The Passion of the Christ
Beyond all Hollywood's or any one else's predictions, Mel Gibson's sensational film depicting the passion and death of Jesus is proving to be a spectacular success. Not only is there evidence of absolutely stunned audiences, but of almost instant conversions, not only from lives of sin, but even to Christianity itself.
However, not to put all that good aside, there have been serious objections raised against the film, both regarding its historical accuracy as well as the distortions of judgment that might arise from these inaccuracies. First, as to Gibson's claim that he was basically following the Gospel account. Instead, Gibson mixed bits of this or that gospel — often with quotes from John's Gospel taken out of context — with scenes (like the Veronica's veil legend) borrowed from devotions like the Way of the Cross, some pious "revelations" of a controversial mystic, and then added some concoctions of his own. As such, the movie is more like a modern rerun of a medieval "passion play" than a documentary-style representation of what responsible scripture scholars can really tell us about the final hours of the life of Jesus. This is not to say that people shouldn't see the film. It is just to say that one shouldn't take everything they see in it "as the Gospel truth."
But my real concern is more about the long-term effects of the film, Gibson's uncritical use, in particular, of the anti-Jewish polemic found in Matthew's Gospel is especially troublesome. Although, at least in the US release of the film, the line about "his blood be upon us and upon our children" seems to have been cut, still the overall message appears to be that only the Jewish leaders wanted Jesus dead, and that while the Roman soldiers were especially brutish, the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, in particular, wanted to save Jesus. All this ignores the fact that the Gospel of Matthew was trying to explain to Jewish Christians (most likely in retrospect) the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 AD and not, as so many Christians have misused this particular gospel, as an excuse to persecute all Jews for all generations to come.
I wonder too, what will be the effect of this film in other parts of the world, particularly among non-Christians. Christians have a theological explanation for this horrible deed — that Jesus died for our sins —
which insulates us from the confusion and dismay the first Christians experienced over this tragedy. But even that explanation (which may not even make much sense to many modern Christians) makes even less sense, for example, to Muslims, who believe that God is too compassionate or merciful to ever allow one of his prophets to ever suffer such a fate (Muslims instead believe that Jesus never died but was taken directly to heaven). And as for Buddhists, the next most wide-spread group of non-Christians in the world, and whose religion is dedicated to eradicating suffering in all forms, what are they to make of a religion that seems to glorify suffering, or in the case of this film, even wallow in it?
All this suggests to me that this film, as impressive as many find it to be, lacks not only historical accuracy, but even more — despite its tasteful effort to symbolize the Resurrection of Christ at the very end — suffers from a fundamental theological imbalance. The world needs to know that Jesus died as a result of a loving God's willingness to share the human condition in all its uncertainties and less as some kind foreordained bloody sacrifice to appease a wrathful God bent on vengeance.
R. W. Kropf 3/6/04 Passion.doc 04-03-22.html