Holy week, from Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday to his death and resurrection, is by far the greatest week in history. Jesus, the Lamb of God, the Son of God, the Saviour of the world, chose to be crucified in Jerusalem at the Passover festival. He became our Passover Lamb, slain from the foundation of the world. The Old Testament points to Jesus, the Messiah, God’s Anointed One. Those prophecies are fulfilled in Jesus. The New Testament tells his story and calls us to respond in faith to his gift of salvation and eternal life.
Holy Week: the last week of the earthly life of Jesus may be summarized this way as a general guide. The different Gospels record different events, each one telling the Gospel, the good news, in their own way. So this arrangement is an estimate of the sequence of the momentous developments in Holy Week.
This order of service for Passover is an attempt to be as true as possible to the historic one Jesus had with his disciples. The present day Passover as celebrated by millions of Jews is in the same order, and contains everything in this service (except for references to what Jesus did with it) as well as many additions that have been made, particularly since the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD.
A revival is taking place as Muslims turn to Christ
ISIS has targeted more Muslim-populated areas in Syria. The attacks have left at least 140 dead in Damascus and Homs. The attacks were the deadliest of Syria’s 5-year war. In Damascus, the explosions took place near one of the holiest Shia Muslim shrines. ISIS has claimed responsibility for the attacks.
Dyann Romeijn with Vision Beyond Borders (VBB) said “As ISIS attacks the Christians, they also attack other Muslims. Certain Muslim groups that ISIS doesn’t perceive as radical enough are being persecuted.” The latest attacks took place during ceasefire talks. This is the second time attacks have happened in the last few weeks during the process of ceasefire discussions. The first time, the talks were delayed. But now, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has said a “provisional agreement” has been reached with Russia.
There is both joy for the agreement and grief for a devastating loss in the war-torn nation. Millions of minorities and Syrians have fled from the terror of ISIS, leaving everything behind, including family members. In Lebanon alone, nearly one in every five people is a refugee. Romeijn explains this crisis is different from most others. “One of the things that’s overwhelming that we are seeing in this crisis more than some of the others is that the majority of these families were actually middle class families before ISIS came in.” The people had secure homes and jobs, but the persecution of ISIS drove them away and cost them everything. A VBB worker relayed the story of one man who’d saved up $50,000 for retirement. But, ISIS took it all away and left him with nothing.
Yet despite the grief, Romeijn says God is moving. Because less radical Muslims are being persecuted and fleeing, they are more open to seeing the love of God. Their eyes are being opened to see the truth about Islam and there’s a turning to the Gospel in great numbers. A revival is taking place as Muslims turn to Christ, and VBB wants to seize the moment that God has given.
VBB has printed 20,000 Arabic New Testament Bibles and is giving them to refugees. The Bibles have study notes in order to make it easier for Muslims to understand. Romeijn explains a New Testament is currently more beneficial to the people than an entire Bible because they will likely start at the very beginning of the book. A New Testament will immediately tell the Gospel story, whereas an entire Bible will contain rules Muslims might get caught up in.
But VBB knows they have more to do. “If you just tell Muslim refugees that Jesus loves them and hand them a Bible when they’re starving, they can’t even comprehend. But, we need to meet their physical needs as well.”
VBB is meeting physical needs by providing food, clothing, hygiene kits, and more. When they see genuine interest and care, Muslims want to hear about the Gospel. They’re accepting the Bibles graciously, and Romeijn says more than 1,000 have already been handed out by VBB.
Refugees need your prayers. After all, only God can bring peace. “There are over 6 million that have fled. It’s obvious no one person or organization is going to meet the needs. It’s got to be the Body of Christ.”
“I have never before seen what we’re seeing now,” said Tuvya Zaretsky, chairman of the Israel branch of Jews for Jesus. “We’re seeing a steady stream of particularly young Israelis who are coming to Jesus from all walks of life. There seems to be a greater openness to spiritual input.”
The First Wave of Jews coming to Jesus hit in the 1970s in America. The Second Wave were Russian Jews in the 1990s. And now – in a Third Wave – Jews in Israel are coming to faith in increasing numbers.
