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The Crucifixion of Mel Gibson

24th February, 2004

Mel Gibson’s film The Passion is a detailed account of the last hours of the life of Jesus taken directly from the Gospels, in all of its simplicity, boldness and brutality. It has unleashed a storm of criticism around the world. More controversy surrounds this film than any other I can remember. Most of criticism is directed at Gibson, which has led me to entitle my talk that I have been asked to give at the Australian premiere this Wednesday night, as “The Crucifixion of Mel Gibson.”

He has presented a simple and honest re-creation of the Passion of Jesus. There are no invented sub-plots and no fanciful covering of the brutality. It is the scriptures that implicate the leaders of the Jews in the death of Jesus, not Mel Gibson. People are entitled to deny history, claim fact is fiction, and blame the Italians rather than the Jewish leaders of 2000 years ago. But the issue remains: why is there such a violent reaction by so many people to Jesus when He strides today into our business marketplaces, media outlets and religious traditions today?

When Jesus, during His last week on earth, entered the city of Jerusalem and faced the entrenched power structures of Jewish religion and Roman Government He caused a conflict that is as modern as this week’s launch of The Passion. Many people want to keep Jesus as a safe conservative whom people worship in rites and ritual. But a reading of the Gospels, and a presentation of them on film, reveals He was a radical who overturned people’s concepts of religion more than any other spiritual leader, and brought people to a new reality of God and new relationships with others. That is a radical shift for most people’s concept of worship. People feel safe with rites and ritual, and when a film maker, or writer, or preacher threatens that, they are attacked violently.

Jim Caviezel, the man who is playing Jesus in Mel Gibson’s movie, says, “I can’t share all the details but I will tell you that there have been current death threats towards Mel, myself and others involved in bringing this movie to the big screen. There are strong non-Christian elements which have arisen in recent days who are extremely hostile towards the Gospel. There are lies being circulated among the media, pertaining to the film.”

A serious filmmaker would normally feel gratified if his cinematic work inspired impassioned debate, intense emotional response, detailed analysis, even raging controversy. Well in advance of his picture’s release, Mel Gibson has produced that sort of reaction with The Passion. But Gibson insists he neither expected nor wanted the bitter arguments over the allegedly anti-Semitic content of the film.

The vitriolic denunciations of his artistic integrity, and even his personal religiosity, have proven especially painful to Gibson. Such hysterical pronouncements, all too typical of the current storm over The Passion, emerged out of a poisonous combination of mistakes, misunderstandings, and sheer malice.

The viciousness first appeared in a March article in the New York Times Magazine that went to press before Gibson had even finished filming his epic in Italy. Unable to speak to Gibson himself, the reporter interviewed the star’s 84-year old father, Hutton Gibson, and highlighted the elderly man’s unconventional, occasionally outrageous views — including the notion that the figure of 6 million Jews murdered in the Holocaust had been exaggerated.

Meanwhile, the Jewish Anti-Defamation League, in a blistering June 24 2003 press release, expressed very public concerns that The Passion would “portray Jews as bloodthirsty, sadistic, and money hungry enemies of Jesus.”

Yet praise for the artistry and power of his accomplishment proved all but universal. Jack Valenti, who has served for almost 40 years as president of the Motion Picture Association of America, hailed The Passion as one of the greatest movies he had ever seen, and a sure bet as an Oscar contender.

In the past, passion plays sometimes fomented Jew hatred by linking the New Testament persecutors of Jesus with contemporary Jews. These renditions depicted the Temple authorities wearing prayer shawls, phylacteries, sidelocks, beards, and hook noses that emphasized their “Jewish” identity in ways modern Europeans would readily recognize.

Gibson’s film pointedly avoids such inflammatory stereotypes. In fact, the words “Jew” or “Jewish” seldom, if ever, appear in the subtitles. The high priest and his followers most certainly come across as vicious, self-important, and bloodthirsty, but they seem motivated by pomposity, arrogance, and insecurity rather than religious corruption or ethnic curse. The movie also avoids the regrettable tendency of other cinematic treatments of the death of Jesus, in which Judas and the conniving priests of the Temple look swarthy and Semitic but Jesus and his loyal followers appear all-American, or even Nordic such as the great Swedish actor Max von Sydow who played Jesus in 1965’s The Greatest Story Ever Told. In The Passion, on the other hand, Gibson emphasizes the Jewish identity of his hero as other characters.

Gibson insists that The Passion is meant to make everyone uncomfortable, not just Jews. For Jews, they would prefer a movie that interpreted the Gospel sources to place primary blame for the death of Jesus on the Roman authorities. It was the Italians, stupid!

Gibson, however, remains fiercely determined to bring to the screen what he considers the truth of the New Testament. That the Judean priests and the Judean mob played a prominent role in demanding the death of Christ is Christian mainstream understanding. In John’s Gospel, his fellow Jews repeatedly attempt to stone Jesus and cry “Crucify him, crucify him!” (19:6). In Matthew, the Jewish mob howls, “His blood be on us and on our children” (27:5) — an explosive line which Gibson excised in the final version. Authoritative Jewish sources teach that Jesus died at least partly thanks to decisions taken by his fellow Jews.

