Christians aren’t the only ones who hold Jesus in high esteem. Muslims do too, though they have radically different beliefs about him — and at least one movie has actually tried to dramatize those beliefs the same way other Bible movies have dramatized their own filmmakers’ beliefs.

But wait… is it right to call Jesus, the Spirit of God, an Iranian film produced in 2007, a “Bible movie”? Is not much of the film based on the Koran and other post-biblical sources, such as the late-medieval document known as the Gospel of Barnabas, rather than on the Bible itself?

Well, yes, the film is based on those other documents, but I’d still say it counts as a “Bible movie” on some level, inasmuch as many of its narrative elements can be traced back through those sources to the Bible itself. If we can accept Ben-Hur, which was based on a novel, or The Passion of the Christ, which was based on the visions of a 19th-century nun, as “Bible movies” because they contain elements that go back to the scriptures, then we can certainly put this film under the same broad umbrella.


The Los Angeles Times had a brand-new item last week on Jesus, the Spirit of God, the Iranian film that depicts the life of Jesus from a Muslim point of view — including the belief that it was someone else, possibly Judas, who was crucified and not Jesus himself.

The Times story is accompanied by the video below:
Click here if the video file above doesn’t play properly.

Some of the more interesting details to emerge in this story include:

There is another irony. The actor who plays Jesus, Ahmad Soleimani-Nia, once was a soldier in the Iranian army and later a welder for Iran’s Atomic Energy Agency, which the Bush administration accuses of pursuing nuclear weapons. Such footnotes don’t seem odd when talking with Talebzadeh, who has kept Nia in Jesus character — flowing hair, beard, mystic pose — for seven years because he never knows when he might shoot new sequences for the film.

The actor has kept a pose for seven years!?

The rough, choppily edited $5-million film, condensed from a 1,000-minute-long series that will soon air on Iranian TV, reveres Jesus as a blessed prophet speaking parables and moving through soft light and angelic chants amid a ruckus of zealots and conspiring Pharisees.

A thousand minutes!! That’s, like, almost 17 hours. I guess that’s not too impossible, though, considering it’s about the length of 22 hour-long TV episodes without the commercials — in other words, the length of a typical North American TV season.

MAY 5 UPDATE: Matt Page notes that director Nader Talebzadeh “seems more evangelistic in this piece than previous articles have suggested.” He also notes that Times reporter Jeffrey Fleishman posted a brief item about the film at the newspaper’s blog.

A few days ago, ABC News posted its own story on Jesus, the Spirit of God, the Iranian film and mini-series that tells the story of Jesus from a Muslim point of view. The story is a Q&A; with director Nader Talebzadeh, who reveals that the film is based partly on sources other than the Bible and the Koran:

LS: So, when it comes to Jesus, the message and the reverence are there.

NT: Yes.

LS: But the virgin birth, the crucifixion…

NT: The virgin birth was the same. The difference in the Koran, God says Jesus was saved. Instead of having him hung and crucified, the person who betrayed Jesus was crucified. This is how the Koran sees it, through the Gospel of Barnabas.

LS: So, you gave the alternate ending.

NT: Yes, two endings. I thought, the Christians, when they see it, it’ll be important for them. [In the Koran] God says, emphatically, he was not crucified. Somebody was crucified in his stead. In the Gospel of Barnabas, there are explications of this. The majority of [Muslims] say the one who betrayed Jesus [was crucified]. . . .

LS: What is your hope for the movie?

NT: The film is an excuse to sit down and talk. Iran is so consistently demonized. Once an American visits Iran, they know it’s a different story. So, how do we export our thinking? It’s the movies. This is a film for students and for practicing Christians, for people to become curious, and go investigate more.

My hope for the movie was, and is, and will be, to make people think about how God sees the prophets, how God talks about Jesus in the Koran. What was the main message of Jesus? And what was censored out of history? Part of the message of Jesus was censored out, which was the coming of the next prophets.

