Editor's Note: New Testament scholar Bruce N. Fisk saw a rough cut of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ in November 2003, and wondered: Can a Jesus film be too bloody? Can a work of history make room for legend? Can any telling of this story avoid anti-Semitism?
The Passion of the Christ is messy. From Jesus' violent arrest to his flogging and crucifixion, almost every scene is marked by callous cruelty and bloodshed. Jesus' bruised right eye swells shut. Deep lacerations criss-cross his flesh. It's very visceral and very difficult to watch. We've come a long way from the sanitized, dispassionate Jesus of so many Byzantine altar pieces (and we couldn't be further removed from the crucifixion scene in Monty Python's Life of Brian). Imagine, rather, a moving, breathing version of the Issenheim altarpiece [Matthias Grünewald's painted 1515 rendering of the crucifixion], in all its graphic, grisly detail.
How much blood and violence are necessary, I found myself wondering, for the crucifixion story to be authentic? Does Gibson's R-rated account rank among the most faithful Jesus films ever? Or is it simply riding the current wave of "reality" programming? Is it brutally honest, or just brutal? Scroll meets screenplay, or Stigmata meets Kill Bill?
At the church of my childhood, we talked a lot about Christ's blood. Rarely did a week go by without someone asking to sing, "Nothing but the Blood," or "There's Power in the Blood," or "There Is a Fountain Filled With Blood (drawn from Emmanuel's veins)."
When we weren't singing hymns, I would struggle to fill the silence with mental images of Jesus in pain, Jesus bleeding, Jesus pierced for my transgressions. It was almost as if the more pain Jesus felt, the more God's wrath was turned away. The more blood Christ shed, the more deeply I could "plunge beneath the flood." To me, it wasn't enough for his death to be vicarious; it also had to be slow, agonizing and messy. Roman crucifixions were indeed messy, nasty affairs. A single execution could drag on for days. Many victims didn't survive the flogging, and you'll know why if you see Gibson's film. I had to force myself to watch as a pair of blood-spattered soldiers scourged Jesus, back and front, minute after interminable minute. Watching it felt almost voyeuristic, perhaps because the grisly details of Jesus' flagellation and crucifixion receive such scant attention in each Gospel. Pilate "took Jesus and scourged him," we read. Soldiers "put on" the crown of thorns and "struck" him (John 19:1-3). Even more restrained are the hushed descriptions of Golgotha: "there they crucified him" (Luke 23:33).
Paul's cross language is similarly sparse: "we preach Christ crucified," he says (1 Cor 1:23; cf. Gal 3:1) and "he was obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross" (Phil 2:8). As a whole, the New Testament offers lots about the meaning of Christ's death: it is sacrifice and example; it is moment of conquest and act of reconciliation and turning point in time (see, e.g., 2 Cor 5:19; Col 2:15; Heb 9:22, 28; 1 Pet 2:21-24; Rev 5:6; 7:14). But for all its significance for early Christians, the lurid details of Christ's death are stunningly absent. Was such punishment simply too familiar in its day to warrant commentary? Or too disgusting? Or too shameful?