restoring our biblical and constitutional foundations


Gibson’s “The Passion” 

 David Alan Black 

Christian leaders are enthusiastically endorsing Mel Gibson’s new film depicting the last 12 hours of Jesus’ life, calling it “historically and theologically accurate.”

Gibson recently brought the movie to Colorado Springs to make sure its depiction of the Gospel was acceptable to leaders at Focus on the Family and other church leaders, including Ted Haggard, the pastor of New Life Church and president of the National Evangelical Association.

Gibson appeared on stage at the New Life Church before the film’s screening to address an audience of more than 800 ministers gathered for the annual Life Giving Leadership Conference. “I’m not a preacher, and I’m not a pastor,” Gibson said. “But I really feel my career was leading me to make this. The Holy Ghost was working through me on this film, and I was just directing traffic. I hope the film has the power to evangelize.”

Afterwards, Haggard said that the movie, which uses Aramaic and Latin exclusively, “conveys, more accurately than any other film, who Jesus was.” Focus on the Family President Don Hodel added, “I was very impressed. It’s certainly the most powerful portrayal of the passion I’ve ever seen or heard about. The movie is historically and theologically accurate.”

I’m a bit confused. The movie is in the “original” languages, Aramaic and Latin, but the Mediterranean world of the first century spoke Greek as a result of Hellenization, later adopted by the Roman Empire (though they still spoke Latin in Rome). All of the books in the New Testament—including Romans—were written in the Hellenistic Greek of this period, as was the most popular translation of the Hebrew Scriptures of that day, the Septuagint.

Shouldn’t Jesus and Pilate be speaking Greek in the movie? Naturally the Roman rulers spoke Latin, but Greek was the lingua franca of the Empire. The Jewish leaders would have spoken Aramaic, Hebrew, and Greek, and certainly Jesus and the disciples, being from “Galilee of the Gentiles,” would have known Greek but nary a word of Latin. Still, if you insist on Pilate speaking Latin, why use the ecclesiastical pronunciation (rather than the classical) when “church” Latin obviously did not exist at the time!

Moreover, if Gibson wanted to show Christ’s passion in an accurate way, why did he include the classic misconception on how Jesus carried the cross to His execution? The cross was made up of two pieces of wood: the upright, called the “stipes,” and the crossbeam, called the “patibulum.” Historical sources indicate that it was not the complete cross that Jesus was carrying, as is invariably depicted in art, but rather the crossbeam only, to which the outstretched arms were bound with a rope.

Neither were the nails hammered through the palms of the hands as depicted in the movie, but through the wrists or forearms—another classic misconception. In 1968 a team of archaeologists under the direction of V. Tzaferis discovered four cave-tombs at Giv’at ha-Mivtar, located just north of Jerusalem. The date of the tombs ranged from the late second century B.C. to A.D. 70. Within the caves were found 15 limestone ossuaries that contained the bones of 35 individuals.

These skeletons reveal a startling tale of the agony that confronted the Jews during the century in which Jesus lived. Nine of the 35 individuals had met with a violent death. Three children, ranging in ages from eight months to eight years, died from starvation. A young man of about 17 burned to death bound upon a rack. A slightly older female also died from conflagration. An old woman of nearly 60 probably collapsed from the crushing blow of a weapon like a mace; her atlas, axis vertebrae, and occipital bone were shattered.

Finally, a man between 24 and 28 years of age had been crucified, probably between A.D. 7 and 66. His remains reveal that the lower third of his right radial bone contains a groove that was probably caused by the friction between a nail and the bone. Hence his arms were nailed to the patibulum through the forearms and not through the wrists, the bones of which “were found undamaged.” It is logical to infer, therefore, that Jesus had His forearms and not His hands pierced, contrary to the customary portrayal in paintings.

I can certainly appreciate Gibson’s passion to tell the story of the crucifixion realistically. But judging from the movie’s trailer, it’s pretty clear that he didn’t do his research very well. Why, then, the unending accolades about the film’s accuracy? Are reviewers simply unaware of the facts concerning crucifixion and the linguistic milieu of first century Palestine? Or do they dispute these findings? Perhaps their praise is intended more as a general commendation of the movie than as a commentary on the details. I really don’t know.

I can, however, say this: caveat spectator.

P.S. To see the trailer, click here. Viewer discretion is advised.

August 2, 2003

David Alan Black is the editor of

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