Quaker Theology #10 -- Spring-Summer 2004
Film Review: Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ
In Mel Gibson’s February, 2004 interview with Diane Sawyer on ABC, he responded to the rampant pre-release criticism of his movie, The Passion of the Christ, by saying, "Critics who have a problem with me don’t really have a problem with me in this film. They have a problem with the four Gospels. That’s where their problem is."(ABC News)
But is it? Gibson’s comment is taken out of context here, as it was made to particularly address the complaints from the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and scores of others that Gibson’s film included in the script the translation of the statement in Matthew 27:25, which appears in the King James Version (KJV) as, "Then answered all the people, and said, His blood be on us, and on our children." This line has been the historical basis of the "blood curse" used to justify anti-Semitism and violence towards Jews, and the ADL expressed serious concern that the film would cause an upsurge in anti-Jewish sentiment worldwide.
In the final film as released in theaters, Gibson relented and removed the translation of this verse. The crowd still shouts its call, but in Aramaic, with no English subtitle of it onscreen. However, Gibson’s comment is especially interesting in light of his movie’s blatant unfamiliarity with the Gospel accounts of The Passion of Christ.
Gibson made clear in interview after interview that his faith drove him to make The Passion and that he wanted to present on film a literal depiction of the last events of Holy Week. With all due respect to Mr. Gibson and his much-publicized fervent Catholic faith, I think he needs a refresher course in the Gospels.
Gibson’s film begins with Jesus at prayer in Gethsemane, tempted by the Devil to escape his fate. The scene begins in Matthew at 27:38, in Mark at 14:37, in Luke at 22:42, and in John at 18:11. The violence for which the movie has become famous begins soon after, when Jesus is brutally beaten by the guards Judas has brought. The cinematic "scourging" doesn’t stop until he is dead, and we are reminded of it again at the end of the movie, when Gibson shows us a glimpse of the Resurrection: Jesus’ shroud empties, like a deflating balloon, and we see the naked Christ rise up and leave his tomb with sunlight shining through the holes in his wrists.
But what of the Gospel accounts of this physical abuse?
Pilate’s scourging of Jesus appears three times in the Gospels: in Matthew 27:26, Mark 15:15, and John 19:1. To save you from looking up each reference, here is each one, taken from the KJV:
Matthew 27:26 – "Then released he Barabbas unto them: and when he had scourged Jesus, he delivered him to be crucified."
Mark 15:15 – "And so Pilate, willing to content the people, released Barabbas unto them, and delivered Jesus when he had scourged him, to be crucified."
John 19:1 – "Then Pilate therefore took Jesus, and scourged him."
This film leaves even the most fluent Bible-reader scratching their head and wondering, "Did I miss something in the footnotes?" The biblical accounts of physical violence against Jesus are very brief and terse. But the onscreen Jesus is beaten brutally and constantly for well over half the movie. Jim Caviezel, the actor who played Jesus, spent hours a day in makeup, and for the wide-shots of his scourging and crucifixion (of which there are plenty) there was an accurate rubber stand-in to take the blows. (Stand-in)
Does Gibson’s reading of the gospels stand up to the texts? I will argue that it does not. But if not, where did he get this constantly bloody scenario? His sources deserve further scrutiny.
It turns out that Gibson’s inspiration and main source was not Scripture, but the work of Sister Anne Catherine Emmerich, a German mystic nun who lived from 1774 to 1824. Emmerich was a stigmatic and was posthumously granted the Vatican title "Venerable" for her suffering and the report that she lived her last ten years, bedridden, subsisting solely on water and communion wafers. An effort to have her made a saint continues. Her most famous published work is The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and it clearly Gibson’s primary source.
But how much of Emmerich’s book was actually hers? Emmerich had "meditations" and since she was illiterate, a German Romantic poet, M. Clement Brentano appointed himself her "transcriber" and editor.
