. This is not pornography.

    The primary focus of the pornography charge is the scene in which Jesus is scourged by nasty, depraved and brutal Roman guards, the epitome of a sadistic evil approved by the lurking, hooded Satanic figure. Those who talk about the relentless, gratuitous or pornographic nature of this section of the film tend to ignore several important elements. The extent of the violence depicted is mitigated by the fact that the camera itself cannot bear to look on and repeatedly draws away, sometimes so far that you can only hear it in the distance. And when the camera does look on, its focus is on Jesus’ face and trembling hands. Unlike pornography, but in the tradition of many horror flicks, Gibson realises that it is important not to show everything in graphic detail. Talk of his dwelling lovingly on every injury is quite mistaken.

    Moreover, viewers are taken on two other journeys during this scene. They are party to a flashback explaining the past of Mary Magdalene, who is identified with the woman taken in adultery of John 8, following the typical Jesus film tradition.[1] And the camera follows Mary and Mary Magdalene, focuses on their anguish and introduces Claudia Procles with her pieces of linen in the scene adapted from Catherine Emmerich’s visions. In short, the camera chooses not to gaze. Jesus is not objectified. The viewer is encouraged not to look and is often not allowed to look. The charge of pornography is not, in other words, a rational one. It is polemic.

    This is not to say that the scourging scene is not traumatic. It is. Few will not find this very traumatic, deeply disturbing, very upsetting. Of course it is possible that a particular kind of viewer might derive sadistic pleasure from looking upon this, but if so they do so, it is markedly against the grain of the film. Unlike pornography, this film does not beckon the viewer to watch more, much less to revel in it. The villains of the piece, the sadistic Roman guards, delight in their depravity, looking on, laughing and increasing the torment. The implied viewer has absolutely no sympathy with the Roman guards but rather turns away, cries, demands them to stop.

Is the Crucifixion an anti-climax?

    Contrary to the view of many of its critics, The Passion of the Christ is not one of the most violent films ever made. Nor, for all the graphic violence, is it correct to insist that it features the most appalling brutality imaginable. A moment’s pause confirms that there are many ways in which the violence could have been made far worse. Jesus ben Ananias, for example, was said to have been “whipped till his bones were laid bare” (Josephus' War 6.5.3). Or the possibility that victims of crucifixion often died of asphyxiation is not countenanced here. Jesus gives up his spirit and bows his head; we do not see him writhe in agony as he struggles to take another breath.

    Many of the reviews have said that the crucifixion almost comes as an anti-climax after the scourging and the long road to Golgotha. But like many of the criticisms of the film, this is overstated. For most viewers, the really traumatic part of the film will undoubtedly be watching the soldiers crucify Jesus. This is not just because of the agony of seeing a man having nails driven through his hands and feet, but because it is here that Gibson intensifies his use of flashback, the Last Supper, “Love one another . . .”, the Good Shepherd, the Sermon on the Mount, “Love your enemies and pray for your persecutors . . .” This powerful juxtaposition of crucifixion and flashback, in which Jesus’ ethic of love and forgiveness in the face of the most hideous evil, confounds those who speak of this as a film of hate. Its stress on love of one another, love of enemies, prayer for persecutors and forgiveness could hardly be more acute. The Greatest Story Ever Told (George Stevens, 1965) attempted to do something similar by juxtaposing John the Baptist’s beheading and Antipas’s demand that Jesus be arrested with “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake . . .”, which is brought forward into firs place among the beatitudes. But where in that film the link is easily lost, Gibson really makes it work by using flashback.

Are the flashbacks too brief?

    Some have commented that the flashbacks are all too brief, often in the course of complaining that the film does not give us sufficient context for the Passion, too little of Jesus’ life. Many will sympathise with such comments. The viewer cannot but long to see more, especially as the glimpses of Jim Caviezel’s pre-Passion Jesus make him so warm and personable. The scene in Nazareth, when Jesus builds a tall table and shows it to Mary, is delightful, not least because Jesus and Mary both laugh. There is a trend here in recent Jesus films that represents a marked change of direction from all the older films. It used to be rare to see anything other than – at best – a beatific smile in a Jesus film. Yet recently there have been several portrayals of Jesus as a man with a sense of humour, from Bruce Marchiano’s American apple-pie Jesus in the Visual Bible’s Matthew (Regardt van den Bergh, 1996), to Jeremy Sisko’s Jesus (Roger Young, 1999), the first Jesus to dance, to the claymated Jesus voiced by Ralph Fiennes in The Miracle Maker (Hayes and Sokolov, 1999) who jokes with Mary and Martha and makes his parables amusing, to the most recent celluloid Jesus, Henry Ian Cusick in the Visual Bible’s The Gospel of John, who in a remarkable performance pulls off the feat of making the Johannine Jesus warm and friendly.

