From its very beginnings in the late nineteenth century, cinema has been a prominent vehicle for conveying the Bible’s content and demonstrating its complex connections to the important political, cultural, and social developments within “western” society. Cinematic use of the Bible generally falls into one of two categories: “the Bible on film” and “the Bible in film.” “The Bible on film” comprises “historical” movies that explicitly retell biblical stories in their ancient contexts. To call these films historical is not to claim that they are historically accurate but simply that they attempt to recreate the aura of biblical times. Most well-known films in this category, such as Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 The Ten Commandments, are biblical epics that feature a cast of thousands, grandiose music, dazzling settings and costumes, and overwrought emotion. “The Bible in film” comprises fictional feature films that explicitly use biblical quotations, plotlines, characters, symbols, and images to tell nonbiblical stories. Films in this category belong to virtually every cinematic genre. Although the earliest Bible-related films focused, for example, on the story of Moses, the use of biblical material to tell other sorts of stories is evident as early as 1916 (Intolerance), when D. W. Griffith juxtaposed three other narratives with the story of Jesus in an attempt to show the persistence of intolerance through the ages.

The Bible is a cinematic staple in many corners of the world, but the present overview will concentrate primarily on “Hollywood,” that is, American popular cinema. This relatively narrow focus acknowledges Hollywood’s global reach and influence and the broad availability of Hollywood films. It also permits some analysis of the important role of the Bible both on and in film as an expression of national identity, values, and concerns.

Survey of Scholarly Literature.

Academic interest in the Bible and film has lagged behind the Bible’s popularity in cinema by approximately a century. Until the late twentieth century, film scholars tended to overlook the Bible, and biblical scholarship tended to focus on historical and theological issues rather than the scriptures’ reception or cultural histories.

Currently, the only overview of the Bible’s screen career is Bible and Cinema: An Introduction (Reinhartz, 2013). Among the first to draw attention to the Bible and film was Larry Kreitzer (e.g., Kreitzer, 1993, 1994). Kreitzer argued for “reversing the hermeneutical flow”: not only was knowledge of the Bible essential for understanding literature and film, but the literary and cinematic reception of film could illuminate the meaning(s) of the biblical stories or passages upon which they drew. The first major anthology of essays on Bible and film was introduced and edited by Alice Bach as an issue of the journal Semeia, titled Biblical Glamour and Hollywood Glitz (Bach, 1996). The essays considered the cinematic use of the Bible in relationship to the main themes, characters, and narratives of specific films and situated the films themselves in their cultural and historical contexts. This same dual approach has dominated the subsequent study of Bible and film. In the two decades since these publications, the area of Bible and film has grown rapidly, generating two main types of studies: detailed analyses of individual films and studies of specific genres.

Studies of particular films.

Bible and film is often treated as a subset of the broader and burgeoning area of theology and film (Deacy, 2012) or religion and film (Blizek, 2009; Lyden, 2009; Mazur, 2011); film analyses appear frequently in the Journal of Religion and Film and the Journal of Religion and Popular Culture. Works that focus specifically on the use of the Bible are often found in collections of essays by a single author (Anker, 2004; Reinhartz, 2003), several authors (Christianson et al., 2005; Exum, 2006; Shepherd, 2008), or many (Reinhartz, 2012). Typically, such essays identify biblical quotations, allusions, and imagery; discuss their original (biblical) contexts; and consider their role in the exposition of the film’s main themes and/or the development of the plot and characters. One area that is often neglected concerns the influence of other media that have interpreted the same themes, passages, stories, or characters (see Reinhartz, 2013). For example, Jesus movies often set up their depiction of the Last Supper according to Da Vinci’s famous painting, whereas movies from Ben-Hur (1959) to The Truman Show (1998) allude visually to the image of the divine and human nearly touching hands in Michelangelo’s fresco The Creation of Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (1511–1512).

Studies of specific genres.

Studies of the Jesus movies generally treat the most popular films in chronological order, looking at major themes, the use of the Gospels, and, in some cases, the critical and popular reception of such films (Staley and Walsh, 2007; Stern et al., 1999; Tatum, 2013). Some provide a thematic study of a broad range of films (Reinhartz, 2007) or detailed study of a single film (Walsh et al., 2013). Most Jesus movies are epics, a genre maligned by some as superficial and banal (Schrader, 1972) but appreciated by others as a window on American culture and society if not necessarily for their aesthetics (Babington and Evans, 1993).

