The blood pours more freely than in any Jesus film in history, but the final cut of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” takes some care to distance Jewish people from centuries-old anti-Semitic charges of deicide.
The filmmaker deleted a controversial scene that drew objections from Christian and Jewish leaders alike the so-called “blood curse” from the Gospel of Matthew that has been abused for centuries to hold all Jews accountable for the death of Jesus.
And several flashbacks, added without fanfare after primary filming was completed, show Jesus commanding his followers to love all people and declaring he faced death “of my own accord.”
Yet a special screening of the version of the movie opening nationwide Ash Wednesday, Feb. 25, shows Gibson remains true to his artistic vision to show the horror indicated in biblical accounts of Christ’s final hours. That effort at brutal realism along with the director’s attempt to stick closely to biblical texts that are part history, part theology, part apologetic is likely to evoke passionate reactions from theatergoers.
The Passion narratives millions of Americans hear each spring in church are relatively unadorned accounts of Jesus’ execution that describe the process with little more explication than the phrase “and they crucified him.” What separates Gibson’s film from any other mainstream movie about Jesus is the director’s unflinching attempt to show the reality of torture and crucifixion in a first-century Roman province.
Blood covers the courtyard where Roman soldiers scourge Jesus nearly to death.
It oozes from underneath the strips of skin hanging off Christ’s broken body as the wooden cross he can no longer carry falls on him. And the blood flows from his hands all the way through the other end of the wood as the nails are pounded into his hands on Gologtha.
A special advance screening of the theater version shows this film earns its R rating. Yet it is not discouraging many evangelical supporters, who say it should be labeled R for reality.
Christians believe the Passion represents the greatest act of sacrificial love in human history: Jesus dying on the cross for the sins of all humanity.
Already, churches throughout Northeast Ohio and the nation are lining up behind a film that has produced the kind of buzz Christian evangelists could only dream about. Billy Graham says Gibson provides a lifetime of sermons in one movie, and many churches are renting out theaters, starting door-to-door evangelism campaigns and selling tickets on religious Web sites.
“My ultimate hope is that this story’s message of tremendous courage and sacrifice might inspire tolerance, love and forgiveness,” Gibson said in the film’s production notes.
But those concerned about centuries of anti-Semitism following productions of the Passion will have issues with this film. The movie sticks closely to biblical texts that assign great responsibility to Jewish leaders for the death of Jesus. It is less concerned about modern scholarship that raises questions about the motives of all who took part in the Passion drama and the intentions of the Gospel writers decades later.
Only the Roman authorities of the time could order executions by crucifixion, and the limited historical record gives a mixed account of Pontius Pilate, the provincial governor who had the power of appointment over the Jewish high priest. Some extrabiblical evidence casts Pilate as a ruthless tyrant who brutally suppressed rebellions.
Gibson’s film sticks to the Gospel accounts, which portray Pilate as a weak-willed figure who recognizes Jesus’ innocence, but feels powerless to stop his execution in the face of organized opposition from Jewish leaders. In a scene from the Gospel of Matthew, after his final attempt to save Jesus fails, Pilate washes his hands and says to the crowd, “It is you who want to crucify him, not I. . . . I am innocent of this man’s blood.”
Jewish authorities were given some power of consultation by Roman rulers. But many biblical scholars say this version of the Passion is the result of the Gospel authors writing at a time of tremendous tension between the emerging church and Jewish leadership. Trying to survive as a missionary religion in hostile territory, they did not want to upset the Roman authorities, and Pilate gradually came to be portrayed as someone who tried to save Jesus.
This leaves Jewish leaders bearing the brunt of the responsibility for Jesus’ death, and Passion plays have an often tragic history of contributing to pogroms, persecution and violent attacks on Jews.
In sticking with the Gospels, Gibson’s film shows scenes some Christian and Jewish leaders worry could fuel anti-Semitism. It also displays a sensitivity to nuances that make clear Jesus and his followers were Jews and that the Jewish people were divided over this new prophet.
Caiaphas and most Jewish authorities are clearly among the bad guys. They arrest Jesus by stealth, spit on him and have him scourged and find him guilty of blasphemy in a mock trial. In an extrabiblical cinematic touch, Jewish soldiers knock Jesus off of a wall, and it is only the chains around his body that stop his fall just before he hits the ground.
He is so badly wounded by the time he gets to Pilate that the Roman ruler says, “Do you always punish your prisoners before they’re judged?” It is the Jewish leaders who incite the crowd to yell, “Crucify him, Crucify him” in the face of Pilate’s repeated attempts to release Jesus. The leadership at times even seems to take pleasure in the torture Jesus is forced to endure.
Many Jews worry that the film could help roll back decades of improved relations with Christians and release latent anti-Semitism. In a request that was denied, Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, asked Gibson to consider adding a postscript that would implore viewers not to let the movie turn some “toward a passion of hatred.”
For his part, Gibson says in production notes he tried to stay as true to the biblical story as possible, and that ultimately it is “a story of faith, hope and love. That, in my view, is the greatest story we can ever tell.”
To reinforce that point, after principal filming, Gibson went back and shot more scenes of Jesus’ teaching about love and forgiveness that he uses as flashbacks during times of Christ’s greatest suffering. For example, as he is being nailed to the Cross, the film goes back to Jesus’ farewell advice to his disciples in the Gospel of John, “Love one another, as I have loved you.”
The movie also makes clear the Jewishness of Jesus, who is called rabbi. In several places, there are scenes of courageous Jewish people who are not his followers standing up for Christ.
And if Pilate is portrayed as washing his hands of the affair, the Roman soldiers are far more villainous and sadistic than the Jewish guards. The soldiers are at times almost gleeful in their vicious whipping of Jesus.
In interviews, people involved in the production were adamant that the movie is not anti-Semitic.
Maia Morgenstern, a Romanian Jewish actress who plays Jesus’ mother, Mary, said people are prejudging and gossiping about the film, but she would not have taken the role if the film was anti-Semitic.
“The film doesn’t blame anybody. It’s a film about love. It’s very obvious,” said Morgenstern.
Benedict Fitzgerald, who co-wrote the screenplay with Gibson, said the film in no way accuses the Jewish people of being responsible for Jesus’ death, but presents the antagonism among Jewish sects at the time.
“It hurts me, as a Christian,” he said of the charges of anti-Semitism. “It’s an insult to the intelligence of those who know better.”
But those arguments are unconvincing to others.
The history of anti-Semitism associated with Passion productions and the problems some Christian and Jewish leaders saw in early screenings have many people apprehensive. Both critics and supporters of the film said they hope it will lead to an advanced dialogue about Jewish-Christian relations, and leaders in both communities are joining together to place the film in historical and theological context.
The issue is particularly critical, leaders from both faiths say, because of the anticipated wide reach of the film.
One of the hundreds of churches around the country that is renting out a theater to show the film is Abundant Life Community Church in North Royalton.
The Rev. Rocky Taylor, who saw an earlier version of the film with some 5,000 clergy in a Chicago suburb, said the reaction was stunned silence.
It is not a movie he will allow his 12-year-old son to see, but for adults it is a powerful witness to the enormity of the sacrifice Jesus endured for the sin of all people, he said.
“When you walk out of there, you feel like you’ve just experienced what happened in the Gospels,” Taylor said. “Jesus’ death was a violent death. We can sugarcoat it, but it wouldn’t be accurate.”