First among the passionate disagreements stirred by "The Passion of the Christ" is the film's depiction of Jews.
But close behind are the related matters of whether the New Testament accounts are faithful to the actual events surrounding Jesus' crucifixion, and whether screenwriter-director Mel Gibson is faithful to what the New Testament records.
Some Jews and liberal Christians who criticize "Passion" contend the four Gospels themselves are unreliable, especially regarding Jewish involvement. Such thinking (not in response to the film) is found in "The Crucifixion of Jesus: History, Myth, Faith," by the Rev. Gerard Sloyan, a Roman Catholic with a Protestant publisher, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America's Fortress Press.
Such attacks undoubtedly added to the enthusiasm with which conservative Christians are boosting the movie's stupendous box-office totals.
Other critics accept the scriptural version and accuse Gibson of distorting it. An outspoken example is columnist Charles Krauthammer, who charged that "Gibson deviates from the Gospels - glorying in his artistic vision - time and time again. He bends, he stretches, he makes stuff up, "usually in ways that enhance "the villainy and culpability of the Jews."
But "Passion" defenders, including Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls and numerous evangelical Protestants, deny there's anti-Semitism and say Gibson stuck closely to the Gospels. (A reminder of how far some filmmakers stray from the texts came with "Judas," ABC's recent, curiously fictional made-for-TV movie.)
Amid all this tumult, one of the more intriguing conservative voices is that of James Wicker, a New Testament professor at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.
Writing in Baptist Press about "Passion," he said "much of it is right on target" and listed 21 examples of how the film "accurately followed numerous Gospel details." Yet even a fan like Wicker had some nits to pick, showing how literalistic folks can be when it comes to Scripture.
He grouped examples of problems under three categories:
1. "Unbiblical points" that are "contrary to what the Bible says":
-The Gospels never identify Mary Magdalene as the reformed prostitute (Luke 7:36-50) or the woman caught in adultery (John 7:53-8:11).
-Jesus didn't say "behold I make all things new" before his crucifixion. The saying comes from the heavenly Jesus in Revelation 21:5. Other words of Jesus are also misplaced.
-The disciples weren't seated at the Last Supper; they reclined. And John was at Jesus' right, not his left.
-Mary had no encounter with her son Jesus on the Via Dolorosa (the way to Golgotha).
2. "Extra-biblical elements" drawn from sources outside the Bible:
-Satan tempting Jesus in Gethsemane.
-Soldiers tossing a chained Jesus off a bridge.
-Jesus confronting Judas after the arrest.
-Pilate's wife bringing cloths to Mary so she can mop up Jesus' blood.
-Veronica offering Jesus a drink on the Via Dolorosa.
-Jesus falling six times on the Via Dolorosa (he falls once in the Bible. Wicker also comments that only nine of Catholicism's 14 Stations of the Cross are in the Bible).
-A raven pecking out the eyes of the "bad thief" on the cross to punish him.
-An earthquake cracking the floor and walls of the Jerusalem Temple (the Bible says only that the veil was ripped).
-Peter twice telling Mary not to touch him, as if he is unworthy in the presence of her special holiness.
-And in a hometown flashback, Jesus' brothers and sisters are absent, to fit with the Catholic belief that Mary and Joseph never had marital relations. (In general, Wicker accuses Gibson of "Mariolatry," an old-fashioned Protestant complaint against Catholicism.)
3. "Historical inaccuracies" that differ from non-biblical evidence, for instance technical details about crucifixion.
Even considering those items, Wicker concluded that "evangelical Christians and Roman Catholics alike can embrace this film as a powerful tool for getting the message of Jesus' suffering, death and resurrection to the masses."
On the Net:
"Passion" official site: http://www.thepassionofthechrist.com