There’s Never Been a ‘Passion’ for the Truth

James Shapiro is author of "Oberammergau: The Troubling Story of the World's Most Famous Passion Play" (Vintage, 2001). He teaches literature at Columbia University.

The pope’s reported verdict on Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” -- “It is as it was” -- is what admirers have been saying about every Passion play since the first one was performed in the 12th century.

Though the story line, language, motivation and even the cast of characters have changed over the years, the one constant is that every audience believes that the Passion story they are watching captures exactly what happened to Jesus.

But how does the pope, Gibson or anyone else know how “it was”? After all, our main sources for Jesus’ final days are the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke and John. Writing a generation or so after the death of Jesus, the evangelists didn’t witness these events, their accounts differ and they fail to provide crucial details.

Gibson has said that in making this film he was moved by the Holy Ghost and did little more than direct traffic. But like any Hollywood director confronted with four scripts of a well-known story, he had to do a lot of editing. And he had to go beyond what Scripture says.


The film’s trailer, for example, shows the familiar image of Jesus, his torso bare, his head leaning to one side, his body slightly twisted, bleeding from multiple wounds. But the evangelists provide none of these details. All they say is “they fastened him to a cross.” (They don’t even say who did the fastening, or how.)

In reality, this image of Jesus on the cross comes from the detailed Passion treatises of the 12th through 15th centuries, written to help the pious visualize the events at Calvary. It’s hard to underestimate the effect these books had on the paintings, sculpture and dramatic renderings of the Passion in the centuries that followed. What their writers imagined, we now imagine. These stories were compiled at a time when Jews were regularly accused of poisoning wells and committing ritual murder, so it’s no surprise they demonized Jews. But the Passion plays that the stories inspired didn’t at first make Jews Jesus’ main antagonist. Through the late medieval and Renaissance periods, and as late as the 18th century, Satan was the enemy. But by the 19th century, with the rise of realism (and the Catholic Church’s growing displeasure with seeing ribald devils onstage), bloodthirsty and money-grubbing Jews took over in the role, with Pontius Pilate, in this streamlined version, becoming something of a hero.

The script now had to follow Mark and Matthew, in which the chief Jewish priests mock Jesus, rather than Luke and John, in which they don’t. But then it had to veer back to Luke and John for Pilate to insist that Jesus had committed no crime, something Mark and Matthew never claim. A line that only appears in Matthew -- the famous blood curse, where the Jews, in accepting responsibility for the death of Jesus, cry out, “His blood upon us and upon our children” -- became the centerpiece of 19th century interpretations.

But even when edited selectively, the Gospels didn’t go quite far enough in providing a relentless and incriminating story of Jewish perfidy. So 19th century directors turned to ideas offered by the likes of Sister Anne Catherine Emmerich (1774-1824), whose ecstatic visions offered damning and dramatically satisfying details nowhere mentioned in Scripture, such as the notion that the Jewish high priests passed out bribes and that the cross was built in the Temple. (Emmerich’s influence on Gibson was at first acknowledged, then hastily denied.)

The new story line dominated stage and screen Passions (one of the earliest films ever made was of this Passion) right up to, and even after, the Holocaust. It was an interpretation that Adolf Hitler singled out for praise when he attended a performance in Oberammergau, Germany, where Passion plays have been performed continuously since the 1600s. He applauded the way the Oberammergau Pilate stood out “like a firm, clean rock in the middle of the whole muck and mire of Jewry.”

Then, in 1965, came Vatican II, which rewrote the Catholic Church’s position on how the Passion narrative could be told. No longer could the Jews be considered Christ killers, collectively and in perpetuity. Still, change was slow. It was only in 2000, for example, that Oberammergau eliminated the blood curse from its script and showed some Jews defending Jesus. Even so, its 19th century-inflected story line remains disturbing for Jewish spectators.

In interviews, Gibson has said that he wanted the blood curse in his film, that “it happened, it was said.” The scene was shot and then cut, perhaps less because of how Jews would respond than because it so flagrantly defied Church doctrine. After the papal viewing, however, in a screening this week in Florida, the words from Matthew were back in place.

Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” is set to open in more than 2000 theaters nationwide Feb. 25, Ash Wednesday. Whatever version makes the final cut, one thing is sure: It won’t be the gospel truth.