The Passion of the Christ: Torture, Anti-Semitism, and Ideological Fantasy

During the filming of Mel Gibson’s 2004 movie The Passion of the Christ, the actor portraying the character of Jesus (Jim Caviezel) was struck by lightning twice, in two separate incidents and in two separate places. Apparently the filmmakers, most of whom were Catholic, did not take the hint. The movie was finished and released to the public on Ash Wednesday, February 25, 2004. Now, I am an atheist and a thoroughgoing naturalist. I do not believe that an actor getting struck twice by lightning constitutes a supernatural sign or omen, even when that actor is portraying Jesus Christ. But as pious Catholics, most of the filmmakers and Caviezel himself should!

The entertainment news media back in late 2003 made much of the fact that The Passion of the Christ was going to be an extremely gory film with heavy amounts of violence. But connoisseurs of American entertainment are, I think, so accustomed to the media generating much empty hype over movie violence and also accustomed to some people overreacting as a result. The collective, unspoken assumption on the part of the moviegoing public seems to have been that, with Christians doing most of the talking about the violence aspect, the movie couldn’t be all that bad.

But The Passion of the Christ ended up shocking the moviegoing public and taking them by surprise. The highlight of the movie is the scene in which Jesus gets scourged, a scene that is surely one of the most difficult scenes in cinematic history to sit through, regardless of one’s beliefs. In the movie, the scourge is a large whip with small chunks of spikes, pieces of glass, and cat o’ nine tails affixed to its tip. These accouterments work over the body of Jesus in loving slow-motion detail as his flesh is literally ripped to shreds.

Does the extremely violent and bloody content in this movie serve a larger point? In one sense, perhaps, it does. As a pious and devout Catholic, Mel Gibson’s motivation in delivering a shock-and-awe spectacle to viewers was theological in nature; he wanted viewers to feel the intensity of what their sin did to Jesus. This is the function that Passion Plays since the Middle Ages have always been intended to serve. But in making this movie, Gibson was being creepily overzealous. In the final analysis, knowing when that point of theological shaming and guilt comes across is largely a matter of one’s own personal judgment (as opposed to an objective limit) to decide whether watching thirty minutes of someone being flayed alive on screen gets the intended point across any more effectively than, say, four or five minutes of it. But for most people, 2 hours and 6 minutes of a bloody and violent theological guilt-trip is overkill. How do these 126 minutes break down? Well, for about the first five minutes, Jesus is physically fine, if not emotionally stable. For the final few minutes, he is optimally healthy in his resurrection body. But every single minute in between, he is constantly and mercilessly beaten into blood-soaked hamburger meat.

This film is sure to take the wind out of anyone who watches it for the first time, and the viewing experience does not get any less unpleasant on multiple viewings. But does The Passion of the Christ work as a piece of film narrative? I for one am not convinced that it does, for two reasons. The first has to do with the purely ideological motive that drove the production. If anything is clear and obvious about this movie, it is that Mel Gibson was making this movie for Christians. Months before it was released, the evangelical Protestant Right – which is not a group usually seen allying themselves with “those Mary-worshippers” like Mel Gibson – were making the rounds in news editorials and reviews strongly rallying support for the film and talking enthusiastically about what a powerful conversion tool they anticipated it would be for their cause.

More importantly, the other reason The Passion fails as meaningful narrative is that it is devoid of context. The movie begins in the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus is arrested at night by Roman guards and hauled off in chains. Then the beatings begin. Now, while there is such a thing as too much exposition, this movie had none whatsoever. There is very little actual storytelling involved, and the viewer is not provided any context whatsoever for why all the bloody violence is happening or even why we should care. Those who go into the movie not knowing much about Jesus or Peter or Mary will not understand it and will be completely lost from beginning to end.

