Objections to The Passion: Is It As It Was?REV. THOMAS WILLIAMS, L.C.
Is it true, as asserted by some biblical scholars and media pundits, that The Passion of the Christ is rife with historical and theological errors? Father Thomas Williams, a theological consultant for the film, provides answers.
the following interview with the National Catholic Register, Father Williams
spoke about the historical and theological points of the film.
it true, as asserted by some biblical scholars and media pundits, that The
Passion of the Christ is rife with historical and theological errors?
Gibson's film has been subjected to unprecedented scrutiny in efforts to
find fault with his depiction of Christ's passion and death. This was to be expected,
given the importance of the subject matter. Despite these efforts, however, the
picayune quibbles expressed by many of his critics border on the ridiculous. Complaints
concerning the languages spoken, the height of the cross, the length of Jesus'
hair, the size of the crowd in Pilate's praetorium and the placement of the nails
in Jesus' hands seem strangely trivial in the face of the larger message of the
Many of these details we simply do not and cannot know with absolute
historical certainty, and with such cases of doubt, different interpretations
are legitimate. The fact is that the only source we have for most of these items
are the Gospel accounts themselves. We have no photos of Jesus, no contemporary
biography of Pontius Pilate and no explicit records of Jesus' trial outside of
the Gospels themselves. Other theories as to the way events might have transpired
open interesting avenues of speculation but do not exact intellectual assent.
On reading some categorical affirmations as to how things must have
gone you would think scholars had uncovered compelling historical data concerning
Jesus' death. Yet if you scratch beneath the surface you will find that some exegetical
hypotheses rest on surprisingly sparse textual sources and a good deal of conjecture.
Could you give some examples? What about the
placement of the nails at the Crucifixion? Weren't they really nailed into his
Gibson did not just shoot from the hip here but researched
this question thoroughly before deciding to go with the palms of the hands. Many
scholars today think the nails might have been driven through Jesus' wrists and
not his palms, mainly because the weight of a human body cannot be supported by
the flesh of the hands.
The Shroud of Turin lends credence to this hypothesis,
since blood seems to be concentrated around the area of the wrists. On the other
hand, John's Gospel has Thomas declaring that he will not believe unless he sees
the nail marks "in his hands" and further along Jesus invites Thomas to examine
his hands. Some ambiguity remains, however, since the Greek word can also be used
in a more general way to describe even the hand and arm together.
history, stigmatics such as Francis of Assisi or Padre Pio have received the wounds
of Christ in the palms of their hands, and traditional Christian iconography almost
always places the nails in Jesus' palms rather than his wrists.
a human body could be supported by nails through the palms, provided ropes were
used along with them. In the face of this inconclusive data, Gibson opted to show
the nails piercing Jesus' palms rather than his wrists.
And the size of the crowd at Pilate's praetorium? Some scholars have stated
that only a handful of people were present, nothing like the crowd Gibson shows.
Again, no one knows for sure how many people were present.
The only thing we have to go on are the Gospel narratives. St. Matthew speaks
of a "crowd" or "throng," employing the same broad Greek term that he uses elsewhere,
for instance, to describe the multitudes that gathered to hear Jesus teach or
at the feeding of the 4,000 (Matthew 15). This term is sufficiently vague as to
leave much room for interpretation.
Matthew also states that a riot
was beginning at the praetorium, which gives the sense of a fairly sizable gathering,
since 20 or 30 people can hardly generate a riot. The other synoptic gospels,
Mark and Luke, similarly speak of a "crowd," using the same Greek term, while
John speaks merely of "the Jews," without offering further numeric details. Given
the data available, Gibson's portrayal seems to be a plausible representation
of what actually happened.
Isn't it unfair
and unscientific to pull data indiscriminately from the four Gospel accounts?
