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The Passion guide

Last updated: 2004-03-18

The Passion of the Christ

The Passion of the Christ

The Passion of the Christ (2004) is a film about the last twelve hours of the life of Jesus Christ, financed and directed by Mel Gibson. After months of pre-release controversy, it opened in the United States on February 25 (Ash Wednesday), 2004.

Within the first five days of its release, it became the highest-grossing film of 2004, earning $125.2 million. By March 15th, it was the highest-grossing independent film ever made, as well as the 2nd highest R-rated film and the 22nd highest-grossing film in America. [1]


Gibson's film was produced in Italy, on scenic locations that were selected to evoke Caravaggio's paintings.

In a departure from previous films depicting the life of Christ, the dialogue is spoken entirely in Aramaic, Latin and Hebrew. After a lengthy internal debate, Gibson finally decided to include subtitles, except for one controversial line of crowd dialogue: "His blood be upon us" (see blood curse) and a few bits of soldiers' dialogue.

Great attention was paid to historical detail such as the traditional clothing of the period and Jewish dietary customs. The crucifixion sequence is exceptionally violent and graphic, earning the movie an R-rating in the United States. These scenes required Jim Caviezel, who portrays Jesus, to endure seven hours of makeup sessions daily. He even had his shoulder dislocated at one point during the filming of the scourging scene.

Gibson's religious beliefs, which inspired the film, are those of traditional Catholicism, which rejects most of the pastoral reforms set by the Second Vatican Council, commonly referred to as Vatican II. Many scenes in the movie are inspired by Catholic tradition and iconography, and are not present in the New Testament. A few scenes in the movie have no traditional source whatsoever, and are purely Gibson's artistic inventions. Gibson intended the movie to be faithful to the New Testament texts as well as Catholic tradition, but some religious scholars [2] state that it departs from the New Testament in a few minor areas. See the end of this article for a listing of scenes either not in the Bible or in conflict with it.

Some reviewers who had read early drafts of the script charged that significant parts of the movie would depart from the New Testament by incorporating material from The Mystical City of God by Mary of Agreda (a 17th century nun), and the writings of Anne Catherine Emmerich (a 19th century stigmatic). The latter is a highly controversial work, as it contains material that is considered highly violent and, by many, both Jews and non-Jews, anti-Semitic.

Cast and crew

The film's principal cast and crew are as follows:



The film was shot at Rome's Cinecitta Studios and various locations in Italy on a budget of $25 million, financed personally by Gibson.

Title changes

On October 17, 2003, Gibson's film production company announced the name of the film had been changed from The Passion to The Passion of Christ, because the title The Passion had already been trademarked by a different motion picture. This was then further amended to The Passion of the Christ. The following week Gibson announced a distribution arrangement had been reached with the independent Newmarket Films.


Columnists who had previewed the film

In Newsweek, David Ansen wrote:

Caviezel gives an eloquent physical performance, but he has little opportunity to show the Messiah's spiritual charisma; this Jesus' most noteworthy trait is his ability to absorb pain. [3]

Sharon Waxman of the New York Times wrote:

The film features agonizing passages as Jesus, played by Jim Caviezel, is mercilessly beaten by Jewish and then Roman guards, and jeered and hounded by a Jewish mob on his way to his Crucifixion. It is unclear how close this version is to Mr. Gibson's final film.

In this version, the Roman leader Pontius Pilate is depicted as being reluctant to harm Jesus, who Pilate's wife warns is holy. Largely to mollify a restive Jewish mob outside his window, Pilate agrees to a severe lashing and scourging of Jesus, but the crowd and the high priest demand more.

