The Passion of the Christ

A number of people have asked for a theological guide to the film The Passion of the Christ. Obviously this movie is still hitting the headlines. There are tales popping up everywhere about people confessing to crimes as a result of watching the movie, stories of the impact it is having in the Islamic world and the ongoing controversy over whether it is anti-Semitic.

The first thing that has to be noted is that as a film, it is a very good piece of work. The acting is excellent, the scripting is dramatic and it is very moving. If there are flaws in the film-making, I am not enough of a film critic to recognise them.

From a theological point of view though, there are one or two areas that are worth picking up and pointing out. Some of the imagery and conceptual use of dramatic licence are excellent. The encounter between Satan and Jesus in the garden of Gethsemene, with the introduction of a serpent as an ‘easy way out’ is particularly clever. Keen-eyed theologians will realise that Jesus’ stamp on the snake is an echo of God’s statement to the serpent recorded in Genesis – “I will put enmity between you [the serpent] and the woman [Eve] and between your offspring and hers. He will crush your head and you will strike his heel.” (Genesis 3 v15)

However, elsewhere the dramatic licence is less so inspired. Much has been made that this is an accurate portrayal of events in the gospel accounts. That is true, but there is more in the film than the gospels bear witness to. Mel Gibson has made no secret of his strong Catholic faith and that faith is marked throughout the film. So, halfway through the journey to Golgotha we see Saint Veronica, holding a cloth to Jesus’ face and being left with a miraculous imprint.

For those interested in this sort of thing, the story of Veronica is “A late Latin insertion into the Gospel of Nicodemus” (JCJ Metford, Dictionary of Christian Lore and Legend, Thames & Hudson, 1983, pp 252-3). The ‘sudarium’ cloth bearing ‘the features of Jesus’ has been in Rome since the eighth century and is kept in a crypt in St Peter’s with two other top-drawer holy relics – the spear used to test whether Jesus was dead and a fragment of the cross itself.

The Catholic edge to the film is evidenced in other ways too. Jesus asking for “this chalice” to be taken from him in Gethsemene (although this is just a matter of subtitling); the seven ‘stages of the cross’ as Jesus travels to Golgotha, the use of Latin and the fact that Jesus carries an entire cross while the two thieves crucified with him merely carry the cross-pieces. It’s a minor quirk that the two thieves are a more historically accurate depiction of ‘carrying a cross’.

Listing the use of Latin might surprise some people. However, it seems very unlikely that Latin would have been used by Pilate in discussions with anyone outside his own household. The ‘lingua franca’ of the eastern half of the Roman Empire in those days was not Latin, but Greek. The majority of soldiers would have spoken Greek, especially if they hailed from the Greek-speaking ‘Roman’ cities in that area. The Jewish leadership would not have learned Latin (one or two of them might have known it), while Pilate would probably not have stooped low enough to learn the backwater peasant language of Aramaic. Of course the great lines from the Vulgate, the Latin translation of the Bible, including ‘Ecce Homo’ would have been lost if Pilate spoke Greek in the film, so again dogma seems to have gotten ahead of historical reality.

Putting aside those minor interpolations of Catholic lore and dogma, the rest is pretty much good script-writing. Judas is hounded to his death by children who may, or may not, be demon-possessed, or he might see them as such because betraying Jesus has tipped him over the edge psychologically. The thief that abuses Jesus on the cross has a particularly nasty encounter with a crow. Again, this is a nod to later traditions, although attacks by carrion birds on those not yet dead can happen at outdoor executions. The sad thing is that one or two crucial aspects of the story are left out.

