FIRST-PERSON: ‘The Passion’: Assessing its accuracy

by James R. Wicker, posted Thursday, March 04, 2004 (10 years ago)

FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)--We ought to give Mel Gibson some leeway for artistic license in “The Passion of The Christ.” The Gospels do not tell every second of what happened during these last hours leading up to Jesus’ death. Are there biblical and historical inaccuracies in this film? Yes, on both counts. To help viewers discern between fact and fiction in this film, here are lists of biblical accuracies and otherwise.

ACCURATE DETAILS

This film accurately followed numerous Gospel details. Here is a list of some major scenes that are historically accurate:

1) The position of standing for prayer at Gethsemane, as well as a crowd listening to Jesus (Sermon on the Mount).

2) Pontius Pilate’s wife’s troubling dream and her request to have nothing to do with harming Jesus.

3) Pilate’s multiple claims of Jesus’ innocence before giving in to the angry mob in order to avoid a riot.

4) Jewish religious leaders inciting the mob against Jesus.

5) Peter’s frightened, angry denials that he knew Jesus.

6) All of the disciples ultimately fleeing the scene, except for John.

7) The terrible beating of Jesus as a hopeful ploy by Pilate to mollify the crowd and avoid crucifying Jesus.

8) The soldiers’ use of rods and the flagellum (whips with metal, bone and glass on the ends).

9) The accuracy of harsh Roman torture experts who inficted beatings (who likely enjoyed their work as the film depicts).

10) Pilate washing his hands of the matter and the Jews taking responsibility (although Mr. Gibson omitted the subtitles here).

11) Simon helping Jesus to carry the cross.

12) Jesus’ seven sayings from the cross.

13) One crucified thief becoming a believer in Christ.

14) The two thieves not being beaten like Jesus, because crucifixion was so terrible it usually was not accompanied by a beating.

15) Soldiers gambling near the cross.

16) Judas Iscariot hanging himself.

17) The darkness, earthquake and temple veil tearing during the crucifixion.

18) The soldiers breaking the legs of the thieves to cause death by asphyxiation.

19) A soldier stabbing Jesus’ side to ensure he was dead.

20) Jesus being buried in a rock tomb.

21) Jesus’ resurrection.

EXTRA-BIBLICAL ELEMENTS

Mr. Gibson did not rely solely on the four Gospels for source material, however. He also used noncanonical Catholic sources. Gibson is a traditional Catholic, and as such rejects many of the pronouncements of Vatican II. He has also stated that he believes in Mary as co-Redemtrix. This view clearly departs from Scripture.

Some Mariolatry is evident throughout the movie. First, in a scene where Jesus is a young adult carpenter, he visits with Mary. There are no siblings present although they likely would have been. Many Catholics like Mr. Gibson believe in the perpetual virginity of Mary and conclude either that Jesus had no siblings or any siblings were Joseph’s from a previous marriage. Yet, Matthew 1:25 clearly implied that Joseph and Mary had normal conjugal relations after Jesus’ birth, and Matthew 13:55-56 says Jesus had at least four brothers and two sisters. Of course, they were half-brothers and half-sisters since Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary and his siblings were born to Joseph and Mary in the natural way.

Second, the movie has both Peter and John calling Mary “Mother.” The subtitles clearly capitalize this reference to her as the Holy Mother. Third, after he denied knowing Christ, Peter twice told Mary not to touch him as if she had some kind of holiness that he did not deserve to take part in, clearly an unbiblical tradition. Fourth, Catholics believe in 14 specific events occurring on the Via Dolorosa, which they call the Fourteen Stations of the Cross. Only nine of them are actually in the four Gospels. The rest are highly suspect, contained in only non-biblical tradition.

In addition to traditional Catholic sources, Mr. Gibson also consulted the unusual 200-year-old book, “Dolorous Passion of Our Lord,” containing some supposed visions of a Catholic mystic nun named Anne Catherine Emmerich. The following scenes come from these writings: 1) Satan’s temptations of Jesus during his agonizing prayers at Gethsemane; 2) while heavily chained, Jesus confronting Judas after the arrest; 3) Pontius Pilate’s wife, Claudia Procles, sympathetically bringing some cloths to Mary; 4) a crow poking out the eyes of the unrepentant thief on the cross in swift judgment for his unbelief; and 5) the waterfall/misting of blood pouring from Jesus’ side after the soldier thrust his spear into Jesus’ side.

There is no biblical evidence for the following scenes: 1) the soldiers throwing Jesus off of a bridge as they left Gethsemane; 2) demon children mercilessly taunting Judas Iscariot; 3) Jesus falling more than once (the Bible mentions no falls, the Catholic Fourteen Stations of the Cross has three falls, and this movie has six!); 4) Mary running up to Jesus when he fell; 5) a girl offering Jesus a drink of water when he fell; 6) this girl being named Veronica; 7) the names of the unknown thieves on the cross being Gesmes and Dismas (the believing thief); 8) the earthquake cracking the floor of the temple’s Holy Place and Holy of Holies (although it did tear in half the veil separating those two rooms); and 9) the weirdest scene in the movie: Satan holding a grinning, grotesque-looking demon child during the beating of Jesus (which Mr. Gibson said is a satanic parody of the Madonna holding the baby Jesus, a kind of anti-Madonna).