Pilate says in Latin: "Ecce homo" — "Behold the man" — displaying the broken and bleeding Jesus to the crowd. But the high priest insists, in Aramaic, "Crucify him." Pilate responds, "Isn't this enough?" The mob roars, "No," and only then does the Roman leader agree to the Crucifixion. [4]

Peggy Noonan wrote:

It is the story of a Jew who was the Messiah; it is the story of his loving Jewish mother, his ardent Jewish followers, and his Jewish opponents, who saw him as heretical and dangerous. He is brutally put to death by non-Jewish Roman soldiers, who are portrayed as sadistic in a businesslike way, on the acquiescence of a tired, non-Jewish cynic who then sought to wash his hands of culpability. It is a film that leaves the viewer indicting not Jews and not Romans and not cynical bureaucrats. It leaves you indicting yourself: it leaves you wondering about what your part in that agonizing drama would have been back then, and what your part is today. [5]

The Catholic Church

Msgr. Kevin McCoy, the rector of the Pontifical North American College, arranged for the movie to be shown to hundreds of seminarians at the school after attending a screening by one of the movie's producers, Steve McEveety

Mr. McEveety also succeeded in getting a copy of the movie to Pope John Paul II at the latter's request. Shortly thereafter, writer Peggy Noonan in a column for Wall Street Journal's Web site, quoted Mr. McEveety as saying that the pope had declared to him regarding the movie that depicted Christ's death: "It is as it was." "Inside the Vatican" quoted Mr. Mceveety the same way. Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, secretary to the Pope, denied that the pope offered a personal endorsement the movie, "the Holy Father told no one his opinion." Dr. Joaquin Navarro-Valls, the Pope's spokesman, neither affirmed nor denied the quote, saying "After consulting with the personal secretary of the Holy Father, His Excellency Mons. Stanislaw Dziwisz, I confirm that the Holy Father had the chance to view the film 'The Passion of the Christ'. The film is a cinemagraphic representation of the historical fact of the Passion of Jesus Christ according to the Gospel account. It is customary for the Holy Father not to express public judgments on artistic works, judgments that are always open to differing valutations of an aesthetic character."


Those who have seen the film before its official release have responded in different ways as the film has evolved.

Some evangelical Christians consider the release of the movie to be a crucial moment for evangelism. Marta Poling-Goldenne, Minister for Outreach of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America Grand Canyon Synod said in a 2004 email to pastors:

Seize this mission moment, friends! God is providing "the best outreach opportunity in the last 2,000 years" [sic] for us to witness about the gospel story to people for whom it may be very unfamiliar or unknown.

Also Rabbi Skobac from the antimissionary Jews for Judaism:

For the 75 million evangelical Christians the film is the greatest thing they've had in 2,000 years to convert people to their faith...

Charges of anti-Semitism

As much as a full year before the film's projected release, a heated controversy arose over whether it would depict Jews as responsible for the death of Jesus Christ, thus inspiring anti-Semitism. There are three elements that many Jews, and others who have faulted the movie, take issue with. First, although the movie depicts both Jews and Romans assaulting and battering Jesus, the vast majority of screen-time is devoted to depicting Jewish violence. Second, many Jews, such as the High Priest, are portrayed as physically ugly, perhaps drawing on stock anti-Semitic stereotypes of Jews. Gibson has explicitly stated that the movie assumes, and is meant to portray, all humanity as sharing guilt for Jesus's torture and death, which leads to the third, more subtle point. Gibson is not the first artist who has hoped to communicate this shared burden. Johann Sebastian Bach was presumably aware of anti-Jewish uses of passion plays, and when he composed the St. Matthew Passion he chose to have the entire chorus, rather than one group, cry out for Jesus's crucifiction. Gibson's movie, however, highlights the role of the Jewish leadership, and portrays Pilate as a thoughtful, temperate man who ultimately agrees to crucify Jesus because he cannot stand up to Jewish pressure. Pilate shares in guilt, but his guilt is more that of a moral coward than an active persecuter of Jesus. For many Jews, the portrayal of Jews in the movie can only be understood relative to the portrayal of Pilate, and Gibson's account is a perversion of history. Historical sources make it clear that Pilate was a greedy, choleric, and cruel tyrant who readily executed any Jewish rebel. For many Jews, it is painful to see a portrayal of Roman-Jewish relations where Roman leaders bow to the interests of Jewish leaders, when the opposite was the case, and where the Romans, oppressors of Jews, are presented as more sympathetic than the Jews they oppressed.

