Further Thoughts on “The Passion of the Christ”

March 2, 2004

Here are some answers to questions raised by the movie:

1) Why is Satan portrayed as a woman?

Because it would not have worked for Mel Gibson to portray Satan in the pop culture stereotype with horns and a red cape. By using a woman with shaved eyebrows who never blinks (note that her eyes are always wide open), Satan becomes a shadowy figure who is both vaguely evil and yet beautiful at the same time. In the Garden scene, the voice of Satan is the voice of man, not the voice of the actress playing Satan. Gibson wanted a believable Satan figure and he succeeded admirably.

2) Why is Satan carrying a baby in the scourging scene and what does that represent?

This is the # 1 question most people have asked. The image deliberately jars the mind because the “baby” has the face of a 45-year-old man, according to Gibson. One key lies in the Renaissance paintings of the Madonna and the Christ Child. Several of those paintings show Mary holding the baby Jesus with his face turned toward the viewer exactly as the “baby” turns toward the viewer in the movie. If it seem unsettling, it’s meant to produce that reaction. The intent is to show Satan mocking Jesus. The “baby” might represent the Antichrist. Or it may simply be Satan’s way of saying, “See, I take care of my “baby” but your Father has completely abandoned you.” It should be noted that this scene has no connection to the biblical text whatsoever. As a symbol of Satan mocking Jesus, it is profoundly unsettling and true in the sense that Satan mocks and counterfeits everything God does. However, I think the scene adds nothing important and in fact distracts from the power of the scourging of Jesus.

3) How accurate is the movie in terms of the biblical text?

Overall, I think Mel Gibson has faithfully followed the gospel accounts, especially if you bear in mind that he has filled in many details in places where the Bible only gives us a sentence or two. We know that the Romans could be incredibly brutal, we know that men sometimes died while being scourged, we know that Jesus was scourged. What we can’t know is how closely the scourging scene reproduces what really happened. From what the little hints in the gospel accounts, I tend to think the portrayal was accurate. The guards did mock him and crown him with thorns and strike him with their fists.

4) What parts of the movie are additions to the gospel records?

Here’s a partial list: The snake in the Garden, Jesus being pushed over the bridge, the private conversation between Pilate and his wife, Jesus constructing a wooden table, the raven that pecked out the eye of the unrepentant thief, the woman who wipes the sweat and blood from Jesus’ face while he carries the cross, the children taunting Judas, Mary kissing Jesus’ bloody feet, Pilate’s wife offering towels to Mary and Mary Magdalene. By the way, the movie repeats a fairly common mistake by identifying Mary Magdalene with the woman caught in adultery in John 8. The Bible nowhere makes that identification. There are other things we can’t be sure about, such as the precise design of the cross. Most scholars think it is unlikely that Jesus carried the entire cross, more likely that he carried the horizontal piece. It’s also very unlikely that the nails were driven through his palms. Almost certainly the nails were driven through his wrist; otherwise the nails would have easily ripped out of his palms because of the weight of his body. The “teardrop from heaven,” while extremely effective, is also an addition to the text as is Caiaphas speaking to Jesus while he is on the cross. Special note: Some people have wondered about the rotting donkey covered with flies when Judas committed suicide. That’s supposed to be the donkey Jesus rode into Jerusalem. The fact that it is decaying represents Judas’ total rejection of all that the Triumphal Entry represents—-Jesus as the true King of the Jews.

5) Why doesn’t Joseph appear in the movie?

Joseph disappears from the biblical story after Jesus teaches in the temple when he is 12 years old (Luke 2:41-52). Since he is not mentioned in any of the gospel accounts of the death of Christ, most scholars assume that he died some years earlier.

6) What surprised you by its omission?

I was waiting for the centurion to proclaim, “Surely this was the Son of God” (Matthew 27:54). For some reason, that very powerful statement never appears in the movie.

7) Which parts of the movie seemed especially powerful to you?

Most of the movie would fall into this category, but I would highlight Jesus and Satan in the Garden, Jesus crushing the serpent (Genesis 3:15), Jesus and Caiaphas, the Jewish leaders and Pilate, Pilate and Jesus, Pilate and his wife (a very strong part of the movie), the flashbacks to earlier scenes such as the Sermon on the Mount and the Last Supper, the scourging scene, Simon of Cyrene, Mary at the cross, the events following Jesus’ death. Although I wish it had lasted longer, the Resurrection scene ended the film on a high note of hope and life.

8) Is the movie Anti-Semitic?

No. The movie makes it clear that Pontius Pilate bears final responsibility for Jesus’ crucifixion. Not all of the Jewish leaders opposed Christ. Some did, some didn’t. Throughout Israel, there were those who loved Jesus, those who hated him, and many in the middle who were undecided. The movie makes the point that no one “killed” Christ against his will. He laid down his life of his own accord.

9) Is the graphic violence justified?

Each person much answer that question individually. The blood and gore does seem almost overwhelming, and at times, you may feel like looking away. But the blood drives home several points: The reality of human sin, the vastness of God’s love, and the high price that Jesus paid for our salvation.

10) Is there an overtly Catholic emphasis?

It depends on what you mean. Mel Gibson is a very conservative Catholic so it’s not surprising that the film emphasizes Mary’s role. The woman who played Mary gave made us all feel her pain in watching her son die a brutal, public death. The long walk to the Cross evokes the “stations of the Cross,” but not in an offensive manner.

11) Is this an evangelistic film?

Again, it depends on your point of view. I heard a caller to a radio program complaining because the gospel message did not come through clear enough to suit her. But this is not supposed to be a Billy Graham film. It’s Mel Gibson’s vision of the death of Christ, based on the gospel accounts. Sometimes we expect more from a film than it can deliver. We forget that the heart of the gospel is a story–the death and resurrection of Christ. It’s not the “Four Spiritual Laws” or “An Anchor for the Soul.” Those things interpret the story for contemporary audiences. I think sometimes evangelicals lack confidence in the power of the story of Jesus to stand alone without any explanation from us. But millions of people packing the theaters (and $135 million in ticket sales so far) proves how wrong we are. Think of this: A man dies a brutal death in a forgotten corner of the Roman Empire–just one of 250,000 Jews who were crucified by the Romans. He has no press agent, no radio deal, no book contract–he’s just a man who died one Friday afternoon outside the walls of Jerusalem. You wouldn’t think his death could change the world, but it did. Two thousand years later he’s the talk of the town and the center of a worldwide movement. Everywhere his story is told, people flock to hear it. Mel Gibson’s movie tells his story and tells it so compellingly that millions of people are talking about that man and his bloody death. It’s amazing, and only God could have done it.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?