The Passion of the Christ: An In-Depth Review
by Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts
Copyright © 2003 by Mark D. Roberts
Rev. ed. March 2004
Note: You may download this review at no cost, for personal use or for use in a Christian ministry, as long as you are not publishing this piece for sale. All I ask is that you give credit where credit is due. For all other uses, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you.
My Various Writings on Jesus
The Birth of Jesus: Hype or History?
Was Jesus Divine? The Early Christian Understanding
Why Did Jesus Have to Die?
Was Jesus Married? A Careful Look at the Real Evidence
What Was the Message of Jesus?
How Can We Know Anything about the Real Jesus?
What Languages Did Jesus Speak and Why Does It Matter?
Recovering the Scandal of the Cross?
The Passion of the Christ: An In-Depth Review
Book -- Jesus Revealed: Know Him Better to Love Him Better
Other of my writings related to The Passion of the Christ:
An Appeal to Jews and Christians: Don't Turn the Passion Into a Cause for Division between Jews and Christians
Anti-Semitism Today -- A Personal Response
Gibson Cuts a Scene from the Passion? How Should We Respond?
Gibson Speaks About the Passion
Recovering the Scandal of the Cross
Satan and the Demonic Baby . . . Huh?
Mark's book -- Jesus Revealed: Know Him Better to Love Him Better (WaterBrook, 2002).
Mel Gibson's soon-to-be-released film, The Passion of the Christ has already stirred up lots of controversy, mostly having to do with its alleged anti-Semitism. Leading Jews and others have criticized the movie, even though many haven't yet seen it. I did have the opportunity to attend an advance screening of The Passion of the Christ , and I watched with special interest to see if, indeed, I detected anti-Semitic implications.
I want to begin by addressing the question of anti-Semitism, but before I address the movie itself, I want to make a couple of preliminary comments.
First, we must understand Jewish fears about The Passion of the Christ in light of history. When Jews feel afraid about this movie, they aren't operating in a vacuum, but in a world that has derided, oppressed, and killed them, often defending these behaviors because "the Jews killed Christ," to put it bluntly. Thus it is understandable why Jews would be concerned that a movie which purports to tell the true story of Jesus' crucifixion is potentially anti-Semitic. Christian responses to Jewish fears should acknowledge our sad history of Christian anti-Judaism, both in thought and in deed. It's a good time for us to say, once again, that hatred of Jews is wrong. Period.
Second, some critics of The Passion of the Christ have pointed, not to the movie itself, but to anti-Semitic statements that Mel Gibson has supposedly made. Whether he said such things or not, I viewed the movie as its own statement. I did not try to read into the film things Gibson has said, about Jews, or even about Jesus. I tried to let the film speak for itself, which it does, with great power.
So, then, what did the film say about the death of Jesus? And did it picture Jewish involvement in that death in a way that could fairly be called anti-Semitic?
Is The Passion of the Christ Anti-Semitic?
Because The Passion of the Christ follows the story of Christ's death in the New Testament gospels, it does portray Jewish leaders as seeking to put Jesus to death. These officials sought to have Jesus killed and prevailed upon the Roman authority in Jerusalem to carry it out. Moreover, the Jewish crowds went along for the ride, just as they did within the New Testament accounts of Jesus' death.
From what I've just said, you might conclude that The Passion of the Christ is, in fact, anti-Semitic. Of course one might defend the making of this film on the basis that it is seeking to represent the unvarnished truth of what happened to Jesus as that truth is presented in the gospels. One might also criticize the film for exactly the same reason. In fact many critics of The Passion of the Christ actually end up arguing, not so much with the filmmaker, as with the writers of the biblical gospels. These early Christians, we are sometimes told, were themselves anti-Jewish, and they smuggled their bias into the story. The real responsibility for Jesus' death, it is alleged, fell upon Roman shoulders alone. I don't have the space here to enter into this debate at length. I would say, simply, that the New Testament accounts of Jewish-Roman collusion are believable, both because of the overall historical integrity of the gospels, and because it makes good historical sense that major Jewish leaders in Jerusalem would want to put Jesus to death.