Whereas Jesus movies set their versions of the Jesus story in the context of first-century Galilee and Judea, Christ figure films are fictional films in which one or more characters are obviously modeled on a popular understanding of Jesus. This genre has generated controversy with regard to the appropriate criteria for identifying Christ figures and the scholarly value of doing so. Lloyd Baugh suggests eight decisive criteria, including mysterious origins, the ability to attract followers, and a zeal for justice. Christ figures may withdraw from human society, have conflict-ridden relationships to authority figures, save others, suffer, and live on in the memory of others after their death (Baugh, 1997, pp. 205–210). Anton Kozlovic identifies 25 characteristics, including age (30), eye color (blue), and outsider status (Kozlovic, 2004). A simpler schema would focus on the convergence among themes such as salvation and/or redemption; visual images such as the cruciform or walking on water; and character traits such as altruism (Reinhartz, 2008). In contrast to Jesus, Christ figures are permitted sometimes significant human flaws, such as Walt Kowalski’s racism in Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino (2008).

Problems of definition attend the genre of apocalyptic films as well. Charles Mitchell, for example, understands the genre as comprising films that depict a credible threat to human existence and distinguishes them from films that focus on the period after disaster struck without portraying the catastrophe itself (Mitchell, 2001). John Martens views the cosmic conflict between Good and Evil as the decisive characteristic of the apocalyptic genre and distinguishes between films that rely directly on Jewish and Christian apocalyptic texts—films that portray aliens or natural or technological disasters as the forces of destruction—post-apocalyptic dystopias in which people attempt to rebuild after a catastrophe, and films that portray a future devoid of hope and opportunity (Martens, 2003). For Conrad Ostwalt the presence or absence of divine power is decisive; he distinguishes between traditional apocalyptic films based on Jewish and Christian apocalyptic texts (e.g., The Seventh Sign, 1988) and secular films that view human effort as the response to and resolution of disaster (e.g., Deep Impact, 1998, Armageddon, 1998; Ostwalt, 2009).

Old Testament Movies.

Early silent movies about Moses include two Pathé films—La Vie de Moïse (The Life of Moses, 1905), and Moïse sauvé des eaux (The Infancy of Moses, 1911)—and the Vitagraph movie The Life of Moses (1909–1910), which was the first five-reel film ever made (Pearson, 2005, p. 169). Soon the repertoire expanded beyond Moses and the Exodus to Adam and Eve (1912), Joseph in the Land of Egypt (1914), The Chosen Prince, also known as The Friendship of David and Jonathan (1917), Samson and Delilah (1922), and Noah’s Ark (1929). But Moses remained a popular theme, especially as drawn by Cecil B. DeMille, whose silent version of The Ten Commandments (1923) juxtaposes the Exodus story with a “modern” story. This modern story dramatizes the role of the Decalogue in the life of an American family in which one son is determined to break every single commandment while the other struggles, in vain, to bring his brother to the better path.

One noteworthy film of the early “talkies” era was the 1936 film The Green Pastures. This film is unusual for its time: it had an entirely African American cast and depicted biblical events through the lens of a particular construction of the African American experience prior to the civil rights movement of the 1950s that manages to be romanticizing and condescending (Weisenfeld, 2007).

The best-known Old Testament films were biblical epics made in the postwar “Golden Age” from approximately 1949 (Samson and Delilah) to 1965 (Noah and the Flood), with the most popular films being made in the decade between 1950 and 1960 (e.g., David and Bathsheba, 1951; Solomon and Sheba, 1959; The Story of Ruth, 1960). The most enduring film has proved to be Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 The Ten Commandments. Like the other epics, DeMille’s movie was extravagant in every regard: cast, setting, music, emotion, and budget. As the official trailer makes explicit, the film draws amply from earlier cultural responses to the Exodus story and the figure of Moses, such as the well-known biblical illustrations of Gustave Doré (1832–1883) and James Tissot (1836–1902) and the paintings of Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882) and Arnold Friberg (1913–2010).

Like all Bible filmmakers, DeMille had to fill the narrative gaps in his source material. In the film’s prologue, DeMille explains that the book of Exodus omits the first three decades of Moses’s life, from his infancy until his murder of the Egyptian (Exod 2:12). He draws upon ancient sources, such as the works of Philo and Josephus, and his own fruitful imagination to fill in the gaps in ways that would appeal to his audiences. Among the additions are the smoldering romance between Moses and the fictional Egyptian princess Nefretiri, the fierce rivalry with his “brother” Ramses, and exotic spectacles featuring scantily clad “foreign” dancing women.

