Did Jesus Get Lost in Translation?

On February 25, 2004, Mel Gibson’s movie, The Passion of the Christ, better known as The Passion, hit the movie theaters. This was Ash Wednesday. For most attendees, Ash Wednesday is not part of their vocabulary, but it is part of Mel Gibson’s. Clearly, he did not schedule this release date for commercial reasons.

The movie is shown without previews of coming attractions. This fact alone would have made it an oddity. Something very strange is going on.

As the producer, Gibson made an entrepreneurial decision when he put up $25 million of his own money. He also made an aesthetic decision as both the screenwriter and the director, which I will get to shortly. Finally, he made a theological decision as a Roman Catholic layman. This combination of decisions makes The Passion like no other movie ever produced for commercial release.


The movie is about the crucifixion of Jesus. This immediately raised commercial issues. The American movie industry is dominated by Jews, meaning secularists whose parents or grandparents had historic roots in Judaism. Neal Gabler’s book, An Empire of Their Own, is a history of this almost exclusively Jewish industry. only significant gentiles in the industry in the 1930’s, until Disney made his breakthrough with Snow White in 1938, were Joe Kennedy and Daryl Zanuck. Kennedy came in as a partner of David Sarnoff, the founder of RCA. They created RKO, the smallest of the majors. Zanuck established Twentieth Century Pictures with Joseph Schenck, whose brother was with MGM. They later bought Fox Film. Zanuck is described by Gabler: “. . . he had been in Hollywood so long he might have been called a Jewish fellow traveller. . .” (p. 349). On a Jewish Web site devoted to Jews in the movies, we read of Zanuck that he was “the only prominent non-Jewish producer.”

The problem of economic problems for Gibson was distribution. How could he persuade theater chains to distribute his movie, when he and they knew that it would get just the kind of attacks that it has received from theologically liberal mainstream reviewers, which all but Michael Medved are, many of whom would wave the flag of anti-semitism?

With respect to distribution, Gibson was facing a gentlemen’s agreement which would have to be overcome with the only thing that could break it: the lure of money. But he was the movie’s producer, not its star. He could not rely on his name to bring in paying customers who like to see him act. He had to persuade them to trust his artistic judgment as a director. The only other actor-director who normally can pull in crowds on the basis of his name is Clint Eastwood. (I am not counting Rob Reiner, who is a good director but hardly a box office star.) So, this was a venture laced with uncertainty, which is the essence of the entrepreneur’s challenge.

He had to provide lots of “buzz” — I mean Buzz Lightyear-type buzz: to infinity and beyond. He did it. Some of his more ruthless critics helped out by targeting the opinions of his father regarding Jews and their influence. These shouts of rage have penetrated the normal daily fog that we all wander in. Millions of Americans have thought, “I wonder what this is all about.” They can now pay money to find out.

Rabbi Daniel Lapin, who is an Orthodox Jew, identified the issue.

Never has a film aroused such hostile passion so long prior to its release as has Mel Gibson’s Passion. Many American Jews are alarmed by reports of what they view as potentially anti-Semitic content in this movie about the death of Jesus, which is due to be released during 2004. Clearly the crucifixion of Jesus is a sensitive topic, but prominent Christians who previewed it, including good friends like James Dobson and Michael Novak who have always demonstrated acute sensitivity to Jewish concerns, see it as a religiously inspiring movie, and refute charges that it is anti-Semitic. While most Jews are wisely waiting to see the film before responding, others are either prematurely condemning a movie they have yet to see or violating the confidentiality agreements they signed with Icon Productions.

Rabbi Lapin’s most famous congregation member is Michael Medved, who has come to the movie’s defense artistically.

Here is one of those strange aspects about modernity: besieged religious conservatives in their respective theological camps jointly support one another because they see that American society is under assault by liberals and moral libertines who are technically part of their respective theological traditions, but who are in fact allied in a full-scale frontal assault against traditional society and its culture. It is not that politics has made strange bedfellows. It is that the prevailing culture war has made strange bedfellows. Politics is secondary to the besieged, though not to the besiegers.

