Questions Surrounding “The Passion of the Christ”/Program 2

By: Dr. Darrell Bock; ©2000
How accurate to the historical evidence is this movie?”



Today on The John Ankerberg Show: Questions surrounding Mel Gibson’s controversial movie, The Passion of the Christ. The word “passion” comes from the Latin word for suffering. It usually refers to the last twelve hours of Christ’s earthly life, from His agony in the Garden of Gethsemane to His death on the Cross. Some critics question the historical reliability of the movie, but their greater fear seems to be that Gibson has succeeded far too well.

How did a realistic movie about Jesus get to be so controversial? What is the point of the film? Is it historically accurate? How does it answer the question, “Who killed Jesus?” Is the film “anti-Semitic”? What are the artistic liberties taken in the film? Why did Jesus have to die and did He really rise from the dead?

My guests today answering these questions are some of the most prominent scholars in the world. They include : Dr. Darrell Bock, Research Professor of New Testament Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary; Dr. N. T. Wright, Canon Theologian of Westminster Abbey in England; Dr. Ben Witherington, Professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary; Dr. William Lane Craig, Research Professor at Talbot School of Theology; Dr. Craig Blomberg, Professor of New Testament, Denver Seminary; and Dr. Gary Habermas, Professor of Apologetics and Philosophy, Liberty University.

We invite you to join us.

Ankerberg: Much of America is turning out to watch Mel Gibson’s film, The Passion of the Christ. Gibson has said he made the movie because he wanted people to see the enormity of Jesus’ sacrifice. He went on to say, “I want to bring the viewer to the events. I wanted to be true to the gospel.” USA Today reported Gibson said his movie was shaped by “a literal reading of the Gospels.” But Gibson’s dream to create a movie that accurately portrayed the death and resurrection of Christ is apparently more than some people in the liberal media establishment can stomach. As a result, they have attacked Gibson and his movie, making it into a source of great controversy.
One of the scholars asked by ABC to sit in on Diane Sawyer’s interview with Mel Gibson, to be an expert witness on the historical aspects of The Passion, was Dr. Darrell Bock. He received his PhD at the University of Aberdeen and is Research Professor of New Testament at Dallas Theological Seminary. He has authored or been the editor of more than ten books, including the two-volume Commentary on Luke, as well as Studying the Historical Jesus, and Jesus According to Scripture. He was nice enough to sit down with us in his busy schedule and give us his opinion on some of the key questions surrounding The Passion of the Christ.

Ankerberg: I want to ask you right off the bat, how accurate to the historical evidence is this movie?
Bock: Well, I think this is the most accurate film that we’ve had yet of Jesus’ final hours. It doesn’t step back from the violence of crucifixion. Crucifixion was an incredibly violent death. It was so violent that Roman citizens were protected from having to face it. It was viewed as a privilege of Roman citizenship to avoid such a death. It would involve scourging; it would involve hanging from the cross that everybody is familiar with. And so to depict that in some detail is really to depict the suffering of Jesus in an accurate kind of way.
It also gets into the tensions of first century politics in an effective way; particularly the complexity of Jesus’ relationship to the Jewish leadership as well as the complexity of the Jewish relationship to Pilate and to Rome. And it does so in a way that shows the tensions of first century politics and the inconsistencies in some of the relationships as they waffle and waver to figure out exactly how to deal with what they perceive to be a difficult situation.
Ankerberg: Some people are asking, though, you know, why should any filmmaker try to reproduce the story of Jesus? Is it worth it to tell this story and risk opening old religious wounds?
Bock: I think it’s very much worth it. The story is one of the most basic elements of the Christian faith, and if anyone, just at a cultural level, is going to understand what makes Christianity tick and what makes Christians tick, then they’ve got to know this story and be familiar with it. But, at a more fundamental level, it’s a fundamental story about what God has done through Jesus Christ, and that story is always worth telling. You know, there was an old movie called The Greatest Story Ever Told, and that’s what this is.
