Audiences expect Jesus movies to be consistent with the gospel, that is, their own understanding of Jesus’s story. This gospel, a montage of the canonical Gospels and their afterlives, is a cultural product. As the polarizing responses to The Last Temptation of Christ and The Passion of the Christ (and other Jesus films [Tatum, 2012]) illustrate, different groups in the same culture may champion different Gospels. While having their own Gospel commitments, biblical film critics know more about the Gospels and their interpretations than popular audiences do. They easily trace particular Jesus movies’ use of particular Gospels of history, of theology, and of cinematic forms as well as the movies’ embeddedness in particular cultural moments.

Modern Technology.

Jesus movies cannot be synonymous with the canonical Gospels because they belong to consumer capitalism and technological modernity. Michael Wood claims that epics, like King of Kings and The Greatest Story Ever Told, reflect an American mythology of conspicuous consumption and replay the American Revolution. Darrol Bryant sees the act of watching movies as a ritual enshrining technology as the means to transform the world in which the hero wins, love triumphs, and so forth.

Jesus movies advertise their technological innovations (e.g., King of Kings’s [1961] use of 70mm Technicolor). They deploy special effects, like the earthquake at the cross in The King of Kings (1927), and CGI, used for the teardrop that falls from heaven at Jesus’s cross in The Passion of the Christ. Editing “realizes” miracles when the camera shows a victim’s plight, cuts away, and returns to the healed victim. Godspell’s lone miracle spoofs the technique: a character sees a small tree in a pot, another character substitutes a larger tree while the first character is looking away, and the first looks back to find a miracle.

Jesus’s resurrection appearances occasion dramatic technological displays. The King of Kings uses color and then depicts Christ towering over a modern city (compare The Greatest Story Ever Told). The Gospel according to St. Matthew “blows” the tomb’s stone away. The Jesus Film depicts the ascension from the perspective of a camera rocketing back into space.

The movies’ Jesus, however, is not a technological adept, like the Western gunfighter or the more recent computer geek hero. Jesus’s powers are magical (compare Harry Potter). Like cinematic horror, Jesus movies establish a distance from technological modernity. While horror worries about technology’s dangerous consequences, Jesus movies (and other period pieces) are nostalgic for simpler days. The horror supernatural terrifies, but Jesus movies domesticate it (although the possessions of Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ and of Judas in The Passion of the Christ do contain horror elements).

Consumer Capitalism.

Concerns about consumer capitalism are rarer. Jesus movies vilify aristocrats, but in order to pillory luxury (e.g., the exotic courtesan Mary Magdalene in The King of Kings or Jesus Christ Superstar’s effete Antipas) or critique (British) empire in favor of democratic populism in numerous portrayals of Roman officials. The people of Jesus movies are seldom truly poor. They are representations of their middle-class audience. The Italian peasants in The Gospel according to St. Matthew, the bohemian actors in Jesus of Montreal, and the apartheid-era Africans of Son of Man are exceptions.

The rich Lazarus of The Greatest Story Ever Told is more typical. While his wealth prevents him from becoming a disciple, he is Jesus’s friend and patron. His untimely death occasions Jesus’s greatest miracle and his Passion so that the Jesus of The Greatest Story Ever Told dies specifically for him (as Jesus dies for Barabbas in King of Kings and Barabbas). DeMille’s The King of Kings accommodates capitalism simply by ignoring Jesus’s troublesome sayings and building on Bruce Barton’s famous businessman Jesus.

Prior to these characterizations, the cinematic medium has already acquired Jesus. Filmmakers advertise reverence and authenticity—the marketing for early films and for The Passion of the Christ is remarkably similar—because their context is the entertainment market and because their ultimate goal is profit. Even the evangelistically oriented The Jesus Film and The Gospel of John appeared briefly in theaters and, more tellingly, were part of larger Bible film projects that failed because of financial problems. To ensure financial success, filmmakers employ ministers and scholars as advisors, offer previews for ministers, acquire mailing lists from churches, and “test” their films for audience response. This process led to modifications to reduce the anti-Semitism, for example, of both Intolerance and The King of Kings.

To watch (buy) one Jesus movie instead of another is to make a consumer choice and assert one’s identity. Theologically motivated boycotts are recurrent concerns (e.g., with Jesus of Nazareth and The Last Temptation of Christ). Filmmakers craft their products to allow a wide variety of (positive) responses (see Jasper, 1997). (The distributors of From the Manger to the Cross offered extra footage for Roman Catholic viewers.) Miracles are notorious flashpoints, but Jesus movies, like horror, must leave the supernatural “open.” While it is a Christ-figure movie, The Green Mile’s concluding voiceover description of its mysterious protagonist as both a force of nature and as a miracle of God is typical of attempts to guide different viewers to appreciate the same movie.

New Jesus movies appear because the market seems right, even if only to a visionary soul like Mel Gibson. Jesus movies compete with and share marquee space with other movies. Box office success leads quickly to copycats. Thus the airing of Judas and the production of The Nativity Story followed the success of The Passion of the Christ, as did the twenty-fifth anniversary rerelease of Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Gibson himself talked of filming The Maccabees before turning to Apocalypto.