Perhaps for fear of accusations of anti-Semitism, the claim by the mob to “Let his blood be upon us and on our children” (Matthew 27 v25) was dropped from the screenplay. Quite how this is any more anti-Semitic than any of the other scenes featuring the Jewish religious leaders of the day, or the mob scenes that made the final cut, is unclear. In fact, there is not really an anti-Jewish feel to the film at all. The protests by some members of the ‘Sanhedrin’ ruling council about the treatment of Jesus are included. The wild claims of anti-Semitism seem to have more to do with some people wanting to discredit the film. In that respect, the label ‘anti-Semitic’ is becoming the catch-all damnation of the twenty-first century. Nobody wants to be lumped in with neo-Nazis or the kind of lunatics who believe in the Zionist Secret Protocols.

It should be pointed out that in Matthew, the ‘entire crowd’ shout “Let his blood be upon us…” Everybody is guilty – just as every human being has sinned and is therefore in some way responsible for Christ’s death. This is a key point that has been under-emphasised. Mel Gibson does make the point later, however. The hands shown hammering the nails are those of the director. In a subtle way he is saying that we are all guilty, himself included.

The second phrase dropped out of the gospel accounts is the centurion’s confession, made famous by John Wayne in an earlier film. After the final scene on Golgotha we see Satan screaming in Hell and the Jewish Temple shattered by an earthquake. Surely the centurion should have said ‘Surely this man was the Son of God’. It’s a three-fold victory – over spiritual forces, religious opponents and military might. But Gibson misses it out, maybe because there was nobody to deliver it in an American drawl.

So, that’s the freelance theology take on The Passion of the Christ. It is an excellent film, well-worth seeing. It is not for the faint-hearted, however. Although, if as Christians we are called to take up our own crosses daily, perhaps our faith is not for the faint-hearted either.


Reader’s Comments

At the risk of seeming immodest, I thought I’d post some of the nice things people have said about freelance theology:

Dear Jon, I’ve just come across your site and find it really interesting. – PR

Hi Jon, I like your website, I fancy it could be quite a useful reference tool, particularly for new Christians and those who struggle to overcome niggling questions, as well as for Christians when they’re asked awkward questions by their friends! – GT

I liked what you wrote in answer to my question on Stewardship. I’m chewing on it a bit. – CM

Dear JM
I just read the answer to my question, no one has explained it that clearly before, I should have just asked you ages ago!!! – FC

Have you got a comment about freelance theology? Say what you like and, as long as it makes sense and doesn’t contain too many curse words, I’ll list your comment in a future section. Or you can just ask a question. What’s bugging you? What piece of ‘Christianese’ jargon are you trying to decipher? What question does your minister always try and avoid answering? Send it to freelance theology using the ‘mail me’ button.


The Holy Grail – myths and legends

Question from CM, United Kingdom

Dear Freelance Theology,
Is the Holy Grail just a mystic’s wet dream or does it have any basis in truth?

The Grail myth centres around two main theories – either the Grail was a physical object or, more sensationally, a ‘secret bloodline’ of descendants from Jesus.

There is some debate about the nature of the object. Usually in the myths that became associated with the Knights of the Round Table in medieval legend, it was a cup or chalice used by Jesus at the Last Supper, or the dish that the meal was served on, or the cup used by Joseph of Arimathea to catch the blood of Christ as he died that Joseph later brought to Glastonbury in England. The Grail was said to have mystical life-giving properties, with those drinking from it gaining immortality or absolution from sin (depending which story you read). This side of the story was popularised in the film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. (more…)


Predestination Discussion

The following exchange of views was conducted via e-mail with PR, United Kingdom.