In the 1990s, there were about 3,000 Messianic Jews in Israel; today there are as many as 20,000 (still less than 1% of the population), said Simon Stout, executive assistant of Jews for Jesus. There is estimated to be 150 congregations of like-minded believers in Israel. Of Israel’s 84 cities and towns, 81 have at least one messianic Bible study.
“There is a very unusual turning in Israel,” said Zaretsky. “The community of believers there has solidified. They’ve found their voice. There’s less antagonism. The situation is changing.” When Jews for Jesus launched its Israel branch in 2000, its banners were torn down and workers beaten up by ultra-orthodox Jews who associated Christianity with the Holocaust. Now, Jews for Jesus has a staff of 31 and the world political situation has sparked greater interest in Jesus, Zaretsky said. After World War II’s Holocaust killed 6 million Jews, Israel was created by decree of the United Nations as a safe place for Jews. But now many Israelis feel more imperilled than ever. Iran, which is feared to be close to producing nuclear weapons, is constantly threatening Israel’s destruction. On the streets of Israel, terrorism is a constant.
“Young people generally feel very little hope for the future and are therefore more open to the gospel,” said Zaretsky. With half the country’s population, Tel Aviv is where Jews for Jesus runs a 3-story discipleship centre which hosts coffee house activities, art shows and other events to bring in neighbours in the trendy Florentine neighbourhood. A brief presentation of the gospel is always given; literature is on hand, and messianic Jews are present for anyone curious. In 2008, research showed that most Israelis had very little concept of who Yeshua was. They knew him by the name Yeshu, a corruption of his name imposed by the rabbis to expunge Christianity from Judaism. Yeshua is related to Yeshuah, which means “salvation”.
So Jews for Jesus took to the streets with banners to educate Israelis about Yeshua. The placards read: “Yeshu = Yeshua = Yeshuah” and included the phone number of the Jews for Jesus office. They took out ads in the newspaper with this motto and placed it on billboards and buses. The ultra-orthodox tore the signs down. Now workers hold up banners along streets and highways at different times. Jews for Jesus have also staged yearly region-wide campaigns, called “Israel, Behold Your God,” that included months of concentrated evangelism.
Ben, an 18-year-old high school student from northern Israel, contacted Jews for Jesus personnel through its website two months ago.
Igal, a missionary intern, talked to Ben via Skype and found out that his mother was a believer. Igal shared with him his personal testimony about how God set him free from drugs and brought him peace, encouraging Ben to believe that Yeshua would do the same for him, Stout said. Ben agreed to study more about Yeshua and actually stated that he wanted to give Yeshua a chance to work in his life. Igal prayed daily for Ben and talked to him once a week. Just this month, Ben prayed with Igal to accept Yeshua as his Messiah, Stout said. “People are receiving Christ at a fairly constant rate,” Stout said. “They’re coming in ones or twos each month. It’s not a speedy process. There are cultural barriers for Jews to accept Jesus Christ.”
Simon Stout’s Story
Stout was himself a non-believing, reformed Jew from Indianapolis who visited Israel on a government-subsidized tour in 2001. First he saw the horrors of concentration camps in Poland, where Jews were imprisoned and killed wholesale as part of Hitler’s anti-Semitism during World War 2. Leaving behind the dreary memorials and the cold weather, Stout landed in Israel when it was warm and lovely. “The first time I saw Jerusalem, there was a rainbow over part of the city,” he said. “There was something inside me that told me that there was a reason for me to be in Israel. I had this feeling that there was a God and He had a purpose for Israel.
“I felt God must be real because only He could have taken the horrors of World War II and birthed a nation and bring us back after 2,000 years,” he said. But it wasn’t until years later that Stout accepted Jesus when he came to Israel to study for a master’s in education. A friend from a messianic congregation invited him to visit. In Indianapolis, his only exposure to Christianity were school kids telling him he would burn in Hell for being a Jew; he also saw Jewish houses get egged, he said. Despite the bad first impression with Christianity, he wasn’t completely closed to hearing about Jesus. For two months, he attended Bible studies and fellowship groups. Then one night he had a dream about a flood in New York and a flood in China.
