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How Has Mel Offended? In Praise of The Passion of the Christ

By April 16, 2004 No Comments

“By his foes derided, by his own rejected”: only once in a great while do critics begin beating up on a film months before its premiere. I was half dreading the prospect of seeing Mel Gibson’s The Passion, and it was with trepidation that I gathered the resolve to go to the theater. It had been buried daily under reams of criticism, all of which boiled down to three main complaints: it lacks context, it’s too violent, and it’s anti-Semitic. Now that I’ve finally seen the film, I regard these three criticisms as fundamentally misdirected. Much of what Gibson does in the movie is rooted in Christian scripture and tradition, sources of inspiration that already pose the crucial issues for which he has been faulted. For Christians in particular, thoughtful engagement with the film requires thoughtful engagement with the Gospels and with the Catholic faith.


Context and Crucifixion

Several critics have condemned The Passion for not providing any context for Jesus’ passion and for virtually ignoring its redemptive significance. The first concern is that many viewers will leave the theater with no idea of why Jesus attracted such ferocious opposition from the Jewish council. In this view, Gibson should have begun at an earlier point in Christ’s ministry to provide an interpretive context for his passion. But he has ample justification and plenty of precedent for beginning where he does. The passion narratives of the Gospels are themselves set pieces. Indeed, the Gospels have rightly been called passion narratives with extended introductions in recognition of the fact that the narrative space devoted in them to the last twelve to eighteen hours of Jesus’ life far exceeds the proportion of space given to his entire public ministry. The earliest writer of the New Testament, Paul, says virtually nothing about Jesus’ pre-passion ministry but proclaims “Christ and him crucified,” not “Christ and his teachings,” “Christ and his miracles,” or “Christ and his compassion.” Then there are the medieval Passion Plays. Some of them begin as far back as Satan’s fall from heaven, but most of them start right where Gibson starts–in Gethsemane. If Gibson should have started the story at an earlier point to provide a link between the ministry and the passion, where should he have started? With Christ’s preexistence before the creation, following John? With his birth, àla Matthew and Luke? With his baptism, as does Mark? Or perhaps simply at some point in the Galilean ministry? Merely to state the range of options is to demand a different film. Fundamentally, though, it’s a question not just of focus or proportion but of genre.

Besides, scholars themselves disagree on the connection between Jesus’ ministry and his death. What was it, historically speaking, that got Jesus killed? What was it about him that caused him to run afoul of the Temple leadership in Jerusalem and to draw the lethal attention of the Romans? Was it his teaching about the kingdom of God? The audacity of some of his pronouncements? His violation of the Sabbath? His disregard for the Jewish traditions of ritual purity? Was it his implicit–or, as the Gospel of John has it, his explicit–claim to a unique filial relationship to God? Was it his claim to be the Messiah (a claim that was not a violation of Jewish law)? Was it none of these but rather his violent action in shutting down the operation of the Jerusalem Temple a week or so before his death? Was it the messianic zeal of the crowds that greeted him on his entry into Jerusalem? If the experts have a hard time sorting all this out, Gibson shouldn’t be criticized for not doing so.

