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The Gospel according to Mel

I mentioned in my post yesterday that I do not much like Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ.” Now that I think about it, I don’t think I know a single scholar of the historical Jesus, or of the New Testament, or – well of any academic topic taught at universities whom I’ve ever spoken with – who liked the movie. Most of the objections raised to it have involved its portrayals of Jews and its apparent embrace of the kinds of anti-Semitism that is all too easy to overlook, and therefore re-embrace without thinking.

I am completely sympathetic with these objections. But here I’ll talk about other issues. I find the movie problematic (also) because Gibson maintained *both* that he stayed faithful to the accounts of the Gospels *and* that he showed events “as they really were.” Neither is true.

First, as to being faithful to the Gospel accounts. The one thing that struck every single person who saw the movie and that kept most everyone else away from seeing it was the horrifically gruesome violence done to the body of Jesus, not only at the crucifixion but even more during the episode of his flogging, where he is literally beaten to a pulp until he can’t stand, but then finds strength to arise and more or less tell them to bring it on again some more (he HAS to suffer, so he’s in for the full treatment – KEEP IT COMIN’ BOYS), which they do, blow after blow after blow until he is little more than a throbbing blob of blood.


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When Time Stood Still
Jesus’ Passion in the Movies



  1. Avatar
    wesleyheath  October 18, 2013

    When I first saw the title of this post, I thought it was called, “The Gospel According to Me!” and I thought, ‘Well this should be very interesting…” It turned it was interesting (as usual), but for very different reasons!

    I’m a little curious about one thing you said – you seem to take exception to the notion that *this* is what scourging was really like. While I’m certain Mr. Gibson’s portrayal of scourging is a bit dramatic, do we have a better idea of what this process was really like? Do you have a specific reason for doubting Jesus was abused to this extent? Or am I misreading what you said?

    (I’m not a fan of the movie or Mr. Gibson’s agenda – I’m just interested to know a little more about what you meant.)

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 20, 2013

      No, I’m sure scourging was pretty horrific. I was saying that the movie as a whole is not like the Gosples (hence the scourging scene) or “as it really was” (hence so much of the rest).

    • Avatar
      webattorney  October 22, 2013

      If Jesus was indeed Son of God, don’t you think it wouldn’t have been a big thing for Jesus to learn Latin in one day and become fluent? 🙂

  2. Avatar
    jsoundz  October 18, 2013

    Amy Jill Levine’s critique of Gibson’s Passion of the Christ is interesting as well: http://www.beliefnet.com/Faiths/2003/08/The-Real-Problem-With-Passion.aspx

  3. Avatar
    toddfrederick  October 19, 2013

    My guestion yesterday was “who was there to record the details of the events and dialog in Jesus life.” We agree on the most likely answer: no one was there to take notes. These stories were invented based on the telling and retelling of the in the early church communities.

    I rarely hear anyone discuss this issue anywhere and I think it is critically important.

    Another source about Jesus (and possibly more reliable…but on a totally different dimension of knowledge) is that of what Paul says about Jesus.

    Paul’s letters were written before the Gospels, but Paul says very little about the historical Jesus. Rather, Paul speaks of the mystical Christ.

    ***I have a question***that is not discussed much in anything I read. I tried to push this issue on James Tabor’s blot recently but did not get very far with it.

    All of Paul’s information about Jesus (the mystical risen Christ) comes through visions and conversations Paul had with Christ. He says this…”my Gospel is not mine but was given to me by Christ.”

    So, either the risen Christ taught Paul directly or Paul was psychotic….or Paul was lying.

    • Avatar
      toddfrederick  October 19, 2013

      What do you think about Paul’s motives in that regard?

      Also, you are a scholar of the NT. I would like to hear you views on Paul’s Gospel compared to that of the Jewish followers of Jesus…maybe an Idea for a new book from your perspective.

      • Bart Ehrman
        Bart Ehrman  October 20, 2013

        Paul’s motive’s for what? And yes, Paul and the others is a good topic for a book!