The most interesting aspect of this film, however, is DeMille’s use of the Exodus story to make a strong statement about America’s divinely given mission to save the world from the “Red Menace” of communism. As DeMille declares in the film’s prologue: “The theme of this picture is whether men ought to be ruled by God’s law or whether they ought to be ruled by the whims of a dictator like Ramses. Are men the property of the state or are they free souls under God? This same battle continues throughout the world today.”

In service of this main point, and as an expression of his own Christian convictions, DeMille carefully recasts Moses as a Christ figure who sacrifices his personal life—including his relationship with his wife Sephora—to dedicate himself completely to his role as God’s agent of deliverance. In contrast to the biblical book, the film amplifies Moses’s own contribution to the Israelite’s liberation and places him at the very center of the action.

In presenting his subject matter from an explicitly Christian perspective, DeMille’s film is typical of almost all films on Hebrew Bible topics. It is for this reason that they are best seen as Old Testament rather than Hebrew Bible movies. The fact that the events are an important part of Jewish as well as Christian heritage was ignored. Even films that contain some Hebrew words and (anachronistically) portray Jewish practices ultimately convey a Christian message by including references to or narrative foreshadowing of the coming of Jesus. The Story of Ruth, for example, is framed by the figure of an anonymous prophet who describes Bethlehem—the primary setting for this film—as a city “whose name will one day be known in the far places of the earth” at a future time when “its star shall rise in the East.”

Bible movies reflect and also perpetuate a specifically Puritan understanding of American identity: America is the promised land, the new Israel, and as such it both enjoys a unique, covenantal relationship with God and must fulfill its divinely given mission to be a “light unto the nations” and a beacon of hope for all oppressed peoples. At the same time, these movies preserve and even glorify a view of American society that is predominantly white and in which men and women have their clear roles and identities: men are handsome warriors who sometimes fall in love with forbidden women (Bathsheba, the Queen of Sheba, Delilah). These women eventually are tamed into contentment with domestic life. This view of the Bible and of America is specific to the mid-twentieth-century context in which most epics were made. The war in Vietnam, major social changes such as the civil rights and feminist movements, and, more recently, the attacks of 11 September 2001, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, shattered this simple and reassuring view of America’s role on the world stage and reconfigured and complicated social and domestic relationships. Another important dynamic apparent in these films is the conflict between religion and faith—represented by the Israelites—against atheism and an overreliance on reason, represented by the pharaoh of Egypt or the leaders of other enemies of Israel.

Jesus Movies.

These same basic messages are conveyed by many of the Jesus movies, which also fall into the epic genre. Nicholas Ray’s King of Kings (1961) and George Stevens’s The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), like DeMille’s The Ten Commandments, use Rome as a stand-in for twentieth-century Nazi and communist regimes and present their heroes as the answer to Israel’s prayers for freedom from its oppressors. In contrast to Old Testament films, Jesus movies are constrained in their representations of romantic love—a staple of the epic genre—by the purported celibacy of their protagonist. Gender hierarchies are, however, visible, particularly in the portrayal of the “Holy Family,” in which Joseph engages in carpentry and teaches Jesus a trade while Mary nurtures him and teaches him to read (e.g., From the Manger to the Cross, 1912).

Jesus movies must contend with four canonical sources—the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—which differ in numerous details and present Jesus in different ways. With the exception of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964) and Philip Saville’s The Gospel of John (2003), most Jesus movies harmonize the Gospel accounts; they draw events from all four Gospels, but fit them into John’s three-year chronology, which provides more room to maneuver than the one-year Synoptic chronology. Typically they use the Synoptic accounts (Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke) as a narrative foundation into which they insert the Gospel of John’s most famous stories, such as the Wedding at Cana (John 2) and the Raising of Lazarus (John 11). But these multiple sources nevertheless leave numerous gaps that must be filled by the imagination or, often, from sources such as Renaissance Art (which provides the physical appearance as well as costuming for Jesus and other characters), the Passion Play tradition, the illustrated bibles of Tissot and Doré, liturgy, theology, and even other movies (e.g., Jesus of Montreal [1989] draws playfully upon DeMille’s The King of Kings [1927]).