Monty Python’s Life of Brian does make a rare, critical comment on Jesus movies’ commercial status. (Pasolini’s less known La ricotta is more blatant.) The voiceover that ends the song-and-dance crucifixion scene advertises the sale of records, including “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life (Death),” in the theater foyer. This transgression of verisimilitude calls one’s attention to cinema’s consumer context. Interestingly, the transgressive UFO that saves Brian in midair calls attention to cinema’s technological nature.

Jesus of Montreal transgresses narrative/media levels more often but within the movie itself, as the performance of a Passion Play “bleeds” into its actors’ lives (compare He Who Must Die or any Christ-figure movie). The Mill & the Cross offers similar transgressions as Pieter Bruegel paints the Procession to the Cross and as the painting comes to (movie) life.

By contrast, the commercials punctuating televised Jesus movies are not transgressive. They belong to the medium. Thus, while Jesus of Nazareth was first broadcast without commercial “interruption,” it was cut to include commercials, and the commercials’ presence remains noticeable in repeated fades to black in DVD versions. More importantly, these movies never mock their consumer culture (though some viewers may find ironies; see Staley and Walsh, 2007, p. 205 n. 27).

Visuals, Sound, Worship Forms.

Selections from the Gospels are read aloud in worship and often have accompanying visuals in ornate churches and illustrated Bibles. Passion and mystery plays enlivened the Bible long before film. The immediate precursors of Jesus movies were lectures about Passion Plays accompanied by illustrative slides.

Nonetheless, Jesus movies have visuals and sound in a new way. Jesus movies are entertainments, not worship, and their visuals take center stage, rather than providing worship aids. Their visuals are too transient and too realistic to be iconic. In the United States, the dominance of Protestant sensibilities also made early movie visuals seem alien to worship.

The Visual Bible project illustrates the difference. The project’s conservative mandate required an absolute fidelity to the Today’s English Version of John for The Gospel of John. (The project’s Gospel of Matthew used the New International Version.) Yet, visualizing John 1:1–5 with a beach sunrise still goes beyond “just” the text, as does Christopher Plummer’s narrating voice. Allocating passages to specific speakers and photographing specific actors in repeated scenes also creates characters—for example, a leading Pharisee and a leading temple guard—not found in John.

To familiarize movies for their audiences, filmmakers rely heavily on worship forms. The earliest Jesus movies were Passion Plays, an artistic form with a long, if sometimes troubled, heritage in the church, and were marketed as sermons. Organs, sacred music, and lectures accompanied them.

Matters changed when Griffith and DeMille made Jesus stories more fully within cinema’s developing narrative traditions. Yet, Griffith included the Jesus and Huguenot stories in Intolerance to snatch the “ethical high ground” away from critics of his The Birth of a Nation. With more religious savvy, DeMille introduced The King of Kings (1927) with titles stating that the movie fulfilled Jesus’s missionary charge. The Greatest Story Ever Told begins and ends its story in a church so that the movie seems to be the church’s art/story come to life. Jesus of Montreal still centers on the Passion Play tradition of St. Joseph’s Oratory of Mount Royal, and Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ is a film version of the Stations of the Cross.

Church music dominates. The King of Kings employs sentimental Protestant hymns. The later spectaculars employ symphonic music. Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus is ubiquitous. King of Kings employs an overture, entr’acte, and exit music to set the proper (theatrical and) reverential stage. Church music is so common that it is its replacement that is notable: in Pasolini’s use of African tribal music and the blues to depict the people’s joys and sufferings, in the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar, in Peter Gabriel’s use of Mediterranean and Arabic music for The Last Temptation of Christ, and in the use of apartheid-era protest song and dance in Son of Man.

Christian art also dominates. The King of Kings employs Christian art more than 200 times. From the Manger to the Cross simply sets tableaus, taken from Tissot’s popular illustrated life of Christ, in rather limited motion. La ricotta mocks such tableaus amusingly. As with church music, church art is most noticeable when it does not appear or when it is transfigured. The non–Da Vinci Last Supper in King of Kings is striking, but so too is the Da Vinci–style picnic in Jesus Christ Superstar.

The movies’ persistent depiction of Jesus’s pierced palms—a historical oddity that even a horror film like Stigmata notices—further testifies to art’s powerful influence. A montage of crucifixion art cements Jesus’s resolve in the garden in Jesus Christ Superstar so that art effectively creates the history it interprets. Art/story also demands Son of Man’s posthumous crucifixion. Of course, cruciform shapes, sufferings, and deaths litter Christ-figure movies. Other images carrying “Jesus” into non-Jesus movies include the pietà, miraculous healings, walking on water, the breaking of bread, Da Vinci–style meals, and awed faces or similar transfigurations.

Divine Visuals.

