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Tuesday, February 24, 2004 - Page updated at 12:40 A.M.

'Passion': The Gospel according to Mel Gibson

By Janet I. Tu
Seattle Times staff reporter

Jarreth Merz, as Simon of Cyrene, right, helps Jim Caviezel, portraying Christ, carry a cross on the set of "The Passion of the Christ."
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As tomorrow's opening of Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" draws near, the clamor over the film has only grown louder, much of it centering on whether the movie is an accurate account of the last 12 hours of Jesus' life.

Gibson and his defenders have said the film is biblically accurate, adhering to the first four books of the New Testament — the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John — which depict the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

Some religious leaders and scholars — many of whom have not seen Gibson's film — debate whether the movie can indeed be biblically accurate, given that there are four Gospels, each with different perspectives and details.

The debate has given rise to questions about the Gospels themselves: Even if Gibson's film is biblically accurate, does that mean the Gospels themselves are historically accurate? When and to what purpose were they written? What about concerns of some Jewish groups that some viewers may take the film — and by extension, the Gospels — as historical fact and perhaps blame all Jews for the death of Jesus?

Scholars worry that melding the four Gospels into one narrative — as Gibson does with "The Passion" — simplifies the complexity of Jesus, losing important nuances and context.

Northwest native Jim Caviezel portrays Jesus in the movie "The Passion of the Christ."
It allows the director to pick and choose from the Gospels to construct a portrait of Jesus that audiences may then come to think of as historically accurate.

"It was clearly important for the early church not to combine the four into one," said Jeff Staley, an adjunct faculty member in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at Seattle University. "If they're combined together, it's always going to be the director who's doing that. That is not necessarily bad. It's just to recognize it's Mel Gibson's Jesus."

Who wrote the Gospels?

All four Gospels give accounts of Jesus' ministry in the Roman-dominated province of Palestine — called Galilee and Judea by the Jews.

They recount how some Jewish high priests at the time considered Jesus, himself a Jew, a threat to their beliefs and authority, and arranged for him to be arrested and taken to the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate for execution.

The story of Jesus' arrest, trial, torture, crucifixion and resurrection has come to be known as the Passion (from the Latin "passio," meaning "suffering").

There is debate among scholars about who actually wrote the Gospels. Some believe they were eyewitness accounts written by the individuals for whom the Gospels were named. Others believe they were written by later followers.

Most biblical scholars say the Gospels were written toward the end of the first century, about a generation after Jesus' death, in different places, for different audiences. "It's helpful to think of the Gospel writers as pastors, telling each story in a way that's meaningful to their various audiences," said Alicia Batten, assistant professor of religion at Pacific Lutheran University.

The consensus among biblical scholars is that Mark was the earliest Gospel, written in perhaps the late 60s AD up to the early 70s. The Gospel of Luke is thought to have been written in the 80s.

The Gospel of Matthew is thought to have been written around 80 or 85, perhaps in Antioch, a city with a large population of Jewish Christians — Christians who still, at that time, thought of themselves as Jews. At that time and place, there was much debate about what it meant to be a Jew and much tension between Jewish Christians and the established Jewish leadership.

That growing tension, many scholars say, may explain why the Jewish leadership is portrayed negatively — and as increasingly hostile toward Jesus — in the Gospels of Matthew and John. It's this portrayal that some current Jewish leaders are concerned may incite anti-Semitic sentiments.

The Gospel of John, thought to have been written in the early 90s, is considered by most scholars to have been geared toward a community of Jewish Christians who had been rejected by the established Jewish leadership and were trying to define themselves.

"They're trying to establish a group identity," Batten said. "One of the ways groups often do that is by saying what they are not, so they say they are not 'the Jews,' even though they may be Jewish."

Different aspects

The beauty of having four Gospel accounts, each emphasizing different aspects of Jesus' life and death, is that it "allows the readers to get the fullest possible sense of who Jesus is," said Rob Wall, professor of Christian Scriptures at Seattle Pacific University.

The Gospel of Mark emphasizes Jesus' humanity and the suffering he underwent to achieve salvation for humanity. Luke augments Mark's stories about Jesus' ministry, emphasizing the importance of social justice, healing, forgiveness and repentance. Matthew emphasizes Jesus' death as the fulfillment of his prophecy to save humankind. And John emphasizes Jesus' teachings about himself as the son of God.

Scholars worry about losing that richness and depth when the four Gospels are combined into one story.

"I don't think the event we're talking about could be adequately grasped in 10,000 (accounts), let alone one," said Richard Erickson, associate professor of New Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary Northwest, based in Seattle. "It has far more implications than even those four Gospels could convey."

Historical accuracy

Differences in the four accounts also raise questions about the Gospels' historical accuracy. For instance, in three of the Gospels (Mark, Luke and Matthew), Simon of Cyrene carries Jesus' cross. In the Gospel of John, Jesus carries it himself.

Some Jews and Christians have also pointed out, for example, that historically, Pilate was known as a cruel ruler, not the weak one depicted in later Gospel accounts.

Christian beliefs vary on whether the Bible is historically accurate, ranging from those who believe everything in it is fact to others who view its stories as metaphors that get at deeper truths.

Erickson believes the Gospels are "very historically accurate." He likens the differing accounts to a married couple each relaying his or her own version of their life together to a marriage counselor.

In contrast, PLU's Batten sees the Gospels as metaphorical. "I don't think the Gospel writers were intending to be reporters or trying to write historically accurate accounts," she said. "They were trying to proclaim a message — the good news — to a community of people."

SU's Staley says while the Gospels provide "historical nuggets of truth and accuracy," it's important to remember they were written by believers.

"This would be like someone in George Bush's Cabinet writing for posterity the significance of George Bush. It doesn't mean everything in there is wrong. It just means if you're a historian, you're going to have to weigh it carefully."

And Wall, at SPU, believes there is "substantial historical depth and accuracy" in the Gospels. But he says the entire debate over whether Gibson's film — and the Gospels themselves — are accurate misses the point.

The Gospels were never intended to be what we think of today as historically accurate biographies, he said.

"These are not people writing for academics. They are writing for people of faith, to encourage their faith. ... Their intent was to portray a Jesus that reflected their own spiritual experience of him, in a way that would draw out a deeper level of devotion in their readers."

The Gospels, Wall said, "don't serve historical ends. They serve theological, religious ends." In that sense, he believes Gibson's "Passion" serves the same purpose the Gospels do.

In interviews, Gibson has said he was depressed, almost suicidal and spiritually empty several years ago. He said he found hope by focusing on the sacrifice of Jesus.

Gibson's "Passion," then, according to Wall, can be understood as a "retelling of the Passion story that makes sense of his own spiritual experiences. And that's exactly right. I think that's what the churches had in mind for these particular stories — that they be interpreted in a way that makes sense of (each person's) own deeply spiritual experiences."

Janet I. Tu: 206-464-2272 or


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