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The Passion of the Christ

A film by Mel Gibson, Newmarket Films, distributed by Icon Productions, 2004

Reviewed by Jeffrey J. Harrison

What an event!—not only the movie itself, but the impact it has had around the world! For months, claims and counterclaims in the media made this film, as well as Christianity and the gospels, a topic of conversation. Churches bought blocks of tickets for evangelistic purposes. Web sites and pamphlets attracted people to the truth behind the movie. And the film itself, originally expected to be a flop, became a “must see” film, one of the top grossing movies of all time!

This was the first contact of hundreds of thousands of people with the gospel—or at least with an essential part of the gospel. Claims of anti-Semitism attracted large audiences in the Moslem world, where the movie was allowed uncensored, despite the fact that it presented Jesus as crucified, a fact long denied by the Moslem religion. For so many Moslems to see this film was nothing less than a miracle of God’s grace, bringing the heart of the gospel to the Moslem world: Jesus Christ crucified and raised from the dead!

Even the making of the movie was an incredible story. The actor who plays Jesus, James Caviezel, was struck by lightning, not just once, but twice. He caught pneumonia from hours of shooting in a cold Italian winter wearing nothing but a loincloth and body make-up. And he was injured in an accident during the whipping sequence.

Finally—a more Jewish Jesus!

As for the movie itself, it was certainly the most gripping and realistic Jesus movie I have ever seen. What a relief to see Jesus portrayed as a manly man, and as a distinctly Jewish man. There was even a touch of sabra (native-born Israeli) to Jim Caviezel’s portrayal of Jesus, who was correctly called Yeshua, the Hebrew name of Jesus, throughout the film. The disciples, too, were for the most part believably Jewish.

Even the Jewish “bad guys” were presented in a sympathetic way, despite the loud charges of anti-Semitism made against the film. For example, the Jewish high priest, though eager to have Jesus crucified, is given several moments of apparent introspection, bordering on regret, for what he has done. The word “Jew” is used in a derogatory way only of the “good guys” in the film, such as Simon of Cyrene, who carried Jesus’ cross. This depicts anti-Semitism in a negative light, which is the opposite of actual anti-Semitism. (Though I did hear the word for “Jews” spoken at one point that did not appear in the subtitles. Was this one of the objectionable bits removed in post-production?)

The biggest challenge for any Jesus movie, as with any presentation of the gospel, is to overcome the dullness that comes from overfamiliarity with the story and restore something of the freshness of an actual historical event. In this, Gibson does extremely well, by exploring angles of the story that have never been portrayed before. The most obvious of these is the violence. Most Jesus movies are radically sanitized, as are depictions of Jesus on the cross, with little, if any, blood. Even those few modern images that reflect the horror of the cross are too abstract; while those from the Middle Ages, when contemplation of the suffering of Christ was in its heyday, are stylistically remote from modern sensibilities.

But Gibson’s film opens up this whole area of Jesus’ suffering in a new way that is, sadly, all too accurate. Though the whipping of Jesus is minimized in other films, Gibson correctly shows that this was, in many ways, the most horrible and painful part of Jesus’ ordeal. Some died from the whipping alone. As a result, Jesus was in a dramatically weakened condition for the events that followed, which helps explain why he died so quickly on the cross.

Another area in which Gibson covers new ground is the way he brings the major personalities to life. This is done with extended close-up shots, in which subtle details in the characters’ faces speak as loudly as any dialogue. This intimacy is important in bringing the story to life—reminding us that these were, after all, ordinary people involved in extraordinary events.

He also humanizes his characters through the use of flashbacks (Jesus building a table, Mary picking up a young Jesus when he falls) and asides (Pontius Pilate’s talks with his wife, her giving some cloths to Mary). Many of these are Gibson’s own, non-Biblical material, though for the most part they are fairly “neutral” and don’t compromise the Biblical message.

Other flashbacks link Jesus’ suffering to important events in his ministry, like the Sermon on the Mount and the Last Supper. The most dramatically effective of these connects Jesus’ broken body and blood on the cross to the bread and wine of the Last Supper. At one point, Jesus’ lifting of the bread dissolves directly into his being lifted up on the cross.

The Jesus presented in the film is a visionary dreamer, with a wonderful secret to share, a man full of hope for humanity, in spite of the slowness of his puzzled disciples to understand. He is shown to be fully aware of the things he would suffer, teaching them in advance to his disciples, which brings a sense of purpose and meaning to their seemingly senseless brutality.

Less clearly present was a sense of royal authority or divinity to Jesus, of the kind that led one of the soldiers at the cross to say the words, curiously omitted from the film, “Truly, this was the Son of God” (Matt. 27:54). Surely some such larger-than-life presence captured the attention and the affection of the masses and convinced them that Jesus might be the Messiah. The brief resurrection scene, too, failed to establish a sense of authority or divinity to Jesus. Based on the movie alone, it would be hard to understand why the disciples came to the radical conclusion that Jesus was God in the flesh, rather than merely a representative of God.

“The Passion” and the Bible

The artistic liberties taken by Gibson with the Biblical story did not, for the most part, detract from the film. But for those seeking the truth behind the movie, it’s important to mention how it differs from the Bible and the facts of history.

