“Who do you say that I am?”
Jesus originally posed this question to His closest followers, but it’s a question that is as timeless as it is timely. Jesus is arguably the most recognizable figure of all human history—though He’s also the least understood.
Christianity affirms that the best and truest stories about Jesus come from the four “gospels” contained in the Bible. Like all ancient biographies, the four gospels were intended to be read as reliable history. But they were also written to invoke faith in the heart of the reader. For Christians, the four gospels are the measuring stick by which we evaluate all other stories about Jesus.
These include the stories told on the silver screen. What separates Scorsese’s dark The Last Temptation of Christ from, say, Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ is a simple question: How much does the Jesus of the film resemble the Jesus of the Bible?
The same question could be asked for a recent film. On February 28, The Son of God opened in theaters. The film is an adaptation of the Bible miniseries featured on the History Channel last spring. Roma Downey—one of the producers—even has a role as Mary, the mother of Jesus. The film opened to box office success, yet reviews were mixed. Some critics focused on the medium of the film—the acting, storytelling, etc. Others focused on the message of the film—asking the very same question as above: How much does the Jesus of this film resemble the Jesus of the Bible?
For some, the answer to the above question is an emphatic “no.” Sunny Shell, writing for the Christian Post calls the entire Bible miniseries “heretical and blasphemous,” and that The Son of God does a great disservice to anyone who is infected by it’s anemic and sclerotic message of false hope in a false christ.”
In an effort to evaluate the film on its own terms, Eric, Randy, and I made a recent trip to see the film. The following is not a review per se, but an evaluation of our central question: How much does this Jesus resemble the Biblical Jesus?
IS THIS THE REAL JESUS?
I don’t want to give too much away—though I doubt it counts as a “spoiler alert” when the story is 2,000 years old. The movie focuses on the life of Christ from birth to death and resurrection—using the disciple John as something of a framing character.
It’s hard to find fault with the film. The film’s budget was clearly invested in set design. I greatly appreciated the film’s ability to convey the cultural backdrop of the first century world: the tension between Jews and Romans, the significance of the Jewish temple—even the scenery gave the film a sense of authenticity.
The film highlights the more significant aspects of Jesus’ life—albeit with some creative license. If we want to get technical, we can highlight a few areas in which the film does deviate from the gospels to one degree or another:
- Sequence: If you were to write down the events of the film, you’d find their order does not match any of the four gospels. In some cases, scenes are mashed together: Jesus’ parable about the mustard seed (Mark 4:30-32) is interrupted by the paralyzed man lowered through the ceiling (Mark 2:4). In other cases, events are rearranged from their Biblical order: in John’s gospel, Nicodemus comes to Jesus early in His career; in the film, he comes to Jesus in the days before the crucifixion.
Should this bother us? Not really. It may sound strange to some, but ancient biographies weren’t that concerned about things like sequence. We expect a biography to start with birth and proceed in chronological order. Ancient writers weren’t so concerned with this. In Craig Keener’s 300-page introduction to the gospel of John, he observes that some ancient writers would actually record the same event twice because they paid so little attention to order and sequence. At the same time, biographies were still counted on to tell reliable stories about a person. So even the gospel records don’t necessarily contain a precise sequence of events—though they can still be counted on as reliable history.
- Selective cultural accuracy: In what was surely an effort to translate the first-century world to our own, certain cultural conventions seemed to be westernized for the film. For example, Jesus taught while standing on a mountaintop (rather than sitting down), they ate while seated at a table (rather than reclining)—some scenes even seemed to nod toward western art (Michelangelo’s Pieta, for example). It’s hard to imagine a Jesus film that perfectly captures the ancient culture (the language barrier alone would prove difficult). So while this isn’t a major strike against the film, it is an area of divergence.
- What does Jesus know? There were scenes in which Jesus seemed to receive information for the first time. He seemed unaware of His cousin’s (John the Baptist) death, and He seemed surprised by the reaction of the crowd at the feeding of the 5,000. The most striking scene was the Last Supper—where Jesus appears to have visions of His coming death. The Bible indicates that Jesus knew about His death from a much earlier point—it’s actually the turning point in Mark’s gospel (Mark 8:31). Again, we may credit this as creative license—a chance to convey rich emotion, even. Still, it raises questions about Jesus’ knowledge of His own destiny—knowledge that the Biblical gospels indicate that Jesus possessed from a much earlier time.
- The 13 disciples? This would probably not even be worth mentioning, had other reviewers not been critical of this fact. Mary Magdalene accompanies Jesus and His disciples—prompting some to criticize the inclusion of a “thirteenth disciple.” But the film never designates Mary as one of Jesus’ disciples. And most scholars would agree that Jesus’ immediate disciples weren’t the only ones who followed Him. Perhaps even the disciples’ wives (Peter was married—Matthew 8:14) came along. So Mary Magdalene’s prominent inclusion shouldn’t trouble us. It may even challenge us to look deeply at Jesus’ countercultural treatment of women.
Let’s return to our question: How much does the Jesus of this film resemble the Jesus of the Bible? Very much so, actually. Are there instances of creative license? Sure. But let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. The film was a compelling depiction of the life of Christ. None of the above examples alters Jesus’ central identity as the Son of God.
I agree with the conclusion of Martin Marty, who in an article for the Huffington Post writes:
“Biblical illiteracy is measurably and grossly high. While the main audiences will be the already-convinced people of faith, those surveys make clear that the story is not well known, certainly by the general public.”
If you stop and think about it, widespread literacy is a fairly recent development. Before the invention of the printing press, people relied on art to tell stories and convey meaning. Stained glass windows, for example, were often used to tell Biblical stories to those who lacked the capacity to read for themselves. Fast forward to today. Just as the printing press brought a revolution in the spread of information, so too has the World Wide Web. There are some who suggest that despite record sales of e-readers and e-books, we are heading toward a “post-literate” society. Films like The Son of God speak to the heart of a culture that has forgotten the Biblical story, and yet craves and thirsts for image. Roma Downey—one of the film’s producers, told ABC News:
“We’re aware that many people learn through visual storytelling…And for so many people, people who don’t go to church, people who maybe have never read the Bible, this movie…will be the first time that they hear and see the story of Jesus come to life.”
True, there are many reviewers who suggest that the film “preaches to the choir” on one level or another. But perhaps that’s half the point. In the book of Acts, a man named Philip encounters a man reading the story of Jesus as told through the prophet Isaiah. “Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asked. “How can I,” the man replied, “unless someone explains it to me?” (Acts 8:31). Our culture—nay, our friends, our families, our neighbors, our children—they will see this film. They may not absorb its total message. It’s up to us to ask the question: “Do you understand what you are seeing?” Because how can they, unless we explain it to them?