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"THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST"

THE BIBLE, THE MOVIE AND THE HISTORICAL RECORD

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Topics covered in this essay:

bulletConflicts between the Gospels and the historical record
bulletResolution of internal conflicts in the Gospels
bulletMaterial in the movie that does not appear in the Gospels
bulletThe stations of the cross
bulletThe role of Mary
bulletA poll

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Conflicts between the Gospels and the historical record:

There has always existed a number of apparent conflicts between the biblical descriptions of Yeshua of Nazareth's execution and the historical record. Gibson has apparently chosen to follow the Bible passages. This may be because of his belief in the inerrancy of the Bible.

There are a few such conflicts portrayed in the movie:

bulletYeshua is shown dragging the entire cross through the streets of Jerusalem to the place of execution. Most theologians and historians believe that the victim was only forced to carry the 50 to 100 pound cross piece. The upright piece was stored at the execution site.
bulletYeshua is shown on the cross wearing a loincloth. Most experts believe that victims were totally stripped of their clothing before being hoisted vertically. The Roman Army in Palestine designed the entire crucifixion process to be as horrendous and demoralizing to the Jewish people as possible. Public nudity was considered a profoundly embarrassing and shameful act in Palestine during the 1st century CE. Forced nudity would add to the suffering of the victims.
bulletThe movie shows nails driven through Yeshua's palms into the crosspiece. Piercing the hand was not practical during crucifixion, as the weight of the body would cause the flesh of the hand to tear. This would free the arm. The Roman executioners actually passed the nail through the wrist between the ulna and radius -- the two bones in the forearms.
bulletThe only known remains of a crucified victim that have been found in the Middle East has a nail penetrating his ankle bones. A piece of wood was placed between the nail and the flesh, presumably to prevent the person from wrenching his limbs free. The wood survives as well as the skeleton. No such wooden piece was shown in the movie.
bulletThe victim's feet were generally nailed to the cross, a very short distance from the ground. There was no need to elevate the person higher; that would only increase the soldiers' difficulty in erecting the cross. In the movie and in most images of the crucifixion, including Roman Catholic crucifixes, Yeshua is shown elevated many feet above ground level. Some images of the crucifixion show Yeshua nailed near the top of a very tall cross.
bulletThe Roman execution process involved the victim's knees flexed at about a 45 degree angle in front of the cross. The victim had to support his weight with his thigh muscles -- an impossible task for more than a few minutes. In the movie, Yeshua's legs were shown almost parallel to the upright, as is seen in almost all crucifixes and artwork.
bulletAfter the victim had been on the cross for a few minutes, his body weight would be transferred to his arms and shoulders, causing dislocation of his shoulders, elbows and wrists. This causes "the rib cage to be elevated in a state of perpetual inhalation." 1 A victim could not cry out in the last stages of death. Gibson follows the gospel record and has Yeshua speak from the cross.
bulletThe historical record shows that those sentenced to be crucified were generally flogged before being attached to the cross. The Gospels show that this happened to Yeshua as well. But there is no indication in the Bible that the flogging given to Yeshua was any more severe that than experienced by the average victim sentenced to death. Yet, in the movie, the flogging session is seems to continue endlessly. It would have killed most people. It may or may not correspond with the historical reality of Yeshua's execution.
bulletThe portrayals of the Jewish high priest, Caiaphas, and the Roman Procurator Pontius Pilate are reversed. Caiaphas appears more villainous and Pilate more sympathetic that the historical record indicates. Pilate seems to fear the power of the Jewish leadership at a time when he was in complete control of the country. He is seen as sympathetic to Yeahua's plight, pleading that his life be spared. In fact, PIlate behaved so viciously towards the Jewish people that he was reprimanded and eventually recalled to Rome. 2

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Resolution of internal conflicts in the Gospels:

The Christian Scriptures contain a number of apparent contradictions. Some very creative suggestions have been made to resolve them. However, the movie playwrights appear to have selecting one biblical passage and ignoring the other(s):

bulletJudas: Two biblical passages describe Judas' death very differently:
bulletMatthew 27:5 states that he committed suicide by hanging himself.
bulletActs 1:18, written by the same author who wrote the Gospel of Luke, describes how he fell down so that his body broke open and intestines gushed out.

