by Paul Kurtz

The Culture War

The Passion of the Christ is not simply a movie but a political club; at least it is being so used against secularists by leading conservative Christians. TV pundit Bill O’Reilly clearly understands that Mel Gibson’s film is a weapon in the cultural war now being waged in America between traditional religionists and secular protagonists-such as the New York Times, Frank Rich, Andy Rooney, and the predominant “cultural elite.” Newt Gingrich chortled that the movie may be “the most important cultural event” of the century. James Dobson of Focus on the Family and a bevy of preachers herald it as “the greatest film ever made.” Busloads of devoted churchgoers were brought daily to view the film, which portrays the arrest, trial, crucifixion, and death of Jesus with graphic brutality. It is used to stir sympathy for Jesus, who, half naked, suffers violent sadomasochistic whippings at the hands of his persecutors; and it has engendered hostility to Jews, secularists, and separationists who have dared to question Gibson’s allegedly scripturally accurate account.

The Passion of the Christ reinforces a reality secularists dare not overlook: more than ever before, the Bible has become a powerful political force in America. The Religious Right is pulling no punches in order to defeat secularism and, it hopes, transform the United States into a God-fearing country that salutes “one nation under God” and opposes gay marriages and the “liberal agenda.” The interjection of religion into the public square (which in fact was never empty) by powerful religious and political forces has ominous implications. James Madison, framer of the Constitution, rightfully worried about factions disrupting civil society, and religious factions can be the most fractious.

Movies are a powerful medium Film series including Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Star Trek, The Terminator, and The Matrix all draw upon fantasy; and these have proved to be highly entertaining, captivating, and huge box office hits. The Passion of the Christ, however, is more than that, for it lays down a gauntlet challenging basic democratic secular values.

It also presents fantasy as fact, and for the unaware and the credulous, this is more than an exercise in poetic license; it is artistic and historical dishonesty.

A Distorted Version of the Bible

According to Mel Gibson, The Passion of the Christ is “a true and faithful rendition of the Gospels.” This is hardly the case. For there are numerous occasions when it presents extra-Biblical material not found in the New Testament, and when it distorts the Biblical account. Gibson uses poetic license with abandon.

Commentators have pointed out that Gibson distorts the character of Pontius Pilate, making him seem to be a tolerant, benevolent, and fair-minded judge-when independent non-Christian historical texts indicate that he was a mean-spirited political opportunist. The film also portrays Pilate’s wife Claudia as a kind of heroine. She is sympathetic to Jesus and thinks his punishment is unjust; there is some textual basis for that in the Bible. But Gibson goes beyond this in his portrayal, for Claudia acts kindly to Mary and Mary Magdalene at one point in the film, approaching them with a gift of linen cloths. Gibson has Mary use them to wipe pools of blood from the spot where Jesus was flogged by the Romans. Nowhere are these scenes found in any of the four Gospels. Church historian Elaine Pagels has said that it is “unthinkable” that Jewish women would have sought or received any sympathy or succor from the Romans.

Nor do the Gospels provide any support for the severe beatings of Jesus by the Jewish soldiers and guards who arrest him in the Garden of Gethsemane prior to those inflicted by the Romans. In one gruesome scene, as Jewish troops bring Jesus back to Jerusalem heavily bound, they constantly beat him and at one point, even throw him off a bridge. There is no account of this in the Gospels. It is tossed in to underscore the brutality of the captors.

All the Gospels say is that a large crowd sent by the priests came to the garden to arrest Jesus. There was a scuffle and Jesus told his Disciples to lay down their swords. (Here as elsewhere, Jesus does not seem to be a part of his own cultural and religious Jewish milieu; both he and his followers are consistently characterized as renegades and “other” than their social environment.) Matthew 26:57 states: “Jesus was led off under arrest to the house of Caiaphas the High Priest.” Mark 14:53 reads: “Then they led Jesus away to the High Priest’s house.” Luke 22:54: “Then they arrested Him and led Him away.” John’s version in 18:12: “The troops with their commander and the Jewish police, now arrested Him and secured Him. They took Him first to Annas… the father-in-law of Caiaphas.”1

If Jesus’ abuse by the Jewish guards did not come from scriptures, where did Gibson borrow it?-from the supposed revelations of a Catholic nun and mystic, Anne Catherine Emmerich. Indeed, much of Passion is taken from Emmerich’s book first published in 1833, known in English as The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ. The current edition proudly asserts on its jacket that it is “the classic account of Divine Revelation that inspired” the Mel Gibson motion picture.2

Emmerich, a passionate devotee of the practice of meditating on the “sacred wounds of Jesus,” described how after Jesus was arrested, he was tightly bound, constantly struck, dragged, and made to walk with bare feet on jagged rocks. Let us focus on a bridge, which they soon reached, and which Gibson depicts in the film. Emmerich states, “I saw our Lord fall twice before He reached the bridge, and these falls were caused entirely by the barbarous manner in which the soldiers dragged Him; but when they were half over the bridge they gave full vent to their brutal inclinations, and struck Jesus with such violence that they threw Him off the bridge into the water…. If God had not preserved Him, He must have been killed by this fall” (p. 71).

