Accuracy and controversy
have followed Mel Gibson's journey to Calvary in The Passion Of The Christ.
NOEL VERA reflects. Illustration by Sonny Liew.
here: For Noel Vera's The Perversion Of Christ
here: A reader writes in; Noel Vera replies
Gibson and his publicists have repeatedly claimed that his The Passion
Of The Christ is the most historically accurate of all pictures
made on Jesus.
Actually - no. Historians have pointed out various inaccuracies
- that Jesus would have spoken to Pontius Pilate in Greek (the lingua
franca of the time), not Latin, and so would the Roman soldiers
(who were conscripts from various nearby regions, not actual Romans);
that Jesus would have carried a crossbeam and not the entire cross
(which weighed something like 350 pounds); that he would have been
nailed through the wrist and not the palms (his weight would have
pulled the nails through his palms); that his cross used a projecting
seat and not a footrest to support him; that his fellow convicts
should have been scourged, as is standard Roman practice, instead
of him alone.
picture promotes the view that 'God had to be satisfied
or appeased for the countless sins of humanity by subjecting
his son to unspeakable torments,' which isn't the case
Christ's crucifixion is meaningless without his resurrection."
Cunningham, Executive Director of the Center for Christian-Jewish
Learning at Boston College
in reply has said that he has read many accounts and that as they
often conflicted with each other he felt free to choose a "middle
way," so to speak. It's significant, though, that Gibson's choices
are often consistent with classic depictions of Jesus and his passion,
rather than with the latest archeological findings.
Accuracy isn't the only controversy associated with this picture;
there is also the charge that Passion is anti-Semitic, that it promotes
the old idea that the Jews as a race are responsible for killing
Christ. Gibson's publicist Paul Lauer puts an ingenious spin to
this accusation, saying that to call the movie anti-Semitic is "to
call the New Testament Gospels anti-Semitic," implying along the
way that the movie is a faithful adaptation from the New Testaments
(the marketing campaign has also trumpeted the picture as being
the most biblically accurate yet made).
Is it? I mean is it historically and biblically accurate,
and are the charges of anti-Semitism false? The answer to these
questions, interestingly enough, seem interrelated.
Gibson (right) directing Jim Caviezel.
elements in the picture are definitely not from the Bible
an androgynous Satan (in interviews Gibson refers to him as a "Satanic"
figure) tempting Christ in the garden of Gethsemane and walking
among the Jews who watch Jesus being whipped; an effeminate Herod,
heavily rouged and eyelinered, mocking Jesus as he's brought before
him (strange how few critics have noted the picture's homophobia);
a Pilate and his wife, wringing their hands over the death of an
To be fair, Gibson can't help but rearrange and insert extra scenes:
the four Gospels offer varying, sometimes even contradictory, accounts,
and their coverage of Jesus' final hours is sketchy when it comes
to physical details about crucifixion and scourging. Sometimes when
making a picture you have to add or make changes, for dramatic impact
and narrative clarity.
But as Catholic teaching or at least mainstream Catholic
teaching declares: "It is not sufficient for the producers
of passion dramatizations to respond to responsible criticism simply
by appealing to the notion that 'it's in the Bible.' One must account
for one's selections" (National Conference of Catholic Bishops,
"Criteria for the Evaluation of Dramatizations of the Passion,"
Philip Cunningham, Executive Director of the Center for Christian-Jewish
Learning at Boston College, makes some interesting points in his
"The Passion Of The Christ: A Challenge to Catholic Teaching." He
points out that in the movie's pivotal scene, Gibson selected a
passage from the Gospel according to John, where Pilate orders Jesus
scourged, hoping to appease the crowd demanding his crucifixion.
When this tactic fails, Pilate appeals to Jesus for help, to which
Jesus replies "He who delivered me to you (Jewish high priest Caiaphas)
has the greater sin."
Gibson then tacked on a passage from Matthew where Caiaphas calls
out in Aramaic "Let his blood be on us and our children!" (Gibson's
claim to have cut this scene is false; he merely removed the subtitles).
Pilate washes his hands (the scene is found in Matthew), in effect
absolving him of the whole affair, granting the Jewish crowd what
they want Jesus' crucifixion.
The net result of this joining of scenes from John (the scourging,
the 'greater sin') and Matthew ('blood be on us and our children,'
hand-washing) is to shift blame away from Pilate onto Caiaphas and
the Jewish crowd; the net result is a depiction of Pilate as more
compassionate and of the Jews as more determinedly bloodthirsty
than is actually found in either John's or Matthew's Gospels. The
net result is a heightening of Jewish guilt, and a relative exoneration
of the Roman (of senior Roman officials, at that).
Hitler praised the Passion Play at Oberammergau, declaring
it 'vital that it be continued
for never has the menace
of Jewry been so convincingly portrayed'..."
most of the passages cited can be found in the Bible and even taken
separately they seem to indicate a common trend. Now is as good
a time as any, then, to ask the question implicit in Lauer's earlier
assertion: is the New Testament anti-Semitic?
