Crossan on THE PASSION
- [Dominic Crossan lives in Clermont, a
former citrus town now rapidly growing
into a suburb of sprawling Orlando. His
take on The Passion appeared in this
weekend's _Orlando Sentinel_. As always,
Crossan is provocative]
The `sin' of `Passion'
A former priest called Mel Gibson's new film "violent"
and at odds with the views of most Christians.
By John Dominic Crossan
Special to the Orlando Sentinel
February 22, 2004
While much of the controversy surrounding Mel Gibson's new film, The
Passion of The Christ, has centered around the role of the Jews in the
death of Jesus, the sin of the movie is as much against the traditional
Christian view of God as it is against Judaism.
As a former priest who has written extensively about the early days of
Christianity, I found this intolerantly violent movie portrays God in a
way at odds with the views of most Christians.
That is, a God who forgives and loves.
The Passion recounts the last 12 hours of Jesus' life, starting as he
enters Gethsemane and ending as he leaves the tomb. For the most part,
it is two hours of relentless brutality.
This searing savagery impacted me most forcibly, moved me, certainly,
but to disgust and revulsion rather than any other emotion or response.
I admit that I myself would have left by the middle of the scourging
were it not for the needs of this article.
From a scholarly life spent in the first-century context, I know what
was entailed in Roman scourging and Roman crucifixion and can imagine it
all too well.
But this film's consistently visual violence raised for me not a problem
of squeamishness but a question of conscience: When, if the action is
sadistic, does its sustained enactment and viewing of Jesus' death
The writers of the Gospels knew that Jesus was not the first or the last
Jew to die on an imperial cross, but they never suggest that he suffered
more than anyone else.
Why, then, is the savagery of those Roman penalties expanded so luridly
in this film?
We get a clue from the film's promotional advertising, especially the
line: "Dying was his reason for living." It would be accurate to the
movie, by the way, to have written: Suffering was his reason for dying.
A fuller explanation was given by Gibson in an interview with James O.
Davis of the Global Pastors Network at Calvary Assembly in Orlando last
Gibson said that Jesus had to bear punishment for all human sin since
the dawn of creation and that, even though Jesus could have done so with
one drop of blood from his pricked finger, he chose to accept the
fullest measure of suffering due for such cosmic evil.
I understand the film, then, as an attempted visualization of that
vicarious atonement whereby a divine being, the Son of God, reconciled
the human race to its Creator.
In other words, a specific theological vision bases the film's terrible
brutality. In that theology, God does not so much forgive our human sin
as punish Jesus in our place.
But in a written statement on the film, Gibson says that his "hope is
that his movie has a tremendous message of faith, hope, love,
forgiveness, courage, and sacrifice -- and that it will affect people on
a very profound level and somehow change them."
Those twin comments raise for me the film's most basic question: What is
the character of your God?
The God of this film is not a God of "love and forgiveness," but a God
who only forgives us after having Jesus beaten to a bloody and blinded
pulp before our eyes.
Apart from any history of human responsibility, this is a theology of
divine responsibility with a God the Father who will not forgive until
and unless a God the Son suffers terribly in our place.
That is the ultimate question this film raises, not only for Christians
but for anyone who believes in God. Is your God one of retribution,
punishment and suffering (passion is from the Latin word passio, meaning
suffering), a God of forgiveness but only after adequate even if
Thoughtful believers might want to see this film and then kneel in a
quiet place and ask themselves: Is this the character of our God?
All of this is not to say that the concern of both Jewish and Christian
critics with the way The Passion of The Christ portrays the Jews' role
in Jesus death should be ignored.
There are major problems here as well, especially for those not aware of
the history of the period.
All non-Christian Jews -- the crowd, the guards and the authorities --
are shown in a totally negative manner. The only exceptions are an
official, presumably Joseph of Arimathea, who speaks up briefly for
Jesus, and Veronica, who wipes his bleeding face on the way to his
But I am not sure whether they are imagined in the film as already
Christian or still non-Christian Jews.
Jesus is arrested in Gethsemane by armed guards from the Jewish
authorities and, as all four Gospels agree, he is "led" by them to the
No further details of that transition are given in the bible.
But in the film the guards beat Jesus with his chains and, when they
come to a bridge across the Kidron, they push Jesus over the parapet so
that he hangs upside-down suspended by those chains.
It is a dramatic moment as his downward-looking face is scarcely a foot
away from the upward-looking face of Judas, who is cowering beneath the
But apart from Jewish guards and Jewish authorities, what about the
Jewish "crowd" that demands Jesus' Crucifixion?
Here is the key question: How many is a crowd?
Crowd is clearly a relative term -- 20 people would be a crowd in the
Oval Office but certainly not at the Super Bowl.
In that Gospel context, then, how many is a crowd?
First, at Passover, Jerusalem was a tinderbox in which a very large
concentration of Jews celebrated past deliverance from Egypt while under
present control by Rome.
Thus, the Romans had zero tolerance for unruly individuals or crowds at
Next, the contemporary Jewish authors, Philo and Josephus, speak of
Pilate's cruelty and violent way with, of all things, even unarmed
Further, his immediate superior later removed him from office for
unleashing his soldiers against a Samaritan crowd and sent him to Rome
for the emperor's judgment; he only escaped by Tiberius' timely death.
Finally, when that "crowd" asked for a rebel's freedom, they might
expect to be arrested as his supporters or co-conspirators so they had
to be very careful and very respectful.