The first Jesus movies, such as the Horitz Passion Play (1897) and The Passion Play of Oberammergau (1898), claimed to be films of specific European Passion Plays, though at least the latter was filmed in New York City. Lengthier and more comprehensive films followed, such as From the Manger to the Cross (1912) and Christus (1916). The most famous silent Jesus movie was DeMille’s The King of Kings (1927), which departed from earlier silent movies in its development of a coherent plotline, vivid characters, and close attention to both drama and humor. The opening scene, a lengthy portrayal of Mary Magdalene’s life before she meets Jesus, is immensely entertaining and arguably more memorable than any scene of any Jesus movie made before or since An interesting variation is found in the 1916 film Intolerance by D. W. Griffith, which juxtaposes “the Judean story” of Jesus with narratives from three other eras in order to illustrate “love’s struggle through the ages” against the deadly forces of intolerance.

The production of Jesus movies slowed down considerably after 1927 due in part to the popularity of DeMille’s film but also to the institution in 1930 of a Production Code that curtailed cinematic freedom in portraying many themes from religion to sexuality (Leff and Simmons, 1990). After the relaxation of the Code in the 1960s, new Jesus epics were produced, including King of Kings and The Greatest Story Ever Told, as well as the television miniseries Jesus of Nazareth (1977), directed by Franco Zeffirelli, and the evangelical film Jesus (1979), which still claims to be a powerful conversion instrument in the developing world. Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew is unusual for its reliance on a single Gospel for its dialogue, its use of black-and-white film, nonprofessional actors, and handheld cameras, and its skillful deployment of images. This era also saw two rock musicals, Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell (both in 1973).

The most delightful film related to this genre is the 1979 comedy, Monty Python’s Life of Brian. This film spoofs the epic film genre, the British private (“public”) school system, political liberation movements, and many other “sacred cows” and gets away with it because it is technically a “Brian” movie and not a “Jesus” movie. The film treats the figure of Jesus with respect, but by creating a Jesus proxy in Brian it is able to mock numerous clichés that attend Jesus’s representations in contemporary Christianity and in popular culture.

The following decade saw another iconoclastic Jesus movie—Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). By explicitly describing itself as an adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis’s novel rather than a faithful adaptation of scripture, Scorsese released himself from the stereotypes and conventions that had emerged in the epic genre and presented a film that explored themes of sexuality, delusion, identity, and power. Despite the disclaimer in the scrolling text that introduces the film, Last Temptation generated much controversy due particularly to its presentation of Jesus’s relationship with Mary Magdalene.

Movies after the 1980s retreated to safer territory. The 2000 claymation TV movie The Miracle Maker, Saville’s The Gospel of John, and the extraordinarily popular but critically panned film The Passion of the Christ, directed by Mel Gibson (2004), do not stray from the two-dimensional portrayal of Jesus that seems to be the only type of representation to interest audiences.

One important decision that Jesus filmmakers face concerns the representation of the Jews, especially in the Passion narrative. The Gospels place much of the responsibility for Jesus’s death on the Jewish authorities, a point that contributed considerably to Christian anti-Semitism over the centuries. The early silent films generally did not hesitate to depict the Jewish people as clamoring for Jesus’s death and therefore as guilty of deicide. An exception was DeMille, who, perhaps swayed by the prospect of Jewish protests, shifted the blame entirely to the Jewish high priest Caiaphas (Reinhartz, 2011), explicitly acquitting the Jews of this charge. The epics of the 1960s and beyond trod lightly on this point, often omitting Matthew 27:25, the so-called blood curse (“Let his blood be on us and on our children”), and drawing an analogy between the oppressive Roman regime and Nazi Germany. The most problematic recent film in this regard is Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004), which not only includes the blood curse (albeit in Aramaic, without an English subtitle), but also depicts Jewish children turning into demons, an allusion to the long-standing anti-Semitic charge (grounded in John 8:44) that the Jews are the children of the devil.

Finally, brief mention must be made of a small subgroup, comprising films about modern actors who stage or prepare to stage a Passion Play. One example is Denys Arcand’s 1989 film, Jesus of Montreal, in which a small group of actors is hired to revise and refresh the Passion Play that has traditionally been performed on the grounds of St. Joseph’s Oratory on Mount Royal. The film uses the Passion Play to make a strong point about the hypocrisy and exploitative activities of the Catholic Church in Quebec and the degradation of art into crass commercialism. In Jesus Christ Superstar, by contrast, the frame narrative is glimpsed only at the beginning, when the actors arrive on the scene in their bus, and again at the end, when they depart without the actor who had played Jesus. As the name suggests, the film is a critique of celebrity culture, as a force that corrupts and destroys. The French film by Jules Dassin Celui qui doit mourir (He Who Must Die, 1957) and Pasolini’s short film La Ricotta (1963) do not portray the actual Passion Play; the focus is on the actors and the events that lead up to, or, more precisely, prevent, the staging as such. In La Ricotta, the Passion Play motif underscores the hypocrisy of the rich and their indifference to the suffering of the poor; the starving man who plays the Good Thief dies on the cross during a rehearsal, after he has gorged himself on a huge hunk of ricotta cheese. Dassin’s film explores the position taken by the comfortable and complacent leadership of a Greek Christian village that refuses to help a group of Christian refugees that has been tormented into leaving its own lands; though the actors have been chosen, the Passion Play cannot be performed because the Jesus figure is killed when he exposes the village leadership’s hypocrisy.

