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Scholars find faults in ‘Passion’

“The Passion of the Christ” has been hailed as the gospel truth by some believers, but many scholars complain that it is riddled with historical errors.
/ Source: Reuters

Mel Gibson’s portrayal of the final 12 hours of Jesus in his film “The Passion of the Christ” has been hailed as the gospel truth by some believers, but many scholars complain that it is riddled with historical errors.

Their complaints range from inaccuracies about hairstyles and clothes to a lack of gospel context in the film, which has raised a furor among Jewish groups who fear its graphic depiction of the Crucifixion will fan anti-Jewish violence.

Gibson, who has denied the film is anti-Semitic, said he consulted scholars, theologians, priests and spiritual writers before scripting the film, with the aim of making Jesus’s agony during the Crucifixion appear as realistic as possible.

Many Christians see the film, which opened on Ash Wednesday, as bringing them closer to their religion. Evangelical preacher Billy Graham called the film “a lifetime of sermons in one movie.”

Did Jesus speak Latin?
Gibson, a traditionalist Catholic who funded the $25 million film himself, was so set on making it authentic that he had his characters speak Latin and Aramaic.

Experts say this was his first mistake, as Greek was the language spoken in Jerusalem during Jesus’ time, along with Aramaic and some Hebrew spoken by Jews.

“Jesus talking to (Pontius) Pilate and Pilate to Jesus in Latin!” exclaimed John Dominic Crossan, a professor of religious studies at De Paul University, a Roman Catholic school in Chicago. “I mean, in your dreams. It would have been Greek.”

Latin was reserved for official decrees or used by the elite. Most Roman centurions in the Holy Land spoke Greek rather than Latin, historians and archaeologists told Reuters.

The mistakes, experts say, didn’t stop with the wrong language, which Crossan — who speaks Latin — said was so badly pronounced in the film that it was almost incomprehensible.

How long was Jesus' hair?
“He has a long-haired Jesus ... Jesus didn’t have long hair,” said physical anthropologist Joe Zias, who has studied hundreds of skeletons found in archeological digs in Jerusalem. “Jewish men back in antiquity did not have long hair.”

“The Jewish texts ridiculed long hair as something Roman or Greek,” said New York University’s Lawrence Schiffman.

Along with extensive writings from the period, experts also point to a frieze on Rome’s Arch of Titus, erected after Jerusalem was captured in A.D. 70 to celebrate the victory, which shows Jewish men with short hair taken into captivity.

Erroneous depictions of Jesus in Western art have often misled film makers in their portrayal of Jesus, experts said.

For some scholars the errors go beyond language or hairstyles.

They say the heart of the problem is the film’s script, which interweaves the literal interpretation of four sometimes contradictory gospel accounts of Jesus’ last 12 hours with the visions of a controversial 19th-century nun.

“This is my version of what happened, according to the gospels and what I wanted to show,” Gibson told ABC this month.

But Crossan complained that the lack of historical context was the movie’s “basic flaw.”

The film begins not when Jesus enters Jerusalem to the exuberant welcome of thousands of Jews, but rather at night in a garden on the eve of the Crucifixion, when he is arrested by the Romans after being betrayed by Judas.

“Why did they need a traitor? Why did they need the night? Why didn’t they grab him in the daytime?” Crossan asked.

“Because they did not want a riot,” he said, explaining that Jesus was immensely popular among his fellow Jews, which is why the high priests and Romans felt threatened by him.

Those details, Crossan said, were absent in the film.

“The lack of context is the most devastating thing for anyone who says it (the film) is faithful to the gospels, because the gospels have the context,” he told Reuters.

What role did Pilate play?
One of the most controversial aspects of the film is its portrayal of Pilate reluctantly sentencing Jesus to crucifixion under pressure from a bullying mob and conniving Jewish priests.

Scholars acknowledge the scene is faithful to the gospels, but some experts say a historical perspective is imperative.

“It is important to see the historical context. Not only for the sake of being true to history but for the sake of being true to the gospel passages themselves,” said the Rev. Michael McGarry, rector of the Tantur Ecumenical Institute in Jerusalem.

The gospels, he said, were written many years after the Crucifixion, at a time when the early Christians felt it would be politically wise to “soften Pontius Pilate as a way of placating” the Romans who ruled over them.

“Pontius Pilate was a very cruel and brutal man. And he wouldn’t care two winks about executing another Jew. He had killed so many before him,” said McGarry, who said he had not seen the film and was commenting only on the history of the time.

Crucifixion was a common punishment meted out by the Romans to rebellious Jews during Jesus’s time. The Romans crucified so many Jews, said Zias, that “eventually they ran out of crosses and they ran out of space.”

How was crucifixion done?
The depiction of the Crucifixion was the part of the film most riddled with errors for Zias, who studied the skeleton of a crucified Jewish man from Jesus’ time — the only remains ever found of a crucified victim from antiquity.

Zias said Jesus would not have carried the entire cross to the crucifixion, as vertical beams were kept permanently in place by the ever-efficient Romans.

Physical anthropologist Joe Zias, looks at a cast he made of a Greek inscription discovered on the stone facade of an ancient burial monument at the foot of Jerusalem's Mount of Olives Saturday June 14, 2003. The 47-letter text reads \"This is the tomb of Zachariah, martyr, very pious priest, father of John\", an apparent reference to the father of John the Baptist. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
Physical anthropologist Joe Zias, looks at a cast he made of a Greek inscription discovered on the stone facade of an ancient burial monument at the foot of Jerusalem's Mount of Olives Saturday June 14, 2003. The 47-letter text reads \"This is the tomb of Zachariah, martyr, very pious priest, father of John\", an apparent reference to the father of John the Baptist. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)Rick Bowmer / AP

“Nobody was physically able to carry the thing (the entire cross). It weighed about 350 pounds,” Zias said. “He (Jesus) carried the crossbeam, maximum.”

Nor would Jesus have worn a loincloth in the Crucifixion, as did actor James Caviezel, who portrayed him in the film.

“Crucifixion was a form of state terror. They humiliated the crucified victim. Everybody was naked. Men, women and children,” Zias said.

Jesus, he added, would have been tied or nailed to the cross through the wrists, not the hands as shown in the film.

“You cannot crucify a person through the hands because there is nothing there but skin and muscle. It will tear.”

Brushing off criticism of inaccuracies, Gibson has said he found contradictory opinions among the experts he consulted.

“Since the experts canceled each other out, I was thrown back on my own resources to weigh the different arguments and decide for myself,” Gibson said in one interview.