The Passion of the Christ
Blaine Robison, M.A.
Created 1 September 2006; Published 31 December 2012; Revised 7 October 2015
Mel Gibson's 2004 movie The Passion of the Christ is an incredible achievement in filmmaking in terms of its production values and acting. This movie eclipses previous Hollywood movies in the depiction of Yeshua's sufferings, particularly in the scenes of the scourging and then the crucifixion. The Gospels do not provide the gory details, perhaps because these forms of punishment were commonplace in the first century and didn't need to be described. However, the specific aspects of Yeshua's suffering were predicted in Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53.
At first I did not plan to see the movie due to the controversies over its content. Yet, I felt I couldn't make an honest assessment without viewing it for myself, so I went. I found the movie a gripping emotional experience. I understood why Evangelical churches seized the opportunity to "use" the movie as an evangelistic tool, although I think the Jesus Film is far better suited for evangelism, as its worldwide success has shown.
For disciples of Yeshua the movie gave new meaning to the reality of the cross. Yeshua's own call to take up one's cross will not tolerate the widespread vanity of Christians trying to reassure themselves with self-love and self-absorption. This movie offers some much needed tough love. President Kennedy once said, "Think not what your country can do for you; think what you can do for your country." In similar fashion the suffering and sacrifice of Yeshua as depicted in this movie should motivate Christians to consider carefully how much we owe God and how that should be translated into service for Him.
The movie made me consider again the significance of the cross as a symbol. Yeshua didn't rise from the cross, but from the tomb. When the apostles talked about the cross it was never just a decorative piece of wood, but a bloody execution stake. In that light I have to wonder if wearing a cross merely as jewelry (with or without Yeshua) or as an amulet demeans or diminishes what happened on that cross. As someone once observed, would you wear an electric chair as jewelry knowing what it's used for? I would hope that after seeing Gibson’s movie Christians would see the crosses that adorn their churches in a whole new light.
There are always people who nitpick movies based on Bible stories, yet fail to realize that everyone fills in a lot of detail with their own imaginations when reading the Bible. The Bible was simply not written as a graphic novel. Bible stories don’t generally tell us how people felt. There are many conversations in Scripture, yet we don’t know people's facial expressions or many other circumstantial details of the situation. One person’s interpretation of a Bible story isn't necessarily inaccurate, but in this movie there are a number of elements that diverge from Scripture, some that are pure invention, obviously for dramatic purposes.
1. The movie uses Aramaic for the language of the Jews when the Scriptures and Jewish sources indicate that Jews in the first century spoke Hebrew.
2. Miriam of Magdala is assumed to be the woman caught in adultery in John 8. See my web article Miriam of Magdala.
3. Miriam (identified as "Mary"), the mother of Yeshua, seemed to have a "psychic" connection with him and “knew” what was happening to him.
4. The movie commits the faux pax of using leavened bread in the Passover scene in the upper room, a sacrilegious violation of God’s express instructions in the Torah, and contrary to the actual meal the disciples ate. See my commentary on Mark 14.
5. The movie depicts Yeshua carrying the complete cross to Golgotha, when he probably only carried the horizontal piece, at least part of the way.
6. When Yeshua dies a drop of rain (symbolic of God's tear) lands on the ground and causes a large earthquake that results in significant damage inside the Jewish temple. However, in the biblical text the only thing that happened in the temple was the rending of the curtain in front of the Holy of Holies.
News stories have indicated that Gibson based his interpretation on the reported visions of the Crucifixion experienced by Anne Catherine Emmerich, an 18th century Augustinian nun who was a mystic and bore physical stigmata of Yeshua's wounds. In fact, the movie seems to use the framework of the 14 stations of the cross familiar to Catholic observance during the Lenten season. Within that framework there are definite allusions to Catholic traditions.
1. There is a scene which replicates the familiar Madonna and child pose in a flashback of Yeshua’s childhood when his mother comforts him after falling down. There is also a scene in which Satan mocks this motif by carrying a creepy looking baby. The pose of divine mother and baby was common to ancient pagan religions.
2. The movie uses humor to allude to the famous painting by Leonardo da Vinci of Yeshua and His disciples eating the last supper while sitting at a table instead of reclining as Jews normally did for the Passover. As a young man Yeshua builds a table for a customer at which one would sit in a chair. His mother examines the table and quips, “it will never catch on.”
