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Issues of faith and history


At one point in Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate asks his wife: "What is truth?" As millions of people flock to the film's opening this week, many are asking a similar question: Is The Passion faithful to the Bible, or is it simply, as some critics suggest, "The Gospel According to Mel"?

As with practically everything else surrounding this movie, it all depends on whom you ask.

The Passion sticks fairly closely to the New Testament's four Gospels, even though they provide few details on Jesus' final hours. Of the 109 scenes in the film, more than 70 are directly rooted in Scripture, according to Darrell Bock, a professor of the New Testament at Dallas Theological Seminary.

"I think the tenor and the tone of it is very faithful to the Gospels," says Bock.

Details not in Scripture

But other scholars say that Gibson added material from sources outside the Bible - including the writings of an obscure 19th-century German nun - that only serve to ratchet up the violence in what many moviegoers say is an intensely gory film.

In addition, critics say, Gibson has ignored historical record in a way that unfairly emphasizes the culpability of the Jews in Jesus' crucifixion.

"I think it's filled with historical errors," says Philip Cunningham, director for the Center of Christian-Jewish Learning at Boston College.

Questions surrounding the historical and theological authenticity of The Passion are not academic. The death and resurrection of Jesus are the central events in the teachings of Christianity, which has 2 billion adherents around the world.

Since medieval times, Passion plays based on Christ's final hours have blamed Jews for killing Jesus and at times sparked violent anti-Semitism.

"Anyone who handles this story must know they have to be terribly careful - I don't mean politically correct," says John Dominic Crossan, professor emeritus of religious studies at Chicago's DePaul University and author of more than 20 books on the historical Jesus. "Out of this story has come 2,000 years of anti-Semitic pogroms."

A theological review of the movie shows that Gibson has drawn scenes or details from writings outside the Bible that amplify an already violent story. One key source appears to be a German nun named Sister Anne Catherine Emmerich (1774-1824), whose spiritual visions were published in 1833 under the title, The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

Early in the film, which runs 125 minutes, Roman soldiers take Jesus from the Garden of Gethsemane at night in chains. Along the way, they punch him, eventually knocking him off a bridge where the chains break his fall, wrenching his body in pain.

The scene appears nowhere in the Bible but closely resembles one in Emmerich's writings.

"When they were half over the bridge they gave full vent to their brutal inclinations, and struck Jesus with such violence that they threw him off the bridge into the water," according to Emmerich.

The scourging

One of the most violent scenes in Gibson's movie involves the scourging of Jesus. Roman soldiers spend long minutes of screen time beating Christ with a cat-o'-nine-tails until his blood speckles their faces.

The scene's details, including the description of bits of flesh, appears to come from Emmerich as well: "The two fresh executioners commenced scourging Jesus with the greatest possible fury; they made use of a different kind of rod, a species of thorny stick, covered with knots and splinters. The blows from these sticks tore his flesh to pieces; his blood spouted out so as to stain their arms."

By contrast, the Gospel of Mark dispatches the scourging of Jesus in a single sentence: Pilate "had Jesus whipped and handed him over to be nailed to the cross." (Mark: 15:15)

Crossan says that, inevitably, filmmakers must add details to the Gospel accounts, because they contain so little description. Even the New Testament's longest gospel, Matthew, spends only three of its 25 chapters on Jesus' death and resurrection.

But in adding such violent scenes and details, Crossan says, Gibson has raised the emotion around an already painful event and runs the risk of inflaming anti-Semitic feeling.

Tim Gray, director of the Denver Catholic Biblical School, disagrees, saying Gibson has chosen additional material responsibly.

"He is really trying to take the Gospels and flesh them out," says Gray, "but it doesn't do any violence to the text."

The role of Caiaphas

Another area where scholars quarrel with Gibson is over his portrayal of Caiaphas, the Jewish high priest, and Pilate, who emerges as one of the film's most sympathetic and complex characters.

In Gibson's film, Caiaphas holds the power and pushes Pilate to condemn Christ to avoid a Jewish uprising. When Caiaphas and a bloodthirsty crowd of hundreds demand Christ's death, Pilate initially rejects their calls and appears genuinely concerned for Jesus' welfare.

"He's on the road to canonization," says Cunningham, referring to Gibson's rendering of Pilate.

Some biblical scholars say this interplay between Pilate and Caiaphas may be rooted in Scripture but is historically inaccurate.

They point out that the Gospels were written well after Jesus' time and that their negative depiction of Jewish leaders reflect the later political conflict between the emerging Christian Church and the Jews.

Caiaphas, in fact, served at the pleasure of Pilate, who could be brutal. In the year 36, Vitellius, the governor of Syria, fired Pilate for slaughtering Samaritans while they were on a mountain pilgrimage.

"His way of handling problems was: 'Kill them,'" says Crossan.

Bock acknowledges that - technically and legally - Pilate bears primary responsibility for Christ's death because he served as Rome's ruler over occupied Judea. But Bock insists that Scripture and history are not necessarily at odds.

According to the Jewish historian Josephus, who wrote in the first century, Pilate backed down in other conflicts with the Jews, just as the Gospels say he did when it came to Jesus.

After coming to power, Pilate set up military standards adorned with images in Jerusalem, which drew protest from the Jews who were offended by what they saw as idols in their holy city. Pilate sent soldiers into the crowds.

After some Jews exposed their necks to their weapons, though, he recalled them and removed the military standards.

"At certain times, he vacillated," Bock says.

Faces in the crowd

As to the portrayal of the Jews, one of the most controversial aspects of the film, Bock points out that Gibson has added some sympathetic Jewish characters to the narrative.

He has also had Simon of Cyrene, a Jew whom the Romans force to help carry the cross, come to Jesus' defense on the road to his crucifixion.

The Jewish crowd, which beats Jesus all the way up the mountain, and the high priests, at least one of whom has rotted teeth, are the film's collective villians and appear to have no redeeming qualities whatsoever.

Even Bock, who largely defends the movie, acknowledges: "I could see where someone could say there is a little anti-Jewish tinge."

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