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"The Passion of the Christ"

An analysis of the movie.

by Larry Watts

Crucifixion from The Passion

The movie, The Passion of the Christ, has been seen by millions of people. The movie amazed Hollywood with its box office sales. It angered, humbled, convicted, stunned, horrified, and sobered both the public and the media pundits. If you've seen the film, you know it is not something easily forgotten, and there is little question that it has become a major cultural milestone for Americans.

Many reports indicate a positive spiritual effect on people, but it did not begin a revival as some predicted. People who saw the movie had widely divergent reactions, both negative and positive. It raised many questions among non-believers and believers alike. (Probably more questions came from believers because they took it more seriously.)

Before the film's release, the PBS television network aired a very interesting group discussion that showed the variety of opinions that could be produced by the movie. This special program included Newsweek magazine's religion editor who was joined by a university professor and the film critic, Gene Shallat. It was almost comical as the religion editor tried at every opportunity to attack the Bible (and the film) in some way. The university professor also was quite negative in her comments. Gene Shallat kept upsetting their tirades by saying things like: "This really worked for me. I thought it was brilliant." He actually apologized several times when he kept complimenting Mel Gibson's work!

Whether you liked the film or not, it is undeniably a major work of art. Many of the scenes could be framed and hung on a museum wall. This was not a stroke of luck because classic paintings were emulated for the lighting and composition of the film. The use of the original languages was captivating and gave it a heightened sense of realism. The caliber of the acting, the editing, and music, although criticized in some reviews, maintained the high professional standards of Hollywood.

So let's look at the film — its characteristics, its message and its impact — and answer some of the questions it has provoked.

Was it Anti-Semitic?

Anti-Semitism was the hot issue before the film was released. Jewish organizations and some individuals were fearful that it would spark acts of hatred. In light of the Holocaust and the violence Israel faces every day, I think we should show understanding concerning their fears. History is replete with Jewish persecution. What many Jews don't seem to understand, however, is that biblically literate Christians love Jews. They cannot blame Jews alone for the crucifixion if they are true to the Bible since Scripture states in Acts 4:27 that the blame must be shared: "For, in fact, in this city both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, assembled together against Your holy Servant Jesus, whom You anointed..."

What parts of the movie were extra-biblical?

Before we identify the added scenes it's important to understand the purpose and motivation for the film. Mel Gibson is a conservative Catholic and does not follow the liberalization of Catholicism that came with Vatican II. (He prefers the Latin Mass.) His objective for the film was to impact the viewer with the enormity of the sacrifice Jesus undertook on our behalf. He consulted "thousands" of theologians, and it was his desire to remain true to the Bible. One must also understand that there would not be enough material from biblical quotes alone to make a feature length movie on just the passion. Here is a quote from another writer:

"Gibson co-wrote the screenplay with Benedict Fitzgerald (Wise Blood). It drew faithfully from the gospel accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John as the script's main sources. Still, Gibson knew he was going into largely unexplored artistic territory — into the realm where art, storytelling and personal devotion meet. 'When you tackle a story that is so widely known and has so many different pre-conceptions, the only thing you can do is remain as true as possible to the story and your own way of expressing it creatively,' Gibson said. 'This is what I tried to do.'"

So, we can be thankful that this movie contained much Scripture, was reverent, and portrayed our Lord in a positive and powerful way.

Mel Gibson drew from the Catholic traditions of the 14 stations of the cross as the skeletal outline for the film. He also incorporated the visions of the Spanish nun, Mary of Agreda (1602-1665) and the German nun, Anne Catherine Emmerich (1774-1824). These two women were mystics and their visions were published in two books respectively titled, The Mystical City of God and The Dolorous Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ. Some of the visions that Mr. Gibson used were:

  1. The appearance of a snake during Satan's temptation of Jesus in Gethsemane and Jesus crushing it with his heel. (The gospel account of an angel ministering to Jesus was omitted.)
  2. Children taunting Judas after his betrayal.
  3. Mary awakening at night and saying "Why is this night unlike any other night?" (This language is taken from the Jewish liturgy of the Passover.)
  4. A brief scene where bribes are being handed out to people for testifying against Jesus.
  5. The appearance of Jesus' mother, Mary, and Mary Magdalene in the courtyard of Pilate's fortress.
  6. Jesus working on the table as a carpenter.
  7. Jesus being defended by several high priests.
  8. Peter confessing his sin of denial to Mary, mother of Jesus, and calling her "mother."
  9. Satan watching as Jesus carries the cross to Golgotha.
  10. The extended conversations between Pilate and his wife.