A Rationale for the Death of Jesus and Roman Involvement
What The Passion of the Christ does not provide is a rationale for Jewish opposition to Jesus, or the extent to which this rationale is based upon the terrors associated with Roman rule. Of course Gibson didn't set out to tell the larger story of Jesus' life and ministry, so this omission is understandable. But the truth is that Jewish opposition to Jesus wasn't merely about theology. It was also about national self-preservation. Consider the following passage from my book, Jesus Revealed,
During the years of Roman domination of Judea, many aspiring "messiahs" attempted to fulfill [messianic] hopes . . . by leading rebelliions against Rome and its local minions. At the death of Herod in 4 B.C., for example, anti-Roman revolts erupted throughout the nation, with leaders promoting themselves as God's anointed leaders. In the town of Sepphoris in Galilee, only a few miles from Jesus' hometown of Nazareth, a man named Judas led a makeshift militia in a successful assault against the royal palace. Of course Rome didn't wink at Judas and his gang. Ultimately the Roman army recaptured Sepphoris, taking all of its residents as slaves and burning the city to the ground. At about the same time, another Roman battalion sought out others who had rebelled against the Empire and crucified two thousand rebels ( Jesus Revealed, p. 104).
As Jesus entered Jerusalem in the week prior to his death, he was acknowledged by the crowds as a messianic deliverer. This surely got the attention of the Romans, who didn't take kindly to Jewish messiahs. Moreover, the Jewish leaders who were responsible for protecting a fragile peace with Rome no doubt saw Jesus as a major threat to that peace. If he stirred up the people as Judas once did in Sepphoris, the results would be horrendous.
My point, simply, is that opposition to Jesus from Jewish leaders must be understood within the broader context of Roman domination of Judea. Even though Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, washed his hands of the blood of Jesus, he and the Empire he served cannot be absolved from sharing in the responsibility for the death of Jesus. If I had made The Passion of the Christ , I would have added a scene that implicates the Romans more explicitly.
Having said this, however, I still think that Gibson's film does not blame the Jews nearly so unambiguously as its critics allege. Although The Passion of the Christ , like the gospels, portrays the efforts of Jewish leaders to have Jesus crucified, it doesn't place the blame for his death upon them alone. For one thing, the movie clearly and correctly places legal blame for Jesus' death upon the Romans. Only the Roman governor could sentence Jesus to death, which he did. And only the Roman soldiers could carry out this order, which they did.
Moreover, The Passion of the Christ also shows that not all Jews wanted Jesus killed. Of course his own followers, who were all Jewish, supported Jesus (with the rather obvious exception of Judas, of course). And even some of the Jewish leaders portrayed in the movie opposed his execution. So, though leading Jews are shown to seek Jesus' death, The Passion of the Christ clearly disproves the simplistic claim that "The Jews killed Christ." Some of "the Jews" also followed Christ. Others sought to preserve his life, even if they did not follow him. Thus the movie is consistent with the New Testament gospels, which implicate not all Jews, but only certain Jews in the death of Jesus.
But The Passion of the Christ assigns ultimate responsibility for the death of Christ neither to the Jews nor to the Romans. In fact it makes a theologically profound accusation concerning the death of Christ, one I didn't expect at all. Without giving away too much of the movie, let me simply say that the real agent behind Jesus' death is shown to be, not Jewish leadership or Roman domination, but Satan. Gibson doesn't make this point by including a cameo appearance from Dana Carvey's famous Church Lady, asking, "Could it be . . . Satan?" But in a most creative and eerie way he shows that Satan is behind the crucifixion of Christ. No attentive moviegoer will come away from the film believing that any human agent is ultimately responsible for the death of Jesus. In fact, Gibson's inclusion of Satan actually diminishes Jewish responsibility for the crucifixion.
So far I have argued that The Passion of the Christ is not anti-Semitic. Here are my reasons in quick review:
1. Though Jewish leaders are implicated in the death of Jesus, so are the Romans.
2. The Romans are shown to be legally responsible for Jesus' death.
3. Some Jews are portrayed as supporting Jesus and/or following him.
4. Even beyond all human institutions, ultimate responsibility for the death of Jesus falls on the shoulders of Satan, according to The Passion of the Christ .
But, even if these four points are true, some might still fear that the movie will inspire anti-Jewish feeling. Is this fear valid?
Will the Movie Inspire Anti-Jewish Feelings?
Throughout the last two millenia, many people, including, I'm sad to say, millions of Christians, have hated Jews. At times this hatred has been fueled by the notion that "the Jews killed Christ." Hatred of Jews is wrong morally. It is confused historically. It is ruinous theologically. And it is damaging spiritually. It also contradicts Jesus' own call to love, not only our neighbors, but even the ones we consider our enemies. (Not that I'm saying Jews are our enemies, of course. But even if one were to feel hatred toward Jews, then that person should in fact act in a loving way toward them, according to Jesus.)
Though I believe that no discerning person who sees The Passion of the Christ will emerge from the movie with even the slightest negative feeling towards Jewish people, it is possible, I suppose, for one who hates Jews already to come from the movie with that hatred sustained. But such a person would completely miss the point of the movie, and, indeed, the point of Jesus' death.
