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History is Beside the Point:
Deconstructing Mel Gibson’s "The Passion of the Christ"

"The film has nothing to do with historical debates; it is a passion play, both successful and abysmal in representing that genre…Mr Gibson has fashioned a blunt instrument of propaganda, edged with artistry, whose visceral power gives it the potential to become his most lethal weapon of all.... And, as in the case of any passion play, the artistry consists of what is invented, not in fidelity to the Gospels, and history is beside the point."

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The Roman execution process

Gibson spends the greatest amount of time on the scourging, a process which is mentioned in only one sentence in each of the gospels, and he (Pilate) handed him over to be flogged. The gospel writers clearly knew that the flogging was an integral part of the Roman judicial process.17 All people who were condemned to death were scourged,18 tortured, and humiliated by Roman soldiers. Thousands upon thousands of Jews were scourged and crucified by the Romans, especially after the final Jewish war. Jesus was just one of these thousands. Gibson shows the Roman soldiers as taking particular delight in flogging Jesus; the other two who were condemned are relatively unscathed. According to Roman practice, all those condemned to crucifixion had to carry the top bar of the cross to the site of execution, as the other two are shown doing in the film. But Jesus is shown as having to carry his whole cross. The process as depicted by the gospel writers was standard procedure for anyone condemned to crucifixion. Gibson seems to suggest that Jesus had to endure more than the other Jews condemned with him. It is more in line with his admiration for heroism (as depicted in his other films) than with the biblical descriptions.

These facts make one doubt the integrity of Gibson’s researchers. Much is made of the fact that the original languages are spoken (Aramaic and Latin). But Chilton points out that "the Semitic-language scenes are a wild brew of Aramaic, Hebrew, and Syriac with grammatical mistakes in all three. The Latin is pretty good, but to have Jesus conversing learnedly with Pilate in that language is just too funny for words" (Chilton 3)

History remembered or prophecy historicized?

The problem of "what really happened" is an even more profound one than the methodological indefensibility of the construction of a unified account of the passion story. This is not the place for a full exposition of the problem, but we have been convinced by Crossan's argument that "those who knew did not care and those who cared did not know."19 In other words, the disciples of Jesus had only very minimal knowledge of the judicial processes that Jesus underwent because they had all fled and because those processes were not "open to the public." They recreated the events in line with what they considered to be prophecies about Jesus in their Hebrew scriptures. They were convinced that Jesus’ death had not taken place outside the will of God. This was their way of expressing that conviction. The passion narratives are not history remembered but "prophecy historicized."20 The fact that the gospel writers, writing 40 to 60 years after Jesus’ execution, frame his execution in a story of conflict between him and the Jewish religious establishment is a reflection of their historical experience, not of the reality of Jesus’ life.


The longest lie

Crossan points out that the conflict depicted by the gospel writers was not a conflict between Christians and Jews – it was a conflict between Jews and Jews. When they write about "the Jews," they mean "you other Jews who disagree with us about the future of Judaism." But by the time of the gospel writers, they were coming under increasing pressure from Roman authorities. This explains the sympathetic picture painted of Pontius Pilate. We think it is apt to quote extensively from his book Who Killed Jesus?:

Internally, divergent groups within Judaism opposed one another in those same centuries with everything from armed opposition through rhetorical attack to nasty name calling. Christianity began as a sect within Judaism and, here slowly, there swiftly, separated itself to become eventually a distinct religion. If all this stayed on the religious level, each side could have accused and denigrated the other quite safely forever. But, by the fourth century, Christianity was the official religion of the Roman Empire, and with the dawn of Christian Europe anti-Judaism moved from theological debate to lethal possibility. (32)

But it is not just a question of how the passion narratives were misused or misread, but of what they were in the first place. What is actual history and what is creative polemic in those stories? When a Roman general insists on Jesus’ innocence and a Jerusalem crowd insists on Jesus’ crucifixion, is that factual history or Christian propaganda? It is quite possible to understand and to sympathise with a small and powerless Jewish sect writing fiction to defend itself. But once that Jewish sect became the Christian Roman Empire, a defensive strategy would become the longest lie. The passion narratives challenge both the honesty of Christian history and the integrity of Christian conscience (36).

Facts or interpretations: the biblical basis of the Christian "grand narrative"

Mel Gibson has taken the passion narratives out into the global community, into the interfaith environment. We believe that this forces the issue of the historicity of the founding narratives of the Christian church on to center stage. Well founded scientific historical, anthropological, and archaeological research have now shown that not only the beginning of Jesus’ life (as depicted in the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke) but also the passion narratives are mythical in character. This does not mean that they are untrue, but their truth lies on a different level. As Crossan points out:

We argue that we have facts not interpretations, that we have history not myth, that we have truth and you have lies. That will not work any longer, not for us and not for anyone else. We need to compare one another’s myths and metaphors to see how fully human is the life they engender, but we cannot deny that everyone builds firmly on such inevitable foundations. Christians, like all other human beings, live from out of the depths of myth and metaphor. But there still remains, now especially, the urgent challenge to accept our own foundational myth without shame or denial and that of others without hate or disparagement. (218)

This is the real issue raised by Mel Gibson’s film and which must be faced by the Church which has been hiding this debate from its members. We realize that many will not be able to deal with it, but the process has to start if Christians wish to live with integrity in a religiously and morally diverse world which is rapidly destroying its own sustainable natural base. Crossan depicts the presentation of the trial of Jesus as opposing Jewish guilt and Roman innocence as "the longest lie." This term can, however, be extended to the assumption that the four gospel accounts can be combined into a unified account. And it can be applied to the claim that the Church’s master narrative of the Christian faith is in complete accord with the Hebrew and Greek scriptures.