After Christian art, Jesus movies are the primary source for the mise-en-scène and sequences of Jesus movies. The Passion of the Christ relies repeatedly on The King of Kings, Jesus Christ Superstar, and The Last Temptation of Christ. For example, the apocalyptic judgments that follow the CGI teardrop’s fall from heaven extend the earthquake judgments that attend DeMille’s crucifixion.

Jesus movies also have definite conventions for depicting Jesus. The camera in the religious epics reverently looks at Jesus from afar or from behind. The style is so conventional that Monty Python’s Life of Brian parodies it with its humorously misunderstood Sermon on the Mount. The distancing bespeaks Jesus’s divinity, but The Mill & the Cross shoots Jesus from afar to demonstrate his common bond with victims of religious persecution. Something similar transpires when Pasolini uses a subjective camera to depict Jesus’s Jewish trial. It places the viewers with the (threatened) populace as the camera almost loses sight of Jesus as the powers swallow him up.

The sequence depicting Mary Magdalene’s conversion in The King of Kings shows her transformation from provocative to nun-like clothing and also shifts her “staging” from looming over Jesus to kneeling at his feet. The camera of Jesus movies typically adopts a similarly reverent position. One looks up to Jesus. The opening shot of Jesus from above, writhing on the ground, in The Last Temptation of Christ shocks precisely because it diverges from this tradition.

Jesus movies do occasionally set the authorities in lofty positions above Jesus (e.g., The Gospel according to St. Matthew, The Greatest Story Ever Told). The silent Jesus standing with bowed head beneath Pilate’s elevated tribunal in King of Kings is a dramatic example. This camera use is, however, subsidiary to the “proper” from-below shot and is thus part of the movie’s criticism of the aristocracy. When The Passion of the Christ looks down on the crucified Jesus, it is in order to offer God’s view and to initiate rather apocalyptic judgments.

Filmmakers use camera angles, editing, and lighting to suggest that Jesus is a divine visitor, the Johannine light of the world. Jesus glows amid a dark world and dark characters in From the Manger to the Cross. He is almost always in light clothing, while villains are dark and dirty. Jesus shimmers ethereally in soft light in The King of Kings. After the Johannine prologue in The Greatest Story Ever Told, a star becomes a candle flame in the nativity scene. Jesus appears in the sky in the finales of The King of Kings and The Greatest Story Ever Told. The more skeptical discussion of the Resurrection in dark tunnels at the end of the Passion Play in Jesus of Montreal reverses this common tradition.

In keeping with Jesus’s visual divinity, those around him look on in awe or craven hostility. They come to the light or move away toward the darkness and shadows as Judas does in The Greatest Story Ever Told. The patterns are so common that awed faces are often enough to indicate Jesus’s unseen presence (as in The Robe). These patterns replay Gospel characterizations, but the Jesus of the movies is even more divine (or docetic) than those of the Gospels (see Stern et al., 1999).


The Gospels are cult biographies and, like ancient biographies generally, focus on Jesus’s public career, his speech and actions. Modern biographies focus on their protagonists’ psychological developments. The cinematic biopic displays its protagonist’s successful realization of his or her vision.

Some read Jesus movies as biopics (Reinhartz, 2007, pp. 3–40, 251–256). Such biopics track Jesus’s progress to his visionary goal, despite the doubts of family and the opposition of the powerful. Friends support him. A trial depicts the opposing sides and ushers in the hero’s success. Jesus movies differ from biopics, however, in that Jesus lacks the typical romantic interests and does not clearly defeat his (imperial) enemies. Cinema’s commitment to Jesus’s divinity also makes depicting progress on his part difficult.

Jesus movies are, however, more like biopics than they are the Gospels. The Gospels are more religious, less heroic, and less triumphant. They focus on the divine vision—either the Kingdom of God or the life from above—that Jesus shares with others. Jesus is less a hero than a representative of divine power. With the possible exception of John, the Gospels narrate Jesus’s defeat or tragedy, not his success. The Resurrection is a divine act, not Jesus’s success, and is known only to a select few. The biopic Jesus may be a “great man.” The Jesus of the Gospels is not—at least, not immediately.

Nonetheless, seeing Jesus movies as biopics associates them as closely as possible with the Gospels. Associating the Jesus movies with other cinematic genres—epics, musicals, neorealist documentaries, TV miniseries, action adventure/horror—emphasizes the movies’ fictional transformations of the Gospels (see Staley and Walsh, 2007).


The Gospels set their Jesus stories in first-century Roman Palestine. The default position of Jesus movies is a similar historical realism. Jesus movies sometimes deliberately violate their historical realism in order to remind audiences of their present (e.g., the tanks in Jesus Christ Superstar and the UFO in Monty Python’s Life of Brian) and sometimes do so unintentionally (e.g., The Greatest Story Ever Told ’s celebrity cameos and American West visuals).

