Reply To: The Passion (movie by Mel Gibson)

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Anonymous
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I am not interested in getting into any lengthy discussion about this.
However, Mel Gibson’s film is NOT biblically accurate. Consider
the following:

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I begin by noting the fact that Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ”
includes a number of details that are not in the biblical narrative.
They derive rather from a centuries-old Catholic piety. There is
nothing wrong with using material out of an ancient worship
tradition but one should not claim biblical authority for this
material. For example, Jesus is portrayed in this film as stumbling
three times on his way to Golgotha. There is no evidence to support
this in the gospels but it is a well-known part of the traditional
Catholic liturgy called “The Stations of the Cross.” This film also
introduces a fictitious character named St. Veronica who is said, at
Station Number Six, to have wiped Jesus’ bloodied face with her
handkerchief. Veronica, a creation of later piety, never appears in
any biblical narrative.

Next, the Mother of Jesus is highly visible and quite central to
Gibson’s portrayal of the crucifixion. That is not true to the
gospels and expresses a confusion born out of later developing
Catholic devotional practices. The only time Mary is present in any
biblical account of the crucifixion comes in John, the last gospel
to be written, where she makes only a cameo appearance at the cross.
Even John does not then include her in his resurrection narrative.
Yet, in this film, Mel Gibson has Mary say to the dying Jesus, “Let
me die with you,” and then she cradles Jesus’ deceased body. That is
a famous portrait in Catholic art, painted many times and called the
Pieta, but there is not a shred of biblical evidence to support it.

As a matter of fact Mary, the mother of Jesus, hardly appears in the
gospel tradition outside the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke.
She is never referred to or mentioned in the writings of Paul (50-64
CE). She makes only two appearances in Mark, the first Gospel to be
written (70-75 CE) and both of them are pejorative. In Mark 3:31-35,
Jesus’ mother and his brothers, none of whom are named, come to
where Jesus is and call for him to come out to them. An earlier
verse in Mark (3:21) tells us why. When his family heard about his
activities, “they went out to seize him, for the people were
saying, ‘he is beside himself.'” “Beside himself” is an ancient way
of saying “He is out of his mind.” Jesus had become a family
embarrassment. The scribes, according the next verse in Mark (3:22)
were saying that he “is possessed by Beelzebul,” who was called ‘the
Prince of demons.” Jesus responds to his family, according to this
Marcan reference, by denying his relationship with his mother and
his brothers, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” Then, answering
his own question, he looks around at those seated near him and
says, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of
God, is my mother and sister and brother.”

In the second Markan reference (6:1-6), Jesus returns to Nazareth
and begins to teach in the synagogue to the astonishment of the
townspeople. They respond derisively as if to say, “Who does this
man think he is?” Then they go on to identify him with these
words, “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of
James, Joses, Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with
us?” and they took offense at him.

It is interesting to note that Mark, in this passage, has this
critical crowd identify Jesus as “the son of Mary,” as well as
describing him as “the carpenter.” Both of these references are
quite negative. To call a Jewish man the son of a particular woman
was an insult since it cast public doubts upon his paternity. To
call him a carpenter identified him as a lower class laborer.

Some ten to fifteen years later, when Matthew wrote his gospel (80-
85), he copied almost 90 per cent of Mark into his story. It is
interesting to note how Matthew changed Mark’s negative wording
(compare Mt. 12:46-50 and 13:53-58 with Mk. 3:31-35 and 6:1-6).
Mark’s words were so clearly embarrassing, that in Matthew’s
version, the slander is removed when Joseph, Jesus father, becomes
the carpenter, not Jesus, and the crowd calls him not “the son of
Mary,” but simply recalls that his mother was named Mary. Those are
the only references to the mother of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel other
than those in the birth narratives. The Virgin Mother of Jesus is
far more a creation of Christian history than a character in the
gospels.