In that precise time, place and situation, my best historical judgment
is that a large, shouting crowd would have been quite impossible. Not at
Passover and not before Pilate.
I conclude that the Gospel's "crowd" was probably between six and a
It certainly did not fill their streets or our screens as shown in this
When, therefore, later Gospels speak of "all the people" in Matthew or
"the Jews" in John, they cannot be taken as more than all the Jewish
people in that very small pro-Barabbas crowd.
Then there are the Romans, and with them the film makes a distinction
never made for the non-Christian Jews. On the one hand, the Roman
authorities appear in a very positive light.
Pilate is at worst wavering and uncertain as he wrestles sincerely with
"what is the truth."
Claudia, his wife, is far better. She brings towels down to Jesus'
mother, Mary, so that she can wipe up the blood from around the pillar
of the scourging.
The centurion Abenadar is also portrayed sympathetically.
He insists that Jesus was to be punished but not beaten to death by the
Roman authority, in other words, is much more decent and humane than
Washing one's hands before decreeing crucifixion and then supplying
troops for its execution, by the way, does not exactly excuse an
imperial governor of responsibility for what he did.
On the other hand, the Roman troops are as absurdly malign as their
authorities are absurdly benign. The scourging of Jesus is the worst and
most sustained brutality I have ever seen on any screen and, even
compared with the Crucifixion details, it is the most gratuitously
expanded violence in the entire film.
The Gospel texts, for contrast, use only a single word to say that Jesus
was "scourged" (Mark 15:15) but give four verses on how he was "mocked"
(Mark 15:17-20). That is their emphasis.
In the film, however, Jesus is first beaten with rods and then scourged
with an iron whip that has tiny curved claws at the end of each chain.
The obviously sadistic scourger demonstrates its ferocity by slamming it
against a table, where its claws imbed like nails in the wood.
After Jesus has finally slumped to the ground, one final blow wraps
around his head and destroys his right eye.
I repeat my question: When an action is violently sadistic, when is its
sustained visualization pornographic for those involved in either
creating or viewing it?
The God of this film is not a God of merciful compassion and loving
forgiveness but a God of displaced punishment and vicarious retribution.
If that were the character of God, this film would be the best argument
ever developed for atheism. You would fear or dread, but why would you
love or worship such a God?
John Dominic Crossan is
professor emeritus of religious
studies at DePaul University in
Chicago and the author of
many books on the historical
Jesus and earliest Christianity,
including "Who Killed Jesus?
Exposing the Roots of Anti-
Semitism in the Gospel Story of
the Death of Jesus" (HarperSan-
Copyright C 2004, Orlando Sentinel
- Thanks, I'll pass.
It's true that bargaining with G-d is a common human
thing to do and I suppose this is just an extreme of
it, but I still find it difficult to conceptualise.
--- "Haines, Michael" <mhaines@...> wrote:
> If (and that's a big IF) you want to see the__________________________________
> Philippine crucifixions in full, living color, let
> me know and I'll give you a website. I let my
> students see it, if they wish, with a big caveat!
> R. Michael Haines
> English Department
> Keene State College
> Keene, NH 03435-2611
> ph: 603-358-2913
> -----Original Message-----
> From: Yvonne Brooks [mailto:blackdogyb@...]
> Sent: Saturday, February 28, 2004 8:22 AM
> To: email@example.com
> Subject: Re: [hodos] Re: THE PASSION
> Hi - been a lurker for months now it seems but have
> faithfully been reading and learning. As I
> it the medieval tradition is alive and well in parts
> of the world such as the Philippines where people
> still mortify the flesh and even undergo brief (few
> minutes) but real crucifixions, complete with nails.
> At times I look at my statue of infinitely calm Quan
> Yin, compare her with the tortured figure of Jesus
> the cross and wonder about my decision to follow
> --- Marie Cameron <mcameron@...> wrote:
> > Hi Jeff
> > It IS an interesting point!
> > As I thought about it, I remembered that there is
> > medieval tradition
> > in Catholic Christianity of self-mortification -
> > hair shirts, whipping
> > oneself, half starving oneself, etc - presumably
> > intended to appease an
> > angry and judging God. Sado-masochism, it appears
> > to me. And Mel
> > Gibson is a conservative Catholic, and perhaps
> > echoes of this tradition
> > swirl around in his religious views and his
> > of God. How anyone
> > can continue to affirm that God is a loving God
> > believe in this way
> > is completely beyond me!
> > Not even the video store for me, Jeff! The
> > discussions I have read,
> > and the gratuitous violence glimpsed in brief
> > snippets on TV, are
> > enough for me. I am appalled by it all. Thank
> > God/ess for soFFFia,
> > hodos and FFForum to keep a balance!
> > Marie
> > On 27, Feb 2004, at 7:06 AM, prokrustus@...
> > wrote:
> > > Hi all,
> > > I watched a Charlie Rose interview last
> > discussing the
> > > movie, and
> > > one of the speakers pointed out something of
> > interest to me. Even
> > > more telling
> > > than Gibson's preoccupation with violence is his
> > obsession with
> > > suffering.
> > > If you think of movies like Mad Max or
> > or now, The Passion
> > > there
> > > seems to be a real need for him to suffer
> > actually suffering
> > > of
> > > course). I thought it was a pretty interesting
> > point.
> > > I doubt I'll be seeing the movie, mostly
> > because I don't want to
> > > contribute any money to it. Maybe I'll wait
> > it shows up at the
> > > video store.
> > > Jeff
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