Thinking About Religion
Volume 5 (2005)

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A Passion for the Passion:
Mel Gibson’s Obsession With The Lurid Details of Jesus’ Death

Alan J. Hauser
Appalachian State University

In his film “The Passion of the Christ,” Mel Gibson creates what he considers to be a historically accurate (re)presentation of Jesus’ suffering and death. Moreover, he claims that his portrayal is based on the narratives in the four canonical gospels. In my analysis of Gibson’s claims, I will begin by briefly discussing the degree to which Gibson’s depiction may be considered historically accurate, looking at several examples from his film. I will then move on to a more detailed discussion of Gibson’s claim that, in his film, he is mirroring the presentation and understanding of Jesus’ passion and death that is conveyed in the four gospels. Here I will not focus on issues of historical accuracy, but rather on Gibson’s claim to base his presentation on the gospels. To enrich this analysis, I will also discuss artistic understandings of Jesus’ work and passion dating to the early centuries of the Christian Church, as well as more recent developments in Roman Catholic piety which appear to be closely linked to Gibson’s understanding and portrayal of Jesus’ passion.

I begin with a brief discussion of some historical issues. For instance, how are we to assess the bloody, brutal scenes graphically portrayed in Gibson’s film? Can we consider them to be reasonably accurate depictions of how the Romans treated criminals in general, and insurrectionists in particular? By and large, the answer is “yes.” The Romans often used scourging and crucifixion as a way of dealing with thieves, murderers, and insurgents, employing such strong measures to make a clear point to other members of the population who might be similarly inclined. Thus, Gibson’s portrayal of the brutality of the scourging by the Roman soldiers, and the gory aspects of crucifixion, are reasonably typical of what the Romans did to those members of society they regarded as dangerous. (For a detailed discussion of crucifixion as practiced by the Romans, see the articles by Fitzmyer 1978, Haas 1970, and Strange 1976). Even though Jewish law limited scourging to 39 stripes (Deut. 25:3; cf. 2 Cor. 11:24), the Romans knew no such limitations. Therefore, a scourging could, at times, be so severe that the Romans did not need to move on to crucifixion, since the prisoner had already expired. A key question would be, however, whether a scourging as severe as what Gibson portrays for Jesus would have left the prisoner capable of functioning even to the limited degree Jesus subsequently does in Gibson’s film. The scourging applied to Jesus while he is shown lying on his back could well have inflicted lethal blows on vital internal organs.

Other aspects of Gibson’s presentation take considerable historical liberties. For example, Gibson’s zeal to present Pilate as if he were Jesus’ defense attorney, arguing Jesus’ innocence before the Jewish people and their leaders, is quite unrealistic, considering the frequency with which the Romans had to deal with uprisings by messianic pretenders (surely Pilate had heard about Jesus riding into Jerusalem while his followers shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” -- Matt. 21:9). In this regard, both Gibson and the gospel narratives, especially Luke’s gospel, seem to go beyond the bounds of historical reasonableness. Another scene in which Gibson’s claim of historical veracity surely falls short is that in which the two Marys use white cloths, (provided by Pilate’s wife!) to sop up Jesus’ blood after the scourging. This scene presupposes a “blood of Jesus” piety that does not become popular in the Roman Catholic Church until the latter part of the Middle Ages, as will be discussed below. One could also mention the dislocation of Jesus’ shoulder during the crucifixion, a gratuitous detail, unknown in the gospels or other ancient Christian literature, inserted by Gibson to intensify his theme of Jesus’ severe pain and suffering. Such a dislocation would likely have hastened the death of the prisoner, due to the prisoner’s consequent inability to pull himself up, something the Romans would not have wanted, since crucifixion was designed to bring about as slow and agonizing a death as possible (Haas 1970: 58; Strange 1976: 199).

