On February 25th (Ash Wednesday) 2004, Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ film was released. The film is based on Jesus’ arrest, trial, and execution according to the four Gospels. Most of the film is historically accurate, although there are some fictional events too. The film became the highest grossing non-English language film of all time and it was named the most controversial film of all time. Critics claimed the film was historically inaccurate due to the way the film portrayed Pontius Pilate, along with the use of excessive violence, anti-Semitic content, and the use of additional material.
One of the most important historical inaccuracies is the way the film portrays the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate. According to author B. A. Robinson, “Pontius Pilate is consistently portrayed as a weak-willed governor, frightened of the power of the Jewish priests, and lacking in confidence. ” After viewing the film, one would feel that Pilate was essentially morally neutral in the events of Jesus’ execution after stating Jesus is innocent of any crime but due to the pressure of the mob demanding execution, Pilate yields to it (Oxtoby & Amore 172).
According to authors Oxtoby and Amore, the crime Jesus was being accused of perverting the people and claiming to be the king of the Jews (168).
“In reality, Pilate was harsh and vicious in his treatment of Jews and had thousands of them crucified (Robinson).
” Several critics were troubled by the film’s explicitly detailed violence and further criticized the film for focusing on the brutality of Jesus’ execution, instead of his religious teachings.
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A number of the scenes which do not appear in the Bible but which seem to be fictional creations added to “flesh” out the movie and extend the film to a feature length include: the scene when Jesus is repeatedly beaten by the Temple guard after his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane for no apparent reason, when Judas is emotionally distraught over his prior betrayal to Jesus and is tormented by Jewish children whose faces morph into demons, when the crucified thief who taunted Jesus has his eye pecked out by a crow, and the scene of Satan carrying a demonic baby during Jesus’ flogging (Robinson).
Film critic Roger Ebert said in his review, The movie is 126 minutes long, and I would guess that at least 100 of those minutes, maybe more, are concerned specifically and graphically with the details of the torture and death of Jesus; further stating that this was the most violent film he had ever seen (Sanburn).
Film critic A. O. Scott stated in his review, “The Passion of the Christ is so relentlessly focused on the savagery of Jesus’ final hours that this film seems to arise less from love than from wrath, and to succeed more in assaulting the spirit than in uplifting it. ”
Before the film was even released, there were prominent criticisms of perceived anti-Semitic content in the movie. After representatives of the Anti-Defamation League attended a private screening of a pre-release version of The Passion of the Christ, they released a statement calling it one of the most troublesome texts, relative to anti-Semitic potential, that any of us had seen in twenty-five years. It must be emphasized that the main storyline presented Jesus as having been relentlessly pursued by an evil cabal of Jews, headed by the high priest Caiaphas, who finally blackmailed a weak-kneed Pilate into putting Jesus to death.
This is precisely the storyline that fueled centuries of anti-Semitism within Christian societies (Robinson).
A key event in the Bible that is missing in the film is the canonical line from John’s gospel in which Caiaphas argues that it is better for one man to die for the people so that the nation be saved; had this line been included in the film, perhaps giving Caiaphas a measure of the inner conflict he gave to Pilate, it could have underscored the similarities between Caiaphas and Pilate and helped defuse the issue of anti-Semitism (Robinson).
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Although Mel Gibson claimed to have based the film entirely from the Biblical Gospels, there are many elements that came from the book called The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ by Anne Catherine Emmerich; The book contained her visions of the sufferings of Christ and are criticized for revealing more information about the Life of Jesus Christ besides what is read of Him in the Bible (Facing the Challenge).
This poses a problem because it sets up another authority alongside the Bible.
Ultimately, despite the questions over the historical accuracy of some aspects of the film, it did remain broadly faithful to the Bible’s narrative and it was clear in portraying the central realities of the Christian faith. The United Methodist Church stated that many of its members, like other Christians, felt that the movie was a good way to evangelize non-believers. As a result, many congregations set up tables at the theaters to provide answers and prayers to viewers.