“When violence breaks out, Mel Gibson will have a much higher authority than professors and bishops to answer to.” So predicted Boston University’s Paula Fredriksen in one of the opening salvos in the year-long campaign to kill Mel Gibson’s film masterpiece, The Passion of the Christ—a campaign that was, in equal measure, hysterical, disingenuous, ignorant, and unsuccessful. As of this writing, The Passion has grossed over $360 million in the United States (making it the seventh top-grossing domestic film in history) and over $200 million overseas. The result is not the “violence” Fredriksen predicted but numerous stories of people being moved to return to Christ and, in a few instances, even to confess to unsolved crimes.
Just about everything the critics said about Gibson’s film was wrong. Starting with Fredriksen, the critics assumed the pose of objective historian, lecturing us ad nauseam that all scholars believe that the Romans alone were responsible for the Crucifixion; that Pilate was such a brutal tyrant that what the Gospels wrote about him was certainly false; that no one in first-century Jerusalem spoke Latin. But Raymond Brown, the late doyen of liberal biblical scholars, wrote in his Death of the Messiah that, “When the Jewish, Christian, and pagan evidence is assembled, the involvement of Jews in the death of Jesus approaches certainty”; that Pilate “was not a ferociously cruel governor” and the Gospels’ “descriptions of Pilate with their variations are not inherently implausible”; and that Pilate’s cohorts included the Secunda Italica Civium Romanorum—troops who spoke Latin, not Greek.
We were also repeatedly warned that Passion plays regularly lead to antisemitic violence, even though these warnings were invariably devoid of evidence that any particular Passion play had, in fact, led to violence. The reaction to Gibson’s film strongly suggests that these warnings were at least misplaced, if not baseless. A poll taken by the Institute for Jewish and Community Research showed, in fact, that Gibson’s film was more likely to lessen belief in Jewish culpability for Jesus’ death than the reverse. Such a result is surprising only if one believes, as do Gibson’s critics, that the Gospels themselves are antisemitic.
The critics also scorned Gibson for focusing on the Passion, not on Christ’s teachings or His Resurrection. Lawrence Frizzell, one of the first academics to attack Gibson, wrote that “Emphasis on the Passion . . . does not convey any insight into the means whereby the Gospels show that the work of forgiveness is accomplished.” So much for J.S. Bach’s Passions, Joseph Haydn’s Seven Last Words, Michelangelo’s Pietà—not to mention the countless Crucifixions painted by nearly every master from Giotto up to the 18th century, including such diverse artists as Rubens and Rembrandt, Velazquez and El Greco, Tintoretto and Titian, Delacroix and Poussin, and even Gauguin and Dali. So much, too, for St. Francis of Assisi. As Jaroslav Pelikan notes in Jesus Through the Centuries, the great focus of Francis’ devotion was the Passion, and Bonaventure wrote in his biography of Francis that “Christ hung upon his Cross, poor and naked and in great pain, and Francis wanted to be like him in everything.” It is a shame that such simpletons as Bach and Saint Francis did not have Lawrence Frizzell to show them the way.
Complaints about the violence of Gibson’s film suggest that the critics were simply ignorant both of the Western artistic tradition and of centuries of piety focused on the Passion, both of which have emphasized the physical nature of Christ’s sacrifice. As Jonathan Chaves has written, Gibson’s Christ was less battered than Matthias Grünewald’s in his renowned Isenheim Altarpiece, and nothing in Gibson’s film matched the bitter grief shown by Saint Mary and Saint John as they contemplate the crucified Jesus in Grüne-wald’s painting. Nothing in Gibson’s film, either, compares to the malevolence expressed by the faces surrounding Christ in Hieronymus Bosch’s Christ Carrying the Cross and Christ Crowned With Thorns.
Unlike his critics, Gibson was aware of the Western artistic tradition. He has spoken of his debt to such artists as Caravaggio, Mantegna, Masaccio, and Piero della Francesca. The result of Gibson’s study of other depictions of the Crucifixion was a film that was profoundly visual and evocative of Western art. As Chaves wrote,
The stations of the cross proceeded across the screen like a series of engravings or woodcuts by Albrecht Dürer or Martin Schongauer; or paintings by Duccio di Buoninsegna, Fra Angelico, Francisco de Zurbaran or Guido Reni; or wall paintings or icons on the iconostasis of any of the monastery churches at Mt. Athos.
The New York Times’ Daniel Wakin, writing on April 18, described Gilbert Fuentes, a visitor to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibit on Byzantine art who was inspired both to return to his faith and to visit the exhibit because of Gibson’s film: “It really touched me, the way [H]e suffered. It makes me want to research more of it.” Mr. Fuentes was particularly drawn to Venetian artist’s Michele Giambono’s The Man of Sorrows, painted around 1420-30, which he found, in a way, more powerful than the Gibson film: “You’re able to be one on one. You can stand here and meditate on it.”
The tradition uniting Giambono and Gibson remains a fruitful one because it ultimately leads back to the Gospels. By contrast, the best that can be said for the tradition embraced by Gibson’s academic critics—the historical-critical approach to the Bible—is that not everyone who is exposed to it automatically loses his faith. It is a sterile tradition, inspiring no one, creating no art, leading nowhere.
Gibson’s film is also a vindication of orthodox Christianity. Though condemned by a handful of liberal churchmen, it was warmly embraced by believers of all denominations. Significantly, all of the criticism of Gibson’s film came from countries where Christianity is either on the defensive or actually dying. In the Third World, where the Faith is growing, no one condemned it. Instead, it was embraced by the entire episcopate of the Philippines and the leading churchmen of Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, and South Africa. Gibson’s depiction of Christ was thoroughly orthodox. As Kenneth Woodward wrote in the New York Times, Gibson’s Jesus
doesn’t promote social causes. . . . He certainly doesn’t crusade against gender discrimination, as some feminists believe he did, nor does he teach that we all possess an inner divinity, as today’s nouveau Gnostics believe. One cannot imagine this Jesus joining a New Age sunrise Easter service overlooking the Pacific.
Those who prefer a New Age Jesus (or no Jesus at all) were shocked by Gibson’s film, which, for a moment, caused a welcome shift in our national discourse from endless chatter over such trivialities as Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” to matters of real importance. It is hard to imagine a film about any other historical figure having such an impact. Whether one believes in Him or not, Jesus remains the central figure in history. And Gibson’s depiction of His last hours will continue to be watched long after all of Gibson’s critics are forgotten and their efforts to deconstruct the Gospels have come to naught.