3. Both Peter (while kneeling) and John on separate occasions refer to Miriam as “Mother,” long before Yeshua entrusts his mother into John’s care at the cross. The debate raged in the early church over whether Miriam should be known as “mother of Jesus” or “Mother of God.” The latter eventually won out, elevating Miriam to a far higher position than ever suggested in Scripture.
4. The movie reflects the reverence for indulgences in the Catholic Church through two scenes: First, when the two women named Miriam mopped up the blood of Yeshua at the scourging place and saved the cloths; the other when the fictitious “Veronica” offers a cloth to Yeshua, with which he wipes his face and an imprint of his face is left on the cloth. From early centuries through the Middle Ages people became obsessed with obtaining any artifact that was original to Yeshua and the apostles. Anything associated with their martyrdom was believed to convey special blessings. The sale of indulgences became a major issue that helped to spark the Protestant Reformation.
The Charge of Antisemitism
Many Jews had a strong negative emotional reaction and attacked the movie as antisemitic or anti-Jewish. For unbelieving Jews the movie is antisemitic because it contains too much of the focus on Jewish responsibility for the death of Yeshua and for some Messianic Jews it is anti-Jewish because it doesn’t contain enough of the Jewish context of the Gospel story. On the former complaint unbelieving Jews refuse any responsibility and insist that Pilate is solely to blame. As for the cultural context Messianic Jews rightly point out:
1. The movie fails to establish that Yeshua is the expected Servant-Savior of Israel. In fact, the movie may reflect the current Catholic and ecumenical doctrine that Jews don’t need Yeshua for salvation since it is provided in the Old Covenant.
2. The movie fails to emphasize properly that Yeshua is the King of the Jews. At important points in the biblical text where the title occurs on the lips of the people, the Sanhedrin, Pilate and even Yeshua, the title is not uttered by the movie characters. The only reference to the title is the plaque Pilate has appended to the cross, but the title is given first in neat Latin, garbled Greek and non-intelligible Hebrew, whereas the biblical text mentions Hebrew first instead.
Since the word "anti" means against, then the terms "antisemitic" and "anti-Jewish" would imply an intentional effort to harm Jews or to inflame prejudice against Jews. In my view the movie is not antisemitic nor anti-Jewish. In fact, Gibson attempts to show that the Romans were antisemitic in their treatment of the Jews. For example, a Roman soldier yelled “Jew” to Simon of Cyrene in an obviously contemptuous manner, and Gibson has the soldiers who mocked Yeshua say, "Hail, King of the Worms" instead of "Jews."
The movie does tell the essential truth that Jewish leaders unlawfully conspired to have Yeshua put to death and, as Yeshua told Pilate, are thus guilty of a greater sin (John 19:11). Peter and Stephen would later indict the Sanhedrin for the unlawful killing in the strongest terms (Acts 2:23, 36; 3:14-15; 4:10; 7:51-52). One could hardly accuse Yeshua and the apostles of being antisemitic. The movie does not remove guilt from Pilate but shows him ignoring his wife’s advice, finding Yeshua not guilty of the charge, and capitulating to blackmail by the Jewish High Priest. Pilate bore Yeshua no grudge and thus he is depicted as more pathetic than a malevolent character, whereas, the Jewish leaders were clearly full of malice and hatred.
Gibson was wrongly accused of not making any distinction between the Jews that were for and against Yeshua. The movie depicts that there were members of the Sanhedrin who loudly objected to the illegal trial of Yeshua, but they were hustled out of the proceedings. While this element is not recorded in the passion narratives of the New Testament, it is true that Yeshua had sympathizers on the Sanhedrin, such as Nicodemus, and Gibson’s plot point helps to explain what may have happened.
The Passion of the Christ is a powerful cinematic presentation. While the movie is one man's interpretation it is significant that Gibson used his own hands in the scenes of nailing Yeshua to the cross, signifying that Yeshua died to atone for the sin of all mankind. Unfortunately, the inaccurate elements and Catholic motifs prevent an uneducated audience from understanding the Jewish roots of the Christian faith. Yet, its provocative nature does make it a good vehicle for analysis of theological issues by all those who believe in Yeshua.
Copyright © 2012, 2015 by Blaine Robison. All rights reserved.