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."
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.
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 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 …
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.
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 Jesus7 are just some of the inventions (allowed in a passion play!) of Gibson.8 One wonders, though, how many viewers recognized them as such.
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
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.
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(back) 1Michael 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.
(back) 5We 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.
(back) 6Considering 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.”
(back) 8The 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!
(back) 9According 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.
(back) 11In 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.
(back) 16In 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).
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