The page that precedes the beginning of her text, entitled "To The Reader," admits that there are "slight differences" between her medita-tions and the Gospels, but does not address the elaborate, extremely vivid detail with which Christ’s beatings are described; rather, it notes only the order in which various Passion events occurred. (Emmerich 3) Vatican investigations, however, have more recently discovered that the discrepancies run much further than Cazales admitted. As Jesuit John O’Malley noted in a detailed discussion of Emmerich and Brentano:
"[Emmerich-Brentano’s] volumes were also an international success, running through many editions. Visitors to the Holy Land who carried Emmerich’s books with them were struck by the accuracy of her descriptions of places and monuments, impossible to explain on a human level for somebody who had never traveled there and had never formally studied the subject. Gibson is only the latest in a list of prominent people who have drawn spiritual nourishment from the Seer of Dülmen, especially from her story of the Passion. . . ."
But when her supporters tried to have her made a saint, careful church investigations were launched, with dismaying results:
"In Germany experts went to work on Brentano’s papers and library and eventually came to the conclusion that only a small portion of what had been published could safely be attributed to Catherine. They found maps, travel books and biblical apocrypha from which Brentano could have supplied information to embellish the texts. We are almost compelled to draw the conclusion that although the texts could be something more, in their present form they are perhaps best treated as devout fiction or, to put it more harshly, as ‘well-intentioned frauds.’ " (O’Malley)
Emmerich’s visions, as recorded/embroidered by Brentano, were incredibly detailed, and wildly more so than the Gospels themselves. They were also, O’Malley acknowledges, "anti-Semitic to the degree (sometimes considerable) that virtually all 19th-century retellings of the Passion, whether by Catholics or Protestants, were anti-
Semitic." To judge what she actually saw or heard may not be possible, but beyond the chronology of events, they are assuredly not based upon the Gospels.
For instance, Chapter XXII, "The Scourging of Jesus," takes three full pages; it includes descriptions of Mary watching the scourging (which does not appear in the Gospels). "The Crowning with Thorns," during which the reader is treated to more vivid description of Jesus’ suffering, takes an additional four pages.
The film depicts Jesus falling repeatedly while carrying the cross to Golgotha. Emmerich writes of Jesus falling seven times. Simon of Cyrene is recruited to help only after the third fall. Emmerich’s depiction of Jesus being nailed to the cross and dying upon it takes fourteen pages, with distinct sections for "The Nailing of Jesus to the Cross," "Raising of the Cross," "Jesus hanging on the Cross between two Thieves," "His Death," and "The Opening of the Side of Jesus."
Emmerich-Brentano clearly did have "visions," because what her book details is not borne out in the Gospels.
Gibson’s choice to base his movie upon Emmerich’s visions is clearly his alone, and it would appear he is not impressed by the debunking; but questions remain about the violence of his aesthetic and the focus on Jesus’ suffering. Gibson’s reliance on Emmerich’s visions is obvious, from both his use of her chronology of events, which does differ from the Gospel accounts, and also his incorporation of some very specific details from her visions.
For instance, Emmerich includes an entire chapter about Mary during the scourging–none of which is found in any of the Gospels. Surely she was there, and saw some of the events. Mary plays a significant role in the film, and she is usually shown from a distance, wracked with grief, with James and Mary Magdalene watching. Gibson includes, among others, details of the weaponry used in the scourging, none of which, again, is mentioned in the Gospels. Emmerich saw clubs made of thorny wood and a proto-cat-o-nine-tails with bent nails at the end of each of the six strings. "…their scourges were composed of small chains, or straps covered with iron hooks, which penetrated to the bone…" I will spare you further specifics of this part of the scourging, but Gibson followed her vision to the letter.
Could there have been other factors than divine revelation which affected this portrait? O’Malley points out that,
"[Emmerich’s popularity] should not be surprising, because it supports and promotes a spiritual tradition that developed in the late Middle Ages, principally in northern Europe, and gained great, almost overwhelming momentum in the modern period down to the Second Vatican Council. It is safe to say that during that period many, perhaps most, Catholics came to identify more strongly with the Passion than with the Resurrection or any other aspect of Christ’s life . . . it was not always thus . . ." .