Sword-and-sandal or peplum films.

Bible-related peplum (meaning tunic) movies typically embed stories and characters from the Gospels into fictional narratives set at the same time as or shortly after the Jesus story. The first peplums were silent films such as Ben Hur (1907, 1925), Quo Vadis? (1901, 1910, 1912, 1924), and The Sign of the Cross (1914, 1932). The most famous, however, were made in the Golden Era of the 1950s and 1960s, such as Quo Vadis? (1951), Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954), The Silver Chalice (1954), The Big Fisherman (1959), and Barabbas (1961). Most important were The Robe (1953) and Ben-Hur (1959). The Robe marked the debut of the first major widescreen technology, CinemaScope, which, in widening the frame, also allowed a more realistic use of perspective and point of view. This is most apparent in the final scene of the film, in which the two protagonists, Diana and Marcellus, proceed slowly toward the camera and to the death that is simultaneously the exultation—in their case, sacred marriage—in the heaven that awaits Christian martyrs.

Ben-Hur may be best known for its iconic chariot race, but as an example of the “peplum” movies’ use of the Bible it is significant for its unique portrayal of two scenes in which Jesus and the fictional hero, Judah Ben-Hur, meet. After Ben-Hur takes responsibility for an accident involving the Roman governor in Judea, he is imprisoned and forced to march through the desert. A young man’s hand reaches out to touch his own hand—evoking Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam—and then holds a dipper of water to his face so that he can drink. The man’s face is not shown, but viewers know this must be Jesus. Sometime later, Ben-Hur returns the favor. Now a free man, Ben-Hur witnesses Jesus’s collapse under the cross’s weight on his slow and painful procession to Golgotha and rushes to give him water. Though Jesus and Judah meet face to face, the audience is not favored with a view of the savior’s countenance. This omission may have been a concession to British and other national production codes, which prohibited the full representation of Jesus on screen, but it also gestures toward the theological question of whether it is possible to sense the divine presence without seeing it or him directly.

As in other Bible movies, the power dynamic between the imperial oppressor—Rome—and the subjected peoples stands in for twentieth-century powers of Nazi Germany and the communist regimes of the USSR and Eastern Europe. Early in the film Ben-Hur, the Roman tribune Messala offers Ben-Hur a deal: he will spare Judah’s family if Ben-Hur will persuade his fellow Jews not to rebel. Ben-Hur resists the strong temptation to collaborate with the oppressor even though it puts him and his family in danger, thereby reflecting the values of loyalty, patriotism, and self-sacrifice for the greater good. Finally, here too is played out the conflict between faith and reason, with the Christian characters demonstrating the superiority of faith over the rational, anti-religious, and even atheistic views of the Roman oppressors.

Biblical conventions.

Bible movies share a set of conventions, most involving grand settings, music, emotions, stories, and characters, accompanied by big emotions on screen, which in turn engages movie spectators in a grand way as well. These outsize films sometimes, but not always, led to major box office profits, but they eventually fell out of fashion because of financial as well as social factors, as American culture and society coped with both threats, opportunities, and shifting power relationships and hierarchies—between male and female, black and white—and growing cynicism about American identity and values that had hitherto been simply taken for granted and absorbed at home and at school.

In addition to these conventions, which are similar to those in other epic films from the same era, Bible movies established a set of stable practices with regard to the Bible. These include visual depictions of the Bible or of pages from the Bible in English (King James Version) or Hebrew; abundant use of biblical quotation; and, of course, biblical narratives and characters. Furthermore, they often draw on other cultural interpretations or representations of the Bible, such as works of art, music, drama, or literature.

The plots and characters of these films are remarkably similar: the “good guys” belong to a small nation devoted to the worship of the one true God and battle the “bad guys,” the forces of oppression, idolatry, atheism, and rationalism. In the films, the good guys are the Israelites—or, in the peplum films, Christian communities—but they look like, sound like, and behave like Americans. The bad guys are Egypt or Rome, which stand in for Nazi Germany, or, more often, communist regimes. Like all historical films, these movies tell a story of the past through the lenses of the present, using the biblical material to address the concerns and norms of the filmmakers’ eras more than the eras of their subject matter. For the most part they support the social and political status quo of the era in which they were made.

