The Passion of the Christ has caused a great deal of theological and historical questioning. What is atonement? Who is Sister Anne Emmerich? Is Mel Gibson really Catholic? Below, we've compiled a quick reference to some of the most common questions.

What is blood atonement?
In Christian thought, atonement is humanity's reconciliation with God through the sacrifice of Jesus' death. Human sin is thought to damage the relationship between people and God. In Christian thought, Jesus' death enables humanity to "get right" with God.

How does this work? Different Christian groups understand the atonement in different ways, many of which overlap. One way, the 'ransom' approach, draws on Mark 10:45, where Jesus says he gives his life as a "ransom for many." The 'Satisfaction' or 'Vicarious Atonement' approach says that Jesus' blood is payment to God for human sins. Since the penalty for sin is death, someone had to pay it; Jesus paid the debt in place of humanity, giving humans eternal life. This ties in with a view of the atonement as the fulfillment of divine justice.

Though many liberal Christians find this view's transactional language and emphasis on justice harsh, the 'vicarious atonement' view is held as truth among evangelical Protestants and other conservative Christians. A more liberal view maintains that Jesus' death was an example to his followers, not a form of blood sacrifice. Most Christians of any denomination would say Jesus' death demonstrates God's love for humankind.

Why is it called a Passion Play?
The word passion refers to Jesus' sufferings in the period following the Last Supper and including the Crucifixion, as related in the New Testament. Thus, a passion play is a spiritual drama depicting the trial, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus.

The first passion play took place in 1634 in Oberammergau, Germany. The townspeople made a vow that if they were spared Bubonic Plague, every 10 years they would create a play about the life of Christ. Over the centuries the Passion Play became a major international event, attracting thousands of people every decade from around the world.

But the passion play also has a long history of inciting anti-Semitic hatred, which is why Mel Gibson's film is creating dread among some Jews. In fact, the play's fueling of anti-Semitism culminated in Adolf Hitler's 1934 comment expressing admiration for the play: "It is vital that the Passion play be continued at Oberammergau; for never has the menace of Jewry been so convincingly portrayed as in this presentation of what happened in the time of the Romans. There one sees Pontius Pilate, a Roman racially and intellectually so superior, that he stands out like a firm, clean rock in the middle of the whole muck and mire of Jewry."

Are the Stations of the Cross in the Bible?
Yes and no. The Stations of the Cross (also called the Way of the Cross, Via Crucis, and Via Dolorosa) are a devotional practice linked to a series of pictures representing scenes from Jesus' last hours. The object of the Stations is to help the faithful to make a "pilgrimage" to the chief scenes of Jesus' suffering and death.

The traditional Stations are: 1. Jesus is condemned to death; 2. The cross is laid upon him; 3. His first fall; 4. He meets Mary, his mother; 5. Simon of Cyrene is made to bear the cross; 6. His face is wiped by Veronica; 7. His second fall; 8. He meets the women of Jerusalem; 9. His third fall; 10. He is stripped of His garments; 11. He is crucified; 12. Jesus dies on the cross; 13. His body is taken down from the cross; and 14. He is laid in the tomb.

: Most of the scenes are contained in the Gospels, but some are not: meeting his mother, Veronica wiping his face, and the falls with the cross.

Is Mel Gibson really Catholic?
Mel Gibson considers himself Catholic, but his relationship with the official Catholic Church is strained. Gibson has built his own traditionalist Catholic chapel near his home; a pre-Vatican II Latin Mass is said there. In a February 2004 interview with Diane Sawyer, Gibson said "I'm just Roman Catholic, the way they were up until the mid '60s." In an online chat with Beliefnet, LA Cardinal Roger Mahony said: "I know nothing about the Church in Malibu. It is certainly not in communion with the Universal Catholic Church nor the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. I have never met Mr. Gibson, and he does not participate in any parish of this Archdiocese. He, apparently, has chosen to live apart from the communion of the Catholic Church. I pray for him."

Churches like Gibson's, which are not affiliated with any diocese, are usually considered schismatic. The Church's Code of Canon Law defines schism--separation from the Church--as "the refusal of submission to the Supreme Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him."

Gibson's father, Hutton Gibson, is an outspoken critic of the Catholic Church and an adherent of the "sedevacantist" movement, so called from the Latin phrase meaning "empty seat"--their claim being that every pope since 1960 has been spurious. While Gibson is said to disagree with his father, the actor has been quoted often as waxing nostalgic for the Mass said in Latin and the doctrines as they were for almost 2,000 years.

Are there other historical sources describing Jesus or these events, in addition to the Bible?
Yes. Scholars describe these documents as "extra-biblical," meaning "outside the Bible."

Here are some examples of such documents, written at the time of the Bible, that mention Jesus:

  • Flavius Josephus (AD 37?-101?, a Jewish historian) mentions Jesus - Antiquities, Book 18, ch. 3, par. 3.
  • Tacitus (A.D. c.55-A.D. c.117, Roman historian) mentions "christus" who is Jesus - Annals
  • Pliny the Younger mentioned Christ in his 10th book, around 112 C.E.
  • The Talmud, a collection of discussions of the Mishnah--a review of Jewish law--by generations of scholars over a period of several centuries
  • Lucian (circa 120-after 180) mentions Jesus.