Ankerberg: There have been concerns that have been raised by the Jewish community—some of the leaders in the Jewish community—that this film could stir up old animosities and should be seen, they say, in an anti-Semitic light. You’ve seen the movie. Give me the general impression that you had. First of all, did it hit you as anti-Semitic?
Bock: Didn’t hit me as anti-Semitic, and that’s probably for a couple of reasons. One is that the Romans were portrayed in a much more blood-thirsty manner and enjoying the whipping of Jesus much more than any other characters. I think they’re the least sympathetic characters in the movie. I think the second reason is that, as a Christian, I’m thinking about what Jesus is going through for me, as opposed to being focused on who did what to Jesus.
Now, I will say this. Someone who walks into the movie who’s not a Christian, who doesn’t have that understanding of the story, doesn’t identify with the story that way, might perceive the story differently. And that’s why this discussion about what the movie is and is not is so important. Because I think it’s important for people to appreciate, one, what the movie is attempting to do, and what the movie is not. And it’s not an attempt to put blame on any particular group or group of people. It’s an attempt to show the complexity of the fact that Jesus willingly went to the cross and did so, basically, with everyone opposed to Him when He finally undertook the suffering.
Ankerberg: When you talk about the Passion plays, people bring up, “Hey, this is the kind of thing that was shown in the Middle Ages, and it has fostered an anti-Semitic view.” And then they point out even Hitler went to one of the Passion plays and got all wound up about killing Jews. So, should people not have Passion plays anymore?
Bock: Well, I think it’s important to appreciate what the history is and why it is that Jewish people in particular would be nervous about this kind of portrayal. There is a rather undistinguished history that’s associated with Passion plays. And certainly it isn’t the Christian desire to fuel up anti-Semitism. In fact, I think if the film does that, it fails to communicate its most basic message. And most Christians aren’t aware of that history, so I think it’s an important discussion. But I think the danger here is that, rather than getting buzz around the movie, we’re getting static. And the static is an attempt, I think, to deflect the most fundamental message of the film. And so I would urge people that, as they view the film, to pay attention to why someone claiming to be the Son of God would voluntarily enter into this death. And not seek to blame the people around Jesus for what He’s going through, but understand what He’s going through theologically and historically, for that matter, as He consciously takes on this path on behalf of you and me.
Ankerberg: Yeah. Even when I remember watching Schindler’s List, I thought of the horrors that were going on and I realized there were certain German people that were doing it. But I didn’t walk away saying that I should hate Germans now. And it seems like we’re being motivated that, if you go to a Passion play and you were to see an accurate historical depiction of what took place, that somehow that you would be doing something wrong.
Bock: Yeah, I mean, the Passion is about religious and historical conflict in the first century. There’s no way to get into it without getting into the debate and the fact that someone died as a result at the end of it. There’s no way around it. And so that conflict is very important to understand why there is at the root of Christianity and Judaism this difference that exists between the two faiths. And to inform people about that actually is a service, provided people’s passions don’t get too inflamed in the process.
Ankerberg: How do you answer the question, the true question, true statement about the Church in the Middle Ages via the Crusades? Some Christians sincerely, purposely, set out to kill Jews, and they had the ideas that the Jews were responsible for killing Christ. Now, how do you respond to the non-Christian that says, “Yeah, that happened.” How do we frame that?
Bock: Well, I think the most important thing here is to say it’s simply an abuse of the gospel. It was a misapplication of Jesus’ message, and it was the use of power in relationship to religion that is something that was contrary to Jesus’ teaching and preaching. He said we should forgive those who hate us; we should pray for those who persecute us. The effort should be to reach out to those who think differently. You couldn’t have a more contrastive stand to Jesus’ teaching. It just shows that some people didn’t absorb His message.
Ankerberg: It seems to me, Darrell, that the controversy is going to more and more focus on whether or not we have accurate, historical information about Jesus and His life and His death. Going back to Mel Gibson in saying that he based his movie in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. John Dominic Crossan says, “Look, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John were Gospels. If you were to ask these writers, ‘What are you writing?’ they would says, ‘It’s not history. We never claimed that. They’re gospels.’” What is the difference between a gospel and history, and what was John Dominic Crossan trying to do here?
