Christopher Hitchens reviews for Vanity Fair Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ"

For his controversial film, The Passion of the Christ, which seeks to convey the true horror of Christ’s torture and death, Mel Gibson has been charged with anti-Semitism.
But, the author argues, neither Jews nor Christians have confronted the full implications of the director’s illogical, ignorant, and brutal vision.

by Christopher Hitchens

But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.
— ISAIAH 53:5

But I can’t think for you. You’ll have to decide whether Judas Iscariot had God on his side.

’e’s not the Messiah! ’e’s a very naughty boy!

One must concede this much to Mel Gibson, who has invested $25 million of his own money to direct, produce, and co-write The Passion of the Christ: a movie (due in theaters February 25, Ash Wednesday) that purports to show what the last twelve hours in the life of Jesus were truly like. Most representations of the Crucifixion are softly devotional and sentimental, showing a patient and mournful-looking young man in a highly uncomfortable position. The large majority show him in a loincloth, though this detail in other religious painting and iconography does not always conceal what you might suppose. (It was often put there by devout illustrators to conceal the subject’s navel: a far more awkward physical feature from their point of view because it invited unsettling questions about what sort of birth he had had.) Only Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece (1515) shows us unsparingly what a man might look like in the expiring stages of a protracted death by torture, and even then the clear biblical evidence that Jesus was exposed naked on the Cross was considered too much for mortals to bear.
Gibson keeps the rag of decency in place but otherwise goes way beyond what has so far been attempted in painting, sculpture, and film. We are shown someone being flogged to ribbons, kicked and beaten, reviled and humiliated, before being brutally hammered into place on a beam and left to die of exposure and slow asphyxiation. I don’t know which sources Gibson consulted for this graphic exercise: Hyam Maccoby’s history Revolution in Judaea contains the best account known to me of the details of Roman capital punishment. That book’s dispassionate tone makes it, if anything, somewhat harder to read. The horror and the terror of crucifixion were not reserved just for religious zealots. Thousands of the followers of the Thracian gladiator Spartacus went the same way, and Howard Fast’s novel Spartacus contains this reflection:

Once, long after this time, a Roman slave was placed upon the cross, and after he had hung there for twenty-four hours, he was pardoned by the emperor himself, and somehow he lived. He wrote an account of what he had felt on the cross, and the most striking thing about his account was what he had to say on the question of time. “On the cross,” he said, “there are only two things, pain and eternity. They tell me that I was on the cross only twenty-four hours, but I was on the cross longer than the world has existed. If there is no time, then every moment is forever.”

“Pain and eternity.” Gibson’s film is fascinated with the first, to an almost lingering and lascivious degree, but it is unsubtly angled toward the second. To illustrate what I mean, let me pose a question. The reaction of a morally normal human being, on witnessing a sadistic episode in progress, is to intervene to stop it. Does Gibson intend us to hope for this, even as he shows us the extremes of anguish? (We use the word “excruciating” for a good reason.) Of course he does not. One has to positively want it to go on and on, all the way, every cut of the lash and every bloody footprint and every rusty nail, until the very bitterest end. At least one has to desire this if one believes in the film’s “agenda”—which is a clumsy, melodramatic attempt at the vindication of biblical literalism.

How do we know that we ought not to interrupt the Roman butchers or their rabbinical Jewish allies? According to the film’s bannering of the verse from Isaiah above, even though that very verse is couched mainly in the past tense, we must still quench our natural compassion because this atrocity was foretold. It is prophesied and so it must be fulfilled. From the opening passages of the first New Testament Gospel (the Gospel according to Matthew) the story of the life of Jesus is interspersed with verses like this one: “Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet” (Matthew 1:22). In other words, those who were composing the Gospels were simultaneously checking off the conditions for the manifestation of something inevitable and inescapable. And they also knew how the story must end, because that terminus was divinely mandated. In still other words, this man was killed—if we accept the story—by nobody but his father. He went to Jerusalem to die, and for no other reason but to keep that unpostponable appointment. All the human actors in the drama were playing roles previously allotted to them by heaven: no “responsibility” in its true or usual sense can attach to anyone.

This clear reading of the legend has been obscured for many years by Verses 10–11 of Chapter 19 of the Gospel according to John:

Then saith Pilate unto him, Speakest thou not unto me? Knowest thou not that I have power to crucify thee, and have power to release thee?

Jesus answered, Thou couldest have had no power at all against me, except it were given thee from above: therefore he that delivered me unto thee hath the greater sin.

