Search SBL

SBL Forum Archive
<< Return to SBL Forum Archive Jesus at the Movies

I regularly teach a course on pedagogy for students in the Joint Doctoral Program the University of Denver shares with the Iliff School of Theology. A required seminar for all of our candidates, it is entitled, "Pedagogy and the Teaching of Religion." I try to alert these aspiring faculty members to the unexpected teaching responsibilities that will come their way—such as speaking with representatives of the media. Invariably, a college or university has an office of communication (and marketing). Invariably, that office has a list of faculty members who ought to be prepared to extemporize on the basis of their expertise on religion. Invariably, a call comes from a reporter, almost always working against deadline, who wants a blurb about something religious that may or may not have anything to do with one's training.

For students working in biblical studies or the history of Christianity, I recommend that they have a copy of The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (3rd Edition, 1997) always at the ready—a sort of security blanket, if you will, with Oxford credibility and authority. One can become quite adept at stalling an off-the-wall query while flipping to just the right article. My current university duties require that I work at three different desks, each with a phone extension. I have three copies of the ODCC —that wherever I am, it may be also.

Since the beginning of February, my phone has been ringing off the hook with press (and pressing) questions about Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. For the most part, I expected as much. I am, after all, teaching "RLGS 3318: Jesus on the Silver Screen" during the upcoming term. While the scheduling was determined a year ago with my department chair and the dean, I was not unaware that the release of Gibson's opus would likely coincide. The offering has always had drawing power among undergraduates. This time I bumped up the enrollment cap. I have had to request a larger room. The registrar has a waiting list of students anxious to enroll. None of this has been lost on our Office of Communication and Marketing.

As I prepare for this course and respond to my voice and e-mail messages, my desk and floor are more cluttered than usual. The ODCC, as useful a tome as it is, has not been resource enough. I am asked questions. There are questions I might be asked. There are questions I wish I were asked. There are questions I would like to ask—to Gibson, to the viewing public, to religious leaders, to students. My reading has been done, is done, in anticipation of those questions.

What am I reading? For the course, at least, I have assigned three books. Essential to what I hope to accomplish is access to a synopsis of the Gospels. First and foremost I intend this course as a critical study of the New Testament portrayals of Jesus. Most of my students will not have read Matthew, Mark, Luke or John. They certainly will not have read them side by side. Nor will they have had any acquaintance with non-canonical Gospels. This will be struggle enough.

I want to push them harder. I will ask them to read Gregory J. Riley's One Jesus, Many Christs: How Jesus Inspired Not One True Christianity, but Many (HarperSanFrancisco, 1997). In the past, I have used Jesus as a Figure in History: How Modern Historians View the Man from Galilee (Westminster John Knox Press, 1988) by Mark Allan Powell. I was tempted to do so again. This time, however, I wanted to view the cinematic Jesus from the angle of what Riley has to say about the hero in late antiquity. His chapters on Christians as heroes and the pattern of early Christian life, on martyrs and heroes, and on imitators of Christ, have helped me frame my questions in new and provocative ways.

"Jesus on the Silver Screen" is also a course about film and cinematography, about reading film critically as a "text," and, in this context, the way in which film "translates" or "transforms" Jesus into another medium—not scriptural, not even religious. If students are unfamiliar with the Gospels, they are most likely unfamiliar with films that have Jesus as the central character. It is necessary to ask them from the outset, "What Jesus story films have you seen?" "How would you characterize them?" "Which would you recommend as particularly compelling? Why?" "If you have seen any, how would you compare them to Gibson's rendering?"

I will ask my students to turn to W. Barnes Tatum, a well-respected New Testament scholar and a keen cinematic observer, who has written a fine book, Jesus at the Movies: A Guide to the First Hundred Years (Santa Rosa, CA: Polebridge Press, 1997). Analyzed in detail are thirteen films, including Cecil B. DeMille's The King of Kings, Samuel Bronston's King of Kings, George Stevens' The Greatest Story Ever Told, Pier Paolo Pasolini's The Gospel According to St. Matthew, Norman Jewison's Jesus Christ Superstar, Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ, and Denys Arcand's Jesus of Montreal.

One could also recommend Savior on the Silver Screen, by Richard C. Stern, Clayton N. Jefford, and Guerric Debona O.S.B. (Paulist Press, 1999). Most of the films discussed by Tatum are reviewed here as well, with the advantage of a chapter on Monty Python's Life of Brian (which is worth the price of the book). The preview and review questions posed at the end of the opening section of each chapter make this a book that could be easily adapted for use in an adult study at a synagogue or church.

Tatum speaks of "the problem of Jesus in film." To Gibson's and to any Jesus story film he would pose a single, but complex question: "To what extent is this film about Jesus not only cinematically interesting, but literarily sensitive to the Gospel sources, historically probable, and theologically satisfying?" Such an engaging question should be able to prime a profound discussion capable of sustaining interest throughout the course.

A Gospel synopsis, Riley, and Tatum—these are the texts I will be using this quarter. They are not the only ones that come to mind when one considers Jesus on the silver screen or religion and film in general. I think Michael Bird's essay, "Film as Hierophany" and Neil P. Hurley's "Cinematic Transfigurations of Jesus" in Religion in Film, edited by John R. May and Michael Bird (University of Tennessee Press 1982) are essential reading. " 'Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?' The Last Temptation of Christ-Jesus of Montreal" by Margaret Miles in her collection, Seeing and Believing: Religion and Values in the Movies (Beacon Press, 1996), asks provocatively about whether, or in what sense, a film about Jesus can be a "religious" film. It is a brilliant contribution. One thinks also of Screening Scripture: Intertextual Connections Between Scripture and Film, edited by George Aichele and Richard Walsh (Trinity Press International, 2002), Scripture on the Silver Screen, by Adele Reinhartz (Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), Reel Spirituality: Theology and Film in Dialogue, by Robert K. Johnston (Baker Academic, 2000), Screening the Sacred: Religion, Myth, and Ideology in Popular American Film, edited by Joel W. Martin and Conrad E. Ostwalt, Jr., (Westview Press, 1995), and Image & Likeness: Religious Visions in American Film Classics, edited by John R. May (Paulist Press, 1992).

All of these inform, in one way or another, how I might ask my students to view Gibson's Passion as part of the upcoming course. With Tatum providing the point of departure, the following could serve as a brief guide:

  1. Is The Passion a good piece of filmmaking? Does it fulfill its artistic potential dramatically and visually? What sustains the interest of the viewer? Gibson admits a considerable artistic indebtedness to Renaissance painter Caravaggio and to various representations of the Stations of the Cross. Do these "translate" well to film?
  2. Does Gibson harmonize the four Gospels or follow one more closely than another? How does he rely upon non-Gospel sources, for example, Anna Katharina Emmerich (1774-1824), the Roman Catholic mystic whose fervid vision, The Bitter Passion of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, was published in 1833? The "Passion Play" tradition of Oberammergau? By focusing just on the Passion, with only flashbacks to the ministry of Jesus and an oblique hint at the Resurrection (or is it resuscitation?), does he offer an alternative, limited, perhaps unique notion of the Jesus story film when compared to the history of film criticism?
  3. Does this film recognize that a distinction can and must be made between the stories about Jesus, as written in the Gospels in the last third of the first century (i.e., 40plus years after the death of Jesus), and Jesus the historical figure who lived out his life in Roman-occupied Palestine during the first third of that century? How does the film address the rather mundane issue of historical verisimilitude, the desire to make the settings, the characters, the clothing, the customs (including that of Roman crucifixion!), etc., appear to be historically exact and accurate? Has Gibson, in fact, taken us on what Umberto Eco calls a "journey into hyperreality," where to satisfy the American imagination's demand for the real thing the absolute fake has been fabricated and proffered (Travels in Hyperreality, [Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983]. See also: Mark C. Carnes, general editor, Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies [Henry Holt, 1996]; Robert Burgoyne, Film Nation [University of Minnesota Press, 1997], especially his concept of "prosthetically enhanced memory" in a pointed discussion of Forest Gump and Hollywood treatments of history in general)? Can this filmmaker so blithely ignore what historians have to say about the anti-Judaism of the Gospel narratives? Had Gibson read Jesus, Judaism ' Christian Anti-Judaism: Reading the New Testament after the Holocaust, edited by Paula Fredriksen and Adele Reinhartz, a work intended for a non-specialist, intellectually curious audience, could Gibson have made the film he did or make the historically vacuous claims he does about it?
  4. Because of Jesus' place in culture at large as well as in various churches, most persons who see Jesus on the screen not only think they know what he looks like and know his story, they also have a personal stake in him already. While Jesus' story is, in some sense, everyone's story, the Christian Church or churches and their Christian constituents—in particular—view Jesus as belonging to them. Jesus is the Christ. He is their Jesus Christ. How, personally, does Gibson want you to interpret or engage The Passion of the Christ? Is it Gibson's Christ he wants you to buy? Gibson's doctrine of the atonement as opposed to, say, the classical view of atonement? That of Anselm? That of Peter Abelard? That of later Roman Catholic or Protestant orthodoxy? The Enlightenment? NOTE: In the history of Christian thought there has never been a dogma of the atonement, only various interpretations, doctrines. How manipulative is this film, ultimately?

I would note that the very beginning of the film—the use of the interpretive frame of Isaiah 53—make these concerns crucial for understanding and evaluating its content and intent. Compare the results of careful, biblical scholarship. Donald H. Juel, in his monograph, Messianic Exegesis: Christological Interpretation of the Old Testament in Early Christianity (Fortress Press, 1988), has argued convincingly that, "there is no evidence of an overall interpretation of the servant passages in Isaiah . . . Jews apparently did not customarily understand the servant passages in Isaiah to refer to the Messiah . . . There is no indication that prior to Christianity the Messiah was expected to suffer after installation to office or that his suffering was viewed as atoning in light of Isaiah 53 (p. 127). For Juel

The remarkable paucity of references to Isaiah in the passion narratives and in the passion tradition as a whole makes it difficult to support arguments that Isaiah 53 provided the foundation for Christian reflection on Jesus' death. The passage was important, but mainly at later stages of the tradition and in times after the NT. A glimpse at the passage's history within post-biblical Jewish tradition lends little credibility to the notion that the vocation of the Suffering Servant was available to Christians as a way of making sense of Jesus' death (p. 132).

Juel makes it clear that 2 Samuel 7, Daniel 7, Psalms 89, 110, 2, 22, 69, 31 and 2 Maccabees are, in fact, more determinative of early Christian reflection about the meaning of Jesus' death. He was viewed as the righteous martyr, the suffering, vindicated Messiah. Riley serves to underscore that point.

My floor and my desk are littered with detritus about The Passion. I keep coming back to what Margaret Miles has to say by way of conclusion in Seeing and Believing: Religion and Values in the Movies:

Films are neither icons to be emulated, nor are they distillations of evil. They are cultural products, deeply informed by the perspectives, values, and aspirations of their makers. They beg for creative discussion, for it is finally the uses to which Hollywood films are put that determine their function in American society. Moreover, films need to be talked about, not merely for the emotions they stimulate in diverse viewers, or whether the images they present of various characters are positive or negative, but what particular anxieties and interests of their social moment they address, whether obliquely or directly.

What films do best, then, is to articulate the anxieties of a changing society. In films, the competing issues of society intersect and can be formulated for consideration, for understanding, and for negotiation of meaning. Films do not provide readymade solutions. But they can vividly articulate specific problems and longings and reveal their complexity and causes. Sometimes, at their best, films can help to identify resources and to imagine alternatives to the social arrangements, the images, and the religious institutions that have contributed to the problems of public and private life. They can contribute to the images with which we work out how we, as a pluralistic society, might live as "good characters in a good story" (p. 193).

About Ernest Renan's La Vie de Jesus, Albert Schweitzer claimed, "There is scarcely any other work on the subject which so abounds in lapses of taste—and those of the most distressing kind . . . There is something magical about the work. It offends and yet it attracts" (Quest of the Historical Jesus). One wonders what he might have said about Mel Gibson's oeuvre. As I put the final touches on my syllabus for "Jesus on the Silver Screen," I look forward to a "creative discussion" of the sweep of Jesus story films, so readily available to us thanks to the advent of video tapes and DVDs, an enlightened consideration of the "particular anxieties and interests" of the social moment they addressed—and still address. Perhaps I will better understand why at this particularly troubled time in American life, we seem to relish in the greatest gory ever sold.

Gregory Allen Robbins is Associate Professor of Christian Origins at the University of Denver.

Citation: Gregory Allen Robbins, " Jesus at the Movies," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited March 2004]. Online:


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