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'THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST' Many gaps in details of Jesus' Crucifixion

Monday, February 23, 2004

Mel Gibson said he studied the Crucifixion, then decided details for himself.
JERUSALEM (AP) -- The dearth of information about Jesus' crucifixion makes it impossible to describe the event in accurate detail, as Mel Gibson attempts to do in his new film, "The Passion of the Christ," biblical scholars and anthropologists say.
The Crucifixion is the centerpiece of the movie that opens in U.S. theaters Wednesday.
People who have seen the movie say it adopts standard Christian imagery: Jesus being pinioned to a Latin cross -- a T-shaped device with a short upper extension -- with one nail driven through both feet and one through each palm.
Gibson's research
In an e-mail sent to The Associated Press, Gibson said he did "an immense amount of reading" to supplement the Bible's relatively unadorned account of the Crucifixion in the four Gospels.
"I consulted a huge number of theologians, scholars, priests, spiritual writers," Gibson wrote. "The film is faithful to the Gospels, but I had to fill in a lot of details -- like the way Jesus would have carried his cross, or whether the nails went through the palms of his hands or his wrists. ... Because the experts canceled each other out, I was thrown back on my own resources to weigh the different arguments and decide for myself."
Scholars say the most widely recognized features of the Crucifixion are open to debate.
James F. Strange, professor of religious studies at the University of South Florida in Tampa, said first-century historian Josephus provided only general information, probably because crucifixion was so common.
Widely used punishment
Crucifixion was widely used for eight centuries starting in the fifth century B.C., said Israeli anthropologist Joe Zias.
Zias said it's a mystery as to whether Jesus was nailed to the cross or simply tied to it.
"There is no evidence whatsoever that his feet were nailed," he said.
Zias criticized the movie for accepting the standard version of three nails being used. He said experiments on cadavers carried out by the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages showed that people hanging with nails through their hands will fall to the ground within a relatively short time.
Zias said. "People who study these things understand them. But Gibson ignored them in his film."
John Dominic Crossan, emeritus professor of religious studies at DePaul University in Chicago, agrees with Zias that little is known about Jesus' execution.
"Early Christians believed that Jesus was nailed to the cross," he said. "But there is absolutely no proof of this. The only skeleton of a crucified person ever recovered indicated that the two arms were tied to a crossbar, and two nails were used in either shinbone. There was no standard procedure in any of this. The only common feature in the different types of crucifixion is intense sadism."
The type of cross in Jesus' execution is also in question, Crossan said. First-century Romans are known to have used both a T-shaped device, without an upper extension, and the Latin cross that is standard in Christian iconography.
Each of the four Gospels says an inscription mocking Jesus as the "king of the Jews" was affixed to the cross. Crossan said, "the whole point of crucifixion was to warn people through alluding to a specific crime."
Two Gospels say the inscription was mounted above Jesus. This would strengthen the argument for a Latin cross, which would have provided space for writing above the condemned man's head.
Crossan is also uncertain whether the cross on which Jesus was crucified was carried to the execution grounds -- either by Simon of Cyrene, as three of the Gospels report, or by Jesus himself, according to John's account.
It's possible that the vertical part of the cross was kept at Golgotha, the place of Jesus' death, and that the condemned person carried the crossbar, Crossan said.
"The point is we simply don't know," he said, "not in general cases and not in the case of Jesus either."