Remember that when presenting a single visual portrayal of
a historic event, one has to draw from the best sources one has, which are, in
this case, the four Gospel narratives. Christians believe the four Gospels together
give a good idea of what actually occurred. From these four texts one can sketch
a pretty good composite picture of Christ's last hours.
did not intend to produce a documentary on Christ's suffering and death but rather
a historically based artistic rendering of these events, emphasizing their spiritual
and theological value. He has repeatedly affirmed that The Passion of the Christ
reflects his personal vision of the passion and not the only possible vision.
What Mel does here is nothing new. This blending of elements from the
different Gospels enjoys a venerable tradition. The pious practice of meditating
on the "seven last words" of Jesus pulls out the various utterances of Jesus on
the cross from the different Gospel accounts into a single meditation.
The centuries-old devotional exercise of retracing the Stations of the Cross likewise
proposes for the meditation of the faithful different scenes from the four Gospel
narratives as well as from extra-biblical tradition. Such is the case, for instance,
of Veronica's cloth and Jesus' falls along the Via Dolorosa, which Mel also included
in the film.
But doesn't modern scholarship
hold that Jesus' passion and death didn't occur as portrayed in the Gospels? One
writer in the Boston Globe, for instance, stated that "scholars now assert
with near unanimity that the death of Jesus did not happen as the Passion narratives
recount." A recent piece in the Baltimore Sun reiterated the same point.
We have to be careful in referring to modern scholarship
as if it were a monolithic block or as if all scholars were in perfect accord.
Many schools of thought exist on this and countless other scriptural questions,
and no one theory commands absolute allegiance.
Thus while theories
questioning certain aspects of the Gospel narratives of Christ's death do indeed
exist, one could cite numerous contrary exegetical studies that affirm the historicity
of the Gospel accounts of Jesus' trial and subsequent passion.
the works in English, one could mention N.T. Wright's Jesus and the Victory
of God, B.F. Meyer's The Aims of Jesus and R. Brown's The Death
of the Messiah. Quite helpful, too, is an older essay by the very respected
critical scholar D.R. Catchpole, "The Problem of the Historicity of the Sanhedrin
Trial" (in E. Bammel [ed.], The Trial of Jesus: Festscrift for CFD Moule,
For its part, the Catholic Church has authoritatively made clear
its own unflagging belief in the historicity of the Gospels in the Vatican II
dogmatic constitution Dei Verbum.
"Holy Mother Church," we read,
"has firmly and with absolute constancy maintained and continues to maintain that
the four Gospels just named, whose historicity she unhesitatingly affirms, faithfully
hand on what Jesus, the Son of God, really did and taught for their eternal salvation
until the day that he was taken up" (DV 19). Moreover, no ancient texts call into
question the basic facts of the Passion narratives.
provides important studies and theories to better understand the Scriptures, but
they hardly carry more weight than the canonical text itself. And I say this not
only regarding Christian belief and theology but as historical texts. We
simply have no better historical sources for what went on in Jesus' life and passion
than the four Gospel accounts. Good biblical exegesis always has the canonical
text as its point of reference, which is what Gibson endeavored to do.
What of the Feb. 26 Associated Press report that Gibson
rejects the Second Vatican Council's reversal on teaching regarding the Jews'
collective responsibility for Christ's death?
is inaccurate in at least two respects. First, the fathers of the Second Vatican
Council didn't see themselves as reversing any prior teachings on this question.
The council categorically reaffirmed perennial Catholic teaching that
all of humanity's sins, and the sins of Christians in particular, are responsible
for Christ's death, as stated, inter alia, in the catechism of the Council of
The Vatican Council document states: "Even though the Jewish authorities
and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ, neither all
Jews indiscriminately at that time nor Jews today can be charged with the crimes
committed during his passion" (Nostra Ætate, 4).