The very idea that a two-hour movie could generate a new wave of anti-Semitic violence makes no sense. Anyone disposed to hostility toward Jews already knows the elements of the Gospels that are unflattering to Jews; there’s no need for Mel Gibson to remind them. For Christians, the Passion — from the Latin passus, the word means “having suffered” or “having undergone” — is the very heart of their faith.

“It is as it was,” the aged Pope John Paul II is said to have remarked after seeing the film. Billy Graham was so moved by a screening that he wept. “The Passion of the Christ, is a lifetime of sermons in one movie.” One can see why these supremely gifted pastors were impressed, for Gibson obviously reveres the Christ of faith, and much of his movie is a literal-minded rendering of the most dramatic passages scattered through the four Gospels.

The film Gibson has made, however, is reviving an ancient and divisive argument: who really killed Jesus? As a matter of history, the Roman Empire did; as a matter of theology, the sins of the world drove Jesus to the cross, and the Catholic Church holds that Christians themselves bear “the gravest responsibility for the torments inflicted upon Jesus.”

The arrest, the scourging and the Crucifixion are depicted in harsh, explicit detail in the R-rated movie. One of Jesus’ eyes is swollen shut from his first beating as he is dragged from Gethsemane; the Roman torture, the long path to Golgotha bearing the wooden cross, and the nailing of Jesus’ hands and feet to the beams are filmed unsparingly.

The effect of the violence is at first shocking, then numbing, and finally reaches a point where many viewers may spend as much time clinically wondering how any man could have survived such beatings as they do sympathizing with his plight.

The Jewish historian, Josephus, and the Roman historian, Tacitus, says Jesus was executed by Pilate. The Roman Governor was Caiaphas’ political superior. So why do the Gospels make “the Jews” look worse than the Romans?

The Greek words usually translated “the Jews” did not include the entire Jewish population of Jesus’ day. They seem to refer mostly to the Temple elite.

The best historical reconstruction of what really happened is that Jesus had a fairly large following at a time of anxiety in the capital, and the Jewish authorities wanted to get rid of him before overexcited pilgrims rallied around him, drawing down Pilate’s wrath. “It is expedient for you,” Caiaphas says to his fellow priests in John, “that one man should die for the people” so that “the whole nation should not perish.”

The Temple elite undoubtedly played a key role in the death of Jesus; Josephus noted that the Nazarene had been “accused by those of the highest standing amongst us,” meaning among the Jerusalem Jews. But Pilate’s own culpability and ultimate authority are indisputable as well. If Jesus had not been a political threat, why bother with the trouble of crucifixion?

Clear evidence of the political nature of the execution — that Pilate and the high priest were ridding themselves of a “messiah” who might disrupt society, not offer salvation — is the sign Pilate ordered affixed to Jesus’ cross. The message is not from the knowing Romans to the evil Jews. It is, rather, a scornful signal to the crowds that this death awaits any man the pilgrims proclaim “the king of the Jews.”

The Roman soldiers who torture Jesus and bully him toward Golgotha are portrayed as evil, taunting and vicious, and they almost certainly were. After Jesus, carrying his cross, sees the faces of the priests, he is shown saying: “No one takes my life from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.” Is this intended to absolve the priests? Perhaps. From the cross, Jesus says: “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

As clouds gather and Jesus dies, a single raindrop — a tear from God the Father? — falls from the sky. A storm has come; the gates of hell are broken; back in the Temple, Caiaphas, buffeted by the earthquake, cries out in anguish amid the gloom. Then there is light, and a discarded shroud, and a risen Christ bearing the stigmata leaves the tomb. It is Easter.

At the Council of Trent in the 16th century, the Roman Church stated as a theological principle that all men share the responsibility for the Passion — and that Christians bear a particular burden.

“In this guilt [for the death of Jesus] are involved all those who fall frequently into sin... This guilt seems more enormous in us than in the Jews since, if they had known it, they would never have crucified the Lord of glory; while we, on the contrary, professing to know him, yet denying him by our actions, seem in some sort to lay violent hands on him.”

Gibson says correctly, “This film collectively blames humanity for the death of Jesus. Now there are no exemptions there. All right? I’m the first on the line for culpability. I did it. Christ died for all men for all times.” Mel does not act in the film, but his hand is seen — on the hammer that nails Christ to the Cross as though to say, “All of us are responsible, starting with me!”

To hate Jews because they are Jews — to hate anyone, in fact — is a sin for Christians, for Jesus commands his followers to love their neighbor as themselves, especially the Jews to whom the message of the Gospel first came.

Newsweek Magazine says: “Amid the clash over Gibson’s film and the debates about the nature of God, whether you believe Jesus to be the savior of mankind or to have been an interesting first-century figure who left behind an inspiring moral philosophy, perhaps we can at least agree on this image of Jesus of Nazareth: confronted by violence, he chose peace; by hate, love; by sin, forgiveness — a powerful example for us all.”

An old hymn puts it:

“We may not know, we cannot tell, what griefs He had to bear,
But we believe it was for us, He hung and suffered there.”

REFERENCES.

  • Christianity Today, November 2003
  • February 2004 Newsweek, Inc. Jewish Film critic Michael Medved
Wesley Mission, Sydney.