'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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When there was invented dialogue-such as Pilate speaking with his wife-did it ring true?

All you get in Matthew is the summary that she had this dream and she told Pilate not to do anything to Jesus. Here's how I'm trying to evaluate the film: 1) Is this coming directly from the Bible? 2) Is this filling in something the Bible suggests but doesn't give us a lot of detail, and does the fill-in match the direction and tone of the Bible? Generally speaking, the answer is yes.

There are four or five snippets in two hours of film, probably not equaling two minutes of the entire thing.

You've been an eloquent defender of the film. Given what's going on in the world-such as the clash between Islam and the West--does it make sense to produce a film like this now?

The protest is skewing and framing the way in which people will see the film. People are viewing it as a Jewish-Christian statement. That's not the film. At no point in the entire time when I was watching the film was I getting angry at what people were doing to Jesus. The reaction I had watching the film was this suffering he's going through is terrible--but I also understood, seen theologically, that the reason he was suffering was because of a problem humanity had. Not because of a problem Jews or Romans had, but because of a problem humanity had.

Did the film frame it that way theologically?

The film is so focused on what Jesus is going through, with the cause of it coming from such a variety of angles. If you think through who the "bad guys" are in the film-if you want to put it in those terms-the Jewish leadership to a degree are the bad guys, the Romans are certainly the bad guys, but the major bad guy figure is this lurking devil in the background, who at key points shows up. This is a theologically-framed statement of what the gospels are about: a huge conflict between God and the forces of evil, in which Jesus was in the vortex, and got crucified in the process. He did it on our behalf.

It's a film that is pro-humanity. It's a film about forgiveness, about what God did through Jesus.

One viewer suggested that if you didn't know much about Christianity or Jesus-the backstory, Jesus' preaching and healing-the movie might give you a weird impression of the religion, as if it's all about Jesus getting beaten up.

Conceivably--although I don't think that's how people will react to the film. They will see the story and will ask the question, "What got us to this point?"

The subject of the film is what Jesus goes through, not who did it to him. In saying that, it causes us to think through "Why has this man's story had such an impact on our culture and history?" This story is a very important part of that overall impact. The film does go through to the resurrection. There's a five-minute stretch at the end: it has a stone rolled away, an empty tomb.

So you didn't think there's so much emphasis on violence that it masks the other things Jesus stands for?

It's a very violent death. The film can't get away from the violence-it's in the nature of the event. Having said that, the judgment about when you've portrayed enough to make the point-I don't think I have enough artistic experience to make that judgment, other than to say that the overall power of what is portrayed comes across very effectively.

It's about Jesus' suffering, not just about Jesus, and the nature of that suffering is part of the story. The Bible, generally speaking, doesn't spend a lot of time talking about the details, but I think that's in part because most of the people who read those accounts knew what crucifixion was. They knew the details.

How was money handled in the movie?

You had the scene where Judas agreed to betray Jesus, and there's the scene where Jesus throws the money back at the priests. That's biblical, in Matthew.

There's another scene in which some Jewish soldiers, at the instruction of the high priest, bribe some people to come out against Jesus. That's not so explicitly biblical. I'm being careful here, because there is discussion in the gospels about the Jews persuading the crowd to speak against Jesus, but they don't say how they did it. Some people who've commented on the film have noted that scene.

Were any Jewish leaders presented in positive light? Did Joseph of Arimathea make an appearance?

I don't think you see Joseph of Arimathea laying Jesus in the tomb. [The broader question] is being discussed, and I don't know quite where that stands. The latest discussion I heard was that they were working their way through the film again to see how much the balance is between what you might call the sympathetic Jewish characters, who are sensitive to what Jesus is going through, and those who are hostile to him. I don't know where that stands.

What all this shows is that there is a terrific sensitivity on the part of the people making the film to do so in a responsible way without giving up the fundamental premise, which is to present this biblical portrait of the Passion. Here's the problem: if you don't create a film based on the biblical portrait of the Passion, what kind of portrait are you going to present? And would that kind of portrayal reflect the essence of Christianity? The answer to that question is no. You can try to reconstruct this as best you want; you might hand the script over to a group of scholars and let them hammer away at it and see what you get. If you tried to place all the blame on Pilate, I would write a report saying that would have been historically inaccurate.

What's your take on the issue of what this now does for relations between evangelicals and Jews? Ted Haggard, the president of the National Association of Evangelicals, has been critical of the hullabaloo, saying we should really be worried over other things.

He's basically correct. I also think there's a cultural question about how we have these discussions across religious traditions. I think we're much better off having frank discussions about where our differences are.

There's a kind of tolerance that our culture elevates because it fears religious conflict. But at the same time, this tolerance can create misunderstanding, because when we talk about tolerance all the time, it makes it hard for people of different religions to understand why a particular issue means so much to different people--and why we get into the conflicts we do. I don't see anything wrong with sitting down at a table and talking. If a Jewish person were to say to me, "What you believe about Jesus is blasphemous, because there's only one God," I could accept that because I understand where he's coming from. I'm not offended.

Just as if I were to say to him, "I really think Jesus died for the sins of all people and I think there's story about the compassion and forgiveness of God that was preached to Jews and that Jesus wanted Jews to understand as well." I don't think that message is anti-Semitic. To say that God vindicated that message by exalting Jesus and giving him a place at his side-which is what Christian tradition says--as a way of underscoring the truthfulness of what he was claiming, I don't think that's anti-Semitic either. It might be theologically offensive to a particular view of God. But I think we're better off having an exchange about those facts than my sitting back and saying "Well, it really doesn't make any difference whether it's one God as I conceive of it or as you conceive of it, we're all trying to do a good thing."

At a thin layer that's true, but the differences that cause people to react differently when they see certain things--it won't explain any of that if you pretend it's not there. If you wash it away, you remove the reason why we have these different religious traditions in our world. I don't think it's helpful in the long run.

Why do you think Mel Gibson made this film?

My understanding is that this story changed his life, and because it changed his life, he wanted other people to know it. There came a point in his adult life, 10 or so years ago when he had walked away from [his faith] and was really struggling in his life. The way he got his life back together was by meditating on what the story of Jesus is all about. So he wants to tell this story.

Did Gibson intend this as a piece of entertainment or something more like the Jesus film?

I don't think it belongs in either category. This is not normal Hollywood. It strikes me as having a touch of European-ness. In European films, they don't have a lot of glitz and jazz. There's the dialogue, the personality, there's what's happening, and nothing else going on in the background. You're getting the raw event put in front of you.

It has more of that feel to it. You wouldn't tell someone "go and enjoy." It does something completely different to you.

But it's not the

Jesus Film

either. The Jesus Film is a very straightforward walk through the gospels with very little added. Done visually. But isn't done with sense of drama and conflict that you sense in this film.

This film is extraordinary. I've never seen a film quite like it.

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