Unscrupulously employed, this highly ambiguous verse—ambiguous because it’s by no means plain who has done the “delivering”—has caused the most appalling harm. For many centuries, Jews living in Christian societies were well advised to stay indoors at Easter time because violent sermons were preached that blamed them in perpetuity for deicide, or awarded them the collective responsibility for the murder of “the Christ.” (In Greek, this is another word for “the Messiah,” whose first, not second, coming many Jews are still grimly awaiting.) Pogroms and lynchings were incited in the name of Christianity, and vulgar spectacles such as the famous Passion play at Oberammergau, in Bavaria, depicted Jews as sinister, homicidal conspirators. It was not until the time of Pope John XXIII and the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, in the 1960s, that the Roman Catholic Church explicitly repudiated the “Christ-killer” slur against the Jewish people. That’s a long time to wait when you remember that Rome’s own theology, and almost every other verse of the four Gospels, makes God the Father the true author and designer of the Crucifixion.

Mel Gibson is an odd man, and has been getting odder. In Signs, which would be on any list of the ten worst films of the past decade, he played an ex-priest who recovers his faith after seeing little green men. More recently, and fired up by the directorial itch, he restricted the pre-release screenings of his movie to selected groups of Christian and Jewish conservatives. This didn’t always immunize him from criticism. At a showing in Washington, D.C., there was a searching question from a conservative Episcopalian. Why, this man wanted to know, had the film made so much of the subtitled and notorious words from Saint John quoted above, while, to drive the point home for the uninstructed, the camera had been dwelling on the face of the Jewish high priest Caiaphas? Gibson jumped excitedly from his front-row seat and said, “It’s in the Bible! Who here didn’t know it was in the Bible?” Gibson appears to believe, from the many interviews he has given, that the Gospels were written by eyewitnesses and that this is all the research he needs. It may come as a shock to him to find that the Gospels were composed a long time afterward, by many hands, and in Greek, and that biblical literalism would have to mean that Jesus’s own disciples were not strictly Christian since (a) they could not read and (b) they could not in any case have read the New Testament. Then we have Saint Matthew’s account of the Crucifixion, where at the moment of death there was a terrible earthquake, a rending of the veil in the Jewish temple, “and the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose, and came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many.” These rather conspicuous events, which among other things would seem to make resurrection something of a commonplace, were entirely missed by Saint John, or at any rate unreported by him, and appear not at all in the only written historical record, which was by Flavius Josephus. Nor are they all shown in The Passion of the Christ, even though they are “in the Bible.”

But many things are “in the Bible,” and one can tell a good deal from what people choose to select. In this film, James Caviezel has been picked to play a heartthrob Jesus (no evidence at all for that, except in the ancient text of Jesus Christ Superstar), and he doesn’t shriek or beg or defecate during his martyrdom, which means that for all the special harrowing whipping-and-nailing effects the thing is only pseudo-realistic. In Cecil B. DeMille’s King of Kings also, the Jews came off badly, and by the time of The Greatest Story Ever Told, John Wayne could assume the part of a Roman centurion. (Cued to say, “Truly this man was the Son of God,” and told to “try it with a little more awe,” the Duke pulled himself together and said, “Aw, truly this man was the Son of God.”) In this fluctuation of sinister bad taste and kitsch good taste (of which Life of Brian is the undoubted moral summit), where does Mel rank?

Comes the question: Did Gibson know, or not know, what he was doing with his evocation of John 19:10–11? His father is a renowned Catholic-extremist crackpot who speculates wildly about the untruth of the Holocaust and who believes that the current Pope is a heretic and a “Koran kisser,” but at least the Bible teaches us to be wary of blaming sons for the sins of their papas. However, Gibson himself is a financial angel to a Catholic splinter group that rejects the Second Vatican Council and employs only the Latin Mass. He has even built a church for this sect, conveniently located for the many sinners near Malibu. And he tells us that the sources for his script were the New Testament (presumably in English, into which it wasn’t translated until a few hundred years ago) and the later work of two nuns. The first of these women, Mary of Agreda, was a figure in seventeenth-century Spain who wrote that the Jewish culpability for the murder of Jesus “descended to their posterity and even to this day continue(s) to afflict this group with horrible impurities.” The second, Anne Catherine Emmerich, is better known. She was a nineteenth-century German, one of those who brooded for so long and so morbidly on the Crucifixion that she claimed to have received the stigmata—the bloody wounds in hands and feet that are for some people the sign of the true devotee. She also told of a vision in which she saved an old Jewish lady from purgatory. This woman had “confessed” that Jews would slaughter Christian children and use their infant gore to thicken the Passover matzo. This “blood libel,” an even more depraved allegation than the Christ-killing one, was a powerful toxin in medieval demagogy and was later much exploited by the Nazis. You can look it up today on the Web sites of jihad. The Syrian defense minister, Mustafa Tlas, has authored a vile book entitled The Matzo of Zion, repeating the “charge.”