Jesus movies resetting the Jesus story forge more deliberate connections with their audiences’ world. Despite its Negev setting, the prologue and epilogue of Jesus Christ Superstar, in which a bus transports the acting troupe to and from their play’s location, makes it this type of film. Godspell ’s relocation of the Jesus story to an eerily empty New York City and Son of Man’s transformation of the story to a contemporary African Judea are other examples.

Other movies aim at worship’s “eternal present” by configuring their story in worship forms. This setting is overwhelmingly true for movies that are Passion Plays (or Stations of the Cross). (Interestingly, some early films focused elsewhere: e.g., on Jesus’s walking on water or Lazarus’s resurrection.) This “eternal presence” may help explain why so many movies end with Jesus’s promise in Matthew 28:20 (e.g., The King of Kings, King of Kings, The Gospel according to St. Matthew, The Greatest Story Ever Told, Jesus of Nazareth, The Jesus Film).

Story: Faithful unto Death.

The Gospels and the Jesus movies share a story about Jesus’s faithfulness to his vision in the face of his Passion. Both also depict his death as prophecy’s providential fulfillment and the result of the Jewish leaders’ opposition, even though crucifixion was a Roman form of capital punishment.

The Passion and Mystery Play traditions offer living tableaus presenting Old Testament stories as types of Jesus and provide prologues about the fall of Lucifer and/or Adam and Eve. Son of Man starts with such a prologue, while The Passion of the Christ represents Gethsemane as the garden temptation of a new Adam (compare Romans 5; Jesus). Other movies provide titles of or voiceover readings of pertinent Old Testament passages. Isaiah 53 is a particular favorite (Jesus of Nazareth, The Last Temptation of Christ, The Passion of the Christ). The Greatest Story Ever Told and Jesus of Nazareth develop elaborate scenes discussing the possible interpretation of prophecies.

While accusing the Jewish leaders of the crucifixion leads to the most common charges of anti-Semitism, the configuring of the Hebrew Bible as an Old Testament leads to the equally questionable notion that Christianity supersedes Judaism. This replacement motif is unmistakable when a cross of light emerges from a broken menorah in The King of Kings and when Jesus of Nazareth moves from messianic Judaism to the apostolic church of the Resurrection. Sensitivity to anti-Semitism sometimes leads to the omission of Matthew 27:25 or even a Jewish trial (King of Kings), to the display of a division among the Jewish leaders about Jesus (The Greatest Story Ever Told, Jesus of Nazareth), to the creation of characters to “take the blame,” and to sympathetic developments of Judas. Some movies do forgo the Gospel pattern enough to make the Romans the prime movers in the crucifixion (e.g., King of Kings, The Jesus Film, Monty Python’s Life of Brian, Jesus).

The focus on Jesus’s divinity makes it difficult to depict understandable opposition to him. One can, however, understand the erasure of The Gospel of St. Matthew’s harsh social critic or of Son of Man’s uncompromising advocate of human solidarity. The Greatest Story Ever Told is nearer the norm when its Jesus dies, according to Lazarus and Judas, simply because he is “too good.” As The Passion of the Christ indicates most viciously, this trend ultimately reduces all humanity, not just Jesus’s opposition, to bestial or demonic villainy.

Of course, Jesus’s death needs no real explanation. It is simply the story, as in Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell (but see The Passover Plot and the Muslim The Messiah, which relies on the Gospel of Barnabas). In Monty Python’s Life of Brian and Jesus of Montreal, the matter is simply fate or bad luck.

Miracles and Teaching.

Jesus movies expand beyond the Passion by adding miracles, including the infancy materials (The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ, La vie du Christ, From the Manger to the Cross). As miracles are problematic for a scientific worldview, some movies concentrate on healings (King of Kings) or on psychosomatic faith (The Greatest Story Ever Told). Other movies eliminate miracles (Jesus Christ Superstar, Godspell) or explain them in terms of prescientific worldviews (Monty Python’s Life of Brian, Jesus of Montreal). There is also a tendency to move toward metaphorical representations of Jesus’s resurrection (e.g., King of Kings, Jesus Christ Superstar, Godspell, The Last Temptation of Christ, Jesus of Montreal).

Jesus’s teaching is less important (but see Rossellini’s The Messiah). The Sermon on the Mount is the spectacular heart of King of Kings, but the battle scenes overwhelm it. While Jesus teaches in the Temple, the audience watches Barabbas’s revolt crushed outside. The Gospel according to St. Matthew also gives a great deal of time to the Sermon, but it emphasizes other teachings—Jesus’s promise to bring a sword (Matt 10:34) and his final harangue against the leaders (Matt 23). Godspell uses the Sermon to structure much of its pre-Passion story but emphasizes Luke’s parables. The scene in which Jesus narrates the Prodigal Son to the accompaniment of clips from silent films and a pantomime nicely recalls film’s early days. While including a brief Sermon, The Greatest Story Ever Told highlights Jesus’s teaching about the kingdom in several scenes (developing Luke 17:21; Hos 6:6).