We could easily list other concerns about points of historical detail. However, far more interesting than such quibbling about the accuracy of the movie’s specific historical representations is a detailed comparison of Gibson’s depiction of Jesus’ life, passion, and death with the perspectives on Jesus’ life, passion, and death presented in the gospels, and in early Christian visual art. In doing this comparison, it is crucial to note that Gibson’s film begins abruptly during the temptation scene in the garden, with only occasional flashbacks to his earlier life. Thus, Gibson provides no meaningful context by means of which the audience is able to understand Jesus’ passion. Here there is a significant difference between Gibson’s film and the four gospels, each of which carefully prepares the reader for its presentation of Jesus’ passion and death. Furthermore, as we now turn to the four gospels and to examples from early Christian art, it will be important to focus both on what the gospels and early Christian art emphasize about Jesus’ passion and death, and on what they do not emphasize.

I begin with a brief look at samples of early Christian art. While I cannot give a complete list of the various images applied to Jesus by the early church, I will list several that appear frequently, and are typical of early Christian understandings of Jesus. The examples I discuss may be viewed in a number of works on early Christian art. The reader is referred to the bibliography at the end of this paper.

1. The Good Shepherd. In pre-Christian art, the good shepherd was a symbol for gentleness and philanthropy. No doubt under the influence of John 10 and other passages, this visual symbol was adopted by Christians to describe the significance of Jesus’ relationship to his flock, the church. There is an example in the fresco found in the catacomb of Marcellus and Peter, who were martyred under Diocletian (McManners 1990: 38). We see Jesus as the Good Shepherd, with a lamb on his shoulders and two at his feet. There is no suggestion that the two martyrs shared with Jesus the pain and agony of their being wounded and slain as Christians. Rather, Jesus is portrayed as one who comforts and cares for his sheep.

2. Related to the image of the Good Shepherd is that of Jesus as the Lamb of God, taken both from John’s gospel (ch. 1) and from Revelation (passim). Even though Revelation describes the lamb as one who was slain (5:6, 12), and speaks of the blood of the lamb (7:14, 12:11), there is no dwelling on the image of the suffering of Jesus or the brutal extraction of the blood of Jesus, and in fact the lamb is seen repeatedly in Revelation as a triumphant figure who rules the cosmos (17:14; 21:22; 22:1). See also the discussion by Grabar (1968: 135-37) of the symbol of the lamb (portrayed on the sarcophagus of S. Ambrogio in Milan) as one that represents both the lamb who was sacrificed (with no emphasis on the bloodiness or brutality of the sacrifice), and the triumphant Christ as the Good Shepherd, flanked by the apostles/martyrs.

3. A third image is that of Jonah. The sign of Jonah, mentioned in Matthew and Luke’s gospels, refers to the three days Jesus was in the tomb, just as Jonah was three days in the belly of the fish. The sign of Jonah therefore became a symbol of Jesus’ victory, on the third day, over his passion and death (cf. Matt. 12: 38-42; Luke 11:29-32). While you do not hear much use today of this symbol as a means for interpreting Jesus’ death and resurrection, it was one of the most frequently used visual images in the early church for understanding Jesus’ death and its significance, and it was often used on sarcophagi and other works in stone during the first several Christian centuries (McManners 1990: 54, discussing a third century Greek sculpture of Jonah and the fish; see also Gough 1973: 38-39, and van der Meer’s discussion of the sarcophagus of Santa Maria Antica from Rome 1959: 138). As these discussions indicate, the symbol of Jonah was multi-faceted, but clearly revolved around the victorious resurrection of Jesus on the third day.

4. Another image is found in the church of Santa Constanza in Rome, from the fourth century (McManners 1990: 32). A mosaic depicts Jesus accompanied by Peter on his right hand and Paul on his left, along with numerous sheep, the four rivers of paradise, and symbols representing Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Christ is here an authoritative, cosmic figure who rules the earth and his church. At Santa Pudenziana in Rome, a mosaic in an apse also depicts Christ enthroned over the apostles, with the eternal Jerusalem in the background (Gough 1973: 81; see also the plate on p. 85, and van der Meer 1959: 131 and plate 11).

5. Yet another image is that of Jesus depicted in regal majesty as the Christ, encased within the Greek letters Alpha and Omega, representing the first and the last, the beginning and the end (McManners 1990: plate opposite p. 36). This image clearly conveys Jesus’ cosmic power, as well as his role as the creator (John 1) who will judge us all.

