Jesus of Hollywood

Adele Reinhartz

According to the Gospel of Mark, Jesus once asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” The disciples answered: “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them,“ But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah” (Mark 8:27-30).

Our society’s ongoing fascination with Jesus of Nazareth has spawned literally thousands of portraits of this ancient Jew, in every medium of expression possible. But since the birth of cinema in the late nineteenth century, it is first and foremost through film that our society has seen Jesus, tried to understand his identity, and pondered his significance.

Anyone who grew up with the Jesus epics of the 1960s and ’70s might well think Hollywood has always portrayed Jesus in a simplistic and, well, Hollywoodish way. Certainly it is true that the cinema has given us some rather wooden saviors. The stereotypical cinematic Jesus, being perfect, runs the risk of being perfectly boring. But the film industry has also supplied interesting answers to the question of who Jesus is and was.

For some filmmakers, Jesus is the political and military Messiah, the savior who does battle with the forces of evil and liberates humankind from the oppression wrought by Roman imperial rule. The 1961 film King of Kings begins with a lengthy and a majestic voice-over narration—intoned by a male who sounds like God but who in fact is Orson Welles:

And it is written, that in the year 63 BC the Roman legions like a scourge of locusts poured through the east laying waste to the land of Canaan and the kingdom of Judea. Rome’s imperial armies went unto the hills and struck Jerusalem’s walls in a three-month siege. Reaching the gates, these legions laid the dust of battle in a shower of blood.

The narrator goes on to describe the suffering of the Jews as they are hunted, killed, and burned. The Jews of Judea went to the slaughter “like sheep, from their own green fields” and “survived by one promise: God would send the Messiah to deliver them forth.”

This declamation paraphrases the prophet Isaiah’s famous words: “like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.” (Isaiah 53:7). Isaiah is speaking of the suffering servant, whom Christians later saw as a prototype of Jesus’ suffering on the cross. In the period immediately after World War II, however, the phrase “like sheep to the slaughter” was being used to describe the tragedy of the Holocaust in which six million Jews went to their deaths in the green fields and gas chambers of Nazi Europe. For the film King of Kings, the answer to Jesus’ question “Who do people say that I am?” is a political one: People say that you are the Messiah who will save the Jews from the oppression of Roman rule.

This is a powerful vision, but it flounders. For in this film, as in all others that emphasize the political realities of Jesus’ lifetime, the historical outcome does not support the desired Hollywood ending. Jesus does not save his people from Rome; Roman control over Judea continues for some centuries after his death. Hollywood must fall back on a softer, gentler notion of salvation: Jesus saves not by overthrowing Rome but by providing everlasting life for those who believe.

If the epic Jesus is obsessed with the fate of the Jewish people, not so the hippie savior of Jesus Christ Superstar (1973), who is sidetracked from any universal mission by concerns with his own celebrity. At the Last Supper, this Jesus sets aside the solemn message of remembrance and forgiveness to complain about his disciples’ devotion:

For all you care this wine could be my blood

For all you care this bread could be my body

The end!…

I must be mad thinking I’ll be remembered —yes

I must be out of my head!

Look at your blank faces! My name will mean nothing

Ten minutes after I’m dead!

The point of the film, of course, is not to mock the Eucharist, Jesus, or Christian faith but to attack our society’s obsession with celebrities who believe that the world does indeed revolve around them.

Other films made in the 1970s and 80s betray the strong influence of historical Jesus research, particularly the emphasis on Jesus’ specifically Jewish identity. Yet the most interesting explorations of this theme can be found in films that have taken the greatest liberty with the traditional stories. Take, for example, Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979). Strictly speaking, this brilliant spoof is a “Brian” movie and not a “Jesus” movie; its portrait of Jesus as such is as reverential as they come. But in its depiction of the young man mistakenly taken for the Messiah, Life of Brian both uses and mocks the clichés of the Jesus film genre, to hilarious effect. If Monty Python’s Jesus is the cardboard figure of sentimental piety, Brian is a fiercely proud Jew who loves his mother and hates the Romans. When his mother finally reveals his Roman ancestry, Brian is very upset: “I’m not a Roman, and I never will be! I’m a kike, a yid, a hebie, a hook-nose, I’m kosher, Mum, I’m a Red Sea pedestrian and proud of it!”

This scene draws upon the ancient Jewish legend that Jesus was the illegitimate child of Mary and a Roman soldier. I would not set much store by the historicity of this legend; more than likely the sages who circulated it did so in order to mock and discredit Christian beliefs in Jesus’ virginal conception. But Brian’s proud declaration of his Jewish identity echoes the views of scholars who believe that Jesus too saw his Jewishness as fundamental to who he was and what he did.

