• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as preparation for a future work on Straub/Huillet's Moses und Aron and a few bits and pieces on biblical studies.

    Matt Page


    Friday, February 23, 2007

    Text and Interpretation in The Passion of the Christ

    I've been preparing for a talk I'm doing on Saturday looking at the historical information about the death of Jesus. As it turns out I'm making a few brief comments on The Passion of the Christ so I thought I'd post them here, and flesh them out a little. There's actually been very little written on this site about The Passion of the Christ (my review) directly, as it's only been mentioned in reference to other films, or its release on DVD.


    In the run up to Easter 2004, there was tremendous controversy about alleged anti-Semitism in The Passion of the Christ. Most lay Christians, and a good proportion of church leaders, were left slightly confused by all this. On the one hand they found the idea of anti-Semitism abhorrent, yet on the other hand they felt this was what they perceived to be an attack on God's word. After all Gibson was only portraying what he found in the gospels.

    However, from a film-making point of view, the translation from a written text, to a film requires a huge amount of interpretation. Particularly when it is an ancient text; particularly when it isn't written for entertainment like say Shakespeare. And when you are trying to make one film from four different, ancient, non-entertaining sources, which have been sifted through 2000 years of theological reflection and artistic interpretation, then the amount of interpretation, creation and deviation is massive, even for those seeking to be as historically accurate as possible.


    That, of course, doesn't even take into consideration that The Passion set itself the target of being a particularly visual film. Whilst, eventually, the film was released with subtitles, Gibson's initial vision was for The Passion was that it would rely on "visual storytelling" and the power of his images to convey the story. Admittedly, he was also able to draw on a general level of familiarity with the story, but even so this is a far heavier reliance on images than is standard. As a result, the level of interpretation is perhaps even greater in this film than in most.

    Take, for example, the scene which depicts the trial in front of Pilate. We have no record of how Pilate really looked. Gibson portrays him as a noble, clean cut, philosophical type. He pauses in between the lines that are spoken to ponder their meaning, as if he is so carefully weighing the immense judgement he is making that he is caught in indecision.

    How differently would Pilate have come across if he had been portrayed by one of the actors who played a Roman soldier in the film, perhaps one of the two who is responsible for carrying out the brutal flogging? What if he had barked out his orders and decisions, and his acting had reflected disdain, or disinterest in what was happening, or even a sadistic pleasure in seeing Jesus suffer?

    The differences in physical resemblance between this philosophical Pilate, and the pudgy, ugly actor with bad teeth who plays Caiaphas has been commented on numerous times. What if Pilate's costume was adorned with tacky looking shiny objects, and Caiaphas was dressed fairly plainly. What if the two actors swapped roles but acted the part in exactly the same way. Would we feel more for this noble Caiaphas who has, after all, huge responsibility for the fate of the Jewish people, and has to deal with this power hungry Roman.

    Then consider the size of "the crowd", leaving aside the motive Mark supplies for them being there (Mark 15:6-9), how big exactly is a crowd? A crowd in a football stadium might be 100,000 people. A crowd in my living room might be only 10 (it is a small living room). Pilate's house would, no doubt, have been a great deal larger than mine, but from there on in the way the crowd is depicted is straight from Gibson's imagination.

    This crowd numbers around 300 people, packed into a massive space, as if Pilate frequently hosted such numbers when trying potential political revolutionaries. What if the space was smaller, the crowd looser and less animated? 50 to 100 people could still be called a crowd a such a situation. Either way, if Sanders' estimate that the Passover time population of Jerusalem was between 300,000 and 400,000 then even a crowd of a 1000 would be a drop in the ocean.1 What if the film had showed that the vast, vast majority of Jews in Jerusalem at that time were not present, and urging the governor to execute Jesus.

    There are, of course, numerous other points that can, and have, been made about this scene, and indeed the historical reliability of the accounts it claims to be based in. My point here is simply to show just how much translation is present in a couple of aspects of a particular scene. It also shows what a shame it is that many church leaders lined up so enthusiastically to inform those who listen to them that this film was historically accurate.

    See also: Why is the Historical Jesus Quest so Difficult?

    Sanders, E.P., The Historical Figure of Jesus, p.249



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