When he attended a Bible study about prophetic dreams, he hoped to find an interpretation. Instead the lady speaker prophesied over him: “God hears your prayers. Yeshua is real, and He has great plans for you.” Stout broke down crying. He accepted Yeshua and was baptized in the Mediterranean Sea. He decided to remain in Israel, where he has married and had two children. Originally, he taught English literature but two years ago started working with Jews for Jesus.
Another ministry of Jews for Jesus is its “Massah” outreach in India. Surprisingly, the Himalayas are a favourite hiking mecca for Israelis after they complete their mandatory military service at about age 20. Secular Jews, in particular, use the getaway to take drugs and forget the stressful experience of constant war threat in Israel, Zaretsky said.
For 5-6 weeks during the summer, there are so many Israelis in the Himalayas that entire restaurants and coffee houses are filled with Jews. There are even Hebrew-speaking waiters and Hebrew menus to cater to the sub-culture diaspora. There’s something about the mystique of India, with its varied spirituality, that seems to open Jewish youth to talk about alternatives. It’s the perfect spot to strike up a conversation about Yeshua. So yearly, the Israeli branch of Jews for Jesus forms a team that travels to India for ministry. “India is a relevant place to talk about spirituality and belief,” said one Messianic Jewish believer on a YouTube video about Massah. Another recounted about sharing the gospel with a Jew who, intrigued, told her: “This whole talk we’ve had would not have happened if we were in Israel.”
The parents of Shmuel Salway immigrated with his family from India and now the 42-year-old is associate pastor of the Adonai Roi congregation, which has functioned in Tel Aviv for 19 years. It’s now a church of 100 members. “We just had five baptisms last month,” Salway said. “The Jews are coming back to the land, and they’re coming to know the Messiah. We’re living in prophetic times. I believe Yeshua will come back in our lifetime. He’ll come back when many more Jews come to Messiah and cry out ‘Baruch Haba B’Shem Adonai’ – Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.”
As author Adrian Wooldridge travelled the world researching the impact religion is having. It struck him that religious observance is increasing worldwide, with the exception only of Europe.
“Something happened from the 1970s and now the world is again moving towards a faith revival” he said. The Jesus movement and Pentecostal/charismatic revivals of the 1960s and ’70s, may have had something to do with that. Pentecostalism, he concluded, will be the major form of 21st century Christianity. China, Guatemala, Nigeria, Kenya and various Latin American countries were the biggest hotspots.
“The sort of religion that is on the rise is the emotive, assertive charismatic religion,” he said. “It’s compelling Catholicism in Latin America to change. There’s a physical surprise when you go to Guatemala and see how vibrant the charismatic and Pentecostal movements are. It is the same thing in Lagos and Nairobi. I went into my research underestimating the power and vitality of religion.”
What also struck him were the 443,000 full-time Christian missionaries worldwide plus 1.6 million Christians a year who go on short-term missions. Wooldridge sees Christianity remaining the world’s largest religion.
Wooldridge a confessing atheist, said that he now had more respect, and felt more warmth towards religion. “This was partly because of the people I came across who were doing such amazing work to help the poor. But where are the atheists doing anything like that?”
A look at commonly neglected gospel stories and films that depict them. By Peter T. Chattaway/ February 22, 2016
Haaz Sleiman in ‘Killing Jesus’ (2015)
Ten years ago, I compiled a list of my ten favorite Jesus movies for CT. Several new Jesus films have released since then, with more coming out this year: Risen (February 19), The Young Messiah (March 11), and a new version of Ben-Hur (August 12). But I’ve never felt a need to update the list. The original still holds up pretty well, I believe.
That said, while none of the newer films have nudged their way into my all-time top ten, some of them have highlighted aspects of the Gospels that most other films miss. Indeed, one of the things I value more and more, as I study this genre, is the way some films highlight aspects of the Gospels that are often overlooked—not just by other filmmakers, but also by teachers, preachers, and other Bible readers.