If you listen to what Jesus said, Jesus talked about the Prophet Mohammad, many, many times. And it was eliminated in the Gospels and the Bibles that [made it through] history. In 325, the Council of Nice was out to destroy all the other Gospels. One of those Gospels was the Gospel of Barnabas, which I used in great detail.

LS: And what did that say that was left out?

NT: It had a lot of sermons of Jesus that you do not see in the Bible; miracles, and at least a hundred references to the Prophet Mohammad, about his coming. It’s one of the biggest censorships of history. So, I thought somebody should say this, and then others might disagree, say, “Ahhh, this could not be! This is blasphemy!” But it’s OK — this is the 21st century. It’s time for information. It’s time for communication. They can go check it out.

The ABC News story is accompanied by a one-minute video, which also states that “there are actually two endings to the movie: one from the Christian Bible, and one from the Koran.” What this means, exactly, I am not sure. Is the film being released in two versions, each with a different ending? Or does the standard version of the film show one ending and then rewind to an earlier point in the story and show an entirely different ending?

As for the Gospel of Barnabas, I know very little about it, but if the article at Wikipedia is correct, it would seem to be a forgery created at some point in the 1500s, with perhaps some earlier materials blended in. So, colour me skeptical.

Then again, this wouldn’t be the first film to “enhance” a biblical story with non-canonical material taken from medieval or modern texts; just think of the Catholic mystics whose visions were dramatized by Mel Gibson in The Passion of the Christ (2004).

APR 5 UPDATE: Matt Page has discovered a month-old CNN video that includes several clips from this film, including the scene where Judas is transformed so that he looks like Jesus.

Two days ago, I linked to an article at on Jesus, the Spirit of God, an Iranian production that just might be the first film to tell the story of Jesus from the Muslim point of view. Curiously, that article seems to be gone now, though you can still read the 196 comments that were posted in response to the article.

But never mind; in addition to the sections I quoted here two days ago, Variety now has its own story on the film. Some excerpts:

LONDON — Fresh from tackling World War II and the Holocaust in local blockbuster “Zero Degree Turn,” (Variety, June 6, 2007), Iran’s state broadcaster IRIB (Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting) is turning to religion as the subject of a pair of big budget skeins.

First up is the $5 million “Jesus, Spirit of God,” helmed by Nader Talebzadeh, which recounts the life of Jesus Christ through Muslim eyes.

Muslims believe that Jesus was a prophet and the spirit of God, as the pic’s title states, although not the son of God as stated in Christian theocracy.

Brief aside: “Theocracy“? Not “theology“? Considering the article is about Iran, that may be a Freudian slip of sorts. Anyhoo:

IRIB’s production and sales arm Cima Media Intl. (CMI) is handling the project, which will be released as both a 100-minute feature and a 20-episode TV skein to be aired later this year.

The abridged theatrical version of the project bowed in Tehran cinemas last year, where it garnered a moderate reception from Iranian auds more used to commercial laffers, romances and war pics.

Talebzadeh even hand-delivered a copy of the film to Mel Gibson’s mansion in Malibu last year. The Iranian was met by the security guards who promised to deliver the film to “The Passion of the Christ” helmer although Talebzadeh never heard back from Gibson.

“It is important to show our history before the Islamic revolution,” said CMI managing director Mohammed Reza Abbasian. “These episodes of religious history and Iranian history are very popular with Iranian audiences. We want to show the opinions of Islam toward the prophet. This story came from the Koran without any changes. You could call it Jesus through Islam’s lens.”

Talebzadeh’s film is a faithful adaptation of the life of Jesus — who is depicted with flowing blond hair and fair skin — familiar to Western auds with one notable exception. Where films such as “The Passion” went to great lengths to re-create the crucifixion of Jesus, Talebzadeh’s film sees Jesus saved from the cross by God and taken straight to heaven.

The article then concludes with this interesting revelation:

CMI execs have even bigger plans for their follow-up skein, a $20 million version of the life of Joseph and his multi-colored coat, helmed by Farajollah Salahshoor, that is set to be one of Iran’s biggest-budget productions ever.

The costly skein could be described as a passion project for its producers, as they will have little chance to ever recoup their money back from foreign sales.