In subtle ways Gibson makes it clear that, ultimately, Jesus is not the victim of anybody's plot, including that of Satan. Right from the beginning Jesus chooses to do that which will crush his archenemy, even if his decision to endure crucifixion is paradoxical. By seeming to fall victim to Satan's plot, Jesus in fact defeats him.
Moreover, Jesus is choosing to do that which he believes God wants him to do. Yes, human beings beat and ultimately kill Jesus. But he, more than any other human agency, is responsible for choosing his own death. He is fulfilling his role as the Savior of the world, a world that God loves. What sends Jesus to the cross, really? The love, justice, grace, and mercy of God, the God who is incarnate in Jesus.
From still another perspective, I am the one who sent Jesus to the cross. Christians will understand what I mean here; others may be confused, so let me explain.
The vast majority of Christians who see The Passion of the Christ won't come away blaming Jews, or Romans, or even Satan for Jesus' death. We'll see his crucifixion through the eyes of faith, and in this perspective Jesus chose to die for the sin of the world, including my own. Jesus took my place upon the cross. My sin helped to put him there. As I viewed the movie, that's the thought that struck me again and again. Exactly the same thought weighed heavily upon the hearts of every other person who viewed the film with me, all of whom were Christians. We weren't thinking, "Oh, the Jews killed Christ," but "Oh, Jesus died for my sin. I am as much to blame for the death of Christ as anyone."
I know this is hard for non-Christian people to understand. They look upon the death of Jesus as an historical event for which there are historical causes. This history matters, of course. But the historical dimension doesn't obscure or overpower the theological. The Passion of the Christ accurately portrays the multiple levels of causation in Jesus' death. On a historical level, he was crucified by the Romans as a messianic rabble-rouser, at the urging of some Jewish leaders in Jerusalem.Yet, at the same time, Jesus was crucified because he chose to follow the course of the Suffering Servant, in obedience to his Heavenly Father. On a theological level, Jesus' death came at the behest of Satan, and it was Satan's greatest apparent victory and his greatest defeat. Yet it was also the unfolding of God's plan for the salvation of the world. On a personal level, I am convinced that my sin sent Jesus to the cross, and that in dying he took my place.
The Passion of the Christ: A Benefit for Jews and Others?
Having said this, I believe that The Passion of the Christ , far from instilling anti-Semitic feelings, might actually bode well for Jewish people today.
First of all, The Passion of the Christ will help Christians remember that Jesus and his earliest followers were Jewish. They weren't Christians dressed in Jewish costumes, but real, genuine Jews. This point is absolutely essential for any right understanding of Jesus, as I have shown in my book, Jesus Revealed. Of course grasping the essential Jewishness of Jesus doesn't necessarily lead one to treat contemporary Jews with greater kindness, but in my experience as a pastor, this is exactly what usually happens. Christians who "discover" the fact that Jesus was actually Jewish tend to have new respect for actual Jews today.
Second, and more profoundly, Christian love comes from the experience of God's love in Christ. The more I know God's love for me, the more I am obliged and empowered to share it with others. This is a simple fact of the Christian life. (I've written about this extensively in my book, After "I Believe.") The vast majority of Christians who see The Passion of the Christ will come away with a much deeper sense of God's love. We'll realize in new ways what Jesus endured for us. The result will be a more passionate love for God and for others as well. Jews will be included among these others.
My hope, expectation, and prayer is that The Passion of the Christ will in fact inspire the church of Jesus Christ to be more loving, and this will impact our relationships with Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, atheistic secularists, etc.
Mel Gibson could have chosen to whitewash the story of Jesus' death, taking out everything from the gospels that isn't politically correct today. Thank God he didn't do this.
At points the movie goes beyond the literal biblical narrative. But, in my opinion, these creative interpretations are fundamentally consistent with the biblical story, much as the retelling of The Lord of the Rings by Peter Jackson is basically consistent with Tolkien's original.
My Recommendation of the Film
In my previous blogs I've consider the charge that The Passion of the Christ is anti-Semitic. For reasons I have laid out in detail, I consider this accusation to be misguided. In fact, I believe that the ultimate impact of The Passion of the Christ upon Jews will be more positive than negative (see Part 5 above).
So, you might wonder, am I giving this movie an enthusiastic thumbs up? The answer is: Yes, . . . but. Yes, the movie is a powerful, moving, beautiful film. But it is also extremely graphic . It portrays in gory detail the beating, flogging, and crucifixion of Jesus. For example, whereas other movies that portray the crucifixion of Jesus tend to cut away when the nails are pounded into his hands, The Passion of the Christ zooms in. It shows more or less accurately what actually happened to the hands of Jesus. (Ironically, the movie also shows the hands of the person pounding the nails, and these hands actually belong to Mel Gibson. It's one of the few places he appears in the film.)
