Film Review: “The Passion of the Christ”
Special to the Denver Post, April 2004
By Howard Abel Hirsch
“The Passion” is a violent and graphic film that is frequently awesome and inspiring. Mel Gibson’s film,
however, neither accurately reproduces the passion stories recorded in the gospels nor does it reflect the best current scholarship. Gibson glosses over the historical problems which confront any serious student of the
gospels and gives no evidence of ever having read the work of John Meier, Raymond Brown or E.P. Sanders, the preeminent Jesus scholars of our time. There are literally dozens if not hundreds of discrepancies between the film and the canonical gospel accounts of the last hours of Jesus’ life. By his own admission, Gibson has relied on the mystic visions of a nineteenth century nun, Anne Catherine Emmerich, who has embellished the story with innumerable painful details that have no parallel in the gospels, which are, by comparison, models of restraint.
I dislike cinematic portrayals of biblical stories. In “The Ten Commandments,” Cecil B. DeMille cavalierly rewrote the book of Exodus because he obviously felt that the original wasn’t good enough. Mel Gibson is the latest exponent of this old Hollywood tradition. What he has given us is an “interpretation” of Jesus’ passion, a “passion play” rather than a gospel account of the last hours of Jesus’ life.
First century Jerusalem was subjugated by a brutal Roman military occupation and was jammed with Passover pilgrims. A charismatic religious leader who attracted crowds, threatened the Temple establishment and spoke incessantly about a new “kingdom” made some Temple leaders and Pontius Pilate jittery and fearful of revolt. There could be only one possible answer to the problem: eliminate the popular street preacher whom the Palm Sunday Jewish crowd clearly adored. Since the Romans were massacring Christians at the time when the gospels were written, there was a natural reluctance to antagonize Rome. Exonerate Pontius Pilate, a cruel political hack if ever one lived, portray him as a sensitive man of conscience, blame the Jews instead and inaugurate nineteen centuries of Jewish martyrdom. Gibson’s film never adequately addresses these issues.
Gibson has repeatedly emphasized that “The Passion” is not an anti-Semitic film. I accept that judgment. Anti-Semites hardly need pretexts for their irrational hatred. If one is not predisposed to hate Jews, “The Passion” will not incite such hatred. By the same token, even though Jewish sensitivity to the crucifixion is understandable in the light of subsequent history, the time has come for Jewish leaders and organizations to stop telling Christians how to interpret their sacred history and experience. Gibson has the right to tell the story as he feels it.
As we approach Passover and Easter, “The Passion” places the need for intensive Christian-Jewish dialogue at the forefront of our interfaith agenda. We all have a moral obligation to understand what went wrong in Christian-Jewish relations and we need to build upon the impressive advances that have been made during the past forty years. I left the theater literally overwhelmed by the brutality and sadistic bloodletting. But I was equally determined to refocus on love and reconciliation, which, after all, was what Jesus’ passion was all about.