Gospel Truth

On March 11, Riccardo Di Segni, the chief rabbi of Rome, called for the Vatican to condemn Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ as anti-Semitic. According to the Zenit news agency, papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Vails responded, "the film is a cinematographic transcription of the Gospels. If it were anti-Semitic, the Gospels would also be so."

Rome, apparently, has spoken. But that is not quite the end of the story. The Passion does not rely exclusively on the Gospels. The movie contains many scenes either not found in gospel accounts, or biblical scenes embellished by (or simply lifted from) extrabiblical sources. For one, it draws heavily from The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ, which records the visions of nineteenth-century German religious Anne Catherine of Emmerich. Her account is extrabiblical with a passion.

When Jesus is brought before Pilate, Emmerich’s vision imagines that Pilate "saw the tumultuous procession enter, and perceived how shamefully the cruel Jews had treated their prisoner." Then, according to Emmerich, Pilate "arose, and addressed them...’Why have you ill-treated this prisoner so shamefully? Is it not possible to refrain from thus tearing to pieces and beginning to execute your criminals even before they are judged?’" Similarly, in Gibson’s film, Pilate remarks, "Do you always beat your prisoners before they are judged?"

Other Emmerich epithets include: "the hard-hearted Jews"; "the ungrateful Jews"; "their cruel breasts"; "their barbarity"; and so on. When Jesus returns to Pilate after the scourging, Emmerich reports: "His body was entirely covered with black, blue, and red marks; the blood was trickling down...and yet the furious cries which issued from among the assembled Jews showed that their cruelty was far from being satiated." Gibson’s Jesus is "entirely covered" with lacerations, and the camera pays much attention to the "trickling down" of his blood. After Pilate sentences Jesus, Emmerich has "the cruel Jews almost devouring their victim with their eyes." The scowls of many Jews attending Jesus’ sentencing in The Passion approximate Emmerich’s description.

Much has been made of Satan’s depiction in the movie. Some have wondered about the implications of the scene in which the Devil moves among the crowd of Jews at the scourging. Emmerich: "I see numerous devils among the crowd, exciting and encouraging the Jews, whispering in their ears, entering their mouths, inciting them still more against Jesus."

Navarro-Vails is wrong; Gibson’s Passion is not a transcription of the Gospels. In fact, in parts the film transcribes more faithfully the visions of a mystic who had thoroughly imbibed the prejudices of her time. Rabbi Di Segni has a point.

Published in the 2004-03-26 issue: 
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