• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as preparation for a future work on Straub/Huillet's Moses und Aron and a few bits and pieces on biblical studies.

    Matt Page


    Tuesday, February 28, 2006

    The Early Jesus Film Synoptic Problem

    I won a DVD of "Early Religious Films" on eBay, and they arrived yesterday (in less than a week - from Canada). The information on the auction page claimed that it contained 3 films from the 1890s and 1900s, Life of Christ, Death of Christ, and David and Saul. Information about this period in cinema history is fairly unreliable so I was fairly sceptical as to what it might produce.

    Having watched both of the Jesus films I'm still not sure what to make of them. I'm going to discuss each film individually as we go through the week. The hardest task before me however is trying to work out the date of these films.

    Before the internet, there were two major sources of reference information on Films about Jesus, "Divine Images" by Roy Kinnard and Tim Davis, and "The Bible on Film: A Checklist 1897-1980" by Richard H. Campbell and Michael R. Pitts. However, neither of these films mention a Jesus film, made by Pathé before The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ, listed as 1905. The opening shot of this film is shown below:

    It seems unlikely that this might have been faked, particularly as it appears that all three films appear on a video entitled "A History of Color in Silent Films" which covers Pathé films from 1898 onwards, and The Life of Christ is the first.

    A third piece of the puzzle is the relationship between this film and The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ. This film was given a wide release on DVD a few years ago, and the packaging claimed parts of it were released in 1902 with extra scenes and colouring being added with subsequent re-releases in he years up to 1905. This contradicts the testimonies of both both "The Bible on Film", and "Divine Images". Both of which list Pathé's first film of this title being released in 1905 and another longer film of the same title being released in 1908, with a colourised version being produced in 1914, when reviewers, who were seemingly unaware of its antiquity, slated it for poor production.

    The relevance of this becomes apparent from the first scene of The Life of Christ which is identical to a scene in The Life and Passion, in fact, as the film continues, it appears that most of The Life of Christ was reproduced in The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ. Something of a Jesus film synoptic problem. That said there are some scenes which are different - either the same scene shot very differently, or similarly but in a different location, or with different actors, whereas some are entirely absent in The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ. Other scenes are less extravagantly coloured than the ones from that film. Significantly all of the scenes that look like they have been re-shot are significantly better in The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ.

    On the other hand, most of the material from The Death of Christ is original, although even it utilises some of the same material that is later incorporated into The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ. Here though the quality of the film (from an aesthetic point of view) is lower, suggesting that this is the oldest of the three films. In several places where one of the later films improves upon one of the earlier two films, one of its "improvements" is to add special effects. For example the resurrection scene in "The Death of Christ", is less technical, but also far less gaudy than the way Jesus hovers out of the tomb in both of the later films.

    So the three films are clearly related, and it would be logical to suggest that The Death of Christ, is the eldest film (particularly given that most of the very first Jesus films were passion plays). However, things are not quite that simple. Firstly, it appears that a number of different actors are used in The Life of Christ. This and the fact that the style of the intertitles changes from those identical to The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ, to others that look older, and less sophisticated, suggests that this film (and possibly The Death of Christ) are composites.

    NT scholars will be relieved to hear that my hypothesis isn't that there was a fourth hypothetical Jesus film now lost which the two later films copied parts of and incorporated! My best guess is that the earliest parts of these films do date from 1898, but that the longer Life of Christ film didn't reach this hotch-potched form until 1902. It subsequently was expanded to 2 reels and tidied up a bit in 1905 and released as The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ, and similarly was expanded again to 3 reels in 1908 and re-released under the same title. This means that Campbell, Pitts, Kinnard and Davis come away with some credit, as do the packagers of the The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ, but none of them get things wholly correct. This leaves a number of gaps unfillled, not least the varying intertitles (which would be easier to fix and more noticeable than changing Jesus), and questions as to what point the film got hand coloured (the books say not until 1914, but all the other evidence points the other way).

    If anyone knows more about these films, please do post some comments. Alternatively, if you would like to get hold of these films and decide for yourself The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ is widely available and I get the impression that the others will up on eBay again soon (or can be bought on VHS from the link above).


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    • At 11:08 pm, February 28, 2006, Blogger Tyler F. Williams said…

      Hey Matt... I purchased the same DVD from eBay, though my copy is yet to arrive (I imagine I got my copy just after you).

      You have whet my appetite to see these films. I will have to let you know what I think after I have viewed them!

    • At 7:59 am, March 01, 2006, Blogger Matt Page said…

      I don't suppose you just got outbid on "Jesus of Nazareth "1916" as well did you? I had a feeling as that was going on that I was bidding against someone I knew? FWIW, having spoken to the seller I think it's actually a 1928 film.


    • At 11:52 am, March 02, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said…

      The idea of a Jesus film synoptic problem brightened my morning. Nice detective work!

    • At 3:23 pm, March 02, 2006, Blogger Matt Page said…

      The more I think about this, the more I wonder if both problems might each shed light on the other


    • At 10:10 am, September 11, 2007, Blogger Kalathil Thomas said…

      Hi Matt,
      I am also as student from Austria ( originnally from India) doing my doctorate studies on Jesus Films. I find your blog helpful. Hope to contact you thru e mail if u like.


    • At 10:11 am, November 12, 2007, Blogger Matt Page said…

      Hi Thomas,

      Sorry I'm late in getting back to you.

      You can drop me an email using the link at the top of the page, and then I can reply.



    • At 10:44 am, April 24, 2009, Anonymous Cedric said…

      Do you still care?

      Allright...Follow me:

      The first biblical film was "La Passion Du Christ" (The Horitz Passion Play), by Léar, in 1897, with 12 scenes. This was either shot in Czech Republic or Palestinia Or Austria. I heard all sorts of rumours. And despite the film circulating in USA it is considered lost.

      Then, the Lumière Brothers (Cie) hired George Hatot to shot another version of this: "La Vie Et La Passion De Jésus-Christ", which seems to have come out the same year in France. The Lumière Institute might have a copy. It apparently had 12 scenes and you can see pictures in "1000 Premiers Films" book about the Lumière company.

      Also in 1897, Charles Webster and Walter W. Freeman shot "The Horitz Passion Play" (or "The Passion Play"), because they couldn't get the righs to the Léar film which was popular. Made for International Film Company, this version circulated a lot in the United States. The film was included within a theatre show (as was the Léar one in the USA).

      Next, in 1898, Henry C. Vincent directed "The Passion Play Of Oberammergau" (often referred as "The Salmi Morse version", because it doesn't all even relates to Jesus). Made for the Eden Musée in New York, this hugely popular version was published by the Edison company, and presented as a film itself.

      Note how the Léar one must have been a blast to generate all these copycats!

      Ok, we arrive to "La Vie Du Christ"
      made by Alice Guy for the Gaumont company. It was published in 1899, but perhaps it was made during 1898. I get the impression that Alice Guy, who loved to copy tricks from Georges Méliès, has something to do with what you are describing here.

      Next comes Pathé:

      In 1903, Ferdinand Zecca directed "La Vie Et La Passion Du Christ" for Pathé. Knowing Zecca, this version should look rather ambitious.

      Finally. Alice Guy remade "La Vie Du Christ" in 1906 for Pathé. At this point Alice loved to "remix" things and maybe adds some colors.
      She did a few remakes like this for Pathé.

      This covers pretty much the early Passion films. At least the ones pre-1900. So your film has to be one of those.


    • At 10:45 am, April 24, 2009, Anonymous Cedric said…

      The Gaumont version only had 11 scenes btw.

      Not sure about the others.


    • At 10:34 am, April 28, 2009, Blogger Matt Page said…

      Thanks for your extra info Cedric



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