Mel Gibson’s film, The Passion of the Christ is marketed as a Gospel-based account of the last twelve hours before Jesus’ death. What Gibson delivers is a gore-fest that has more in common with his Mad Max and Lethal Weapon legacy and the pre-Reformation church than it does with contemporary Christian theology or an understanding of first century Palestine.
The film’s most salient features are the blood-soaked images that, from my background as a former Roman Catholic, I recognized as a peculiar brand of Medieval Catholicism. In that mind-set, blood, flesh, body parts, and clothing take on special significance or even power. The (non-Biblical) scene in which Mary and Mary Magdalene use white towels to soak up Jesus’ blood from the ground makes no sense, except in the context of a religion that raises the veneration of religious relics to the level of idolatry.
Scenes of women mopping up blood, Satan talking to Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, or a crow pecking out a thief’s eyes are certainly not found in the Gospels, and underline the fact that the film is not what it claims to be. Rather than an authentic rendering of the Gospel story, it is Mel Gibson’s story, and it is a troubling one. Although the Gospels give only the briefest account of Jesus being scourged by Roman soldiers, Gibson turns it into a protracted and gratuitous display of sadism.
There is little to be learned about Christ or God from Gibson’s pathological depiction of Jesus being beaten like a helpless animal. What we do learn about is Gibson’s fixation on blood and flying chunks of flesh.
By concentrating upon the suffering and death of Jesus, Christ’s message and mission are almost entirely left out of the picture. I attended the screening with a Sikh and I am certain that to a non-Christian, Gibson’s figurative and literal butchery of Jesus’ life would not be inspiring or give any indication of what Jesus was about or why people chose to follow him. These bloody scenes certainly failed to inspire me.
While The Passion of the Christ is not a Biblical portrayal of Jesus, it also falls short of being a historical portrait. While the image of nails being driven through the hands of the Jesus has a visceral impact upon the viewer, it is generally accepted that there is not enough bone structure within the hand to support the weight of the crucified person. More than likely, nails would have been driven through the forearms just below the wrists. It is also unlikely that Jesus and Pilate would have a conversation in Latin at a time when Greek was the lingua franca of the Eastern Mediterranean.
More significant is the depiction of Jesus, still wearing his loincloth, as he languishes on the cross. As crucifixion was meant to be the ultimate humiliation for its victims, Jesus would have been stripped naked. Ironically, Gibson has no problem showing Jesus gratuitously beaten into a bloodied pulp, but loses his nerve when it comes to portraying the naked Christ.
According to Peter De Rosa, a former Catholic priest, artistic representations of the crucified Christ in a loincloth have actually allowed Christians to ignore the fact that Jesus was a circumcised Jew. In Vicars of Christ: The Dark Side of the Papacy, he writes that ” . . . without that piece of cloth, it would have stared everyone in the face that what took place at Calvary was also Jewicide” (p.5). By following this convention, rather than historical fact, Gibson, downplays Jesus’ Jewishness.
Moreover, The Passion presents a Jesus who looks thoroughly European. Apparently a Semitic Christ does not seem to fit Gibson’s “authentic” vision. In contrast to the non-Semitic Jesus, the Jewish leadership is, along with the sexually depraved and decadent Herod, stereotypically hook-nosed and conspiratorial – images that were common currency in Hitler’s Third Reich. Furthermore, Satan walks among the Jews, and Jewish children drive Judas to his death. It is not surprising then, that The Passion has been criticized for its anti-Semitic overtones.
Gibson, following a timeworn (scriptural but ahistorical) tradition, depicts the Jewish leadership coercing Pilate to crucify Jesus. From the first century Jewish historian Josephus, we know that Pilate was not a pushover, and would not have hesitated to use brutality in order to impose his will upon the Jewish population. The New Testament accounts, written during and after the Jewish War with Rome, nevertheless, reflect the rift that was growing between orthodox Judaism and the emerging Christian sect.
In the aftermath of the Jewish War, Christians sought to distance themselves from Judaism, and gain the acceptance of the Roman authorities. This situation influenced the Gospel accounts that place the responsibility for Christ’s execution almost completely upon the Jewish religious leaders, rather than Pilate. Obviously, historical circumstances have no impact upon Gibson’s “authentic” portrayal of events.
Based on the Gospel accounts many Christian churches had considered Jews to be “the Christ-killers.” The Catholic church only confronted its anti-Semitism after the Holocaust. In 1959, Pope John XXIII removed the phrase “perfidious Jews” from the Good Friday liturgy. The Second Vatican Council under John XXIII worked to improve Catholicism’s relationship with Judaism. While there is much to admire in contemporary Catholicism, Mel Gibson, nevertheless, is a member of a traditionalist Catholic sect that rejects the reforms of John XXIII. Gibson’s connection to this regressive sect is cause for alarm.
Almost as alarming as Gibson’s theology is the film’s official website. By clicking on “Marketing” shoppers inspired by the spilling of Jesus’ blood can purchase “Official licensed products” and the “Official shirts.” (One almost expects to find indulgences for sale). Here, Gibson cashes-in on Jesus’ torture and death.
Christians should be offended by the marketing of items, such as Passion coffee mugs, that trivialize Christ’s crucifixion. Given the existence of this tasteless website, Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ appears to be a crass merchandising tool.
As the film only recounts the last hours of Jesus’ life, it does not include the episode in which he drove the moneychangers from the temple. Sadly, this appears be just one more Gospel event that Mel Gibson seems to know little about.