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?
Gibson's preoccupation with Christ's shed blood and agony threatens to distract us from another crucial dimension of his death. Survey any Roman legion in the reign of Tiberius and they'll probably say that crucifixion was as much about shame as it was about pain. Ask Paul about the scandal at the heart of his Gospel and he'll point, not to whips and nails, but to the sheer embarrassment and absurd foolishness of a crucified savior. Hebrews says Christ, "endured the cross, disregarding its shame," (Heb 12:2; cf. 6:6). So the cross was not only about cruelty but also about degradation and defilement, exclusion and ridicule, which is why, by the way, it proved such an obstacle to early Christian preaching.
No one who screens Passion will ever be tempted to minimize the horrors of the cross. The Christian trinket industry may suffer. Good Friday services this year will feel different. What is not clear to me, however, is how well the film exposes the shame side of things. I suppose humiliation is harder than suffering to portray on film, and riskier. And we in the West don't really "get" shame. (Witness the popularity of shows like Jerry Springer, Cops, "Girls Gone Wild" and Howard Stern.) I don't know: Maybe the film could stand a bit less blood and a bit more blushing; maybe fewer lashes and more disdain. As it stands, I'm not sure Passion gets the balance quite right.
The Passion of the Christ is also very Catholic. The storyline borrows bits from each of the four Gospels (with nods toward Matthew and John), but it is also steeped in church tradition and guided by images and symbols long cherished by Catholic worshipers. Jesus stumbles three times on his way to Golgotha, in keeping with the traditional Fourteen Stations of the Cross. The legendary Veronica of Station Six steps forward to wipe Jesus' bloodied face, only to find his image perfectly imprinted on her cloth. And Mary is highly visible and central to the story — a much stronger figure than the two-dimensional, inconsequential Mary of so much Protestant piety. John calls Mary his mother, if I heard correctly, even before Jesus suggests the idea (John 19:27), and Jesus, while praying, self-identifies as "the son of your handmaid" (cf. Psm 86:16; 116:16). At the cross, Mary murmurs "my son, let me die with you" and later cradles her son's dead body, Pietà-like, while gazing into the camera, as if to assure us that all will be well.
I find refreshing a film so firmly rooted in a particular Christian confession. But honoring simultaneous commitments to history and tradition is always tricky. Like Jesus along the Via Dolorosa, the film occasionally loses its footing. Why, for example, would Jesus be forced to carry a whole cross while his two rebel counterparts bear only their horizontal beams? Why would Jesus engage Pilate in Latin instead of Greek? (Fluent Latin wasn't common among Galileans in the 1st century.) Similarly, why does Greek disappear from Pilate's tri-lingual inscription naming Jesus King of the Jews? In each case, sacred memory trumps historical plausibility.
That said, I applaud the film's self-consciously Catholic loyalties. Every account of the Passion must embellish in some direction; every meaningful retelling calls for transformation. This is just as true for experimental projects like Godspell, Jesus Christ Superstar, Last Temptation of Christ and Jesus of Montreal as it is for openly confessional ones like The Passion of the Christ or last fall's The Gospel of John. Translation entails interpretation, and interpretation cannot happen in a vacuum.
If we listen to the film's harshest critics, Passion is "dangerous" and "anti-Semitic," sure to "fuel hatred" against Jews worldwide. Disturbing charges, these. But will they stick? Is Gibson conspiring to undo decades of post-Holocaust, Jewish-Christian dialogue?
Let me propose, first of all, that some critics of Gibson's narrative would find Matthew's or John's equally troubling. Perhaps they are worried that a screen version of the crucifixion will pack more punch, and change more minds, in an a-literate, visual culture than would, say, a public recitation of one of the Gospels.
Truth be told, each Gospel depicts both Romans and Jews conspiring to eliminate the Galilean threat. Pilate has the last word, but he can ill afford to ignore the local religious lobby — the priestly power-brokers who have pronounced Jesus a blasphemous Messianic pretender. If the Jewish establishment was all but unanimous in its rejection of Jesus, Roman occupiers had their own reasons for wanting Jesus out of the way. Pilate could hardly tolerate unauthorized royal claimants, even naïve ones, running loose in his territory. The "cause" of Jesus' execution, as it turns out, was neither singular nor simple.
An even trickier question, however, is whether the Gospels themselves spin the story in a pro-Roman, anti-Jewish direction. Are the Gospels anti-Semitic? This is not the place to explore 1st century Jewish disputes about Jesus and how this "sibling rivalry" plays out on the pages of the New Testament. Suffice it to say that a handful of NT texts, especially in Matthew and John (e.g., Mt 21:43; 27:25; Jn 8:44; Rv 3:9), have been roundly criticized for seeming to vilify, or at least disqualify, Jesus' Jewish opponents. To the extent that Gibson's Passion projects this tension from the Bible onto the big screen, it is bound to stir up controversy. Consider the film an invitation to reflect on one of the more pressing theological questions of our time. The court of public opinion will, I predict, eventually acquit Gibson of all charges of anti-Semitism. And yet I'm left wondering whether Passion missed an opportunity to explore the complex relationship between Jesus and Judaism. Why was it that Jesus failed to gain much of a foothold among his own people? Why did some of them want him dead? Some of Jesus' opponents were no doubt threatened by his charisma, or fearful of slipping in the opinion polls, but surely others felt entitled to question his credentials, or to resist the dangerous tilt of his politics.
If the apostle Paul's initial hostility towards the Jesus movement sheds light on things (Gal 1:13; Acts 8:3), we should imagine many thoughtful Jews rejecting Jesus' claims, all the while confident of God's approval. Gibson's project would have been even more impressive, and built more bridges, it seems to me, had it acknowledged the monumental challenge Jesus posed to devout Jews in his day. Given the long, sad trajectory of Jewish-Christian misunderstanding, we can't afford to do otherwise.
Bruce N. Fisk is associate professor of New Testament at Westmont College. He is the author of Do You Not Remember? Scripture, Story and Exegesis in the Rewritten Bible of Pseudo-Philo and First Corinthians.