St. Petersburg Times

The religion behind "The Passion of the Christ"
Waveney Ann Moore Sharon Tubbs

Welcome to Times Talkback. Times religion writers Waveney Ann Moore and Sharon Tubbs answered readers' questions about the religious aspects and themes of "The Passion of the Christ." Read their answers below.

Latest questions and answers:
(updated March 3)

Q: I heard the actor playing Jesus was struck twice by lightning as they were making the film. Is this true?

Waveney Ann Moore: According to an article in Parade Magazine, it is partially true. James Caviezel, the actor who played Jesus, said in an interview with James Brady that he was struck by lightning while filming the Sermon on the Mount. It was "as if someone slapped both my ears,'' he said. Not a great feeling, I would imagine.

Q: Do you think this movie will affect other countries at war once it is seen worldwide? Will the movie's producers be held accountable or America in general?

Waveney Ann Moore: There is concern among some in the Jewish and Christian communities that The Passion could fuel hatred for Jews both at home and abroad. It was one of the issues raised by Jim Barrens, executive director of the Center for Catholic-Jewish Studies at Saint Leo University, when I interviewed him several weeks ago for a story about the Passion. I spoke with him again to get an answer to your question. This is what he had to say:

"My concern truthfully is that in other areas of the world where the dialogue between Christians and Jews is not that well established, like in Central and South America, the Middle East and to some extent Europe, that this can be used to foment anti-Semitism. And with the rise in anti-Semitism that we're seeing around the world, to then put this in the hands of folks who are already predetermined to be anti-Semitic or to be anti-Jewish, they can use this to fuel some very tender fires around the world.''

Barrens notes that despite strong objections, the "blood libel'' statement from Matthew was not removed from the movie. It ran, though, without English subtitles. That statement, which has been used to justify hatred and persecution of Jews through the centuries, can be found in Matthew, Chapter 27, verse 25. It comes right after the Bible says that Pontius Pilate washed his hands in front of the crowd that was calling for Jesus' crucifixion. When Pilate told the crowd he was not responsible for Jesus' death, the people responded, "May his blood be on us and on our children.''

Unless that verse is properly interpreted, Father Len Piotrowski, of St. Paul's Roman Catholic Church in Tampa, says it can be misunderstood and cause prejudice, hatred and blame toward Jews. Barrens notes that in the movie, the verse is spoken in Aramaic. "In other parts of the world people will understand that language,'' he says. "In other parts of the world, will they have a subtitle in other languages, we don't know that yet. Yes, there are some real problematic issues.'' As to whether the movie's producers or America as a whole will be held accountable for the film and any trouble it may cause is something I really can't answer.

Q: It seems to me that the only explanation for why God sacrificing his son allows us the possibility of eternal life and freedom from our sins is because by Jesus choosing to suffer so terribly and not alleviate his suffering with the help and temptations that Satan offered him throughout the film, he was showing mankind that you must accept suffering and not look for the easy way out but have faith that God has the answer no matter how terrible the suffering may be. What do you think? I have been struggling with this question for so long and I cannot see any other reason why Jesus's suffering alleviates our sins.

Sharon Tubbs: I'm not sure of an answer that is 100 percent right or wrong in this case. Biblical theories are often subjective. But I will make a significant distinction. Traditional Christian doctrine holds that mankind's sins were atoned for through the blood Jesus shed on the cross -- not the suffering he endured en route to it. To understand this, go back to the Old Testament where Scripture speaks of animal sacrifices. God required an unblemished animal sacrifice to atone for sin. (See the Book of Leviticus.) For instance, someone who sinned might take a physically perfect bull, kill it and offer its blood to God at the altar. These practices were still in effect during Jesus' lifetime. What does this have to do with your question? It is said that the sinless Jesus, then, became the unblemished sacrifice for mankind at the cross. His spilled blood, Christians believe, atoned for sin -- forever. There was no more need for animal sacrifices. Jesus paid the price once and for all. This is why Christians refer to Jesus as the "sacrificial lamb" or the "lamb of God." Passages in Old Testament books such as Isaiah and Psalms tell of the Messiah's suffering. A Christian scholar might contend that Jesus had to suffer ridicule and physical pain to fulfill those Old Testament prophesies, establishing that he was that Messiah. For an explanation beyond that, you may want to talk with a minister that you trust.

Question: How much of the movie focuses on the Good News of the Resurrection? The reviews say more gore is offered than hope. Is this true?

Sharon Tubbs: The Passion of the Christ is about the last 12 hours of Jesus' earthly life before the burial, resurrection and ascension. It begins in the Garden of Gethsemane. The two-hour film then focuses on the crucifixion and the judicial process and scourging that occurred prior to it. There are some flashbacks to earlier times in Jesus' life, such as the last supper and the story of the adulterous woman whom religious leaders wanted to stone. In the final seconds of the movie, just before the credits roll, movie-goers see Jesus alive in the tomb.Whether this format makes the movie "more about gore than hope" is up to you to decide.

Question: Were there any protesters at the screening of the movie or any other distractions that you normally wouldn't see at a typical movie showing?

Sharon Tubbs: There were no protesters at the pre-screening Monday night, nor do I know of any groups who may be planning a public protest . But the scene differentiated from the typical movie showing in two ways: One, there was a heightened sense of anticipation and spirituality with people arriving at least an hour before showtime, including priests and nuns in spiritual garb, large groups of friends, as well as families. Secondly, the presence of media folks, such as myself, with notebooks and TV cameras signaled that this was not your typical movie night.

Question: Are many other local churches organizing group trips to see the movie?

Sharon Tubbs: A number of churches have rented theater auditoriums and reserved blocks of tickets. The trend is nationwide, not just local. To read a Feb. 17 article on this topic, click here.

Question: Wasn't it just politics and greed for power that killed Jesus of Nazareth?

Sharon Tubbs: This is a complicated question. I don't think most would deny that politics played a role in the crucifixion, but the question is was it the main culprit? In the Gospel accounts, the Jewish leadership were uncomfortable with Jesus' increasing popularity and his claims to be the Messiah with a supposedly better spiritual philosophy called "grace" that superceded their laws. They went to Pontius Pilate, charging Jesus with blasphemy. Pilate, then, orders his Roman soldiers to crucify Jesus -- orders which appear to be gladly carried out. Pilate apparently took the action he thought was most politically expedient to save his position as Roman procurator. Sounds like a mesh of governmental and religious politics, right? But wait, remember Jesus' own words in the Gospel of John: "Therefore doth my Father love me, because I lay down my life, that I might take it again. No man taketh it from me, but I lay it down of myself .... This commandment have I received of my Father.'' A theologian might argue that, ultimately, it was not politics, the Jews or the Romans that killed Jesus. Why? None had the power to kill him, according to Jesus himself. He laid down his own life because it was the will of his father, God. God sent Jesus to be killed for the sins of mankind. In this sense, sin killed Jesus and God allowed it to be so. Told you it was complicated.

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