A Review of the Passion
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.
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.