Saturday, May 01, 2004

Historical Accuracy of The Passion of the Christ

In comments on my post about the harmonizing tradition in the Jesus films, Bill points out that the reaction people are making to The Passion of the Christ relates to the explicit claim that this film was historically accurate. I think that this is a useful corrective to my post. I would add a couple of points by way of response, however. First, I've seen a toning down of the claims about historical accuracy in this film as time has gone on. Have a look at the official Passion of the Christ web site, for example. There are no claims here, in the film's official publicity, of historical accuracy. Indeed in "Background Information", it writes under "Sources" that:
It was adapted from a composite account of The Passion assembled from the four Biblical gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. (My emphasis)
This actually comes pretty close to describing the work of harmonizing. Gibson himself writes, in the "Foreword" to The Passion (Tyndale House, 2004):
There is a classical Greek word which best defines what "truth" guided my work, and that of everyone else involved in the project: aletheia. It simply means "unforgetting" . . . . It has unfortunately become part of the ritual of our modern secular existence to forget. The film, in this sense, is not meant as a historical documentary nor does it claim to have assembled all the facts. But it does enumerate those described in relevant Holy Scripture. It is not merely representative or merely expressive. I think of it as contemplative in the sense that one is compelled to remember (unforget) in a spiritual way which cannot be articulated, only experienced.
And from the Diane Sawyer interview on February 17:
Asked whether he considers his film the definitive depiction of the passion, Gibson said: "This is my version of what happened, according to the gospels and what I wanted to show — the aspects of it I wanted to show."
And from the Christianity Today interview with Gibson:
Struck: How did you find the balance between staying true to the Scripture and your creative interpretation?

Wow, the Scriptures are the Scriptures—I mean they're unchangeable, although many people try to change them. And I think that my first duty is to be as faithful as possible in telling the story so that it doesn't contradict the Scriptures.

Now, so long as it didn't do that, I felt that I had a pretty wide berth for artistic interpretation, and to fill in some of the spaces with logic, with imagination, with various other readings. ('Dude, That Was Graphic')
But second, the claim about historical accuracy is one that has a familiar ring to it when it comes to Jesus films. Consider, for example, the Jesus film:
The attention to biblical accuracy catapults you back into the life and time of Jesus Christ. You walk the same historical streets, you experience the same wonderful miracles, and you are touched by the power of God as you relive the most important events in the history of mankind.
Or consider the publicity for Jesus of Nazareth:
This epic production is acclaimed for its thorough Biblical and historical accuracy, with six hours of superb acting, beautiful music, and outstanding cinematography. (DVD publicity, e.g. here)
Or consider most recently The Miracle Maker:
Extensive historical and geographical research and the advice of leading biblical experts have ensured the greatest accuracy. (Official website)
I am not trying to claim that Icon Productions have not made inflated claims for their own film, but my point is that the claims of historical accuracy are pretty common in the publicity for Jesus films.

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