• 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


    Thursday, March 03, 2022

    Which is the Most Accurate Film about Jesus Christ?

    Overhead wide shot from The Passion of the Christ

    One of the most common questions about Bible films is "Which Jesus movies are the most reliable"? Indeed when I first started getting into biblical cinema one of the main driving factors was trying to find a cinematic Jesus who matched who I thought he was. However, I soon realised that this wasn't the best way to approach the subject.

    Why do so few Bible films stick to the Gospels?
    There are a number of reasons for this. Firstly, the New Testament doesn't really work as a film script - the two are very different types of writing. The Bible only rarely offers motivations for how its characters act and often supporting characters are not rounded out in the way that works for a film. Secondly, the lengths of stories in the Bible don't correspond neatly to the roughly two hours length of most films. Some stories are much shorter, but the Gospels are all longer, so they need to expand the material, or condense it. Indeed sometimes filmmakers need to reduce the material to get it to fit the available time, but also have to flesh things out a bit to make something that works dramatically.

    Why can't filmmakers just use the biblical text?
    This has been tried a number of times. 5 "films" have taken a word-for-word approach that has used the entire biblical book as a script: Genesis (1979), Luke (1979), Matthew (1993), Acts (1994) and Gospel of John (2003). (The Lumo Project also narrated all four Gospels accompanied by actors acting out the scenes). All are three hours or more long and if you watch them you soon realise that however well-meaning this approach is, it doesn't seem to produce good movies. 

    Two other films have almost entirely limited themselves to a reduced version of the text – Jesus (1979) and the Italian film Il vangelo secondo Matteo (1964). Jesus is an abridged version of the Luke film above and suffers from many of the same problems. Il vangelo, though, when seen in black and white and not-dubbed is considered a classic by many cinephiles. Oddly though, many of those who most want a "biblically accurate Jesus film" don't like, because it doesn't match how they picture Jesus, which leads us onto another question...

    Why don't Jesus movies show like I think he was/is?
    The answer to this is "interpretation". One of the things the makers of Matthew (1993) tried to do was claim that their film had "no interpretation", but you don't have to think about that claim for long before you realise it's rubbish! What was Jesus's face like? We don't know? How tall/ short/ fat/ thin/ hairy/ neat/ messy was he? The Bible doesn't say. How big were the crowds he spoke to? We don't know. What tone of voice did he use? Was he smiling or angry? Intimate or distant? We might think we know the answers to these questions, but that is our interpretation.

    The bigger question
    Ultimately I realised that there's a bigger issue here: we bring our own inaccurate assumptions with us to these films. When I watched those word-for-word films I realised how much of my own biases and pre-suppositions I brought to the text. We think we want to find an "accurate" depiction of Jesus, but often we just want something that confirms what we already thought.

    The thing is, though, often these ideas don't have much to do with the Bible, if we're honest. Historical Christian art from Europe has usually produced a white-Christ. Many "lives of Jesus" were written in the 19th century, but they all tended to describe a Jesus who was not-that dissimilar to the author. Similarly 20th & 21st century filmmakers portray him with similar attitudes to themselves. 

    So how do I get a more accurate image of Jesus
    So if we're trying to find a more accurate idea of Jesus, finding one that matches our own mental image is never going to do it. That just reaffirms all the faulty ideas about him we have swept up along with the good ones. We ending up making Jesus like us.

    Instead, a better approach is to challenge our existing views by listening to others' ideas. You can still bring it back to the Bible at the end, but trying to understand other people's ideas about Jesus can challenge our own. And that can include filmmakers. Instead of hunting an unrealistic ideal of an accurate Jesus film, it's actually far better to watch those that challenge your views and see whether those opposing viewpoints could teach you something valid. Ultimately, if you want to grow in your knowledge about Jesus then that's not going to happen by watching something you already agree with.


    I discuss many, different portrayals of Jesus in my latest book "100 Bible Films" available for preorder now.


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