    The timing of the flashbacks, though, is quite right and complaints about this are misguided. Their point is to tantalise the viewer with reminders of Jesus’ life. They provide the film’s context by encouraging viewers to fill in more from their own knowledge and imagination, or to go to the Gospels and explore them further. Perhaps the most interesting question is how the viewer with absolutely no knowledge of the Jesus story would react to the film. One guess is that the flashbacks would appear so fascinating, so tantalising, that it would leave one wanting to find out more, even to read the Gospels. But the complaint that The Passion of the Christ does not provide enough of a context by beginning in Gethsemane ignores the fact it is a Christian tradition to re-enact the Passion, to have dramatic readings in church and so on. There are multiple precedents for The Passion of the Christ’s focus. It is never complained that Jesus Christ Superstar depicts only the last week of Jesus’ life, still less that Bach did not provide enough context in the Saint Matthew Passion or the Saint John Passion.

Is there no joy, triumph or redemption?

    What, though, of the charge that the focus on the last twelve hours of Jesus’ life gives the film no real feel of joy, of triumph, of redemption? Like so many of the elements in the appreciation of film, one person’s experience will be different from another’s, but for many, the film has not proved the negative, bleak, unhappy experience that it has clearly been to many of its reviewers. For while it is true that it spends only a little time on the resurrection, it leaves the viewer on this note – Jesus has not even emerged from the tomb yet – and one is left dwelling on what happens next. Again, it drives the viewer back to the Gospels. Indeed the ending is more similar to Mark’s ending than it is to Matthew’s, Luke’s or John’s. It has that tantalising feel of “But I want to know what happened next”. Given the historic difficulties faced by Jesus films in portraying the resurrection effectively, this could be seen as a brilliant decision. Gibson has resisted what would have been an obvious and perhaps clichéd final scene with Jesus meeting Mary Magdalene in the garden, so that the film could have been framed by those two gardens at each end of the story. And the resurrection scene has a still more remarkable feature universally missed in the reviews of the film so far, and I will come back to this.

    Redemption is found also in the cataclysmic events that surround the death of Jesus. A tear falls from heaven, there is an earthquake and the devil is finally de-cloaked and cast wailing to the pit of hell. This is a remarkable dramatisation of the eschatological significance of Jesus’ death. It is represented as the ultimate triumph over evil in an earth-shattering event that affects all the actors in the drama, the soldiers, the Temple authorities, Pilate. Everyone realises that something world shattering had happened and that nothing was ever going to be the same again.

    This depiction of the significance of Jesus’ death is one of the film’s several perspectives on the atonement. While several reviews have rightly pointed out the extent to which a substitutionary atonement theory makes its presence felt, the suggestion that this is all that is present is incorrect. Other theories of the atonement are also dramatically depicted. The Christus Victor theme climaxes in the devil’s banishment to the pit of hell at Jesus’s death, but the scene is already set with Jesus’ victory over intense temptation in Gethsemane, stamping on the snake that is so famous a symbol of evil. Yet one of the biggest surprises given the copious reviews that stress “blood-letting” at the expense of anything else is that the film also brings forward the exemplary view of Jesus’ atonement, the relentless theme of the crucifixion narrative, with its double use of the “Father, forgive them” line from Luke and the intensification of the flash-back scenes each one stressing love of one another, love of enemies, prayer for persecutors.

Is the film anti-Semitic?

    But what of the still more serious charge of anti-Semitism? Surely Gibson cannot be defended on this score, can he? Any reaction to the film on this point needs to make sense of the fact that intelligent people with a careful eye and with a knowledge of the history and of New Testament scholarship are coming to greatly divergent views on this question. How is that explained? Are those who do not see the anti-Semitism simply naïve? Are those who insist that it is there hypersensitive? My own view is that while there are some troubling elements in the film, as there are in all the Jesus films, the case that the film is peculiarly anti-Semitic, or, more accurately, anti-Judaic, has been seriously overstated. I will attempt to explain why.

