Passion and Death of Jesus Christ: Comparing the Movie with the Gospels I

Some months ago, Zack and I watched the Passion and Death of Jesus Christ. Zack wanted me to say a few words about the movie on the blog. I recently decided that late is better than never in this regard. So…

In this first installment of my comparison between the movie and the Gospels, I compare the movie’s presentation of Jesus’ time in Gethsemane and his ordeal before the council of high priests with the ones in the four Gospels. The comparison begins with a bulleted synopsis.

Before reading the synopsis and discussion, I must insert a disclaimer and beg the good reader’s pardon for I have not screened the movie since last spring. I wrote the Gospel synopses with the bible in my left hand, but the movie synopsis flows entirely from memory.

• Jesus prays that the awesome burden of his Passion and Death be lifted from his shoulders. He submits to God’s will and accepts his fate.
• The devil speaks to and tempts Jesus.
• The devil’s final temptation is an offer of escape through a quick death at the fangs of venomous serpent. Jesus refuses in dramatic fashion by crushing the snake.
• A party of armed men comes to Gethsemane in search of Jesus. The armed men appear to be temple guards.
• Judas identifies Jesus by kissing him.
• As the armed party closes with Jesus, one of the disciples draws his sword and cuts off the ear of a slave. Jesus stops the violence by rebuking his disciples, and then, he heals the wounded man.
• A chained and tethered Jesus is dropped from a bridge by his guards. He encounters Judas beneath the bridge.
• Demons are beginning to torment Judas.
• The armed party presents Jesus to a council of high priests.
• He is mocked and accused by an attendant crowd. His admission that he is God’s son seals his fate. Upon hearing Jesus’ admission, one of the council tares his priestly robes.
• Later, one of the more influential priests accepts responsibility for the decision to kill Jesus in the name of all present and future Jews.

Matthew’s Gospel:
• Jesus leaves his disciples and commands them to keep watch.
• Jesus prays for the removal of his “cup of suffering” on three separate occasions. He accepts God’s will.
• After each session of prayer, he finds his disciples asleep. Sleep is considered a temptation.
• The devil is NOT mentioned.
• Judas identifies Jesus for an armed crowd sent by the priests and elders by kissing him.
• A disciple cuts off the ear of a slave, and Jesus rebukes the offending disciple
• Jesus does NOT encounter Judas again.
• A council of high priests and elders preside over a meeting in which many unnamed individuals bare false witness against Jesus.
• When accused of claiming to be God’s Son, Jesus does not deny the charge.
• At this, the accusing priest rips his priestly robes, and the council condemns Jesus to death.

Mark’s Gospel:
• Jesus divides his disciples into two groups. Jesus takes Peter, James and John with him and leaves the other disciples in an undisclosed location.
• Besides naming the disciples in Jesus’ watch party, Matthew and Mark agree on Gethsemane.
• Judas identifies Jesus with a kiss; then, the armed mob sent by the priests, elders and teachers of the law seize him.
• One of the three disciples strikes at the high priest slave, but Jesus stops the violence by rebuking the mob.
• A boy follows the party until the guards try to arrest him. He sheds his linen clothing and flees.
• The interrogation proceeds as recounted by Matthew, but in Mark’s version Jesus clearly states that he is God’s Son.

Luke’s Gospel:
• Jesus takes his disciples to the Mount of Olives to pray.
• Leaving them a “stone’s throw” away, he prays in private that his “cup of suffering might pass.”
• An angel comes to strengthen him.
• He accepts God’s will
• He returns to find his disciples asleep; so, he rebukes them.
• A crowd arrives to arrest Jesus, and Judas identifies him with a kiss.
• One disciple severs the right ear of the high priest’s slave, but Jesus stops the violence by admonishing both parties. He heals the slave’s wound.
• The men guarding Jesus mock and beat him.
• An indeterminate amount of time passes between Jesus’ arrest and his presentation to a council of high priests, elders and teachers of the law.
• The council asks if he is the Messiah. Jesus does not deny the charge; so, they condemn him to death.

John’s Gospel:
• Jesus takes his disciples across Kidron Brook to an unnamed garden.
• Judas leads a group of Roman soldiers and Temple guards sent by the chief priests and Pharisees to the garden.
• When Judas’ party approaches, Jesus identifies himself.
• During the arrest, Peter cuts off Malchus’ ear. Malchus is the High Priest’s slave. Jesus stops the violence by censuring Peter.
• The guards take Jesus to Annas, the father-in-law of the High Priest. Annas’ questioning leads nowhere.
• Annas sends him to Caiaphas, the High Priest.

In the Catholic tradition, all four gospels serve as sources when recounting the last hours of Jesus’ time on Earth. So, one should not find it surprising that the movie contains elements drawn from them all. Particular lines of presentation and extra-bibilical scenes deserve note, however.

In these first few scenes, the movie follows the presentation of events contained in Matthew and Mark. The healing of the slave described in Luke is added. Jesus’ interrogation before the high priests most closely resembles that described in Matthew.

Matthew, Mark and Luke give Jesus a somewhat more passive role during the arrest; Judas identifies him with a kiss. In John, Judas simply leads an armed party to a garden where Jesus is praying. Jesus identifies himself, and the armed party initially falters. The composition of the armed party is interesting in that John includes Roman soldiers, but the other three Gospel writers and the movie do not.

The presence of the devil and Judas’ demon tormentors is extra-biblical. Luke states that an angel “strengthened” Jesus during his time of solitary prayer, but no other visitors are recorded. Interestingly, the Gospels do associate falling asleep with succumbing to some form of temptation, which raises questions about the nature of the disciples’ drowsiness. No mention is made of Judas after he delivers his fateful kiss; at least, no mention is made during the scenes currently under analysis. The movie is either taking significant poetic license or is drawing upon exotic sources.

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