• 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


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    Thursday, May 06, 2010

    The Atonement in Jesus Films

    I've been struck recently by how few of the many Jesus films offer any kind of theological interpretation of the crucifixion. In a sense this makes sense for the big Hollywood films such as King of Kings and The Greatest Story Ever Told which needed the broadest possible appeal to recoup their production costs, but even in films made by Christians this is relatively rare. In saying this I am, of course, setting aside the sayings of Jesus relating to his own death - aside from Mark 10:45, these are usually fairly cryptic.

    Brief examples are found in From the Manger to the Cross (1912) and Jesus (1979) which both end by citing John 3:16 (thus offering a brief interpretation of the crucifixion as an act of atonement).

    Only three films really stand out for me. The first is Jesus of Nazareth (1977) which obviously has a great deal more time to explore such issues. As Jesus is dying, the camera cuts to Nicodemus (played by Laurence Olivier) who quotes from the suffering servant portion of Isaiah 53 as a commentary on the events that are unfolding.

    We also find Isaiah 53 in The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). Throughout the film Jesus is unsure of which path he is to take, but then the prophet himself (played by the film’s director Martin Scorsese) appears to him and shows him the suffering servant part of the passage and Jesus is persuaded that he has to sacrifice himself.

    The film also uses the colour red a great deal, evoking blood as well as power. When Jesus is tempted in the devil he bites into an apple and ends up with blood on his face. Shortly afterwards is the infamous scene where he pulls his heart out of his chest, and to underline the point the scene is captured with red lighting. Later, during Jesus’ first visit to the temple, blood red smoke billows up around a statue of Caesar, whilst blood flowing from a nearby sacrifice is licked up by dogs. Then as Jesus throws a money-changer's stall into the air a Roman coin lands next to blood dripping from a different sacrifice. Here the old system is depicted as mixing the blood of Jewish sacrifices with Roman idolatry, whereas Jesus’ quickly actions mark "the end of the old law and the beginning of the new". In addition to all this, is the instigation of the Eucharist at the Last Supper. Not only does the film portray the cup of wine literally becoming blood, but blood is also shown on Jesus' palms as a nod, not only to the stigmata, but also to Jesus own fate.

    The film which explores the blood of Jesus in greater depth than any other to date is, of course, The Passion of the Christ (2004). The film also quotes Isaiah 53:5 this time just before its opening scene. This is the lens that the rest of the film should be viewed through, and the penal substitution theory of the atonement is present throughout. That said, as Mark Goodacre has pointed out:
    There is no question that The Passion of the Christ focuses in a major way on a substitutionary theory of the atonement, but as I argued in my article in Jesus and Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ (38-9) ...it is not the only perspective on the atonement in the film, which also makes a great deal of Christus Victor and exemplary ("no greater love") atonement theories.
    Whilst many have criticised the film for it violence, in many ways such objections miss the point - at least from Gibson's point of view. The film is intended to be a contemplation of the suffering that Jesus underwent in order to reconcile humanity with its creator, it's an extension of a long held Catholic tradition. Even the question of whether or not the violence is realistic is not strictly relevant from that perspective.

    I have a worrying feeling that in posting in this I'll be reminded of numerous other films that give a far more detailed exploration of the theology of the cross earlier in the film, but for whatever reason, they are not coming to mind right now.

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    • At 12:10 am, December 09, 2012, Blogger Unknown said…

      Read this link to know more about why God allowed Jesus to be punished by men.


      Thank you.


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