    It is film’s retention of some troubling elements from the Gospels that lends the charge of anti-Judaism its plausibility. To read the Passion Narratives in their first century, largely intra-Jewish context helps the contemporary reader to understand elements and perspectives that otherwise are far more worrying. Absent of that context and absent of the opportunity to explain such points, it is always going to be difficult for a Jesus film that is heavily dependent on the New Testament to avoid concerns over anti-Judaism. And on the whole, Jesus films have failed to tread carefully enough to avoid these concerns. If I were making a film about Jesus, I would not want to include Pilate washing his hands and I would like to see much more acknowledgement of his well-known brutality, so clear not only from Philo and Josephus but also from Luke 13.1. The Pilate of this film, like the Pilate in so many others, is a more sympathetic character than Caiaphas. While we gain some understanding of Pilate’s inner conflicts, we are not party to the same in the case of Caiaphas. Where John at least depicts Caiaphas too as being in something of a fix (John 11.47-53), there is little indication in The Passion of the Christ that he is anything other than a bully.

    But in this lies the film-maker’s problem. The character of Pontius Pilate, as depicted in the Gospels, lends himself to film narrative more than any other character in the drama with his moral conflict, his perplexity at Jesus, his troubled relations with the Jewish leaders, his odd relationship with Herod. It is fantasy to expect a movie director to resist so appealing a dramatic character. Yes, historically, of course it is regrettable that Gibson did not pay more attention to the concerns of Biblical scholars. But he is making a film of a greatest story ever told and not a documentary for the Discovery channel. We will expect him to find this character, as traditionally depicted, as irresistible as so many have before him.

  The difficulties inevitably involved with bringing the Passion Narratives to the screen could and should have been alleviated by the adoption of advisory committees of the kind used for two of the most recent Jesus films, The Miracle Maker (for which the credited consultants including N. T. Wright, Richard Burridge and Rowan Williams) and The Gospel of John (for which the advisory board included Peter Richardson, Alan Segal and Adele Reinhartz). A film is a group product – it is never only one man’s product, however much one individual, in this case Mel Gibson, might provide the vision and the guidance. For Gibson to have produced such a film without the protection supplied by publicly accountable scholars is unwise and places far too much of a burden on the one advisor who was used extensively, William J. Fulco, S.J., for all his skill as a communicator and as an advocate of Gibson’s film.

    It is not simply that a group of scholars can provide a variety of historical and theological insights that might provide useful perspectives on elements in the film, especially sensitive areas like the attitude to Jews and Judaism, but that the board can draw attention publicly to the critical engagement that has taken place over any troubling elements. To take the parallel of The Gospel of John, for example, its advisory board had to take seriously the problem of how to depict the well known and troubling references to “the Jews” as a group hostile to Jesus. Its solutions included using the Good News translation with its references to “Jewish leaders” and adding at the beginning of the film a notice on the origin of John’s Gospel. Some might argue that such strategies were not as successful as they might have been, not least given references to the “Snidely Whiplash” style depiction of Caiaphas, but the key thing is that the producers were seen to be taking the problems seriously in their use of a publicly accountable advisory board. Gibson could have gained much from allowing himself such a luxury.

    But these points having been conceded, it is important to watch the film with care, to notice what is there and to avoid importing into it things that are not there. While there are troubling elements in this film, as there are to varying degrees in all the Jesus films, it is important to notice those elements that speak strongly against an anti-Semitic viewing of this film, elements that are routinely getting ignored by the film’s reviewers and especially academics. Part of the problem here is that the controversy over the film’s alleged anti-Semitism has been so pronounced for such a long time that it has become impossible for anyone to view it without thinking about it. The controversy itself has become a lens through which many are watching the film, increasing sensitivity to features that might otherwise never have been noticed and discouraging a critical engagement that might have been more open to an alternative view.

    One of the ways of looking at the question is to ask how the film's depiction of Jewish leaders compares with that of other Jesus films. A strong case could be made that Jesus Christ Superstar (Norman Jewison, 1973) comes off far worse, for example. In that film many of the Jewish authorities are played by Jewish actors whereas Jesus and his disciples are not. It carelessly writes in phrases like “permanent solution”. The Passion of the Christ is not, on the other hand, so gratuitous. It could have done more to make some of the Jewish authorities less clearly out-and-out baddies; it could have done more to show Pilate's nasty, ruthless side, to align him even more clearly with the real villains of the piece, the sadistic brutes who scourge, torture and crucify Jesus and who occupy so much of the screen time.