Of course, the argument can be made that most of the people who walked into theaters to see this movie, especially in America, were already more than sufficiently familiar with the Jesus story. Certainly all Christians are familiar with it (or should be), and in fact most thoughtful and well-read atheists know the Jesus story even better than most Christians. Therefore, one might say, the lack of context perhaps should not be viewed as a big problem. However, if we examine The Passion strictly as a film narrative – that is, on its own internal merits and independent of external assumptions supplied by viewers – it is problematic that the movie provides no context for why a man is being beaten mercilessly to a bloody pulp for two straight hours. The movie fails to establish Jesus Christ as a character, that is, establish who he is, what he does and why exactly it is that he angers both religious and secular authorities so much that they literally beat him to death.

It seems that what Gibson did not want was just another Jesus movie that conformed to the same old formula and motifs that have characterized nearly all the other Jesus movies (i.e., Jesus is born in a manger, as a man he wanders about teaching and performing miracles for two hours or so, dies a heavily sanitized and nearly bloodless death before the obligatory dramatic resurrection scene at the end, etc.) Instead, part of Gibson’s intention was to focus on just the final twelve hours of Jesus’ life, highlighted by his scourging and his crucifixion. However, this actually does not make Gibson’s vision original or unique in any way. He is not breaking any new or bold ground here, because The Passion of the Christ is essentially just one more Passion Play to be added to the thousands that have been written and performed for centuries. Indeed, one might even say that pious Catholics of many past generations have wanted very much to produce a Passion Play as bloody and violent as Gibson’s but that they simply did not have the necessary funds or technology to achieve such great “special effects.”

Another interesting issue about this movie has to do with the transition from source material to script. The general rule in scriptwriting is that one page translates into one minute of screen time. One minute of screen time per page of script means that a standard film script is about 120 pages. Now, the total verses in the Bible that describe Jesus’s execution comprise much less than 120 pages. Even if a screenwriter were to combine the passion narratives of all four Gospels together, they still do not come anywhere close to filling two hours of film. Thus, The Passion of the Christ contains a great deal of filler, resulting in a movie that is slow, plodding, and overly deliberate at times. One of the longest continuous scenes in the movie, the 20-minute scourging sequence, is based entirely on a single verse: “Then Pilate therefore took Jesus, and scourged him” (John 19:1).

The filler in the movie consists of material not found in the Bible. In fact, the biblical passion accounts are not even the movie’s main source of inspiration. The movie’s script borrows heavily from the writings of the nineteenth century stigmatic and mystic Anne Catherine Emmerich, who wrote a lengthy account of her esoteric visions of Jesus’ suffering and death in a work posthumously titled The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ[1] Emmerich’s influence largely accounts for the presence of several scenes in Gibson’s movie which are not found anywhere in the Gospels or elsewhere in Scripture. In one interview, Gibson said of Emmerich, “She supplied me with stuff I never would have thought of.” [2] One noteworthy case in point is what in my opinion constitutes the most bizarre scene of the entire film, the sequence in which Judas Iscariot (played by Luca Lionello) is hounded by little demonic children who torment him all night and in the morning drive him out into the countryside. This scene was based on the following passage from Emmerich’s work:

Then, but too late, anguish, despair, and remorse took possession of the mind of Judas. Satan instantly prompted him to fly. He fled as if a thousand furies were at his heel, and the bag which was hanging at his side struck him as he ran, and propelled him as a spur from hell; but he took it into his hand to prevent its blows . . . I again beheld him rushing to and fro like a madman in the valley of Hinnom: Satan was by his side in a hideous form, whispering in his ear, to endeavour to drive him to despair, all the curses which the prophets had hurled upon this valley, where the Jews formerly sacrificed their children to idols. [3]

However, there is one common theme running through the movie that unites both the biblical accounts and Emmerich’s work and which both sources have in common, namely anti-Semitic bigotry.

