Comments on Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ"

by Gary Young Ph.D.

The recent appearance of Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ has generated a great deal of discussion, both among religious people and in the wider community. From religious people, even among members of the church, the reaction has generally been positive, while some in the world have objected to what they claim is the film’s anti-Semitism. These objections do seem to be more based around the desire of some to suppress any kind of religious material rather than any real issue in the film itself: while drivel such as The Last Temptation of Christ is greeted with approbation, Gibson’s stated intention is to accurately portray the Gospel account and so many in the media industry deride it. On that ground alone, the success of Gibson’s film is satisfying.

It is certainly true that most Jewish characters in the film who were not followers of Jesus are portrayed in an unsympathetic light, but this is due to the fact that these characters in the Gospel accounts behave in an abominable manner. The same could be said of the vast bulk of the Roman characters in the film, but I have yet to hear the film described as “anti-Italian”. The charge of anti-Semitism is a straw man designed to discredit the film by those who do not wish to see Christianity promoted or strengthened in any way.

We can only look on the fact that a large number of people are now talking about the death of Christ who were not doing so previously as a good thing. It may very well be the case that we may be able to exploit this tendency and interest people in hearing the Gospel of Christ.

However, some of the statements that even brethren have been made have been rather excessive in their fulsome praise of the film. We should remain clear that we do not need Gibson’s film as a tool of evangelism, nor is it the quintessential portrayal of the sufferings of Christ. We have in our possession, and have always had, the definitive account of the sufferings of Christ; the New Testament itself. This message has all that God wanted and needed mankind to know about the sufferings of His Son; and it is noteworthy that the Gospel accounts do not dwell on the physical pain endured by Jesus; for example, when reporting the nailing of Jesus to the cross, Matthew simply states “and they crucified Him” (Matt. 27: 35). This is quite a contrast to the extended and gory scourging and crucifixion scenes in The Passion of the Christ.

Another area of criticism which the film has justly incurred is in its lack of emphasis upon the resurrection. It is the resurrection of Christ from the dead that signals His victory over death and sin (I Cor. 15: 17-23), yet the resurrection appears almost as an afterthought in the film, occupying very little time and attention. This is probably a reflection of Gibson’s own religious view: he is a Traditional Catholic, a group of non-mainstream Roman Catholics who reject the 2nd Vatican council and still celebrate the Mass in Latin. Catholicism, generally speaking, has traditionally focused on the cross rather than the empty tomb; of course, in actual fact one is meaningless without the other.

The film has been widely trumpeted as being painstakingly accurate in both the historical and Scriptural sense. It is the view of this writer that such fidelity, in both cases, has been extensively overstated. There were several historical errors, which admittedly are of little real significance by themselves. However, their presence does seem to belie somewhat the claims of historical accuracy, and make one wonder somewhat how much else in the film has been inadequately researched. For example, in the Last Supper Jesus and His apostles are seated at a table, as they are depicted in Leonardo Da Vinci’s famous fresco in Milan. Almost certainly, however, they would have been reclining on couches at a low bench, as was the normal practice in those days: this is the only scenario that can make sense of the beloved disciple’s leaning on Christ’s breast (John 13: 23). In this instance it seems the desire to emulate a famous Catholic work of art has triumphed over historical accuracy. The Roman soldiers in the movie are also poorly researched: their armour is of the plate type which only became common toward the end of the first century AD; in the time of Christ they should be wearing chainmail. They are also portrayed as Latin speaking citizen soldiers, i.e. legionaries. There was however no legion based in Judea until after AD 70. The soldiers commanded by Pilate would have been locally raised (non-Jewish) auxiliaries: while their officers may well have spoken Latin, the usual language of the rankers would have been Aramaic and/or Greek.

