Is Gibson's Passion Plausible?
David H. Lewis
Few recent films can have been so reviewed and chewed over as Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ and though its unrelenting violence has been endlessly discussed, virtually no one, worldwide, seems to have seriously examined its accuracy and even the Pope himself is reputed to have accepted "that was how it was." However when we examine the film in the light of mainstream modern theology a very different picture emerges indeed.
Gibson has drawn his picture of the Passion by "cherry picking" incidents exclusively from the four gospels and has completely ignored all the earlier evidence from Paul and others who were eyewitnesses to the genesis of Christianity. This is the fatal flaw in his approach because modern theology now recognizes that the gospels were not eyewitness accounts written by companions of Jesus, but essentially just copies and expansions of so-called Mark written very late in the first century outside of Palestine. So, far from being four independent, mutually supportive eyewitness accounts, as traditionally believed, the gospels derive from just one main source -- Mark. Even their familiar names are what have been called, "second century guesses" for they were all originally anonymous documents. Gibson appears to be blissfully unaware of all this erosion of the gospel's credibility and treats them as, well, gospel! Worse still, he evidently has absolutely no idea that certain gospel incidents in his film (e.g. the famous woman-taken-in-adultery story and the words, "Father forgive them, etc") are not in the earliest Bible manuscripts so must have been invented centuries later.
The proper historical approach to any figure of antiquity is to start at the beginning and follow the evidence chronologically as it unfolds. By being sucked into the gravitational pull of the gospels Gibson has entirely ignored the earliest eyewitness evidence and picked up the story a long way along the continuum: A story that has become legendary, contradictory and derives mainly from hearsay in so called Mark.
Even so, one or two inaccuracies and contradictions might not matter too much if the whole story could be substantiated by the earlier independent, eyewitness evidence. However if we do consult the extensive writings of the very earliest Christians (Paul, Hebrews, Ephesians, James, 1 Peter, 1,2 & 3 John, 2 Thessalonians and Revelations) we will be astonished to find that nothing in their extensive, independent, eyewitness testimony corroborates any of the famous gospel stories we take for granted. These earliest Christians know of no Virgin Mary, Bethlehem or a Star; They mention no disciples, miracles, parables or even any ethics of Jesus: And most significantly, in this context, they know nothing of the Temple cleansing, Gethsemane, a betrayal, arrest, trial or scourging: Nothing of Pilate, Herod or Caiaphas and absolutely no details of the crucifixion -- not even that it supposedly occurred in Jerusalem!
The Jewish historians of the time, Josephus and Justus of Tiberias are equally unhelpful and know nothing of any of these events either -- and they both came from Galilee!
What we can learn of the beliefs of these original Christians is they believed Jesus had once lived at some unknown time and place; that nothing was known of his earthly existence except that it was led in utter obscurity and humility (in complete contrast to the very public demonstrations of his power in the gospels); and that his entire importance flowed from his crucifixion and resurrection (both in completely unspecified circumstances) which had been engineered, Paul believed, by "evil angels". Only at his resurrection did he defeat the power of these evil spirits and his reappearances (possibly centuries after his resurrection) signaled to the first Christians the imminent end of the world -- which hasn't yet happened!
This is the consistent multiple eyewitness evidence of all the early Christians like Paul as opposed to the lone hearsay witness of Mark who wrote so much later. Of all this vital early evidence, Gibson is profoundly ignorant and he shoots his film as if it simply didn't exist!
Another powerful reason to question Gibson's view of events is this: If Jesus was really so troublesome as to warrant execution by the Romans it is impossible that his disciples would have been allowed to continue his work in the very city he was supposedly executed. It would be like Al Qaida setting up shop in New York! Yet Paul reports decades of continuing contacts with Jerusalem Christians obviously quite at peace with the authorities. This would be impossible for followers of "the King of the Jews" but if these early Christians followed the vague spiritual Jesus Paul preached, their activities would have been a matter of complete indifference to the authorities.
Thus people who are sickened and affronted by the unrelenting violence of Gibson's gruesome film may take comfort that the evidence strongly suggests none of it ever actually occurred.
Hervey Bay, Queensland, Australia
The author teaches Ancient history.