6. The last symbol I will mention is the fish. Frequently used in early Christian art and, at times, in fourth and fifth century paintings in the catacombs, it is associated with the Eucharist. The Greek word for fish, ichthus, came to represent the acrostic, “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.” In the catacomb of St. Domitilla, from the early fourth century, two fish accompany an anchor shaped like a cross, which is designed to be a symbol of hope (McManners 1990: 35). See also the fish depicted in the catacombs of St. Calixtus in Rome, accompanied by a basket of bread (Grabar 1968: plate 5), which clearly symbolizes communion, the sharing of Jesus’ body and blood with his followers. The fish was also often used as a symbol by which Christians secretly identified themselves to one another.

Noticeably absent in these various depictions of Jesus, and in the symbols associated with his role and work, is a detailed emphasis on blood and brutality, and on the agony of Jesus’ suffering and death. Perhaps this is not altogether surprising, since Jesus’ execution on a cross was not a matter early Christians could easily explain to their pagan contemporaries. Nevertheless, it is also quite clear that early Christians saw no need to stress the intimate particulars of Jesus’ suffering and death, and found other symbols more useful and appropriate as a means of presenting Jesus as a savior who died for his followers and was raised from the dead. Scourges, blood, bloodied crosses, and torture do not dominate the early Christian artistic treatment of Jesus’ role as savior.

Gough notes (1973: 39) that “Very few episodes drawn from the life of Christ exist from pre-Constantinian times, and the Passion and Crucifixion seem to have been almost totally excluded.” Volbach observes that, after the post-Constantinian ascendancy of Christianity, Christ “stands forth as the victorious ruler” and “Judge of the Universe in heavenly glory.” As Volbach also notes, “The death of Christ is alluded to by other scenes, but is never actually portrayed. Old Testament scenes, such as the Sacrifice of Isaac or the representation of the Washing of the Hands, were enough for believers” (n.d.: 22). As Grabar notes, “It was not in late antiquity, however, but only at the beginning of the Middle Ages that the image-makers began to use the subject of the Crucifixion as a representation of the death of Jesus. In late antiquity, the scene of Golgatha, sometimes realistic, did not extend its realism to the figure of the Crucified, and especially not in order to represent him after his death; for here, as elsewhere, the evangelical scene serves to proclaim a truth. . . . [D]uring this time images of the Crucifixion were used not to demonstrate the reality of Jesus’ death but to demonstrate the glory of Christ, his victory over death . . ., the universality of salvation through the Cross, and so on.” (1968: 131-32. See also plates 317 and 318).

We now turn to the four gospels. For a more in-depth discussion of these gospel passages, the reader is referred to Beare 1964, Vawter 1967, and the massive two volume discussion in Brown 1994. Each gospel, prior to its passion narrative, refers directly to Jesus’ passion and death, as, for example, in Mark 8:31-33, where Jesus describes his own suffering, being rejected, and killed, and Peter quickly chastises Jesus for not properly understanding his role as the messiah. There are parallel passages in Matt. 16:21-23 and Luke 9: 18-27. In John’s gospel, there are references to the Son of Man being lifted up (John 3:14; 8:28; 12:32, 34), which undeniably refer to his being lifted up on the cross. While these are unmistakable references to Jesus’ suffering and crucifixion, it is also clear that these references point to the significance of the suffering and crucifixion, rather than dwelling on the gory details of the events.

The situation is the same when we turn to the passion narrative as presented in each gospel. In Matthew, the evangelist stresses Jesus’ innocence, doing so through the dream of Pilate’s wife (27:19), and through Pilate’s question “What evil has he done?” (v. 23). Pilate washes his hands and declares himself innocent of Jesus' blood, and the Jewish people take Jesus’ blood upon themselves (vv. 24-25). However, the scourging of Jesus is mentioned only briefly in passing (v. 26), right before Jesus is delivered to be crucified, and there is no dwelling on the bloodletting or upon Jesus’ torture with the scourge. When the Roman soldiers mock Jesus (vv. 27-31), the crown of thorns they set on his head is not primarily a means of torture (Gibson’s painful depiction notwithstanding), but rather is used to mock Jesus’ perceived kingly aspirations, going along with the robe and reed which are used to make fun of Jesus as “king.” Simon of Cyrene is compelled to carry Jesus’ cross, but nothing is said about Jesus being too battered to do so. Jesus’ crucifixion is described by Matthew quickly, with only several words at the beginning of v. 35. Jesus’ suffering (vv. 37-50) is not described as physical pain, but rather as his enduring the mocking by: the soldiers, who place the words “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews” over his head; the two malefactors; the passers by; and the Jewish leaders. The significance of Jesus’ death is treated in a number of ways, such as Jesus’ crying out (v. 46) the words of Ps. 22:1, the tearing of the curtain in the temple from top to bottom (v. 51), and the words of the centurion (v. 54), but the focus is hardly on the torture of Jesus or on the copious flowing of his blood.

