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Rabbis who believe in Yeshua

Reggie White  Messianic Believer

History and Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ”

By Derek Leman  - Hope of David

Derek is the Messianic leader of Hope of David, a Messianic Fellowship located in Sandy Springs

During the scourging scene in Mel’s Gibson’s movie, the Roman soldiers are dumbfounded that he is able to stand after the first round of beatings. The tone is set. Theology is being communicated. Yeshua is able to overcome normal human weakness and to stand when other men would be unconscious with pain.

     At the risk of seeming like a tedious reviewer, a nitpicker looking only for the wrong, let me say that an inaccuracy like the exaggerated torture of Yeshua prior to his death bothers me. It bothers me because it communicates something false. Yeshua’s humanity is being slighted in favor of his deity.

     A normal man wouldn’t have been able to stand for more punishment. A normal man would not have survived having every square inch of his skin shredded and his ribs laid bare. A normal man would have become unconscious, comatose.

     I believe that Yeshua was more than a normal man. Yet I do not believe that his deity spared him any weakness in his suffering. He tired like a normal man. He suffered as a man, not as a superhuman.

     Other Jewish people were scourged. Other Jewish people were crucified. The Bible does not depict the death of Yeshua as being completely different from the treatment other Jewish people received from brutal Rome. Arguably, Rabbi Akiva suffered an even more painful death a century later when his skin was scraped off with iron combs.

     The amount of physical pain in Yeshua’s death is not the main issue in the Bible. The Bible, rather, emphasizes three other aspects of his death: his suffering was innocent, his suffering was theological, and his suffering was a travesty.

     Yeshua’s suffering was innocent. The corrupt leadership of Israel (their corruption was widely known) could not find a truthful witness against him. Nor could they find that he had violated any law or even tradition: “Now the chief priests and the whole Council kept trying to obtain false testimony against Jesus, so that they might put Him to death. They did not find any, even though many false witnesses came forward” (Matthew 26:59-60 NASB).

     Yeshua’s suffering was theological. It was the Father punishing the Son for the sins of humankind. There was more to the suffering than physical pain. When Yeshua asked his Father, “Why have you forsaken me?” this was more than a quote from Psalm 22. The Lord “was pleased to crush him, putting Him to grief; if he would render himself as a guilt offering” (Isaiah 53:10 NASB). It would seem that the wrath of God, which Yeshua felt, was far worse than nails and thorns.

     Yeshua’s suffering was a travesty. The greatest man was killed by small-minded men. The most gentle and loving man was brutalized by the most vicious soldiers of his day. The only one innocent died for the guilt of everyone else. Isaiah said, “He was pierced through for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the chastening for our well-being fell upon Him” (53:5 NASB).

     In the Bible, Yeshua’s suffering did not have to be exaggerated. Many Jews and Gentiles were all too familiar with scourging and crucifixion. The Passion film brought home to viewers the terrible cost of our sins. It is unfortunate that exaggeration of the physical torture was required to drive home the point.

     There were other problems with the film’s historical accuracy. In general, the problems fall into three categories: invented events, skewed interpretations, and absent distinctions.

     In terms of invented events, perhaps the worst was the scene in which the hall of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council, was split in two by the earthquake. At the time of Yeshua’s death, scripture records an earthquake, some people rising from their tombs, and the tearing of the parokhet, the curtain separating the Most Holy Place from the Holy Place inside the temple (Matt. 27:51). Scripture does not mention the halls of the Sanhedrin being split so that the chief priests themselves were almost killed.

     This also is not a trifle. By exaggerating the heavenly signs of Yeshua’s innocence, the movie makes the Jewish leaders look even more evil. What kind of men would still persecute the followers of Yeshua after seeing such evidence? The portrayal of Israel’s corrupt leaders as completely without respect for God goes too far. Corruption need not be absolute to be corrupt.

     There were also skewed interpretations. The three worst, it seems to me, were Gibson’s portrayals of Pilate, his interpretation of the Barabbas scene, and his superimposing the scene of Palm Sunday onto the crowd mocking Yeshua.

     Gibson’s Pilate gets off too easy. Certainly Pilate was less guilty than the chief priests, and Yeshua says so. Yet Pilate was hardly a wise and sympathetic ruler. The Pilate of history was brutal. He was known to mercilessly kill Jews. He once murdered some Galileans in the temple, while they were offering sacrifices. Even Rome found him to be too brutal, and they removed him from his procuratorship.

