Objections to The Passion: Is It As It Was?

Legionary Father Thomas Williams, dean of the school of theology at Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University in Rome, was a theological consultant for Mel Gibson's movie The Passion of the Christ.

In the following interview with the Register, Father Williams spoke about the historical and theological points of the film.

Is it true, as asserted by some biblical scholars and media pundits, that The Passion of the Christ is rife with historical and theological errors?

Gibson's film has been subjected to unprecedented scrutiny in efforts to find fault with his depiction of Christ's passion and death. This was to be expected, given the importance of the subject matter. Despite these efforts, however, the picayune quibbles expressed by many of his critics border on the ridiculous. Complaints concerning the languages spoken, the height of the cross, the length of Jesus‘ hair, the size of the crowd in Pilate's praetorium and the placement of the nails in Jesus’ hands seem strangely trivial in the face of the larger message of the film.

Many of these details we simply do not and cannot know with absolute historical certainty, and with such cases of doubt, different interpretations are legitimate. The fact is that the only source we have for most of these items are the Gospel accounts themselves. We have no photos of Jesus, no contemporary biography of Pontius Pilate and no explicit records of Jesus' trial outside of the Gospels themselves. Other theories as to the way events might have transpired open interesting avenues of speculation but do not exact intellectual assent.

On reading some categorical affirmations as to how things must have gone you would think scholars had uncovered compelling historical data concerning Jesus' death. Yet if you scratch beneath the surface you will find that some exegetical hypotheses rest on surprisingly sparse textual sources and a good deal of conjecture.

Could you give some examples? What about the placement of the nails at the Crucifixion? Weren't they really nailed into his wrists?

Gibson did not just shoot from the hip here but researched this question thoroughly before deciding to go with the palms of the hands. Many scholars today think the nails might have been driven through Jesus' wrists and not his palms, mainly because the weight of a human body cannot be supported by the flesh of the hands.

The Shroud of Turin lends credence to this hypothesis, since blood seems to be concentrated around the area of the wrists. On the other hand, John's Gospel has Thomas declaring that he will not believe unless he sees the nail marks “in his hands” and further along Jesus invites Thomas to examine his hands. Some ambiguity remains, however, since the Greek word can also be used in a more general way to describe even the hand and arm together.

Throughout history, stigmatics such as Francis of Assisi or Padre Pio have received the wounds of Christ in the palms of their hands, and traditional Christian iconography almost always places the nails in Jesus' palms rather than his wrists.

Furthermore, a human body could be supported by nails through the palms, provided ropes were used along with them. In the face of this inconclusive data, Gibson opted to show the nails piercing Jesus' palms rather than his wrists.

And the size of the crowd at Pilate's praetorium? Some scholars have stated that only a handful of people were present, nothing like the crowd Gibson shows.

Again, no one knows for sure how many people were present. The only thing we have to go on are the Gospel narratives. St. Matthew speaks of a “crowd” or “throng,” employing the same broad Greek term that he uses elsewhere, for instance, to describe the multitudes that gathered to hear Jesus teach or at the feeding of the 4,000 (Matthew 15). This term is sufficiently vague as to leave much room for interpretation.

Matthew also states that a riot was beginning at the praetorium, which gives the sense of a fairly sizable gathering, since 20 or 30 people can hardly generate a riot. The other synoptic gospels, Mark and Luke, similarly speak of a “crowd,” using the same Greek term, while John speaks merely of “the Jews,” without offering further numeric details. Given the data available, Gibson's portrayal seems to be a plausible representation of what actually happened.

Isn't it unfair and unscientific to pull data indiscriminately from the four Gospel accounts?

Remember that when presenting a single visual portrayal of a historic event, one has to draw from the best sources one has, which are, in this case, the four Gospel narratives. Christians believe the four Gospels together give a good idea of what actually occurred. From these four texts one can sketch a pretty good composite picture of Christ's last hours.

Moreover, Gibson did not intend to produce a documentary on Christ's suffering and death but rather a historically based artistic rendering of these events, emphasizing their spiritual and theological value. He has repeatedly affirmed that The Passion of the Christ reflects his personal vision of the passion and not the only possible vision.

What Mel does here is nothing new. This blending of elements from the different Gospels enjoys a venerable tradition. The pious practice of meditating on the “seven last words” of Jesus pulls out the various utterances of Jesus on the cross from the different Gospel accounts into a single meditation.

The centuries-old devotional exercise of retracing the Stations of the Cross likewise proposes for the meditation of the faithful different scenes from the four Gospel narratives as well as from extra-biblical tradition. Such is the case, for instance, of Veronica's cloth and Jesus' falls along the Via Dolorosa, which Mel also included in the film.

But doesn't modern scholarship hold that Jesus' passion and death didn't occur as portrayed in the Gospels? One writer in the Boston Globe, for instance, stated that “scholars now assert with near unanimity that the death of Jesus did not happen as the Passion narratives recount.” A recent piece in the Baltimore Sun reiterated the same point.