In Mark, as in Matthew, Pilate asks “What evil has he done?” (15:14), and the scourging of Jesus is again mentioned only very briefly in passing (v. 15), right before Jesus is delivered to be crucified. There is again the mocking of Jesus’ kingship with the crown of thorns, robe, and reed, and again Simon of Cyrene is compelled to carry Jesus’ cross (vv. 16-21). As in Matthew, the significance of Jesus’ death is treated in a number of ways, including Jesus’ uttering (v. 34) the words of Ps. 22:1, the tearing of the temple curtain into two pieces (v. 38), and the words of the centurion (v. 39), but, as in Matthew, the focus is hardly on Jesus’ torture or on a hemorrhage of blood.

In Luke, Pilate even more firmly asserts Jesus’ innocence, this time saying “I find no crime in this man” (23:4), and Pilate sends Jesus to Herod. Herod’s soldiers, rather than Pilate’s, are the ones in Luke’s gospel who mock Jesus, dressing him in “elegant” apparel (v. 11). Herod returns Jesus to Pilate, who asserts “I did not find this man guilty of any of your charges” (v. 14), and “He has done nothing deserving death” (v. 15). Pilate twice suggests scourging Jesus and releasing him (vv. 16, 22), but then, giving in to the chief priests and rulers, Pilate releases him to be crucified, apparently without scourging him (v. 24). Again, Simon of Cyrene carries the cross, bringing it along behind Jesus (v. 26, unlike Gibson’s representation in the film). The crucifixion is described in less than one verse (v. 33). Once again, a number of themes are treated while Jesus is on the cross, such as: the soldiers’ mocking of Jesus (vv. 36-38); Jesus’ pardoning of the one malefactor, who declares Jesus’ innocence (vv. 40-43); and the curtain of the temple being torn (v. 45), but the writer does not dwell on the details of Jesus’ crucifixion and suffering, or on his blood.

In John’s gospel, Pilate questions Jesus, and again we have the words “I find no crime in him” (18:38, 19:4, 6). Here Jesus is scourged (19:1) but, as in Matthew and Mark, no details of the scourging are presented. Jesus has a crown of thorns and a purple robe placed upon him, and is then mocked, and struck by the soldiers (vv. 2-3). Pilate tries to gain sympathy for Jesus, but fails, and eventually turns Jesus over for crucifixion (v. 16). Jesus bears his own cross (v. 17) to his place of execution and, as in the other three gospels, it simply says that he was crucified (v.18), without dwelling on the lurid details of how he was nailed to the cross. John has his own points he stresses, such as Jesus’ giving his mother to the beloved disciple (vv. 26-27), but there is, once again, no emphasis on the brutality of the scourging and the crucifixion, or on the flowing of Jesus’ blood. In fact, the only reference to blood in John’s crucifixion narrative is when the soldier pierces Jesus’ side, after Jesus is already dead, to confirm his death (v. 34). Blood and water flow from the wound, but that is clearly a theological reference filled with profound symbolism (see Brown 1994: 2.1178-82), and there is no dwelling on the gruesome or gory aspects of Jesus’ blood spraying all over, contrary to what Gibson does in the parallel bloody scene in his film, which he claims is based strongly on John’s gospel. John is more interested in Jesus’ legs not being broken (vv. 33, 36), and in his being pierced (v. 37), both seen as fulfillments of Scripture.