Bible as Cinematic Convention.

Fictional films of all genres, from science fiction to romantic comedy portray, quote from, and make other uses of the Bible. In doing so, they draw upon the conventions that are established by Bible movies and are therefore characteristic of “the Bible on film.” Indeed, the use of the Bible itself has become a Hollywood convention used by filmmakers to convey that the particular stories they tell in their films have a broader or deeper, perhaps even spiritual and universal, meaning. Films often show Bibles or Bible pages on the screen; in these cases the Bible is a “prop” that helps to define the characters or even, in some cases, to move the action forward. The protagonist of Sling Blade (1996) is a convicted murderer with uncertain mental capacity, but the fact that he carries a Bible around ascribes depth and goodness to his character. The Bible in The Apostle (1997) stops that film’s villain from destroying a church and facilitates a change of heart and profound conversion experience.

Biblical texts.

The Bible’s words often appear on screen or in dialogue. The Coen brothers’ True Grit (2010) opens with a scrolling quotation from Proverbs 28:1: “The wicked flee when none pursueth.” In Fried Green Tomatoes (1991) the character Ruth sends a page from the biblical book of Ruth to her friend to signal her intention to leave her abusive husband and come live with her. Films as varied as the comedy Liar, Liar and the spy thriller The Good Shepherd quote John 8:32: “the truth shall make you free” (usually quoted as “The truth shall set you free”), and many take their titles from the Bible, such as Babel (2006) or In the Valley of Elah (2007).

Biblical characters.

Some films model their narratives or characters on biblical stories and figures. Christ-figure films feature figures—such as Karl in Sling Blade—who behave in ways traditionally associated with Jesus; other films, such as Evan Almighty (2007) and Moonrise Kingdom (2012), draw upon Hebrew Bible stories such as the flood story in Genesis 7. Some films use the Bible not to support an American mission “to the nations,” as did some of the epics, but, on the contrary, to critique American institutions such as the army. A prime example is In the Valley of Elah (2007), in which a soldier is killed on his base after returning from duty in Afghanistan. As the title suggests, the film is a David and Goliath story. Whereas one might expect America to be David fighting against the Goliath of global terrorism, that is not how this film plays out. Rather, David is the dead man’s father, who, in attempting to find out what happened to his son, must fight the Goliath of the American army—which he had previously championed as a former military policeman—that is trying to cover up its culpability.

It is not surprising that some films featuring biblical, especially Christ-like, characters have Christian undercurrents. But in some cases the Christian subtext of such films is itself criticized or even subverted. The antagonist in The Truman Show (1998), Christof, the creator/producer of a 24/7 reality show starring Truman, longs to be a “true father” to the “true man” whose life he has been manipulating since birth. Truman, on the other hand, seeks only to escape his world and the controlling creator who keeps him imprisoned. Despite his name, Christof is no savior figure.

Biblical narratives.

Christ-figure films tend to model all or, more often, part of their narratives, on the Jesus story, specifically, the Passion. The Shawshank Redemption, for example, portrays its protagonist Andy Dufresne as a Christ-figure who provides hope to his friends and symbolically dies and is reborn, as well as baptized, by escaping from prison, crossing a river, and assuming a new identity.

Narrative patterning also occurs in apocalyptic films. Whether apocalyptic films are “religious” or “secular” (in Ostwalt’s terms), most of them have rather clear allusions to the Bible, and to the Puritan variation on apocalypticism that is deeply intertwined with both providential and messianic elements (Thompson, 2007, p. 2). Films such as Armageddon (1998) and Children of Men (2006) draw their titles from the Bible. The spaceship that saves the day in Deep Impact (1998) is called the Messiah, and the bunker that the United States has built to save a remnant of its population, flora and fauna, is called Noah’s Ark. In some of these films, the post–Cold War setting is evident in the coalition created between the United States, European countries, and Russia in order to fight the cosmic forces that threaten Earth’s survival. But it is America that takes the lead.

The Book of Eli (2010) is a film that has the Bible at its core. The film is set in the aftermath of a nuclear event that has destroyed the world order, or at least America. It is each man for himself, creating suffering for their women as well as for any strangers that wander by. Eli is a man with a mysterious past, charged with delivering an important book to a sanctuary on the Pacific Coast. This book is the last remaining copy of the Bible (King James Version of course). In focusing on the efforts to save and preserve this book, the film testifies to the centrality of the Bible in America’s values and identity.

