Questions Surrounding “The Passion of the Christ”/Program 3

By: Dr. Darrell Bock; ©2000
What five things would he have asked Mel Gibson to change to make the movie more historically accurate?”



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: Many Americans are going to see Mel Gibson’s film, The Passion of the Christ. Today I’d like to discuss seven areas in the movie that have raised questions. First, those things Mel Gibson might have changed to make the movie more historically accurate. Second, how could Jesus go from the Triumphal Entry to being condemned to death in just five days? Third, did Jesus die for a religious reason or a political reason?
My guests today are some of the top Jesus scholars in the world, and we will begin with Dr. Darrell Bock, who appeared on ABC and NBC as an expert on the historical and theological background of Jesus. He is Research Professor of New Testament Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary. I asked him what five things would he have asked Mel Gibson to change to make the movie more historically accurate?” Listen:

Bock: Well, perhaps the most obvious one was the nature of the languages that were used, and he uses Latin and Aramaic. Greek and Aramaic would have been the two top languages in the region and they would have been the languages of exchange between the various cultures. Now, in my mind this is not a big problem, because the real point in the film is the “foreignness” of the language. We’re not hearing people speak English and so we get a sense of the distance of the culture and the times and the foreignness of the language. And so it’s not a big difference, but it certainly is one that, if you were being historical, it would be Greek and Aramaic.
Ankerberg: You say there was an exchange, a glance, that happened between Judas and Jesus that you took exception to. What was going on?
Bock: Well, I don’t know so much about to say that I took exception to it as much as it isn’t in the Scripture. It’s an artistic move. It’s probably designed to parallel the glance that Jesus has with Peter and his denials, which certainly is something the Scripture does note. And so it’s an artistic touch. I’m not sure how necessary it is. I think Judas went through enough torment in thinking through what he was doing without necessarily having had a moment when he and Jesus looked eye-to-eye at one point.
Ankerberg: What would you have advised? I mean, somehow we have this information from the four Gospels and from history about what happened during crucifixion, and none of us as Americans have watched it and so the fact is, you have to depict it; you have to come up with conversation in between. For example, Pilate married to a wife and so you assume they talk somewhere, and there are certain things that Matthew says about Pilate’s wife having a dream, and that’s a part of this movie. But where do you draw the line? Where is it okay to concoct dialogue? Where is it appropriate and where it that you say, “No, that’s not appropriate.”
Bock: Well, I think the question is a great one, because the moment you take the Passion account, which you can probably read in ten or fifteen minutes, and decide to turn it into a two-hour film, and, if you will, kind of put crucifixion in almost “real time” —this movie depicts the last twelve hours in two; that’s a pretty close time correspondence in comparison to most movies—you’re going to have to fill in space. You’re going to have narrative gaps, is what we call them, and you’re going to have to fill it in. I think as long as those gaps fit the tenor and tone of the accounts, you’re okay. And that’s why the Judas/Jesus glance, for example, isn’t a big deal, and it’s one in which one could make a call either way.
And there are other touches involving Mary and her point of view in the movie where the story is told from her point of view, which isn’t entirely surprising. You’ve got to do it from some point of view. And that leads to numerous additions involving Mary in the film. These are things that, if they fit in the flow of what the Gospels tell us about the characters, I think it’s okay. If they don’t, then you’re kind of crossing the line.
Ankerberg: Alright, you also say that the thieves on the cross, something happens in terms of the birds and so on. What did you find there?
Bock: I think this is a place where the violence, in my judgment, crosses the line and kind of run counter to the message of the film. At one point the thief who has mocked Jesus on the cross has his eyes plucked on and plucked out by birds as he’s hanging on the cross. It’s gruesome. Now, it could have happened, [but] it doesn’t happen in Scripture. And I just think it runs counter to the message of Jesus hanging on the cross, asking for the forgiveness of those who persecute Him and that kind of thing. So, I just sensed it was out of place.
Ankerberg: Then you have a couple of exceptions in terms of the setup of the cross. Explain that.
Bock: Well, the major one is, Jesus would have carried just the crossbeam and not the full cross to His crucifixion. The high bar, if you will, would have already been at the location. The second is that the nails would have gone in to His wrists and not the middle of His hands. The middle of the hands didn’t have enough bony material to hold up the body. The wrists, with all their complex bone structure, could support the weight. So those are a couple of little details relative to the crucifixion.
Another thing that’s in the movie that you never hear about are a series of sympathetic Jewish characters who defend Jesus as various points. There’s someone at the trial of Jesus, or the examination by the Jewish leadership, who is defending Him. There’s the girl, the Jewish girl who comes out and gives Him a drink of water as He’s on the way to Golgotha. There are various points, Simon of Cyrene at one point stops and tells the Romans to stop beating up Jesus as He’s walking on the way to the cross. These are details that are not in Scripture either, but they’re in the film; and they’re designed to show, again, this inner Jewish tension that Jesus raised for Jewish people. Some were against Him, and some were for Him.

