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.

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