Is 'The Passion of the Christ' by Mel Gibson historically accurate?
When the Pope was shown a preview of the film, he reportedly said
It is as it was.
So is it? Yes, it is based on the accounts of Jesus's arrest, trial, and execution in the four Gospels, and it is broadly true to these accounts.
However, it also uses fictional events too, that is, events that are not in the historical Gospels. There is no way of telling from the film itself what is authentic and what is fictional. Overall, the film sticks close to the Biblical story, and the fictional events may be legitimate 'artistic license.' However, anyone who sees the film and does not know what the Bible says will have no way of knowing what is truth and what is fiction.
It is widely known that Mel Gibson is a Catholic, and some of the fictional material in the film relates directly to his Catholicism. He is not a Roman Catholic, but is a member of a traditional church that broke away in the 19th century over the infallibility of the Pope. This traditional church has continued to celebrate the Mass in Latin, and has not accepted any of the recent changes in the Roman Catholic church.
What follows is not intended in any way to 'bash' Mel Gibson or the Catholic Church. However, the issue of his Catholicism is relevant because it lies behind quite a lot of the historically questionable aspects of the film.
Although 'The Passion' is based on the accounts of Jesus' trial and execution in the Biblical Gospels, some of the additional material comes from a book called 'The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ' by Anne Catherine Emmerich. Emmerich (1774-1824) was an Augustinian nun at the Convent of Agnetenberg, in Germany. She had many visions, and 'The Dolorous Passion' contains her visions of the sufferings of Christ.
If her visions were accepted as nothing more than imaginative reconstructions of what Christ's sufferings might have been like, there might not be a problem. But many people see them as
revealing to us more information about the Life of Jesus Christ besides what we read of Him in the Bible. (A direct quotation from the Emmerich web site.)
There is a problem with this, in that it sets up another authority alongside the Bible - in this case, Emmerich's visions.
As we have noted, the film is all in ancient Middle-Eastern languages - Aramaic and Latin - with sub-titles. This gives it an air of authenticity. However, the apparent authenticity is actually a bit misleading: the common language in which people of different groups communicated in Jesus's world was Greek, not Latin. (The Roman soldiers would have spoken among themselves in Latin.) Gibson attaches particular importance to the Mass said in Latin, and sees this as working on us in a mystical way - as doing something to us that bypasses the mind. This is also a reason for concern.
In the film, when Jesus is praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, he says
Father, if you are willing, take this chalice from me...
What he actually said was
... take this cup from me...
Altering the word cup to chalice may not be a huge change, but it does give a sacramental spin to his words that is not there in the original.
One of the most important historical inaccuracies is the way the film portrays the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate. He is portrayed as essentially a good man (or at least a morally neutral man), wanting to do what is right, but caught up in events that threaten to spin beyond his control. The historical reality, known from sources outside the Bible, and consistent with the Biblical accounts, is that Pilate was both a bully and a coward.
Stations of the Cross
The film follows Jesus along the 'Via Dolorosa' (way of Sorrow), by way of the fourteen 'Stations of the Cross'. These are played out in detail although they are not described in the Bible. It is worth noting that some contemporary Catholics explicitly see the Stations of the Cross as being a help to meditation, rather than a statement of historical reality.
Mary, Jesus's mother
One of the most explicitly Catholic aspects of the film is the way it portrays the role of Jesus's mother, Mary. Both Peter and John call Mary 'Mother.' This is historically wrong - they would not have done that. However, in the Catholic tradition, Mary is seen as the 'co-redeemer' with Jesus - the one who saves us, along with Jesus. At one point in the film, Mary offers to die with Jesus. This is a subtle but definite reference to the co-redeemer idea.
However, this is dangerous. Mary was just a mortal human being like you or me. Yes, she was specially favoured by God, being chosen to become Jesus's mother. But she is not our co-redeemer. Jesus alone is the one who can save us, because he is uniquely the Son of God -
The Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me
- as Paul says in Galatians chapter 2 verse 20
In the Catholic tradition, Mary was born sinless (the immaculate conception, not to be confused with the virgin birth of Jesus). She remained permanently a virgin even after the birth of Christ. However, the Bible does not support this belief.
So these are some of the main points where the film is not historically accurate. As well as these, there are some bits of the film that are just peculiar:
- The film identifies Mary Magdalene with the woman caught in the act of adultery in John's Gospel chapter 8 verses 1-11. This could have been the case, but there is no evidence for it in the Bible.
- Another historical oddity is that, on the way to be crucified, we see Jesus carrying (or dragging) a whole cross, while the two criminals who were crucified with him are only carrying crossbars. Historically, it is more likely that Jesus, too, only carried the crossbar.
- The film shows Jesus being crucified with nails through the palms of his hands. This is almost certainly historically wrong. The Romans more likely crucified people with nails through their wrists, rather than the palms of their hands. (See: 'The crucified man' on this site, for a detailed description).
So there are some questions over the historical accuracy of some aspects the film. However, in spite of these issues, it is broadly faithful to the Bible's narrative, and it is clear about the central realities of the Christian faith. This means that Christians who are not Catholics can still use it effectively.
There are questions for discussion and reflection about the historical inaccuracies, at the end of the main review article.
See also this very helpful FAQ on 'The Passion.'
'The Life - Explore the Passion of the Christ' - an excellent site about the story behind the film. The webmasters describe this as 'a website for people who have seen the film and have questions.' What is it about? In their own words:
After seeing the movie, thelife.com is an opportunity for people to explore the Passion of Christ. Feature articles on the site will deal with common questions people have after seeing the movie. Through articles, video clips, discussion boards and a chatroom visitors will have the chance to dig deeper into the life of Christ. There will also be the opportunity to sign-up for a 10-day email journey that will take them through a discussion of the film, scripture and what Christ's sacrifice means for them.
In early screenings of the film there has been an eerie hush when the final credits roll. This movie moves people. When people have an emotional experience of this depth, they want to talk about it. We're building thelife.com to let them do exactly that. Laced throughout the site will be opportunities for people to email us their questions and prayer requests. Everything on the site will point to who Jesus is and why He was willing to suffer so greatly, and so graphically, for each of us.
Who is Jesus? - the passion of Christ - another site mainly for people who are not yet followers of Christ.
Buy 'The Passion' here
As a DVD:
As a video tape:
'Passion prompts murder confession' - this, and a wide range of other Passion-related stories from the BBC
Tell a friend by email (or text message) about the availability of movie clips
of the film at:
See the Passion.com - 'See the Passion with your own eyes; feel it in your heart for ever.' - An independent website supporting the movie.
A News Anchor's Perspective: "Nothing in my existence... could have prepared me for what I saw on-screen last night" - Review by Jody Dean, Dallas-Ft. Worth anchor for CBS.
"...the most gut-wrenching, emotional and life-changing two hours of my life." - Review by J R Whitby, director of Gospelcom.net
Will Mel Gibson's Passion of Christ help save Christianity? Article by Daniel Johnson in the 11th February 2004 issue of the London Daily Telegraph
'Who would want to see a film this violent?' The first UK review of the film, by John Hiscock in the London Daily Telegraph
Leadership University feature article on 'The Passion' - also contains a wide range of links to additional articles.