UNBIBLICAL POINTS

A few scenes in the movie are contrary to what the Bible says. For instance, dialogue sometimes comes at the wrong places. The flashbacks to the Last Supper have Jesus saying things that He did not say until afterward, while He and the disciples walked to Gethsemane.

Many other biblical details are inaccurately portrayed in this Last Supper scene. The movie depicts Jesus and the disciples seated at the Last Supper. However, Jews reclined at the table for special meals such as this, leaning on the left side and left arm and eating with the right arm. This scene also depicts John seated on the left side of Jesus at the Last Supper. Yet most scholars agree that the John 13:33 reference to “the disciple whom Jesus loved” being seated on Jesus’ breast means that John was seated at Jesus’ right side. Then, the scene has Peter wrongly seated by Jesus at the Last Supper. John 13:24-25 says that Peter motioned for John to ask Jesus a question; obviously Peter did not sit by Jesus at that meal.

Poor Mary Magdalene gets unjustly smeared in the movie. Through the years many people have wrongly identified her as the former prostitute in Luke 7:36-50. However, Luke 8:2 says only that she had seven demons cast out of her. There is no mention of Mary Magdalene ever having been a prostitute. The movie wrongly depicts her as the woman caught in adultery in John 7:53-8:11.

Lastly, improperly placed dialogue meets unbiblical action in the movie’s depiction of Jesus on the road to Golgotha. The Gospels do not mention any encounter of Jesus and his mother Mary on the Via Dolorosa. But the movie shows Mary rushing to his side and Jesus saying to her: “Behold, I make all things new.” This encounter is nowhere in the Bible, and this statement was not written until the early 90s A.D. when John wrote Revelation 21:5.

HISTORICAL INACCURACIES

There are several historical inaccuracies -- differences from what scholars believe actually happened in first-century A.D. Palestine.

First, a flashback to the Sermon on the Mount has Jesus standing on top of the hill and the crowd on the hillside below him. But a speaker back then would sit or stand below the crowd and let the hill give a natural amplification of his voice to the crowd seated on the hill above him.

Second, Jesus carries the full cross in the movie, post and cross-beam. But he most likely carried only the cross-beam of the cross (as the movie depicts the two thieves carrying) since the full weight of the entire cross would be too heavy.

Third, at times several Jewish men like James, Simon the Cyrenian and several members of the Sanhedrin wear what appear to be yarmulkes. This is an obvious blunder because Jews did not wear them prior to the middle ages.

Fourth, Herod Antipas in the movie looks much too young for his probable age at that time.

Fifth, the crosses stand on top of Golgotha. They were most likely at the bottom of the hill close to many passersby since the purpose of crucifixion was in-your-face punishment as a deterrent to crime.

Sixth, spikes were placed through Jesus’ palms in the movie. They were actually nailed through what we now call the wrists since the palm would not give any support to the weight of the body. The Greek word cheir (ceir) can mean either one.

Seventh, Jesus and the two thieves are portrayed as motionless on the cross. In reality, people who were actually crucified were constantly squirming, pushing up and sinking down in order to breathe.

For an excellent article that describes these last two points and many other interesting medical details of the cross, see William D. Edwards, Wesley J. Gabel, and Floyd E. Homer, “On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ,” Journal of the American Medical Association (3-21-86):1455-1463.

A FINAL WORD

Reading the four Gospel accounts is the best way to know what the historical facts are. Read them separately to emphasize the unique vantage point each Gospel gives. Then, read them in a Gospel harmony to experience the chronological flow of events.

Mr. Gibson created some especially poignant scenes: The soldiers dragging Jesus away from the whipping post after the brutal beating; Mary running up to Jesus after he fell while carrying the cross, along with a flashback when she ran up to him after he fell as a young child; and the powerful recreation of Michelangelo’s masterpiece The Pieta depicting Mary holding Jesus’ body after they lowered him from the cross. Yet, there are no express descriptions of these scenes in Scripture.

As you read through the above list of inaccuracies it might appear that the movie is just one flaw after another. There are some critics who make that claim. However, this is a two-hour movie, and much of it is right on target. Do not let the inaccuracies or artistic license scenes overshadow the fine ways in which the movie portrays the beatings and crucifixion of Jesus in a vivid and mostly accurate manner. Both evangelical Christians and Roman Catholics alike can embrace this film as a powerful tool for getting the message of Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection to the masses.

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James R. Wicker is associate professor of New Testament at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.