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Meditation 157
Mel Gibson's Passion

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For a post-release follow-up, see Meditation 191.

Every so often, a film comes along with a religious theme, and inevitably there are protests.

I wrote on this issue previously in Meditation 4 - The Church and the Movies, when Kevin Smith's Dogma was near release. There were all sorts of protests against this film for sacrilege. There were similar protests years earlier for the supposed sacrilege in Monty Python's Life of Brian, and later for the same reasons, against Martin Scorsese's Last Temptation of Christ.

Now another film is being prepared for release and it too is the recipient of protests. This time, however, the focus of the film is not sacrilege, but that the film is too accurate. This is Mel Gibson's Passion which deals with the last 12 hours of Christ's life. He claims the film is an authentic representation.

The film is claimed to be based on the Gospel according to John, and the protests are that the film is anti-Semitic. Give that the Gospel according to John[1] is considered the most anti-Semitic of the four Gospels, perhaps the protests have a basis in fact.

More to the point of anti-Semitism, is that Gibson has gone beyond the Book of John in developing the script for his film. Apparently he has relied extensively for details on "The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ" by Sister Anne Catherine Emmerich (1774 - 1824,) a German nun. This book is based on her visions during a state of ecstasy, visions probably induced by the fact she was eating nothing except the wafers received during Communion. And this book is decidedly anti-Semitic in placing blame for the Crucifixion upon the Jews, all Jews, for all time.

Is Gibson really at fault here? Blaming the Jews for the death of Christ was until very recently the official policy of the Catholic Church. And Gibson belongs to the traditionalist wing of the Church which rejects every change in policy and every Pope since Vatican II. And it's not just the Catholics. Many fundamentalist Protestant denominations are still anti-Semitic. So if Gibson's film is anti-Semitic, it is only because he is projecting a truth about his own religion.

Interestingly, Gibson makes the claim of authenticity not just because of his sources, but because the spoken parts are in Aramaic, except for the Romans who speak Latin. By using the visions of a 19th Century German nun, I suggest he has lost any claim to authenticity of source. Does use of ancient languages add to authenticity?

As the earliest known versions of the Gospels were in Greek (and the nun wrote in German,) any dialogue in another language is a translation. Perhaps the original words were spoken in Aramaic, but those words are lost. There is no guarantee that translation of the Greek words will yield the original Aramaic words, or even original intent.[2] As for the Romans speaking Latin, this is historically inaccurate. The official language of the eastern part of the Roman Empire was Greek. That is what Pontius Pilate would have spoken on official occasions. As for the common Roman soldiers, it is impossible to know for sure what they spoke amongst themselves. As mercenaries from all over the Empire, they could have spoken any of a hundred languages between each other, though in all probability it was Greek.

So Mel Gibson fails the test of authenticity, both on his source and on language. But that doesn't matter. There's no proof any of the four gospels are authentic; nor is there evidence that any version of Christ's last hours is true.


  1. The major issue of anti-Semitism in John is the fairly consistent use of "the Jews" to refer to the high priests. Thus the actions of the few are attributed to all.
  2. For a somewhat simplistic exercise, translate this page into another language, then translate it back into English using a different translator. Ideally you would use two humans for this, but who wants to spend the money. Translate it one way using Free Translation, and the other way using Babel Fish. I fully expect the resulting text will be different from the original.