I attended a free showing of Son of God, sponsored by Seattle’s Mars Hill church. They bought out three screens, and they encouraged their membership to attend and bring an unbeliever. The gospel story may be as good an occasion as any to evangelize, but I can’t imagine any unbeliever hearing much that was new.
Though the movie ended with the Great Commission and I was wearing my “Atheist: I believe in you!” t-shirt, I wasn’t able to tempt any Christians.
Beach Boy Jesus
The movie was based on the recent 10-part miniseries, The Bible. Jesus was played by Diogo Morgado, a 6′ 3″ model from Portugal. I suspect that a Jew from 2000 years ago would have looked substantially browner, shorter, and less gorgeous.
Megyn Kelly from Fox News got into this debate last Christmas when she said, “Jesus was a white man, too … he’s a historical figure—that’s a verifiable fact, as is Santa.” Assuming she’s talking about St. Nicholas, the 4th-century bishop from Lycia (now Turkey), “Santa” probably wasn’t white either.
This is a feel-good movie for Christians, with plenty of agony to make them appreciate Jesus’s sacrifice (which doesn’t do much for me, BTW). While atheists may find many individual elements of the gospel story that are new to them, very few Americans aren’t familiar with the Jesus story.
The main plot shows Pilate the Roman governor and Caiaphas the high priest trying to keep order in the prelude to the Passover. Interwoven is Jesus preaching, but much of this devolves into familiar but out-of-context platitudes. For example, in one vignette we get “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” and then “Love your neighbor.” In like manner the obligatory John 3:16 was shoehorned in somewhere.
How do you make a Jesus movie?
In the late second century, church father Tatian harmonized the four gospels into the Diatessaron, a big, fat amalgam of the four gospels. Though the Diatessaron did not become popular, Christian apologists today often harmonize conflicting passages in a similar way by arguing that they’re all true.
That struggle was evident with this movie. We would see a story element from one gospel, but then this would highlight the absence of the conflicting version from another gospel. For example, we see Mary and Joseph early in the story with baby Jesus and the Luke nativity story (which doesn’t have magi) combined with the Matthew nativity story (which doesn’t have shepherds).
Mary reappears later in the story, but this conflicts with Mark, which makes clear that Jesus’s family thinks that he’s crazy. According to Mark, his family is not a part of his adult ministry.
On Palm Sunday, Jesus rides triumphantly into Jerusalem on a donkey, but this conflicts with Matthew, which says he rode on two donkeys.
Jesus next cleanses the temple of money changers, but this conflicts with John, who has the cleansing of the temple at the beginning of the ministry.
During the crucifixion, we see the darkness and earthquake from Matthew, but Matthew’s zombie apocalypse is omitted.
Jesus preaches for 40 days after his resurrection, but this conflicts with Luke, which has him return to heaven after just one day.
The gross part
The movie was rated PG-13 for “intense and bloody depiction of The Crucifixion, and for some sequences of violence.” I’m sure Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ was much worse, but this was pretty gruesome. And that’s a conflict, too. The movie takes the flogging and crown of thorns from Mark, but Luke and John have no flogging and a placid Jesus, who seems to be more concerned about those around him than about his own pain.
It’s impossible to tell a Jesus story that respects all of the gospels.
- John the disciple is our story teller, and appearances of him as an old man on Patmos bookends the movie (yes, I know that these may not be the same guy). He says that all the other disciples died as martyrs, which isn’t true.
- When Jesus realizes at the Last Supper that he is to die a painful death, it comes as a shock. This makes sense of his plea to God, “may this cup be taken from me,” but this conflicts with the omniscient Jesus according to John, who knew things from the beginning of time.
- The story is completely Jewish, and it ends with Peter carrying on the tradition of Jesus. The fact that the gospels were written within a Greek context (not Aramaic) and that nothing of Paul is included isn’t mentioned. This makes for a simpler though less complete story.
- The Obama-Satan was cut from the movie (I suppose the scene would be Satan’s tempting of Jesus).
- When Pilate asked who he should release from prison, I had a hard time not channeling Monty Python’s Pilate from Life of Brian and shouting out (with an Elmer Fudd speech problem), “Welease Wodewick!”
The movie ends with Jesus assuring John that he’s coming soon. No, I’m afraid that didn’t happen, either.
Many false prophets have gone out into the world.
— 1 John 4:1
Photo credit: Christian Film Database