Even if things happened exactly as described in the gospel accounts, that does not "prove" the theological truth of the Christian master narrative.21 According to Prof IJJ Spangenberg of the University of SA (my translation - see footnote for original)

The (Christian) master narrative is not a shortened version of the Bible narratives, but an interpreted narrative. It does not correlate precisely with the Biblical narratives. It is informed largely by a Christian philosophy and Christian view of human nature, and that philosophy and that view of human nature comes from the Greek and Latin church fathers.22

This master narrative, or theory, as constructed by the Church Fathers in the 4th century, has become the basis of Christian fundamentalism. Scientific research as embodied in modern biblical and literary scholarship is a much greater challenge to Fundamentalist Christian theology than the traditional conflict between "science" and "religion." We believe that, to be a Christian in the modern world, cognizance must be taken of that debate, and its full implications must be confronted.23 If we do not do so, we are living a religious lie.24 And that is our biggest problem with this film. It presents a picture of the foundational event of Christianity that is now being challenged by well founded biblical and historical research. The Church is hiding this challenge from its members and from non-Christians alike. It is as if Gibson made a historical film showing how God made man out of mud, as depicted in Genesis 2, ignoring all scientific evidence for evolution.

We wish to end with a final quote from Chilton:

By mixing together the genre of the passion play with the pretension of historical accuracy, Gibson has inadvertently made his passion play into pious vaudeville. Claims that this film reflects the Gospels or history are cynical. Critics who treat it as historical work have confused their profession with self-promotion (5).

Chilton says that after seeing Gibson’s Passion he went home to watch Die Hard with his younger son. He felt morally uplifted. We felt that Jesus Christ Superstar was a much better passion play – it was enjoyable, thought provoking,25 made the viewer identify with the characters, had some wonderfully moving lyrics and tunes and made no pretence at historical accuracy – everything that a passion play should be doing!

Isle of Wight
June 2004

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(back)  17See F. P. Retief and L. Cilliers: “The History and Pathology of Crucifixion,” SA Medical Journal 93:12, 938-941.

(back)  18Except women, ex-soldiers and senators! (See Retief and Cilliers).

(back)  19Who Killed Jesus? 219,

(back)  20Who Killed Jesus? x : “Does the abuse of  Jesus come from history remembered or from prophecy historicized? Does it come from Christians investigating their sources to know what happened as historical event, or does it come from Christians searching their scriptures to create what happened as prophetic fulfilment?”

(back)  21The master narrative of the Christian faith interprets mankind as inherently sinful on the basis of a faulty interpretation of the story of Adam and Eve. The rest of the Hebrew Bible is seen as God’s preparation (through history and prophecy) for the coming of His Son, Jesus Christ, who through his preordained death and resurrection offers salvation to all who believe in him.

(back)  22“Die meesterverhaal is nie ‘n verkorte weergawe van die Bybelverhale nie, maar ‘n geïnterpreteerde verhaal. Dit korreleer nie presies met die Bybelverhale nie. Daar sit ‘n stuk Christelike filosofie en Christelike mensbeskouing daarager en daardie filosfie en daardie mensbeskouing kom van die Griekse en Latynse kerkvaders.” (IJJ Spangenberg: Wat moet ons weet, en wat kan ons nog glo?)

(back)  23As for example, Bishop John Shelbey Spong presents in his book: A New Christianity for a New World. Why Traditional Faith is Dying and How a New Faith is Being Born. HarperSanfrancisco. 2002.

(back)  24Crossan calls the persistent presentation of Roman innocence and Jewish guilt in the Christian master narrative “the longest lie” (John Dominic Crossan: Who Killed Jesus? Exposing the Roots of anti-Semitism in the Gospel Stories of the Death of Jesus. HarperCollins paperbacks, 1996.)

(back)  25Here too the Jewish leadership is presented in a rather dark light, but so are the disciples!

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Chilton, Bruce. "Mel Gibson’s Passion Play." (The University of Chicago Press will publish an expanded version of this article in a book with the provisional title "The Passion of the Christ. Biblical and Theological Perspectives.")

Crossan, John Dominic. Who Killed Jesus? Exposing the Roots of anti-Semitism in the Gospel Stories of the Death of Jesus. HarperCollins paperbacks, 1996.

Egyptian "Passion" Plays.

Novak, Michael. Passion Play: The controversy over Mel Gibson’s forthcoming movie on the death of Jesus Christ. August 25, 2003 issue of The Weekly Standard.

Passion Plays in History and Theology. June 24, 2003.  (Anti-Defamation League).

Retief, F.P. and L. Cilliers. "The History and Pathology of Crucifixion," SA Medical Journal 93:12, 938-941. 2003.

Spangenberg, I.J.J. Wat moet ons weet, en wat kan ons glo? Ned. Geref. Teologiese Tydskrif 44 (1&2) 147-160.

Spong, John Shelbey. A New Christianity for a New World. Why Traditional Faith is Dying and How a New Faith is Being Born. HarperSanfrancisco. 2002.

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