Early in Monty Python’s Life of Brian, Brian and others misunderstand Jesus’s Beatitudes because they are at the back of the crowd. Later, Brian hides from pursuing Romans among various apocalyptic prophets. His spontaneous remarks utilize words from Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, without acknowledgment (Matt 6:28; 7:1). Has Brian replaced Jesus, or are these words simply part of the tradition’s cultural deposit? At its most basic level, the cinematic Jesus deposit focuses on teaching about love and nonviolence. (The Greatest Story Ever Told can even put part of 1 Cor 13 in Jesus’s mouth.) No movie except The Gospel according to St. Matthew deviates from this message.


Jesus movies also create story by utilizing novelistic and cinematic patterns. Heroic conflict and romance are most basic, but Jesus’s divinity, nonviolence, and asexuality make these patterns difficult to realize. The Passion of the Christ does, however, depict Jesus manfully as an action hero, and Jesus Christ Superstar and The Last Temptation of Christ do struggle with Jesus’s sexuality (see also The Da Vinci Code).

Typically, the Jesus movies enact the tropes by developing characters around Jesus. Intolerance, The Ten Commandments (1923), Civilization, the religious epics of the 1930s and 1950s, Jesus of Montreal, and The Mill & the Cross all take this approach. A cameo appearance of Jesus becomes the center around which stories of conversion and degradation swirl (Walsh, 2003, pp. 21–43).

The movies’ Mary is a different story. She figures prominently because of the infancy materials (e.g., in The Nativity Story) and because of her Roman Catholic roles as intercessor and co-sufferer/co-redeemer. In The King of Kings, Mary prayerfully leads a blind girl and the audience to their first glimpse of Jesus. Mary’s suffering with Jesus is prominent in The Passion of the Christ (see also The Gospel according to St. Matthew). But Mary and other women take their most important place in Son of Man’s protesting community.

In the movie tradition, Son of Man is significant for its emphasis on Jesus’s community, rather than on Jesus as a lone hero (compare Godspell), and for its positive portrayal of women as active, social agents, in contrast to the patriarchy elsewhere dominant in the tradition. The other most positive portrayals of women include Alice Guy’s La vie du Christ, From the Manger to the Cross, for which Gene Gauntier wrote the script and played Mary, and Jesus Christ Superstar, whose Mary Magdalene is more Earth Mother than reformed sinner and Jesus’s most intimate companion, if not “wife” (compare the Gospel of Mary; The Da Vinci Code).

Unlike the Gospels’ Mary Magdelenes, she of the Jesus movies is typically a repentant prostitute. The Last Temptation of Christ, perhaps the most patriarchal Jesus movie, gives her life of prostitution the most screen time. The King of Kings provides her most dramatic conversion as Jesus exorcizes the seven deadly sins from her via camera effects. The movies also often cast her as the woman taken in adultery (King of Kings, The Greatest Story Ever Told, The Last Temptation of Christ, The Passion of the Christ, Son of Man). In another non-Gospel transformation, the Magdalene is the anointing woman in The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ, The Greatest Story Ever Told, Jesus Christ Superstar, Jesus of Nazareth, The Jesus Story, The Miracle Maker, and Son of Man.

Jesus of Nazareth develops the individual apostles, who connect the faithful with the story, more completely than any other movie. King of Kings’s Lucius provides access to the nonviolent, nonpolitical Jesus for an imperial audience, and The Greatest Story Ever Told ’s Lazarus connects consumers with a rather aworldly Jesus.

Sympathetic developments of Judas also allow audiences to negotiate their distance from the Jesus story. Judas also helps explain why Jesus was crucified, provides a helpful, failed foil for an unwavering hero, and helps explain why Christianity supersedes Judaism (see Walsh, 2010). Some movies depict the greedy (From the Manger to the Cross, Der Galiläer, The King of Kings) or demonic Judas of the Gospels (The Jesus Film, The Passion of the Christ). Dupery (Jesus of Nazareth) and child abuse (Son of Man) also play roles in explaining Judas’s behavior. Despite his political language, the Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar grapples most extensively with his (Christian) fate. The Passion of the Christ offers the most horrific view of Judas’s demonic possession. More modern, understandable Judases occur as movies provide him with political agendas, whether revolutionary (King of Kings, The Last Temptation of Christ, The Miracle Maker, Son of Man) or conservative (Jesus Christ Superstar, Jesus of Nazareth). The most sympathetic Judas occurs in The Last Temptation of Christ, the buddy without whom Jesus could not accomplish his destiny. Intriguingly, the Judas of Son of Man betrays Jesus by videotaping him—a rare, self-critical comment within the Jesus movie tradition.

The name “Judas” for the betrayer unfortunately carries anti-Semitic suggestions. Showing some sensitivity to this issue, Jesus movies create characters to shift the blame for Jesus’s death away from the Jewish people. The King of Kings foists the blame onto Caiaphas. The Greatest Story Ever Told creates the Dark Hermit (a satan figure) and Sorak as the prime schemers. Jesus of Nazareth places Zerah in a similar role. Jesus creates instead the Roman Livio, who connives with Pilate to manipulate Jesus’s crucifixion. Nonetheless, the ultimate problematic remains: Jesus is so divine that his opposition can only be demonically evil (see Gibson’s Satan).

