The Passion of the Christ

After all the media hype and controversy over the past six months I was finally able to see Mel Gibson’s newly released film, “The Passion of the Christ.” I wanted to write down a few random and informal reactions. As one who specializes in the area of Christian Origins, Ancient Judaism, and the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth, I have been asked by students, friends, colleagues, and the media—what do you think of the Gibson film?

Let me begin with two positive points first. I thought the inclusion of Aramaic and Latin was truly a wonderful move. It gave the whole thing a feel of authenticity that few films on Jesus have approached in that regard. I also think that the brutally realistic portrayal of Roman scourging and crucifixion, though horrible and difficult to watch, was a step beyond the sanitized versions usually presented in paintings, sculpture, and most other Jesus films. One would have to be stone hearted indeed not to be greatly moved by the suffering of any human being so portrayed, and all the more so that of Jesus, who was surely in the eyes of most of us, at least a peaceful and good Jew who taught love of God and love even of an enemy.

But that said, on the whole I thought the film was very seriously flawed in so many ways, so much so that I can not endorse it as a great or even a “good” portrayal of the last hours of Jesus of Nazareth. In fairness to Mel Gibson, I should point out that some of the fault, as I see it, rests in the Gospel accounts themselves, not just with the director. Yet even so I think Gibson really got some things seriously wrong. I am aware of several of my colleagues who were brought in as historical consultants on the film and they have told me that Gibson largely rejected their input, preferring his own reading of the Gospels as well as the “revelations” of Anne Catherine Emmerich, a 19th century Catholic nun who had mystical visions of Jesus’ passion. Mel added quite a few non-biblical scenes taken from her visions and as he has said in several interviews, he is convinced she was inspired to see these things.

One important point that needs to be carefully noted: the title of the film is “The Passion of the Christ,” and not “The Death of Jesus of Nazareth.” There is a big difference. Rudolf Bultmann, the German New Testament scholar, made an important distinction in the 1920s as the “Quest for the Historical Jesus” was in its infancy. He argued that we must carefully distinguish between what he termed the “Christ of Faith” and the “Jesus of History.” Our Gospels on the whole, particularly John and Matthew, focus on the “Christ of faith,” not the Jesus of history. This does not mean that they contain no history. But it does mean that they are best understood, and thus read, as theological presentations of faith, not historical documentaries. Accordingly, anyone who makes a film based primarily on the Gospels will likely end up taking some of the same directions that Gibson took. Gibson is not only a strong Roman Catholic believer, he is part of a right-wing break away Catholic sect that sees the reforms of Vatican II as heresy and considers even the present very conservative Pope to be “liberal” in that regard. This has to be considered in any attempt to understand or evaluate how Mel Gibson ended up making the film he did. He has been quite open about this in all his interviews.

Time and time again I saw the film as an unabashed attempt to present a Roman Catholic version of the story. Throughout the film Mary the mother of Jesus, and Mary Magdalene, were presented in both dress and pose as Catholic nuns, their costumes coming about as close to the traditional Catholic habit as I have ever seen in a Jesus film. Mary especially, in almost every scene, was scripted to look fully the part of The Blessed Virgin Mother of Catholic tradition. The brothers and sisters were not included of course, even at the death, because Mary could not be presented as a normal Jewish woman with a large family of five boys and at least two girls, given the dogma of the “perpetual virginity of Mary, the mother of God.” The Catholic tradition of Veronica and her cloth were included. Jesus carried this unbelievably huge full cross, just like in all the traditional paintings, and at times that part of the film bordered on the ridiculous. This portrait, however appealing to tradition, is unsupported in either the Gospels (Greek word stauros means stake) or what we know of Roman history.

It is worth noting that the two “thieves,’ crucified with Jesus, as this film portrayed things, had only to carry the “cross beam” to which the arms would be tied or nailed, not the entire cross. This would be in keeping with Roman practice, so why have Jesus bend and break for nearly 30 minutes of the film, carrying a “cross” that surely would have weighed over 100 lbs. Here, as in other places, presumably Gibson read his English Bible where the term “cross” is used, and guided by Sister Emmerich’s visions and Church tradition, decided that this was the way things were. Gibson also had Jesus’ nailed to the cross in the hands and feet, rather than through the wrists and the heel bones, as we know was actually the case. Thanks to an amazing accidental archaeological discovery made in 1968—the skeleton of a crucified man contemporary with Jesus found in Jerusalem that indicates to us with some certainty how the feet or heels were nailed to the wooden upright of the cross. These might be seen as irrelevant details, but their overall effect I think was an important one, in terms of reflecting Christian tradition. The Romans, contrary to the portrayal in this film, would have considered the heavy loss of blood, a botched job. The trick was to nail the victim to the wood, but draw very little blood; otherwise one would go unconscious quickly from loss of blood and not suffer for more than a few minutes. Crucifixions, according to the 1st century Jewish historian Josephus, were intended to last for several days. The victims eventually died from trauma, dehydration, and shock–not from blood pouring out of severed blood vessels in the hands and feet.

However, I think there are more serious flaws than this or that historical detail about crucifixion or costumes. It just would have made a better film had Mel Gibson, given more care to present the historical details accurately. Apparently he was told of some of these things by some of his initial consultants, but chose to follow the visions of Sister Emmerich, who presumably “saw” the wounds in the hands and feet, the huge cross, and so forth, so Mr. Gibson is apparently convinced that the scholars and historians just don’t know what they are talking about.

Beyond these and other “historical details,” I had five major concerns about the film overall. In each case I found the portrayal in the film to be seriously misleading, historically unfounded, and theologically loaded.

