I realize that many will be watching Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ throughout this week. I myself have been showing parts of it to my students. So I am not opposed to watching it. Nor am I interested in resuming the vitriolic arguments that surrounded its release. But I would like to suggest a few cautions to all viewers that arose in my mind again while I watched some scenes today in class. Again, because I find these cautions helpful to myself, I offer them to you.
Nostra Aetate, the Vatican II document on world religions, states:
Even though the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ (see Jn 19:6), neither all Jews indiscriminately at that time, nor Jews today, can be charged with the crimes committed during his passion. It is true that the church is the new people of God, yet the Jews should not be spoken of as rejected or accursed as if this followed from holy scripture. Consequently, all must take care, lest in catechizing or in preaching the word of God, they teach anything which is not in accord with the truth of the Gospel message or the spirit of Christ.
The last part is my highlighted emphasis. The danger in the Passion of the Christ is precisely its tendency, in my opinion, to do just this. Here is a good article to read if you want to go into depth. I would recommend it before viewing.
In particular, it is helpful to keep three points in mind. First, what Gibson adds to the movie from the Gospels, though subtle, is important. For example, Satan is often seen flitting behind the high priest and other priests of the council. The implication seems clear: Satan is directing their actions. The demon children run Judas to his death. Neither of these are in the Gospels. The implication is that most of the Jewish people in Jerusalem were in on this (except for Mary and John). and were excessively cruel. Torments are added on that never show up in the Gospels. Even the apostles come out looking pretty good. The truth is however that only Luke has the devil entering into someone’s heart, and that is the heart of Judas. The Chief Priests were simply trying to protect their law and customs. Or, if we want to impute demonic influence on them, we must impute it of everyone else as well, and that should be made clear in the movie. To simply highlight the Jewish leaders is to miss the fact that a nuanced reading shows they had their own religion and indeed possibly existence as a nation at stake. They weren’t just being intentionally evil.
But Gibson included quite a bit that is not in the Gospels, particular details of this kind that go into slow motion. Agents of the High Priest pay off witnesses. Crowds of Jews attack Jesus in different parts. The Pharisees are mentioned as hating Jesus, while in the Passion it was probably the Sadducees who played the largest role in Jesus’ death. So be careful what those images do to you. This is not a historical reproduction; it is a work of art, of theatre, of imagination. That is the main caution to keep in mind.
Second, on a theological level, to simply merge all details from the four passion accounts into one can be dangerous. I’ll simply quote from the linked article above:
What does this mean for dramatizations of the passion of Christ from a Catholic perspective? Unless they decide simply to present the passion according to Mark or one of the other evangelists, all authors of passion dramas have to choose elements from the four different Gospel narratives of Jesus’ death in order to shape a coherent narrative. This leads to the question: what principles of selection will guide the composition of a particular passion script? In addition, how will the drama of the death of Jesus deal with the later theological insights that are embedded in the Gospel texts? If ignored, a script will anachronistically present theological debates that had not yet occurred during Jesus’ lifetime as realities at the time of his death.
Each author of each gospel is at work writing a “narrative,” as Luke calls it. This allows for certain literary touches and possibly embellishments, as well as concerns from their own situations that may color their renditions, such as struggles between their churches and local synagogues. To ignore interpretation in dramatizations can lead to distortions of the real meanings of these carefully crafted narratives. There are also differences between the narratives. His directorial moves reveal his choices. We must simply be aware of this and keep in mind that he chooses to highlight certain ways of looking at the Passion story and chooses to downplay others. The article above will help in that regard.
Finally, it is helpful to keep in mind that alongside the Gospels, Gibson was using the private revelations of Anne Catherine Emmerich. An example of some of her more anti-Semitic writings:
At the same moment I perceived the yawning abyss of hell like a fiery meteor at the feet of Caiaphas; it was filled with horrible devils; a slight gauze alone appeared to separate him from its dark flames. I could see the demoniacal fury with which his heart was overflowing, and the whole house looked to me like hell. […]I remember seeing, among other frightful things, a number of little black objects, like dogs with claws, which walked on their hind legs; I knew at the time what kind of wickedness was indicated by this apparition, but I cannot remember now. I saw these horrible phantoms enter into the bodies of the greatest part of the bystanders, or else place themselves on their head or shoulders.
[A] crowd of miscreants— the very scum of the people—surrounded Jesus like a swarm of infuriated wasps, and began to heap every imaginable insult upon him. […] [They] pulled out handfuls of his hair and beard, spat upon him, struck him with their fists, wounded him with sharp-pointed sticks, and even ran needles into his body; […] around his neck they hung a long iron chain, with an iron ring at each end, studded with sharp points, which bruised and tore his knees as be walked. […] After many many insults, they seized the chain which was hanging on his neck, dragged him towards the room into which the Council had withdrawn, and with their sticks forced him in, […] A large body of councilors, with Caiaphas at their head, were still in the room, and they looked with both delight and approbation at the shameful scene which was enacted, […] Every countenance looked diabolical and enraged, and all around was dark, confused, and terrific.
Heavily influenced by Emmerich, we can see her influence in the film. Instead of seeing painful concern on the face of the High Priest, agony that he has to do what he is doing, for example, all we ever see is straight-forward hatred. On the other hand, why does Pilate always get so much empathy from us? I never understand that. For example: Pilate offers Jesus water to drink. Pilate’s wife gives Mary towels to wipe up his blood. Pilate is shocked at how beat up Jesus is after he has been scourged. We are more ready to understand the Gentile than the Jew.
So these are some cautions to keep in mind while watching the film. Again, this is not to say do not watch. I find parts of it to be edifying. But we need to be careful what we get out of it. To think of it as a film that “tells it like it was” is dangerous and inaccurate.