A similar point is made in Denys Arcand’s 1989 film, Jesus of Montreal, my personal favorite of the Jesus movies. The film portrays a group of actors commissioned to refresh a Passion play that has been performed on church grounds for decades.

The Passion play that they create also reflects the scholarly skepticism of historical Jesus research in the 1980s. This play, the actors say, is

the story of the Jewish prophet Yeshu Ben Panthera whom we all call Jesus. Historians of the day, Tacitus, Suetonius, Pliny, Flavius Josephus, mention him only in passing. What we know was pieced together by his disciples a century later. Disciples lie; they embellish. We don’t know where he was born, or his age when he died. Some say 24, others 50. But we do know that on April 7 in year 30, or April 27 in year 31, or April 3 in year 33 he appeared before the fifth Roman procurator of Judea, Pontius Pilate.

This film does not deny Jesus’ profound impact on humanity; rather, it decouples that impact from the set of traditional Catholic beliefs about Jesus’ person. The result is a Jesus whose power transcends religion, dogma, and faith and allows him to touch the lives of all viewers. Indeed, for this particular Jewish viewer, it was this secular Jesus who made it possible to imagine why and how so many people, over so many centuries, could be moved to faith by the carpenter from Nazareth.

Scorsese, Gibson, Schweitzer

If Arcand’s trenchant critique of the Catholic Church in Quebec ruffled some feathers, it nevertheless proved to be less controversial than Martin Scorsese’s 1988 film, The Last Temptation of Christ. In a lengthy text that scrolls before the opening credits, Scorsese emphasizes that the film is by no means historical. Rather, like Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel upon which it is based, the film engages in a fictional exploration of the eternal conflict between spirit and flesh. Yet this disclaimer did nothing to defuse the controversy that broke out prior to its release. Outraged citizens protested in front of theaters and wrote angry letters to the editor.

Their target was the so-called dream sequence at the end of the film. As Jesus hangs on the cross, he is approached by a young red-headed girl, who carefully extracts the nails and helps him down off the cross. She leads him toward a Technicolor field, where Jesus discovers himself to be the groom at a wedding party. The bride is Mary Magdalene. Alone in the tent, Mary cradles Jesus in her lap, much as his mother Mary does in Michelangelo’s famous sculpture of the Pieta. She gently washes his wounds as the sensual music that has accompanied her throughout the film plays in the background. They make tender love; Mary cries out in joy, not at the fulfillment of her sexual desire, but at her certain knowledge that they will have a child. Mary dies before their child is born, but Jesus then marries and raises a family with both Mary and Martha of Bethany. Jesus’ Last Temptation, as it turns out, is not sex but domesticity.

Perhaps the scenes of Jesus making love to Mary and other women were just too much for some viewers. But these protestors missed a far more interesting theme: the homoerotic relationship between Jesus and Judas. Apart from the dream sequence, which is, after all, just a dream, Jesus avoids touching Mary Magdalene and is extraordinarily uncomfortable in her presence. Not so, however, with Judas, to whom he confides his fears and his growing understanding of the role that God demands that he play in the divine drama of salvation. In one scene, Jesus sits alone in the cool night as the disciples prepare to retire. Judas comes over to Jesus and they talk at some length. Then Jesus says to Judas: “I’m afraid. Stay with me.” The two men share the warmth of a single blanket, clinging to each other throughout the night. The sexual undertones of the visual scene are drawn out further by the musical soundtrack, which is same as that accompanying Mary Magdalene throughout the film. The theme of sexual temptation is then made even more explicit by the apple that Jesus draws out from his robe and bites into at the end of this scene. When he tosses the seeds away, they immediately grow into a mature apple tree. The allusion to the temptation of Adam and Eve in the garden is impossible to miss.

Scorsese answers Jesus’ question: “Who do people say that I am?” by creating a Jesus initially conflicted and tortured by self-doubt, who then seems to accept his fate and identity as the Son of God, even persuading his intimate friend Judas to play a necessary role in this drama, and then is apparently diverted from his course by a fantasy of domesticity that represents the path not taken. At the end, however, he dies as Jesus always must: on the cross in the final victory of spirit over flesh and the resolution of all doubt.