Anti-Semitism in The Passion of the Christ

At several points throughout her book of visions, Emmerich refers to the Jewish people using epithets that are not flattering, to say the least. Very early in the planning and pre-production stages of the movie, many reports began circulating which expressed concern that The Passion was going to be a horribly anti-Semitic film. This concern was based on the information that early drafts of the script were drawing from Emmerich’s writings, not just standard traditional texts like the Gospel of John, which is anti-Semitic enough on its own. Abraham N. Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, described Emmerich’s work as “an anti-Jewish account [which] distorts New Testament interpretation by selectively citing passages to weave a narrative that oversimplifies history, and is hostile to Jews and Judaism” [4]

This was by far the biggest source of controversy surrounding Gibson’s movie, even more so than the extreme violence. The movie features a large cast of bad Jewish characters, with only a few good Jewish characters thrown in here and there as a concession. On the other hand, there are plenty of bad Roman characters, including two particularly despicable human beings who glean a great deal of pleasure in their work of torturing and tormenting Jesus (reportedly, Gibson’s direction to these actors was to act as if they were throwing a baseball while bashing Caviezel). However, it is very telling that the high-ranking, important Romans are portrayed very charitably in this movie. Pontius Pilate (played by Hristo Shopov), the Roman prefect responsible for issuing the final order to crucify Jesus, is here depicted as a very courteous and well-mannered man. He does everything within his power to avoid condemning Jesus to crucifixion, but his hand is forced by a rather bloodthirsty mob of Jews. And this portrayal is in fact very consistent with and faithful to the Bible’s account. Chapter 19 of the Gospel of John has the Jewish mob crying out “Crucify him, crucify him” in unison, and also taking personal responsibility by declaring, “We have a law, and by our law he ought to die” (vv. 6, 7). This declaration comes immediately after Pilate tries to tell them that he can find no basis on which to condemn Jesus. Thus, The Passion does remain true to the biblical story, in this regard at least. But it is worse than that; Gibson goes out of his way to really focus on this angle. Not only are the important Roman characters portrayed in the best possible light, but a strong case can be made that the high-ranking Jewish characters are portrayed in the worst possible light, as a cruel and bloodthirsty lot. In fact, just about every horrendous thing that happens in the movie is ultimately the fault of Caiaphas, the Jewish high priest (played by Mattia Sbragia).

The Gospel of John is the only one of the four canonical gospels in the New Testament that goes out of its way to cast the Jews in a negative light. The scholarly consensus is that John was the latest of the four canonical gospels to be penned, having been written close to the year 100 CE, some 70 or 80 years after the events related. The gospel did not begin to be circulated abroad in earnest until well into the second century. The other three gospels place little blame on the Jews (Matthew 27:25, the infamous “blood libel” verse, is the striking exception). But John’s Gospel even goes so far as to put words in the Jews’ own mouths to the effect that they personally want to see Jesus crucified and that their own law demands it, as in John 19:6-7. By this point in late first-century history, Christianity was catching on with great success as a new religion. But with this success came pronounced embarrassment for the Christians when the vast majority of Jews were, to say the least, not wholeheartedly in favor of its message. As Thomas Whittaker writes,

As the orthodox Jews did not enthusiastically receive the new Gospel, or “glad tidings,” the responsibility for the death of the promised Redeemer began to be cast upon them, and withdrawn as much as possible from the Roman governor. Prophecies of the destruction of Jerusalem, and parables prefiguring the rejection of the unbelieving Jews from the promised kingdom, were put in the mouth of Jesus. The new sect turned more and more to the Gentiles. The feast is for all except those men who were first invited . . . [5]

Supposedly, Christ came to reveal himself as the “King of the Jews,” but the Jews responded with proper skepticism and doubt. Thus, the writer of the gospel attributed to John had ample political and theological motivation to portray the Jews as a villainous, murderous people, a portrayal that again is relatively absent from the other three canonical books. A strong case can be made that the author of John approached his gospel-writing project with a very specific and heavily propagandistic perspective on the events he describes. That is, the author seems to have had a vested interest in providing his readers a reason not to consider the Jews to be credible in their well-founded refutations of Christianity: they were responsible for Jesus’ death, and were henceforth a fallen people.