Others have objected to the lack of focus on the redemptive significance of Jesus’ death. Yet the meaning of Christ’s act emerges in The Passion numerous times in ways both subtle and direct. The very first frame of the film placards the words of Isaiah 53:5, “He was wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities.” In Gethsemane, Satan attempts to undermine Jesus’ resolve by cynically asking him, “Do you really believe that one man can bear the full weight of their sin? No one man can carry this burden . . . saving their souls is too costly. . . . Who is your father? Who are you?” In the same scene, Jesus stomps on a serpent, evoking an age-old Christian interpretation of Genesis 3:15 in which Christ is the Last Adam (1 Cor. 15:45). The very presence of Satan throughout the film suggests that Christ’s death will effect some kind of ransom or rescue of the human race from the Devil’s power (e.g., Mark 3:20-27; 10:45). That Jesus is the Passover lamb who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29, 36; 1 Corinthians 5:7) surfaces poignantly when Mary, on the night of Jesus’ arrest, voices her mother’s intuition that something terrible has happened to her son by uttering the very first line of the Passover Seder, “Why is this night different from all other nights?” The conviction that Christ’s death inaugurates a new creation comes through movingly when Jesus, having fallen while carrying his cross, tells Mary, “See, Mother, I make all things new” (cf. Rev. 21:5; 2 Cor. 5:17). In no less than five flashbacks to the Last Supper, Jesus interprets for his disciples the fate that awaits him: he is the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep; his body is to be broken for them; his blood is the blood of the covenant poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. And one of the final scenes depicts Satan recoiling in horror the instant he realizes that Jesus’ death is God’s victory and his own undoing–visual verification that at the cross Christ “disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it” (Col. 2:15). Of course, it takes a biblically literate Christian to catch these resonances, but they are there along with others in forms alternately evocative and provocative.

Violence: Gratuitous or Not?

The one feature of The Passion that has kept even devout Christians from going to see it is the violence. Normally sane critics like David Denby of the New Yorker help no one when they opine, “the movie Gibson has made from his personal obsessions is a sickening death trip, a grimly unilluminating procession of treachery, beatings, blood, and agony.” The violence of The Passion is undeniably graphic and prolonged, yet it is anything but gratuitous. True, the Gospels themselves devote remarkably little space to the actual details of Jesus’ torture and execution, only a few verses, and this by way of bare mention alone with no lingering description. This economy of detail reflects a conviction shared across the New Testament: the significance of Jesus’ death does not at all inhere in the violent character of that death but in what God accomplished in and through it. The four evangelists seem well aware that Jesus was neither the first nor the last Palestinian Jew to be tortured and executed on a Roman cross. Indeed, the Romans had already crucified thousands of Jews in the first quarter of the first century, so there is nothing about Jesus’ crucifixion per se that was in any way remarkable.

Clearly, the New Testament does not supply the stimulus for Gibson’s focus on the sheer brutality of Jesus’ passion. Whence, then, does it spring? To chalk it up to Mel Gibson’s penchant for blood and gore is to take a cheap shot that strays wide of the mark. It is not his filmography that we should consult but his Catholicism; Lenten liturgy and medieval iconography are its relevant moorings, not Braveheart and Mad Max. Unfortunately, those critics who have bothered to consider Gibson’s Catholic identity have concerned themselves mainly with the conservative, pre-Vatican II character of his piety, which does little to illumine what makes The Passion so deeply Catholic. The film’s concentration on Christ’s physical torment taps instead into several mystical streams in Catholicism going back almost a thousan
d years in which contemplation of Christ’s agony enables believers to participate in the redemption his death secured.

Seen in this light, The Passion is best characterized as a cinematic counterpart to the five sorrowful mysteries of the rosary and the Stations of the Cross. The distinctly Catholic sensibility emerges most obviously in the prominence given to the Virgin Mary at every crucial scene, from the trial to the pietà. In the film, as in Catholicism, Mary represents not only the mother of Jesus but the new Eve and the Church. She is at once an individual and a corporate figure, and in The Passion she knows better than anyone except Jesus himself why her son must suffer as he does. When the trial gets underway she says, “It has begun Lord. So be it,” and to the very end she provides viewers with a model for how they themselves are to witness Jesus’ suffering–with horror, yes, but also with resolve.

The Catholic character of the film also reveals itself in the reverential devotion to Jesus’ shed blood, particularly in the scene immediately following the scourging, when the mother of Jesus and Mary Magdalene mop up Jesus’ blood. Gibson has gone on record as having adapted elements from The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ, a work based on the visions of a Catholic mystic and stigmatic named Anne Catherine Emmerich (1774-1824) that meditates upon the mental and physical anguish of Christ’s passion. One scene among many that he takes directly from Emmerich’s visionary diaries has Pilate’s wife present the two Marys with the cloths they use to soak up Jesus’ blood. Then, on the way to the cross, a young woman offers Jesus a linen cloth to wipe his face. She places the cloth, which now bears the image of his face, to her own face. Later Catholic tradition would derive from this “true image” [vera icon] the name of its patroness, St. Veronica.