So I wanted to supplement my earlier list with a newer, more particular list of ten stories that usually get ignored by Jesus movies—and the (often obscure, sometimes edgier) films that have actually dramatized those stories. Here they are, in more or less biographical order.
1. The Circumcision of Jesus
On the eighth day of Christmas, Mary and Joseph had Jesus circumcised, just as all Jewish boys are (Luke 2:21). This event is significant because it underscores the humanity of Jesus. Art historian Leo Steinberg has shown that many Renaissance artists drew attention to the genitalia of the baby Jesus to emphasize the fact that God had become human even to the point of having physical gender. Not only that, this event highlights Jesus’ vulnerability. Some theologians have argued that this was the first time Jesus shed blood. So, in some sense, it marked the beginning of his sacrifice for our redemption. Finally, it underscores Jesus’ Jewishness.
The best-known film to depict this event is probably Franco Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth (1977), which makes a special point of emphasizing the Jewish rituals that Joseph and Mary would have followed and that Jesus would have been raised with. The man who performs the circumcision even declares that “this is the seal in flesh of the covenant between the Lord and his people,” which neatly sums up all three of the theological points I mentioned above. Zeffirelli’s film receives extra points for combining this story with another story that is often overlooked: Jesus’ consecration at the Temple (Luke 2:22–35), which would have happened over a month later.
More recently, a Palestinian film called The Savior (2013) also depicted the circumcision of Jesus. (Though it doesn’t show the actual procedure, it includes a close-up of the foreskin being dropped into a bowl!) Notably, this film was produced in a part of the world where circumcision is fairly common not only among Jews and Muslims, but among Christians, too.
2. The Brothers and Sisters of Jesus
The Gospels tell us that Jesus had four brothers and an unspecified number of sisters (Matt. 12:46–50; 13:55–56; Mark 3:31–35; 6:3; Luke 8:19–21; John 2:12). The Gospels also tell us that the brothers of Jesus did not believe in him during his ministry (John 7:2–10). However, the rest of the New Testament indicates that his brothers became active participants and leaders in the early church (Acts 1:14; 12:17; 15:13–21; 21:18; 1 Cor. 9:5; Gal. 2:11–13). Two of them, James and Jude, even lent their names to two of the canonical epistles.
Few films about the life of Jesus, however, have depicted his siblings—possibly because doing so would require the filmmakers to choose between the dominant Protestant, Orthodox, and Catholic traditions, which disagree on whether these siblings were the half-brothers of Jesus (i.e., the children of Mary and Joseph), the step-brothers of Jesus (i.e., the children of Joseph from a previous marriage), or the cousins of Jesus.
There are at least three key exceptions, though. Color of the Cross (2006), which depicts Jesus and his family as black, features the brothers and sisters of Jesus in several scenes—as well as their father Joseph, who, unlike the Joseph of most other films, is still alive during Jesus’ ministry. Killing Jesus (2015), which may be the first English-language film to cast a Middle Eastern actor as Jesus, makes James a key supporting character. When I visited the film’s set in Morocco, I noticed that one of the costumes had a tag that said “Girl (Jesus’ Sister).” This apparently refers to a girl who is seen hugging Jesus in one shot, though she has no dialogue. Further, The Young Messiah (2016), which comes out in March, shows Jesus and his parents traveling from Egypt to Judea in the company of his uncle, aunt, and male and female cousins.
3. The Exorcism of Mary Magdalene
Many people believe Mary Magdalene was a prostitute before she joined the Jesus movement, but there is no basis for that in the Gospels. What the Gospels do say is that Jesus cast seven demons out of her (Luke 8:2). But this fact about her life has been ignored by most films about Jesus.
At least two major films depict her exorcism, though. Alas, one of them—The King of Kings (1927), a silent film directed by Cecil B. DeMille—depicts her as a prostitute too. And not just any; rather, a wealthy courtesan. When Jesus casts the seven demons out of her, they are identified with the Seven Deadly Sins. And the first sin to come out of Mary is Lust. But at least the exorcism is depicted.