To the extent that Gibson’s Passion mirrors the anti-Semitism of John’s gospel, it is an ideological fantasy. It is not merely historically inaccurate[6] but overtly and pointedly ahistorical. This is especially seen in the movie’s characterization of Pilate. Extra-biblical historical sources inform us that the Pontius Pilate of history was a bloodthirsty tyrant who was actually recalled from his post in Judea for being too forceful in putting down religious dissent and keeping the Judean populace under the yoke, and also for ordering the crucifixion of too many people. Pilate even managed to offend and alienate the Emperor Tiberius with his extreme ruthlessness. This is significant, because Tiberius himself had a reputation for overseeing mass murder, and he is infamous to this day for his statement, “Let them hate me, so long as they support my government” [7]

In Chapter 18 of John, Jesus is arrested in the middle of the night and hauled away to Caiaphas, who proceeds to interrogate him. The gospel’s description of this interrogation reads just like a scene out of a mob movie. As Jesus is being questioned, a small number of Caiaphas’ henchmen stand around him. Whenever Jesus spouts his signature smart-ass answer in response to the high priest’s questions (i.e., “Well, as a matter of fact, I am the son of God”), the priestly henchmen are there to rough him up.

Then Jesus is taken before Pilate, and immediately a stark contrast is presented. Pilate displays a very gentle disposition toward Jesus, and they even come very close to engaging in philosophical discourse! The overall impression we get of Pilate, both from reading the biblical account and from watching Gibson’s movie adaptation, is that he is a misunderstood and tormented man who feels pressured by external forces working against him to crucify a man he believes is innocent. The late philosopher and skeptic Paul Kurtz, in his review of the film, notes that, “In the depiction of Emmerich and Gibson, the Jews come off as the main enemies of Jesus, provoking the Romans not only to crucify him, but to torture him and inflict maximum suffering. I think the point in the film is even more anti-Jewish: it’s that Pilate tries to placate the Jews with the beatings, but they won’t be satisfied – some real blood-thirstiness here!” [8] We will have more to say about the Barabbas scene later.

By consciously taking inspiration from Emmerich’s visions and from the Gospel of John, Gibson definitely committed himself to the bigoted direction in which his cinematic vision was to go. Still, several of Gibson’s defenders have argued that Gibson is not blaming the Jews specifically for Christ’s torture and death in this film, but rather pointing the finger at corrupt bureaucrats, i.e., people who are in charge or in positions of great political power, regardless of status as Jew or Roman or anything else. For example, Gibson’s supporters are quick to draw attention to the very poignant scene in which a Jewish bystander on the Via Dolorosa is ordered by Roman soldiers to help Jesus carry his cross. This he does against his will at first, but then feels an unspoken bond to Jesus by the time they near the crucifixion site. And yet I cannot help but suspect, cynical as the suspicion may be, that the underlying message in this scene is that the Jews who hold positions of power and influence – i.e., the ones actually involved with promoting the Jewish religion – are evil and villainous at heart. Members of the Jewish peasantry, like the man who assists Jesus in carrying his cross, are patronizingly viewed simply as “little people,” who simply go about their daily lives and mind their own business, ignorant of their status as naïve pawns in a corrupt religious system. We can point to the Caiaphas character as a counter-argument to Gibson’s defenders. Caiaphas serves as something of a composite figure, representative of the collective group of Jewish elders in the Temple as a whole. And they are all unambiguously and unmistakably depicted as the main villains in Gibson’s movie.

Finally, it is highly significant and telling that the self-directed curse uttered by the Jewish mob in Matthew 27:25 (“His blood be on us, and on our children”) is actually included as a line in the movie. Gibson had claimed that he removed the line from the movie’s final cut, but in reality the only thing he removed were the subtitles for the line. Viewers who understood Aramaic quickly caught on to this little “Easter egg.”