First, one got the impression that not only the corrupt Jewish high priests yelled for Jesus’ crucifixion, but also just about the whole population of Jerusalem—that is, at least representatively, the entire Jewish people. This came through very strongly over and over again, mainly in the views of the crowds, who, other than a few women, were rejoicing and even participating with stones, jeers, and spitting, at the brutal suffering of this fellow Jew. Not a single Jew is presented with any kind of character development, nor does one get any sense throughout the film of what the faith of Judaism might have been like—the very faith of Jesus himself. Here I think even the Gospels, as much as they do (especially Matthew and John) put blame on the “Jews,” do not support this view. Jesus was apparently incredibly popular with the masses. The very reason the Caiaphus “kangaroo court” was called illegally after midnight was because these leaders knew they could never pull this off in broad daylight, with the likes of Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimathea, and Gamaliel present, and doubtless many others of such views who had authority and influence. The Gospels witness that Jesus was too popular and loved by thousands to risk an open arrest. The common people heard him gladly and hated this corrupt Temple leadership, as we learn in various Jewish sources.

Second, even though Jesus’ brutal suffering were portrayed with realism, I noticed that the two “thieves” who were crucified with him hardly looked like they were suffering at all—yet scourging and beating was common for all the victims, and anyone crucified would be in such screaming excruciating pain any of us would have difficulty watching. One had the impression that the important suffering, the only one who really suffered, was Jesus, even though we know that tens of thousands of other Jews died this same brutal death during the very lifetime of Jesus (see www.uncc.edu/jdtabor/cruc-josephus.html for the sources and references).

Third, even though Pilate is portrayed in the Gospels as wanting to avoid turning Jesus over, we know from Josephus, Philo, and other contemporary sources that he was a brutal and insensitive character, a murderer and cruel tyrant who cared not a shed for justice or human life—especially Jewish life. Philo describes him as inflexible, merciless, obstinate, a man of ferocious passions, hopelessly given to acts of rapine and cruelty. He singles out Pilate’s reputation for murder of the innocent, the untried, and the uncondemned. Even the emperor Tiberius called him home in the year 36 A.D. for being “too harsh” in his treatment of Judean affairs. In the film we get a sympathetic even kind Pilate, weak under pressure to be sure, but wholly positive in overall portrayal. This is really inexcusable I think for a filmmaker, and I do not think the Gospel picture has to be taken as contradictory to the historical record. Once again we are left with the impression that it was the Jews who really wanted this, and the noble Roman leadership would have tolerated a Messianic claimant to operate freely at Passover. This is contrary to everything we know about Roman policy in Palestine in this period where dozens of such “Messiahs” were regularly hunted down and slaughtered by Roman officials. Herod Antipas is presented as some kind of senile moron, when in fact our only account of Jesus’ appearance before him, recorded only in the Luke, says that Herod treated Jesus with contempt and that he was the one who put the robe on him, mocking him. Remember, this is the Herod who had Jesus’ cousin John the Baptist brutally murdered. It is likely that both Pilate and Herod hesitated to turn over Jesus to the Jewish authorities, not because of their noble sense of justice, but our of fear that the populace would revolt in reaction to the death of such a popular figure. Pilate had his eye on Rome and how things would look. According to the Gospels it was only when the Jewish leaders brought up the political threat that releasing Jesus would raise the charge that Pilate was “no friend of Caesar,” that he bowed to their wishes.

Fourth, Jesus is presented in this film as preaching a wholly other-worldly and spiritual message, with a kingdom “not of this world” whereas the Gospels clearly present Jesus as coming to usher in a very real “kingdom of God on earth” with his Twelve chosen ones sitting on thrones over a re-gathered Israel, and all nations coming to Jerusalem. Once again, Christian theology comes through here strongly. The impression is that it was only the “materialistic” Jews who wanted an “earthly” kingdom, while Christians know a higher spiritual way. This represents a complete misunderstanding of Jewish and early “Christian” Messianism, in both the Gospels, the Hebrew Prophets, and all Jewish sources of which I am aware, including the contemporary Dead Sea Scrolls.

Finally, at the end of the film, when Jesus has died, there is an earthquake and one sees the inner rooms of the Temple in shambles with everything destroyed. The priests are groveling like fools on the floor, heirs of this now defunct faith. I saw this as a rather blatant attempt of Gibson’s to signal—Judaism is dead; it died with Christ, and now the new faith of the Christians has replaced it. In interviews a week before the film was released Gibson said as much. He said he was not anti-Semitic, that he loved the Jews, and wished every one of them could be written in the Lamb’s book of life—clearly expressing his view, contrary even to Vatican II, that Jews without faith in the Christian Jesus are hell-bound. His hope is that his film will convert the Jews and all the rest of humanity, to Christianity.

Albert Schweitzer said long ago, and he was speaking of the historians of religion that attempt to construct portraits of Jesus, that more often than not one ends up presenting a Jesus reflective of ones own theological image. This is surely true for all the Jesus films I have seen over the years. Gibson has honestly admitted to any and all questioners that this is his vision of things, based upon the sources, whether Scripture or Tradition, as he sees them. He surely has the right to do such and he has been up front about what he has tried to do. But those of us who have followed the “Quest for the historical Jesus,” an effort that has been pursued now with great dedication for over 150 years by specialists in the field, can only wish that our wider public might have been exposed to a version of the Jesus story that appears by all historical, textual, and archaeological evidence to be more accurate and true.
© James D. Tabor Charlotte, North Carolina March 1, 2004

James D. Tabor is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte where he has taught since 1989. He previously held posts at the University of Notre Dame and the College of William and Mary. His specialty is Christian Origins, Ancient Judaism, and the historical Jesus with an emphasis on the Dead Sea Scrolls and archaeology.



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