How Faithful to the Gospel is The Passion of the Christ?
© 2004 by Paul Thigpen
The release of director Mel Gibson's new film The Passion of the Christ has provoked a worldwide discussion of spiritual matters that's surprising in its content, extent and intensity. But one question about the film commonly asked by Christians should come as no surprise: How faithful is it to the Gospel story?
The four biblical accounts of our Lord's passion vary in some details. The evangelists had to be selective in the events they reported, and each account reflects the interests of the particular community to which it was originally addressed. Nevertheless, they share a fundamental narrative structure that tells a single story, what the Second Vatican Council called "the honest truth about Jesus," what He "really did and taught" (Dei verbum, 19).
Gibson's stated intention was to follow this narrative structure, drawing from each Gospel the material he thought would best serve his artistic purposes. Viewers of the film who are familiar with the biblical Passion stories will find that he has largely followed the narrative faithfully, though he understandably takes some artistic license: For example, St. Peter's denial of Christ, the Gospels tell us, took place outside the door of the high priest's court (see Matthew 26:57-58 and parallel passages). In the film, however, it takes place within the court.
Such small departures from the biblical narrative don't significantly compromise the story. But careful viewers will notice that Gibson adds scenes and other elements as well. The Gospel accounts are quite brief, and anyone attempting to tell this story cinematically has no choice but to fill in the details, visual and otherwise, and to develop the important themes.
In some cases, Gibson simply draws from other biblical sources. For example, though the Gospels say nothing of Satan appearing to Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane to tempt Him, this event takes place in the film. We do know from the Gospels, however, that the Devil visited Jesus in a similar way in the desert just after Jesus was baptized, and that Satan planned to return at "an opportune time" (Luke 4:13). When the director speculates that Christ's night of agony before the Crucifixion might well have been the "opportune time," he in no way damages the story. Instead, he opens us to the possibilities of what could well have happened, and at the same time throws light on the earlier temptation of our Lord in the wilderness.
Gibson draws as well from other biblical books; in this same scene, for example, from Genesis. He masterfully shows the fulfillment of the first messianic prophecy (Genesis 3:15) through visual parallels: Christ, "the last Adam" (1 Corinthians 15:45), is tempted, as was the first Adam, by the Devil in a garden where a snake appears. In Genesis, God tells the serpent that one day Adam's descendant will crush the snake with his heel (Genesis 3:15). When Christ overcomes the temptation to which Adam succumbed, His sandal comes crashing down on the serpent.
Given the director's Catholic background, we shouldn't be surprised that he also makes use of Catholic traditions from outside the Bible. Anyone familiar with the Stations of the Cross will recognize the film scenes in which Jesus' mother meets Him as He carries the cross and St. Veronica wipes His face with her veil. (Neither of these events are recounted in Scripture.) Just as such traditions have for centuries been valuable to Catholics meditating on the Passion, they are valuable here, unfolding the inner meanings of the events portrayed.
Gibson also draws from the recorded visions of two Catholic mystics: Anne Catherine Emmerich (German, 1774-1824) and Maria de Agreda (Spanish, 1602-1665). Though the canonization process began long ago for both these women, their visions have never been approved by the Church — and probably won't be, because many of the details have historical, scientific, and theological problems. Nevertheless, Gibson recognized and made use of the dramatic power and spiritual insight of several scenes from these visionaries that focus on Christ's passion.
Perhaps the most compelling of such scenes, taken from Emmerich, appears in the film when the wife of Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor who sentences Jesus to death, secretly brings white linens to Our Lady and to St. Mary Magdalene. The latter two women take the cloths, get on their knees, and then slowly, lovingly, painstakingly wipe up Jesus' blood from the pavement. Catholic tradition plays a part here as well: An ancient story insists that Pilate's wife, Procla, was sympathetic to Christ and eventually became a Christian.
All the Gospel tells us in this regard is that she warned her husband to "have nothing to do with this righteous man [Jesus]," because she had "suffered much over Him … in a dream" (Matthew 27:19). But by weaving the Procla tradition and Emmerich's vision into his narrative, Gibson affirms significant elements of the Gospel's import. He powerfully portrays the profound love of the two Marys for our Lord while also adding to the film's pervasive Eucharistic imagery: Every drop of this Blood, their action tells us, is precious and must be recovered, lest it be desecrated underfoot.
Finally, the director adds several stunning elements apparently from his own imagination. Perhaps the most startling is what might be called a glimpse of the "Anti-Madonna and Child." This cinematic suggestion of a demonic Anti-Christ at the breast of his diabolical "mother" will no doubt haunt audiences for years to come.
Is The Passion of the Christ faithful to the Gospel story, then? As we have seen, the film departs from the biblical Passion narrative in certain details and adds material from other sources. After all, Gibson has offered us not a documentary, but a work of art.
Like countless artists throughout Christian history, however, when he detours from the biblical story line, he does so, not to subvert, but to illuminate faithfully the Gospel account. And that, in the end, is a typically Catholic way to approach Scripture. For we read it in view of later events and traditions that trace their beginning to this magnificent Story — and lead us in new ways to its heart.
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