Those who do not already harbor anti-Semitic prejudices going in will most likely not end up becoming anti-Semitic going out. And yet, people who do feel such prejudices will certainly be able to garner a great deal of ammunition for their already-existing anti-Semitism by watching this film. Charging Gibson’s movie with anti-Semitism should be accompanied by an acknowledgment that the anti-Semitism we are reacting to does not start with him. There is plenty of fuel for anti-Semitic sentiment in the pages of Scripture. The problem is that devout, Bible-believing people who do not consciously hold repugnant anti-Semitic views have nevertheless unthinkingly committed themselves to saying they believe every word of the Bible to be true. This they do not knowing that the Bible contains many ideas and viewpoints that most people in civilized society today would never want to associate with. Most people who say they believe the Bible to be a perfect guide to life simply have not read the whole book. They have just heard from their preachers that they are supposed to accept the whole book as truth in order to avoid hellfire, so they say they do.


More Historical Errors and Embellishments

We have seen that the movie’s portrayals of Pontius Pilate and of high-ranking Jewish characters such as Caiaphas are ideological in nature and not based on history. This is decidedly the case with all the other characters featured in the movie. In this section, we’ll examine some prominently-featured characters and take note of the artistic license and embellishments Gibson indulges in for each one, starting with Jesus himself.


Throughout history, it has been typical for passion plays to represent the Christ figure as being distinctly European, even Anglo-Saxon, in appearance. The “European Christ” is the most traditional rendering that originated, of course, with the Roman Catholic Church. It remained a staple feature of most all Passion Plays for many centuries, and the vast majority of Hollywood’s portrayals of Jesus owe much to the Roman Catholic Church in this regard. There is hardly anything new about it.

The Passion of the Christ is certainly no exception and breaks no new ground in this area. While actor Jim Caviezel in his role as Jesus looks somewhat Semitic, he does so only in the modern sense. The movie’s make-up artists did not manage to capture what Jews in first century Palestine probably looked like. If a historical Jesus existed, he would most likely appear to all eyes as a nondescript Arab peasant. Any attempt by dramatists to make the Jesus character stand out from the crowd, and especially to be a white Caucasian, is therefore highly inaccurate.

A common tactic that has often been used in Passion Plays throughout history was to make Jesus appear almost Aryan, complete with blue eyes and beautifully-groomed blonde hair, as a point of contrast to the villainous and very Semitic-looking Jews. Such depictions belied either ignorance or apathy toward the fact that Jesus, assuming he existed, would himself have been a practicing Jew. This prejudicial typecasting has a long history. Even in paintings from a thousand years ago which depict crucifixion and other passion scenes, we see a distinctly Aryan Christ surrounded by people who are clearly made to conform to the popular prejudicial stereotype of what a Jew looks like. And while some people will make more of it than others, there are indeed a lot of “hooked noses” so to speak among the shouting mobs in The Passion of the Christ.

It should be noted that Jesus’ physical appearance is not described anywhere in the Bible, and there is not even much detail to be found anywhere, biblical or otherwise, concerning his heritage. Even if we had good, solid, rock-hard evidence that a man fitting the basic description of the biblical Jesus existed and that all the things claimed of him actually happened historically, no one knows for certain what his appearance would have been. This includes the Nazarenes who believe they have special knowledge of Jesus’ hairdo. The fact remains that virtually all visual representations of Jesus made throughout history were intended to serve the purposes of dramatic effect, not historical accuracy.


The appearance of Satan as a character in Gibson’s movie is another very interesting spin that confirms the ahistorical and pro-mythological nature of the movie. Satan is here played by a woman (Rosalinda Celentano), who looks to the uninitiated viewer to be either a very effeminate man or a very butch woman. The physical appearance of Celentano’s Satan is indeed very gender-ambiguous, an effect that was enhanced by altering the actress’s voice (which she consciously made an effort to deepen) with a harmonizer to render the voice more metallic. [9] This gender-ambiguity applied to the Satan character holds underlying ideological significance. Catholic doctrine has traditionally taken an especially strict stance on gender roles, such that failure to fit into a well-defined gender category is condemned by the Catholic worldview as evil. [10] In fact, presenting Satan as an androgynous figure, whose closest approximation to any predefined gender is one of either effeminate male or butch female, may even have been a very subtle anti-homosexual commentary by Gibson on particular marriage equality controversies current in the early 2000s.