Common and Rare Gospel Incidents.

The crucifixion is the Gospel event appearing most commonly. Some version of Jesus’s last words normally accompanies it. The Last Supper, the garden prayer, Judas’s betrayal, the trial before Pilate, and the Via Dolorosa are also quite standard. The scourging and Peter’s denial are common; the Jewish trial, the release of Barabbas, and the deposition slightly less common. Resurrection appearances occur only about half of the time.

Healings are the most common scene from Jesus’s ministry. The specific miracle appearing most often is Lazarus’s resurrection, but the triumph and Temple event are more common. Apart from Jesus’s infancy and resurrection, nature miracles are incredibly rare, appearing less than a third of the time. The transfiguration and the cursed fig tree are among the rarest events.

The baptism, temptation, and call of the disciples appear about half of the time. Infancy materials are less common. The story of the woman taken in adultery is more popular than any event in the ministry other than healings. The story of the anointing woman appears only about a third of the time.

Selections from the Sermon, Johannine “I ams,” and Jesus’s promise to be with his followers are the most common teachings. Of the parables, the Parable of the Sower appears most often. The Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son appear only about one-sixth of the time.

Individual movies also have notable omissions. The King of Kings, for example, has no baptism scene. The blind girl’s restored sight is its opening epiphany. No temptation occurs in Jesus of Nazareth. King of Kings lacks the Temple cleansing and a Jewish trial. Godspell has no Jewish or Roman trial. Despite claims to reprise Luke, The Jesus Film has no appearance before Herod Antipas. (For more details, see Staley and Walsh, 2007, pp. 175–188; Tatum, 2012, pp. 311–314.)

Dominant Gospel Motifs.

If one thinks of the movies’ use of the Gospels as a whole, the most common approach is the selective, harmonizing use of the canonical Gospels. Jesus of Nazareth incorporates the most incidents. Although using little Jesus material, Intolerance’s crosscutting between four different stories displays the style of the harmony approach most clearly.

Jesus movies rely most heavily upon John and Matthew. They are the only two Gospels in the Visual Bible series. The Gospel according to St. Matthew is the most compelling movie relying on one Gospel, followed closely by Godspell ’s “Broadway” adaptation of Matthew. Both movies do turn to John for incidental elements.

Godspell ’s use of Lukan parables takes it further from Matthew and gives the movie a more Lukan character. King of Kings’s focus on the Romans and on history gives it a different kind of Lukan “feel.” While The Jesus Film claims to be based on Luke, its overall tone is an evangelistic use of John 3:16 (and 11:25–36). The Gospel of John and From the Manger to the Cross also foreground John 3:16.

The Greatest Story Ever Told opens with a visual interpretation of John’s prologue (compare The Gospel of John). The most common use of John, however, is the movies’ reliance on the Johannine motif of Jesus as the light of the world, both in various visuals (see From the Manger to the Cross, Intolerance’s finale, and The King of Kings) and in Jesus’s Johannine “I am” language. Perhaps cinema’s own reliance on projected light forms a synergy here.

Of the Gospels, Mark is least represented, although any movie having the Baptist to the Passion structure might be said to be Markan, as might any movie lacking resurrection appearances (e.g., Jesus Christ Superstar). Daniel’s “forsaken” world in Jesus of Montreal might also be read as a demythologizing of Mark (particularly of 15:34).

The early Passion Play movies Intolerance, Jesus Christ Superstar, Jesus of Montreal, and The Passion of the Christ place most emphasis on the Passion. While Jesus’s Passion is typically unique, some movies hallow the suffering of others by connecting it with Jesus’s suffering (e.g., Intolerance, Jesus of Montreal, Son of Man, Christ-figure movies). Other movies connect Jesus’s death with multiple Roman crucifixions (humorously in Monty Python’s Life of Brian). Son of Man also has a unique, repeated reliance on the slaughtered innocents for its plot and characterization.

Miracles and angels dominate The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ. Angels, seen almost exclusively by Jesus, appear throughout Son of Man. The King of Kings and The Miracle Maker proceed at least partly through the perspective of the healed.

By contrast, Judas provides the focus for Jesus Christ Superstar. Except for Judas’s song-and-dance resurrection, that movie also proceeds largely without providence, as both Jesus and Judas have questions for, not answers from, God. In a different way, the relationship between Jesus (spirit) and Judas (flesh) gives The Last Temptation of Christ its particular aura.

The Last Temptation of Christ also gives more attention to Jesus’s temptation than any other movie, offering two wilderness temptations in addition to the famous last fantasy sequence. Despite a greater focus on Jesus’s divinity, temptation (including Gethsemane) is also an important motif in The King of Kings, Jesus, and The Passion of the Christ.