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 20, 2013

      I don’t think Paul anywhere claims that he got *all* his information from the risen Christ. He indicates that that is where he received his “gospel” message — that it was Gnetiles, as well as Jews, who were made right with God through Christ’s death and resurrection. But elsewhere he clearly indicates that he “received” information from his predecessors (e.g. in 1 Cor. 11:25-27; 15:3-5).

      • Avatar
        toejam  October 21, 2013

        Of course those from the Wells/Doherty/Carrier mythicist school will argue that Paul DOESN’T say in those passages that he received them from his predecessors. In 1 Cor 11:23-27, he says he received it from “the Lord”. And in 1 Cor 15:3-5, he doesn’t clarify who/what he received that info from. How would you respond? I’m not a mythicist, but I think of the many mythicist theories out there, the Wells/Doherty/Carrier one is the most plausible (or perhaps better put, the least strenuous).

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  October 22, 2013

          The language of “giving” and “receiving” has long been recognized as being connected to rabbinic modes of passing along tradition in Jewish circles.

  4. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  October 19, 2013

    I agree that the movie’s theme was the more Jesus suffered the more noble it all was.
    I, however, missed the use of the Latin and found this fascinating. Thanks.

  5. Avatar
    Mikail78  October 19, 2013

    Bart, didn’t Mel Gibson use as a source for “The passion of the Christ” a work by a Roman Catholic mystic nun, Sister Anne Emmerich called “The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ”?

  6. Avatar
    hwl  October 19, 2013

    Can you also explain why Passion of Christ’s portrayal of Jews was problematic?

  7. Avatar
    FrankB57  October 19, 2013

    Hello Bart. I would add that during the time “The Passion” showed in theaters in our area, many protestant evangelicals embraced it as being boldly authentic, for reasons articulated by our church leadership. Gibson and the actor who played Jesus were even portrayed as religious martyrs of some type for having the conviction to stay “true to the gospels” as we were told. The movie, like so many other contemporary events, was used as a tool to transmit a series of messages about Jesus’ example of deep suffering for the world. Uh huh, I remember that. My family and I were even “encouraged” to watch it with our larger church family (when we lived in Dayton, Ohio). The church, a mega-church wannabe, was large enough to buy blocks of shows and used many themes in the movie to present messages centered on the alleged truthfulness of Gibson’s version of the gospel. But neither I nor my family ever went to see it and so we never appreciated all the added emphasis, which lasted only so long before some other new “lighter” topic replaced it. I think the appeal to the sensational is perhaps almost a last gasp for many institutions before they expire. Gibson’s appeal lasted only so long and his life unraveled, publicly. Now many of us are seeing why his behaviors are often quite disturbing. Thanks for posting this topic. I think I only listened to all the endorsements of his movie, and apologies offered insisting it was not anti-semitic, when I was a believer because of my personal need to belong to a large community of believers. Your review gives another perspective.

  8. Avatar
    laz  October 19, 2013

    Could Jesus speak latin? Lets remember he was a God/Man after all. I mean the God/Man……

  9. talitakum
    talitakum  October 19, 2013

    I agree with your criticism of Gibson’s movie, especially on the historical side. I think Gibson made clear he was also inspired by the visionary Anna Katharina Emmerick, for what concerns floggin’ and blood. This is not not history of course!
    Regarding Latin, I have a different hypothesis. Your hypothesis in my opinion is too sophisticated for a simple man like Gibson, I think he wanted to present Jesus as a “divine man” and therefore able to speak all languages: if disciples could speak many languages after receiving the Spirit, Jesus (who is God) can do it for sure!

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 20, 2013

      Yes, that’s the usual view of Latin. But I think it’s also significant that it is Latin in particular….

  10. Avatar
    FrankJay71  October 19, 2013

    As to the Jesus-Pilate dialog issue, do you believe the gospel writers, like “John” imagined their conversation in Greek, Latin, or Aramaic? Even if the event and dialog were made up out of whole cloth, the language difference would’ve been obvious to “John.” Would Pilate possibly have spoken Aramaic, making him a better administrator in Palestine, or did John assume a divine, “omniglot” Jesus, who could speak Pilates’ language?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 20, 2013

      Yeah, I don’t know what the Gospel writers were thinking. That Pilate spoke Aramaic? That Jesus spoke Greek? Neither seems historically likely….