The most apparent historical error, however, concerns the language. Much has been made of the fact that the dialogue of the film is in Latin and Aramaic (though the Latin at least is pronounced in the medieval Catholic style, not the Classical pronunciation that it actually would have been in the time of Christ). Most seem to have overlooked the fact that the film has a pronounced aversion to the use of Greek, the language of course in which the whole New Testament, and all the known dialogue of the crucifixion, was actually written. There is in fact not a scrap of Greek in the film, not even where the Bible specifically says it was present: for example, the New Testament tells us that the superscription on the cross was in Latin, Greek and Hebrew (Luke 23: 38). In the film, the superscription is there, sure enough: but the inscription on it is in two languages, not three. The Greek inscription is unaccountably absent. Similarly, there is no Greek dialogue in the film: Jesus converses with Pilate in Latin, which no-one in Judea outside the army or the governor’s staff would have known; and Pilate talks to the Jewish leaders in Aramaic; we know from numerous inscriptions and papyri that all dealings of this type would have been conducted in Greek. Roman prefects and governors were sent to the East for an assignment of a few years at best: so far as we know, none of them bothered to learn Aramaic during their tenure. All of these conversations would have been held in the lingua franca of the Roman East, Koine Greek. Indeed, that is the reason that Greek was the language chosen for the writing of the New Testament. The pronounced absence of this language from a film which claims such meticulous historical accuracy is odd to say the least.

Far more serious than the historical problems, however, are the Scriptural ones. In the film, Catholic tradition is frequently preferred to the accounts of Scripture. Several occurrences, mostly those involving such incidental characters as Mary Magdalene, Simon of Cyrene and Pilate’s wife, are portrayed in the film which are absent from Scripture. These occurrences are, however, to be found in Catholic tradition, especially the so-called “Stations of the Cross”, a series of events purported to have occurred on the road to Calvary. These include Jesus falling three times, the meeting with His mother, a woman in the crowd wiping His face, and other things which are simply not in Scripture. While it can be argued that the Scripture does not actually say these things did not happen, there is no Scriptural or historical support for them whatever. The concern of this writer is that the film will enshrine these Catholic additions to the Scripture in the minds of many people as actual events of the crucifixion: one needs at the very least to go to the movie with a clear idea of what actually is in the Scriptural account, so that he can determine what has been added by Catholic tradition and Hollywood storytelling.

Similarly, Mary Magdalene is once again subjected to the charge that she was an immoral woman before becoming a follower of Christ. This equation, which is based in Catholic tradition but has become a widely held misconception in the religious world generally, is utterly without Scriptural support. Once again, Roman Catholic embellishment of the sacred text and Hollywood’s penchant for a lurid tale has triumphed over historical and Biblical accuracy.

The deaths of the thieves and the placing of the spear in Christ’s side is also not reported accurately: indeed in this particular instance the film expressly contradicts Scripture rather than “embellishing” the story as is the case in the other matters we are discussing. In the film, Gibson has the soldiers breaking the thieves’ legs and ensuring Christ was dead at the time of the earthquake, just as Christ Himself gave up the ghost. However, in Scripture this does not occur until sundown immediately before the Sabbath, up to three hours after Christ died (John 19: 30-37, cf. Mark 15: 33-45). In this particular instance there is no Catholic doctrine being followed: the compression of the events of the crucifixion seems to be for no other reason than to sensationalise and simplify the Gospel account.

There is no doubt that many viewing The Passion of the Christ will gain a greater appreciation for the physical sufferings that our Lord underwent when He gave Himself to be crucified. In this regard, we can legitimately view the film as a potentially useful tool. There is also little doubt that this is the most realistic and accurate portrayal of these events that the film industry has yet produced. We must, however, remain fully aware of the limitations in the film. It is assuredly not the definitive account that some have claimed it to be, nor can it live up to the claims of accuracy that have been made for it, in either the Scriptural or historical sense. The major problem, however, is the film’s free mixing of Catholic tradition with the Scriptural account, with no attempt to distinguish the two. In the minds of many who are unfamiliar with the Bible’s account of the crucifixion, the Catholic embellishments will become a part of the crucifixion story. In this respect, Gibson has done the cause of Christ no favours.

As to whether Christians should see the film, that is a decision to be made by the individual. I would recommend, however, that before one goes to see the movie, the Christian should read and be familiar with the Bible’s account, and thus be ready to distinguish truth and error. Finally, we should also remember that the true definitive account of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ is, was and will remain the Holy Scripture itself.

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