by Paul Zilonka, C.P.
Hardly a year goes by that we do not have a new film about
Jesus. Whether curiosity or piety motivates people (probably both),
life is complicated --- biblical movies are big at the box office.
Now we have
Mel Gibson's production The Passion. Advance publicity claims
that it will be an extremely authentic experience of the last 12 hours
of Jesus' life. It promises to immerse us into that terrifying event
in a way others have not dared. Roman soldiers will give gruff commands
in Latin; Jewish crowds will cry out in Aramaic. From what we now know
about the pervasive influence of Greek language and culture in Galilee,
especially in the century before the birth of Jesus, Greek would also
A wealth of
historical research about the Roman Empire and Jewish religious practice
during Jesus' lifetime helps modern screenwriters recreate life in ancient
Palestine more accurately, and therefore, recent biblical movies pay
particular attention to newly-discovered historical and architectural
details. Like other historical movies, this movie wants us to "feel"
like a participant in the action, to "see" the Passion of
Jesus as if we had been there on that unique Friday.
A New Passion Play
follows a long tradition of medieval passion plays. Before the birth
of secular opera, these church-sponsored plays transferred the gospels
to the stage as sacred dramas and made catechesis on Sunday afternoons
both entertaining and spiritually beneficial. Yet though the passion
plays followed the gospels for their "script," contemporary
influences especially negative attitudes towards the local Jewish
population unfortunately made their way into the plays.
The 17th century
Passion Play from Oberammergau in Germany suffered from this tendency.
In recent years, its traditional script was revised in the light of
modern church sensitivity to the presentation of Jewish involvement
in the death of Jesus.
Can we make movies from the Gospel?
modern screenwriters use the gospels as the basis for their scripts;
they remain our best source for historical information about Jesus.
Indeed, of all the scenes of his life, the descriptions of his last
hours in Jerusalem and on Golgotha are similar in all four Gospels,
which supports the scholarly theory that reflection on the death of
Jesus was the initial challenge for the early church.
But the Hollywood
approach that blindly equates the biblical text with "remembered
history" and takes the gospels literally for a screenplay regularly
provokes stinging criticism from some first-century historians in the
claim that as much as 80% of the passion narrative owes more to the
influence of Old Testament prophecy than to trustworthy historical reminiscence.
That degree of influence might be argued, but the New Testament itself
reveals how much the Old Testament shaped its presentation of the last
hours of Jesus and the aftermath of his death.
The Old Testament in the New
Paul of Tarsus
and other apostolic preachers proclaimed both the death of Jesus and
his resurrection "according to the scriptures" of Judaism
(1 Corinthians 15:3-5).
The New Testament,
too, clearly associates verses from the Old Testament with the story
of Jesus' death and resurrection. The four passion gospels explicitly
mention specific verses from Psalms 22, 31, 40 and 69, for example.
By reflectively reading these psalms with the story of Jesus' Passion
in mind, someone "sees" that story already present in the
Bible hundreds of years before.
this has been called "prophetic prediction." The presence
of Old Testament texts in the New Testament shows the profound reverence
early Christians had for Israel's scriptures as interpreting the significance
of Jesus' sufferings and earth. Indeed, many other Old Testament texts
influence the New Testament in subtler but effective ways, besides the
texts mentioned above.
Early Jewish-Christian conflict and polemic
scriptural embellishment in descriptions of Jesus' last hours, well-grounded
recent biblical scholarship points out another significant factor that
shaped the early development of the passion narratives, namely, the
zealous and spirited encounter between Jews and Gentiles over Christian
especially at the hands of the Roman enemy, played no part in the contemporary
Jewish scenario for the expected messiah of Israel. And so Paul the
Apostle had to struggle greatly to preach a crucified messiah and to
offer a strong apology or defense of this unexpected development
in Israel's religious history. (1 Corinthians 1:18-25)
appears repeatedly within the gospels themselves. Jesus "predicts"
his impending suffering, death and resurrection (Luke 9: 22; 9:44; 18:31-32).