      • Avatar
        FrankJay71  October 21, 2013

        Well, in Mel’s defense, what would have been a reasonable way to film the dialog between Jesus and Pilate? Should Pilate speak Aramaic, or they each speak their native tongue and have a translator on hand? Mel could have filmed the whole movie in English, and filmed their dialog in English avoiding the whole language inconsistency problems as I suspect other directors have done.
        I’m guessing that there is no historical basis for their dialog or maybe even meeting face to face, but because Mel is trying to be some what faithful to the Gospels, he’s left with the problem of making a plausible scene out of an unlikely event.

      • Avatar
        FrankJay71  October 21, 2013

        Anyways, maybe Mel was just doing the best he could with the materiel John left him?

  11. Avatar
    donmax  October 19, 2013

    Well said!!!

  12. Avatar
    dennis  October 19, 2013

    Shame on me , Bart . In my conceit I was imprudent enough to say in my comment on yesterday’s post something to the effect that ” some Protestant denominations ” holding the belief that ” the Bible is , and ought to be , the sole source of authority in spiritual matters ” lead to ” brittleness of faith ‘ . Whoa ! That would be a pretty damn presumptuous statement coming from a PhD in Comparative Religion , much less some codger who never darkened the door of a single Protestant teaching class . Humility , never my strong suite , would have dictated my lack of personal experience should have induced caution in making blanket statements in that area . It is therefore with a red face of embarrassment , and with not a little trepidation , that I dare to suggest that My Hero may have made an erroneous statement in today’s post , to wit : ” They insist that the Mass be said in Latin . Why ? Because Latin is the sacred language ” . Simply not true , my friend . Bart , I know these folks ( without being one of them ) , I have attended Latin Masses , I have read their publications . NOBODY among them claims any ” sacredness ” in Latin as such . It is their deep unease with the ” Spirit of Vatican 2 ” of which their adherence to the Latin Mass is a symbol , that defines them . By the way , do you claim infallibility in matters of faith and morals ?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 20, 2013

      OK, fair enough. But I think it’s like the King James debates among Protestant fundamentalists. At heart, what they don’t want is *change*. But implicit in that conservatism is a sense that the translation they like is the inspired one.

  13. Avatar
    Wilusa  October 19, 2013

    Just a couple thoughts. Re what someone said in the previous batch of posts, about there having been no one to record what happened during Jesus’s trials: Devout believers would say Jesus himself gave his followers an account of it, after his Resurrection! (Though *differences* in the surviving stories would have to be explained as due to faulty human memories.)

    And re Mel Gibson’s having Jesus speak Latin with Pontius Pilate: Those same devout believers would argue that Jesus – being God – was omniscient, and could if he chose speak to anyone in that person’s tongue.

    I don’r beleve either of these things myself, of course. I’m just saying why some people wouldn’t perceive “problems” here.

  14. Avatar
    Wilusa  October 20, 2013

    Am I the only person here who doesn’t understand these new e-mail options we’re being offered?

    Notification when Bart posts? The (gulp) entire *content* of his post? *All everyone’s Comments* showing up in our e-mail? Separately or in Digest form? I’ve liked things exactly as they were!

    I definitely don’t want *more* e-mail from this blog than I’ve been receiving. If the only alternative to receiving more is to receive none, I’ll be content with none. So I suppose I don’t have to do anything, just not click on those “Confirm Follow” buttons. But I’m *curious* as to what these confusing messages *mean*!

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 20, 2013

      You only get the emails if you check the box indicating that you want them. No one will get them otherwise! (And I’m like you: I myself would never want them. But some people do!)

  15. Avatar
    EricBrown  October 21, 2013

    Catching up. Some thoughts:

    1) I noticed Jesus speaking latin (I don’t speak latin but can identify it, especially in contrast to Aramaic). I had assumed the point was that Jesus, as God, could speak in any language he chose. Had Pilate been Dravidian….