But subtle underlying politics aside, it is interesting to visually experience the Devil as a presence throughout the movie, especially the scene near the end which has Satan screaming in rage from the pits of hell as a representation of the spiritual defeat he suffered when Jesus completed his self-sacrifice. But this also means that The Passion of the Christ is pure fantasy, not history.

Herod Antipas

I want here to point to the movie’s portrayal of the Jewish King Herod Antipas (played by Luca De Dominicis) as a data point further supporting the point I alluded to briefly above that The Passion contains an underlying anti-gay message. Gibson has been accused of blatant homophobia ever since his 1995 movie Braveheart, which controversially depicted the Prince of Wales (who became King Edward II) as an effeminate homosexual whose male lover is thrown out of a high window by the prince’s father Edward I. This trend, if understated, continues in The Passion of the Christ, which clearly did not make any strides towards making the homophobia charges against Gibson go away. In The Passion, Herod is made up in a terrible wig and is depicted as extremely flamboyant. This characterization of Herod is also found in Emmerich’s book of Passion visions, from which Gibson derived his primary inspiration. Emmerich describes Herod in that work as a “luxuriant and effeminate prince.” [11]


Most people are familiar with the passages in the Gospels that refer to the politically-conciliatory tradition, allegedly maintained by the Roman government, of releasing one prisoner every year at Passover as a way of keeping those “uppity Jews” from turning their drunken religious revelry into an all-out uprising and insurrection. There is no evidence that the Romans in general or Pilate in particular did any such thing, and it would make very little sense for them to do so. The alleged custom of releasing a prisoner every Passover is likely yet another Gospel fiction, designed to blame the Jews for the death of Jesus and exonerate the Romans. [12] But the historical circumstances of the time tell a different story. A very substantial garrison of Roman soldiers was maintained in nearby Caesarea. Reinforcements from this large garrison were brought into Jerusalem every year at Passover, this being a time when revolutionary fervor among the Jewish populace tended to peak. The presence of this substantial Roman military presence renders any apologetic defense of Pilate’s actions invalid.

Further, the name “Barabbas” is a dead giveaway that the character is a fictional contrivance. “Barabbas” ultimately derives from the Aramaic bar-abbâ, literally meaning “son of the father.” Thus, New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman suggests that “the story of the release of Barabbas is a story about which kind of ‘son of the father’ the Jewish people preferred. . . . In these Christian recollections, the Jewish people preferred the murdering insurrectionist to the self-sacrificing savior.” [13] The Passion of the Christ perpetuates this distorted and anti-Semitic Christian recollection.

The Barabbas story, it should be mentioned, is the one and only bit of comic relief to be found in Gibson’s movie – it is rather amusing to watch Barabbas (played by Pietro Sarubbi) strutting around the crowd upon being released and gloating in wild excitement over being let off the hook.

Judas Iscariot

Bible nerds who are bothered by the two opposing and contradictory accounts we find in the New Testament of the manner in which Judas Iscariot dies may want to see The Passion of the Christ. The answer they are seeking, according to Gibson’s Gospel, is that Judas hangs himself, as related in Matthew 27:5: “And he [Judas] cast down the pieces of silver in the temple, and departed, and went and hanged himself.” Gibson doesn’t even attempt to harmonize this with the conflicting version found in Acts 1:16-19, according to which Judas threw himself off a cliff with the result that he “burst asunder in the midst, and all his bowels gushed out.” The fact that Gibson does not choose to harmonize the two conflicting accounts of Judas’ death is quite surprising, since Emmerich, the stigmatic mystic nun upon whose passion visions the movie is based, did attempt an imaginative resolution to the discrepancy. According to her vision, “Overcome by despair Judas tore off his girdle, and hung himself on a tree which grew in a crevice of the rock, and after death his body burst asunder, and his bowels were scattered around.” [14]