“We have tried to sell it to Arab TV stations, but they say that they cannot show the face of the prophets, and, at the same time, it’s not good for European TV,” said Abbasian. “The Iranian government is spending its money on the project, but it wasn’t supposed to cost this much.

“When you start a project you say it will cost $2 million, but we wanted to film this on 35mm not video so it’s become more expensive. We can’t stop the project now. We have to spend more money so we can save the money we already spent. Next time, though, we will film with HD or Digi-Beta.”

It’s interesting that these presumably Shi’ite filmmakers would be tackling the story of Joseph next — and having trouble selling their film to presumably Sunni TV stations that say they cannot show the faces of the prophets — since another movie inspired by the story of Joseph was produced in Egypt over a dozen years ago and became very controversial, even though it changed all the names and was directed by a non-Muslim. It was called The Emigrant, and I wrote about it here — in a blog post about the controversy over another non-Muslim’s efforts to make a movie about Jesus in his native Egypt. (I wonder what ever became of that project?) posted an article over the weekend about an Iranian Muslim life-of-Jesus movie — and it sounds like this may be one of the two films I wrote about here over a year ago. Jesus, the Spirit of God is directed by Nader Talebzadeh, whose name also appears on the website for The Messiah — and while Talebzadeh says he made the film to emphasize the “common ground” between Christians and Muslims, he also goes on to say that his film shows how Christians got the story “wrong”:

A director who shares the ideas of Iran’s hardline president has produced what he says is the first film giving an Islamic view of Jesus Christ, in a bid to show the “common ground” between Muslims and Christians.

Nader Talebzadeh sees his movie, “Jesus, the Spirit of God,” as an Islamic answer to Western productions like Mel Gibson’s 2004 blockbuster “The Passion of the Christ,” which he praised as admirable but quite simply “wrong”.

“Gibson’s film is a very good film. I mean that it is a well-crafted movie but the story is wrong — it was not like that,” he said, referring to two key differences: Islam sees Jesus as a prophet, not the son of God, and does not believe he was crucified. . . .

Even in Iran, “Jesus, The Spirit of God” had a low-key reception, playing to moderate audiences in five Tehran cinemas during the holy month of Ramadan, in October.

The film, funded by state broadcasting, faded off the billboards but is far from dead, about to be recycled in a major 20 episode spin-off to be broadcast over state-run national television this year. . . .

The director is also keen to emphasise the links between Jesus and one of the most important figures in Shiite Islam, the Imam Mahdi, said to have disappeared 12 centuries ago but whose “return” to earth has been a key tenet of the Ahmadinejad presidency. . . .

The bulk of “Jesus, the Spirit of God”, which won an award at the 2007 Religion Today Film Festival in Italy, faithfully follows the traditional tale of Jesus as recounted in the New Testament Gospels, a narrative reproduced in the Koran and accepted by Muslims.

But in Talebzadeh’s movie, God saves Jesus, depicted as a fair-complexioned man with long hair and a beard, from crucifixion and takes him straight to heaven.

“It is frankly said in the Koran that the person who was crucified was not Jesus” but Judas, one of the 12 Apostles and the one the Bible holds betrayed Jesus to the Romans, he said. In his film, it is Judas who is crucified. . . .

Shiite Muslims, the majority in Iran, believe Jesus will accompany the Imam Mahdi when he reappears in a future apocalypse to save the world.

And Talebzadeh said the TV version of his film will further explore the links between Jesus and the Mahdi — whose return Ahmadinejad has said his government, which came to power in 2005, is working to hasten.

Shiites believe the Mahdi’s reappearance will usher in a new era of peace and harmony.

“We Muslims pray for the ‘Return’ (of Imam Mahdi) and Jesus is part of the return and the end of time,” Talebzadeh said.

“Should we, as artists, stand idle until that time? Don’t we have to make an effort?”

These last paragraphs get me wondering: Does Muslim pop culture have the equivalent of Thief in the Night, The Omega Code, Left Behind and other Christian end-times movies?

(Hat tip to Anthony Sacramone at First Things.)

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