Bock: Well, first of all, let’s say that gospels and history are not antonyms, which is the way Crossan has set this up. If you ask the Evangelists what they were doing, they would have said, “We are writing good news, but that is good news rooted in history. We have the testimony of people who were with Jesus, around Jesus, who’ve passed it on orally, and we’re not making things up. This is not Jesus being created out of thin air. This is a Jesus we saw. This is the Jesus we heard. This is a Jesus we held. This is a Jesus we loved.” And so to tell good news, and even to tell it from a perspective, doesn’t mean that you have undercut the basic history of what’s going on and the things that He was involved with: the conflicts that He was in; the disagreements that He had; the nature of His death. So, I think this is another example of static. This is static tuned up to the highest level where we’re working at major decibel levels here trying to undercut what the Gospels are, which is a faithful portrayal of what Jesus taught and what Jesus did.
Ankerberg: Another part of the discussion that comes up constantly is the trial scenes themselves that are in the movie. Are these historical depictions? You did one year of study in Germany and wrote a monograph just on this area, part of your doctoral work and so on. The thing that I’d like to ask you is, take us back to this trial. One of the criticisms is that you have irreconcilable conflicts between Matthew, Mark, Luke and John in terms of what happened on Thursday night going into Friday, the day of the crucifixion.
Second is that Pilate, as depicted in the Gospels and in Mel Gibson’s movie, is not the Pilate of history. So that’s got to be wrong! That’s not historical. Paula Fredriksen and others have said this is not accurate to history. You have disagreed in your writings. But take us through that sequence slowly. Take us through: on Thursday night, Jesus is taken. Where is He taken? And try to blend these accounts. Is there irreconcilable conflict here, or does it actually come together?
Bock: Well, once Jesus was arrested, He was taken to the home of the high priest in all likelihood. This would have been where Annas, who is the patriarch of the family, lived, as well as Caiaphas, who was high priest at the time, his son-in-law. There was an initial encounter apparently between Jesus and Annas that was very brief, short exchange. Only John tells us about it. And then we end up with some kind of a gathering of major Jewish leaders, whether it was the whole Sanhedrin or just a significant portion of them, that’s something that could be discussed. But it was certainly the major Jewish leadership talking a look at Jesus.
This is traditionally called “The Trial.” It probably wasn’t a trial. It’s probably more like a grand jury investigation. What the Jewish leadership is trying to do is to gather information, evidence, so they can take it to Rome; because they want Jesus removed from the scene; they want Him dead. And the only person who can execute Jesus is Pilate.
They also want it done legally. This is very important. They want it done in a way that makes a statement to “Christians,” and they want it done in a way that will prevent anyone from saying that there was sleight-of-hand. And, actually, they’ve got a double buffer, because Judas is the one who is responsible for handing over Jesus. They can claim on the front end that one of His own turned Him in. And if Rome does it on the other end, they end up being finally responsible, and there’s a level of protection involved.
So, they’re gathering together to find this information. They start with the temple, according to Mark, because that is the most obvious political and socially inflaming act that Jesus performed. And if they can get testimony at that level, it would be easy to bring a political charge against Jesus.
Ankerberg: You say they start talking about the temple; you’re actually talking about Jesus’ statement about the temple.
Bock: And also to some degree, probably, the cleansing incident that’s associated, in all likelihood, with it. But they can’t get the witnesses to agree, so that fails. And to the leadership’s credit, they have enough credibility in the midst of what they’re doing to recognize this will never wash with Rome. We’ve got to do better than this.
Ankerberg: What was it Jesus said about the temple?
Bock: The statement had to do with that He could destroy this temple and in three days raise it up. And so the destruction of the temple would be a very politically sensitive situation. Imagine if we had the temple in Jerusalem today and someone said, “I’m going to level this!”