What shaped this long-lived trend? O’Malley sketches it well:
"[After the 14th century] Christian devotion continued to shift towards the Passion, with ever more attention paid to Christ’s physical sufferings . . . .Just why this preoccupation with the Passion occurred and became so prevalent is impossible to say. Surely contributing to it were catastrophes like the many epidemics that ravaged Europe in the late Middle Ages, of which the most famous is the Black Death, but they do not altogether explain it . . . .In the following centuries, devotion to the Passion became ever more characteristic of Catholic piety everywhere, but it gained intensity particularly in the 19th century. The anti-Catholic excesses of the French Revolution and their continued impact on Europe begot a conviction that the world was becoming more sinful by the day and more inimical to Christ and his message. To compensate for these outrages, it was thought, and the hurt they caused Christ, reparation was needed. In a new way Jesus became the Man of Sorrows. Those who most closely resembled him were 'victim souls,' who similarly suffered for the sins of the world."
The tradition to which O’Malley refers has been in retreat since Vatican II, and perhaps that is why so many viewers objected to the violence in the film. The Catholic Church has since released documents governing the production of Passion Plays, deliberately intended to make them more scripturally accurate and lessen the possibility that they would again be used to justify anti-Jewish violence.
Since Vatican II there has been more Catholic interest in the Resurrection of Christ, and, to a lesser extent, his teachings. This makes sense, considering that the amount of space given to teachings and parables in each of the Gospels vastly outweighs that devoted to the Passion overall and violence towards Christ specifically.
The two values Jesus held above all others were, first, love of God, and second, love of fellow humans. As he put it, "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like unto it, thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets." (Matthew 22:37-40) In John, the penultimate message is, "For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life." (John 3:16)
Neither mentions anything about suffering, and the continuation of the passage in John discusses that men loved darkness rather than light (Christ). Nowhere in the gospels are Christians called to fixate on the suffering Jesus endured. The message from John calls Christians to believe "In him," and this belief has come to mean belief in Christ’s death and resurrection.
But why choose to focus on, say, Jesus’ pain during the Passion rather than the messages he preached? Jesus said, in Matthew 11:29-30, "Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light." Later in Matthew, he foretells his Passion: "Behold, we go up to Jerusalem; and the Son of man shall be betrayed unto the chief priests and unto the scribes, and they shall condemn him to death. And shall deliver him to the Gentiles to mock, and to scourge, and to crucify him: and the third day he shall rise again." (Mt. 20:18-19) Jesus clearly understood at that point that he would suffer, but those do not sound like the words of a man who wanted his followers to fixate on that suffering. Instead Jesus wanted his followers to "take up their cross" and follow him–not to take up his cross.
The gap between Gibson-Emmerich and the text emerges starkly from a few numbers: The word scourge appears only four times in the Gospels; crucify six times; blood four times; suffer twice; and pain does not appear at all. Forgiveness appears twelve times; give thirteen; rise/risen five; ascend three; and grace twice. Love appears eight times. Physical abuse and torture of Jesus during the Passion are mentioned only briefly and with little detail in the gospels–40 verses in all, counting generously.
The four Gospels total 3,674 verses altogether; the Passion narratives, starting with Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane and ending with the Resurrection (but before the sightings–this is the timeline in Gibson’s movie) amount to 324 verses–less than ten percent of the total text. The detail is minimal, as supported by the word counts above. The blood and gore that Gibson portrayed is completely imagined. The 40 verses describing torture of Jesus total 1.1% of the text.
If we are to base our beliefs on the actual text of the Gospels, to fixate on the suffering Jesus’ endured is clearly unbalanced.
Thus on this textual basis alone, the choice Gibson made to highlight Jesus’ suffering in The Passion is grossly out of line with the weight of the Gospels. For sure, we as Christians are intended to carry our own crosses, our own burdens, and to be inspired and have faith in our ability to do so based on Jesus’ willingness to die and God’s love for the world in giving his son for our salvation.
But the choices we make as Christians about the ways in which we live are what Jesus spent his life teaching about and what the Gospel authors chose to devote the most space to, and to focus only on His suffering and crucifixion is wrong. For when we do so, we forget that which is the most important message of the Gospels at all–love for God and for our neighbors.
Emmerich. Anne Catherine. The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
Omalley, John, S.J. "A Movie, a Mystic, and a Spiritual Tradition," America, Mar. 15, 2004. Online: