Search SBL

SBL Forum Archive
<< Return to SBL Forum Archive The Problem of the Cinematic Jesus

In the 1960s, as a seminarian and later a graduate student in biblical studies at Duke University, I intentionally stayed away from the public screening of George Stevens' The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965). Perhaps my decision reflected the quasi-arrogant conviction that Hollywood would be ignorant of gospel criticism, insensitive to the historical quest, and capable only of theological vapidity.

However, within ten years, I was teaching a course at Greensboro College in collaboration with a colleague who taught cinema. Henry Ingram and I called the course, "A Cinematic Quest for Jesus." Using cumbersome reels of 16mm film obtained from various rental agencies, we projected not only what we formally labeled Jesus-story films (informally, "bathrobe dramas") but also films with recognizable Christ-figures (such as Ingmar Bergman's Winter Light [1962] and John Frankenheimer's The Fixer [1968]). Out of this classroom experience, we co-authored an article ("Whence and Whither the Cinematic Jesus?" Religion in Life 44 [1975]: 470-478). Therein we narrowed our focus exclusively on the cinematic tradition of Jesus-story films, in anticipation of Franco Zeffirelli's announced Jesus of Nazareth (1977).

What transformed my disinterest in Jesus-story films into engagement with this film-genre was the appearance, already in the 1960s, of Pier Paolo Pasolini's stark The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964, 1966) and the two musicals spawned by the counter-cultural generation—Norman Jewison's Jesus Christ Superstar and David Greene's Godspell (both 1973). There was also, of course, the experience of teaching undergraduates which led me to discover in film a pedagogical means of introducing and clarifying issues in gospel criticism, the historical quest, and even theology.

In recent decades, in academic circles and within the SBL itself, there has been a surge of interest in cinema generally and in the Jesus-genre specifically. Not only are commercially produced Jesus-films used in classroom settings but entire semester courses are dedicated to them. Evidence for this comes from course listings and syllabi posted on the web as well personal communications with colleagues around the country. The relative convenience of videocassettes is now being superseded by the utility and precision of DVDs. At the SBL 2000 meeting in Nashville, the Bible in Ancient and Modern Media Section devoted a three-hour session to "Jesus in Film." For the SBL 2004 meeting later this year, a call has gone forth for papers related to Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ (2004). The release of the Gibson film once again serves as a reminder that Jesus movies have religious, social, and political implications that extend well beyond the theater and the classroom.

In what follows, I move forward in two stages. First, I consider the problem of the cinematic Jesus. The dimensions of this problem provide a conceptual framework for viewing and evaluating Jesus-films. Secondly, I provide a highly selective list of resources pertaining to the cinematic Jesus. These resources offer a sampling of the increased scholarly scrutiny of Jesus-films. Any maker of a Jesus-film, including Mel Gibson, must confront what I call the problem of the cinematic Jesus. The problem has four dimensions.

A Form of Art
First, there is the artistic dimension of the problem. This dimension rests on the simple observation that films are films. Film possesses its own integrity as an art form and story-telling medium.

The film industry itself has come to recognize outstanding achievement in filmmaking. In the United States, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences annually passes out its awards in a variety of categories. Overall, Jesus-films have not fared very well in the races for the Oscars. However, William Wyler's novel-based Ben-Hur (1959) received a record-setting eleven academy awards, only to be equaled in recent years by the film Titanic (1998). But in Ben-Hur, Jesus himself appears on the screen only briefly and then seen only obliquely or from a distance. Denys Arcand's Jesus of Montreal (1989, 1990) received an Oscar nomination as the Best Foreign Language Film and also received twelve Genies, the Canadian counterpart to the Oscars. Franco Zeffirelli's made-for-television Jesus of Nazareth received an Emmy nomination as the Outstanding Special, Drama or Comedy, for 1977-1978.

Written Sources
Secondly, there is theliterary dimension of the problem. This dimension involves the written sources available for fashioning a screenplay—specifically the canonical gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

The gospels contain limited information about Jesus and his outer life. They report virtually nothing about his inner life. Certainly one feature of Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) to which people objected most vociferously was the way he used the cinematic technique of voice-over to explore Jesus' tortured but developing messianic consciousness. However, the literary dimension of the problem involves more than meagerness of information about Jesus in the gospels. The four gospels themselves present two strikingly different characterizations of Jesus and his story: the Gospel of John, on the one hand, and the Synoptic Gospels, on the other. Zeffirelli's Jesus of Nazareth (1977) probably represents the Jesus-film most successful in harmonizing all four gospels into a dramatically coherent characterization of Jesus and his story. By contrast, Pasolini's The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964, 1966) and John Heyman's Jesus (1979) avoid harmonizing the four gospels by basing their stories on one gospel—the former based, of course, on the Gospel of Matthew and the latter on the Gospel of Luke.

The Historical Jesus
Thirdly, there is the historical dimension of the problem. This dimension has to do with the traditional scholarly distinction between the Christ of faith and the Jesus of history, between Jesus as portrayed in the gospels and Jesus the historical figure who lived and died in first century Roman Palestine. Jesus-filmmakers have usually paid careful attention to historical verisimilitude by replicating on the screen as accurately as possible the likeness of setting, customs, and dress. But the historical dimension of the problem of the cinematic Jesus involves not just historical verisimilitude but the question of historical probability.

The question of the historicity of the gospel presentations of Jesus' appearances before the Jewish and Roman authorities has repeatedly been raised by the makers, the audiences, and the critics of various films throughout the Jesus-film tradition. The stakes here have been high because of the ways the passion accounts have been used over the centuries to undergird anti-Semitic or anti-Jewish rhetoric and behavior. Long ago, in the early days of Jesus cinema, both D. W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille altered their silent classics Intolerance (1916) and The King of Kings (1927) in response to complaints that their films were anti-Jewish, particularly in their depictions of Jesus' last hours.

With Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ viewers see, perhaps for the first time, the problem of the historical Jesus posed on the screen. This occurs during Jesus' fantasy on the cross in which Paul, in a verbal exchange with Jesus, affirms while Jesus denies Jesus' messiahship. Also, underlying Arcand's Jesus of Montreal (1989, 1990) is the premise that recent archaeological discoveries have challenged and overturned the church's traditional gospel-based understanding of Jesus.

Faith Claims
Finally, there is the theological dimension of the problem of the cinematic Jesus. This dimension has to do with the faith claims made about the one whose story flashes across the screen—Jesus of Nazareth, the one called Christ. Because of Jesus' traditional role in culture and church, he represents not just another sacred person. In the language of the early creedal formulations of the church, Jesus is one person of the holy trinity—Father, Son, Holy Spirit—one person with two natures—divine and human. Although Jesus' cultural role may have been challenged in his passage through modernity into a post-modern world, he remains the central figure for the church, or churches, and their constituents. In the midst of the public controversy over The Last Temptation of Christ, there appeared in the National Catholic Reporter (June 29, 1990) this headline over a playful but provocative article by Michael O. Garvey: "What does a man who is also God look like?" This is a daunting question for any filmmaker, especially when most viewers already know the story and have their own answers.

Mel Gibson has now joined the company of those who have dared to bring Jesus to the silver screen. Viewers can bring to their experience of The Passion of the Christ (2004) a four-part question. To what extent is this film about Jesus artisticallyinteresting, literarily sensitive to the gospel sources, historically probable, and theologically satisfying?

W. Barnes Tatum is author of In Quest of Jesus (Abingdon, 1999) and is the Jefferson-Pilot Professor of Religion at Greensboro College, Greensboro, NC.

Resources for the Cinematic Jesus
The list of resources included here does not intend to be in any way exhaustive. Although idiosyncratic, it includes a variety of media and offers different perspectives on individual films and on the continuing tradition of Jesus-films.

Web Sites
Mark Goodacre of the University of Birmingham, UK, hosts this site with links to many areas of New Testament study. One link on the homepage is "Jesus in Film." In turn, this page has links that will carry the user throughout the universe of Jesus cinema.
This site provides access to the on-line Journal of Religion and Film, edited by William L. Blizek. Of special interest are the articles by Adele Reinhartz ("Jesus in Film: Hollywood Perspectives on the Jewishness of Jesus," 2, 2, October 1998) and Jeffrey H. Mahan ("Celluloid Savior: Jesus in the Movies," 6, 1, April 2002). Also available is a special issue, "Exploring Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ" (8, 1, February 2004).
This site provides access to the on-line Journal of Religion & Society, edited by Ronald A Simkins. The current issue constitutes a "Special Edition on Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ" (6, 2004) that includes a viewers guide for the film as well as eight articles related to the film and the social world presupposed by the film. The articles correspond to the eight articles also available in the special edition on the Gibson film in the Journal of Religion & Film. The articles originated as papers presented at a symposium held at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and Creighton University on January 29, 2004, whose co-sponsors included the Journal of Religion & Society and the Journal of Religion & Film.

Jesus Christ, Movie Star, CTVC (1992), color, 52 mins.
This comprehensive documentary surveys in chronological order the history of Jesus-story films, from the beginnings of cinema until 1990. Films clips are accompanied by brief interviews with directors and actors who play key roles. Harvey Cox serves as the theological commentator.

Baugh, Lloyd, Imaging the Divine: Jesus and Christ-Figures in Film. Kansas City, Mo.: Sheed & Ward, 1997.
The first half of this volume analyzes representative Jesus-films; the latter half, films with Christ-figures, with Jesus of Montrealidentified as "a film of transition."

Kinnard, Roy, and Tim Davis. Divine Images: A History of Jesus on the Screen. New York: Citadel, 1992.
A richly illustrated volume, this book approaches the history of Jesus-films decade by decade with lists of credits, casts, and a brief commentary on each film.

Stern, Richard C., Clayton Jefford, and Guerric DeBona, O.S.B. Savior on the Silver Screen. Mahwah, N.J.: Paulist, 1999.
This was one of the two books that served as the basis for the symposium on "Jesus in Film" at the SBL 2000 meeting. Nine films are considered in chronological order through three lenses: one, a comparison of the image of Jesus in the film with images in historical documents; two, a consideration of how the producer of the film uses the medium of cinema to create and communicate the film's story; and three, the development of viewing skills. The volume emerged out of a classroom setting.

Tatum, W. Barnes. Jesus at the Movies: A Guide to the First Hundred Years. Santa Rosa, Calif.: Polebridge, 1997.
This was the other book that served as the basis for the symposium on "Jesus in Film" at the SBL 2000 meeting. The twelve or so films analyzed herein are approached from four angles: the circumstances leading to the production of the film; the shape and content of the Jesus story; how the Jesus character appears in the story; and the public response to the film. Like its counterpart, this volume also originated in a classroom setting.

Walsh, Richard. Reading the Gospels in the Dark: Portrayals of Jesus in Film. Harrisburg, Pa.: Trinity, 2003.
This monograph interestingly pairs a film with a gospel as a conversation partner: Jesus of Montreal and Mark; Godspell and the teachings of Jesus; Il Vangelo secondo Matteo and Matthew; King of Kings and Luke; The Greatest Story Ever Told and John.

Citation: W. Barnes Tatum, " The Problem of the Cinematic Jesus," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited March 2004]. Online:


© 2021, Society of Biblical Literature. All Rights Reserved.