If The Passion of the Christ were fictional, then I'd accuse it of being gratuitously violent. But since the film attempts to depict something that actually happened, and since this event is well worth being shown accurately, then I believe the violence in the movie is defensible. Perhaps the nearest comparison I can make is to the opening scenes from Saving Private Ryan , which show the D-Day invasion with gory exactness. Certain historical events are so important, I believe, that they deserve to be portrayed with with gut-wrenching faithfulness.
Part of what makes the brutality in The Passion of the Christ so hard to watch is the fact that our usual defenses don't work. When I see a particularly violent scene in a movie, I can relieve the tension in my soul by whispering to myself: "It's only a movie. This didn't really happen." But even though what I saw in Gibson's film wasn't really the crucifixion of Christ, it was enough like the real crucifixion that I couldn't pretend that nothing like this had ever happened to anyone.
Let me say clearly that The Passion of the Christ is not appropriate for children. It has no profanity or nudity, but the violence is extreme. When might a teenager be old enough to see this film? It all depends on that individual and on the discernment of his or her parents. In my church I'm recommending that parents and teenage children see the movie together. But, I must add, some people will find The Passion of the Christ to be far too violent for their sensibilities. Those who are extremely disturbed by violence in movies should probably not see the film, or should go with the expectation of closing their eyes at many points in the movie.
Nevertheless, I would encourage people to see The Passion of the Christ in spite of, and even because of, it's brutal imagery. We Christians can easily romanticize the sacrifice of Christ. We sing of the blood of Jesus in joyful tunes. We wear little crosses around our necks, often made of fine metals or adorned with jewels. I don't oppose either of these practices. But I do think we must grapple with the true horror of the cross. Yes, we do survey "the wondrous cross," but it is wondrous precisely because it is, in some ways, so horrible.
The Paradoxical Horror and Wonder of the Cross
For Christians who tend to romanticize the cross, and that's most of us, The Passion of the Christ will be a sharp slap in our spiritual faces. It forces us to confront the physical torture endured by Jesus. Crucifixion was one of the most terrifying means of capital punishment ever devised. It was so horrible that polite Romans rarely talked or wrote about it. What Jesus experienced, however, was far worse than mere crucifixion. He was beaten terribly in a variety of ways. He endured such savagery that he died after only three hours on the cross - far less than the average duration of crucifixion, which often lasted days.
If you've never grappled with the physical horror of the cross, The Passion of the Christ will be an stunning eye-opener. You just won't be able to think of the cross of Jesus -- nor to sing of it, nor to remember it in communion - in the same way again. You'll realize more profoundly what it cost Jesus to die for the sin of the world - including your sin. I've spent a good part of my life studying the crucifixion of Jesus. Nothing in the movie surprised me, but it certainly led me into a more heartfelt experience of what I had known in my head.
Yet there is a danger in being overcome by the physical awfulness of Christ's death. The danger comes in focusing too much on the physical, while ignoring the spiritual. Yes, Jesus' execution was horrendous in the extreme. But his even greater sacrifice can't be filmed. Jesus, the beloved Son of God, experienced the penalty for sin. In the stirring words of the New Testament, God "made [Jesus] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Corinthians 5:21, NRSV). On the cross Jesus cries out to his Heavenly Father, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Mark 15:34, quoting from Psalm 22:1). Jesus, the sinless Son of God, was indeed forsaken by God as he bore the penalty for our sin. From a spiritual point of view, this is even more terrible than anything he experienced in the flesh.
And, at the same time, it is wonderful. What Jesus endured, he did out of love for you and me. He became as if he were sin, "so that in him we might become the righteousness of God," that is, so that we might have a right relationship with God both now and forever. Thus the cross, as horrible as it was, becomes good news for us. The instrument of Roman cruelty becomes, ironically, a symbol of love, forgiveness, and new life.
Our response to the cross of Christ - and therefore to the film, The Passion of the Christ - is one of gratitude, worship, and self-giving commitment. Perhaps no one has put it better than Isaac Watts in his classic hymn, "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross." Here are his last two stanzas:
See from his head, his hands, his feet,
sorrow and love flow mingled down.
Did e'er such love and sorrow meet,
or thorns compose so rich a crown?
Were the whole realm of nature mine,
that were a present far too small.
Love so amazing, so divine,
demands my soul, my life, my all.
If you are looking for scholarship on Jesus that is careful and yet readable, you might find my book Jesus Revealed to be helpful. Each chapter summarizes historical evidence that helps us to understand Jesus, yet in a way that is meant for non-specialists. Plus, each chapter also connects the historical discussion to our personal faith today.
For more information on this book, click here.