Review: The Passion (BBC TV)

“The Passion is a gripping, multi-stranded dramatisation of not just the most familiar but arguably the greatest story ever told. Both truthful and simple, it gives it back to the audience in a way that will feel as fresh, contemporary and surprising as if it were happening for the first time.”

Billed as the key drama event on TV for Easter 2008, The Passion proved to be a rather dark presentation of selected aspects of the Gospel record mixed with fictional additions which in the end misrepresented the accounts of the death and resurrection of Jesus in a number of significant ways. Given the modest knowledge of many people of the history of Jesus’ death and resurrection this is disappointing.

Mostly made in Southern Morocco, the initial backdrop to the action overplayed the arid nature of the Judean wilderness and made Jerusalem appear a busy slum. Busy it might have been, but a slum it was not. The Temple built by Herod the Great was one of the wonders of the Roman world, dazzling white in the sun and richly adorned. The disciples commented on this to Jesus, “And some spoke of the Temple, how it was adorned with noble stones and offerings…” (Luke 21:5) Their admiration led Jesus to the great prophecy of the future given on the Mount of Olives, – a prophecy wholly ignored by the programme, but which culminates with the restoration of Jerusalem from foreign rule and the return of Jesus to the earth as Israel and the world’s king at a time which seems remarkably like our own; – you can read about it in the rest of Luke 21.

Similarly, the programme understated both the wealth and the malign intent of the High Priest Caiaphas, portraying him as a well-meaning patriot with an attractive wife and family and showing the Sanhedrin, the Jewish religious ruling council as informal, poorly informed about Jesus and easily manipulated. The events of the trial of Jesus were almost certainly more formal, since the Jews were sticklers for formality. Caiaphas and the ruling Sadducees and Pharisees had a good knowledge of the teaching of Jesus, since their spies had been following him for a long time according to the Gospels. They wanted him crucified because his teaching threatened their position and there determination to kill and innocent man brought terrible judgement on their people in consequence; “His blood be on us and on our children, “ they told Pilate the Roman Governor. (Matthew 27:25) and, within a generation, the Romans had destroyed the Temple in the Jewish revolt of AD68-72 with the loss of tens of thousands of Jewish lives.

It was also disappointing that details of the story were gratuitously altered, – from the purchase of the donkey for Jesus to ride into Jerusalem in the first five minutes of the first episode, (the Gospels tell us it was borrowed, – see Matthew 21:1-3) to the small number of disciples shown to be with Jesus in his entry in Jerusalem, (the Gospels suggest a large crowd, – see the rest of Matthew 21, Mark 11, Luke 19:28 onwards, John 12:12 onwards). Similarly, whilst there is no hint of a special relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene in the Gospels, the programme tended to follow the fictional ideas of the Da Vinci Code. Likewise Jesus was shown being lowered into a pit after his arrest, something of which there is no mention in the Gospels, whilst the more important trial of Jesus before King Herod was ignored completely. The place of crucifixion, which was “near to the city” ( John 19:20), appeared to be right out in the desert, as was the tomb, despite the specific reference in the Gospel of John to the garden where Jesus was buried; “ Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb..” (John 19:41) and the main appearances of the risen Jesus to his disciples in Galilee ignored, – probably for lack of a suitable location around the site being used for filming in Morocco!

But the biggest weakness of this production was the portrayal of Jesus. Setting out to avoid a picture of Jesus so divine as to appear unreal, the writers went to the other extent and gave us a Jesus so human, uncertain and lacking in authority that it was easy to see why he was portrayed as having so few followers! The Gospel shows Jesus as uniquely authoritative, – “He taught as one having authority and not as the scribes..” (Matthew 7:29) , performing many miracles, ( a fact given little prominence in the programme, – see for instance the account of the raising to life of the dead Lazarus of Bethany in John 11,) and teaching of a day when he would be King over Israel, and not only Israel but the whole world, ( see for instance the words of the angels in Acts 1:6-11.) In reality he had what one commentator has called “native royalty, ” before which even the Roman governor Pilate quailed and which had enabled him to walk through the midst of his enemies on previous occasions, (see Luke 4:28-30). Because of his obedience in submitting to death on the cross, the apostle Paul tells us that “at the name of Jesus, every knee should bow…” (Philippians 2:9-10) and Peter that “there is no other name under heaven whereby we may be saved..” (Acts 4:12)

This understatement of the position and purpose of Jesus was especially evident in the final programme, which gave an enigmatic and muddled account of the resurrection, unlike the confident demonstration of the Gospels that, as Luke says at the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles, ”To [the apostles] he presented himself alive after his passion by many proofs, appearing to them for forty days and speaking of the kingdom of God.” The witness of the angels, the appearances to the women and the appearances to the disciples in the Upper Room were all lacking key parts of the Gospel record, whilst his time with the disciples in Galilee was ignored, – a very curious omission in view of the wonderful account of John 21, which could have been written for a stunning tele-visual portrayal. Finally the ascension of Jesus was completely ignored.

In short, the programme promised much but disappointed greatly, failing to live up to its promise of a “truthful, simple dramatisation.”

Like many film adaptations, it does not do justice to the Gospel records; – you’ve seen the film, NOW READ THE BOOK! The Gospels are there for us to read; – start with Matthew or Luke and then Mark and John for the full story!