Review: Mel Gibson’s Film, “The Passion of Christ”
After reading a dozen reviews from reporters and church leaders who were offered the opportunity to preview the The Passion, I decided to comment, not on the artistic qualities of the film, which I have not seen, but on the Biblical legitimacy of portraying the trial and execution of Christ in a gruesome and bloody manner. [Note: the author wrote a second review, after he had seen the movie. See “Mel Gibson’s Slaughter of Christ”.]
The bleeding body of Jesus shown in the few snapshots of the film shown in the TV advertisements, suggest to me that Gibson, a traditional Catholic, is influenced more by the Catholic devotion to Christ’s Passion, than by the Gospels’ narratives. There is no “blood” in the Passion narrative. The reason is that the Evangelists were not writing a novel for a bloodthirsty market, but were witnessing to the awesome character of Christ as revealed in the final hours of His life.
Several subscribers to our newsletter have asked me to comment upon the much-publicized film “The Passion of Christ” by Mel Gibson. The film was released on Ash Wednesday, February 25, 2004. On that day the film was shown in 2000 theaters across America and in countless others cinemas overseas. Evangelical congregations are booking showings, and religious leaders are urging believers to view the film’s opening days. In London, England, where I am in this moment, there is considerable interest even among our Adventist members for viewing the film. This past Sabbath I was asked by several members to comment on the film.
The dozen of reviews that I have read indicate that the film dramatizes in gruesome details the last 12 hours of Christ’s bloody trial and crucifixion. Since I have not seen the film, my comments are based on reviews and the few snapshots I have seen in the commercials advertising the film. My remarks will focus on the reaction of some Jewish leaders who have viewed the film and on the legitimacy to impersonate the Divine Son of God by a movie star.
Is it Biblically correct for a movie artist to impersonate and dramatize the last twelve hours of Christ’s suffering, by portraying His body splattered with blood on the way to Calvary? Can such dramatization be Biblically justified? Or does it represent a sacrilegious act condemned by the Second Commandment?
The question of the Biblical and ethical legitimacy of dramatizing in a movie the final hours of Christ’s agony and death, is never addressed in the reviews that I have read. The comments of movie critics and church leaders who have previewed the film, focus primarily on the artistic qualities and historical accuracy of the film. The problem is that a film about Christ’s agony and death, may be artistically brilliant, but Biblically flawed, because of its attempt to impersonate the Divine Son of God, reducing Him to a mere mortal human being. Any attempt to impersonate Christ, in a movie or in actual life, cannot be Biblically justified. Paul condemns the personification of Christ in II Thessalonians 2 as an end time sign of the Antichrist.
No mortal human being can understand and experience what it means to suffer as the incarnate Son of God. Any attempt by an artist to act out Christ’s suffering and death, may ultimately lead many simpleminded believers to a veneration of the movie-Christ they have seen, rather than of the Biblical Christ they have not seen. The temptation to worship a visible and objective Christ can be seen in dominant Catholic countries, where the only Christ devout Catholics know and worship is the One they touch, see, and often wear as jewelry. Statues, crucifixes and pictures of the bleeding Savior, abound in devout Catholic homes. Instead of worshipping the invisible Lord in Spirit and Truth, they worship an idol that they can see, touch and feel.
We can hardly blame God for the attempts to objectify the members of the Godhead through movies, statues, painting, statuettes, and religious jewelry. The Lord took utmost precaution to prevent human beings from materializing and objectifying His spiritual nature. This is evidenced, for example, by the fact that when the second Person of the Godhead became a Human Being for about thirty-three years, He refrained from leaving a single material mark that can be authenticated as His own. Christ did not build or own a house; He did not write books or own a library; He did not leave the exact date of His birth or of His death; He did not leave descendants. He left an empty tomb, but even this place is still disputed. He left no “thing” of Himself, but only the assurance of His spiritual presence: “Lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age” (Matt. 28:20).
Why did Christ pass through this world in this mysterious fashion, leaving no physical footprints or material traces of Himself? Why did the Godhead miss the golden opportunity provided by the incarnation to leave a permanent material evidence and reminder of the Savior’s life, suffering, and death on this planet? Why do the Gospel writers minimize the suffering of Christ’s final hours? Why is the “blood” factor, which is so prominent in Gibson’s “Passion,” largely missing in the narrative of the Passion? Is this not clear evidence of God’s concern to protect mankind from the constant temptation of reducing a spiritual relationship into a “thing-worship”?
It was because of this same concern that God chose the Sabbath — a day rather than an object — as the symbol of a divine-human relationship. Being time, a mystery that defies human attempts to define it, the Sabbath provides a constant protection against the worship of objects and a fitting reminder of the spiritual nature of the covenant relationship between God and His people. If Gibson were to accept the message of the Sabbath regarding the spiritual nature of God, he might consider withdrawing the film before its release. Such a courageous decision would prevent the adoption by million of Christians of a distorted view of Christ’s suffering and death — a view that, as we shall shortly show, is conditioned by the Catholic teachings regarding the imitation of Christ’s Passion, rather than by the Biblical account of Golgotha.