The Sermon is the gospel heart of King of Kings. Various scenes with Roman officials reiterate its themes and continue its influence down to Jesus’s trial before Pilate. The parables are Godspell ’s essence (compare Parable). More philosophical teaching dominates Rossellini’s The Messiah.

The Gospel Truth.

Jesus movies present themselves as the gospel, not interpretations of the Gospels through various stylistic choices. First, the use of Christian art and worship patterns and forms familiarizes the movies for their audiences. Second, the harmony approach ignores Gospel differences and, therefore, difficult questions about the Gospels’ truth(s). Third, the attempt at historical realism encourages audiences to think that what they see is what happened. Fourth, the employment of biopic patterns—and the name of Jesus—lead audiences to see the story as the true life of Jesus (as The Jesus Film advertised itself). Finally, the use of familiar scripture translations as the titles in silent movies, the use of similar language in talkies, and rather heavy-handed voiceovers often give Jesus movies their own “word of God” aura.

Movies that deviate from these stylistic choices appear fictional. Thus, despite the fact that The Gospel according to St. Matthew is actually closer to Matthew than Jesus of Nazareth is to any Gospel, it is the former that seems odd to many audiences. Again, Son of Man calls attention to itself by placing its Jesus in a modern context, not a historically realistic one.

Some movies deliberately highlight the question of interpretation, as Jesus of Montreal does as its protagonist researches Jesus and as the movie highlights various interpretations of Jesus. Monty Python’s Life of Brian and Jesus Christ Superstar call attention to the importance of followers, not providence, in the making of messiahs. La ricotta and Monty Python’s Life of Brian deliberately expose the mechanics of Jesus movies.

The Gospel of Jesus Movies.

Movies employing “gospel truth” techniques tend to function mythically. They provide the gospel of and for their society. The gospel of Jesus movies (generally) presumes a materialist, individualistic world, which is rationally understood and organized. Like cinematic horror, these movies must admit the possibility of “mystery,” but it must not threaten existing social or scientific order. The spiritual is a purely religious, private matter. In the United States, the spiritual exists apart from and even in opposition to institutions (see Stigmata). It provides a (temporary) escape, a safety valve for unsolvable frustrations, and hopes of personal immortality.

The Jesus movies hallow their audiences’ status quo and call them to be good citizens. Like the novel, the movies assume individuals are subjective, self-expressive selves and that their good lies in being true to and expressing these inner selves. Individuals who cannot be true to themselves are pathetically weak (like the Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ). Those restricting the free choices of others are evil (see, e.g., the garden dialogue between Jesus and Satan in Jesus). Being true to oneself will empower and fulfill the self and ultimately lead to (apocalyptic) triumph (see Walsh, 2003, pp. 173–185). The goal is always a better, more prosperous life in this world. It is not clear that the Jesus movies often provide assistance in valuing ordinary work, in dealing with anomie and tragedy, in respecting the other, in community building, and in transcending cultural captivity.

Parabolic Jesus movies raise questions about the finality of this movie gospel, but they are rare. Jesus movies calling attention to interpretation do have parabolic potential. Jesus movies calling for social change are also candidates for reflection about the goodness of the status quo (e.g., Intolerance, The Gospel according to St. Matthew, Son of Man). Jesus movies that challenge the hero’s triumph (e.g., those that make the Resurrection ambiguous) or the hero’s sole efficacy (e.g., Monty Python’s Life of Brian, Son of Man) are also potentially subversive. Son of Man’s focus on women’s active social agency, countering a rather patriarchal movie tradition, makes it particularly noteworthy, as does its presentation of a non-European Jesus. The latter might allow European and American audiences the possibility of envisioning a Jesus that does not belong to them (Walsh et al., 2013).




  • Bryant, M. Darrol. “Cinema, Religion, and Popular Culture.” In Religion in Film, edited by John R. May and Michael Bird, pp. 101–114. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1982. Discusses watching film as a ritual supporting technological society.
  • Jasper, David. “On Systematizing the Unsystematic: A Response.” In Explorations in Theology and Film: Movies and Meaning, edited by Clive Marsh and Gaye Ortiz, pp. 235–244. Oxford: Blackwell, 1997. Critiques religious scholars’ readings of films for failing to realize that filmmakers craft their films to allow as many readings as possible.
  • Reinhartz, Adele. Jesus of Hollywood. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. Reads the movies as biopics, offers extensive discussions of significant characters, and deals with the problems of history and historical realism.
  • Staley, Jeffrey L., and Richard Walsh. Jesus, the Gospels, and Cinematic Imagination: A Handbook to Jesus on DVD. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 2007. Provides a resource for classroom use and research and the most detailed listing of the movies’ Gospel incidents.
  • Stern, Richard C., Clayton N. Jefford, and Guerric DeBona. Savior on the Silver Screen. New York: Paulist, 1999. Critiques the docetism of Jesus movies and discusses the various movies’ specific cultural locations helpfully.
  • Tatum, W. Barnes. Jesus at the Movies: A Guide to the First Hundred Years. 3d ed. Salem, Ore.: Polebridge, 2012. Surveys the various religious and critical responses to movies in their own day and offers a helpful comparison of the harmony and alternative approach to the Gospels.
  • Walsh, Richard. Reading the Gospels in the Dark: Portrayals of Jesus in Film. Harrisburg, Pa.: Trinity Press International, 2003. Reads a movie and a Gospel intertextually (e.g., Jesus of Montreal and Mark), discusses the American Jesus of Jesus movies, and explores the possibility of parabolic movies.
  • Walsh, Richard. Three Versions of Judas. London: Equinox, 2010. Uses Borges’s “Three Versions of Judas” as a lens on the interpretation of Judas. Discusses the Christian myth-making transpiring in Judas and the recent trends toward horror in religious film.
  • Walsh, Richard, Jeffrey L. Staley, and Adele Reinhartz, eds. Son of Man: An African Jesus Film. Sheffield, U.K.: Sheffield Phoenix, 2013. A collection of essays situating the film in its African context and in the Jesus movie tradition, which involves several critiques of the Hollywood Jesus. See particularly the discussion of the global Jesus by Middleton and Plate. Aichele’s discussion of the Gospel, the Jesus story everyone knows, is also helpful.
  • Wood, Michael. America in the Movies. 2d ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 1989. Depicts epic films as spectacular consumption and replays of American revolution.

