Despite extensive media coverage, one question about Mel Gibson’s latest movie, The Passion of the Christ, that has received little attention in the secular media is how well the film coheres with Catholic teaching on biblical interpretation and on the presentation of Jews and Judaism. In rendering such a judgement, several factors must be considered, including the church’s teaching on biblical interpretation and the staging of Passion plays. Since 1943 Catholic biblical interpreters have been required to use the aids offered by the art of [historical and literary] criticism to discover the genuine meaning of the sacred books (Pope Pius XII, Divino Afflante Spiritu). This basic orientation was reiterated by the Second Vatican Council in its Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (1965). Of particular significance is the council’s teaching that the Gospel writers selected certain of the many elements which had been handed on, either orally or in written form; others they synthesized or explained with an eye to the situation of the churches.
Subsequent ecclesiastical documents developed some logically inescapable corollaries to these magisterial perspectives. First, the Gospels’ diversity is to be cherished. As the Pontifical Biblical Commission expressed it in 1984, since the Gospels present theological interpretations of Jesus’ life, one must learn to look for the Christology of each Evangelist (Instruction on the Bible and Christology).
Second, since the Gospels are theological narratives, they sometimes present later religious debates as if they had occurred during Jesus’ ministry. The Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews noted this in 1985: The Gospels are the outcome of long and complicated editorial work.... Certain [Gospel] controversies reflect Christian-Jewish relations long after the time of Jesus (Notes on the Correct Way to Present Jews and Judaism in Preaching and Teaching in the Roman Catholic Church). Foremost among such post-Resurrection controversies was the debate between baptized Jews and other Jews over Jesus’ divine identity.
Third, failure to interpret the Scriptures within their historical and literary contexts before trying to interpret them for modern times would create an illusion and display lack of respect for the inspired Scripture, according to the biblical commission. This would be worsened by any actualization of certain texts of the New Testament which could provoke or reinforce unfavorable attitudes toward the Jewish people. For as Pope John Paul II declared in 1997, erroneous and unjust interpretations of the New Testament regarding the Jewish people and their alleged culpability [for the crucifixion] have circulated for too long, engendering feelings of hostility towards this people.
National bishops’ conferences have taken such authoritative Vatican orientations and applied them locally with greater specificity. In the United States, the Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy issued in 1988 God’s Mercy Endures Forever: Guidelines on the Presentation of Jews and Judaism in Catholic Preaching. The same year the Bishops’ Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs published Criteria for the Evaluation of Dramatizations of the Passion, which applied the norms established in Vatican documents to depictions and presentations of the events surrounding the passion and death of Jesus, including but not limited to dramatic, staged presentations of Jesus’ death.
Official Catholic Teaching and Passion Dramas
Unless they decide to present the Passion according to just one of the Evangelists, all authors of Passion dramas have to choose elements from the four Passion narratives to shape a coherent narrative. What principles of selection will guide this process?
In addition, how will the drama deal with the later theological insights expressed in the Gospels? If the three stages of Gospel development are ignored, the theological layering of the Gospel texts will be collapsed in what may appear to be a historical presentation. This would anachronistically present theological debates that had not yet emerged during Jesus’ lifetime as if they had already been taking place at the time of his death.
Another question that confronts composers of Passion dramas is whether to inflate certain Gospel elements to intensify the drama. The Gospels, for example, depict an unspecified number of Jews who demand Jesus’ crucifixion. Will this group be portrayed as people associated with the Temple leadership or as a teeming mob of ordinary Jews?
Finally, since the Gospels provide few particulars, writers of Passion dramas must provide additional details. Will such supplementary material include the historical contexts required by Catholic teaching, such as the facts that Caiaphas retained the high priesthood only at Pilate’s pleasure and that riots in Jerusalem at Passover time were not unusual? Or will extra materials be purely fictitious, with little or no historical foundation?
What does all this mean for theatrical or cinematic dramatizations of the passion of Christ? Four considerations could be listed: selection, flattening, exaggeration and the use of nonbiblical elements.
Selection. The Passion of the Christ is deficient according to all these Catholic considerations. The film combines various Gospel scenes, so that the distinctive and inspired insights of the Evangelists are obscured, with the additional result that the evildoing of Jewish characters is magnified. This is particularly evident in the pivotal confrontation between Pilate and Caiaphas, the priests and a Jewish mob.