Ankerberg: Second, I want to talk with you about whether or not we can trust the Gospel records in what they said about the crowds at Jesus’ Triumphal Entry and the crowds before Pilate. On NBC’s Dateline with Stone Phillips, Paula Fredriksen said, “The whole scene from the Gospel stories is incoherent. How could Jesus go from the Triumphal Entry to being condemned to death in just five days? Where does this hostile crowd come from? Did it really exist?”
The critics think that the Gospel writers, hence, Mel Gibson, got it all wrong. But scholars I’ve talked to disagree. To present the evidence, listen to Dr. Craig Evans, who was asked by NBC Dateline to appear as a historical/theological expert. He is Distinguished Professor of New Testament at Acadia Divinity College, Nova Scotia, Canada; and then, Dr. Ben Witherington, who is Professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary; and finally from Dr. Darrell Bock. Listen as they talk about Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, the size of the crowds, and why Jesus decided to go up to Jerusalem, knowing the danger He was in.

Ankerberg: The Gospel accounts say that just before Passover Jesus entered Jerusalem riding on a donkey. The Gospels say that He was greeted by crowds waving palm branches and hailing Him as the Messiah. [John 12:12-14] But what about those who assert that Jewish travelers always erupt in celebration when they arrive in Jerusalem for Passover? They were just singing and shouting as usual. They weren’t singing about Jesus.
Evans: There may have been some people who greeted any pilgrim entering the city with those kinds of shouts, but they don’t throw their garments down on the road; they don’t take palm branches and wave them; and, they don’t greet someone riding on a donkey this way. All of these things anyone, anyone, who knows Israel’s history, they realize this guy’s doing what Zechariah 9:9, the king who comes to the city humble, that’s what He’s doing. And the palm branches and the garments that are placed on the road, this is how they celebrated the entry into the city of other kings from Israel’s past. So, they knew what they were doing. This was a messianic greeting on the part of many of these pilgrims.
Ankerberg: How many people were following Jesus when He came to Passover in Jerusalem? Some scholars featured in the ABC Special said Jesus only had 10 or 20 followers.
Evans: I was astonished by that statement, because one of the things that we read in the Gospel account is that the ruling priests wanted to make a move against Jesus, but did not do so on account of the crowds, on account of Jesus’ popularity. If Jesus had a following of 10, 15, or 20, then Jesus could have been seized easily right at the beginning of that final week, and they would not have had to conspire and plot and try to take Jesus at night by stealth because He would have had no following. And so the fact that they had to move against Jesus in a stealthy fashion shows that there were large number of supporters, both from Galilee, who accompanied Him south, and also recent converts, you might say, from Judea and Jerusalem themselves.

Ankerberg: Besides questioning the number of followers Jesus had, some scholars wondered why Jesus wanted to go up to Jerusalem at all. Wasn’t He aware that He might be killed?
Witherington: Oh, I don’t think it would have taken a clairvoyant person to know that, in a politically volatile environment, that if you go around doing the kind of things Jesus did, and saying the kind of things Jesus did about the coming of the kingdom of God, that you could anticipate a violent end to your life. There’s no doubt about that.
Evans: I think He understood that He was going to have to die, and no prophet dies outside of Jerusalem. And so, Jesus has this sense of prophetic destiny to complete and fulfill His mission. It was time to go to Jerusalem. And what better time than to go at Passover time, the time that celebrates God’s deliverance of His people.
Bock: And that meant that He had to make certain declarations in the capital as the heartbeat center of the nation. And He also had to make claims of authority, which forced the choice. If you will go through the passages in the last week of Jesus’ life, virtually every one of them is about some issue tied to the authority of Jesus, and/or God using Him as an agent, or some aspect of who His person is.

Ankerberg: Now, after Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem, there is another event that took place that is not shown in Mel Gibson’s movie, but will help you understand what happened. It is when Jesus cleansed the temple by walking into it and turning over the tables of the moneychangers. Almost all scholars think He was a marked man from that point. Why? Drs. Darrell Bock, Ben Witherington and Craig Evans explain:

Ankerberg: When Jesus walked into the temple and turned over the tables of the moneychangers, was He a marked man from that point?
Bock: Yes. I mean, absolutely. He’s in the most sacred spot of Israel.
Witherington: What He’s done is He’s interrupted the process, not only of tribute money that supports the institution and allows it to exist, the temple as an institution, but He’s interrupted the process that leads to the sacrifices.
Evans: There’s not a chance in the world that Caiaphas would not learn of that and be very angry about it. But to size Him up, Jesus has taken action in the temple precincts and shortly thereafter, perhaps the next day or however we are to interpret the time line in Mark, a delegation of ruling priests comes to Jesus and says, “By what authority are you doing these things?” [Mark 11:28] I mean, they’re still standing there and He turns around and says to His own disciples: “A man had a vineyard,…” [Mark 12] and He goes on, alluding to Isaiah 5, tells this parable; but He introduces new characters into this parable. Isaiah doesn’t say anything about farmers tending the vineyard, Isaiah 5, but Jesus does. And, of course, He’s introduced the ruling priests into His parable, and they recognize that He’s told a parable against them. He has answered the question, “By what authority does He do these things?” From God. In fact, more than that, He’s God’s Son who has come into the vineyard. And these guys, the ruling priests, are about to murder Him. And they go away saying, “We’ve got to destroy this guy. He is serious trouble because He has just indirectly threatened us with being removed and replaced. So that’s it. It has escalated to the point now, we have to… it’s either Him or us. This town is not big enough for both of us. We’ve got to get rid of Him.”

Ankerberg: Now, Mel Gibson’s movie opens with Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, then moves to His capture, and His appearing before the Jewish authorities. What made them angry? Why did they decide Jesus should die? And what reason did they come up with that they were going to take to Pilate? Four prominent historical Jesus scholars comment on these events.

Ankerberg: Aware of the danger, Jesus went to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray. Some scholars in the ABC Special described Jesus as one who was deeply shocked and appalled at what He faced, a person who, because of fear, was on the edge of a complete mental and physical breakdown. It was further implied Jesus could have easily escaped when He saw the soldiers coming for Him, but instead, decided to walk right into their hands.
Evans: He’s not committing suicide, because He doesn’t take His own life. But there is some truth to that observation. Had Jesus wanted to flee, He could have fled. Jesus has informants, He knows to some extent what’s going on in the city. He knew it was hot, He knew He had to be careful. There were secret arrangements made for the Upper Room. So, if Jesus simply wanted to save His life, if that was His objective, He would have gotten out of town a day or two before He was arrested. But, no, He wanted to fulfill His ministry. I believe He sincerely believed that His death was necessary to complete His task.

Ankerberg: Then Jesus was taken to trial. In Mark we have two: one at night, one first thing in the morning. We have the same thing in Matthew. In Luke we only have one Jewish trial, just in the morning. In John we have no Jewish trial at all. Do we have contradictory reports?
Bock: No. What we have here is selectivity. I think that Mark and Matthew are giving us kind of the full portrait. I think that Luke’s giving us the Reader’s Digest version and I think John, in connection with his usual style, is giving us trial scenes or interview scenes that we don’t know about otherwise.
And, again, in asking about the trial, this is a grand jury investigation; it’s not a formal trial. Had it been a trial, they couldn’t have met on a feast day. But because this is a special situation, an emergency situation—they’ve got Pilate right there in the city; they can finish the job in the weekend if they get on it—they get on it and they get it done; because the last thing they want to do is to have Jesus imprisoned with His followers gathered in the city, wondering what’s going to happen. They don’t want this drawn out. They want to get it over with as quick as possible.
Ankerberg:Concerning the trial, Mark records: “The high priest arose and came forward and questioned Jesus, saying, ‘Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?’ and Jesus said, ‘I Am, and you shall see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of power and coming with the clouds of heavens.’ And tearing his clothes, the high priest said, ‘What further need do we have of witnesses? You have heard the blasphemy. How does it seem to you?’ And they all condemned Him to be deserving of death.” [Mark 14:61-64]
Habermas:At that point, when the Jewish priest says, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One,” notice what Jesus does. “Are you the Christ [Messiah] the Son of God”? And Jesus says, “Ego eimi, I am.” And then He changes a Son of God question to a Son of man answer. He says, “I am the Christ, the Son of God, and you will see the Son of man coming with the clouds of heaven in judgment.” [Mark 14:61-62]
And the priest makes a formal declaration of blasphemy. He rips his garment. He says, “The rest of you witnesses can go home. We’ve gotcha.”
Evans: This is one case where Jesus Himself affirms explicitly His messianic identity, and that, in my opinion, points to the veracity of the Gospels. If the Gospels are fictions, they’re going to have Jesus walking around all the time saying and doing messianic things. The Gospels don’t do that, and I think that’s because the Gospels are restrained by what actually happened, what Jesus actually said.
Habermas: Now, what set him off? In the passage there in Mark 14, Jesus says, “Ego eimi, I am the Son of God.” Then He says, “And you will see the Son of man coming with the clouds of heaven.” Number one is it’s a virtual quote from Daniel 7:13-14. He claims to be the preexistent One who comes from the Ancient of Days to set up God’s Kingdom. And secondly, He uses this enigmatic phrase, “coming with the clouds.” That phrase is used dozens of times in Scriptures as a reference to deity. And Jesus said, “That’s Me.”
Witherington: But they also knew that throughout the Old Testament the one who was given the right to offer final judgment on the world was God Himself. And so somebody who claims to come on the clouds and offer final judgment has got to be some kind of divine figure for sure. And this was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Bock: They ask Him if He’s the Messiah because they need a political charge to take to Pilate. If He says He’s the Messiah, they’ve got their charge; they can go to Pilate, they can say, “He’s claiming to be a king, you’ve got to stop Him!” If there’s one thing Rome doesn’t care for, it’s people calling themselves kings and gathering followers around themselves. And so, “That’s your responsibility to stop;” that’s going to be the case they are going to take to Rome. Jesus says more. Jesus says, “Not only am I that Messiah, it’s not just that; I am the One who is going to be given judgment authority and I am not on trial here, you are! One day I’m going to come back on the clouds as the Son of Man and be the eschatological judge. And you’re thinking about putting Me to death?” It’s quite a moment. It’s a moment in which what the Jews hear as blasphemy comes up against Jesus’ claim that God is going to exalt Him. And it’s the crashing of two ideologies, right there in that trial scene.
Ankerberg: Did the Jewish leaders understand it that way?
Evans: Oh, I think they very clearly understood it that way. That’s why the high priest rips his robes, screams “Blasphemy! We don’t need any other witnesses.” They all agree, they condemn Him to death, and He’s handed over to the Roman governor for execution. [Mark 14:63-64]