The lacerating detail in which the torture of Jesus is portrayed in the film, it seems to me, is a way of diverting attention from these alarming elements of reactionary propaganda. It isn’t all that hard to upset Jews, as Gibson must have known he would, and it’s even possible to suspect him of doing so in order to create a climate of emotional publicity. I don’t know if that’s worse than his attachment to crude theocratic dogma. Some sequences in the movie may have been toned down as a result of criticism from Jewish sources, and this might turn out to be the worst outcome of all. There are many people—check out a fan Web site for The Passion of the Christ if you don’t believe me—who would like nothing better than to say that the Jews got to Mel. He has hinted something of the sort himself, in a thuggish attack on Frank Rich of the New York Times (“I want to kill him. I want his intestines on a stick . . . I want to kill his dog”). Gibson has also said that “modern secular Judaism wants to blame the Holocaust on the Catholic Church” and that with the Caiaphas scene “they’d be coming after me at my house, they’d come kill me.” Mel’s people bragged that the Pope himself had endorsed the film—a claim that the Vatican now disowns. Maybe the Jews got to His Holiness as well? Perhaps such paranoia is Gibson’s excuse for announcing that The Passion was really directed by “the Holy Ghost”: what Jewish mob would dare to take revenge on that authority?

But the one-note chorus of official American Jewry has been yet another depressing aspect of this “row.” Remember—the Vatican now fully concedes that the death of Jesus cannot be laid at the door of all Jews in subsequent ages. That’s no more than common sense, even if it did take centuries to assert itself. But nobody can claim that the Jewish clerical hierarchy in Judea at the time did not desire that this rabble-rouser be put to death. On that point, at least, all the supposed Gospel accounts concur. And the greatest Semitic sage of all, Maimonides, was later to write that the Jewish high priests had done exactly the right thing in defense of their faith. Jesus had plagiarized much Jewish learning and teaching and claimed it as his own, had practiced sorcery and magic by claiming to heal the sick and by such tricks as making the spirits of devils enter into the bodies of swine, and had made the further and fantastic claim that he was the Messiah, or Son of God. No more appalling heresy could be imagined, and the Jewish punishment for heresy was every bit as absolute as that of any other monotheistic sect. Their religious authorities, however, did not then have the power of crucifixion, so they left that task to the Roman occupiers. By its own narrow and fanatical standards, the Sanhedrin was quite right to do so, just as the Christian authorities were acting consistently when they used the whip and the pyre and the rack and the wheel on millions and millions of non-Christians and heretical Christians in the years thereafter. (Rome was merciful compared with the Crusades and the Inquisition and the conquistadores, though I don’t think a Gibson epic on any of these is ever likely to be made. He prefers anti-English crowd-pleasers, such as Gallipoli and Braveheart and, even lower, The Patriot.) If Christian orthodoxy is valid, then Judaism is futile: a pointless hanging-about for the arrival of the Messiah, who has already shown up. Why not just admit this, instead of whining with Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League about negative stereotypes and all the rest of the self-pitying babble? If the Jewish leadership had any guts, it would turn on those who taunt it with “Christ-killing” and say, “Yeah, all right, since you keep mentioning it, we did you a favor. Judas too. Where would your faith be without us?” This would have the effect, however, of giving away the open secret that religion is man-made. For some reason, we are assumed to need protection from such a revelation.

It makes no difference at all that Jesus himself was “ethnically” Jewish. (In the movie he is sometimes even laughably called “rabbi.”) Nor does it make any difference that he spoke Aramaic rather than Hebrew. The Jewish prayer for the dead, the Kaddish, is still recited in Aramaic, as is the Kol Nidre, the prayer said on the eve of Yom Kippur. I have also heard Aramaic spoken by Maronite Catholics on Cyprus and by Syrian Muslims outside Damascus. Roman soldiers would have spoken a dialect of Greek rather than Latin, so Gibson’s use of and misuse of ancient tongues is a further layer of mystification.

The “truth” is that religious Christians and Jews could still both be wrong. Jerusalem may not be a “holy city” at all, but just an archaeological site that inspires bad behavior. There could be an afterlife and no god, or a god and no afterlife. Even an alleged resurrection doesn’t prove, in itself, that the teachings of the resurrected one are true. (Think of the random resurrections in Matthew 27:52–53.) Miracles prove nothing on their own; Pharaoh’s magicians could perform them with ease, or so the Bible says. Most of all: stop and ask yourself seriously why the church took nearly two millennia of human time before it would admit the obvious—that people not alive in those days could not be implicated in a first-century execution. Now, how and why could this concession possibly have taken so long, and been made so reluctantly? Quite simply because, if the Jews are not implicated in those events, then why should anyone else be? And if succeeding generations cannot be bound by a quasi-mythical account of a ritual killing, then the entire business collapses. This is why Catholic fundamentalists like Gibson cannot bring themselves to leave the Jews out of it. Small revisions lead to larger ones: there’s no such thing as being a little bit heretical. Thank god for that, at least.

Vanity Fair, March 2004


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