Putting aside the anachronism of the question (the term 'anti-Semitism'
was coined in the 19th Century), it must be noted that the Gospels
were originally oral traditions written from 50 to 70 years after
Christ had died, and that they reflected the times of the writers
as much as of Christ times when the early Christians were
struggling to reply to unbelieving Jews and reach out to the Romans.
Bible historians and theologians know this, and what's more the
Vatican (whose authority Gibson rejects) admits this as well, saying
"The Gospels are the outcome of long and complicated editorial work
Hence it cannot be ruled out that some references hostile to the
Jews have their historical context in conflicts between the nascent
church and the Jewish community" (Pontifical Commission for Religious
Relations with the Jews, "Notes on the Correct Way to Present Jews
and Judaism in Preaching and Teaching in the Roman Catholic Church"
Cunningham writes: "Honesty demands the recognition that Christians
have used (and abused) the New Testament over the centuries to claim
that "the Jews" were cursed for rejecting and crucifying Jesus."
He notes that from the late Middle Ages onwards, passion plays much
like the one Gibson has adapted (with additions) to the big screen
were performed every Holy Week, and that these plays "regularly
inspired violence against Jews."
David Fox Sandmel, leader of Chicago's KAM-Isaiah Israel Congregation,
reminds us that Adolf Hitler praised the Passion Play at Oberammergau,
declaring it "vital that it be continued
for never has the
menace of Jewry been so convincingly portrayed as in this presentation
of what happened in the times of the Romans" (the play was revised
several years ago, with the help of Jewish advisers).
Catholic teaching warns that "Jews should not be portrayed as avaricious;
blood thirsty (for example, in certain depictions of Jesus' appearances
before the Temple priesthood or before Pilate); or implacable enemies
of Christ (for example, by changing the small "crowd" at the governor's
palace into a teeming mob)" (National Conference of Catholic Bishops,
"Criteria for the Evaluation of Dramatizations of the Passion,"
It stresses the "overriding preoccupation to bring out explicitly
the meaning of the (Gospel) text while taking scriptural studies
into account" (Vatican Commission for Religious Relations with the
Jews, "Guidelines and Suggestions for Implementing the Conciliar
Declaration 'Nostra Aetate,'" 1974). To, in other words, consider
what today's biblical scholars have to say as well and not read
the Bible too literally, as Gibson's movie has done.
then is one in this case, Gibson to "account for one's
selections?" Granted Gibson is of a Traditionalist sect that refuses
to recognize the authority of the pope in Rome (which makes his
trumpeting of said pope's endorsement of his movie since
withdrawn all the more disingenuous), and the validity of
Vatican 2. Still, the idea is sound, whether you believe in the
Vatican's authority or not: one must be responsible for the choices
one makes in telling a story, and must be able to give good reasons
as to why they were made, especially when said choices come together
to create a false and harmful image.
soul of the old Jewess Meyr told me on the way that it was
true that in former times the Jews, both in our country and
elsewhere, had strangled many Christians, principally children,
and used their blood for all sort of superstitious and diabolical
above is taken from The Life And Revelations Of Anne Catherine
Emmerich, the book that inspired Gibson's film
Gibson is perfectly capable of accounting for his choices; he just
doesn't seem at all eager or even willing to do so. As Cunningham
puts it, "Gibson has actually created a cinematic version not so
much of the Gospels but of Anne Catherine Emmerich's purported visions
of the death of Jesus." Anne Catherine Emmerich was a 19th century
Augustinian nun known for her visions of the life of Christ. The
German Romantic poet, Clemens Brentano, offered to write down her
visions and the result was The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus
Christ after the Meditations of Anne Catherine Emmerich, published
The Dolorous Passion Of Our Lord Jesus Christ
by Anne Catherine Emmerich (below)
book was internationally renowned, as much for its violent, rather
exaggerated imagery of Christ's suffering as for being full of closely
observed details of Palestine that (as some readers who visited the
country noted) a simple German nun could not have possibly imagined.
The question arose, however, whether the visions are truly Catherine's
or embellished by Brentano; when German experts sifted through his
papers after his death, their general conclusion was after
finding travel literature and biblical apocrypha among his papers
that only a small portion of the text is Emmerich's.
Emmerich's name was submitted for beatification in 1892; the process
was halted in 1928 because of the questions on her visions' authenticity.
The process was resumed in 1979, but with the explicit provision that
her writings be excluded. Father John O'Malley, SJ, in his article,
A Movie, a Mystic, and a Spiritual Tradition: Anne Catherine Emmerich
& the Passion of the Christ, tells us: "The official opinion on
the writings has thus for a long time been sober and even skeptical."