In all four gospel narratives of the passion and crucifixion, there is very little mention of, and certainly no emphasis on, the bloody and debilitating scourging of Jesus, the bloodied and battered Jesus being unable to bear his cross, the brutality of the crucifixion, or the blood that flows copiously throughout many scenes in Gibson’s film. One can only conclude that there is a serious disconnect between the four passion narratives and Gibson’s portrayal of the passion, despite Gibson’s claim that he bases his film on the gospel narratives. Also, in his passion for depicting in gruesome detail the scourging, suffering, and dying of Jesus, Gibson glosses over many of the points that the gospel writers themselves make about the significance and meaning of Jesus’ death. The theology of the gospel writers is washed away in a sea of film producer’s red!

It is interesting to note that the primary use of the word “blood” in the passion accounts focuses around the Words of Institution spoken in the context of the Last Supper. In Mark’s gospel the last reference to blood is in 14:24: “This is my blood of the (new) covenant, poured out for many.” Luke’s last reference to blood is in 22:20 (unless one includes the questionable words of 22: 43-44, which may not have been part of the original text [see, for example, the textual notes in the New American Bible and the Revised Standard Version]. Even if these verses are included, they refer to Jesus sweating blood, as he anticipates his passion, and not to his being bloodied). Luke’s passage parallels Mark 14:24, Luke’s wording being: “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, poured out for you.” Thus, Mark and Luke deal with Jesus’ blood not by highlighting the flowing of blood in brutal scenes in their passion narratives, but rather by underlining the sacramental significance of Jesus’ death right before the passion narrative begins, showing that Jesus’ blood is the basis of the New Covenant. John’s gospel deals with the meaning of Jesus’ blood through the extensive passage in 6:53-56, where Jesus says that those who abide in him must eat his flesh and drink his blood, a clear reference to the Eucharist. After that, the only reference to blood in John’s gospel is in the piercing scene in 19:34 where, as noted above, there is a clear and likely multifaceted theological reference, and John declines to portray bloody scenes. In Matthew the word “blood” is used twice after the Words of Institution during the Last Supper: in the scene where Judas anguishes over having spilt innocent blood (27:4-8); and in the scene where Pilate washes his hands and declares his innocence of Jesus’ blood, and the people in the crowd take Jesus’ blood upon themselves (27:24-25). Even here, the reference is to Jesus’ unjust death, rather than to the bloody details of Jesus’ death which Gibson has chosen to accentuate.

Perhaps most telling in all of this is the disinclination of the gospel writers to develop the images contained in the Suffering Servant passage of Isaiah 52:13-53:12. Gibson’s film, on the other hand, accentuates this Suffering Servant motif, as seen in the words of Isaiah 53:5, “He was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities. . . by his wounds we are healed.” These words appear on the screen right as the film begins, and Gibson’s script clearly thrives on them, and on images such as: “His appearance was so marred beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of the sons of men” (Is. 52:14); and “It was the will of the Lord to abuse him” (53:10). It is crucial to note, however, that precisely in those places where the gospel writers had the opportunity to strongly play this up into a major feature of their passion accounts, they are disinclined to emphasize the links, choosing instead to emphasize other themes. Even as I write this paragraph, I have surging through my head streams of words and music from Handel’s treatment of the Suffering Servant passage in his oratorio “The Messiah,” but it is important to note that it is in that context, and not in the gospels, that these themes and links are accentuated. It is late medieval Roman Catholic piety that begins to draw these links strongly, links that have been reiterated ever since in western visual art, music, piety, and theology. Gibson is, therefore, hardly correct when he sees himself to be placing into celluloid what is on paper in the New Testament.

There is thus a universe of material in the film that is not based upon the gospel texts. An especially pointed example of this is Gibson’s creation of the “dark side” Madonna and child, wherein the androgynous Satan, during the scene in which Jesus is scourged, circulates through the Jewish crowd, holding a young demonic figure in her/his arms, as both relish Jesus’ being scourged. In fact, Gibson’s emphasis on Satan and demonic figures throughout his film is quite overdrawn, going way beyond what the gospels present. Neither Matthew nor Mark say a word about Satan’s involvement when they describe Jesus’ passion. Luke only mentions Satan twice during the passion narrative, first when Satan enters Judas (22:3), and then when Jesus warns Peter about Satan testing the disciples (22:31). John twice mentions Satan entering Judas as Judas plans to betray Jesus (13: 2, 27), but John does not mention Satan anywhere else in his passion account. Thus, aside from the three references in Luke and John to Satan entering Judas, and Jesus’ brief warning to Peter about Satan sifting the disciples like wheat, the gospels are completely silent about Satan’s presence during the passion. Satan is not mentioned in the scenes in the Garden of Gethsemane (although Gibson has created in detail his own sub-plot regarding Satan’s tempting Jesus in the garden), in the terse description of Jesus’ scourging, or walking in the crowd as Jesus is led to his crucifixion. Gibson certainly has a right, as director of the film, to use such items as part of his artistic repertoire, butt then he should not claim to be producing a film that is true to the stories in the gospels.