The irony of this is that Lapin, as an Orthodox Jew, is self-consciously an heir of the Pharisees, who took over the leadership of Judaism after the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. The Sadducees disappeared. The cultural and judicial conflict between Orthodox Jews and Christians lasted until the mid-nineteenth century. Then theological liberals in both camps adopted the same strategy of attack: a denial of the divine authority of the Bible. This academic procedure is called higher criticism. In their defense of the Hebrew text, the orthodox of both camps found that they could help each other and would have to rely on each other’s academic efforts with respect to issues grammatical. The defense of the authority of the Hebrew text against its critics became more important to the defenders than their ancient rivalry regarding the interpretation of the text, i.e., the Talmud vs. the New Testament.

This brings me to the next topic: Gibson’s aesthetic decision regarding the text.


Gibson, as a director and screenwriter, had to deal with the issue of translation. I mean this in two senses: grammatical and media.

Consider the media. A movie is seen and heard. A written account is read and, in a few cases, heard. The mind deals with different media differently. Usually, a movie is capable of being more emotionally compelling than a written text. So, when you go from a written text to a movie by means of script writing, photography, music, and editing, something is added in translation. The question is this: Is something also lost in translation?

The director’s responsibility — rarely fulfilled — is to maintain faithfulness to the text while creating a unique movie experience. The standard complaint — “The book was better” or “The movie wasn’t faithful to the book” — is a movie director’s occupational hazard. Rare is the praise: “The movie was even better than the book.” (Example: Shane.)

Add to this innate problem of media translation the problem of the text. The New Testament’s accounts of Jesus’ life are found mainly in the gospels: the three synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) and John’s gospel, which is more heavily based on Jesus words, especially the account of the Last Supper (John 13—17). The accounts vary, which can be seen as testimonies to their accuracy. (Journalist Otto Scott became a Christian late in his life, he says, in part because of the discrepancies in the gospels. He says that, as a reporter, he learned early that whenever he was told exactly the same story by several witnesses, he immediately should suspect both collusion and deception.)

How can the screenwriter, the cameraman, the score’s composer, and the director/film editor remain faithful on-screen to a story that was written down two millennia ago? How can they produce a final product that can serve multiple purposes as a movie, yet also retain the integrity of the text?

If someone produced a movie of your life’s most important legacy, based on the short diaries of four people, two of whom had never met you, how accurate do you think the movie would be? Add two millennia. How much of your story would the viewers grasp, let alone relate to emotionally, if the movie added nothing aesthetically to the screenwriter’s composite of the four diaries. How interesting are you, anyway? Enough to keep awake 50 million paying attendees in 4004?

This was Gibson’s challenge: to remain faithful to the text, yet keep viewers awake. Add to this another challenge: get them to understand what was going on — the event’s historical context and its significance at the time. Without this awareness, the viewer cannot make an assessment of the event’s significance today. And, believe me, Gibson wanted viewers to assess the story’s significance today — in their lives. That was why he put $25 million on the line.

But wasn’t he in it for the money? I don’t think he was. I conclude this because of the third aspect of the translation. This movie is performed in Aramaic. Aramaic was the common language in Israel in Roman times. It was a cognate language to Hebrew, one spoken in the ancient Near East. Chapters 2—7 of the Book of Daniel are in Aramaic.

When I first learned of this decision, months ago, my first reaction was “box-office bomb.” How could any director hold the attention of an American audience with subtitles? With a $25 million price tag, in order to make a profit, this movie had to be shown outside of those few New York City art theaters that are run by gentiles.

Why did he do it? Here, I must play amateur psychologist, for all that is worth. I can think of only one plausible answer: Gibson intended this movie as a universal film — not as an American film. Americans would have to suffer subtitles, just as the rest of the viewers must suffer them. He forced his actors to perform in a dead language. He, as the director, and the actors would have to create a universal experience by means of a non-universal language — a language universal in the region in its day but no longer a living tongue.

