Truth and fiction of ‘Passion’

Gibson film goes beyond Bible to tell story of Jesus’ crucifixion

Who’s the bad guy in “The Passion of the Christ,” Mel Gibson’s new movie about the death of Jesus?

Without a doubt, the award goes to Caiphas, the Jewish high priest in ancient Jerusalem.

Is that historically accurate?

Probably not.

Is that what the Bible says?

Yes, but only sometimes.

Separating fact from fiction, history from theology and bigotry from belief is never easy in religion.

And that is especially so when it comes to “passion plays” about the trial, torture and execution of Jesus.

In written material handed out at a press screening Monday at the Metreon theater in San Francisco, Gibson says his depiction of the death of Jesus is a “composite account” taken from the four biblical gospels — Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

Is that true?

Perhaps that’s best answered by Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor who ruled the occupied territories in and around Jerusalem when Jesus lived out his final days.

“What is truth?” Pilate asked famously.

It is true that Gibson’s screenplay draws its basic story and key lines of dialogue from the four gospel stories about the last day and night of Jesus’ life.

Most Bible scholars believe that those four accounts were written decades after the crucifixion — at different times and by different factions in the early church.

They also believe that the Gospel of John was the last of the four accounts to be put in its final form, perhaps around the year 90 A.D.

Jesus and his early followers were Jews living in mostly Jewish territories on the outskirts of the Roman empire.

At the time, the Jewish world was in turmoil. There was a Jewish king, Herod, who collaborated with the Romans, as did some of the Jewish religious authorities.

There were prophets, rebels, mystics, fundamentalists and more than one guy claiming to be the messiah.

They all were trying to survive under the forces of an imperial occupation — not unlike the Sunnis and the Shiites amid the chaos of today’s Iraq.

By the time “John” was written, Jewish Christians were just starting to distinguish themselves from — as John puts it — “the Jews.”

One of the most historically questionable things about the gospel accounts is how the authors seem to go out of their way to put Pontius Pilate in a good light while making Herod, the Jewish king, Caiphus, the Jewish high priest, and the council of Jewish elders the bad guys in the downfall of Jesus.

More than a few Bible scholars and historians say that spin is preposterous.

Pilate, they argue, was a brutal dictator who used slaughter and crucifixion as a means of crowd control. Thousands of Jews, including Jesus, were tortured and nailed to the cross for causing trouble and sparking insurrection.

Gibson’s screenplay, however, goes way beyond the Bible in its depiction of the Jewish authorities as the bad guys.

While the Roman soldiers are depicted as inhuman brutes, Pilate and his wife (who is not even mentioned in the Bible) come off as sympathetic characters just trying to do the right thing.

Caiphas and his cohorts are seen as the cunning, ruthless manipulators who pull the strings and, ultimately, control the whips.

Does that stereotype sound familiar?

That depiction — along with Gibson’s almost pornographic obsession with the physical torture of Jesus — come, not from scripture, but from a controversial, nonbiblical source.

While it’s not mentioned in the press handouts, Gibson has told interviewers that he was heavily influenced by a 19th century book of visions, “The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ,” by Anne Catherine Emmerich, a German nun and mystic.

Emmerich’s visions about the torture of Jesus are known for their extremely negative depiction of Caiphas and the Jewish crowds.

In her vision, Emmerich describes “the cruel Jews almost devouring their victim with their eyes” and a “crowd of miscreants — the very scum of the people.”

While Caiphas is painted as the incarnation of evil, Emmerich sees Pilate as “that proud and irresolute pagan, that slave of the world, who trembled in the presence of the true God.”

Both Emmerich and Gibson — not the Bible — portray Pilate’s wife as a secret supporter of the tortured Jesus and include the same nonbiblical scenes, such as one where Jesus is tossed off a bridge and yanked back up by his chains.

Emmerich’s descriptions of the tortured body of Jesus often read as if they were the actual instructions given to Gibson’s makeup artists.

“The flesh was so torn from his ribs that you might almost count them,” the German nun wrote. “His whole body covered with black, green and reeking wounds … shoulders so violently distended as to be almost dislocated.”

Scenes of such carnage are what earned “The Passion of the Christ” its “R” rating.

It is not always easy to watch, but Gibson’s creation is nevertheless a strangely compelling, mystical and moody vision of a story you think you know but have never quite seen in this troubling light.

His portrayal of Satan — a force always lurking in the shadows of the film and the minds of its characters — is stunningly brilliant.

Conservative evangelical Protestants, not traditionally known for their devotion to the mangled body of the Christian savior, nevertheless hope Gibson’s “Passion” will rally the troops for a new crusade to bring fresh followers to Jesus.

Will it work, or will the movie, as some Jewish leaders fear, fuel the fires of anti-Semitism?

Yes, it will — on both counts.

Those viewers already predisposed toward hating Jews will no doubt find something to like in Gibson’s stereotypical portrayal of conniving Jewish priests. Those in the audience who already love Jesus will forge an even stronger bond with the man who died for their sins and perhaps find new resolve to spread the news to nonbelievers.

In the end, there’s nothing and everything new about “The Passion of the Christ.”

For centuries, Christians have put on Lenten-season “passion plays” that recount this timeless story and, sometimes, spark hostility and violence toward Jews.

Then, and now, these productions resurrect that complicated, unanswerable and perhaps meaningless question:

“Who killed Jesus?”

Blaming “the Jews” for that crime makes about as much sense as blaming “the Italians.”

But then bigotry, like belief, never does makes a whole lot of sense.

Vacation? Short break? Day trip? Get Skip-the-line tickets at GetYourGuide.


(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
San Francisco Chronicle, USA
Feb. 25, 2004
Don Lattin, Chronicle Religion Writer

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