Much better is the exorcism scene in The Miracle Maker (2000), an animated film that uses stop-motion puppets to signify the objective world—and hand-drawn animation to signify memories, visions, and states of mind. When Jesus casts the demons out of Mary in this film, the sequence begins as a seriously strange set of distorted hand-drawn images that eventually stabilize as the film moves through several styles of hand-drawn animation before fading back to the stop-motion puppets.
The History Channel miniseries The Bible (2013) almost had a scene that depicted Mary’s exorcism, too, but it was deleted before the series aired. Part of it did, however, surface in a TV special called The Women of the Bible (2014) that aired on the Lifetime network.
4. Joanna, Whose Husband Worked for Herod Antipas
Luke mentions that Mary Magdalene was one of several female patrons who traveled from town to town with Jesus and the apostles. He also mentions that Joanna, one of these patrons, was married to the manager of Herod’s household (Luke 8:3).
This detail is fascinating, because Jesus and Herod did not exactly get along with each other. One would think that some dramatist might have picked up on this detail and done something with it. But until last year, none had. And then, suddenly, only a few weeks apart, Joanna popped up as a character in two TV productions that were both particularly concerned with the political implications of the Jesus movement.
In Killing Jesus, Joanna overhears a threat made against Jesus in Herod’s palace, and she tries to send him a warning. In A.D. The Bible Continues (2015), however, her Christian connections are discovered during the events of the Book of Acts, and she is executed by the Romans. All very fictitious, perhaps, but it’s exciting to see screenwriters thinking beyond the standard 12 disciples as they flesh out the Jesus movement.
5. The Syro-Phoenician Woman
This is one of the more perplexing stories in the Gospels, as Jesus not only rejects a foreign woman’s request to heal her daughter, but he seems to insult them, too, when he says, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs” (Matt. 15:21–28; Mark 7:24–30). “Children” in this case refers to the Israelites, and “dogs” refers to Gentiles like this woman).
The woman’s reply—“Yes it is, Lord. Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table”—prompts Jesus to heal her daughter after all. Did Jesus always intend to heal the daughter? Was he just testing the mother’s faith? Or did he actually change his mind? Since most films have omitted this story, they have never had to answer those questions.
One miniseries, however, does tackle this story. Jesus (1999), produced as part of The Bible Collection series, emphasizes the humanity of Jesus and uses this scene to show that Jesus changing his mind. And when the disciples protest, Jesus replies, “This woman has taught me that my message is for the Gentiles, as well. If I can learn, so can you.”
6. The Ungrateful Lepers
Most Jesus films tend to flatter their audiences by showing how awestruck everyone was whenever Jesus performed a healing. Surely, we think, we would have been just as moved as they were. But the story of the ungrateful lepers—Jesus healed ten of them, and only one came back to thank him (Luke 17:11–19)—reminds us that some people were not so awestruck, or even particularly thankful.
Perhaps the only major film that even alludes to this story is the Monty Python comedy Life of Brian (1979), in which an “ex-leper” begs for alms and complains that Jesus took away his “livelihood.” When Brian finally says, “There’s no pleasing some people,” the ex-leper—who, based on the way he hops and skips and flexes his arms, is clearly enjoying the use of his restored limbs—replies, “That’s just what Jesus said!”
7. The Coin in the Fish’s Mouth
One of the odder miracles in the Gospels concerns a tax that Jesus and his disciples were supposed to pay for the upkeep of the Temple. Jesus suggests to his disciples that, as the Son of God, he should be exempt from this tax, but, “so that we may not cause offense,” he tells Peter to pay the tax using a four-drachma coin that he will find in a fish’s mouth (Matt. 17:24–27).
DeMille’s The King of Kings may be the only major film to show this miracle, and it combines the story with the calling of the tax collector Matthew and with Jesus’ teaching that people should “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s.” DeMille also gets some comedy out of the story by having two soldiers try to replicate the miracle. When one of them catches his own fish, he shakes it next to his ears, hoping to hear the rattling of coins.