Ankerberg: John Dominic Crossan says this is like a terrorist incident.
Bock: Yeah. Yeah. It’s mega-terror is what it would be. I mean, it would inflame everybody.
Ankerberg: And Pilate would have been against that, because he’s supposed to keep peace as well.
Bock: Exactly right.
Ankerberg: But Jesus didn’t mean that.
Bock: That’s exactly right. And so, because they couldn’t get agreement on it, they basically dropped this entire question.
Ankerberg: But what I hear is it has a historical flavor to this thing that that would have been, if they are searching for something to bring to Pilate, that would be a logical question to try to see how Jesus would answer that.
Bock: That’s right. It’s very important to understand that they’re trying to bring a political charge to Pilate, because Pilate doesn’t care about the religious disputes that Jesus has had with the leadership. That would mean nothing to him. That would mean nothing to him politically; that would mean nothing to him socially as the Roman ruler. And so they’ve got to frame it in some type of political way. And the leadership is out to stop Jesus, there’s no doubt about it. He’s too volatile for them.
Ankerberg: Alright, and so they start their searching and fact finding, a kind of grand jury investigation behind the scene to try to get a charge that they can make float with Pilate, okay. So this is what’s going on. The different Gospel writers give us a piece of that. That’s what Mark starts with. Then where does it go?
Bock: Well, this discussion apparently went most of the evening. And there is some discussion, again, something that could be discussed and debated with good reason, whether there were two separate trials or whether, in fact, what we have is something that went through the evening that ended up in the morning. And so some Gospel writers talk about an evening investigation; and some Gospel writers talk about a morning investigation. It probably has more to do with the length of time spent on this. They wanted to get it right. This was going to be their one chance to deliver Jesus to Pilate, and they had Pilate in the city, so they wanted to be sure they had their act together when they took Him.
Ankerberg: At the end of those conversations, where does it go next?
Bock:Well, the ultimate question comes from the high priest himself, and the question has to do with whether Jesus is the Messiah, “the Son of the Most High” is the way Mark puts it. [Mark 14:61] He doesn’t allude directly to God; he uses a roundabout way to refer to him to show his respect for God. And Jesus answers in kind. He says, “I am. And you will see the Son of Man seated at the right-hand of power, coming on the clouds.” [Mark 14:62] The Jews in the leadership know immediately what Jesus is saying and react to this as blasphemy. Now, the question is, why? Well, it’s real simple. Jesus is claiming that He can go directly to the right hand of the Father in Heaven. He is claiming vindication. He is also claiming to be the Son of Man. This is the final Judge. So, basically, Jesus says, “You say I’m a defendant here and I’m on trial. But one day I’m going to sit in the Judge seat. I’m going to judge you. I’m not the defendant here, you are. Watch what you’re doing.”
They didn’t like the answer. They didn’t like the answer because of what it said about the limits of Jewish leadership, and they didn’t like the answer because of what it said about Jesus’ authority and God’s accepting Him—mind you, not just at the right hand of the temple, not that He could be like the high priest and go into the Holy of Holies that symbolized Heaven—no, God was going to take Him directly to His side. There couldn’t have been anything that was more an affront to Jewish ears than Jesus’ reply.
So, the argument that some critics put forth, that He didn’t utter the words, the name of God, and so it wasn’t blasphemy and so that doesn’t fit the first century model of blasphemy; or the claim to Messiah is not blasphemous in and of itself—both points of which are true: the technical definition of blasphemy did require the name of God, and to claim to be Messiah was not blasphemous—it ignores the force of this reply. The force of this reply is: “I’m going to be at the side of the Father. He’s going to vindicate me. I’m going to be your Judge. I have the authority. I speak for God. In fact, I’m going to be able to go into God’s presence.” And that doesn’t happen unless you’re pretty high up on the ladder. They got the message; they ripped their robes. It was all over. It was blasphemy. And they could turn around and make that a political charge. This is the important point. They could make it a political charge because Jesus had claimed to be the King. In fact, Jesus had claimed far more than that, but they didn’t need that to take Him to Pilate.
