Gibson’s Dilemma in ‘The Passion of the Christ’

When he heard that Mel was making a movie on the Passion of Christ, the late Catholic forensic pathologist Frederick Zugibe, an expert on Jesus’ crucifixion as well as the Shroud of Turin, offered his services as a consultant. Curiously, Gibson declined. One would think that if you’re producing a film on the crucifixion of Jesus you might want to take advantage of the expertise of a world’s authority on the subject.

The Shroud. Marks of the scourging

In The Crucifixion of Jesus: A Forensic Inquiry, the Doctor responds with a less than glowing review of Gibson’s film, finding numerous inaccuracies. A glance at a couple of them uncovers what Gibson might have been grappling with while producing the film.

With respect to the scourging, in the film Jesus’ back and front were completely covered with lacerations from the razor-like pieces of metal attached to the ends of the flagrum. The doctor, however, insists that the scourging as presented in the movie would have quickly resulted in Jesus’ death, and was not supported by the Shroud. It shows that the lacerations were “dumbbell-shaped”; it was common for the Romans to attach lead balls to the ends of the leather whips.

Jesus’ reaction to the flogging, according to Zugibe, would have been far more violent than presented in the film:

“Bouts of vomiting, tremors, seizures, and fainting fits would occur at varying intervals… There would be agonizing shrieks by the victim at the conclusion of each lash.”

Another issue was the nailing of Jesus’ hands and feet to the cross. Painful as it was to watch in Gibson’s film, the medical examiner said it would actually have resulted in ‘major causalgia’, trauma of the median nerves in the wrist and plantar nerves in the feet, which the professor calls “one of the worst pains known to man”:

“The agonizing pain has been likened to lighting bolts traversing the arms and legs. …A victim inflicted with causalgia involving only one hand, let alone involving both hands and feet, would scream out in agony with loud shrieks of pain, And yet, Jesus does not scream at all in Gibson’s version of the crucifixion” (p. 63).

It seems obvious that Mel was likely familiar with Zugibe’s work and didn’t want his help because he knew that the end result would have been a horror film, and unwatchable. As it turned out, the main complaint about the film anyway was that it was too violent and not appropriate for the family. The Romans had perfected the worst form of torture and execution; it does not lend itself to a Hollywood film project.

“I gave my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who tore out my beard; my face I did not hide from insults and spitting” (Isaiah 50:6).

Since Mel had gone to the effort to resurrect the language of Aramaic as it was spoken in the 1st-century, a moviegoer might assume that what they were seeing was a realistic recreation of Jesus’ passion and death. This is a misconception; Greek was the language of the Empire and it is not even heard in the movie. Even in the sign nailed over the cross, “Jesus the Nazorean, King of the Jews”, Gibson omitted the Greek which he knew should be there, perhaps a message from Mel not to regard his film as one would a documentary, but as an artist’s depiction of the Passion.

I can only recommend Dr. Zugibe’s book with serious caution. There are scary photos: experiments on human cadavers and pictures of people who have been tortured.


Postscript: Incidentally, while Pope Francis was Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he initiated an investigation into a container of blood and what appeared to be some type of organ tissue. It had originally been a consecrated host that had been desecrated but recovered and brought to a priest who placed it in water according to Church protocol. Archbishop Bergoglio sent a sample of the tissue to Dr. Zugibe for analysis, but did not tell him about it’s origin:

The chest area of the Shroud.

“Tissue samples were then sent to Dr. Frederick Zugibe, of Columbia University in New York, a renowned cardiologist and forensic pathologist. His results on March 26, 2005, identified the sample as human flesh and blood. Zugibe testified that it was ‘a fragment of the heart muscle found in the wall of the left ventricle close to the valves.’ Because white blood cells had penetrated the tissue, he stated that ‘the heart had been under severe stress, as if the owner had been beaten severely about the chest.'” (LINK)

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