This meant that the creative process involved these stages of translation: foreign words (Greek) to English words (New Testament) to a screenplay (English) to foreign words (Aramaic) to English (subtitles). But, far more important and far more risky, Gibson had to honor these three elements of translation:

Written words to visual words (grammar)
Written words to conceptual word (logic)
Written word to perceptual word (rhetoric/image)

The movie would have to remain faithful to the text’s message. Could it also remain faithful to the text itself? Would the spirit of the text survive the multiple translations?

I have a friend who plays an e-mail game with a French lady. He takes a French letter from the lady, runs it through an on-line translator (BabelFish), and back again into French. He then sends her the two French versions. The result is always the same. The woman goes into fits of laughter.

Mel Gibson had to do this at several levels, yet not send his audience into fits of laughter. The subject matter is no laughing matter.

So, he added things: the devil, for example. There is no mention in the text of the devil after his entrance “into” — do we really understand this? — Judas, just before Judas went to the Sanhedrin to betray Jesus. Yet the presence of the devil in the film is powerful aesthetically. Gibson has the devil begin the movie with the heart of the story: Jesus’ bearing of the sins of the world. Without this bedrock theological explanation, the Christian interpretation of the crucifixion is meaningless. How could Gibson get this message across without tampering with the text? He added to the text in order to convey the text. Amazingly — and fittingly — he has the devil present it.

Note: a man who is willing to play this practical joke on the devil is surely not afraid of other critics. He is also highly skilled at practical joking. This one is a whopper — a metaphysical whoopie cushion for Old Nick himself.

When you mess with this text, you risk upsetting people who believe that the text is sacred. Nevertheless, I don’t think Gibson will get many complaints from Christians about this particular instance of text-tampering. There is no textual evidence that Satan was in the garden of Gethsemane, but I doubt that you could find a Christian who would attempt to make a case that Satan wasn’t there. If Satan wasn’t there, he was really asleep at the wheel. This is not how Christians think of the devil.

Gibson’s handling of the devil throughout the film is creative, though sometimes confusing, such as the image of him in a crowd, carrying an infant with an evil-looking adult face. I wonder: How did Gibson produce that on-screen image? (A midget?) And why? Is this a perverse Madonna and child image? I think so, but I am not sure. But the viewer gets this much clear: malevolence was alive and well in Jerusalem on that fateful day.

Gibson’s handling of Barabbas is nothing short of brilliant. There is nothing in the text about Barabbas’ presence, but the actor who portrays Barabbas pulls off one of the most memorable scenes in movie history, yet without saying a word. The scene adds greatly to the movie, yet it is wholly invented. It is believable, yet nothing like it has ever been suggested, as far as I am aware. It conveys the truth: choosing Barabbas to go free rather than Jesus was an appalling collective decision.

Are these scenes lies? No. Are they true? Not so far as the text reveals. So, what are they? They are part of the translation process. The goal was to produce a movie that remains true to the story. These additions convey truth.

Have I fallen into the trap of higher criticism? Have I said that the saga is true, yet the words are false? With respect to a piece of entertainment, I am willing to risk this. Maybe the movie will get the viewers to read the book. I will say it here and now: the book is better than the movie. I will also say this: you will not soon forget the movie. Too many people have forgotten the book.


The tip-off is the Aramaic. Gibson is doing what no other movie producer in history has ever attempted. He has self-consciously attempted to make this a universal movie: equally closed to all grammatically, yet equally open to all through subtitles. We are all equally dependent on the subtitles. We are all equally riveted (or appalled) by what we see on-screen.