The Bible and ethics.

As we have seen, the Bible is often used in film to point to a deeper meaning. It is also used as a means to reflect on ethics and morality. In cinema, as in real life, the Bible is brought in to support contradictory positions—for example, by both supporters and opponents of capital punishment in Dead Man Walking (1995). The positive association between the Bible and ethical behavior is built into films that feature the Decalogue, such as DeMille’s two versions of The Ten Commandments. But the same association is often subverted, as in Scorsese’s remake of Cape Fear (1991), in which a convicted rapist, Max Cady, newly released after serving his time, terrorizes the family of his defense lawyer. Though Cady casts himself as the undeservedly suffering figure of Job, he in fact plays Satan by unleashing events that test his victims nearly unto death.

In none of these films is the fundamental connection between the Bible and God denied or broken, a point that illustrates the continuing impact of Christianity on American society. An exception to this pattern comes from an unlikely genre: the romantic comedy. The 2009 film The Invention of Lying makes the point that lying makes the world go round. Set in a society where no one is capable of lying, the film illustrates how bland life would be without “lying,” which, in this film, includes any imaginative thinking. The protagonist, Mark Bellison, “invents” lying when he reassures his dying mother that after she dies she will be reunited with her husband in a happy place. Soon Mark is pursued by crowds of people who want more information about this place and the “man in the sky” who told Mark about it. In an effort to satisfy the crowds, Mark laboriously invents the “ten rules,” which he presents to the hordes, who then quiz him for more information, grumble, but overall express their willingness to live by them. This film does not concern itself with the origins of the ten rules, but it does posit that these rules, which correspond in their content to the Decalogue, are needed by humankind to provide hope. Whether there is a happy place where we all go after we die is not important; what matters is that we believe it.

The Bible and transcendence.

The most difficult aspect of the Bible to represent in film is the experience of transcendence, of the sort that Moses experienced at the Burning Bush or the disciples at Jesus’s transfiguration. Yet some films succeed, at least for some of their viewers. The 1987 Danish film Babette’s Feast illustrates the capacity of fine food to create a sense of fellow feeling and tolerance for others. Its protagonist, Babette, prepares a feast for the small and isolated flock of a small Christian sect that eschews such abundance. The camera focuses at great length, often using extreme close-ups, on the process by which she prepares and serves the food and then in a leisurely manner on the enjoyment of the diners and the healing impact on their community life. The film echoes the biblical and postbiblical motif of the messianic banquet, and Babette herself is clearly a Christ figure who gives her whole being—and her entire lottery winnings—over to this sacred task.


The Bible has been a stable, even conventional, feature of cinema since its beginning well over a century ago. No doubt this usage reflects the centrality of Christianity, especially Puritan-influenced Protestantism, to the ideologies that shaped and continue to undergird American politics, culture, and society even in the present pluralist and multifaith era. Cinema is an important medium for telling and transmitting biblical stories. And in drawing upon the Bible (whether the Bible on film or the Bible in film), filmmakers can impute broad, even universal value to the particular stories they tell and ascribe divine authority to their own religious, political, and social convictions. These will vary from person to person and era to era, but they may include anti-communism, anti-Semitism, “family values,” opposition to the death penalty, the importance of honor and fortitude, and many more. In these ways, the Bible of Hollywood both reflects and also potentially shapes the value systems, ideas, and identities of movie viewers, whatever their religious convictions and affiliations.



