Tuesday, April 06, 2004

Another review of The Passion on Bible and Interpretation

Thanks to Mark Elliott for alerting me to this latest edition to the Bible and Interpretation Essays on the Passion:

A Review of the Passion
I find it offensive when much of the marketing of the movie has insisted on its biblical accuracy when, in fact, much of what's good and bad about the movie comes either from an 18th-century nun or from Mel Gibson's own imagination.
By Jason Byassee
Pastor, Shady Grove United Methodist Church

Byassee notes that the film is dependent on the Bible in some respects but less dependent in others. Indeed he makes the interesting comment that "This movie is, in fact, most interesting when it departs from the biblical narrative". But one or two minor comments on points he makes. On the scourging he remarks:
The other example is more brutal—the scourging of Jesus is mentioned in two places, Matt 27:26 and Mark 15:15, and then only briefly. In the movie, this is the most brutal part of it—it goes on forever, with blood everywhere and maniacal guards laughing as they torture Jesus brutally. Again, here is one verse, greatly expanded upon. If asked whether these scenes are biblical, the strongest possible response would be “sort of.”
The scourging also appears in both the other Gospels, Luke 23.16 and 23.22 and John 19.1 and it is from these that The Passion of the Christ derives its sequence, with flogging before sentencing to crucifixion. Byassee also comments:
The final thing to notice is this—the Bible doesn’t actually focus much on what happened to Jesus in his execution. The Gospel just says, “[A]nd they crucified him, one on his right, and one on his left.” There is very little in the way of gory detail there; even when it describes Jesus’ torture, it spends more time on the soldiers’ mocking him than on the blood or his agony.
That is true, but I think this point is at least partly mitigated by the fact that the ancients knew what "they crucified him" meant and we can little appreciate the full horror and scandal that they would have heard when they heard those words.

Byassee also writes:
In the movie, it is Caiaphas the high priest who shouts at Jesus on the cross, “If you are the son of God come down from the cross.” However, he’s not the one who says that in the Bible; he’s not at the cross. And in historical point of fact, none of the Jewish leaders could have been present at an execution because of the biblical belief that contact with the dead defiles.
I have seen this claim made in other reviews of the film and I am puzzled by it. Mark 15.31 places the "chief priests" (οἱ ἀρχιερεῖς) at the cross at just this point. These "chief priests" are the ones who have been present throughout (Mark 14.1, 14.10, 14.43, 14.53, 14.55, 15.1, 3, 11). They are likewise responsible for the cry in Matthew's parallel in Matt. 27.42 (cf. Luke 23.35, "rulers").

Byassee argues that the violence was excessive and possibly too much so: "Was the actual torture that violent?" Two thoughts on this. First, Josephus describes the scourging of Jesus' namesake, Jesus ben Ananias as so vicious that "his bones were laid bare" (War 6.5.3). And he survived. The scourging in The Passion of the Christ is nothing like that bad. Second, crucifixion is described in ancient sources as a matter of prisoners writhing in agony (need to check the source) and there is nothing of this in the film.

Those are just a few comments on parts that I wanted to disagree with. But the review overall has some wise remarks and helpful perspectives. His conclusion:
This movie has its brilliant moments. I had low expectations based on critical reviews from religious sources I trust, yet I sobbed several times and emerged changed somehow. It also had material that made me want to pull my hair out, mostly in its refusal to depict the Jewish leaders differently. The most interesting stuff was in fact the stuff not in the Bible, though its marketers would have suggested otherwise. In all, it seems to me like a good sermon! It challenged me, made me think, moved me, made me mad, I didn’t agree with all of it; in fact, I strongly disagreed sometimes, but hey—if I can have that effect, even partially on a Sunday morning, then maybe I’ve done my job. So I suggest Mel has also done his.

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