Ankerberg: Yeah. If you go back to the context of what has happened even before this, the rest we’ll do in another program: the temple cleansing and the things that Jesus had said before they ever got here. They were angry with Jesus themselves, but they needed a charge. So they now have on their side the religious charge; but for Pilate, they’ve got now a political charge. So they go to Pilate. And here comes step two of the criticism of Gibson’s movie, namely, “Hey, Pilate doesn’t seem to be acting like the Pilate of history.”
Bock: Pilate is under pressure by the time he is in this scene. We have recorded four incidents—we know the date of two of the incidents; we don’t know the date of two others—in which, in three of the incidents, political pressure put on by the Jews or the Jewish leadership altered what Pilate planned to do, or there was a consequence for what Pilate did.
Very early on in his rule he had military standards come into the city with idols on them or signs of idols and this was an affront to the Jews, a violation of the First Commandment. When Pilate threatened to kill the Jews who were protesting this, they lay down before them, bared their necks and said, “We would rather obey our commandments and suffer death.” Pilate saw the political realities and instantly said “This slaughter would not look good,” stepped back, and ordered the military standards out of town.
He took money from the temple to build an aqueduct, something the money wasn’t intended for. That upset the Jews. They protested. He wiped them out. Now, for this one there was no reprisal. He got to exercise a free hand. We don’t know the date of this incident, but it’s probably, again, pretty early on.
A third incident involved the use of votive shields. These would have been shields that again would have had signs and indications on them that again would have been First Commandment violations. And this time there was protest and the protest resulted in a rebuke from the emperor. So, again, if this happened before Jesus came before Pilate, he would have been very sensitive to what is going on. And even if it didn’t, the amount of Jewish reaction to Pilate’s insensitivity would have probably had him nervous. This would have been somewhat sprung on him, and I think he was making a judgment, if you will, on the fly. This wasn’t a situation where he was entirely in control.
And then the last incident involves some running over of some Samaritans, and the Jews joined in the protest. He gets recalled to visit the emperor. He loses his job. And who knows what would have happened, except that the emperor died before he got back to Rome, probably fortunate for Pilate.
Ankerberg: Alright, Darrell, summarize for us. Talk about anti-Semitism; the Gospels giving us good, accurate historical information; and the fact is, that the Pilate that is depicted in the movie as well as in the Gospels, there’s evidence in history that that is probably the Pilate we’re looking at.
Bock: Well, in anti-Semitism I think it’s simple to say that, although there are reasons for sensitivities, this film shouldn’t excite those sensitivities. And the discussion that we’ve had has been helpful in this regard in helping people to prepare at that level.
With regard to the Gospels being accurate history, they do a great job of summarizing a very complex situation, and particularly, the complexity that rotates around Pilate. He’s in the middle of a whirlwind between Jewish forces and his allegiance to Rome, trying to make a decision. He has a lot of power, but he can’t wield a free hand. And the Gospels reflect this tension that he feels himself, particularly when he looks at Jesus and says, “I don’t think this guy is guilty of a capital crime.”
Where does this leave us? This leaves us with a film that is accurate in its tenor and in its direction and in its tone, and it leads us to a solid reflection on the story about why Jesus died for you and me. It’s a message of hope that we need to embrace.
Ankerberg: Yeah. Besides this being an academic discussion about the background of this movie and the historical accuracy of the Gospels, what is the message of Jesus that is in the background of all of this? Why is it important?
Bock: Well, the message of Jesus is that “I am willing to go to the uttermost lengths because of my love and concern for every person on the earth, in all time, to undergo such a painful death. To pay, if you will, in a very graphic way the ultimate price—my life for yours, your sin for My sinlessness. Put that sinlessness on top of your sin, look at Me, and now, when I look at you, I see you as sinless because of My work on your behalf.” It’s called substitution, and that substitution means that a just God has paid my debt on my behalf because He loves me. That’s the story of this film.

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