This is not an American movie. This is a universal movie. I have never heard of anything like this before. This movie is to movies what the Latin mass used to be to Roman Catholic liturgy. It is a self-conscious attempt to separate the film’s words from today’s linguistic context, and also tomorrow’s, no matter who you are or where you live. Gibson, by adopting an Aramaic screenplay in the name of historical accuracy, has universalized the film. A Protestant would not have attempted this. Only a Latin mass Catholic would have. Gibson understood what language is all about.

As a Protestant, I rejoiced at Vatican II’s liturgical reform. I knew that this shift to the vernacular would do more to de-legitimize Catholicism’s claim of universality than anything the church had done since 1054 (the East-West split). A vernacular liturgy was John Wycliffe’s reform. I could not have been more pleased. So far, I think I have been correct. The Roman church is now as plagued by guitars as Protestant churches are. Nashville has invaded Rome.

Mel Gibson is not pleased. I regard The Passion as his personal statement sent to Vatican II’s surviving promoters: “This story is worth telling in a dead language. It is better told in a dead language.” On this point, I side with Mr. Gibson rather than Mr. Wycliffe. But remember: it’s a movie. That’s entertainment.


The movie begins with this passage written on-screen:

But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed (Isaiah 53:5).

This is what Gibson sees as the theological heart of the story. Isaiah 53 has always been the church’s most cited Old Testament passage with respect to the crucifixion — its reality and its meaning.

Gibson fills the screen with violence. Most of this violence is imposed by Roman soldiers. The Sanhedrin buffets Jesus, but this is what the text says happened (Matthew 26:67). There is no textual evidence that they beat the disciples. The movie is incorrect here. It is also weak aesthetically. Peter’s betrayal of Jesus in the text takes place when he is not being threatened, outside the court (Matthew 26:69—75). The movie has him inside, being pushed around. This was an aesthetic and conceptual mistake on Gibson’s part. It weakened the text’s message: Peter’s betrayal without an immediate threat.

The actor who portrays Jesus looks like an actor, not like the rest of us average Joes. This has always been a mistake in Hollywood movies about Jesus. Isaiah wrote: “For he shall grow up before him as a tender plant, and as a root out of a dry ground: he hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him” (Isaiah 53:2). But, scene by scene, beating by beating, the actor becomes less and less of a pretty boy. Before our eyes, his visage is transformed.

This is why I regard this movie as the ultimate Passion play, which is a tradition going back to medieval times. We see what we have never seen before: the extent of the suffering. The movie has an R-rating because of it. I say, take along your younger children, but not if you don’t intend to explain to them before and after the movie why this event took place. Death is ugly. It is ugly for a reason. Mankind really has angered God. It is this reason that appalls theological liberals.

Pontius Pilate has never been more of a politician in a Hollywood version of the crucifixion. If you ever had any doubts about the motivation of most politicians, see this movie.

For its portrayal of the activities of occupying foreign troops, see this movie.

The words of Jesus on-screen are generally accurate versions of what the texts say.

I saw only one gigantic error. The movie has the Roman soldiers ripping Jesus’ garment. We can hear it rip. The text says otherwise.

Then the soldiers, when they had crucified Jesus, took his garments, and made four parts, to every soldier a part; and also his coat: now the coat was without seam, woven from the top throughout. They said therefore among themselves, Let us not rend it, but cast lots for it, whose it shall be: that the scripture might be fulfilled, which saith, They parted my raiment among them, and for my vesture they did cast lots. These things therefore the soldiers did (John 19:23—24).

There are still too many old-timers around who watched Richard Burton stink up The Robe in 1954. The story centered around the unripped robe of Jesus. Why Gibson inserted this, I cannot fathom.

Then there was the rip that we do not see: the ripping of the veil of the temple (Matthew 27:51), which had separated the people and the priests from the holy of holies. Gibson gives us the earthquake, but the ripping of the veil makes no visual impression. Maybe the viewers would not understand the significance of that rending of tapestry: the end of the holiness of the Temple, in preparation to its burning by Romans a generation later. Gibson should have made this symbolism clearer on the screen.