A meditative, even mystical interest in the brute facta of Jesus’ suffering represents only one feature that distinguishes Catholic from Protestant piety, but it is one from which Protestants have something to learn. When I began attending Notre Dame Graduate School for my doctorate several years ago, I was struck by the ubiquity of crucifixes on the campus. They adorned the wall of virtually every room of every building. Over time, I came to appreciate why Catholics have Jesus still hanging on their crosses. It is too easy for Protestants like me to forget that the cross was not a big piece of jewelry but the ancient equivalent of the electric chair or the hangman’s noose. We have been bought with a price. Christ is risen indeed, but he remains Christ crucified.

Who to Blame for Jesus’ Death?

Charges that the film is anti-Semitic–in effect or potential, if not in intent–center on Gibson’s portrayal of the Jewish leadership and Pilate. The film does take considerable liberties with the figure of Caiaphas, the Jewish high priest, by expanding his role to make him an artistic focus of opposition to Jesus and a dramatic foil to Pilate. Yet on the whole the script is remarkably balanced in its apportioning of blame. It features both good and bad Jews as well as both good and bad Romans. At virtually every point–in Gethsemane, before the Sanhedrin, at the scourging, along the Via Dolorosa, and at the cross–there are Jews who show compassion for Jesus and horror at what is being done to him right alongside Jews who revile him and take pleasure in his pain. Likewise, among the Romans soldiers stand those who take sadistic delight in torturing and mocking him but also those who consult their conscience, some of whom become disgusted with the brutality, while others come to see something noble, if not divine, in him.

Pilate comes across as the most deeply conflicted figure in the film. Gibson’s script is too easy on him, but in this it is only following the Gospels. In one scene of pure invention, Pilate tells his wife that he is afraid that if he doesn’t give the order to execute Jesus, Caiaphas will foment a rebellion among the Jews and that the Emperor will sack him, or worse. In reality, the dynamics of political pressure in Roman-occupied Palestine were quite the reverse. It is true that on at least one occasion a Jewish delegation threatened to complain to the Emperor about Pilate (Philo, On the Embassy to Gaius 301-5) and that in the year 36 the Roman legate of Syria, Vitellius, suspended Pilate after Samaritans protested his violent repression of a demonstration atop Mt. Gerizim (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 18.4.2 §89). But in Jerusalem around the year 30 Caiaphas was the man with everything to fear and everything to lose if the popular support for Jesus had morphed into revolutionary zeal. Pilate would have fired the high priest and fired on the crowd. The Gospel of John, usually regarded as the least historical of the canonical Gospels, sounds eminently plausible when it depicts the Jewish leaders saying, “If we let him [Jesus] go on like this . . . the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place [the Temple] and our nation,” to which Caiaphas responds in one of the most ironic statements in a gospel full of irony, “It is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, than that the whole nation should perish” (John 11:48, 50). (Strikingly, though, in John it is not Jesus’ provocative action in the Holy Place–his “cleansing” of the Temple–that prompts these statements from the Jewish leadership but the raising of Lazarus, a uniquely Johannine episode.)