Dear Jon, I’ve just come across your site and find it really interesting. I was looking through your response on Predestination, and wondered if you have considered the following:

That “Pre-destined” (Rom 8:30) actually refers to the promise that those who believe will be transformed into the likeness of Christ, and it therefore does not relate to the choosing or otherwise by God of those who will be saved or not saved. Foreknowledge (in Rom 8:29) is about God knowing the outcome of his decision to send Jesus to die, namely that it would be possible for man to be reconciled to himself, but not necessarily that any would actually accept the salvation. Hence, God has put in place the possibility for all to be saved but not all will be, due to human free will.
Would appreciate your thoughts…

Response from Jon the freelance theologian:

Thanks for your comments,

As I said in the answer about predestination, the problem with basing any doctrinal stance about predestination solely on Scripture is that the Bible can be interpreted in many different ways and does often seem to say different things in different places. On that note, the danger is that we can try to explain away a difficult passage, like the one in Romans, looking for meanings that are not obvious. That does not mean your interpretation is incorrect, but like everybody who approaches this particular topic our interpretation of various ‘proof-texts’ depends on our personal opinion, rather than our belief following on from a natural reading and comprehending of the texts.

Like most of Christian theology, predestination opens up a nice paradox – how can human free will co-exist with the Sovereign will of God? Especially as humans only exist in the first place because of God’s Sovereign will? And yet it is clear that we are beings who have been given the freedom to choose (the ‘terrible choice’ as some people call it).

I like your summing up, but the big question with pursuing a doctrine that emphasises human free will is why did God take a risk that humans would reject him? This throws up two further questions. 1) Did God know (does God know) who would (will) reject him – and why does he not do more to prevent that rejection? And 2) Ultimately, if human free will is ‘given’ to us, then we do not have a choice not to have it, so is a forced choice really a free choice?

To which PR replied:

My thought about your response is that we are created in God’s image (personality), and since God has free will, we inherit it – it’s something that he “forced” himself to do through creating us and so takes a risk on us rejecting him.

Obviously, if he forced us to love him that would be against free will and so he cannot do it, but he does give us the information or experiences to discover that love and then make a choice. Jesus was very clear about some people rejecting him, and therefore God. I think that he had a very real understanding of humankind’s ability to choose.

One way that I use to try to understand Sovereign Will/Free Will, is in terms of parenting. My children had no choice in whether they were born or not – that was a decision that my wife and I took. However, now that they are alive they have a choice as to whether to love us or not. We love them, and with respect to our humanity, I hope we always will, but that is no guarantee that they will always love us. You only need to look at modern society to see the breakdown of relationship between parents and children.

If they choose not to love us there is little that we might be able to do to change their minds, other than to provide a possible way back. It is still their choice, but hopefully our efforts would make it difficult to resist (but not impossible). Of course, this is where the analogy breaks down, since God does have many more possible back up plans than we could ever hope to have, and his grace is far more sufficient than you or I can imagine.

One other question… if we are not to base our doctrinal stance solely on Scripture, what else might we use?

The next response from Jon the freelance theologian:

Hi PR

I like the analogy. I am assuming, as I have never met you in person, that the main difference between you and your children and God and his creation, is that you are not eternal and able to see every outcome. No doubt your kids do things that continually surprise you – sometimes good things and sometimes not so good! Of course I might be wrong about your attributes and nature there – let me know if that is the case.

However, God is eternal, omniscient, all–powerful and so on. The implication is that he knew that, in giving humans the potential to rebel against him, they actually would. Yes, he reveals himself in love to humanity, in direct revelation, through the Law, the prophets, Jesus Christ, the canon of scripture and the ongoing witness of the Church universal. But (and this is the main point), sometimes this revelation fails to convince people to turn to him.

Now we can say that ‘failure’ is human free will, however, if God is all-powerful and all-knowing he knows what would be incontrovertible proof in each human situation to each human being and he would be able to offer that proof. Given that some people are still ‘free’ to choose yea or nay, we have to conclude that God has chosen not to reveal himself to the point where that person cannot turn him down. In fact, the Bible is full of references to God ‘hardening people’s hearts’ against him (see especially Romans 9 v18, a common passage quoted in this kind of debate).

The key element that God is searching for is faith. Believing in God is not like believing in something easily seen and touched (like your computer screen). So that might be why God does not overwhelm human beings with proof. The point is, though, that he could and chooses not to. Human free will? Or God’s Sovereign choosing will?

Jesus did indicate that humans have the capacity to choose to believe or not and, perhaps because he was aware of that need for faith, he urged people to believe. Jesus also said “Nobody can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6 v44), in a passage that is heavy on the idea that those who come to Jesus are selected by the Father. In Jesus’ words here and elsewhere we see this balancing act between God’s restrained impact on human beings somehow allowing human ‘free will’ and his desire for the entire world to be saved.

Regarding your final question about Scripture as a basis for theology, personally I think all doctrinal statements should be rooted in all of Scripture. The problem with an issue like predestination is that people root it in their understanding of certain parts of Scripture and that’s where it all starts to fall apart. I think at some point we have to accept predestination is a paradox and work from there.

Other things we can use as tools in theological inquiry include reason (quite legitimate as long as our minds are not conforming to the world – Romans 12 v2) and experience. Often an experience of the transcendent cannot be adequately expressed in words (Paul’s description of the third heaven in 2 Corinthians chapter 12 falls into that bracket), but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to express it.

One of the reasons to believe that the Bible is essentially true is because it is hard to understand, does not offer quick fixes and seems to contradict itself. Which seems to make it perfect for this confusing world of ours!

Thanks for the conversation, PR. If you would like to comment on this, or any other topic covered on freelance theology please email using the ‘contact me’ button.


Thought and Deed

Question from FC, Japan

I have been reading your website with huge interest, and it occurs to me that I would like to know why exactly the “thought is as bad as the deed”?
Surely wanting to stab my boss in the throat with my ball-point pen can hardly be considered the same as actually doing it!

“I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” – Jesus, quoted in Matthew 5 v28.

Jesus frequently condemned religious hypocrisy, a fact that makes him more endearing to non-religious people. He refers to the Pharisees, the Jewish ultra-religious leaders of his day, as ‘white-washed tombs’ – pretty to look at, but filled with death (Matthew 23 v27). He instructs his disciples to pray out of public view and in secret (Matthew 6 vs5-8).

The main concern behind all this is that Jesus wants his followers to concentrate on their relationship with God, rather than their standing in society. Similarly, God is not fooled. No matter how pious you appear, God knows the truth about what you really think, do and feel. The real danger with such hypocrisy is that it leads to smug self-satisfaction, arrogance, prescriptive legalism and judgemental attitudes.

That is why the ‘thought is as bad as the deed’. Actions originate out of thoughts, so the first step on the road to violence is the thought or fantasy of ‘stabbing someone in the throat’. The point is that stabbing is not really Jesus’ way. It does not sit well with the command to “love your enemies [or boss!] and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5 v44). Similarly, lustful thoughts lead to adultery as is shown in the well-known, tragic story of David and Bathsheba (2 Samuel chapters 11 and 12).

Internal purity is the essential ingredient in external righteousness. Christians are equipped for this through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, but that does not mean we never think violent thoughts. If, however, we find that our ‘thought-life’ differs drastically from the face we show the world, we should remember that Jesus has little time, and no good words, for hypocrites.

I hope that answer was useful, FC. Thanks for contributing to freelance theology. If you would like to comment or pose your own question, please use the ’email me’ button.


Stewardship – the use of money, property and resources

Question from CM, United Kingdom

Dear Freelance Theology,
Can you give a brief explanation of Stewardship and tell me your thoughts on how far it should apply in our lives. Does it only apply to our finances or to all material things in our life?

In a previous answer, specifically about whether Christians should own stocks and shares, I wrote the following: “We are stewards of the money and resources given to us, not the sole owners, therefore God has a legitimate claim on everything in our life, including our money.”

In the Old Testament the Israelites are constantly reminded that everything they have is from God, including the land of Israel. The institution of the ‘Year of Jubilee’ (in Leviticus ch25 vs8 and following) was to show that human beings had no claim of ownership regarding the land – it belonged to God. (more…)