Further Reading

  • Babington, Bruce, and Peter William Evans. Biblical Epics: Sacred Narrative in the Hollywood Cinema. Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press, 1993. Discusses the religious epic in terms of secularity, Cold War, gender, desire, and law and order. Also critiques their “great man” view of history.
  • Baugh, Lloyd. Imaging the Divine: Jesus and Christ-Figures in Film. Kansas City: Sheed & Ward, 1997. Treats the Jesus movies helpfully as cinema. Critiques them for faulty depictions of the incarnation and, therefore, touts Christ-figure films.
  • Cosandy, Roland, André Gaudreault, and Tom Gunning, eds. Un Invention Du Diable?? Sainte-Foy, Quebec: Presses de l’Université Laval, 1992. Helpful collection of essays on the early days of religion in film.
  • Custen, George F. Bio/Pics: How Hollywood Constructed Public History. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1992. Discusses the biopic and its influence on the Hollywood understanding of history.
  • Deacy, Christopher. Screen Christologies: Redemption and the Medium of Film. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2001. Critiques escapist films theologically and praises film noir, including The Last Temptation of Christ, for depicting a broken world that leads one to possibilities of redemption.
  • Delueze, Gilles. Cinema 1: The Movement Image. Translated by Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997. Discusses different editing (montage) styles and their creation of various films’ unifying ideas.
  • Forshey, Gerald E. American Religious and Biblical Spectaculars. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1992. Discusses religious epics in terms of national identity, rationality (scientific worldview and miracle), and ethics in a pluralist society.
  • Grace, Pamela. The Religious Film: Christianity and the Hagiopic. Chichester, U.K.: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009. Argues that religious films are hagiopics, not biopics, because of their emphasis on divine visions/missions and on miracles.
  • Gunning, Tom. D. W. Griffith and the Origins of American Narrative Film: The Early Years at Biograph. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994. Discusses the development of camera techniques, still used in movies, to narrate.
  • Humphries-Brooks, Stevenson. Cinematic Savior: Hollywood’s Making of the American Christ. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2006. Depicts the Jesus of the movies as a projection of American self-identity.
  • Kreitzer, Larry J. The New Testament in Fiction and Film: On Reversing the Hermeneutical Flow. Sheffield, U.K.: Sheffield Academic Press, 1993. One of his several works (with similar titles) using fiction and film to cast biblical materials into a new light.
  • Miles, Margaret. Seeing and Believing: Religion and Values in the Movies. Boston: Beacon, 1996. Argues that movies fail to function like icons as pathways to the sacred but that their repeated patterns function mythically (see Roland Barthes).
  • Plate, S. Brent. Religion and Film: Cinema and the Re-creation of the World. London: Wallflower, 2009.
  • Reinhartz, Adele, ed. Bible and Cinema: Fifty Key Films. London: Routledge, 2013. Includes essays by various authors on important Jesus films and their use of the Bible.
  • Schrader, Paul. Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dryer. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972. Critiques the sentimentalism of the biblical epics, claiming that they fail to make the sacred available, and finds that possibility in the austere style of the named directors.
  • Sobchack, Vivian. “Embodying Transcendence: On the Literal, the Material, and the Cinematic Sublime.” Material Religion 4, no. 2 (July 2008): 194–203. Discusses varying depictions of the sacred in film in a fashion that goes beyond Schrader’s dependence on Eliade.
  • Swindell, Anthony. Reworking the Bible: The Literary Reception-History of Fourteen Biblical Stories. Sheffield, U.K.: Sheffield Phoenix, 2010. Discusses fictional transformations of the Jesus story by looking at the changes made by altering narrator, setting, etc.

Richard G. Walsh