We have to be careful in referring to modern scholarship as if it were a monolithic block or as if all scholars were in perfect accord. Many schools of thought exist on this and countless other scriptural questions, and no one theory commands absolute allegiance.

Thus while theories questioning certain aspects of the Gospel narratives of Christ's death do indeed exist, one could cite numerous contrary exegetical studies that affirm the historicity of the Gospel accounts of Jesus' trial and subsequent passion.

Among the works in English, one could mention N.T. Wright's Jesus and the Victory of God, B.F. Meyer's The Aims of Jesus and R. Brown's The Death of the Messiah. Quite helpful, too, is an older essay by the very respected critical scholar D.R. Catchpole, “The Problem of the Historicity of the Sanhedrin Trial” (in E. Bammel [ed.], The Trial of Jesus: Festscrift for CFD Moule, 1970).

For its part, the Catholic Church has authoritatively made clear its own unflagging belief in the historicity of the Gospels in the Vatican II dogmatic constitution

Dei Verbum.

“Holy Mother Church,” we read, “has firmly and with absolute constancy maintained and continues to maintain that the four Gospels just named, whose historicity she unhesitatingly affirms, faithfully hand on what Jesus, the Son of God, really did and taught for their eternal salvation until the day that he was taken up” (DV 19). Moreover, no ancient texts call into question the basic facts of the Passion narratives.

Modern scholarship provides important studies and theories to better understand the Scriptures, but they hardly carry more weight than the canonical text itself. And I say this not only regarding Christian belief and theology but as historical texts. We simply have no better historical sources for what went on in Jesus' life and passion than the four Gospel accounts. Good biblical exegesis always has the canonical text as its point of reference, which is what Gibson endeavored to do.

What of the Feb. 26 Associated Press report that Gibson rejects the Second Vatican Council's reversal on teaching regarding the Jews' collective responsibility for Christ's death?

This accusation is inaccurate in at least two respects. First, the fathers of the Second Vatican Council didn't see themselves as reversing any prior teachings on this question. The council categorically reaffirmed perennial Catholic teaching that all of humanity's sins, and the sins of Christians in particular, are responsible for Christ's death, as stated, inter alia, in the catechism of the Council of Trent.

The Vatican Council document states: “Even though the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ, neither all Jews indiscriminately at that time nor Jews today can be charged with the crimes committed during his passion” (Nostra Atate, 4).

Second, Gibson embraces that teaching wholeheartedly and has repeatedly stated his belief that the sins of all mankind are responsible for Christ's suffering and death, his own in the first place. He even chose to be filmed holding the nail driven into Jesus' hand as a reminder of his own part in Jesus' passion. The film reflects that teaching, making a clear distinction between the individuals that pressed for Jesus' death and the Jewish people as a whole.

Nonetheless, a Feb. 28 essay in The New York Times says Gibson's film portrays the Jews indiscriminately as a blood-thirsty mob. The Romans are also depicted as vicious, the article states, but whereas the brutal Romans have Claudia and Pilate as sympathetic counterparts, “there is no counterweight to the portrayal of the Jews.” Is that the case?

Quite the opposite. With few exceptions the Romans come across as cruel and violent, whereas Mel was careful to depict the Jews in a much more nuanced way. He includes contrary voices at the Sanhedrin trial who denounce the proceeding as a travesty. These correspond to the Gospel figures of Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, two followers of Jesus among the Jewish leaders.

Gibson shows a number of Jewish women weeping for Jesus along the way of the cross, as recounted in the biblical narratives. The Jewish figure Simon of Cyrene, initially conscripted to help Jesus carry his cross, eventually does so willingly and defends Jesus from the Roman soldiers. His Simon, a very sympathetic character, is disparaged by one of the soldiers with the epithet: “Jew,” evidencing the Roman disdain for all things Jewish and evoking empathy for the Cyrenean on the part of viewers.

The Jewish Veronica offers Jesus a cup of water and gives him her cloth to wipe his bloody face. All of this without even mentioning the fact that all of Jesus' disciples were Jewish as well.

Comparing the Gospel narratives with Gibson's rendering, one finds a very faithful correspondence, more so than any other cinematic representation of Jesus' life to date. If anything, Gibson tilts things in favor of the Jews and softens the Gospel's sometimes-blanket depiction of the “Jews” as opposed to Christ.

No one can walk away from this film with any sense of Jewish collective guilt for the death of Jesus. The empirical evidence confirms this, since time and time again viewers speak of heightened awareness of their personal responsibility for Christ's death after seeing the film.

But what of Gibson's decision to only show Christ's passion, without locating it in the larger context of his life and teachings?

In the midst of justifiable hand-wringing over Hollywood's inclination to glorify ugliness and evil, Gibson has plied his trade to depict Jesus Christ in the moment of his supreme sacrifice of love. Surprisingly, Gibson has been able to draw out the inner beauty of Christ even in this moment of ignominy, when “he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him” (Isaiah 53).