Given the over-the-top nature of the rest of the movie, I must confess I was a bit disappointed that the filmmakers opted for just a plain hanging, instead of the “human landmine” version where special effects would treat us to the awesome spectacle of actor Luca Lionello literally exploding and spraying the screen. In fact, if it were up to me, I would definitely have chosen to use the variant version of Judas’ death preserved by the early Church father Papias:

Judas walked about in this world a sad [literally translated ‘great’] example of impiety; for his body having swollen to such an extent that he could not pass where a chariot could pass easily, he was crushed by the chariot, so that his bowels gushed out [literally translated ‘were emptied out’]. [15]

Indeed, there exist many bizarre non-canonical and folkloric stories about the Judas character dating from just the first few centuries CE that Gibson could have chosen. Scholars are not even agreed on just how many legendary and mythical elements have found their way into the various Judas cycles. A strong scholarly consensus interprets the whole character of Judas, including the name itself, to be a metaphorical cue designed to symbolize the Jewish people as a whole. Christianity’s depiction of Judas as a treacherous betrayer stems from a deeply-rooted anti-Semitism. The English word “Jew” is derived from the Latin word Iudaeus. This root word in turn is very similar to the Greek Ιουδαίος (Ioudaios), usually translated as “Judaean.” The Gospel of John, which we have seen is the second most influential source of Gibson’s inspiration for his movie, goes further than any of the other three canonical gospels in portraying Judas in the most evil manner possible. [16] And it is highly probable that either the original writer or a later redactor/editor of John’s gospel went out of his way to construct a parallel between Judas, the land of Judaea, and the Judaean people (or Jews), for example in 6:70-71. This would suggest that the similarity between the name “Judas” and the word for “Jew” in the various European languages has been instrumental in facilitating and encouraging anti-Semitism among the orthodox branches of Christianity. [17] As for the name “Iscariot,” this is thought by some scholars to be a Hellenized epithet possibly identifying Judas as a member of the Sicarii (the plural form of the Latin word meaning “contract-killer” or “assassin”). The Sicarii, a band of Jewish Zealots, were one of many extremist rebel groups that existed in ancient Palestine. [18]



Due to the copious amount of publicity and pre-release hype, The Passion of the Christ made $26.6 million on opening day. It pulled in $117.5 million in its first five days of release, making it the second-biggest five-day opening of all time (coming in just behind 2003’s The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, which made a record $124 million in its first five days). Mel Gibson enjoyed a release screening before an audience of 3,000 for a movie that would certainly have suffered an early death in art houses had it not been a movie about Jesus Christ. Not only is The Passion a foreign language film, it is a dead language film with subtitles, making it a movie accessible only to the literate. On top of this, the movie is hyper-violent and received an R-rating from the Motion Picture Association of America when it should have been given an NC-17 rating for its level of violence if the MPAA rating board had treated it impartially. Again, the fact that the movie is about Jesus is likely a large part of the reason it avoided that NC-17 rating. Domestically, the film topped off at close to $371 million, half of which went directly into Gibson’s pocket.

All this goes to show that there is no better publicity for a movie than when great controversy surrounds it. That controversy is the only thing that makes the movie interesting and culturally relevant, and I think every atheist can get something from watching it. On top of this, I believe the movie actually works well as a potent antidote against conversion to Christianity for fence-sitting nonbelievers. [19] Gibson’s Passion in many ways forced the American public to come face to face with the uncomfortable yet undeniable fact that Christianity has, as its foundation and basis, an extremely violent and bloody event. In fact, Christianity celebrates a bloody and barbaric human sacrifice as its central and defining tenet. This can also be seen in the hundreds of devotional hymns written specifically about the blood of Jesus, hymns with lyrics like “There is a fountain filled with blood drawn from Emmanuel’s veins” [20] and “Are you washed in the blood, In the soul-cleansing blood of the lamb?” [21] This should be revolting to anyone who takes a few moments to reflect on what exactly is being praised. And is it not true that the believers who take seriously the bizarre doctrine of transubstantiation when they partake of communal bread and wine are actually engaging in cannibalism, if what they believe is really true?