8. The Plot to Kill Lazarus
The resurrection of Lazarus is one of the most famous miracles in the entire Bible and has been depicted in many films. But many people overlook the fact that the chief priests tried to have Lazarus killed, because his sudden fame was drawing too much attention to Jesus (John 12:9–11).
John doesn’t say whether the conspiracy succeeded, but at least two films—The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and Jesus, the Spirit of God (2007), an Iranian film that tells the story of Jesus from a Muslim perspective—actually show Lazarus being killed, by Zealots in one case and by the priests in the other. And in both films, the man who delivers the fatal blow is Saul, the early persecutor of the church who eventually became the Christian missionary Paul.
9. The Two Sons of Simon of Cyrene
Three of the Gospels mention that a man named Simon of Cyrene was forced to carry the cross for Jesus. But only Mark’s gospel mentions that Simon was “the father of Alexander and Rufus” (15:21). Why does Mark, and not the other Gospels, tell us this? Tradition says Mark wrote his Gospel in Rome, and Paul’s letter to the Romans includes a greeting for a man named Rufus, whose mother was like a mother to Paul (Rom. 16:13). Is this the same Rufus mentioned in Mark? Was Mark reminding his readers that one of their own friends was the son of someone who had witnessed the Crucifixion for himself?
We don’t know, but it’s fun to speculate. And two films—the silent King of Kings and The Passion of the Christ (2004)—seem to make a nod to this passage by introducing Simon in the company of one of his sons before the Romans force him to carry the cross.
10. The Doubts of Resurrection Eyewitnesses
Many Christians have wished that they could see the resurrected Jesus for themselves, and many have taken to heart what Jesus told the apostle Thomas: “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29). But what if actually seeing Jesus didn’t resolve one’s doubts? What if people still struggled to believe even then?
Many films have skipped the Resurrection entirely, and many others have given it only cursory treatment. So it’s not surprising that few films have explored Matthew 28:17, an enigmatic passage: “When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.” But one or two come to mind.
The miniseries A.D. Anno Domini (1985) hints at what this passage is getting at when Thomas is reluctant to believe in the Resurrection even after Jesus appears to him and all the other disciples (“He died on a cross,” says Thomas, using the third person even though he is looking right at Jesus). It is only after Thomas touches the wounds of Jesus that he fully believes. Similarly, the film Risen features a non-disciple who witnesses the risen Christ and wrestles with whether to accept what he has seen.
They’ve been making films about the Son of God for over a century. Here’s one man’s list of those that ascend to the top of the cinematic pack. By Peter T. Chattaway/ April 11, 2006.
Of the making of movies about Jesus, there is no end. In the first three months of 2006 alone: Son of Man, which casts a black man as Christ and sets his life in modern South Africa, got positive reviews at Sundance; the makers of Color of the Cross, which also casts a black man as Christ, established a website with trailers for their work-in-progress; and New Line Cinema announced that Oscar nominees Keisha Castle-Hughes (Whale Rider) and Shohreh Aghdashloo (House of Sand and Fog) will star as the Virgin Mary and her cousin Elizabeth in a new movie about the Nativity, to be released in time for Christmas (2006).
Some of this activity can be credited to The Passion of The Christ, which shattered box-office records and sparked interest in religious films when it came out in 2004. But movies about Jesus have always been popular, especially in times of heightened spiritual interest—the counter-cultural craze of the 1970s, the millennial anxiety of the late 1990s, etc.
No interpretation of the life of Christ can ever tell the full story. That is, indeed, one of the reasons we have four Gospels; each one paints a unique portrait of the Savior and emphasizes a different set of themes. Similarly, no mere movie about Jesus can capture the fullness of his divinity, or the fullness of his humanity, no matter how sincere its makers are; but the better films can help us to see a small part of the bigger picture.
This list is limited to those that focus mainly on Jesus’ life story as told in the Gospels; thus, it does not include films about characters who are only peripherally connected to Jesus, such as Ben-Hur (1925, 1959). Also, because each film has its strengths and weaknesses, they are listed in simple chronological order; no ranking is implied.