    But if all these and similar elements might have been given some more attention, there is also little doubt that those who have gone looking for anti-Semitism in the film have missed some pretty important elements that severely limit the plausibility of the charge. The fact that Gibson cast Maia Morgenstern – a devout Jew whose father survived the holocaust – as Mary cannot be lightly brushed aside and counts for a great deal more than comments on the appearance of the Jewish leaders, comments that ultimately contribute to the very racial stereotyping that we should be trying to avoid. Moreover, it is amazing just how rarely critics comment on Simon of Cyrene (played by Jarreth Merz). The importance of Simon lies not just in the fact that he shows some character development, beginning very reluctant to help this random criminal but in time realising that he is in the presence of someone special, but in the fact that he is a character with whom the viewer is encouraged to identify. By this point in the film we have been crying for the Roman guards to stop their merciless persecution of Jesus and Simon is the first to stand up and exhort them to stop, to leave him alone.

    At this point, when the viewer is strongly identifying with him, Simon is directly castigated by one of the Roman guards as “Jew!” This is the only character (other than Jesus who is called “King of the Jews”) in the entire film who is specifically characterised as a Jew. The point is important, not least given the fact that some critics of The Passion of the Christ have imported terminology into the film that is not found there. The film does not once, for example, castigate those in opposition to Jesus as “the Jews”, in spite of repeated assertions to the contrary. Moreover, the positive depiction of Simon of Cyrene as a Jew is clearly not accidental. This scene in The Passion of the Christ is largely dependent on Catherine Emmerich’s Dolorous Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ, especially Simon’s exhortations to the soldiers to stop. But where she makes Simon a pagan, Gibson insists that his heroic figure was a Jew.

From Jesus’ Perspective

    I would like to conclude by reflecting on one of the problems with the overreaction to The Passion of the Christ. The obsession with commenting on its violence and its allegedly negative attitude to Jews is so absorbing reviewers’ attention that some remarkable elements in the film are getting missed. I have yet to see a single review or article comment on one of the film’s most radical and unexpected departures from the Jesus film tradition, that of showing events from Jesus’ perspective. There are repeated shots which show the viewer what Jesus himself is seeing. After the scourging, for example, Jesus is dragged away and the viewer sees everything upside down, as through Jesus’ eyes. There are precedents, perhaps most clearly in The Last Temptation of Christ which allows one to hear Jesus’ inner monologue, but this is the first time that Jesus’ perspective has been shown by the use of aligning it with the camera’s perspective.

    Many of the flashbacks are continuous with this phenomenon. Jesus sees something and it triggers a memory; what we are seeing are his thoughts. The charming Nazareth carpentry flashback is triggered by the sight of someone doing woodwork in the high priest’s courtyard. The eucharist flashback is triggered by Jesus' sight of Pilate washing his hands. But the most striking example of this phenomenon of showing the viewer events from Jesus’ own perspective comes right at the film’s end, in the resurrection story. Review after review comments unfavourably on the resurrection scene without pointing out that this is the first film ever (to my knowledge, of course) to attempt to depict the resurrection from Jesus’ perspective, to tell the story from inside the tomb. Rather than standing outside the tomb with witnesses looking in, The Passion of the Christ keeps the viewer waiting, staring at a black screen for several seconds and then one realises that what one is seeing is the inside of the tomb, and the stone begins noisily rolling back, and light seeping in.

    The Passion of the Christ is a very powerful film. It is not easy to be neutral about it. After having surveyed multiple reviews and articles about The Passion of the Christ, one pattern becomes clear. People either love it or they hate it. There are no reviews that say that it is OK or that you can take it or leave it. On the whole it is either pious pornography or it is powerful and moving. The theological consultant William J. Fulco, S. J., described it as “in your face”. This film gets inside your head and demands a reaction. Some apparently leave the cinema wanting to repent of their sins; others cannot find a good word to say about it. When I watched it for the first time, I woke up at night thinking about it. The images are so compelling, so moving that they demand a lot from you. Perhaps those who have reacted with vitriol are actually trying to expel the images from their minds, to prevent the film from getting into their thinking. Or perhaps my reading is simply a naïve one. After all, one person’s pornography can be another person’s art and in this area more than any other the viewer’s role is pivotal. But if this is the case, and there is some sadistic homoerotic pleasure to be derived from watching this film, then I prefer my naïveté. But let us not call it naïveté; let us call it a responsible reading of a film that many, many viewers have found an extraordinarily powerful artistic depiction of the Passion of the Christ.

    This essay is based on comments originally posted in the NT Gateway Weblog. I would like to thank all of those who have sent in their contributions to the site and who have engaged with me there.

    Mark Goodacre is Senior Lecturer in New Testament in the Department of Theology at the University of Birmingham, U.K.


[1] This trend is bucked in The Gospel of John which has the woman taken in adultery and Mary Magdalene played by two different women.

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