The Passion of the Christ (a movie review)

Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion of the Christ is basically a dramatization of the 14 traditional Stations of the Cross. Throughout the movie, the characters have flashbacks that tell the story of Jesus’ ministry. That is an excellent technique, because the New Testament doesn’t give us enough narrative detail about anything other than the Passion to write a movie script.

The traditional 14 Stations of the Cross include events that are not in Scripture, but may very well have occurred. For example, the woman who wiped Jesus’ face with a cloth is known as St. Veronica. The incident is preserved in Christian legend but not in scripture.

No movie is perfect, but this movie does do a good job of making you feel that you somehow got to witness the actual event.

The movie does include the Resurrection, by the way.

Inaccuracies in the Movie

None of these inaccuracies were serious. Most of them were caused by the need to follow well-entrenched artistic conventions to avoid disconcerting the audience at critical points.

  • There was a humorous scene in which Jesus was making a dining-room table. Mary commented that it was too high, and Jesus said He was going to make chairs to go with it. Mary pantomimed sitting at the table and decided that it would never catch on. This would never have occurred. First, Jesus is a rabbi, not a carpenter. Second, the people in the first-century Roman Empire were not Japanese. They did not sit on the floor to eat at low tables. They reclined on their sides on slanted upholstered couches, so the table Jesus made in the film was the right height but far too small. This scene did a good job of showing Mary and Jesus interacting in an ordinary domestic situation, which helped the audience identify with the characters.
  • Unlike the movie, Jesus did not carry the whole cross, just the crossbeam, like the other two men. The movie makers had to let Him carry the whole cross, because that is an ingrained artistic convention and people would not have accepted an accurate depiction. However, this error does make the incident implausible, because Jesus could have carried the crossbeam, but He was obviously not in any shape to carry the whole cross. Roman practice was to erect the vertical part on the scene and have the criminal carry the crossbeam to it.
  • The other two men who were crucified next to Jesus would have also been whipped and scourged. That was standard Roman practice for all crucifixions. Jesus did not get special treatment. What was special about Him was the fact that His statement to the Sanhedrin about His identity, while technically blasphemy, was true.
  • They had Jesus wearing the wrong clothes. They dressed him in a diaper with a Fred Flintstone shirt, and because of that they could not show the soldiers gambling for the tunic made without seams. Instead, they just showed the soldiers tearing up the Flintstone shirt and later playing a dice game that looked like Yahtzee.

    In most translations of the New Testament, people go around wearing “garments.” The original language is much more specific. The New Testament describes Jesus as wearing a seamless tunic under a himation at the Last Supper. (A himation is a sari-like garment that you can see in Greek sculpture.) Jesus would have been well dressed for the crucifixion, because He went from the Last Supper, which was a formal catered affair, directly to the garden, where He was arrested. At the cross, according to the New Testament, the solders removed and tore the himation into four pieces. Then they removed his tunic. Since it was seamless they gambled for it. This was significant in two ways. First, by casting lots for it, they fulfilled Psalm 22. Second, it drew an important parallel, which the writer of the epistle to the Hebrews picked up. The high priest wore a seamless tunic when he entered the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur to atone for the sins of the people, so it shows Jesus as the High Priest who was entering the real Holy of Holies to atone for the sins of the world.

    The tunic was an undergarment, so Jesus would have been nude on the cross, which was also standard Roman practice. They not only tortured capital prisoners to death, they also humiliated them to death. The movie makers had to put a diaper on Jesus, not only to avoid disconcerting the audience, but also because it is a well-entrenched artistic convention that movie-goers would expect to see.

  • In Greek, the language in which the New Testament is written, the word that corresponds to “hand” means “everything from the elbow to the fingertips.” In western European languages, including the one I’m writing in, the word that corresponds to “hand” means “everything from the wrist to the fingertips.” So it is a long-standing artistic convention in western Europe to show the nails going through Jesus’ palms. However, if the Romans had put the nails through His palms, it would not have carried the weight of His body. In the movie they showed Jesus’ arms tied to the crossbeam with ropes, which overcame that problem. (The ropes also kept the actor from falling off the cross.) The Romans put the nail through the forearm near the wrist, which for the writers of the New Testament was the hand.

Accurate Parts That People Can Misunderstand

The movie showed the story, it did not tell it. There was no explanation in the dialog, so some things that were accurate can be misunderstood.

  • No one was morally responsible for killing Jesus, because Jesus confessed the charges before the Sanhedrin and Pilate, forcing His trial into the penalty phase. The movie made that quite clear but people tend to miss it. If someone can do something to you against your will, they have more power than you do. If the Jews could crucify Jesus, they had more power than Jesus, and if that were true we should forget about Jesus and worship the Jews.
  • Yes, all the bad guys in the movie were Jews. However, all the good guys in the movie were Jews, too. In fact, it’s a story about two groups of Jews in a Jewish country having a religious dispute. How can that be anti-Semitic? The Romans were morally spineless, morally neutral, or morally impotent. None of the Romans did anything that would qualify them for being good guys.
  • Many people have the impression that the movie depicted Pontius Pilate sympathetically. I am not sure how they come to this conclusion, since it is very clear in the movie that, in the end, he chose to do what was politically expedient, even though he knew it was wrong.
  • In the movie, a Roman officer told the soldiers to stop scourging Jesus because they were not supposed to kill Him. Later, the Roman officer told the soldiers that Jesus needed help carrying the cross. Some people thought that depicted the Romans as compassionate, but the precise opposite was actually the case. They inserted this character into the narrative to show how the Romans routinely used controlled torture to prolong the suffering of a capital criminal. If Jesus had died of the scourging, He would have been spared the rest of the torture. If Jesus had died of exhaustion while attempting to carry the cross, He would have been spared the crucifixion. So the Roman officer personified cruelty, not compassion, because his purpose was to prolong Jesus’ suffering, not to ease it.
  • From the cross, Jesus said “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” Someone once asked me, “If Jesus is our incarnate God, why did He say this? It’s almost the same as saying, ‘O me, O me, why have I forsaken me.’” This is the first line of Psalm 22 and it was customary for a Jew to say it on his deathbed. From the text of Psalm 22, and from Jesus’ words commending His Spirit to His Father, it is obvious that He was not forsaken. He was not complaining, He was not giving us a theological paradox; He was quoting. Read Psalm 22 all the way through and see.
  • Some people think the movie is excessively brutal. They have obviously not read ancient eyewitness accounts of crucifixions. If the movie were any more accurate historically, no one would have been able to watch it.

My Impression

I thought the movie was awesome. The inaccuracies in no way detracted from the overall impact of the movie; some of them were actually necessary to avoid disconcerting the audience.

Someone quoted a reviewer as saying that it isn’t the sort of movie that makes you want to go out for pizza afterwards. I agree. It makes you want to go out for Holy Eucharist afterwards. On the Sunday after the film was released, a man came to my church specifically because he needed Communion after seeing the movie. He knew we have it every Sunday; his church does not.

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