In the movie, Judas is shown as hanging himself over the body of a dead and rotting corpse of a donkey. The playwrights ignored the passage in Acts.

bulletThe sign on the cross: No two of the Gospels agree precisely on the inscription of the sign that was placed above Yeshua's head:
bulletMark 15:26: "The King of the Jews"
bulletMatthew 27:37: "This is Jesus, the King of the Jews"
bulletLuke 23:38: "This is the King of the Jews"
bulletJohn 19:19: "Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews"

The movie followed the text of John, in Latin. It was replicated underneath in, I suspect, Aramaic.

bulletJesus' final words: These are reported differently in the four gospels:
bulletMark 15:37: Yeshua is described as crying with a loud voice, and then died.
bulletMathew 27:50: The account is identical to Mark's.
bulletLuke 23:46: Yeshua is recorded as saying: "Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit," just before dying.
bulletJohn 19:30: Yeshua is recorded as saying: "It is finished," just before dying.

The screenwriters used the sentence from John, and rejected Luke's. In reality, Yeshua probably remained silent, being unable to speak -- as noted above.

This essay continues below.

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Material in the movie that does not appear in the Gospels and the rest of the Bible:

As noted above, the movie contains many events that are not described in either the canonical Gospels (Mark, Matthew, Luke and John) or in any of the other 50 or so Gospels that were revered by various early Christian groups but which never made it into the Bible. These events appear to have been created from the imaginations of the playwrights, and from other sources. One was a book "The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ" written by Brentano, a famous 19th century German poet and author. 5 The book is also available online. 6 It paraphrased visions experienced by St. Anne Catherine Emmerich.  Emmerich, (1774-1824), was a Roman Catholic Augustinian nun who lived in Germany.  A good case can be made that the movie is more closely related to Emmerlich's book with certain events deleted, than it is to the Gospels with certain events added. One satirist who reviewed the movie said that he expected Emmerich's name to be listed in the credits as the main screenwriter. Another source was a book "Mystical City of God" by a Spanish nun, Mary of Agreda; she also experienced visions.

Some scenes deviate from the content of the Gospels and the rest of the Bible. Many other scenes are created for the movie independent of the Bible record:

bulletAppearance of Satan in the Garden of Gethsemane where she/he taunts Yeshua. The only mention of Satan taunting or tempting Yeshua was shortly after his baptism. See Matthew 4:1-11.
bulletMultiple other appearances of Satan in various scenes.
bulletSatan, described as a fallen angel, is always referred to as male. The role in this movie was played by a woman.
bulletIn an apparent reference to Genesis 3:13, Yeshua is seen crushing the head of a poisonous snake.
bulletYeshua's mother, Mary, is seen suddenly waking up at the instant that Yeshua is first beaten in the Garden of Gethsemane.
bulletThe extreme abuse suffered by Jesus and perpetrated by the Temple Guard as Jesus was led to the temple. This included dropping him from a small bridge and suspending him on a chain.
bulletJudas and Jesus face each other when he is being led to the Temple.
bulletOne of Yeshua's eyes was closed as a result of the beatings.
bulletPeople are shown as accepting money in the Temple, with the implication that they were being paid to testify against Jesus at his trial.
bulletThe appearance of Yeshua's mother, Mary, and Mary Magdalene at the Temple during Jesus' trial.
bulletPeter meets with Jesus' mother, Mary, and confesses that he has denied Yeshua.
bulletTwo young Jewish boys tormented Judas.
bulletThe morphing of the two boys into demons.
bulletA short flashback was shown of Jesus as a carpenter working on a table. This scene is a creation of the playwrights, presumably based on a reference in many English translations of the Bible to Jesus as "the carpenter's son." Actually, the use of the word "carpenter" is not particularly accurate; "general contractor" would be more accurate, because Jesus' father would have worked with wood and stone.
bulletNicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea defended Jesus at the trial.
bulletHerod is shown presiding at an orgy. He is portrayed as a mincing homosexual.
bulletThe Bible mentions Pilate's wife only once: as a superstitious woman who had a dream about Jesus and urged her husband to have nothing to do with him. In the movie, Pilate and his wife talk repeatedly. She is portrayed as a supporter of Jesus and his followers.
bulletWhen Yeshua first came before Pilate, there were signs all over Yeshua's body that he had been beaten. Pilate asked whether it was standard practice among the Temple leadership to beat its prisoners prior to their trial.
bulletA flogging taken to horrendous levels. The Gospels merely mention that Pilate ordered that Yeshua be flogged.
bulletA meeting between Pilate's wife, Mary Magdalene, and Mary, the mother of Yeshua.
bulletYeshua's mother cleaned up spilled blood at the torture location.
bulletBarabbas appears before the Jewish crowd, also with one eye closed. This appears to be a parallel to Yeshua's eye.
bulletThe subtitles refer to Mary as "Mother," indicating some special level of reverence.
bulletA meeting between Yeshua and his mother, while Jesus was carrying the cross along the Via Delarosa.
bulletA Jewish girl wipes Yeshua's face and unsuccessfully tries to give him water to drink. An image of his face appears magically on the cloth.
bulletYeshua is continually whipped while dragging the cross along the Via Delarosa.
bulletSatan appears in the street, following Yeshua dragging the cross.
bulletAt Golgotha, the place of execution, the leader of the group of soldiers found that Yeshua's right arm was not long enough to allow a nail to pierce his right hand and enter into the hole that was pre-drilled in the cross-piece. So, the soldier tied a rope on Yeshua's right wrist, gave it one mighty heave, dislocated Yeshua's shoulder, and stretched his arm a few inches so that the nail could be properly inserted. This event, which was not mentioned in any of the Gospels, may have been added to the movie to add more violent abuse into the story.
bulletIn a Roman crucifixion, nails were driven through the victim's wrists into the wood of the cross piece. The movie showed that the soldiers then flipped the cross over so that it pushed the victim's body into the ground. The apparent reason for this was so that they could bend over the nails protruding through the back of the crosspiece. This would have been an unnecessary act because the friction between the nails and the wood would have been quite sufficient to prevent the victim from pulling the nails out, even if they were not bent over. Besides, bending the nail ends would have made recycling of the nails more difficult. This scene may also have been added to the movie in order to introducing more violent abuse into the story. If it were done in practice, it would have lowered the efficiency of the Roman Army's killing procedures....and that Army prided itself in its efficiency.
bulletYeshua's mother kisses his bloody feet.
bulletMary, addressing Yeshua, says: "Flesh of my flesh, heart of my heart, my son, let me die with you."
bulletA raven attacks one of the thieves who was crucified beside Yeshua, and plucks out his eye.
bulletThe High Priest, Caiaphas, taunted Yeshua from the cross.
bulletA "Tear of God" falls to earth as Yeshua dies.
bulletThe structure of the Temple is damaged as a result of the earthquake.
bulletMary holds the body of Yeshua in a replication of Michelangelo's Pieta statue. 9

Many Christians, after having viewed The Passion may well assume that all of the events portrayed in the film actually happened. For them, the movie may become the true and accurate story of the suffering and execution of Christ. The movie may replace the actual Gospel account in their system of beliefs.

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The stations of the cross:

The "Stations of the Cross" (a.k.a. Via Crucis, and Via Dolorosa) has become one of the most popular of Roman Catholic devotions. 7 The believer passes along twelve stations, which consist of a picture, sculpture, tableau or other image. They meditate and pray at each. Each of the 14 stations portrays a single event that may have happened between Pilate's sentence of death and the laying of Yeshua's body in the tomb:

  1. Pilate sentences him to death
  2. He bears the weight of the cross
  3. He falls for the first time
  4. He meets his mother
  5. Simon is conscripted to help carry the cross
  6. Veronica wipes his face
  7. He falls for the second time
  8. He meets the women of Jerusalem
  9. He falls for the third time
  10. His clothing is removed
  11. He is crucified
  12. He dies
  13. His body is taken down from the cross
  14. His body is laid in the tomb.

Many of them -- including Yeshua falling three times, meeting his mother, having his face wiped by Vernoica, and meeting the women of Jerusalem -- are not specifically mentioned in the Gospels. Some sources report that all fourteen stations are included in the movie. However, only twelve actually appear. Station 10, where Yeshua is stripped of his garments, and 13 where his body is laid in the tomb, are deleted.

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The role of Mary, the mother of Yeshua:

Christians have assigned radically different emphases to the role of the Virgin Mary, the mother of Yeshua. This ranges between:
bulletBelieving that Mary shares some of the roles of Jesus Christ as a co-redemptrix and mediatrix. Many conservative Roman Catholics, including Mel Gibson, believe this.
bulletTreating her as a relatively obscure character in the Christian Scriptures, as the woman who gave birth to Yeshua, and appeared at a relatively few occasions during Yeshua's ministry.

Mel Gibson has assigned a major role to Mary in the movie, as a passive witness of events. She was shown wakening suddenly from sleep when Yeshua was arrested. She appeared in the trial at the Temple, when Yeshua was brought before Pilate, during the flogging, when he was sentenced, when he was dragging the cross through Jerusalem, and at the cross. She is shown replicating the pose of the Pieta statue, 3 cradling Yeshua's corpse after it was removed from the cross.

In an interview with Christianity Today, the leading Evangelical Christian magazine in the U.S., he said: "I've been actually amazed at the way I would say the evangelical audience has—hands down—responded to this film more than any other Christian group." What makes it so amazing, he said, is that "the film is so Marian." He continued: "The way the film displays [Mary] has been kind of an eye opener for evangelicals who don't usually look at that aspect. They understand the reality of a mother and a son." 4

David Neff, editor of Christianity Today said: "And that is what I observed: After both of The Passion screenings I attended, the Protestant women talked about identifying with Mary as a mother who was watching her child suffer. From whatever point in his spirituality Gibson's treatment of Mary is springing, it is touching deeply the maternal impulse in his viewers." 4

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A poll:

Beliefnet.com conducted a poll among visitors to its web site. Unfortunately, they did not mention the total number of responses, so it is impossible to compute the margin of error. Results were:

bullet41% said that "The Passion" has changed their view of the Bible in a positive direction.
bullet53% said that It hasn't changed their view of the Bible.
bullet6% said that the movie hasn't changed their view of the bible, or were not sure.
 
bullet76% believe that "The Passion" is very close to the Bible's account of Jesus' death.
bullet14% believe it is somewhat close.
bullet4% believe it was not close at all.
bullet6% were not sure. 8

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References:

  1. " 'The Passion': What's Not in the Bible? Because scripture is silent on certain details, Mel Gibson drew from extrabiblical sources to craft his 'Passion'." Beliefnet, at: http://www.beliefnet.com/
  2. Robert Jacobs, " 'Passion' could stall interfaith dialogue," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 2004-FEB-27, at: http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/
  3. "Michelangelo - Pieta Statue" The Eleganza Collection, at: http://www.eleganza.com/
  4. David Neff, "Mel, Mary, and Mothers," Christianity Today, 2004-FEB-20, at: http://www.christianitytoday.com/
  5. Anne Emmerich, "The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ," Tan Books, (Reprinted 1994). Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store
  6. Anne Emmerich, "The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ," online at: http://www.emmerich1.com/
  7. "Way of the Cross," NewAdvent.org, at: http://www.newadvent.org/
  8. " 'The Passion' and the Bible, 2004-MAR-8, at: http://www.beliefnet.com/
  9. "Nathanael," "Crucifix or the Cross? Theological differences & does Mel have a clue?," EtherZone.com at: http://www.etherzone.com/

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Site navigation:

 Home > World religions > Judaism > "The Passion" > here

or Home > Christianity > Personalities > Jesus > "The Passion" > here

or Home > Christianity > Relations with other religions > "The Passion" > here

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Copyright © 2004 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2004-FEB-24
Latest update: 2004-MAR-9
Author: B.A. Robinson

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