I refer here to this scene only to show that Gibson went far beyond the texts of the Gospels and inserted nonscriptural events mostly drawn from Emmerich. Remember that these are the subjective visions of a psychic-mystic rendered over 1800 years after the events they concern. I went to see the movie a second time to see if any credit line is given to the Emmerich book at the end of the film. I could find none, a glaring omission.

A good deal of the focus of The Passion of the Christ is on the flogging (scourging) of Jesus. Two Gospels state simply that Pilate “had Jesus flogged and handed over to be crucified” (Matthew 27:26, Mark 15:15). John’s description agrees (19:1-2): “Pilate now took Jesus and had Him flogged.” Luke’s account (23:16) has Pilate saying: “I therefore propose to let Him off with a flogging.”

What the Gospels state matter-of-factly and without narrative elaboration is luridly expanded by Emmerich: First they used “a species of thorny stick covered with knots and splinters. The blows from these sticks tore His flesh to pieces; his blood spouted out…” (p. 135). Then she describes the use of scourges “composed of small chains, or straps covered with iron hooks, which penetrated to the bone and tore off large pieces of flesh at every blow” (p. 135). Moreover, nowhere do the Gospels describe who watched the flogging. Emmerich states that “a Jewish mob gathered at a distance.” Gibson has the high priests watching the brutal flogging (with a feminine incarnation of Satan looking on with them). Nowhere is this described in the Bible. Gibson thus goes far beyond the New Testament account, implying that the Jews and their leaders were complicit in the brutal beatings of Jesus.

The New Testament account next states that the high priests and crowd in the square before Pilate called for the crucifixion of Jesus, and when given the choice, selected Barabbas to be freed over Jesus. This is fully depicted in Gibson’s Passion.

The film, however, is silent about the fact that Jesus, his mother Mary, Peter, James, and the other Disciples and supporters in the crowds were themselves Jews. In Emmerich and Gibson the Jews come off as the main enemies of Jesus, provoking the Romans not only to crucify him, but to torture him and inflict maximum suffering. I think the point in the film is even more anti-Jewish: it’s that Pilate tries to placate the Jews with the beatings, but they won’t be satisfied-some real blood thirstiness here!

Is The Passion of the Christ anti-Semitic? Yes, flagrantly so, in my judgment. The Passion repeats the description of the Jews portrayed in medieval art and Passion Plays, which provoked in no small measure anti-Semitic pogroms and persecutions suffered by the “Christ killers” for centuries. Much has been said about the fact that Mel Gibson’s 85-year-old father Hutton Gibson is a Holocaust denier. He has been quoted as saying that Vatican II was “a Mason plot backed by the Jews.” Mel Gibson removed from the subtitles of the original version of his film the statement from Matthew (27:25-6): “The blood be on us, and on our children,” though apparently it remains in the spoken Aramaic text.

To his credit, Pope John Paul II in 2000 made an historic apology, declaring that the Jews of today cannot be held responsible for the death of Christ. Still, the Passion film debuts at a time when anti-Semitism is growing worldwide, especially in Europe and throughout the Islamic world.

According to scripture (especially the Gospel of John), Christ died on the cross because God sent His only begotten Son to die for our sins; thus, all sinners are responsible, not simply the Jews of ancient Israel. Mel Gibson has himself blamed all sinners for the crucifixion. If this is the case, the crucifixion of Christ had to happen, and was for that matter foretold by Him. Why God was willing to allow His only beloved Son to suffer a horrible death is difficult to fathom, but according to Christian apologetics it was preordained so that those who believed in Christ could be saved. Thus it was God-not the Jews alone or the Romans-who was responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus. One might even say that if this was part of a divine plan, the Jews should get the credit for carrying it out.

Is the Biblical Account Reliable?

Is the account of Jesus as described in the New Testament-in this case of his trial, crucifixion, and death (let alone his birth, ministry, and resurrection) – an accurate account of historical events? I doubt it. This negative appraisal is drawn from careful, scholarly, and scientific examination of the New Testament account.

