‘The Passion’: A primer

Are you curious about Gibson’s film but behind on your bible studies? Here are a list of terms, people and places that are key to The Passion of the Christ.

When Mel Gibson’s controversial The Passion of the Christ opens Wednesday, hundreds of Catholic and Protestant church groups and thousands of curious moviegoers will head for 2,800 theaters nationwide.

But many viewers know only the basic, undisputed story line — Jesus was crucified. Surveys show that 40% of Americans seldom or never go to church, and although most people have Bibles at home, few read them. Viewers who don’t know, or don’t accept, Christian beliefs may wonder why there is such a heated debate over the film, which some people fear will provoke misunderstanding if not outright anti-Semitism.

Gibson himself says The Passion of the Christ is not a documentary; it’s his vision of Jesus’ suffering and dying. He takes dramatic license in flashbacks and other details. For example, a thief who reviles Jesus has his eyeball pecked out by a crow.

The actors speak the languages of ancient Israel — Latin and Aramaic and Hebrew — with English subtitles. But the story line and subtitles won’t exactly match the biblical texts in most Americans’ homes. Gibson had translations done by a Jesuit priest, drawing on Bibles in English, Latin and Greek and pulling from all four of the Gospel narratives, plus the writings by a 19th-century mystic nun.

Still, Gibson says, The Passion of the Christ is true to the purpose of the Gospels: to carry the word about Jesus to the world.

Who’s who in the final hours

Peter: A leader among Jesus’ many followers, the Bible says. The movie shows he denies Christ three times. But later he devotes himself to spreading the word about Christ.

High Priest: At the time of Jesus’ death, Caiaphas was the Roman-appointed high priest at the Jewish Temple and head of the Jewish religious council, historians say. In the Bible and the movie, when Jesus is arrested, the Temple guard and Roman soldiers bring him first to the council. Historically, it had no power to condemn or execute anyone. In the film, the high priest is the one with the most jewels on his headpiece.

Herod Antipas: Grandson of Herod the Great, who was the Roman-appointed king at the time of Jesus’ birth. He is the part-Jewish, Roman-appointed ruler whose territory includes Galilee, historians say. The movie portrays him as a dissolute reveler. One of his brothers, whose territory included Jerusalem, was deposed by Rome and replaced with a governor.

Pontius Pilate: Historians say Pilate, the fifth Roman-appointed governor of Jerusalem, was a cruel administrator who crucified numerous Jews, particularly those posing a political threat. He frequently incited trouble with religious leaders. In the Bible and movie, he tries to shift responsibility for executing Jesus to Herod. But Herod sends him back to Pilate, where the crowd’s anger makes clear Jesus is a threat.

The crowds: The Bible says high priests incited Jewish crowds to urge Pilate to crucify Jesus, but the motives, size, power and nature of this “crowd” is a matter of interpretation. For centuries, Passion plays (dramatizations of Jesus’ trial, suffering and crucifixion) presented Jews as Christ-killers and provoked deadly waves of anti-Semitism. Gibson says his film clearly blames all sinful humanity for Jesus’ death, but some Jews fear that viewers who do not know or do not share Gibson’s beliefs will see only a horrible murder provoked by an angry Jewish mob.

Historical and religious setting

When the Romans conquered Jerusalem in 63 B.C., various Jewish sects, such as the Pharisees, and popular teachers were challenging each other’s theology as well as Roman authority. Jewish religious observance at the time was centered at the Temple in Jerusalem, so when believers made pilgrimages there on key holidays, the city seethed with tension.

Ancient historians mention the death of a man named Jesus in 32 or 33 A.D., though not the time of year. The time carries immense religious significance. The Bible places this event at Passover, a pilgrimage holiday when Jews recalled their exodus from slavery in Egypt. Passover is the fundamental salvation story in Judaism. Jesus’ birth, ministry, death and resurrection form the fundamental salvation story in Christianity.

Key terms

Passion: Christian term for the final period of Jesus’ suffering and death.

Crucifixion: Nailing a person to a cross, a torturous form of public execution used by the Roman Empire.

Gospel: The “good news” found in the Bible’s accounts of Jesus’ birth, ministry, death and resurrection. Some Christians take the Bible literally, in both facts and teachings. Others believe it is spiritually true but has been shaped by politics, by conflicts between Christian beliefs and Jewish teachings and by the theology of centuries of translators.

Christ: Greek word for the Messiah or the Anointed One. This is the word used in Jewish thought for the one who would deliver God’s promise to restore Israel. By calling the movie The Passion of The Christ, Gibson is making a religious statement.

Scourging: In the Bible and the movie, Jesus endures relentless whipping and other bloody assaults in his final hours. Scholars say the biblical message is that the sacrifice of blood is required for the forgiveness of sins. Gibson says he used intensely violent scenes to convey the immensity of Jesus’ choice to accept the suffering and crucifixion.


Cathy Lynn Grossman consulted the Rev. Bertrand Buby, professor of religious studies at the University of Dayton (Ohio), a Catholic college; William Cook, associate professor of New Testament Interpretation at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville; Craig Hill, professor of New Testament at Wesley Theological Seminary, Washington DC.; Experiencing the Passion of Jesus by Lee Strobel and Garry Poole; and Daughters of St. Paul’s Web site, www.ChristsPassion.com.

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
USA Today, USA
Feb. 23, 2004
Cathy Lynn Grossman

Religion News Blog posted this on Wednesday February 25, 2004.
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