OK, I had to get around to it sometime. Is this movie anti-Semitic? My answer: no more than the New Testament is.

That is really where the rub is. The critics — sometimes Jews and always liberals — just don’t like the New Testament. They resent this movie with the same intensity that Canaanites would have resented a movie about Joshua. I am tempted to write a satirical movie review along these lines. “Mr. Gibson’s handling of traditional Canaanite religious beliefs is grossly insensitive. And, when he creates scene after scene based on Deuteronomy 7:16, he violates artistic propriety.”

Rabbi Lapin has understood an old point of Rabbinic theology known by the phrase, “for the sake of the peace.” For the sake of the peace, Jews are not to give unwarranted offense to the people in whose land they live. This is a good rule for minorities to honor. The Apostle Paul, an ex-Pharisee, told the churches to honor it when he wrote, “I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men; For kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty” (1 Timothy 2:1—2). Rabbi Lapin has applied this ancient and practical principle as follows:

Finally I believe the attacks on Mel Gibson are a mistake because while they may be in the interests of Jewish organizations who raise money with the specter of anti-Semitism, and while they may be in the interests of Jewish journalists at the New York Times and elsewhere who are trying to boost their careers, they are most decidedly not in the interests of most American Jews who go about their daily lives in comfortable harmony with their Christian fellow citizens. You see, many Christians see all this as attacks not just on Mel Gibson alone or as mere critiques of a movie, but with some justification in my view, they see them as attacks against all Christians. This is not so different from the way most people react to attack. We Jews usually feel that we have all been attacked even when only a few of us suffer assault on account of our faith.


This review began with a question: Did Jesus get lost in translation? My answer: no. The disciples did, but this does not matter much. They remained so lost that weekend that they forgot about Jesus’ prophecy of resurrection. The Sanhedrin remembered, which is why they asked the Romans to put a stone over the tomb’s entrance. They thought the disciples would steal the body and claim resurrection (Matthew 27:62—64). Nothing could have been further from the disciples’ minds.

Most of what Jesus said in the texts is on the screen, with one remarkable exception. A movie in Aramaic did not record the only Aramaic words that are literally presented in the Greek text. “And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani? which is, being interpreted, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34). These were Aramaic words that cited Psalm 22, which begins: “To the chief Musician upon Aijeleth Shahar, A Psalm of David. My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? why art thou so far from helping me, and from the words of my roaring?” Later in this Psalm we find the relevant passage that lets us know Why Jesus said what he did:

Many bulls have compassed me: strong bulls of Bashan have beset me round. They gaped upon me with their mouths, as a ravening and a roaring lion. I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint: my heart is like wax; it is melted in the midst of my bowels. My strength is dried up like a potsherd; and my tongue cleaveth to my jaws; and thou hast brought me into the dust of death. For dogs have compassed me: the assembly of the wicked have inclosed me: they pierced my hands and my feet. I may tell all my bones: they look and stare upon me. They part my garments among them, and cast lots upon my vesture (Psalm 22:12—18).

I regard this grammatical omission as the oddest fact of the movie. Performed entirely in Aramaic and Latin (“veritas,” says Pilate, for “truth”), the one New Testament passage that is in Aramaic is not spoken. Or if it was, I did not hear it, and I was listening for it. The subtitle was there, but not the New Testament’s actual Aramaic words. The words “eloi, eloi” were heard by those close to Jesus. “And some of them that stood by, when they heard it, said, Behold, he calleth Elias” (Mark 15:35). In Hebrew, “eli” means “my God.” In Greek, “eloi” could be mistaken for “elias,” meaning Elijah. There is no “j” sound in Greek.

So, on the whole, I recommend this movie. But I do not intend to see it a second time. It too faithfully portrays the agony of the event. Once is enough — aesthetically as well as historically.

February 27, 2004

Gary North [send him mail] is the author of Mises on Money. Visit http://www.freebooks.com. For a free subscription to Gary North’s newsletter on gold, click here.

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