Gibson has chosen to follow the Gospel of John in having Jesus scourged as a ploy by Pilate to placate the Jewish crowd. In Matthew and Mark, Jesus is scourged only after the sentencing by Pilatethat is, as part of the normal Roman crucifixion process. Luke’s account does not include any scourging. In the film the scourging is followed by the Matthean scene of Pilate washing his hands of blame.
The combination of the Johannine scourging as Pilate’s effort to free Jesus with Matthew’s scene of Pilate washing his hands produces a more relentless and implacable Jewish hostility than either Gospel taken alone conveys. This hostility is intensified by Pilate uttering words not found in any Gospel: Isn’t this [scourging] enough?; It is you who want him crucified, not I; and Do as they wish.
Furthermore, the movie disregards Gospel passages like Mk 14:2 (which states that publicly arresting the popular Jesus could trigger a riot) and Jn 11:48 (in which Caiaphas expresses fear that the Romans might destroy the Templethe opposite of the film, which depicts Pilate fearing that Caiaphas was inciting revolt).
Flattening. The Passion of the Christ ignores official Catholic teaching that the Gospel narratives convey post-resurrectional theological understandings. The problem is magnified by the historical verisimilitude suggested by the movie’s use of ancient languages (although Greek should have been used, not Latin). Viewers will erroneously imagine that Jews wanted Jesus dead because he claimed to be divine, although debate about his divinity occurred only after the Resurrection. From there it is easy to slip into thinking of Judaism as aligned with the demonic forces that oppose Jesus throughout the movie, a notion reinforced by the nonbiblical destruction that takes place in the Temple near the film’s end.
Exaggeration. The film inflates Gospel passages that describe Jesus being struck by Jewish individuals into a severe group assault upon him. When questioned by the priests in the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus is spat upon, blindfolded, struck on the face and slapped, while in John only one soldier strikes Jesus once. In the movie, Jesus is so pummeled at this juncture that Pilate’s first (unbiblical) words to Caiaphas are Do you always punish your prisoners before they are judged?
Extra-biblical elements. The film is filled with nonbiblical elements that are uninformed by current historical research. These features are so interwoven with scenes from one Gospel or another that the unwary viewer, already experiencing sensory overload because of the film’s vivid brutality, is unlikely to identify them as such. Some of these scenes create new instances of Jewish hostility to Jesus, in contrast to the film’s benign portrayal of Pilate and his wife:
Jewish arrestors throw Jesus off a bridge on his way to the high priests.
Agents of the high priests pay money to other Jews to assemble to demand Jesus’ death.
Mary Magdalene entreats Roman soldiers to help Jesus: They [the Temple guards] are trying to hide their crime from you.
An aide tells Pilate of trouble within the walls. The Pharisees apparently hate the man. (The Pharisees are almost totally absent from the Gospel Passion narratives.)
Pilate offers Jesus a drink.
Pilate tells his wife that Caiaphas will lead a revolt if Jesus is not crucified. Pilate and his aides decide they need reinforcements because an uprising has already begun.
Pilate’s wife gives burial linens to the mother of Jesus.
Most of these elements, and indeed the movie’s selection and arrangement of the Gospel materials, are derived from Anne Catherine Emmerich’s The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ, first published in 1833. The movie is thus not so much a faithful presentation of the Gospel story, as some have claimed, as a filmed version of Emmerich.
The Passion of the Christ unquestionably fails to follow official Catholic teaching on biblical interpretation and the presentation of Jews and Judaism. This is perhaps an unsurprising conclusion if widespread media reports are true that Mel Gibson rejects much of the Second Vatican Council.
Even if some Catholics are spiritually moved by the film, the fact remains that it violates the mandate of the Second Vatican Council to instruct the faithful...in the correct use of the divine books, especially the New Testament and in particular the Gospels...with necessary and really adequate explanations. Moreover, Catholics who take seriously Pope John Paul II’s commitment, made during his visit to the Western Wall in Jerusalem in March 2000, to genuine fellowship with the people of the Covenant should ask whether it is acceptable for a filmmakereven though he repeats the teaching of the Council of Trent that Christ died for the sins of all humanityto combine scenes from the four Gospel accounts with many unbiblical elements so that the malice of Jewish characters is magnified.
In a church whose highest leadership has prayed for God’s forgiveness for exactly those sins over the past millennium and whose teachings repudiate such practices, the answer can only be no. The new wine of post-Vatican II teaching cannot be contained in the old wineskins of the pre-Vatican II Passion play that is the film The Passion of the Christ.