The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ (1902-05)
Film was a new medium, only a few years old, when the Pathé company in France produced this series of short tableaux illustrating scenes from the Gospels. Like a series of icons brought to life, or a passion play enhanced by the odd special effect, The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ never pretends to be a drama; instead, it is a uniquely visual work of art which underscores the supernatural context within which Jesus’ life and ministry took place. At times, the film borrows from later, post-biblical legends, but it also emphasizes Jesus’ place within the Trinity, and it concludes with a fantastic (if a tad rickety by modern standards) shot of the Ascension and Jesus seated at God’s right hand in the heavenly court.
The King of Kings (1927)
All of Cecil B. DeMille’s best and worst instincts are on display in this, his last silent movie. Fortunately, he gets the tawdry stuff out of the way pretty fast. The ludicrous opening sequence features a scantily-clad Mary Magdalene hosting a banquet and asking what has happened to her lover Judas Iscariot; but once Jesus casts the seven demons out of her—one of several biblical details included here that most films omit—the film relies on the Gospels for most of its content. That said, DeMille also rearranges episodes from the Bible in ways that are startlingly original yet quite effective. Re-issued in the 1930s with a music and sound-effects track, The King of Kings was such a big hit that no Hollywood studio would make another life-of-Jesus movie until the 1960s, after DeMille had passed away.
The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964)
Right from its very first frames—when a visibly upset Joseph beholds a very pregnant Mary—this film challenges the soft-focus piety that affects many adaptations of the Gospels. Director Pier Paolo Pasolini, a gay Marxist atheist who was famous for his poetry before he turned to film making, certainly wanted to confront the conventional spirituality of his day, and his Jesus is more aggressive than most. But nearly every single line of dialogue comes from Matthew’s Gospel (a pattern that would be followed decades later by Campus Crusade’s adaptation of Luke and the Visual Bible’s adaptations of Matthew and John), and the film’s gritty, down-to-earth realism underscores the revolutionary nature of Christ’s message; you can believe the authorities would want to crucify this guy. While the film is often hailed for stripping the story down to its basics, it also reflects Pasolini’s belief in finding transcendence within the everyday—an effect that is especially achieved on the eclectic soundtrack, which includes Bach, Negro spirituals, and the Missa Luba.
The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965)
Some will say that this expensive flop, produced by the devoutly Christian George Stevens (The Diary of Anne Frank, Shane), represents everything that is wrong with Hollywood adaptations of the Gospels: it’s too pretty, it’s too stilted, it’s too American, it’s too lavish to be an authentic depiction of first-century Galilean peasant society, and it’s got too many distracting cameos, culminating in John Wayne’s brief, out-of-nowhere appearance as the centurion at the crucifixion. And they would have a point. But the cinematography is gorgeous, and many of the performances are quite good, especially that of Max von Sydow (as Jesus), whose austerity is leavened with moments of deeply felt emotion. Note how he cries outside Lazarus’s tomb, or the warm, robust smile he gives when he meets James the Lesser.
Prepare ye the way of the Lord! In some ways, Godspell, one of three musical Jesus movies released in 1973 (the others were Andrew Lloyd Webber’s agnostic, angst-ridden Jesus Christ Superstar and Johnny Cash’s The Gospel Road), may not belong on this list. For one thing, it’s set in modern New York—or rather, it uses modern New York as a backdrop; one sequence even takes place on the roofs of the then-brand-new World Trade Center towers. It is also less concerned with the life of Jesus than with his sayings, especially the parables and the Sermon on the Mount, and how they resonated with the countercultural mood of that time. But it is precisely this focus on the teachings of Christ that makes the film unique. Its comical approach to the parables, and its depiction of Christ as a clown in make-up, were controversial at the time, but that debate seems quaint now in the age of VeggieTales. The giddy, and at times prayerful, music is by Stephen Schwartz (The Prince of Egypt).