There is an interesting passage in the Gospel of Peter, a non-canonical gospel. In 4.10 it says, “And they brought two malefactors and crucified the Lord in the midst of them. But he held his peace, as if he felt no pain.” The phrase “as if he felt no pain” may imply a gnostic influence; however, the key factor to note is that this gospel, like the four canonical ones, is decidedly uninterested in the lurid details of Jesus’ suffering, his wounds, his blood, his scourging, his agony, or his torture. The significance of the narration lies elsewhere.

Since we strongly disagree with Gibson’s claim that he is deriving his bloodied screen set directly from the gospels, we must ask what Gibson’s source is for his movie’s focus, since it clearly is Gibson, and not the gospels, that wants to dwell on broken bodies, battered bodies, deliberately disabled bodies, and a sea of blood and suffering. While there are no doubt several sources for Gibson’s perspective, one clear link ties Gibson to Sister Anna Katharina Emmerick (1774-1824), an Augustinian ecstatic visionary from Westphalia (Cross 1958: 449-50). In her visions, Anna “saw” Caiaphas order the cross to be constructed in the temple as Jesus was being arrested, and she also “saw” the high priest bribe other Jews to urge Pilate to crucify Jesus. Even though Gibson edited out of his film some of the scenes he based on Emmerick’s visions, her Meditations on the Passion has clearly influenced Gibson’s script. Especially intriguing is the fact that Emmerick claims to have received on her body, due to her mystical contemplation on the wounds of Jesus, the stigmata of the passion of Christ. In this phenomenon, the person experiences the pain of the wounds of Jesus. In some cases, the stigmata may be invisible, and here the person only experiences the pain Jesus experienced without any visible signs of wounding on the body. In other cases, the stigmata may be visible, in wounds or blood blisters on the hands, feet, head, near the heart, or on the shoulders. Here we have a clear, powerful pointer to a good deal of what lies behind Gibson’s strong emphasis on the wounding of Jesus. Stigmatization appears in the church no earlier than the 13th century, when devotion to the wounds and suffering of Christ became a strong emphasis in the piety of Roman Catholicism. Prior to this, as noted above, intense devotion in detail to the wounds of Jesus, the blood of Jesus, the scourging of Jesus, the torture of Jesus, and the vivid details of the suffering of Jesus was not a major factor in Christian piety.

Let me focus a bit further on the stigmata. As Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language (1961: 2243) notes, the basic meaning for this word, a “mark” or “brand,” can refer not only to the stigmata of Jesus’ wounds, but also to “a symptom of physical or mental disorder.” When one expands the category in this manner, some interesting aspects of Gibson’s film come forward. As Jesus is physically beaten, he becomes visually impaired, only able to squint at the high priests and at Pilate through the one eye that is still partially open. He comes to have a disability in walking, barely able at times to stand and place one foot before another, especially as he carries the cross toward Golgatha. At times during the march to the site of execution he looks as if he is barely able to comprehend what is going on around him. The flow of blood that has issued from his body leaves him weak, just as the woman with an issue of blood was left weak by her infirmity (Luke 8:42-48). Does Gibson mean to portray Jesus, in his passion, as the suffering servant who takes upon himself the infirmities of others? Many of Jesus’ healings deal with “the blind, the maimed, and the halt,” as the King James Version phrases it (Lk. 14:21). Does Gibson intend to have Jesus, in his passion, subsume within himself the infirmities of many of those whom he has previously healed?