In historical reality, then, Pilate probably did not hesitate to have Jesus executed, and he almost certainly did not lose a wink of sleep over the matter, even if according to Matthew his wife did. A ruthless administrator of his territory, Pilate was the type to shoot first and ask questions later, if at all. In the Gospels, though, Pilate looks increasingly sympathetic the further along in the tradition one goes. Mark, written around the year 70, describes Pilate expediting Jesus’ case with little hesitation; at only one point does the prefect ask, “Why, what evil has he done?” (15:14). Matthew, produced a decade or so later on the basis of Mark and other sources, has Pilate wash his hands and declare, “I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves” (27:24). Luke, composed around the same time as Matthew, depicts Pilate pronouncing Jesus innocent no less than three times and “delivering him up to the will” of the people (23:25). And John, yet another decade later, portrays Pilate remonstrating with the Jewish leaders and even with Jesus. He is finally bullied into condemning Jesus only after great initial reluctance, repeated affirmations of his innocence, and even an “attempt to release him” (19:12a). It is only after the Jews threaten him with charges of disloyalty to the Emperor that he consents (19:12b-15). In all this, the onus of responsibility for Jesus’ death gets taken more and more off Roman shoulders and placed more and more on the shoulders of the Jews. In Mark, it is the crowd that clamors for Jesus’ death. In Luke, it is the chief priests and the rulers and the people who cry “Crucify him, crucify him!” In Matthew, it is all the people who shout “Let his blood be on us and on our children” (27:25). By the time we get to John, it is the Jews who yell “Away with him, away with him!”

It is in this canonical context that the film’s portrayal of the Jewish leadership and of Pilate must be understood. If the film is anti-Jewish, so are the Gospels. Well, say some critics, then Gibson should have relied on the work of scholars to set the record straight. But to require this of a film maker is to demand that he make a historical documentary. Cinematic art should not have to bow before historical reconstruction. It is more appropriate and constructive to engage the tradition itself than to expect a film maker to reinvent the tradition.

To understand the Gospels’ tendency to shift the blame for Jesus’ death from the Romans to the Jews, it
is crucial to know that they were written at a time (ca. 70-100 c.e.) when the Jesus movement was becoming increasingly alienated from its Jewish roots and increasingly interested in forging good relations with the Roman Empire. Christian self-definition required an apologetic explanation of why the peaceable founder of a peaceable movement had been executed on charges of sedition by a Roman prefect. Christians came to answer, in part, that Jesus’ death was something to which Pilate only grudgingly relented. Pilate may have been the one to pull the trigger, but it was the high priest Caiaphas and the Jewish temple leadership who loaded the muzzle and cocked the pistol. To comprehend this context is important, but it is equally important to affirm that one can revere the Gospels as Holy Scripture without endorsing their anti-Jewish tendencies and the history of anti-Semitism that those tendencies in part inspired.

In fairness to the canonical Gospels, though, one may observe that the anti-Jewish, pro-Roman trajectory that one can trace in them escalates in the second and succeeding centuries, not only in the writings of the Church Fathers but in newly composed gospels. For a gospel that is really pro-Roman and really anti-Jewish from start to finish, one can read the non-canonical Gospel of Peter, which depicts Herod Antipas and the Jewish leaders not only sentencing Jesus to death but executing him as well. “The Jews” in the Gospel of Peter pronounce their own guilt and damnation as soon as Jesus dies: “Woe because of our sins; the judgment and the end of Jerusalem are upon us!” The Jewish leaders urge Pilate to post a guard at the tomb and declare, “It will be better for us to bear the guilt of the greatest sin before God than to fall into the hands of the Jewish people and be stoned.” Later Christian writings go so far as to describe the conversion of Pilate to Christianity, his martyrdom for the faith, and his veneration as a saint. The canonical portraits look sober in comparison.

Even so, Christians should take to heart that Jews have more than just the cinematic choices of one filmmaker with which to contend. They bring to their experience of The Passion nearly two thousand years of Christian anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism, the theological roots of which are to be found in the pages of the New Testament itself. Christians should sympathize with the discomfort of Jews. And so they are: despite all the dire predictions that The Passion would incite anti-Semitism, the reverse has happened; not since the halcyon days of Vatican II and Nostra Aetate have Jews and Christians engaged in more extensive and more fruitful dialogue, in houses of worship, in conferences, in print, and on the airwaves. “By their fruits ye shall know them.” If we judge him by that standard, Mel Gibson has not offended but placed all people of faith in his debt.

Daniel C. Harlow is Associate Professor in the department of religion at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan.