The Passion as a Political Weapon
Gibson's film is extra-biblical and
The Passion of the
Christ, directed by Mel Gibson (USA Newmarket Films, 2004) 127
This online review is the full-length version of an article that appears in
condensed form in Free Inquiry magazine, Volume
Passion of the Christ is not simply a movie but a political club; at
least it is being so used against secularists by leading conservative
Christians. TV pundit Bill O’Reilly clearly understands that Mel Gibson’s
film is a weapon in the cultural war now being waged in America between
traditional religionists and secular protagonists—such as the New York Times, Frank Rich, Andy Rooney, and the predominant
“cultural elite.” Newt Gingrich chortled that the movie may be “the most
important cultural event” of the century. James Dobson of Focus on the Family and a bevy of preachers herald it as “the
greatest film ever made.” Busloads of devoted churchgoers were brought daily
to view the film, which portrays the arrest,
trial, crucifixion, and death of Jesus with graphic brutality. It is used to
stir sympathy for Jesus, who, half naked, suffers violent sadomasochistic
whippings at the hands of his persecutors; and it has engendered hostility to
Jews, secularists, and separationists who have dared to question Gibson’s
allegedly scripturally accurate account.
The Passion of the Christ
reinforces a reality secularists dare not overlook: more than ever before, the
Bible has become a powerful political force in America. The Religious Right is
pulling no punches in order to defeat secularism and, it hopes, transform the
United States into a God-fearing country that salutes “one nation under God”
and opposes gay marriages and the “liberal agenda.” The interjection of
religion into the public square (in fact, it was never empty) by powerful
religious and political forces has ominous implications. James Madison, framer
of the Constitution, rightfully worried about factions disrupting civil society,
and religious factions can be the most fractious.
Mel Gibson's film portrays the arrest, trial, crucifixion, and death of Jesus
with graphic brutality. It stirs
sympathy for Jesus, who, half naked, suffers violent sadomasochistic whippings
at the hands of his persecutors; it has engendered hostility to Jews,
secularists, and separationists who have dared to question Gibson's allegedly
scripturally accurate account.
are a powerful medium. Film series including Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Star Trek, The
Terminator, and The Matrix all
draw upon fantasy; and these have proved to be highly entertaining, captivating,
and huge box office hits. The Passion of
the Christ, however, is more than that, for it lays down a gauntlet
challenging basic democratic secular values. It also presents fantasy as fact,
and for the unaware and the credulous, this is more than an exercise in poetic
license; it is artistic and historical dishonesty.
Distorted Version of the Bible
Gibson has claimed that his
film is “a true and faithful
rendition of the Gospels.” This is hardly the case. On numerous occasions, Passion
presents extra-biblical material that distorts the biblical account. Gibson uses
poetic license with abandon.
have pointed out that Gibson distorts the character of Pontius Pilate, making
him seem to be a tolerant, benevolent, and fair-minded judge—when independent
non-Christian historical texts indicate that he was a mean-spirited political
opportunist. The film also portrays Pilate’s wife, Claudia, as a kind of
heroine. She is sympathetic to Jesus and thinks his punishment is unjust; there
is some textual basis for that in the Bible. But Gibson goes beyond this in his
portrayal; at one point in the film, Claudia acts kindly toward Mary and Mary
Magdalene, approaching them with a gift of linen cloths. Gibson has Mary use
them to wipe pools of blood from the spot where Jesus was flogged by the Romans.
Nowhere are these scenes found in any of the four Gospels. Church historian
Elaine Pagels has said that it is “unthinkable” that Jewish women would have
sought or received any sympathy or succor from the Romans.
do the Gospels provide any support for the severe beatings
Jesus receives from the Jewish soldiers and guards who arrest him in the
Garden of Gethsemane prior to those inflicted by the Romans.
the Gospels say is that a large crowd sent by the priests came to the garden to
arrest Jesus. There was a scuffle and Jesus told his disciples to lay down their
swords. (Here as elsewhere, Jesus does not seem to be a part of his own cultural
and religious Jewish milieu; both he and his followers are consistently
characterized as renegades and “other” than their social environment.)
Matthew 26:57 states: “Jesus was led off under arrest to the house of Caiaphas
the High Priest.” Mark 14:53 reads: “Then they led Jesus away to the High
Priest’s house.” Luke 22:54: “Then they arrested Him and led Him away.”
John’s version in 18:12: “The troops with their commander and the Jewish
police, now arrested Him and secured Him. They took Him first to Annas... the
father-in-law of Caiaphas.”1
in one gruesome scene, as Jewish troops bring Jesus back to Jerusalem, heavily
bound and subject to continual beating, they throw him off a bridge.
There is no account of this in the Gospels.
It is tossed in to underscore the brutality of the captors.
Jesus’ abuse by the Jewish guards did not come from the Scriptures, where did
Gibson borrow it? It comes from the supposed revelations of a Catholic nun and
mystic, Anne Catherine Emmerich. Indeed, much of Passion is taken from Emmerich’s book first published in 1833,
known in English as The Dolorous
Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ. The
current edition proudly asserts on its jacket that it is “the classic account
of Divine Revelation that inspired” the Mel Gibson motion picture.2
a passionate devotee of the practice of meditating on the “sacred wounds of
Jesus,” describes in the book how, after
Jesus was arrested, he was tightly bound, constantly struck, dragged, and made
to walk with bare feet on jagged rocks. Let us focus on a bridge, which they
soon reached, and which Gibson depicts in the film. Emmerich states, “I saw
our Lord fall twice before He reached the bridge, and these falls were caused
entirely by the barbarous manner in which the soldiers dragged Him; but when
they were half over the bridge they gave full vent to their brutal inclinations,
and struck Jesus with such violence that they threw Him off the bridge into the
water.... If God had not preserved Him, He must have been killed by this fall”
refer here to this scene only to show that Gibson went far beyond the texts of
the Gospels and inserted nonscriptural events mostly drawn from Emmerich.
Remember that these are the subjective visions of a psychic-mystic rendered more
than 1, 800 years after the events
they concern. I went to see the movie a second time to see if any credit line is
given to the Emmerich book at the end of the film. I could find none, a glaring
good deal of the focus of The Passion of
the Christ is on the flogging (scourging) of Jesus. Two Gospels state simply
that Pilate “had Jesus flogged and handed over to be crucified” (Matthew
27:26, Mark 15:15). John’s description agrees (19:1-2): “Pilate now took
Jesus and had Him flogged.” Luke’s account (23:16) has Pilate saying: “I
therefore propose to let Him off with a flogging.”
the Gospels state matter-of-factly and without narrative elaboration is luridly
expanded by Emmerich: First they used “a species of thorny stick covered with
knots and splinters. The blows from these sticks tore His flesh to pieces; his
blood spouted out...” (p. 135). Then she describes the use of scourges
“composed of small chains, or straps covered with iron hooks, which penetrated
to the bone and tore off large pieces of flesh at every blow” (p. 135).
Moreover, nowhere do the Gospels describe who watched the flogging. Emmerich
states that “a Jewish mob gathered at a distance.” Gibson has the high
priests watching the brutal flogging (while a feminine incarnation of Satan
looks on with them). Nowhere is this described in the Bible. Gibson thus goes
far beyond the New Testament account, implying that the Jews and their leaders
were complicit in the brutal beatings of Jesus.
New Testament account next states that
the high priests and crowd in the square before Pilate called for the
crucifixion of Jesus, and when given the choice, selected Barrabas to be freed
over Jesus. This is fully depicted in Gibson’s Passion.
film, however, is silent about the fact that Jesus, his mother Mary, Peter,
James, and the other disciples as well as the supporters in the crowds were
themselves Jews. In Emmerich and Gibson the Jews come off as the main enemies of
Jesus, provoking the Romans not only to crucify him, but to torture him and
inflict maximum suffering. I think the point in the film is even more
anti-Jewish: it’s that Pilate tries to placate the Jews with the beatings, but
they won’t be satisfied—some real blood thirstiness here!
The Passion of the Christ anti-Semitic?
Yes, flagrantly so, in my judgment. The
Passion repeats the description of the Jews portrayed in medieval art and
Passion Plays, which provoked in no small measure anti-Semitic pogroms and
persecutions suffered by the “Christ killers” for centuries. Much has been
said about the fact that Mel Gibson’s eighty-five-year-old father, Hutton
Gibson, is a Holocaust denier. He has been quoted as saying that Vatican II was
“a Mason plot backed by the Jews.” Mel Gibson removed from the subtitles of
the original version of his film the statement from Matthew (27:25-26): “The
blood be on us, and on our children,” though apparently it remains in the
spoken Aramaic text.
his credit, Pope John Paul II in 2000 made an historic apology, declaring that
the Jews of today cannot be held responsible for the death of Christ. Still, The
Passion debuts at a time when
anti-Semitism is growing worldwide, especially in Europe and throughout the
to scripture (especially the Gospel of John), Christ died on the cross because
God sent His only begotten Son to die for our sins; thus, all sinners are responsible, not simply the Jews of ancient Israel.
Mel Gibson has himself blamed all sinners for the crucifixion. If this is the
case, the crucifixion of Christ had to
happen, and was for that matter foretold by Him. Why God was willing to allow
His only beloved Son to suffer a horrible death is difficult to fathom, but
according to Christian apologetics it was preordained so that those who believed
in Christ could be saved. Thus it was God—not the Jews alone or the
Romans—who was responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus. One might even say
that if this was part of a divine plan, the Jews should get the credit for
carrying it out.
the Biblical Account Reliable?
Is the account of Jesus as
described in the New Testament—in
this case of his trial, crucifixion, and death (let alone his birth, ministry,
and resurrection) – an accurate account of historical events? I doubt it. This
negative appraisal is drawn from careful, scholarly, and scientific examination
of the New Testament account.
key point is the fact that the authors of the Gospels were not themselves eyewitnesses to the events described in those
documents. If Jesus died about the year 30 C.E. (this is conjectural, since some
even question whether he ever lived3),
the Gospel according to Mark was probably written in the 70s of the first
century; Matthew and Luke in the 80s; and John anywhere from 90 to 100 C.E. They
were thus written some forty to seventy years after the death of Jesus. The
Gospels are based on an oral tradition, derived at best from second- and
third-hand testimony assembled by the early band of Jewish Christians and
including anecdotal accounts, ill-attributed sayings, stories, and parables. The
Gospels’ claims are not independently corroborated by impartial
observers—all the more reason why some skepticism about their factual truth is
required. They were not written as history or biography per
se—and the authors did not use the methods of careful, historical
scholarship. Rather, they were, according to biblical scholar Randel Helms,
written by missionary propagandists for the faith, interested in proclaiming the
“good news” and in endeavoring to attract and convert others to
Christianity.4 Hence, the Gospels should not be taken as
literally true, but are a form of special pleading for a new
writing the Gospels the authors evidently looked back to the Old Testament and
found passages that were suggestive of a Messiah who would appear, who was born
of a young woman (or a virgin), and could trace his lineage back to
David—which is why Matthew and Luke made such a fuss about having Jesus born
in Bethlehem. Accordingly, the Gospels should be read as works of literary art,
spun out of the creative imagination in order to fulfill passionate yearnings
for salvation. They are the most influential form of fiction that has dominated
Western culture throughout its history. Whether there is any core of truth to
them is questionable; for it is difficult to verify the actual facts,
particularly since there is no mention of Jesus or of his miraculous healings in
any extant non-Christian literature.5
has it that Mark heard about Jesus from Peter. Eusebius (260-339 C.E.) is one
source for this claim, but Eusebius wrote some three centuries after the death
of Jesus. In any case, Matthew and Luke most likely base their accounts on Mark.6 The three synoptic Gospels are
similar, though they contradict each other on a number of significant events.
Scholars believe that some of these were derived from still another literary
source (Q, for quelle in German, or
“source”) that has been lost.
historical fact to bear in mind is that the Gospels were written after a
protracted war between the Romans and the Jews (66-74 C.E.), which saw the
destruction of Jerusalem and of the Temple (70 C.E.). Hundreds of thousands of
Jews were killed in these wars and were dispersed throughout the Mediterranean
world. Jerusalem was eventually leveled in 135 C.E. The synoptic Gospels were
influenced by the political conditions at the times of the various authors who
wrote the Gospels, not during the years of Jesus. John’s Gospel, written
somewhat later, reflected the continuing growth of Christianity in his day. The
other book attributed to John, Revelations,
which is so influential today, predicts the apocalyptic end of the world, the
Rapture, and the Second Coming of Jesus. This book in the view of many scholars
reflects the ruminations of a disturbed personality. We have no reliable
evidence that these events will occur in the future, yet hundreds of millions of
people today are convinced that they will – on the basis of sheer faith.
us consider another part of the historical context in the latter part of the
first century, when most of the New Testament was composed. Two Jewish sects
contended for dominance. First was Rabbinic Judaism, which followed the Torah
with all its commandments and rituals (including circumcision and dietary laws).
Drawing on the Old Testament, Rabbinic Judaism held that the Jews were the
“chosen people.” Once slaves in Egypt, they had escaped to the Promised Land
of Palestine. Someday after the Diaspora the
Jews would be returned to Israel, and the Temple would be rebuilt. The second
sect was early Jewish Christianity, which attempted to appeal not only to Jews
but to pagans in the Roman Empire. It could do so effectively only by breaking
with Rabbinic Judaism. This is the reason for increasing negative references in
the Gospels to “the Jews” (especially in John), blaming them for the
crucifixion of Jesus. Christianity was able to make great strides in recruiting
converts and competing with other sects, such as the Mithraic religion. But it
could only do so by disassociating itself from Rabbinic Judaism. It developed a
more universal message, which, incidentally, was already implicit in the letters
of Paul (written some fifteen to twenty years after the crucifixion of Jesus):
the new Christians did not need to be circumcised nor to practice Judaic dietary
the biblical texts drawn on in The Passion
of the Christ should not be read literally as diatribes against the Jews per
se, but rather as the record of a dispute among two Jewish sects competing
for ascendancy—between traditional and Christianized Judaism.
one reads the four Gospels side by side, as I have done numerous times, one
finds many omissions and contradictions. Evidently, their writers never knew
Jesus in his own lifetime. Each Gospel was crafted post
hoc to satisfy the immediate practical needs of the new Christian churches
then developing. They were contrived by human beings, motivated by the
transcendental temptation to believe in Christ as the Son of God and the Savior
of mankind. The Gospels thus are historically unreliable, and insofar as The
Passion of the Christ used them, it is also. But Gibson goes even beyond the
Gospels, as I have indicated.
Establishment of Christianity
I submit that there are two
important inferences to draw from this analysis: first, the union of a religious
creed with political power can be extremely destructive, especially when that
creed is supported by the power of the state or the empire. It was the
conversion of the Emperor Constantine (around 312 C.E.) that led to the
establishment of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire, some
three centuries after the crucifixion of Jesus. The “Nicene Creed,” which
was the product of the counsel of Nicaea (convened in 325 C.E.), said that Jesus
was crucified under Pontius Pilate. It also declared Jesus the divine Son of God
“in one substance” with the Father. The decision which books should be
included in the New Testament was political, determined by the vote of the
bishops attending the council of Nicaea. At this and other church councils,
various apocryphal books revered by particular Christian communities were
omitted from the canonical scriptures. So much for historic objectivity.
