SummaryMel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ depicts the final twenty four hours in the life of Jesus Christ. It begins in the garden of Gethsemene, where Jesus prays and discovers the disciples asleep. Following this, Christ is arrested after having been identified by Judas, who had previously been paid by the Pharisees to betray his master. The film then follows Jesus being being tried by the Jewish elders, during which Simon Peter denies him three times, and Judas is shown to return the money he was paid and then to be tormented by demonic children before being chased out of Jerusalem and hanging himself.
Jesus is brought before Pontius Pilate who expresses clear sympathy with him, but eventually agrees to his crucifixion on the insistence of the Pharisees and after the assembled crowd have demanded that Barrabas is freed in Jesus’ place. After this, Jesus is brutally flogged, first with birch sticks and then with metal chains, while Mary Magdalene and his own mother look on in horror. Throughout the Roman centurions are shown to take glee in torturing him, something which continues when they force the crown of thorns onto his head. Eventually Jesus is led out to Golgotha carrying his cross and is crucified. He talks with the two thieves, one of whom taunts him before having his eye pecked by a crow. Upon Jesus’ death, he utters the words “father, why have your forsaken me” and a single tear is shown to fall from heaven, signalling the overcoming of evil and divine mercy. The final short scene of the film takes place inside Jesus’ tomb where he shown fully healed except for stigmata in his hands.
Differences from the Biblical Narrative
Gibson includes several major differences from the biblical narrative throughout the film. Arguably the most important and conspicuous of these is the inclusion of a satanic figure. This figure is androgynous in appearance and is a frequent presence in the film from the first scene in the garden up until the moment of Jesus’ death on the cross. It is heavily suggested that this figure is orchestrating events and is influencing both the Pharisees and the crowd who are gathered at Jesus’ trial. One of the final shots of the film shows the same figure crying in despair as he apparently realizes that Jesus’ death will not mean the end of God’s presence on earth, but rather its beginning.
At no point in the biblical narratives is it suggested that Satan was involved in the process of the crucifixion, and Gibson’s decision to include him in the story may be argued to highlight key theological differences between his own understanding of the Gospel narrative and that contained within the texts themselves. Notably, it serves to negate Jesus’ declarations earlier in the narrative that the Son of Man must necessarily suffer and die, and instead generates the suggestion that the brutality of the crucifixion is the result of the sadism of the Roman centurions and is actively encouraged by the Pharisees as they are manipulated by Satan. Indeed, alongside the figure of Satan, Gibson adds a consistent demonic sub-text to the film. This occurs most conspicuously in the scenes in which Judas is pursued and tormented by demonic children. It is this torment, rather than his own conscience, that drives him to suicide. At no point in the original narratives is it suggested that Judas is pursued in this way, with reference only being made to suicide by hanging.
Alongside this demonic undercurrent, Gibson embellishes the role of Mary Magdalene, suggesting that she attempt to visit Jesus while he is being held the night before he is presented to Pilate. Gibson also greatly embellishes the flogging that Jesus receives, and adds the fact that the one of the thieves has his eyes pecked by a crow. While it is clear that Jesus receives some beating prior to his crucifixion, the Gospel narratives do not suggest anything as prolonged or violent as that which features in Gibson’s film.
Overall, I had a largely negative reaction to the film. While it does show a certain amount of faith and belief on the part of Gibson, it is occasionally theologically illiterate, as is shown by the inclusion of Satan and demonic children. Along with this, the film is unnecessarily violent and, in one scene, suggests that Jesus’ strength is manifest in his capacity to endure flogging for the sake of enduring flogging. This is a hyper-masculine representation of Jesus, and is something that runs contrary to my own understanding of him as a preacher of grace and of love. Indeed, the film has very little moral content and serves to render the entirety of the Gospel narrative commensurate with the excessive suffering that Christ endured. For me, this is unacceptable as it ignores any serious teaching on morality, and, importantly, reduces the notion of divine grace and love to the simple ability to ensure extraordinary amounts of pain. While it may be argued that such an ability is a sign of strong character, it is not divine, and is almost entirely lacking in the grace and moral perfection that one associates with the figure of Jesus Christ.
In conclusion, therefore, while it may be the case that Gibson’s film succeeds in generating some powerful scenes, it proves itself to be theologically incoherent and to be more concerned with depicting Jesus’ ability to bear extraordinary suffering than it is with manifesting any focus on his moral teaching or divine grace.