He adds: "I would not recommend it to anybody today. It is anti-Semitic
to the degree (sometimes considerable) that virtually all 19th-Century
retellings of the Passion, whether by Catholics or Protestants, were
Here's a sample of one of her visions: "The soul of the old Jewess
Meyr told me on the way that it was true that in former times the
Jews, both in our country and elsewhere, had strangled many Christians,
principally children, and used their blood for all sort of superstitious
and diabolical practices. She had once believed it lawful; but she
now knew that it was abominable murder. They still follow such practices
in this country and in others more distant; but very secretly, because
they are obliged to have commercial intercourse with Christians" (The
Life and Revelations of Anne Catherine Emmerich).
asserts in his article that Gibson owes many of his non-biblical
images (Jesus thrown off a bridge, Pilate admonishing the Jews on
their abuse of Jesus, an effeminate Herod, Pilate's wife giving
Jesus' mother cloth to wipe away his blood, Jesus falling seven
times, Christ's arm dislocated to fit holes drilled into the cross),
and even the ordering and selection of scenes from the Gospels to
Emmerich (John joined with Matthew to form Christ and Pilate's meeting).
Gibson has reportedly denied using Emmerich as a source and does
not consider her anti-Semitic (!); in a February 16 television interview,
however, he said Emmerich "supplied me with stuff I never would
have thought of," and admitted to carrying what he thinks is a relic
may not be consciously anti-Semitic but by pointedly ignoring
the principles set by orthodox Catholic teachings on dramatizations
of Jesus' passion and by depending instead on the visions
of an outspokenly anti-Semitic nun, Gibson has created a movie
remarkably open to abuse by anti-Semitics..."
possible that Gibson doesn't believe himself anti-Semitic
DW Griffith didn't think he was racist when he made Birth Of A Nation
and probable that he didn't intend his picture to be such;
to his credit he does include a prominent role for Simon of Cyrene,
who helps carry Jesus and his cross on the way to Golgotha (though
you can't help but notice, from the way Gibson presents Simon, that
he's practically on his way to becoming a Christian convert, and
that no positive depiction of a character who supports Judaism can
be found). For his picture, unfortunately, Gibson has chosen to
translate onscreen an old theatrical form known to have inspired
hatred for Jews; has chosen scenes from the Gospels in a way that
heightens Jewish guilt; has tried to polarize debate so that anyone
not for his movie is against Christianity and the Bible.
He may not be consciously anti-Semitic but by pointedly ignoring
the principles set by orthodox Catholic teachings on dramatizations
of Jesus' passion and by depending instead on the visions of an
outspokenly anti-Semitic nun, Gibson has created a movie remarkably
open to abuse by anti-Semitics, much as the Gospels themselves have
been abused in the past, as a justification for persecuting the
Putting aside, the question of anti-Semitism, is the movie still
to be recommended, theologically? Cunningham says the picture promotes
the view that "God had to be satisfied or appeased for the countless
sins of humanity by subjecting his son to unspeakable torments,"
which isn't the case Christ's crucifixion is meaningless
without his resurrection; it's the whole reason for his suffering.
Gibson's movie upends this emphasis, focuses on Christ's physical
sufferings (including much that was added thanks to Emmerich), and
confines the resurrection to a few quick moments onscreen. Fr O'Malley
points out that this emphasis and, at times, overemphasis of the
crucifixion and of Christ's suffering are a trend of recent centuries,
and that "The reforms of the Easter triduum that began with Pius
XII and were continued with the liturgical changes during and after
Vatican II were, among other things, an attempt to redress the balance."
So what can be done about this picture? I don't believe in censorship,
or outright banning, and I doubt if the Movie and Television Ratings
and Classification Board (MTRCB) will ban it either (I expect glowing
praise of the movie on the copy of their decision posted outside
theater gates). Rumor has it that they will give the picture a rating
of PG 13 which would be awful; bringing anyone younger than
16 into this movie is, I think, tantamount to cruel child abuse.
Rabbi Sandmel may have the most sensible answer he proposes
converting the movie into a "teachable moment" for Christians and
Jews (mainly Catholics, here in Manila), to watch the picture, be
aware of its errors, understand both the context in which the movie
was made, and the proper context in which Jesus' Passion should
be seen and understood.
(With thanks to Philip Cunningham, Executive Director of the
Center for Christian-Jewish Learning at Boston College for permission
to quote extensively from his article, The Passion of the Christ:
A Challenge to Catholic Teaching, found online at: http://www.bc.edu/cjlearning)
Fr. John O'Malley's article, A Movie, a Mystic, and a Spiritual
Tradition: Anne Catherine Emmerich & the Passion of the Christ
To compare Gibson's movie with Emmerich's visions
Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org)
opened in the United States in March, the month of the first anniversary
of the US invasion of Iraq.
nation-builder press, March 31, 2004.
$ingapore's Roman Catholic Archbishop, Nicholas Chia, who has been
busy testifying against his priest in court, took time off to watch
Mel Gibson's The Passion Of Christ. He told the nation-builder press,
he rated the movie four out of five stars.
He said: "I don't think there is any anti-Semitism." When
asked how he reacted to the film, the Bishop said: "I did not
cry. I am not that emotional."
Mel Gibson invested US$30 million to make the film. So far the film
has grossed US$315 million.
Anything [and that includes a casino] that can make hundreds of
millions of dollars must be bloody good.
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