During the past few months, Gibson has shown a preview of the film to selected groups of Christian leaders (not to Jewish leaders), including the Pope and Billy Graham. The reactions to the sneak-peek rounds have been either shock or awe. There has little middle ground among the viewers. It is hard to imagine a movie provoking such contrasting reactions among selected religious audiences.
Pope John Paul II is reported to have approved the film “as it is,” that is, as a factual representation of the events leading to the Crucifixion. This is not surprising in view of the traditional Catholic teachings regarding the imitation of Christ’s Passion. To quell the growing debate over the Pope’s alleged comment, Vatican officials denied it, saying the pontiff was not in the habit of making artistic opinions public.
Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls confirmed that the Pope has seen the film, which in his view is “a cinematographic transposition of the historical events of the Passion of Jesus Christ according to the Gospel.”
Similar praises for the film have been expressed by numerous Protestant church leaders and newspaper reporters. They feel that the film shows in gruesome, but factual, details, how Jesus died to redeem mankind. “The Passion of the Christ,” Billy Graham has said, is “a lifetime of sermons in one movie” (Newsweek, February 16, 2004).
The problem with such positive evaluations of the film is their failure to recognize that there are no gruesome, bloody details in the Gospels’ narrative about Christ’s trial, mocking, and crucifixion. As I took time to reread the four accounts of Christ’s trial and crucifixion, I was impressed by the absence of “blood” in the stories. The only reference to “blood” is found in John 19:34 where we are told that one of the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side to find out if He was dead. “A sudden flow of blood and water” came out. In view of the fact that Christ was already dead, his legs were not broken, like in the case of the two thieves standing next to Him. If the focus of the narrative was on “bloody details,” then the amputation of the thieves’ leg, would have received far greater coverage.
But, the focus of the four Evangelists is not on the “Passion,” that is, on the bleeding Christ, but on the nobility of His character, which is revealed in the dignified way He handled Himself before His accusers, mockers, and executioners. Crucifixions were common in those days. Thousands of Jews were crucified at various times by the Romans because of their constant uprising. What makes Christ’s crucifixion unique, is not the unusual harsh treatment He received, but His willingness to suffer silently “like a lamb led to the slaughter and as a sheep before her shearer” (Isa. 53:7).
The focus of “The Passion” is notably different. According to Newsweek: “The arrest, the scourging and the Crucifixion are depicted in harsh, explicit detail in the R-rated movie. One of Jesus’ eyes is swollen shut from His first beating as He is dragged from Gethsemane; the Roman torture, the long path to Golgotha bearing the wooden cross, and the nailing of Jesus’ hands and feet to the beams are filmed unsparingly. The effect of the violence is at first shocking, then numbing, and finally reaches a point where many viewers may spend as much time clinically wondering how any man could have survived such beatings as they do sympathizing with his plight.”
Gibson’s focus on the violent means in which Jesus was murdered, may reflect his commercial concerns as well his traditional Catholic beliefs. Commercially, it is a known fact that “blood” sells movies. Film producers and promoters know that snapshots of the bleeding Christ appeal to some bloodthirsty elements of our society.
Popular films contain a generous (sickening) dosage of violence and bloodshed. This I know, not from viewing films, but from being confronted during the evening news with the snapshots of shooting and bloodshed, used to advertise the latest films. The marketing industry know too-well that “blood sells” and this applies to religious films as well.
Frederica Matthewes-Green perceptively notes, “It’s a mark of our age that we don’t believe something is realistic unless it is brutal. But there’s another factor to consider. When the four evangelists were writing their own accounts of the Passion, they didn’t take Gibson’s approach. In fact, the descriptions of Jesus’ beating and crucifixion are as minimal as the writers can make them. Instead of appealing to our empathy, they invite us to awesome wonder, because they had a different understanding of the meaning of His suffering.”
Apparently Gibson has a reputation for directing and/or producing films like Braveheart, where blood flows freely. Gregg Easterbrook writes in The New Republic that “Gibson has a reputation for movies that revel in gore, so there’s legitimate worry that The Passion will depict an over-the-top, splatter-movie Hollywood version of Christ’s final hours; and Gibson will sell this as historically accurate ‘truth’ when it is just one of many possible interpretations of an event no one can be sure about.”
