'You Can't Whitewash the Events of the Bible'

Mel Gibson's movie 'The Passion' is faithful to scripture, and that's why critics are angry, says a Bible scholar.

BY: Interview with Darrell Bock


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So this is what happened in the film?

This is what happened in the film, because this is what happened in the biblical story. I think it's what happened historically. There are Jewish historians who say that their leadership was responsible for the death of Jesus. Josephus wrote a very

famous passage in Antiquities

, in which he says the Jewish leadership shares blame for the death of Jesus.

Caiaphas and Pilate had an ongoing relationship. Pilate appointed a high priest every year, and every year he ruled for Rome, he appointed Caiaphas. It was a very close relationship.

Was that usual?

Caiaphas came from a family that had five different relatives over a three-decade period who were high priests. Caiaphas was high priest for 9 or 11 years out of that total. This family had a lot of power and a very good relationship with Rome.

Pilate also had a very sensitive relationship with Jews because twice he was insensitive to them. He put standards in the city of Jerusalem, little ensigns with the Roman eagle on them, which the Jews viewed as idols. When they reacted he removed them.

In one of the passages from Josephus, Pilate threatens to kill Jews who protest. They all lay down in front of him, saying that if he wanted to cut their heads off, he could go ahead. The story as Josephus tells us is that [Pilate] was so impressed with their devotion to the law that he backed off. There are two incidents of this in Pilate's rule.

And there's a third one that Philo, yet another Jewish historian, writes about. The Jews come in and say, "If you don't do what we want, we will write the emperor." And he doesn't do what they want, they do write to the emperor, and he's called back to Rome. Of course, by the time he gets back there, the emperor has died, so he's spared. But the point is, the claim in the [USCCB scholars'] work that the Jewish leadership could not influence Pilate is false, according to ancient Jewish writers.

There are several points about which the scholars have challenged the film. One is the use of Latin by the Romans-in that, the scholars are almost certainly correct.The language would have likely been Greek, and the everyday street language would have been Aramaic. Although I think in terms of the substance of the film, it doesn't make much difference. It's the feel of the foreignness that artistically drives this film. So that didn't bother me that much. If I'd been asked, I would have told them to use Greek, but in terms of what the film is doing visually and conceptually, that's a minor detail.

The other thing was the gathering in the evening in the Temple. That wasn't the location of the meeting where the Jewish examination of Jesus happened. The Gospel accounts have them meeting initially in the house of the high priest of the family of Annas and Caiaphas. But whether there was a larger meeting in another location--that's possible--because there were a series of meetings portrayed on the last evening.

In the gospels?

In the gospels, yes. When you string everything together, all four accounts, there are as many as six. There's debate on the meeting with the Jews at which they finally get the charge, because the time is in the evening in a couple gospel accounts, and in the morning in Luke. There are debates about whether there were two separate meetings, an inquiry and then the more official one, or whether there was just one meeting that stretched from evening into morning.

What do you think happened, based on your research?

I think it could well be one meeting. Some scholars will play those two facts against one another, saying that since we have an irreconcilable contradiction, we really don't know what happened. But I think the likelihood of knowing what happened at this meeting is pretty good. Although we only get one side of the debate in the New Testament, in the public square at the time, there certainly would have been a Jewish position as to why Jesus would have been crucified.

This was part of an ongoing debate. Annas the Second, who was a member of Caiaphas' family, in the 60s C.E. executes James, Jesus' brother. It's a three-decade-long family feud. There's a long history and a long debate. These facts would have been known even if-and the more skeptical scholars point this out--there weren't any disciples at the scene. Another contributing fact is that you may have had some members of the leadership at the scene who may have become Christians afterward, someone like Paul. In all likelihood, this trial scene wouldn't have taken place in the temple and would not have involved a crowd.

So you did see that as an inaccuracy?

Again, the question is how much does this affect the substance of the film. I don't think it does so significantly.

Even though it's in the temple?

Even though it's in the temple, because the ultimate decision is made in the public square, where Pilate is interacting with the leadership, and that's a very biblically-grounded scene.

The other thing to appreciate about the movement of these events in the gospels is that we move from a situation in which the Jewish leadership determines that they're going to take Jesus to Pilate and present the case for Pilate's examination, and then it's in


exchange between Pilate and the leadership that the actual decision about crucifying Jesus is formally made.

That means Rome is technically responsible for the death of Jesus through Pilate, but it also means that in the historical background, part of what was driving Rome to act was the sensitivity that Jesus' presence was creating for the Jewish leadership. One of the scenes we're not told about in the movie is Jesus' cleansing of the temple. But that is the background of what took place in the movie. The temple cleansing would have been very disturbing to the Jewish leadership. The Sadducees had authority for that temple.

Is the temple-cleansing scene in all four gospels?

In all the synoptic Gospels, it's in the last week [of Jesus' life]. It's very early in the Gospel of John. The Sadducees had responsibility for keeping peace in the temple. They would also have been sensitive because any uprising in the temple that they couldn't control, the Romans would definitely come in and take control, take over.

It would have made sense to include that in the movie.

I don't remember it being in the film, though I did walk out for 5 minutes. There are certain things that are not in the movie that could have been that would have made it even more sensitive for Jewish people. The famous saying in Matthew, "May his blood be upon our generation," is not in the movie. The scene where the Jewish leadership argues with Pilate about the placard that goes above Jesus [on the cross], "Jesus, King of the Jews," is not in there-at least in the cut that we saw.

I've made a mental note of the passages that have a history behind them, and I've said to myself, "That's not there, and that's not there." You haven't heard that mentioned by the people who are complaining about the movie.

So the issues you raised were the use of Latin vs. Greek and the trial scene in the temple. Any others?

I raised-informally--five scenes. It's difficult to talk about this without undercutting the power of the movie, but there's a scene involving an exchange of a glance between Judas and Jesus that has an element of violence. The glance sets up the crucifixion, but that doesn't have a biblical [basis]. I'm trying to be vague without giving the whole thing away.

There's a scene in which one of the thieves on the cross is punished through nature, if you will, for mocking Jesus. That's not biblical.

There's a scene during which the cross is set up for the crucifixion. It's very vivid, but it doesn't have a biblical detail connected to it. It has to do with the way in which Jesus is placed on the cross, and something that happens in the midst of that process.

I would raise questions about those five points. Having said that, I don't think any of these points significantly undercuts the biblical core of the film.

The debate is not about the film. It's a debate about the biblical portrait of these events. The film places the blame on a conspiracy of sorts --the Jewish leadership's influence leading Pilate to make the decision. The Romans actually come out as far more brutal.

Is it historically accurate that Romans at that time would have whipped a man that much?

Yes. Ancient writers talk about how gruesome a death crucifixion is, how brutal it is. It's so brutal that Roman citizens are not allowed to experience it. There's a tradition that has the whipping of at least 39 lashes beforehand-leather whips with steel-tipped points. You're not only whipped, you get a wrapping effect-a pull.

Would the Romans have actually come up with something like a crown of thorns?

Some things are traditionally associated with crucifixion. Other things may have been the result of peculiar circumstances. With Jesus, you're getting a crown of thorns as mocking. I don't think it's out of character for the Romans. Part of the point of the exercise was to make an example of the person.

The example would be "Don't come in and cleanse the temple"?

Yes, and "Don't disturb the peace in this way. We will stop you."

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