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Press release on Mel Gibson's film The Passion of Christ

This film portrays the last hours of the life of Jesus of Nazareth - from his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane to the removal of his body from the cross. Its impressive picture of the extreme brutality of his suffering and death has great visual impact. In his depiction of the violence used on the victim Jesus, Gibson, who is a practising Catholic Christian, gives a historically accurate account of the torments to which those condemned to crucifixion by the Romans were exposed. This staged orgy of deliberate maltreatment inflicted on political rebels and slaves was a bloody reality repeated tens of thousands of times in the Roman empire. So Gibson's film offers a healthy corrective to mollycoddling treatments of the saviour, old and new, which lead to forgetfulness of the cruelty of his execution, and of the fact that the 'Lord' of numerically the greatest religion on earth died a criminal's death on the cross two thousand years ago.

The main historical basis for the film is the accounts of the suffering of Jesus, which Christians call his passion, in the four New Testament Gospels. Everything that the Gospels say about the circumstances of the trial of Jesus - from the hatred of Jesus by the Jewish leaders and the Jewish people to the declaration of his innocence by Pilate - is skilfully staged in the film. So Mel Gibson simply translates the content of the biblical reports into action. But here the problem begins. It has long been known that the early Christians wrongly put the blame for the death of Jesus on the 'unbelieving Jews'. By translating this theological interpretation into powerful images on film, Gibson is encouraging anti-Semitism, whether he intended to or not.

The discussion of the film should pay attention to three things: (a) the key statements about Jewish guilt for the death of Jesus in the New Testament passion narratives have no historical foundation, but are rooted in Christian propaganda; (b) most of the details of the passion narratives go back to later 'theological' interpretations and are uninterested in historical truth; (c) Jesus did not want to die for the sins of the world. He expected the kingdom of God, but the church came.

Göttingen, 3 March 2004


Dr. Gerd Lüdemann, Georg-August-University Göttingen, Germany

Some Critical Comments on Mel Gibson's movie The Passion of Christ in the Light of Historical Criticism

In memoriam Paul Winter

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Last updated on May 10, 2017
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