Ankerberg: Now, for the most controversial question. Mel Gibson follows the lead of the Gospel writers in showing that the Jewish leaders were responsible for inciting the crowds to call for Jesus’ death before Pilate. The critics say this is not true and shows the anti-Semitic viewpoint of the Christian Church and those who wrote the Gospels. But is that true? I asked Dr. Darrell Bock this question and what he says next is very important, so please listen carefully:
Bock: Okay, and there are two points here, also, that are important. The first is that this is the first century inner-Jewish conflict. And it was a major conflict; it wasn’t a minor conflict. Jesus and the Jewish leadership were disputing who spoke for God, and whose path, if you will, led to God. So this was the fundamental conflict that we’re talking about. The people who are seeking Jesus’ crucifixion genuinely, sincerely believed that Jesus was not who He claimed to be; that He needed to be stopped, and that they were being faithful to their commitment to their historic Jewish faith in stopping Him. All these passages that come out of this scene, you know, “His blood be upon us and upon our children,” [Matt. 27:25] all that they are indicating is a very graphic Middle Eastern way of saying, “We take responsibility for the decision that we are making. We think we are right here. And Jesus needs to be stopped and we’re willing to take the responsibility for it.” It’s very consistent; it’s very understandable; it’s a part of the religious dialogue of the time to take on this kind of responsibility.
Ankerberg: And it’s historically accurate.
Bock: It’s historically accurate, and it would fit the culture and the setting. And that’s why it shouldn’t move over into anti-Semitism. The people who are taking responsibility for this are the group around the Jewish leadership that have made a decision that Jesus needs to be stopped. And it doesn’t represent every single solitary Jew, or every single solitary Jew for all time. It’s this group that has the responsibility. Now, Scripture does, in some passages, move to a kind of corporate responsibility for the nation because this decision has been made. We have events like AD 70 that suggest this, and some of the passages in Paul’s writings talk about the Jews who crucified Jesus. But the point that’s being made there is that—and this is often made in the Old Testament as well—when the leaders make a decision, okay, the nation becomes responsible. When a president takes us to war, we all bear the burden. And that’s what’s going on here.
Ankerberg: Summarize what we’ve seen in this program.
Bock: I think what we’ve said is this: that in a two-hour film there’s probably about ten, maybe fifteen minutes of stuff that we could take or leave. That leaves the core of the film pretty much on track: really grounded in Scripture; faithfully trying to tell the story and weave it so that we not only see it and understand it, but in a sense we “feel” it. That’s the power of film. And what needs to be felt and understood is the commitment of Jesus to die on our behalf, to pay the price of sin, to take the last step, to bear the last nail, if you will, on our behalf so that the debt of sin is totally paid.
Now, some people ask, “Why does God require that?” God requires that because He’s just. But what’s wonderful about His justice is, what He demands in justice, He’s willing to give through His own Son. What we see Jesus doing is bearing sin and God willing to pay the price for that sin. He’s willing to send His own Son so that that debt is totally paid in a satisfactory way, and God is sending a “love letter” on the cross that says, “I love you and I’m willing to pay the price for your own sin. Come to me. I want to embrace you.”

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