The key point is the fact that the authors of the Gospels were not themselves eyewitnesses to the events described in these documents. If Jesus died about the year 30 CE (this is conjectural, since some even question whether he ever lived3), the Gospel according to Mark was probably written in the 70s of the first century; Matthew and Luke in the 80s; and John anywhere from 90 to 100 CE. They were thus written some 40 to 70 years after the death of Jesus. The Gospels are based on an oral tradition, derived at best from second- and third-hand testimony assembled by the early band of Jewish Christians and including anecdotal accounts, ill-attributed sayings, stories, and parables. The Gospels’ claims are not independently corroborated by impartial observers-all the more reason why some skepticism about their factual truth is required. They were not written as history or biography per se-and the authors did not use the methods of careful, historical scholarship. Rather, they were, according to Biblical scholar Randel Helms, written by missionary propagandists for the faith, interested in proclaiming the “good news” and in endeavoring to attract and convert others to Christianity.4 Hence, the Gospels should not be taken as literally true, but are a form of special pleading for a new ideological-moral-theological faith.

In writing the Gospels the authors evidently looked back to the Old Testament and found passages that were suggestive of a Messiah who would appear, who was born of a young woman (or a virgin), and could trace his lineage back to David-which is why Matthew and Luke made such a fuss about having Jesus born in Bethlehem. Accordingly, the Gospels should be read as works of literary art, spun out of the creative imagination, in order to fulfill passionate yearnings for salvation. They are the most influential form of fiction that has dominated Western culture throughout its history. Whether there is any core of truth to them is questionable; for it is difficult to verify the actual facts, particularly since there is no mention of Jesus or of his miraculous healings in any extant non-Christian literature.5

Tradition has it that Mark heard about Jesus from Peter. Eusebius (260-339 CE) is one source for this claim, but Eusebius wrote some three centuries after the death of Jesus. In any case, Matthew and Luke most likely base their accounts on Mark.6 The three synoptic Gospels are similar, though they contradict each other on a number of significant events. Scholars believe that some of these were derived from still another literary source (Q or quelle in German, or “source”) that has been lost.

Another historical fact to bear in mind is that the Gospels were written after a protracted war between the Romans and the Jews (66-74 CE), which saw the destruction of Jerusalem and of the Temple (70 CE). Hundreds of thousands of Jews were killed in these wars and were dispersed throughout the Mediterranean world. Jerusalem was eventually leveled in 135 CE. The synoptic Gospels were influenced by the political conditions at the times of the various authors who wrote the Gospels, not during the years of Jesus. John’s Gospel, written somewhat later, reflected the continuing growth of Christianity in his day. The other book attributed to John, Revelation, which is so influential today, predicts the apocalyptic end of the world, the Rapture, and the Second Coming of Jesus. This book in the view of many scholars reflects the ruminations of a disturbed personality. We have no reliable evidence that these events will occur in the future, yet hundreds of millions of people today are convinced that they will – on the basis of sheer faith.

Let us consider another part of the historical context in the latter part of the first century, when most of the New Testament was composed. Two Jewish sects contended for dominance. First was Rabbinic Judaism, which followed the Torah with all its commandments and rituals (including circumcision and dietary laws). Drawing on the Old Testament, Rabbinic Judaism held that the Jews were the “chosen people.” Once slaves in Egypt, they had escaped to the Promised Land of Palestine. Someday after the Diaspora the Jews would be returned to Israel, and the Temple would be rebuilt. The second sect was early Jewish Christianity, which attempted to appeal not only to Jews but to pagans in the Roman Empire. It could do so effectively only by breaking with Rabbinic Judaism. This is the reason for increasing negative references in the Gospels to “the Jews” (especially in John), blaming them for the crucifixion of Jesus. Christianity was able to make great strides in recruiting converts and competing with other sects, such as the Mithraic religion. But it could only do so by disassociating itself from Rabbinic Judaism. It developed a more universal message, which, incidentally, was already implicit in The Letters of Paul (written some 15 to 20 years after the crucifixion of Jesus): The new Christians did not need to be circumcised nor to practice the dietary laws.

Thus, the Biblical texts drawn on in The Passion of the Christ should not be read literally as diatribes against the Jews per se, but rather as the record of a dispute among two Jewish sects competing for ascendancy-between traditional and Christianized Judaism.

If one reads the four Gospels side-by-side, as I have done numerous times, one finds many omissions. Evidently their writers never knew Jesus in his own lifetime. Each Gospel was crafted post hoc to satisfy the immediate practical needs of the new Christian churches then developing. They were contrived by human beings who were motivated by the transcendental temptation to believe in Christ as the Son of God and the Savior of mankind. The Gospels thus are historically unreliable, and insofar as The Passion of the Christ used them this is also the case. But Gibson goes even beyond the Gospels, as I have indicated.