In a lengthy and penetrating analysis of The Passion, published in Newsweek (February 16, 2004) Jon Meacham, who previewed the film, raises important questions about the historical accuracy of the film. Like other reviewers, Meacham feels that Gibson “makes ‘the Jews’ look worse than the Romans.” He writes: “To take the film’s account of the Passion literally will give most audiences a misleading picture of what probably happened in those epochal hours so long ago. The Jewish priests and their followers are the villains, demanding the death of Jesus again and again; Pilate is a malleable governor forced into handing down the death sentence. . . . [In reality] Pilate was not the humane figure Gibson depicts. According to Philo of Alexandria, the prefect was of ‘inflexible, stubborn, and cruel disposition,’ and known to execute troublemakers without trial.”
The sad reality is that millions of Christians will accept as truth Gibson’s fictitious misrepresentations of Christ’s suffering and death, instead of taking time to read and reflect upon the mysterious wonder of the Passion as cryptically portrayed in the Gospels.
Gibson’s film may be conditioned not only by our violent culture that accepts bloodshed as a form of entertainment, but also by the traditional Catholic teaching that the Jews as a people are guilty of murdering Christ. Historically, the Catholic church has promoted anti-Jewish policies and practices by blaming the Jews for the death of Christ.
During the First Crusade in the eleventh century, “Christian” soldiers massacred European Jews while they were on their way to expel Muslim from the Holy Land. Numerous church councils strongly condemned the Jews as murderers of Christ and even passed anti-Jewish legislation, depriving them of civil rights and forcing them to go into hiding during the Easter week. Numerous books have been written on the historical manifestations of Catholic anti-Semitism. For example, some Church Councils decreed that any Jew found walking in the street during Easter week, could be killed with impunity.
Pope Innocent III (1160-1216) said that “the blasphemers of the Christian name, are forced into the servitude of which they made themselves deserving when they raised their sacrilegious hands against Him who had come to confer true liberty upon them, thus calling down His blood upon themselves and their children.”
After the horror of Hitler’s attempt to liquidate the Jews, the Roman Catholic Church has reconsidered her historical position against the Jews as the murderers of Christ. The Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) issued a thoughtful and compelling statement on the charge of deicide leveled against the Jews: “True, the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ; still, what happened in His passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today . . . in her rejection of every persecution against any man, the Church, mindful of the patrimony she shares with the Jews and moved . . . by the Gospel’s spiritual love, decries hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone.”
The Pope himself has apologized to the Jews for the past Catholic persecution of their people. But Catholic traditionalists disapprove the action taken by Vatican II in absolving the Jews as people for the death of Christ.
Mel Gibson most likely belongs to the traditional wing of Catholicism which does not accept the new Catholic admission that sinners in general, and not the Jews in particular, share in the responsibility for Christ’s death. Gibson’s father, Hutton, told The New York Times that “a Masonic plot backed by the Jews” influenced Vatican II to change the Catholic position. According to some reviewers, “The Passion of Christ reflects the historical Catholic anti-Jewish position, by depicting the Jews as a sinister people.
The legitimate concern of some Jewish and Christian leaders is that The Passion, may rekindle historic anti-semitism. Jon Meachan aptly notes: “Four decades after the Second Vatican Council repudiated the idea that the Jewish people were guilty of ‘deicide,’ many Jewish leaders and theologians fear the movie, with its portraits of the Jewish high priest Caiaphas leading an angry mob and of Pilate as a reluctant, sympathetic executioner, may slow or even reverse 40 years of work explaining the common bonds between Judaism and Christianity” (Newsweek, February 16, 2004).
Some prominent Jewish leaders who have secretly previewed the film, have been quick to point out the way the film defames the Jews. For example, after viewing the film, Rabbi Marvin Hier, the founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre in Los Angeles, said: “I can tell you this is a terrible film, a terrible portrayal of Jews and will cause tremendous harm and be a delight to all the enemies of the Jewish people. . . . The film makes the Jews look as bad as possible. . . . The Jews are not only contrasted badly against the new Jews, the Christians, but also against the Roman hierarchy, which with the exception of the four whippers of Christ appear as pleasing, thoughtful and sensitive.”
Rabbi Hier objects to the physical images of the Jews in the film, saying, “I was embarrassed by their evil look, their sinister faces — they all look like dark-eyed Rasputins and their faces are in stark contrast to the wonderful expressions on the faces of the Jewish Christians.”
Abraham Foxman, the President of the Jewish Anti-Defamation League, was able to see the film in a secretive way at a special gathering of Christian leaders, which was supposed to be restricted to Christians. He said: “The sad part is that this film is made by a man who declares himself to be a man of God and truth. Yet he is predetermining who can the see the film. . . . The film is as bad as it can be. It portrays the Jews as bloodthirsty. . . . He takes every opportunity to [blame] the Jews. . . . What makes this dangerous is that he is a genius of his art and by making it as painful as it is, your catharsis and anger rise. . . . The Vatican may have absolved the Jews of the responsibility for the death [of Christ], but Mr. Gibson has not.”