On Easter afternoon, the risen Jesus gives insightful scripture lessons
to show the necessity that "the Messiah should suffer and so enter
into his glory" (Luke 24:26, 46)
Anti-Jewish sentiment in the gospels
importantly for the Gibson film, the volatile rhetoric found in certain
Gospels must be kept in mind. Recent studies point out the sharp historical
divisions between followers of Jesus and the mainstream Jewish community,
as the disciples of Jesus emerged as a distinct group of believers increasingly
separated from their Jewish roots.
careful analysis of the respective images of Pilate and the members
of the Jewish religious hierarchy in the four gospels indicates polemical
objectives in Matthew and John, who shift responsibility for his death
away from Pilate to the Jewish leadership. Scholars suggest it may be
evident in certain scenes, such as Pilate washing his hands while declaring
himself innocent of the death of Jesus,
and the depiction of the whole population of Jerusalem calling down
responsibility for Jesus' death on themselves and their children (Matthew
27:24-25). Because of our current concern about anti-Semitism, one hopes
these polemical elements do not appear in the Gibson film.
Calling us to take a stand
passion narratives were not written as movie scripts, nor do they show
much interest in detailing the physical cruelty of Jesus' sufferings,
they do share something with modern cinematographers. They want us to
"see the Passion" so that its message might affect us personally.
The Gospel characters confront us with the moral responsibility to take
a stand for or against the crucified Jesus. This is especially true
of Luke's version of the death of Jesus, which we read in our churches
on Palm Sunday 2004, around the time of the advertised release of Gibson's
In Luke 23:33-49,
once Jesus and the other people have arrived at Golgotha, Luke uses
several different words associated with sight' to heighten our
visual experience of this memorable scene. Tension builds slowly as
Luke paints the portrait of various characters standing around the cross
of Jesus, with the criminals, "one on his right, the other on his
stood by and watched." (v.35) The rulers and the soldiers
jeer at Jesus. Even the criminals in Luke voice their opinions, one
maligning Jesus, the other "good thief" acknowledging his
own guilt and receiving from Jesus a pledge of forgiveness and future
reward (vv.39-42). After Jesus commends his spirit confidently into
the hands of his Father, the visual language explodes like a series
of fireworks at a fourth of July celebration.
who had witnessed what had taken place glorified God and said,
This man was innocent beyond doubt.' When all the people who had
gathered for the spectacle saw what had happened, they returned
home beating their breasts; but all his acquaintances stood at a distance,
including the women who had followed him from Galilee and saw
these events." (vv.47-49)
of the Calvary scene demands a response from all. No one within the
scene or outside of it (ourselves) can easily walk away unmoved. Everyone
must take sides for or against the Crucified.
How should we react to the Passion of Jesus?
of the Passion of Jesus will come and go. Critics and defenders alike
will abound. Whether these movies are successful or not at the box office,
they keep the Passion of Jesus before our eyes, which too easily turn
away from the suffering of innocent people in every culture.
of the Passion of Jesus have always caused strong reactions, as they
should. While the memory of Calvary was still recent, Paul the apostle
chastised one of his communities because they seemed to forget or dismiss
its significance for their Christian life. "O stupid Galatians!
Who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly
portrayed as crucified?" (Galatians 3:1)
In our media
culture, we need to be mindful of the extreme harm a biased presentation
of Jesus' last hours can unleash.
Words of Paul
the Apostle may offer some advice on this matter. In his prison letter
to the church of Philippi, Paul acknowledged how some people out of
envy preached Christ from rivalry and envy of Paul's influence, while
others were prompted solely by good will. To Paul, their motivation
mattered little. "What difference does it make, as long as in every
way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is being proclaimed? And
in that I rejoice." (Philippians 1:18).
the Passion of Jesus, we need to keep in mind the troubled origins of
these gospel texts and other sources used for the screenplay. At the
same time, Paul the Apostle might see the controversy itself as an opportunity
to preach the truth about the Passion of Jesus, as best we can know
be the first to remind everyone that what should concern us most is
how we Christians embrace the power and wisdom of God manifest on the
cross. Paul, like Luke and the other evangelists, would emphasize "seeing
the Passion of Jesus" from God's perspective. May we seize this
moment of opportunity to announce the good news of Jesus, crucified
and risen for us.
Fr. Paul Zilonka, C.P. is Assistant Professor of the New Testament
at St. Mary Seminary, Baltimore, MD
also in this issue:
Mel Gibson's "The Passion of Christ"
| "Seeing" the Passion of Jesus
Christian Mystics and the Passion
| Dramatizing the Passion
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