Second, Gibson embraces
that teaching wholeheartedly and has repeatedly stated his belief that the sins
of all mankind are responsible for Christ's suffering and death, his own in the
first place. He even chose to be filmed holding the nail driven into Jesus' hand
as a reminder of his own part in Jesus' passion. The film reflects that teaching,
making a clear distinction between the individuals that pressed for Jesus' death
and the Jewish people as a whole.
a Feb. 28 essay in The New York Times says Gibson's film portrays the Jews
indiscriminately as a bloodthirsty mob. The Romans are also depicted as vicious,
the article states, but whereas the brutal Romans have Claudia and Pilate as sympathetic
counterparts, "there is no counterweight to the portrayal of the Jews." Is that
Quite the opposite. With few exceptions the Romans
come across as cruel and violent, whereas Mel was careful to depict the Jews in
a much more nuanced way. He includes contrary voices at the Sanhedrin trial who
denounce the proceeding as a travesty. These correspond to the Gospel figures
of Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, two followers of Jesus among the Jewish
Gibson shows a number of Jewish women weeping for Jesus along
the way of the cross, as recounted in the biblical narratives. The Jewish figure
Simon of Cyrene, initially conscripted to help Jesus carry his cross, eventually
does so willingly and defends Jesus from the Roman soldiers. His Simon, a very
sympathetic character, is disparaged by one of the soldiers with the epithet:
"Jew," evidencing the Roman disdain for all things Jewish and evoking empathy
for the Cyrenean on the part of viewers.
The Jewish Veronica offers
Jesus a cup of water and gives him her cloth to wipe his bloody face. All of this
without even mentioning the fact that all of Jesus' disciples were Jewish as well.
Comparing the Gospel narratives with Gibson's rendering, one finds a
very faithful correspondence, more so than any other cinematic representation
of Jesus' life to date. If anything, Gibson tilts things in favor of the Jews
and softens the Gospel's sometimes-blanket depiction of the "Jews" as opposed
No one can walk away from this film with any sense of Jewish
collective guilt for the death of Jesus. The empirical evidence confirms this,
since time and time again viewers speak of heightened awareness of their personal
responsibility for Christ's death after seeing the film.
what of Gibson's decision to only show Christ's passion, without locating it in
the larger context of his life and teachings?
was partly practical, partly artistic and partly theological. In a two-hour film
it is impossible to do justice to Jesus' entire life. Rather than offer a superficial,
condensed version of the life of Christ, Gibson chose to focus on the central
moment of his mission: the paschal mystery. The contextualization is provided,
quite effectively I think, by the flashbacks interspersed throughout the film.
These relate Jesus' passion to his teaching and life in general, especially as
regards his commandment of love and the meaning of the Incarnation.
the midst of justifiable hand-wringing over Hollywood's inclination to glorify
ugliness and evil, Gibson has plied his trade to depict Jesus Christ in the moment
of his supreme sacrifice of love. Surprisingly, Gibson has been able to draw out
the inner beauty of Christ even in this moment of ignominy, when "he had no form
or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should
desire him" (Isaiah 53). Despite his external appearance, the figure of Christ
comes across as supremely attractive and noble, a true "hero" in the classical
Mel's theology is very Pauline. Remember that St. Paul wrote to the
Corinthians that he would preach of nothing but Christ crucified: "For Jews demand
signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling
block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both
Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God" (1 Corinthians
Paul was acutely aware that "the message about the cross is foolishness
to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God"
(1 Corinthians 1:18) and it is this paradox that Gibson set out to put to film.
What could better evidence the contradictory nature of the cross than the radically
diverse reactions this film is receiving?
Father Thomas Williams, L.C.. "Objections to The Passion:
Is It As It Was?" National Catholic Register (March 7-13, 2004).
article is reprinted with permission from National Catholic Register.
All rights reserved. To subscribe to the National Catholic Register call
Williams, L.C. was a theological consultant for Mel Gibson's movie The
Passion of the Christ. Father Williams is dean of the theology school at Rome’s Regina Apostolorum university where he teaches Catholic social doctrine, and is a Vatican analyst for NBC News and MSNBC. Father Williams is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Centre.
Copyright © 2004
National Catholic Register