In Luke it is no different. Outside the birth narratives (Lk. 1,2),
and Luke’s shortened retelling of Mark’s episode of Jesus’ mother
and brothers coming to take him away (see Lk. 8:19-22), the mother
of Jesus does not appear in this third gospel at all. Only in John
(95-100 C.E.) does the mother of Jesus receive any attention but
still it is not close to what Gibson portrays. She presides over a
wedding feast in Cana of Galilee in chapter 2 (vs.1-11). In that
story she is portrayed as requesting that Jesus meet the social
crisis brought about by a shortage of wine. Jesus rebukes her,
rather sternly, with the words, “Woman what have you to do with me?
My hour is not yet come.” In John 6, as part of that gospel’s
version of the feeding of the five thousand, Jesus is portrayed as
saying, “I am the bread which came down from heaven (vs.42).” To
this the crowd responds incredulously saying, “Is not this Jesus,
the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he claim
to have come down from heaven?” Once again, it is not a particularly
flattering reference to Mary. Finally, John portrays the mother of
Jesus at the foot of the cross. That is absolutely all there is in
the gospels about the mother of Jesus. The Virgin tradition has been
built on very scanty material.

I go through this in such detail because, to a degree far greater
than we imagine, Mel Gibson in “The Passion of the Christ” has read
the later development of pious tradition about the Virgin Mary back
into the gospel narratives. Since he has so obviously heightened the
crucifixion portrait, about the role of Mary, in contradistinction
to the biblical narrative itself, then his assertion that he has
followed the biblical texts accurately is severely compromised.

This lack of biblical accuracy does not stop with his portrayal of
the mother of Jesus. Gibson clearly hypes the biblical accounts of
the abuse that Jesus endured. There is no doubt that crucifixion was
a horrible and inhumane way to die, yet the physical suffering of
Jesus is, if anything, understated in the gospels while in Gibson’s
movie it is the riveting center of the story itself.

Look at the scourging scene in Gibson’s film. It is long, protracted
and grotesque. The cameras linger on the lash; the stripes, the
welts and the blood, but the biblical texts about the scourging are
almost matter of fact. They do not focus on the pain. Mark says
simply “Pilate, having scourged Jesus, delivered him to be crucified
(15:15).” Matthew uses almost identical words (27:26). Luke has
Pilate offer “to chastise” Jesus instead of executing him (23;17).
When the crowd, not satisfied with that, demands crucifixion
instead, Pilate acquiesces and delivers Jesus to be crucified
without scourging. John says quite simply, “Then Pilate took Jesus
and scourged him (Jn. 19:1). I do not mean to minimize this
scourging but no blood is mentioned or even described in the
gospels. Following this scourging, it is interesting to note that
Jesus is portrayed in John’s Gospel as having a rather long
conversation with Pilate (19:12-16) and in the earlier gospels as
conversing with the soldiers, the crowd and the thieves who shared
the cross with him. Whatever was done to him did not render him
incompetent to function immediately thereafter. The “Crown of
Thorns” is mentioned with no reference to blood in Mark (15:17),
Matthew 27:29) and John (19:2). It is omitted in Luke.

Once again, Gibson is reading the gospels through the lens of
medieval piety. In the early church, especially in the writings of
Paul, the death of Jesus was likened to the believer’s act of being
baptized. The believer in baptism was united with Christ in his
death so that he or she could live with Christ in his resurrection
(see Romans 6:1-11 and Col. 2:12). But Gibson turns this into a
sadomasochistic scene of pain inflicted and suffering endured. It is
so long and violent that it qualifies this film for an “R”
rating, “for adults only.”

The earliest Christians knew that crucifixion was not unique to
Jesus. Thousands of people had died this way at the hands of the
Romans. To the Jews crucifixion was particularly associated with
shame and embarrassment, since the Torah said that one who was hung
upon a tree was “accursed” (Deut. 21:22, 23). The fetish about the
cleansing power of the blood of Jesus was again a pious devotional
technique that ultimately attributed a sacred meaning to suffering
and made cruelty an attribute of God, both of which are strange,
even unhealthy theological concepts. Yet Gibson has developed these
ideas to a fine art. His interpretive work may engender a guilt-
laden piety but we need to recognize that it is not biblically
accurate.

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