I suspect the answer is “no.” Throughout his career, Gibson has been into action films, blood and gore, torture, and the spectacular, and The Passion of the Christ certainly contains those elements, in ample measure, with a religious twist. His treatment of Jesus encourages voyeurism rather than piety, gawking rather than empathy, shock rather than understanding. In a very real sense, it is the “wounds of Jesus” piety, developed within Roman Catholicism since the 13th century, which runs amok throughout the film, developed through: the special effects capabilities of the film industry; oceans of fake blood; a prolonged focusing on the continuing humiliation of Jesus; a relentless emphasis on suffering; and a blatant pandering to the public’s desire for sensationalism and the bizarre.

This is not really a helpful profile for understanding Jesus’ passion, especially when you add the “quickie” resurrection glued on at the end of the film. After endless images of blood and gore, Gibson’s treatment of Jesus’ resurrection resembles, more than anything else, a fleeting image glimpsed from a speeding train. There is no depth, no development of meaning or implication. There is no appearance of Jesus to his followers, and no interpretation of the meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection. The impression I received from the incredibly brief resurrection scene is that Jesus has had the opportunity to take a shower and wash off all the blood and gore, to purge himself of the wounds and disabilities that had been inflicted upon him. It is as if Gibson is saying, “It’s all okay now; it’s all better.” Jesus becomes whole once again, the virile image of masculine humanity that so many of our contemporaries idealize. That is certainly a new type of resurrection theology, but hardly one that deals carefully with Jesus’ death and resurrection. It does not provide a clear message filled with hope or optimism in the classic Christian sense. Is Jesus raised simply because he suffered and bled so much?

Gibson may, with the best of intentions, want us to see Jesus as the suffering servant figure who was battered and bruised, as one who suffered for all and bled for all, but also triumphed and overcame it all, according to God’s plan. Yet, his dwelling on the procrastinated voyeurism toward the battered, broken Jesus makes Jesus into, more than anything else, a Hollywood spectacle, with the audience forced to wallow in Jesus’ blood. In this way, Gibson’s film resembles one huge gapers block on an interstate highway, as Gibson forces people to slow down to view an overwhelming amount of Jesus’ blood and gore. This is not good theology, and denigrates the passion of Jesus. As should be clear from the brief discussion above, the gospels do a far better job of presenting the passion of the Christ, doing so in a way that develops the rich heritage of biblical themes which the Christian church has used for almost 2000 years to understand the passion and death of Jesus, and its relevance to individual Christians.


  • Beare, Francis Wright. A Companion to: The Synopsis of the First Three Gospels, by Albert Huck. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1964.

  • Brown, Raymond E. The Death of the Messiah: From Gethsemane to the Grave. Two volumes. New York: Doubleday, 1994.

  • Cross, F. L., ed. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. London: Oxford University Press, 1958.

  • Dillenberger, Jane. Style and Content In Christian Art. New York: Crossroad, 1986.

  • Emmerick, Anna Katharina. Meditations on the Passion. Compiled by Clemens Brentano, edited by A. Michelitsch. Graz, 1935, English translation.

  • Fitzmyer, Joseph A. “Crucifixion in Ancient Palestine, Qumran Literature, and the New Testament,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 40 (1978) 493-513.

  • Gough, Michael. The Origins of Christian Art. New York: Praeger, 1973.

  • Grabar, Andre. Christian Iconography: A Study of Its Origin. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1968.

  • Haas, N. “Anthropological Observations on the Skelital Remains from Giv‘at ha-Mivtar,” Israel Exploration Journal 20 (1970) 38-59.

  • McManners, John. The Oxford Illustrated History of Christianity. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.

  • Strange, J. F. “Crucifixion, Method of.” In The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible: An Illustrated Encyclopedia. Supplementary Volume. Nashville: Abingdon, 1976, pp. 199-200.

  • Van der Meer, Frederick. Early Christian Art. London: Faber and Faber Limited, 1967. Translated by Peter and Friedl Brown from Oudchristelijke Kunst. Zeist: W. de Haan N. V., 1959.

  • Vawter, Bruce, C.W. The Four Gospels: An Introduction. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1967.

  • Volbach, Wolfgang Fritz. Early Christian Art. Translated by Christopher Ligota. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., n.d.

  • Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language. Springfield, MA: G. & C. Merriam Company, 1961.

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