Spanish director Luis Buñuel's career included numerous films which took a scathing look at religious themes, but it wasn't until his 1969 film La Voie Lactée (The Milky Way) that he featured characters from the Bible. Jesus appeared in several scenes - as a small boy; being persuaded by Mary not to shave off his beard; at the wedding of Cana; and failing to heal two blind men - as does a modern-day Hosea.
The most well-known comic Bible film is undoubtedly Monty Python's Life of Brian filmed ten years later in 1979. In many respects however it is not a Bible film at all. Jesus makes only the briefest of cameos at the start of the film, and whilst we do later encounter a leper whom Jesus has healed, the rest of the material is purely fictional. The film tells the story of Brian, also a crucified, first century, Jewish leader. For a comic film, it's remarkably well informed, indeed it was the Python's research that ultimately persuaded them that rather than focus on Jesus, they should target religion instead. Yet the primary reason for its enduring popularity is first and foremost because it is consistently funny, featuring prominently in numerous lists of the greatest comic films.
Having witnessed the success of Life of Brian, other filmmakers tried to make religious comedies in a similar style. The following year, Dudley Moore and Richard Pryor starred in Wholly Moses, which blatantly plagiarised the Python's idea, only this time it told the story of a man whose life bore remarkable similarities to Moses. Unfortunately, it wasn't nearly as funny, barely raising a laugh throughout.
Moses also starred in Mel Brooks' compilation of historical skits in The History of the World: Part 1. Moses (played by Brooks) appears in a style strongly reminiscent of DeMille's 1956 Ten Commandments, carrying not two but three tablets of stone. In a moment of clumsiness he drops one of the tablets and God's original fifteen commandments are cut down to ten. Later on Brooks also appears as a waiter at the Last Supper, ultimately finding himself holding a halo-like plate behind Jesus' head when Leonardo turns up to paint a group portrait.
The storm of controversy caused by 1988's Last Temptation of Christ meant that film studios were far too nervous to release any potentially blasphemous comic films in the 90s, but the new century has witnessed a new crop of comedy films with some basis in the stories of the Bible. Genesis has been a particularly popular source of material spawning films such as Year One (Cain and Abel to Sodom and Gomorrah), Evan Almighty (a modernisation of the Noah story), The God Complex (most of Genesis, but also includes a few other parts of the Bible) and The Real Old Testament (Creation to Jacob and his wives). The Ten turned to Exodus for its inspiration instead, building a sketch around each of Moses's Commandments.
Of these more recent films, The Real Old Testament (pictured above) is easily the funniest, despite being an independent, low-budget film. It succeeds because, like Life of Brian, it is so very familiar with its source material. This gives it a strong base from which to mine the humour which exists in the gap between biblical culture and our own, and help viewers to gain a new perspective on stories that are, at times, over familiar.
What's significant about these films is that two of the five were made by established studios on big budgets, demonstrating that it has, at last, become acceptable to mix the Bible with comedy.