The Messiah (1976)
Roberto Rossellini was one of the pioneers of post-war Italian neorealism, in films like Open City (1945), and his controversial film The Miracle (1948) prompted a landmark American court case which ultimately led to movies being recognized, for the first time, as an art form protected by free-speech laws. Toward the end of his life, he made a series of “didactic” historical biopics focusing on characters like Socrates, St. Augustine, and Blaise Pascal, and one of his very last films was this portrait of Jesus. Rossellini did not believe in “seducing” the audience with dramatic effects, so he downplays the miracles and the violence—all the stuff that other filmmakers revel in—even while he acknowledges that they occur. His version of the story emphasizes the brotherhood of men more than Christian faith, per se, but in doing so it also underscores the fact, often ignored by films in this genre, that the disciples went out and spread Jesus’ message even while the Master was still alive.
Jesus of Nazareth (1977)
Some would say this is the best Jesus film; it is certainly the most. At six and a half hours, Franco Zeffirelli’s mini-series gets to explore the Gospels at greater length than usual, and it fleshes out the supporting characters in ways that convey the breadth and depth of the impact Jesus had on his contemporaries. The film alternates, somewhat awkwardly, between everyday naturalism and pious theatricality; this may be the first film to show the Virgin Mary going into labor, but after her pains have ended, some shepherds arrive and speak portentously about their encounter with the angels, finishing each other’s sentences as they do so. Also, as Jesus, Robert Powell has the British accent, blue eyes, and John Lennon hair that have become something of a cliché. Still, this film is supported by a fine cast (no distracting cameos here!), as well as some stirring music by Lawrence of Arabia‘s Maurice Jarre, and it emphasizes the Jewishness of Jesus like few others—not only to remind us of his ethnicity, but to underscore the prophecies that he fulfilled.
Produced as part of Lux Vide’s “Bible Collection” series, this two-part TV-movie is kind of like The Last Temptation of Christ without the heresy. That is, it presents Jesus as a haunted and vulnerable human being who struggles with romantic attractions (to Mary of Bethany, this time) and a growing awareness of his destiny—but instead of fleeing God, he always chooses God’s will for his life. Some viewers found Jeremy Sisto’s interpretation of Christ a little too casual and buddy-ish, but this is one of the few Jesus films to understand that being human is about more than having emotions and dancing at parties; it is about finding God’s will, and following it to the best of our ability. Note also the scene where Satan visits Jesus in Gethsemane and, taunting him with visions of nations and churches committing atrocities in Jesus’ name, tries to convince him his death on the cross will be in vain; this is a far more sobering “last temptation” than anything imagined by Martin Scorsese.
The Miracle Maker (2000)
Shown in theatres in Europe and on television in North America, this follow-up to the Welsh-Russian TV series Testament: The Bible in Animation was the first major animated cartoon about the life of Jesus. Like the series that preceded it, The Miracle Maker employs a mix of animation techniques, and in a very purposeful way. The day-to-day experiences of Jesus and his followers are depicted with stop-motion puppets, while the parables, flashbacks, memories and spiritual encounters are depicted the traditional, hand-drawn way; the scene in which Jesus casts the demons out of Mary Magdalene is especially striking, as it segues from one style of animation to the other. Co-produced by Mel Gibson’s Icon Productions and written by Christian author Murray Watts, the film stars the voice of Ralph Fiennes, whose Jesus is by turns tender, humorous, exasperated, and above all very, very engaging.
The Passion of the Christ (2004)
Mel Gibson’s highly controversial, and highly personal, meditation on the death of Christ is a work of profound Catholic devotion, inspired by sources as diverse as the Stations of the Cross and the visions of Sister Anne Catherine Emmerich, a stigmatic German nun; it is also possibly the boldest, starkest portrayal of evil, both human and supernatural, since The Exorcist. The Latin and Aramaic dialogue now seem like a merely Gibsonian conceit, given the all-Mayan script for his upcoming follow-up Apocalypto; but they do contribute to the film’s otherworldly and at times shockingly surreal tone. The violence aside, Gibson makes strikingly effective use of objective and subjective cinematic techniques to convey the divinity and humanity of Christ, respectively; and, more than any recent director, Gibson captures the grand supernatural conflict which gives the death of Christ its meaning.