Defense against charges of anti-Semitism

When Gibson was asked if his movie would be offensive to Jews today, he responded, "It's not meant to. I think it's meant to just tell the truth. I want to be as truthful as possible. But when you look at the reasons Christ came, he was crucified - he died for all mankind and he suffered for all mankind. So that, really, anyone who transgresses has to look at their own part or look at their own culpability."

In an interview in The New Yorker, Gibson charges that he trimmed a scene from The Passion of the Christ involving the Jewish high priest Caiaphas because if he did not, "they'd be coming after me at my house, they'd come to kill me." In response, Abraham Foxman, director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), a Jewish civil rights group, publicly charged Gibson with anti-Semitism, and New York Times critic Frank Rich openly accused Gibson of "Jew-baiting".

In an apparent effort to stem the tide of criticism, Gibson arranged for screenings of the film; yet these merely caused more criticism, as his audiences included prominent Christians and Jews known for their political and social conservatism. Requests for a screening by the ADL were declined. American film reviewer, Michael Medved -- a secular Jewish author, columnist and film reviewer -- praised the movie's Biblical accuracy, although a February 16, 2004 Newsweek cover story by Jon Meacham suggests that there are numerous inaccuracies in the movie. Similarly, one statement by the ADL read:

"For filmmakers to do justice to the biblical accounts of the passion, they must complement their artistic vision with sound scholarship, which includes knowledge of how the passion accounts have been used historically to disparage and attack Jews and Judaism. Absent such scholarly and theological understanding, productions such as The Passion could likely falsify history and fuel the animus of those who hate Jews." [6]

The ADL recently made a web page providing examples of anti-Semitic responses to the ADL's criticism of this project. [7] Critics of the ADL retort that it couldn't possibly be the film that caused any hateful e-mails to the ADL because the film isn't in theatres yet; it is, instead, the ADL's attacks against a film on the life of Jesus that was the motivation. The Catholic League has responded to the ADL by accusing the organization of "seeking to poison relations between Catholics and Jews," contending that the "attacks on Mel Gibson have little to do with some off-the-cuff quips and everything to do with waging a frontal assault against all those people - Catholics, Protestants, Jews et al. - who have seen 'The Passion' and love it." [8] Other commentators who have seen the film - such as Cal Thomas and Roger Ebert - have also categorically denied that the film contains anti-Semitic material. [9]

Support for the ADL position was far from unanimous. Rabbi Steven Pruzansky, religious leader of Congregation Bnai Yeshurun in Teaneck, New Jersey, attacked Jewish critics of the film and even refered to them by the word rodef, a term used in rabbinic jurisprudence to describe an assailant who threatens Jewish lives and may be killed to preempt the danger. Rabbi Daniel Lapin, head of the Seattle-based Toward Tradition organization, declared that the ADL and its allies were "dangerous organizations, organizations that are driving a wedge between American Jews and Christians." Referring to ADL national director Abraham Foxman, Lapin said that by calling Gibson's film antisemitic, "what he is saying is that the only way to escape the wrath of Foxman is to repudiate your faith." [10]

Darío Cardinal Castrillón Hoyos, a senior Vatican official who has seen the film, addressed the question at length:

"Anti-Semitism, like all forms of racism, distorts the truth in order to put a whole race of people in a bad light. This film does nothing of the sort. It draws out from the historical objectivity of the Gospel narratives sentiments of forgiveness, mercy, and reconciliation. It captures the subtleties and the horror of sin, as well as the gentle power of love and forgiveness, without making or insinuating blanket condemnations against one group. This film expressed the exact opposite, that learning from the example of Christ, there should never be any more violence against any other human being." [11]

Some commentators have added an element of confusion into the debate surrounding the film. Fox News talk show host Bill O'Reilly, for instance, charged that much of the controversy surrounding the film was the result of "secularists" attempting to "demonize" Gibson for his faith. However, no prominent American secular organization — including the Council for Secular Humanism, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, or American Atheists — has issued any kind of statement to the media expressing a position on the film, either for it or against it. Most of the controversy appears to arisen from among Jews and liberal Christians.