  • Anker, Roy M. Catching Light: Looking for God in the Movies. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2004. Collection of essays on theology that includes some reflections on the use of the Bible.
  • Babington, Bruce, and Peter William Evans. Biblical Epics: Sacred Narrative in the Hollywood Cinema. Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press; New York: St. Martin’s, 1993. Essential study of the epic genre.
  • Bach, Alice, ed. Biblical Glamour and Hollywood Glitz. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 1996. First book that brought Bible and film to the broad attention of the field of biblical studies.
  • Baugh, Lloyd. Imaging the Divine: Jesus and Christ-Figures in Film. Communication, Culture & Theology. Kansas City, MO.: Sheed & Ward, 1997.
  • Blizek, William L. The Continuum Companion to Religion and Film. London: Continuum, 2009. Excellent collection that includes some essays on Bible and film.
  • Christianson, Eric S., Peter Francis, and William R. Telford. Cinéma Divinité: Religion, Theology and the Bible in Film. London: SCM Press, 2005. Superb essays that include reflection on Bible and Film.
  • Deacy, Christopher. Screening the Afterlife: Theology, Eschatology and Film. London: Routledge, 2012. Consideration of contribution of film to theological reflection.
  • Exum, J. Cheryl. The Bible in Film—The Bible and Film. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2006. Good collection of essays.
  • Kozlovic, Anton. “The Structural Characteristics of the Cinematic Christ-Figure.” Journal of Religion and Popular Culture 8 (2004).
  • Kreitzer, L. Joseph. The New Testament in Fiction and Film: On Reversing the Hermeneutical Flow. Biblical Seminar 17. Sheffield, U.K.: JSOT Press, 1993.
  • Kreitzer, L. Joseph. The Old Testament in Fiction and Film: On Reversing the Hermeneutical Flow. Biblical Seminar 24. Sheffield, U.K.: Sheffield Academic Press, 1994. Argument that studying the literary and cinematic reception of the Bible can contribute to our understanding of the Bible.
  • Leff, Leonard J., and Jerold Simmons. The Dame in the Kimono: Hollywood, Censorship, and the Production Code from the 1920s to the 1960s. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1990. Study of the Production Code.
  • Lyden, John. The Routledge Companion to Religion and Film. London: Routledge, 2009. Excellent collection that includes essays on the Bible and film.
  • Martens, John W. The End of the World: The Apocalyptic Imagination in Film and Television. Winnipeg, Manitoba: J. Gordon Shillingford, 2003. Study of apocalyptic movies.
  • Mazur, Eric Michael. Encyclopedia of Religion and Film. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, 2011. Includes some consideration of Bible and film.
  • Mitchell, Charles P. A Guide to Apocalyptic Cinema. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 2001. Study of the apocalyptic genre.
  • Ostwalt, Conrad. “Apocalyptic.” In The Routledge Companion to Religion and Film, edited by John Lyden, pp. 368–383. London: Routledge, 2009. Analysis of Apocalyptic film as a genre.
  • Pearson, Roberta A. “Biblical Movies.” In Encyclopedia of Early Cinema, edited by Richard Abel, pp. 68–71. London: Taylor & Francis, 2005. Review of silent Bible movies.
  • Reinhartz, Adele. Scripture on the Silver Screen. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 2003. Collection of essays on films that make direct use of biblical quotations and references.
  • Reinhartz, Adele. Jesus of Hollywood. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. Thematic study of the Jesus movie genre.
  • Reinhartz, Adele. “Playing with Paradigms: The Christ-Figure Genre in Contemporary Film.” Australian Religious Studies Review 21, no. 3 (2008): 298–317. Analysis of the Christ-figure film.
  • Reinhartz, Adele. Caiaphas the High Priest. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2011.
  • Reinhartz, Adele. Bible and Cinema: Fifty Key Films. New York: Routledge, 2012. Collection of essays on important films for the study of biblical reception.
  • Reinhartz, Adele. Bible and Cinema: An Introduction. London and New York: Routledge, 2013. Comprehensive study of the use of the Bible in and on film.
  • Schrader, Paul. Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972. Includes a critique of the epic genre.
  • Shepherd, David, ed. Images of the Word: Hollywood’s Bible and Beyond. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2008. Collection of essays on Bible and film.
  • Staley, Jeffrey Lloyd, and Richard G. Walsh. Jesus, the Gospels, and Cinematic Imagination: A Handbook to Jesus on DVD. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 2007. Helpful study of the Jesus movie genre.
  • Stern, Richard C., Clayton N. Jefford, and Guerric DeBona. Savior on the Silver Screen. New York: Paulist, 1999. Study of some of the best-known Jesus movies.
  • Tatum, W. Barnes. Jesus at the Movies: A Guide to the First Hundred Years and Beyond. 3d ed. Santa Rosa, Calif.: Polebridge, 2013. The best-known work on Jesus movies.
  • Thompson, Kirsten Moana. Apocalyptic Dread: American Film at the Turn of the Millennium. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2007. Study of the apocalyptic genre.
  • Walsh, Richard, Jeffrey L. Staley, and Adele Reinhartz, eds. Son of Man: An African Jesus Film. Bible in the Modern World 52. Sheffield, U.K.: Sheffield Phoenix, 2013. Collection of essays focusing on one film.
  • Weisenfeld, Judith. Hollywood Be Thy Name: African American Religion in American Film, 1929–1949. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007. Includes a detailed study of The Green Pastures.

Adele Reinhartz