Another added scene, and one which Lamb & Lion received the most number of questions about, was the place where we see Satan holding a baby. As you get a better look you see a baby with hair on its back and an ugly grown-up looking face. It only lasts a few seconds, but it gets your attention. Since this ugly baby is totally extra-biblical (not in the gospel accounts) Mel Gibson has often been asked to explain it. Here's what he has said:

"It's evil distorting what's good. What is more tender and beautiful than a mother and a child? So the Devil takes that and distorts it just a little bit. Instead of a normal mother and child you have an androgynous figure holding a 40-year-old 'baby' with hair on his back. It is weird, it is shocking, it's almost too much — just like turning Jesus over to continue scourging Him on His chest is shocking and almost too much, which is the exact moment when this appearance of the Devil and the baby takes place."

What portions of Scripture were omitted?

The first omission was one found in the book of Matthew. In a concession to Jews, Gibson cut from the film the words of Matthew 27:25: "And all the people said, 'His blood shall be on us and on our children!'"

The second omission is John 19:30 where Jesus cries out, "It is finished." We take this as a Divine declaration proclaiming that the price of redemption has been paid once and for all.

Why was this left out? We did not find any stated reason for this. Some Protestant writers speculate that it is due to the Catholic teaching on Holy Communion. Catholics believe in transubstantiation, which means that during communion the juice and the wafer become the literal body of Christ. They also believe that the Catholic Church must continually make this offering for the forgiveness of sins over and over again. That is why the words "It is finished" have no real significance [to Catholics].

Did the added scenes enhance or detract?

A protestant pastor commenting on the scenes showing the close relationship of Jesus and His mother reflected that they were very meaningful to him. He said that his rejection of Mary's elevated role in Catholicism had caused him to overlook the human bond they must have experienced.

The added scenes certainly contributed emotion and character development to the film. The added scenes for the most part complimented Scripture and added theological import without being specifically Catholic.

Was the amount of suffering and violence overdone?

Based on other historical accounts of Roman crucifixions, it is doubtful that the violence depicted in this film is exaggerated. The Scriptures state the facts about the crucifixion in such a matter-of-fact or non-emotional way that a person could easily fail to grasp the really brutal nature of the event. Often the text only says "Jesus was crucified." It is only when a person is confronted with the details of crucifixion (whether by studying historical details or viewing a vivid portrayal in a film like this) that the reality of it slaps you in the face. This explains why people were so moved by the film.

The number of times Jesus fell on His way to Calvary was taken from Catholic tradition. Most seem to agree that the amount of suffering that was portrayed in the film was most likely quite accurate.

Should Protestants be concerned about the Catholic teaching in this movie?

When a Catholic sees this movie they pick up on the theology behind it immediately. When a protestant unfamiliar with Catholic teaching sees it, there usually is no doctrinal impact. There is no doubt that there is Catholic teaching in the movie that Protestants must reject. But, again, to the uninformed it is subtle, and I doubt that the movie in itself would lead someone astray.

For the most part Christians have been excited about the film's potential for evangelism. (We've also found Christian websites telling people to avoid the film entirely. This seems a bit extreme.)

The film certainly provides a very easy conversational transition to spiritual things. All one has to do is ask a series of questions: "Did you see the Passion?" "What did you think about it?" "Why was that?" "What kind of spiritual upbringing did you have?" "Have you come to the place in your life where you know for sure you are going to heaven?" "Would you like to have that assurance?"

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