The Passion Controversy

 

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It’s taken me awhile to watch The Passion of the Christ by Mel Gibson, but this Passover season I took the plunge. Literally. By the time the stone rolled away, I was so exhausted from crying that I had to take few minutes to just breathe.

Yes, there were a few elements that I disagreed with— that will be the case with any religious movie—but on the whole I was puzzled by the accusations of anti-Semitism, excessive historical inaccuracy, and biased interpretation of the meaning, method, and man involved in the Passion story.

Some scholars and critics argued that Jesus was too macho and long-suffering, too much a westernized white-man-super hero. Ridiculous. Let’s re-read our New Testaments everyone: Yeshua did suffer horribly. He did fail to defend or rescue himself, choosing instead to suffer agony and die in ignominy. If that’s some kind of macho-super hero, then obviously the Western world has missed the mark somewhere.

Others argued that the film’s focus on violence was either a historically incorrect perception or took away from other themes and historical realities. However, no film or book could tell every angle or interpretation. It’s entirely natural for the film to take one approach and stick with it. Gibson and the writers of the script made it abundantly clear their aim was to portray Yeshua’s death with the violence of history not the pretty pictures of church iconography or Sunday school images.  Perhaps they went a bit to the left, but their reasoning was sound. This Passion wasn’t a safe pretty picture to keep in mind while hunting Easter eggs—or for us Messianics while we sit down for a Passover Seder—the film was intended to punch the audience in the gut and leave them gasping for air.

Another critique was the harmonization of the four gospel stories in the movie. This is ridiculous because most depictions of Yeshua’s life choose to harmonize rather than stick with one gospel account.

As to the claim of Anti-Semitism, I saw no basis for this, and, as a Messianic believer, I am very sensitive to that sort of thing. There are two main critiques, as I’ve understood them. First, the Jews are the cause and means of Yeshua’s death. This fact has historically been the basis for anti-Jewish sentiment. The problem with removing it from film adaptations is that it’s in the Gospels.  According to the Gospels, the Jewish Sanhedrin does condemn Yeshua to death. A Jewish crowd does call for his blood. However, viewers need to step back. Why is everyone—including Yeshua and his disciples—speaking in Aramaic? Because the Passion is a Jewish story: the bad guys and the good guys were Jewish. Some Jews loved Yeshua, others didn’t.  That’s politics for you.

Yet, during the nighttime trial, two different members of the Sanhedrin step forward to protest both the conflicting witnesses and the covert nature of the trail itself, which was held at night without all the members (presumably the only members of the Sanhedrin invited were those who wanted Yeshua’s death). Likewise, while the movie shows crowds of Jews clamoring for Yeshua’s death, it also shows Jews who are weeping over him, protesting, or even coming to a realization of his identity. Finally, the Romans are shown as sadistic and just as guilty of Yeshua’s death and suffering as the Jews.

What the critics actually want is a politically correct story of Jesus: bland and without any potential for controversy.  The ideal movie would only hint at the non-humanness of Christ and would avoid any details in the story that would prove offensive to modern viewers. The result of such a depiction would be the happy, bland, meaningless depiction like the recent “Son of God.”

As we’ve seen with the current wave of Bible movies, everyone has an opinion on what’s right, historical, and acceptable. In my mind, The Passion of the Christ comes a whole lot closer to the intent of the Gospel Passion accounts, the historicity of the violent nature of the cross, and the emotional impact the Gospels intended. There’s a reason the movie has influenced so many lives. (Unlike the 2014 Noah, which diverts from the Genesis story in both meaning and text.)

Finally, the additions to the movie from church legend added to the movie. The scene where Mary mops of Jesus blood was epically poignant. Besides, we don’t have the full account, and the Gospels only give us select details.

There were a few scenes that struck me particularly.

First, the evil one is present during Yeshua’s time in the garden before his betrayal. As Yeshua is praying desperately for this cup to be taken from him, the evil one taunts him that no man can bear the sins of the world. Yeshua ignores him until the Evil one asks, “Who is your father” and “Who are you?” and sends a serpent to bite Yeshua. At last, Yeshua stops praying, stands up, and stomps on the serpent’s head.  Both the evil one and the audience cannot miss the unmistakable symbolism. A man may not be able to bear the sins of the world, but Yeshua is not all that he appears. The evil one didn’t fully grasp Yeshua’s identity until that moment. Yeshua—in this last temptation as in his first—chooses his father’s will over all else. As the opening to the whole movie, this scene really sets the tone.

Likewise, the additions to Mary’s story were rich. She is consistently the only one who has an inkling of what’s really going on. She wakes up in the night, just after Yeshua is taken, and cries out “Why is this night different then all others?” A question taken directly from the Seder meal, and something that also sets the tone for the movie. Mary knows this is the end of her journey and his.

Finally, the women in Yeshua’s life are the only ones who are there for him all the way to the cross. They—unlike the men—do not flee when their vision of Messiah is shattered. This also fits with the Gospel portrayal of the disciples. Consider that it was the women who discovered the empty tomb and proclaimed Yeshua’s resurrection while the men still doubted. Point two for Christian feminists.

Is the movie one hundred percent historically accurate? No book, movie, or scholar can or should claim that kind of accuracy since the “historical Jesus” and “what actually happened” are and will always be shrouded in the mystery of time. Were there elements that I disagreed with? Yep. A torn temple curtain would have sufficed; the split in the middle of the Temple floor was ridiculous. That said, I think Passion of the Christ comes closer than any other film depiction I’ve seen, and it certainly accomplishes its purpose.

This year when I broke my matzo and drank the cup of deliverance, I remembered the spilt blood and broken body of my Savior in way far more moving then any year before. My tears weren’t for the bitter herbs.

And that’s my two cents on The Passion of the Christ controversy.

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3 thoughts on “The Passion Controversy

  1. Very insightful review! I also recently viewed the movie for the first time and came away with some similar thoughts. Watching the film between Passover and Easter in time to reflect a little deeper on the amazing love Yeshua demonstrated in His suffering. The brutality of His death is matched only by the willingness of the blameless Lamb of God to atone for the sins of mankind. I think the movie, even with it flaws, portrayed the motivation of love and the idea that more than His life being taken, it was willingly given for the Jew and non-jew alike, making possible reconciliation of all men to God…if we are willing to accept it! Thanks for your interesting comments on the film.

  2. So good! I agree with you; I rolled my eyes when the temple floor split in two, but the movie did such a great job at conveying just how much Jesus truly suffered. Definitely a must-watch for future Passovers now. I appreciate you tackling the scene in the garden with the snake as that was a scene that raised my eyebrows a bit. I really like your interpretation of it, and of course I love what you have to say about the women and their role not only in this movie, but in Jesus’s life as a whole. 😉 Nice job!

  3. I didn’t find the film anti-Semetic either, and am also sensitive to those issues. It’s a very moving account and I agree, one will always have to make some allowances for a movie depiction of a real event, that none of us witnessed.

    The only difficulty are the very real wounds that still exist because of Christians who, fresh from seeing a Passion Play, would go out and attack Jews on Christmas and Easter. Since this is still a memory for many, the fear fueled harsh criticism of the film and I can understand why. I’ve heard the stories from Jews who lived through such things and it’s heartbreaking.

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