Gibson's own view on whether the film is anti-Semitic

In an interview in the Globe and Mail, February 14 2004, Gibson said:

"If anyone has distorted Gospel passages to rationalize cruelty towards Jews or anyone, it's in defiance of repeated papal condemnation. The Papacy has condemned racism in any form".

"Jesus died for the sins of all times, and I'll be the first on the line for culpability"

Further social criticism

In November 2003, The New York Post screened the film for a handful of reviewers including Robert Levine, vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis; Mark Hallinan, a Catholic priest [12] with the St. Ignatius Loyola Catholic Church; Elizabeth Castelli, a professor of religion at Barnard College; and others. This marked the first time the film had been screened for viewers not hand-picked by Gibson himself. For the most part their reactions to the film were extremely harsh.

Rabbi Levine wrote that "It hurt me as a Jew to watch it. It was the most appalling depiction of Jews in a film in my recollection. It was painful and inaccurate. My eyes burned. My hair fell out. Nevermind that Toledoth Yeshu behind the curtain!" He stated the film "undermines the 1965 Vatican II declaration that the human element of the Church is no longer Catholic and no longer believes that Jews were anywhere near the crime scene as they were much too busy at the time debating whether walking around with a mote of dust on your coat constitutes carrying something on the Sabbath."

Father Hallinan, perhaps facetiously, claimed that the film focuses too much on Roman responsibility. "Unsophisticated people viewing the film will see Romans as cold, heartless people. Italians everywhere should be on guard and report anti-Italian sentiments immediately. I wouldn't be surprised at all if anti-Italianites started burning down Italian restaurants and randomly attacking anyone whose name ends in a vowel, and when they do, it will be Mel Gibson's fault," he seethed. No other Christian or Jewish group takes such charges seriously, however; there is currently no evidence of anti-Italian hatred being stirred up by the movie.

Professor Castelli added that "[Gibson] had an opportunity to reflect on the long history of the theology of suffering, and he got a greater opportunity when he dared make a Gospel-true movie about Jesus in today's world."

The Post’s report drew cries of outrage from Gibson's representatives, who accused the Post of stealing their copy of the film, and the FBI announced it would begin an inquiry into how the newspaper obtained a copy of the film to begin with, hinting that its doing so could constitute an act of piracy. Gibson's lawyer George Hedges said, "Our biggest concern here is that a major media organization would become involved with pirates to concoct a news story to sell newspapers."