  • Who is Sister Anne Emmerich?
    Mel Gibson apparently relied on some of the writings of Sister Anne Catherine Emmerich, an Augustinian nun who lived in Germany from 1774 to 1824. She is remembered for her mystical visions of Jesus' and Mary's lives, recorded in works like "The Dolorous Passion of OUr Lord Jesus Christ." Gibson drew from this work when crafting his movie.

    Emmerich is called "Venerable," a title given by the Catholic Church to holy men and women of "heroic virtue" who have not been beatified or canonized. Bedridden for years, Emmerich sewed clothes for the poor and attracted many followers who sought her advice and healing. Her supporters claim that she bore the stigmata--the wounds in the hands and feet that Christ suffered.

    Emmerich has been considered for sainthood. However, it is unclear whether all her writings were her own, according to Mary Francis Lester, editor at TAN Books and Publishers, which publishes "The Dolorous Passion." Emmerich's visions were transcribed by Clemens Brentano, a poet and literary figure who, many believe, extensively embellished what Emmerich told him. Because of the uncertainty, Emmerich's writings are not being included in the Vatican process by which potential saints' lives are researched.

    Is the film anti-Semitic?
    Opinions vary. Some Jewish (and Christian) leaders worry the movie will incite Christians to anger against Jews because they are portrayed as arranging to have Jesus crucified and egging on the authorities by shouting "Crucify him! Crucify him!"

    Others say the movie carefully portrays what actually happened: the anger of the Jewish authorities at Jesus' teachings, which led to an insurrection by the Jewish masses, which led to the Romans' decision to crucify him in order to keep the peace.

    Dennis Prager analyzes it this way: "When watching "The Passion," Jews and Christians are watching two entirely different films. For two hours, Christians watch their Savior tortured and killed. For the same two hours, Jews watch Jews arrange the killing and torture of the Christians' Savior."

    Are all the scenes in the film in the Bible?
    No. Some of the scenes come from Sister Anne Emmerich's mystical visions of Jesus' life, and others are scenes Mel Gibson created using artistic license. Some examples:

    The devil figure that lurks throughout the movie is not in the Gospels. The figure first appears in the Garden of Gethsemane. From beneath the figure's robe, a serpent slithers toward Jesus, praying face-down on the ground. When Jesus stands, he crushes the head of the serpent with his foot. Later, the figure watches Roman soldiers sadistically beat Jesus and walks among the crowd as Jesus carries the cross. At one point, the evil figure and Mary, the mother of Jesus, engage in a face-off, a kind of contest of spiritual wills.

    Another difference from the Bible is Mary's role. In Gibson's film, she appears at Jesus' trial, mops up his massive blood loss after his beating, and follows him to Calvary. Twice, when Jesus can no longer carry the cross, Jesus sees Mary and draws strength from her to continue. None of these scenes occurs in the Gospel accounts.

    Another scene not in the Bible shows a woman with a white cloth gently pressing it upon Jesus' bloody face. This woman is Veronica, a legendary figure who appears in the traditional Catholic "Stations of the Cross." She does not, however, appear in the Bible.

    Yet another is Jesus' beating. Gibson's film has two Roman soldiers beat Jesus with two different types of whips, tearing chunks of flesh from his body. But the beating is mentioned only briefly in the Gospels. Matthew and Mark record only these words, "having scourged Jesus," Pilate delivered him to be crucified. Luke has no Roman beating. John says only that "Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged."

    In addition, one scene has demonic children tormenting Judas into hanging himself.

    Is Pontius Pilate's wife a character in the Bible?
    Yes, though she is alluded to only once (Matthew 27:19); she sends a message to her husband about Jesus, "Have nothing to do with this righteous man--I have suffered much in a dream because of him. Gibson is using artistic license here -- in the film Pilate and his wife have several conversations about what he should do.

    What was Pontius Pilate Really Like?
    Pontius Pilate was appointed governor or procurator of Judea by the Roman emperor Tiberius Caesar in 26 A.D. Although his official residence was in Caesarea Maritima, the Roman capital of Judea, it is plausible he would have spent the Passover season in Jerusalem to maintain order.

    According to his historical contemporaries, Pilate was a harsh and violent ruler. The Jewish philosopher Philo and the Jewish historian Josephus both describe Pilate as a strong ruler whose determination to impose Roman rule and customs brought him into frequent conflict with the Jewish community. In at least two of these cases, appeals to the Emperor - or the threat of such appeals - forced Pilate to reverse himself.

    Philo describes Pilate this way: "he was a man of a very inflexible disposition, and very merciless as well as very obstinate." According to Philo, Pilate feared his Jewish subjects might ultimately appeal to the Roman emperor because of "his habit of insulting people, and his cruelty, and his continual murders of people untried and uncondemned, and his never ending, and gratuitous, and most grievous inhumanity."

    According to Josephus, Pilate was recalled to Rome in the year 37 to defend himself against accusations he had ordered the slaughter of a large number of innocent Samaritans, gathered for a religious purpose. By the time Pilate reached Rome, the emperor Tiberius had died. No record of Pilate's fate remains.

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