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Passion Play

From the August 25, 2003 issue: The controversy over Mel Gibson's forthcoming movie on the death of Jesus Christ.

Aug 25, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 47 • By MICHAEL NOVAK
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THE NICENE CREED, recited by the world's more than two billion Christians every Sunday, declares that Jesus Christ "suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried."

More than anything else, these ten words are the theme of "The Passion," Mel Gibson's new movie. Although not scheduled to be released to theaters until Ash Wednesday, "The Passion" generated this spring more discussion than any film in recent memory: endless op-eds, press releases, debates, and denunciations--all about a movie, in Aramaic and Latin, that none of the commentators had seen.

Perhaps in response to all this publicity, both negative and positive, Gibson released a trailer for "The Passion" on July 14. And then, on July 21, he brought a rough cut of the film (with English subtitles) to Washington for a few commentators and interested writers to see.

It is the most powerful movie I have ever seen. In the days since watching that rough cut, I have not been able to get the film out of my mind. Although I have read many books on the death of Jesus, and heard countless sermons dwelling on its details, I would never have believed a human being could suffer as much as Gibson's Christ does. Seen through the perspective of the mother of Jesus, as this film allows the viewer to do, the suffering is doubly painful--for with her, we watch the unbearable scourging, gustily delivered by the Romans at Pilate's orders nearly to the point of death. The pillar to which Jesus is chained is less than waist-high, so that his back is bent while he must keep himself on his feet. When he is dragged away, blood lies pooled and splattered on the white marble floor. The soldiers' laughter echoes again at the moment of the awful downward push when he is crowned with thorns. And then there are the thundering falls of the scourged Christ upon his flailed and bleeding back, under the impossible weight of the cross.

There are, in a sense, only five historical accounts of the Passion: in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and, in bare but vivid outline, in the letters of St. Paul. Paul's accounts are by some thirty years the earliest and represent in large strokes the settled beliefs of the first generation of Christians. Down the centuries, the narrative of Christ's death and its meaning have remained much the same.

The fuller accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John supplement each other, often overlapping and sometimes contradicting one another on the sort of contingent details that eyewitnesses (or their note-takers) often report differently. But all the Christian accounts agree that Jesus Christ suffered and died for the sins of all human beings of all time, under the command of the Roman consul in Jerusalem, Pontius Pilate.

Jewish accounts concur that Jesus was a Jew who suffered and died under the Roman authorities. His claims for himself seemed to Jewish authorities then (and since) to be blasphemous--for Christ clearly announced that he owned an authority higher than the high priests and the rabbis', said forthrightly that he was greater than Solomon, and put himself on a higher plane than Moses. He went even further, daring to call God his father.

The claims Christ made for himself seemed at the time divisive and dangerous. Many people, the Jewish authorities told Pilate, were following this man's lead. His history, they said, showed that he worked magic, performed miracles, and consorted with demons. He had been sent by God, he as much as said, to "fulfill the Scriptures." His continued preaching might lead to riot and rebellion. But only the Romans had the power to do to Jesus what was actually done, and so it was under the authority of Pontius Pilate, and at the hands of the Roman Empire, that Jesus "was crucified, died, and was buried."

AT THE TIME of Christ's death, Christianity was still internal to Judaism. The Christian Church itself began not at the Passion, but fifty-three days later on Pentecost, when the apostles left an "upper room" in Jerusalem speaking in tongues. With his preaching Jesus had clearly put a challenge to Judaism, expressly announcing a "new" covenant, whose mandate was to "complete" and "fulfill" the "old" covenant. And there is no doubt that Jesus' death meant a parting of the ways between Christians and Jews. Nonetheless, from a Christian point of view, the life and teachings of Jesus and his new covenant do not remove or destroy the old covenant. God cannot be unfaithful to his promises. Besides, if the Creator is not faithful to his first covenant with the Jews, how can Christians expect Him to be faithful to His new covenant with them?