    2) All the suffering. I remember after watching that, challenging my (actually intellectually agile and polite) evangelical colleagues on this. I don’t get why Jesus (God) suffering so much is so important. Many many people suffer similar and worse through the history of the world this God supposedly created. I suppose many theologians would find the abasement to the incarnation itself far more impressive than the particulars of how that physical life played out. It’s not like Jesus was the only person to ever “die for his friends” as the hymn goes.

    3) “The Dolorous Passion…..” Excellent source. Ever try to read that? If every action described in that book actually happened within the time frame allotted, Jerusalem would have become incandescent with all the bodies (Jesus, disciples, guards, etc) all moving about a speeds seveal times the speed of sound, heating up the resisting air mass of Ol’ Sion to thermonuclear levels.

  16. Avatar
    PersephoneK  October 21, 2013

    I watched the film when it came out in the theater as a relatively new atheist (christian-lutheran apostate), and my take was a bit different. In a weird way I found myself annoyed by everyone who was up in arms with Gibson’s version of the story. It seemed like it had more to do with Gibson than with the merits of the film itself. That said, I did have HUGE problems with it. As a non-scholar, the events he showed didn’t really bother me much as they coincided with versions of the gospel I’d been taught as a believer. However details like Jesus speaking Latin did bother me a lot.

    But my problems were more from a cinematic point of view (one of my hobbies). I felt like the film didn’t stand on its own. You needed to know the story of Jesus to understand why he was being persecuted, and that doesn’t make for a good film. Viewers shouldn’t need Cliffs notes to get the main protagonist. I thought Gibson’s direction of what was in the film was very good, as was his cinematography.

    Its interesting your main issue (aside from the historical inaccuracy) is with the violence. I think I actually understand Gibson here. Thinking back to my days as an evangelical (whose dream job was filmmaking) I remember wanting to make a film that showed a raw portrayal of Jesus, especially his execution. The point would not be to glorify violence. You mention that the bible only says “and they scourged him.” That’s the kind of simple statement a movie script would contain. Its then up to the filmmaker to show that dramatically according to his vision and motivation. I would suggest that Gibson’s motivation was less about glorifying violence as it was about creating a sense of raw horror at what these people were doing to this man, and to make us truly identify with both Jesus and those who loved him as they witnessed it taking place. Its about bringing the emotions to the forefront. At least that’s how it would have been had I made this film, and it would have had a similar rawness to the violence had I done so. So, as I watched the film (again as an atheist), I actually was moved to tears. I didn’t see Jesus as the Savior anymore, and I didn’t think the film did a good job of making me empathize with this character up until his death had I not known the story already, but since I already did, I found myself entranced by the final scenes, violence and all. I guess I see it more as if we look upon the violence, perhaps we can see how truly horrible that kind of death was. Compassion is born from empathy. Compassion leads to self-control of our impulses.

  17. Avatar
    gavm  October 28, 2013

    and lest we forget the magic evil baby hanging around with satan???!!!

  18. Avatar
    judaswasjames  November 3, 2013


    I finally saw it on TV. What I could take, that is. What a waste of time. I’m sure lots of people really believe this is how it was. That’s the shame of it all. Jesus himself isn’t even reliably attested, and now we have him as a bloodstain on the cobblestones. (I have read both sides of the Mythicist debate.) Where is the movie, ‘James the Brother of Jesus’? That might be instructive! Your observation of Gibson’s fixation on violence is well taken.

  19. TracyCramer
    TracyCramer  November 5, 2013

    Dear All,
    I only saw the previews for Gibson’s film, and that was all I needed to see to get the idea. I did, however, follow what others were saying and writing about the film at the time. Esteemed professor Paula Fredrickson of Boston U wrote a book and a number of articles about some of the issues raised by the film which she scanned and put into PDF format at her BU homepage:
    Under the section titled “Articles”, the Gibson film articles can be found.
    Happy Reading,
    Tracy Cramer
    Osaka, Japan

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