The Satan figure is the most visible deviation from the Biblical account. Though Satan appears in the Bible, and tempts Jesus at the beginning of his ministry (Matt. 4:1), none of the appearances shown in the movie are mentioned in the Bible. In the Garden of Gethsemane, for example, the Bible says only that an angel strengthened Jesus (Luke 22:43); there is nothing about a demon tempting him. The demons that appear as little children, like those tormenting Judas, are also non-Biblical—though it’s a clever cinematic touch. This demonic undercurrent heightens the film’s spiritual tension, a visual reminder of the greater spiritual battle that was taking place. Unfortunately, these demonic elements are not balanced with a corresponding victory of Jesus over Satan. The enigmatic “view from heaven,” a shot looking down from above at Satan standing among the crosses, seemed to indicate a victory of Satan at the cross. The Bible, by contrast, says that Satan was defeated at the cross (Col. 2:15, Heb. 2:14).

Though Gibson is innovative in some areas, he is tradition-bound in others. For example, Jesus carries the entire cross, while the thieves carry only the crossbeam (known in Latin as the patibulum). This is the same compromise between Christian tradition and history found in the movie Ben-Hur. But it was only centuries later, long after the time of Jesus, that Christian art began to show Jesus carrying the whole cross. History tells us that in Roman times, the crossbeam alone was carried.

Similarly, Jesus is pierced in the palm of the hand and the sole of the feet, rather than in the wrists and ankles as indicated by archeological evidence and physical studies. The cross is high above the ground, as in traditional Christian art, rather than low to the ground as the original would almost certainly have been. In the Last Supper, Jesus and the disciples sit at a low table, in an arrangement like that of Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper, rather than reclining at the meal, as stated in the New Testament. These are minor criticisms, but it would have been nice to see more recent scholarship reflected in the film.

Other discrepancies are harder to account for. The selection of Aramaic and Latin for the dialogue is odd. While Latin may have been spoken between Pontius Pilate and his wife, Greek was undoubtedly the language of communication between the Romans and their Eastern subjects, including the Jewish people. Greek was also likely used as the lingua franca among the Roman armies themselves in the Eastern provinces. As for the Jewish people, recent discoveries in Israel such as the Dead Sea Scrolls, building inscriptions, and coins strongly indicate that Hebrew was the language spoken among them, not Aramaic, despite the continued popularity of Aramaic among many in the scholarly community.

In the movie, the group that comes to arrest Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane is small, only about seven or eight people. But the Bible says it was a great crowd (Matt. 26:47), among whom Luke includes the “chief priests and officers of the Temple and elders [i.e. members of the Sanhedrin] (Luke 22:52). This was a much more public event than it appears in the movie. This would have made impossible the brutal treatment given to Jesus even before he was brought in for questioning. (In the movie, he is pushed over a bridge and hangs for a moment by chains before the eyes of Judas, hiding below.)

In the Bible, the questioning by the high priest was a secretive, closed-door event. The closest Peter could get was an adjoining courtyard, where a fire was burning, and where he denied Jesus (Luke 22:55-57). But in the movie, inexplicably, Peter, John, and the two Marys join other members of the public in the same room where Jesus is being questioned. (The Bible says nothing of the two Marys being present at this event.)

As with most other Jesus movies, and some would argue the Bible itself, Pontius Pilate is given a most sympathetic reading. He agrees to Jesus’ execution in spite of deep misgivings and only because of political necessity. But history describes Pilate quite differently, as bearing a deep animosity against the Jewish people and treating them with great disrespect (in the writings of Philo and Josephus). These historical insights favor a radically different interpretation of Pilate’s actions: that he was in fact mocking the Jewish leadership throughout Jesus’ trial. Pilate appears sympathetic to Jesus only by contrast to his hatred of the Jewish leadership. When he addressed Jesus as King of the Jews and then had this title inscribed on the plaque above Jesus’ head on the cross, it was with a mocking snarl on his lips (Mark 15:9, John 19:19).* The Roman soldiers were only following his lead when they dressed Jesus as a king and beat him and spat on him (Matt. 27:28-31). The fact that Pilate presented Jesus in this same “kingly” apparel to the crowd, thereby consenting to their mockery (John 19:5), strongly supports this interpretation.**

* This kind of plaque, announcing the name of the criminal and the crime, was worn by all who were being led to crucifixion.

** In the Bible, this mocking presentation of Jesus together with his whipping took place after the release of Barabbas, rather than before, as shown in the movie (Matt. 27:26).

Though the location of the crucifixion in the film was quite dramatic, on a mountain high up above the city, the actual location was much more homely. The hill of Calvary (now located within the Church of the Holy Sepulcher) rose only about 15-20 feet above the surrounding ground level, less than 300 feet from the city wall.* Most of those witnessing the crucifixion would have stood around this small hill at ground level, looking up at the crosses just a short distance away.

* John specifically says it was a place “near the city” (John 19:20).

Other innovations include a crow picking at the eye of the unrepentant thief, as well as the drop of water that falls like a teardrop from heaven. While this teardrop is effective in communicating the grief of God the Father, Gibson missed an even more expressive and Biblical image: the tearing of the curtain in the Temple (Matt. 27:51). To a contemporary of Jesus, this was similar to the Jewish custom of tearing your garment at the death of a loved one, as if God himself was tearing his “garment” in grief.

But in spite of all these artistic liberties, The Passion is a most welcome contribution to Christian cinema, and an important aid to evangelism. We can only hope that its box office success will lead to other similarly high quality, Biblically-oriented films in the future.

Copyright © 2004, 2021 by Jeffrey J. Harrison.
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