The gospel according to film

Jesus at the Movies: A Guide to the First Hundred Years
By W. Barnes Tatum
Polebridge Press, 245 pp., $18

John Dominic Crossan, co-founder of the Jesus Seminar and one of the wittiest historians working today, began his landmark work The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant with the quip that historical Jesus scholarship had become something of a bad joke. The same could be said of that peculiar genre of films based on the life of Jesus, but for a very different reason.

Crossan was responding to the many competing and contradictory accounts of the life of Jesus that have been produced by modern historians. But moviegoers tend to be cynical for a very different reason. In their efforts to please as wide an audience as possible, filmmakers who tackle the gospels have tended to make Jesus a rather bland, anemic figure who has remained surprisingly constant and unchallenging over the years. Even revisionist films like The Last Temptation of Christ emphasize his weaknesses more than his strengths.

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