[1] Anne Catherine Emmerich, The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ ([1833] New York: Cosimo Books, 1923).

[2] Peter J. Boyer, “The Jesus War: Mel Gibson’s Obsession,” The New Yorker, September 15, 2003, p. 71.

[3] Emmerich, The Dolorous Passion, pp. 174, 175.

[4] Anti-Defamation League, “ADL Concerned Mel Gibson’s ‘Passion’ Could Fuel Anti-Semitism if Released in Present Form,” (ADL Press Release, August 11, 2003), (accessed April 19, 2017).

[5] Thomas Whittaker, The Origins of Christianity: with An Outline of Van Manen’s Analysis of the Pauline Literature, Fourth Edition (London: Watts & Co., 1933), pp. 38-39.

[6] Many historians have been able to pick up on the numerous historical inaccuracies that find their way into the movie. To take just one example, the movie has Roman soldiers speaking a colloquial street Latin when (to be historically accurate) they should have been speaking Greek, the official language for administrative communication. See Dr. Andrea Berlin and Dr. Jodi Magness, “Two Archaeologists Comment on The Passion of the Christ,” Archaeological Institute of America (March 2004), (accessed April 17, 2017).

[7] W. Francis H. King, ed., Classical and Foreign Quotations: A Polyglot Manual of Historical and Literary Sayings, Noted Passages in Poetry and Prose Phrases, Proverbs, and Bons Mots, Third Edition (London: J. Whitaker & Sons, Limited, 1904), p. 238.

[8] Paul Kurtz, “The Passion as a Political Weapon: Anti-Semitism and Gibson’s Use of the Gospels,” in in Jorge J.E. Gracia, ed., Mel Gibson’s Passion and Philosophy: The Cross, the Questions, the Controversy (Chicago and La Salle, IL: Open Court, 2004), p. 93.

[9] Angela Baldassarre, “A Very Passionate Celentano,” Tandem News, March 21, 2004, (accessed April 20, 2017).

[10] See, for example, Ronald L. Conte, Jr., “A Conservative Catholic Point of View,” Catholic Planet, n.d. (last updated January 7, 2012), (accessed April 20, 2017). Of course, this narrow and bigoted view of gender roles has unfortunately not been restricted only to Catholicism of late.

[11] Emmerich, The Dolorous Passion, p. 195.

[12] Bart D. Ehrman, Jesus Before the Gospels: How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented Their Stories of the Savior (New York: HarperOne, 2016), pp. 171-73.

[13] Ibid, p. 173.

[14] Emmerich, The Dolorous Passion, p. 176.

[15] Fragments of Papias, Fragment III, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers: Translations of The Writings of the Fathers down to A.D. 325, Volume I – The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenæus (American Reprint of the [1885] Edinburgh Edition), eds. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson and Arthur Cleveland Coxe (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1950-), p. 153.

[16] Matthew O’Neil, Judas (Atheist Republic, 2015), pp. 8-10.

[17] Hyam Maccoby, Antisemitism and Modernity: Innovation and Continuity (London: Routledge, 2006), p. 14.

[18] Robert Eisenman, James the Brother of Jesus: The Key to Unlocking the Secrets of Early Christianity and the Dead Sea Scrolls (New York: Penguin Books, 1997), p. 179.

[19] I have argued that a similar “conversion antidote” case can be made for the massively popular Christian end-times fiction series Left Behind by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. See Nathan Dickey, “A Critical Analysis of the ‘Left Behind’ Series,”, October 19, 2014, (accessed April 24, 2017).

[20] William Cowper (1772), “There is a Fountain Filled with Blood,” (accessed April 16, 2017).

[21] Elisha A. Hoffman (1878), “Are You Washed in the Blood?” (accessed April 16, 2017).

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