Apr 19, 2004
Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" was released last month to great fanfare in the media and Christian churches. A lot of attention was given to the idea that in this movie, Gibson presents the details of the torture and death of Jesus in a way that is historically accurate, true to the facts of history.
In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Historical inaccuracies exist in this movie on all levels.
In order to be "authentic," Gibson has the entire movie spoken in Aramaic, a native language in Palestine of that era, and Latin, the language of Rome. The only problem is – Latin was not spoken in the eastern half of the Roman Empire, where Palestine was situated; Greek was. So, even on this very basic level, Gibson gets it wrong.
Gibson repeats what many Hollywood films have done: his image of Jesus seems taken from Medieval paintings, in his European features and even his blue eyes (although in this movie it's difficult to tell since they're usually swollen shut or covered with blood) – rather than the Semitic features that a historical Jesus would have had.
Like the Gospels, the film portrays Pontius Pilate, Roman governor of that sector of the Empire, as a bureaucrat who tried to be fair, but was pushed to crucify Jesus by the scheming Pharisees. In fact, Pilate was known for his brutality. The way he ruled that area was so brutal, in fact, that he was removed from that position before a rebellion would break out.
In order to maintain its rule over the widespread corners of its empire, Rome regularly made alliances with the leading religious figures in these areas, like the Pharisees in Judea. It would have been in both their interests to get rid of anyone who might rouse people and disrupt their rule. But in fact, Pilate and the Romans executed a lot of would-be trouble-makers at that time, and certainly did not need to be pushed to do so by the Pharisees.
But in much bigger ways, the film ignores the real history of the time period, and the real conditions in that corner of the Roman Empire. It was these conditions that gave rise to Christianity, and not the personal characteristics of any one preacher of the day.
In fact, conditions were much worse than the movie portrays. Palestine was one of the poorest corners of the Roman Empire, with a few increasingly rich, allied with Rome, separated from a very many desperately poor, who were constantly in danger of being enslaved by Roman forces and sent away to be worked to death. Torture, imprisonment and execution were regularly used by the Roman empire to keep order.
The Jesus cult that became early Christianity was a social and religious movement among these poorest and most destitute people in Palestine. Because of this, they emphasized a communal lifestyle, an opposition to Roman occupation AND the rich, and a desperate hope that a force would come to deliver them from their conditions. And they believed they would be delivered within a few years.
Most of the Gospels were not written until a couple centuries later, though – a time when Christianity was much more accepted by the wealthy, and on its way to becoming the state religion of Rome. It's an irony of history that a religion born out of a social movement of the poor, against the authority of the Roman Empire, was transformed into an arm of that Empire – and a means of imposing slavery, that is, keeping the poor in their place.
It's a role it has played ever since.
At the same time, the salvation these desperate people sought was pushed back out of this world, to be expected after their deaths.
The official view of Jesus himself changed over the centuries, from a very human preacher who became a martyr on his death, to a resurrected representative of God, to a mystical part of a Trinitarian God himself.
"The Passion of Christ" and its religious view can only serve to confuse and cloud a truly accurate view of history.