Yet even the public outcry over Scorsese’s tormented Jesus pales in comparison with the media attention paid to Mel Gibson’s 2004 blockbuster, The Passion of the Christ. While some Christian groups referred to Gibson’s movie as the best outreach opportunity of the last two thousand years, many academics and religious leaders, both Jewish and Christian, spoke out strongly against the film’s harsh representation of the Jewish leaders of Jesus’ era. Gibson certainly brought graphic images of Jesus’ condemnation and death to millions of viewers. But one is hard put to figure out how Gibson’s film responds to our guiding question: Who do people say that I am?

Judging from the quotation from Isaiah 53 in the opening frames, Gibson’s own answer points to Jesus as the suffering servant prophesied by Isaiah. But for most of the film Jesus does not resemble a man, whether Servant or Lord, so much as a hunk of raw meat. By pounding Jesus’ body to an oozing pulp, Gibson has reduced him from divine being to subhuman creature. If Gibson intended to show Jesus’ superhuman forbearance, he also made it almost impossible to feel compassion or concern, since the relentless beating and bleeding prevent us from seeing Jesus as anything more than a broken body. Not only is Jesus’ divine identity erased but his human one as well. Of course, not everyone shares this assessment; many viewers found in this film a powerful and potent Jesus who spoke directly to their hearts and souls. But I fail to see how this is possible unless such a Jesus is already alive in their imaginations as the opening credits roll.

Even as they pay lip service to traditional Christian views of Jesus, the Jesus movies betray more ambivalent assessments: Jesus is a political leader who fails to save his countrymen from Roman oppression; he is a confused and perhaps unstable man who must persuade his best friend to betray him; or he is a Hollywood celebrity concerned about his own posterity.

Cracking the Code

These answers are influenced by numerous factors, including the gospels, of course, but also the two-thousand-year history of interpretation, and the legacy of art, music, drama, literature, theology, and liturgy.

They are also shaped by the conventions and politics of the film industry itself. The Jesus film genre, like all other types of Hollywood films, was profoundly affected by the censorship code, known as the Production Code, that came into effect in 1930. The Production Code, which had a major impact on films until 1960, required a high standard of reverence in any representations of Jesus and forbade filmmakers from “throwing ridicule” on any religious faith. The exigencies of the code likely account at least in part for the long hiatus in the American production of Jesus movies between DeMille’s 1927 film The King of Kings and the release of Nicholas Ray’s King of Kings in 1961.

Another long gap occurred between 1989, when Jesus of Montreal was released, and 2003, when Philip Saville’s film The Gospel of John debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival. This hiatus coincided with a surge of popular interest in the question of the historical Jesus, and a new awareness of the difficulties of truly reconstructing Jesus’ life, words, and deeds from the meager sources at hand. Gibson’s film has opened the floodgates again. One may speculate that the tremendous box office success of that film, as well as perceptions of a large conservative Christian market for reverential renditions of Jesus’ life story, are encouraging others to follow Gibson’s lead. Two new films appeared in 2006, The Nativity Story and The Color of the Cross, and a new BBC mini-series, The Passion, aired on television during Easter Week 2008. These films, like Saville’s and Gibson’s offerings, owe more to the epics than to the historical skepticism, iconoclasm, and creativity evident in Last Temptation of Christ and Jesus of Montreal.

In the final analysis, Jesus movies say more about the times in which they were made than about the era they portray. They express the commitments and the concerns of the present using a vehicle of the past. Politics, sexuality, gender roles, violence, and other issues are worked through and reflected back to us through these stories of the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth.

A century ago, as the very first Jesus movies were being made, Albert Schweitzer, famed doctor, explorer, musician, and theologian, commented on the many different portraits of Jesus found among the works of Christian theologians.

“Each successive epoch of theology,” he wrote, “found its own thoughts in Jesus; that was, indeed, the only way in which it could make Him live.”

But, he continued, “it was not only each epoch that found its reflection in Jesus; each individual created Him in accordance with his own character.”

Schweitzer’s observation holds true today, not only of theologians and historians, but of filmmakers and their audiences. The cinematic Jesus is a man, or perhaps a God, created in our own image. Is Jesus of Hollywood also the Messiah, as Peter assured Jesus of Nazareth so many years ago? For some, perhaps; for others, obviously not. Yet one might argue that Jesus of Hollywood, like many other heroes of stage and screen, offers not salvation so much as an opportunity to see ourselves more clearly, and to think about who we, as individuals and as a society, really are.

Adele Reinhartz teaches in the Department of Classics and Religious Studies at the University of Ottawa. Her books include Jesus of Hollywood (Oxford University Press, 2007) and Befriending the Beloved Disciple: A Jewish Reading of the Gospel of John (Continuum, 2002).