Details in the film not present in the Gospels

  • During Jesus' period of intense psychological distress in the Garden of Gethsemane, a personification of Satan is shown speaking to him. Although some believe this is in the spirit of the scriptures, no Gospel relates anything like this in the Garden.
  • The Temple guard (Jews) sent to apprehend Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane subject him to punches, kicks, slaps and a drop from a small bridge suspended from a chain. No Gospel relates this.
  • After Judas tries to return the thirty pieces of silver he accepted for betraying Jesus' whereabouts, he is tormented by children whose morphing facial features suggest they are demons. The Gospels merely state that Judas fell into great mental pain and commited suicide.
  • When Jesus is first brought before Pontius Pilate, Pilate beholds his bloody, bruised condition and asks members of the Sanhedrin (the high council of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem) if they always beat prisoners prior to trial. No Gospel has Pilate saying these or similar words.
  • Herod is portrayed as a mincing, lisping, effeminate homosexual, complete with a "boy-toy". Although this was a common caricature of Herod in Medieval Passion Plays, it does not appear in the Gospels and is contrary to the historical record regarding Antipas.
  • Mary Magdelene is shown as "the woman taken in adultery" saved from execution by stoning by Jesus' famous "let him who is without sin cast the first stone" statement. Although some church traditions identify Mary Magdelene as this woman, she is unnamed in the Gospels and the weight of scholarship supports her anonymity.
  • Pilate is shown discussing with his wife the fragility of his relationship with Tiberius Ceasar, emphasizing orders Caesar gave him to avoid uprisings in Judea. No such discussion is found in the Gospels.
  • During the extended scourging scene Jesus is nearly flayed alive, back and front, by a variety of whip implements, some with embedded shells, glass and nails. The Gospels merely state he was lashed. The Romans are indeed known to have used barbed whips and may have on Jesus, yet the extreme severity of the scourging in the film, had it actually happened, would probably have prompted more than the passing mention found in the Gospels.
  • Along the Via Dolorosa, Jesus is repeatedly assaulted by soldiers. No Gospel relates this.
  • Along the Via Dolorosa, the image of Jesus' face is transfered to a cloth given to him by a woman. This event does not appear in any Bible narrative, but is a depiction of the Catholic tradition of Veronica's Veil.
  • When Jesus' right arm does not extend far enough to reach a nail hole on the cross, a Roman soldier dislocates the arm at the shoulder by pulling it with a rope until the palm is over the hole. No Gospel relates this.
  • After Jesus is nailed to the cross but before it has been raised, Roman soldiers flip the cross and Jesus over so both land with high impact on the ground. No mention of this is in the Gospels.
  • The names assigned to the thieves crucified with Christ, Dismas and Gesmas, are traditional but are not given in scripture.

Most of these details have been taken from the visions of venerable Anne Catherine Emmerich, who vividly described Jesus' passion in the book "The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ according to the Meditations of Anne Catherine Emmerich" (Sulzbach, 1833). Without touching the question of the veracity of her descriptions, for traditional Catholics like Gibson it is not necessary to have all details of the film in the Bible because the final revelation of God is taken from both the Bible and the oral Apostolic Tradition (till the death of the last Apostle). The visions of Anne Catherine Emmerich, however, are not considered part of the oral Apostolic Tradition. Details beyond primary textual sources are to be expected in dramatizations of historical events, but the trend and tenor of non-source material can assist in understanding the general tendencies of the creators.

Public reaction

On December 7, 2003, The Passion of the Christ had its first public screening in Austin, Texas at the annual 24-hour movie marathon "Butt-Numb-a-Thon 5", sponsored by Harry Knowles and his website Ain't It Cool News. Gibson was in attendance and followed the screening — which reportedly drew a five-minute standing ovation — with a 90-minute Q&A session. None of the attendees who have written about the event believe the film is anti-Semitic, with some taking the view that its critics are promoting "agendas".

The movie took the top spot in box office takings in its first weekend, taking US $76.2m from Friday to Sunday (and US $125.2m from Wednesday to Sunday), the seventh highest weekend takings in US cinema history. The following weekend, the film grossed another US $51.4m, pushing the 12-day total to over US $212m in the U.S. and Canada. This performance has stunned Hollywood, where Gibson attempted to attract distributors for the film to no avail. Industry observers now say Passion is on a course to break into the top ten U.S. box office movies of all time and perhaps the top five of all time globally.


Gibson departed considerably from the usual formula for marketing a film: no TV campaign, no press junkets, etc. [13]

Some bloggers claim that the film's promotional campaign has used blog spam [14] [15], mainly on LiveJournal, in an attempt to increase the Google ranking of the film's web page. No one has identified the source of such spam, which could be the studio, Christians who see the film as a means of evangelism, or someone deliberately trying to cast the film in a bad light. [16] Bloggers who conclude this to be a commercial device by the studio are debating the morality of seeing the film and supporting spammers [17], and even to attempts at retaliation [18].


Jim Caviezel was reportedly struck by lightning during the shooting. [19].

See also


  1. Gibson breaks Hollywood's 10 Commands - The Hollywood Reporter
  2. Official site - The Passion of the Christ
  9. Apologetics Index entry on The Passion of the Christ
  10. A critique of special effects used and factual accuracy

External links

Source: Wikipedia
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