     In The Passion film, Pilate’s famous hand-washing is given the most flattering treatment for his portrayal and the most demeaning interpretation for the Jewish leaders. The real Pilate did not care about Yeshua. He saw that Yeshua was a remarkable man. Pilate was intrigued by him. Yet Pilate’s hand-washing was not out of mercy for Yeshua.

     Pilate played a game with the Jewish leaders. He gave them some of the things they wanted in order to maintain power and prevent rebellion. He never wanted to give them anything they wanted because he despised them and despised Jewish law. Yeshua had not been proven to commit a crime against Rome, so Pilate would not of his own have scourged and crucified him. Yet, he did not mind throwing one more Jew on the cross, especially when doing so would put the chief priests in his debt.

     Even worse was Gibson’s interpretation of the Barabbas scene. Pilate merely describes Barabbas as a “vile murderer.” An unknowing audience might assume that the Jewish leaders wanted to free a Charles Manson type and let Yeshua die instead.

     Barabbas was no Ted Bundy or Charles Manson. He was an insurrectionist, a zealot of some party who had risen against Roman tyranny. From Rome’s standpoint, he was a murderer, who had killed Romans. From the standpoint of the Jewish people, he was a revolutionary who had killed some of the oppressors. It would not be unusual for a Jewish crowd to want a revolutionary freed instead of someone they viewed as a blasphemer.

     Finally, in a vicious scene with people reviling Yeshua carrying his cross, the film flashes back to Palm Sunday. A Jewish crowd lays down palm branches for Yeshua entering Jerusalem as a humble king. The message of this superimposed scene is simple: the crowds who welcomed him as king now want to see him tortured and killed.

     The truth is that there were three categories of Jewish opinion on Yeshua in his day: those who loved him, those who were indifferent, and those who despised him. Gibson’s film downplays those who loved him and those who were indifferent. The message seems to be that only a small handful of followers loved Yeshua and the rest of the Jewish people turned on him. Even his well-wishers from Palm Sunday now hated him.

     The gospels and Acts report something different. There were 120 closely identified with Yeshua already by the time of his crucifixion. There were hundreds, perhaps thousands, more who had seen his healings and heard his teachings and followed him around the countryside. Why assume that the same Jewish people who welcomed Yeshua then turned and mocked him? Why not assume these were, for the most part, different crowds?

     Finally, in Gibson’s film some important distinctions are omitted. For one thing, there is no distinction between Sadducees and Pharisees. The ruling council all wear the same garb. In fact, the Sadducees were a wealthy party of priests and nobles. Their corruption was well-known. The Pharisees, on the other hand, were not all wealthy, were popular with the people, and they despised the Sadducees.

     They would not have dressed the same. Also, Gibson’s film, to its credit, did show that some on the Council (Sanhedrin) supported Yeshua. Joseph of Arimethea, Nicodemus, and perhaps others supported him. Yet the film did not distinguish their dress.

     To set the record straight, many Pharisees did oppose Yeshua, yet it was the Sadducees who wanted him crucified. Yeshua’s faith was much closer to that of the Pharisees. By making all the Jewish leaders look the same, Gibson’s film again downplays the variety of Jewish views about him in his own day.

     Mel Gibson has made a moving film, one that few people of faith in Yeshua can watch without thinking deeply of the cost of our waywardness. For all of my criticism of the historical errors of the film, I was still deeply touched by it. I also commend Gibson’s desire to present the truth of the cross to the world. I have no doubt that people will find richer, fuller lives by following Yeshua after this movie awakens a desire to love the most loving man who ever lived.

     Yet, while we are being touched and watching for movements of faith, let’s not forget that Yeshua was a Jew. Let’s not forget that Jews have been blamed for the actions of a small number of a past generation. Let’s not let the small-minded words of petty men come true, “His blood shall be on us and on our children” (Matt. 27:25).

     When Matthew wrote his gospel, the temple almost certainly had not yet been destroyed. He recorded the hateful words of the chief priests to show what kind of men would crucify the Lord of glory. He did not intend to say that either the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. or the crusades and inquisitions of Europe against the Jews were God’s punishment for the cross.

To read about the Jewish life and teachings of Jesus, get a copy of JESUS DIDN'T HAVE BLUE EYES: RECLAIMING OUR JEWISH MESSIAH by Derek Leman.


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