The Establishment of Christianity

I submit that there are two important inferences to draw from this analysis: First, the union of a religious creed with political power can be extremely destructive, especially when that creed is supported by the power of the state or the Empire. It was the conversion of the Emperor Constantine (around 312 CE) that led to the establishment of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire, some three centuries after the crucifixion of Jesus. The “Nicene Creed,” which was the product of the counsel of Nicaea (convened in 325 CE), said that Jesus was crucified under Pontius Pilate. It also declared Jesus the divine son of God “in one substance” with the Father. The decision which books should be included in the New Testament was political, determined by the vote of the bishops attending the council of Nicaea. At this and other church councils, various apocryphal books revered by particular Christian communities were omitted from the canonical scriptures. So much for historic objectivity.

The Emperor Julian (331-363 CE), a nephew of Constantine and a student of philosophy, became skeptical of Christianity and was prepared to disestablish the Christian church, which he probably would have done had he not been murdered, most likely by a Christian soldier in his army. In any case, Christianity prevailed and the great Hellenic-Roman civilization of the ancient world eventually went into decline. But this occurred in no small measure because of political factors: the grafting of the Bible with the sword, and the establishment of an absolutist Christian creed, intolerant of all other faiths that disagreed, and willing to use any methods to stamp out heresy.

By the fifth century more and more of the inhabitants of the Roman Empire became members of Christian churches, which replaced pagan religions. Christianity reigned supreme across Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. The latter two were overrun by the Muslims in the seventh and eighth centuries, but feudal Europe remained stolidly Christian as it entered into the so-called Dark Ages. Only with the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the development of science and the democratic revolutions of our time was the hegemony of Christianity weakened. The secularization of modern society brought in its wake naturalistic ideas and humanist values.

The union of religion and political power has generated terrible religious conflicts historically, pitting Catholics against Protestants, opposing Jihadists versus Crusaders, and triggering constant wars among Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and others. God save us from God-intoxicated legions which have the power to enforce their convictions on those who disagree! All the more reason to laud the wisdom of the authors of the American Constitution who enacted the Bill of Rights, including the First Amendment, prohibiting the establishment of a religion.

Freedom of Inquiry

The second inference to be drawn is that the origins of the Christian legend have for too long lain unexamined, buried by the sands of time. The New Testament was taken by believers as given, and no one was permitted to question its sacred doctrines allegedly based on revelations from On High. But skepticism is called for-the same skepticism that should also be applied to the alleged revelations by Moses on Mount Sinai and other prophets of the Old Testament. Orthodox Jews who accept the legend of a “chosen people” and the promise that God gave Israel to the Jews likewise base this conviction on uncorroborated testimony. Today, we have the tools of historical scholarship, Biblical criticism, and science. This is based on two centuries of sophisticated scholarly and scientific inquiries. These enable us to use circumstantial evidence, archaeology, linguistic analysis, and textual criticism to authenticate or disconfirm the veracity of ancient literary documents. Regrettably, the general public is almost totally unaware of this important research. Similarly for the revelations of Muhammad and the origins of Islam in the Qur’an. Since they are similarly uncorroborated by independent eyewitnesses, they rest on similarly questionable foundations. There is again a rich literature of skeptical scrutiny. But most scholars are fearful of expressing their dissenting conclusion.

The so-called books of Abraham-the Old and New Testaments, and the Qur’an-need to be scrutinized by rational and scientific analyses. And the results of these inquiries need to leave the academy and be read and digested more widely. Unfortunately, freedom of inquiry had rarely been applied to the foundations of the “sacred texts.” Indeed, until recently severe punishment of religious dissenters was the norm in many parts of the world.

Given the tremendous box office success of Mel Gibson’s film, there are bound to be other Jesus movies produced – for Jesus sells in America! The Passion of the Christ unfortunately may add to intolerance of dissenters; and this may severely endanger the fragility of social peace. It may further help to undermine the First Amendment’s prohibition of the establishment of religion, which has been the mainstay of American democracy. This indeed is the most worrisome fallout that the Gibson film is likely to produce.

1. These translations are from The New English Bible, Cambridge University Press, 1961.
2. Anne Catherine Emmerich, The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ, tr. Ed. Klemens Maria Brentano. El Sobrante, Calif.: North Bay Books, 2003. I am indebted to my colleague Joe Nickell for pointing the book out to me.
3. George Wells, Did Jesus Exist, Amherst, NY, Prometheus Books, 1980.
4. Randel Helms, Gospel Fictions, Amherst, NY, Prometheus Books, 1988.
5. R. Joseph Hoffmann, Jesus Outside the Gospels, Amherst, NY, Prometheus Books, 1984.
6. John Dominic Crossan, Who Killed Jesus? Exposing the Roots of Anti-Semitism in the Gospel Story of the Death of Jesus, San Francisco, Harper, 1995.
Paul Kurtz is the founder of the Center for Inquiry and the organizations of public education headquartered there, such as CSICOP, the Council for Secular Humanism and the Campus Freethought Alliance.

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