Emperor Julian (331-363 C.E.), a nephew of Constantine and a student of
philosophy, became skeptical of Christianity and was prepared to disestablish
the Christian church, which he probably would have done had he not been
murdered, most likely by a Christian soldier in his army. In any case,
Christianity prevailed and the great Hellenic-Roman civilization of the ancient
world eventually went into decline. But this occurred in no small measure
because of political factors: the grafting of the Bible with the sword, and the
establishment of an absolutist Christian creed, intolerant of all other faiths
that disagreed and willing to use any methods to stamp out heresy.
the fifth century more and more of the inhabitants of the Roman Empire became
members of Christian churches, which replaced pagan religions. Christianity
reigned supreme across Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. The latter two
were overrun by the Muslims in the seventh and eighth centuries, but feudal
Europe remained stolidly Christian as it entered into the so-called Dark Ages.
Only with the Renaissance, the Reformation, the development of science, and the
democratic revolutions of our time was the hegemony of Christianity weakened.
The secularization of modern society brought in its wake naturalistic ideas and
union of religion and political power has generated terrible religious conflicts
historically, pitting Catholics against Protestants, opposing Jihadists versus
Crusaders, and triggering constant wars among Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus,
and others. God save us from God-intoxicated legions that have the power to
enforce their convictions on those who disagree! All the more reason to laud the
wisdom of the authors of the American Constitution who enacted the Bill of
Rights, including the First Amendment, prohibiting the establishment of a
The second inference to be
drawn is that the origins of the Christian legend have for too long lay
unexamined, buried by the sands of time. The New Testament was taken by
believers as given, and no one was
permitted to question its sacred doctrines allegedly based on revelations from
on high. But skepticism is called for—the same skepticism that should also be
applied to the alleged revelations received by Moses on Mount Sinai and other
prophets of the Old Testament. Orthodox Jews who accept the legend of a
“chosen people” and the promise that God gave Israel to the Jews likewise
base this conviction on uncorroborated testimony. Today, we have the tools of
historical scholarship, biblical criticism, and science. We can draw upon two
centuries of sophisticated scholarly and scientific inquiries. We can apply
circumstantial evidence, archaeology, linguistic analysis, and textual criticism
to authenticate or disconfirm the veracity of ancient literary documents.
Regrettably, the general public is almost totally unaware of this important
research. The case is similar for the revelations of Muhammad and the origins of
Islam in the Qur’an. Since they are similarly uncorroborated by independent
eyewitnesses, they rest on similarly questionable foundations. There is again a
rich literature of skeptical scrutiny. But most scholars are fearful of
expressing their dissenting conclusions.
so-called books of Abraham—the Old and New Testaments and the Qur’an—need
to be scrutinized using rational and scientific analysis. And the results of
these inquiries need to leave the academy and to be read and digested more
widely. Unfortunately, freedom of inquiry has rarely been applied to the
foundations of the “sacred texts.” Indeed, until recently severe punishment
of religious dissenters was the norm in many parts of the world.
the tremendous box-office success of Mel Gibson’s film, there are bound to be
other Jesus movies produced — for Jesus sells in America! The Passion of the Christ unfortunately may add to intolerance of
dissenters; and this may severely endanger the fragility of social peace. It may
further help to undermine the First Amendment's prohibition of the establishment
of religion, which has been the mainstay of American democracy. This indeed is
the most worrisome fallout that the Gibson film is likely to produce.
1. These translations are from The New English Bible (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press,
2. Anne Catherine Emmerich, The Dolorous Passion of Our
Lord Jesus Christ, tr. ed. Klemens Maria Brentano (El Sobrante, Calif.:
North Bay Books, 2003). I am indebted to my colleague Joe Nickell for pointing
the book out to me.
3. See: George Wells, Did Jesus Exist? (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1980).
4. Randel Helms, Gospel
Fictions (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1988).
5. R. Joseph Hoffmann, Jesus Outside the Gospels (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1984).
6. John Dominic Crossan, Who Killed Jesus? Exposing the Roots of Anti-Semitism in the Gospel
Story of the Death of Jesus (San Francisco: Harper, 1995).
Paul Kurtz is the editor in chief of Free Inquiry,
professor emeritus of philosophy at the State University of New York at Buffalo,
and chair of the Center