Revisiting the history behind Gibson’s ‘Passion’

History in the Movies/By Cathy Schultz, Ph.D.

Here in the sleepy dog days of summer, this winter’s passionate controversy over Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” seems a hazy memory. Was that just six months ago? And did we all really get so riled up?

Or perhaps we just want to forget, since reaction to the film was so painfully polarizing.

Few movies in recent memory generated as much controversy as did Gibson’s “Passion.” Enthusiastically embraced by many, fervently denounced by others, the film astounded friend and foe alike at the box office, amassing more than $600 million worldwide.

“The Passion of the Christ” generated many historical questions about what actually happened on that day in Jerusalem almost 2,000 years ago. With its DVD release upon us, and with the benefit of a cooling six-month respite from the heat of the controversy, it’s time to revisit some of those questions.

Q. The film shows us three authority figures in Jerusalem: the high priest Caiaphas, Pontius Pilate, and King Herod. Who had the authority, ultimately?


A. Definitely Pontius Pilate. Judea was ruled by Rome, the conquerors of much of the known world at the time. The Roman Emperor appointed procurators to govern their far-flung provinces, and Pilate served as Caesar’s voice in Judea. To a lesser extent, Herod (also Roman-appointed) ruled over Galilee. But Pontius Pilate’s authority was what ultimately counted, though Jewish religious leaders like Caiaphas had religious and cultural authority over Judeans.

Q. The movie mirrors the Gospels in depicting Caiaphas and other Jewish leaders trying to persuade a reluctant Pontius Pilate to execute Jesus. Is that how it happened?

A. This, of course, is the heart of the controversy raised by the film. The Gospel accounts describing Jewish leaders and their supporters calling for Jesus’ death were horribly misread over the centuries, and often used by Christians to blame all Jews past and present for deicide-the “killing of God”-thus serving as the justification for persecuting Jews.

As a response, in part, to this misreading of the Gospel accounts, some scholars have recently argued that the Gospels’ authors overstated the involvement of Jewish leaders in Jesus’ death. But the sources from the era seem to indicate some involvement by both the Romans and the Jewish leaders.

Q. What are the sources from the era, and what do they say about Jesus’ death?

A. There aren’t many sources, and all that survive were written decades after Jesus’ death. We have the four Gospels, which portray both Jews and Romans having a hand in Jesus’ death. We have Tacitus, a Roman writing in A.D. 115, who mentions Pontius Pilate as the one who executed Jesus. There is also Josephus, a Jewish historian, who in his “Antiquities” (a history of the Jewish people written around A.D. 98), said that Pilate condemned Jesus after Jewish leaders requested his death. Besides these sources, we have passages from the Jewish Talmud that discuss the role of Jewish leaders in Jesus’ execution. So, there’s evidence that both Jewish leaders and Romans were probably involved.

But there are two other things to remember here. Jesus was crucified, which was the Roman style of execution, rather than being stoned, a more typically Jewish style of execution. Also, sources like Josephus stress how vile Pontius Pilate was during his reign in Judea. Thousands of Jews were crucified on his orders, many for political “crimes.”

Q. Gibson’s “Passion” film has been likened to “Passion Plays.” Why are those controversial?

A. Passion Plays began in the Middle Ages in Europe as a way to teach the common people (most of whom were illiterate) the story of Jesus’ death and Resurrection. They became hugely popular, all-day affairs, sometimes using jugglers and performing animals as side show entertainment.

The dark side of that history, though, is their ugly depictions of Jews. Caiaphas and the Jewish crowd calling for Jesus’ death were depicted as stereotypes of contemporary Jews, and often bore horns to suggest an alliance with Satan. By reinforcing the false notion that all Jews were responsible for Jesus’ death, Passion Plays often led directly to riots against Jews, resulting in the destruction of Jewish property and lives.

Modern day Passion Plays, like the famous one in Oberammergau, Germany, have revised their plays in recent decades to avoid the anti-Jewish stereotypes that had such tragic consequences.

Q. A minor point, but why did all the Jewish men have beards, and all the Roman men were clean shaven?

A. The Romans saw shaving as a mark of civilization, and disdained the bearded look favored by most of the peoples over whom they ruled, like the Jews. In fact, the connection was so strong, that it used to be thought that the word “barbarian” (used by Romans to refer to everyone who wasn’t Roman) came from the Latin word “barba,” for beard. (It doesn’t, but comes instead from the Greek word, “bárbaros,” which roughly means “those funny sounds foreigners make.”)

Q. What’s a good book for recent scholarship on Jesus’ last days?

A. Try Luke Timothy Johnson’s “The Real Jesus.”

Cathy Schultz, Ph.D., is a history professor at the University of St. Francis in Illinois, and writes a syndicated column on historical films. You can reach her at

The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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