As one who has spent several years researching the role of anti-Judaism in leading many Christians to abandon Biblical truths such as the Sabbath and Passover, I am very sensitive to the above comments by Jewish leaders. What many Christians ignore is that heresies like the observance of the weekly Sunday and of the annual Easter Sunday, are the outgrowth of the development of a theology of contempt toward the Jews that began early in the second century.
For example, Justin Martyr, a leader of the Church of Rome at about A.D. 150, rejects the Sabbath as a trademark of Jewish depravity. He maintains that God gave to the Jews the Sabbath and circumcision as a sign of their wickedness, because they are a murderous people who killed the prophets and crucified Christ. The Jews deserve to be punished by the Romans, and Sabbath-keeping provides to the Roman authorities an easy way to identify who are the murderous Jews. This subject is discussed at length in chapter 7 of my dissertation FROM SABBATH TO SUNDAY.
On a similar vein, the Emperor Constantine urged Christians to abandon the Jewish (Biblical) Passover date and adopt instead the Easter-Sunday date promoted by the Bishop of Rome, in order “to have nothing in common with the detestable Jewish crowd.” It is shocking to learn how some popular Christian beliefs and practices were inspired more by hate for the Jews than love for Jesus Christ.
Many Christians ignore that the Jews in general were quite receptive to the teachings of Jesus and later to the Messianic proclamation of the Apostles. Those who were hostile to Christ were primarily some of the Jewish leaders such as the Pharisees and the priests. For example, we read in John 11:45-47 that “Many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary and had seen what Jesus did [in resurrecting Lazarus], put their faith in him. But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin.”
The plotting for Christ’s death was done by the Sanhedrin, not by the Jewish people in general. An indication of the Jewish positive response to Christ, can be seen in the thousands of Jews who accepted Him as their expected Messiah on the Day of Pentecost and afterwards. In Acts 21:20, James tells Paul that “myriads of Jews have believed and they are all zealous for the law.” On the basis of the figures provided by Acts, it is estimated that about half of the Jewish population living in Jerusalem accepted Jesus of Nazareth as their expected Messiah. On the basis of this fact it is inaccurate and misleading to make the Jewish people as a whole guilty of Christ’s death. This means that to the extent that Gibson’s “Passion” places the blame for Christ’s death on the Jews as a people, to the same degree it perpetrates the historical Catholic anti-Jewish beliefs and practices that have prevailed until recent times.
Gibson’s interest to reenact in his movie “The Passion of Christ,” may also be influenced by traditional Catholic teachings regarding the value of imitating Christ’s suffering as a means of penance and salvation. I have seen Catholic FLAGELLANTS participating in the Easter procession on the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem. They scourge themselves or are scourged by others. This voluntary flagellation is seen as form of exalted devotion to Christ, in imitation of His Passion.
Flagellation has been promoted among the various monastic orders. “Cardinal Pietro Damiani advocated the substitution of flagellation for the recitation of the penitential psalms, and drew up a scale according to which 1000 strokes were equivalent to ten psalms, and 15,000 to the whole psalter.”
The exaltation and imitation of Christ’s Passion as a form of popular devotion, is promoted today in the Catholic Church, especially by the religious order of the Passionists, that was founded by Paul of the Cross in 1720. They take a vow to promote Christ’s Passion by word and deed.
Gibson, being a traditional Catholic, may well wish to promote in a subtle way through his “Passion” film, the Catholic devotion to Christ’s Passion as a means of penance and salvation. Such teaching is foreign to those Protestants who accept the Biblical view of salvation as a divine gift of grace, and not a meritorious human achievement. Yet, the film could favorably predispose Protestants to accept the Catholic devotion to the Passion as a way of salvation.
Gibson’s “Passion” could well be part of the prophetic end time showdown over worship. The three angel messages of Revelation 14, summon end time believers to worship the true God and abandon the false worship promoted by spiritual Babylon. The false worship of God is promoted today in a variety of ways, which transcend the Sabbath/Sunday controversy. A common characteristic of false worship is the attempt to objectify God by bringing Him down to the level where people can see Him, touch Him, feel Him, and use Him.
The objectification and manipulation of God is accomplished in a variety of ways such as the veneration of images and relics, the attribution of divine prerogatives to church leaders like the Pope, the physical and emotional apprehension of God through the stimulus of beat music, the personification of God through drama and films, the collocation of God in “sacred” shrines to which devout believers make pilgrimages.
The outcome of all the human divisings to objectify God is to make Him part of our human experience. The ultimate result is that people end up worshipping visible and tangible gods created after their own imagination, rather than worshipping the transcendent and invisible God of Biblical revelation, whom we can approach only in “spirit and truth.”
— Samuele Bachiocchi, Ph. D., Retired Professor of Theology and Church History, Andrews University, in his ENDTIME ISSUES NEWSLETTER No. 111, February, 2004.. Minor editing by Richard C. Nickels