‘Risen’ Movie Releases Today and Should Be Viewed as Fiction, Even by Christians

Today, the new movie, Risen, hits theaters. It stars Joseph Fiennes as one of two Roman soldiers dispatched by Pontius Pilate to find the recently crucified (now missing!) Jesus of Nazareth. In a previous article it was mentioned that the film is already being treated like a documentary by some Christians.Whether or not the film actually lives up to its stated goal of being the “biblical story of the resurrection, as seen through the eyes a nonbeliever” is not my concern here. What I would like to address is the film’s tagline; which is proudly displayed on marketing posters and cardboard advertisements, and boldly reads: Witness the Manhunt That Changed the Course of Human History.
It’s this claim (that a manhunt was launched that changed the course of history) that I would like to deconstruct/turn a critical eye toward in this article.

risenFirst, witness. Are viewers actually going to witness the footage of a manhunt? No; this is a fictionalized portrayal by Hollywood of a fictional event. There was not some archeological dig that discovered an ancient film reel of Roman soldiers searching for a missing person in 33 A.D. So to be clear, the only witnessing a viewer of Risen will have done is the witnessing of a 21st century film, created by Hollywood, for the express purpose of entertainment and propagating religious mythology.

Second, manhunt. This fictional portrayal is to be of a supposed manhunt for the missing body of Jesus of Nazareth. In what remains I intend to set to rest the fallacious idea that there ever was such a manhunt; thus showing that this film is nothing more than a fictional tale that is based on an even older fiction. Recent work by historians has shown that the idea of a manhunt for the missing body of Jesus most certainly did not happen. For there to have been a manhunt there had to be a missing body. For there to have been a missing body there had to be a living body in the first place. Both assumptions (a living body then gone missing) stand on rather shaky ground.

crucifixion risenJesus of Nazareth, if he ever existed, was supposedly crucified by the Romans and then placed in a tomb which was then found empty three days later. But modern Biblical scholar Bart Ehrman has shown that it was improbable that Jesus would have been buried after crucifixion. “What normally happened to a criminal’s body”, says Ehrman, “is that it was left to decompose and serve as food for scavenging animals” (Ehrman, How Jesus Became God). Quoting a conservative Christian commentator Martin Hengel, he says that, “Crucifixion was aggravated further by the fact that quite often its victims were never buried. It was a stereotyped picture that the crucified victim served as food for wild animals and birds of prey. In this way his humiliation was made complete.” In short, the evidence shows that what normally happened to the body of a crucified person was for it to be left on the cross to be slowly decomposed and eaten by animals as part of the punishment.

“But,” the apologist will say, “the gospels claim that an exception was made in Jesus’ case.” Yes, this is the claim made by the gospels, and Ehrman admits that exceptions were indeed made; but this was certainly not the norm, and would only have occurred as a favor to an elite family on or around a Roman holiday such as the Emperor’s birthday. And Jesus’ family was certainly not in the “elite” category. On top of that, the gospels do not even make the claim that it was Jesus’ family that wanted the body; instead they make the even more improbable claim that it was a non-family member of the Sanhedrin. So based on common crucifixion practice, and who the Romans were likely to bestow favors on, we can conclude that it is highly unlikely that Jesus’ body ever left the cross (unless by way of scavenger’s mouth). Historically speaking, we simply “don’t know what happened to the body of Jesus” after crucifixion. And we certainly can’t know whether or not a tomb was discovered as empty because we don’t know whether there even was a tomb in the first place!

This prior discussion about what happened to the crucified body is itself built on an assumption; namely, that Jesus actually existed in the first place. A growing body of research, led by Richard Carrier, is showing that this assumption actually has a very low probability of being true. At best (for the apologist) Jesus actually existed and was crucified (but decayed on the cross), and at worst, he never existed in the first place. So the idea of a manhunt for the missing Jesus almost certainly never happened. And if the manhunt never happened, then it could not have changed the course of human history.

Risen is nothing more than a fictional film based on an even older fiction (that Jesus existed and was then crucified and buried). Any Biblical scholar, historian, or half-way intelligent human being can easily conclude that there is not a shred of truth to the claims this film tries to pull over the viewers’ eyes. Fortunately, free speech protects the rights of the filmmakers to spread their deception; but it also gives us the opportunity to speak out, critiquing and calling out this film for what it is — nothing more than a fictional tale built on the back of an even older fictional tale.

About Matt Young

Matt grew up in a conservative, evangelical, Christian home. After high school, he served in the U.S. Army, got married, and is now father of two toddlers (both boys). He is completing a B.A. in Philosophy from Houghton College, and plans to do graduate work in the field. Though he was raised as a Christian, he no longer believes in any gods, and self-identifies as atheist and secular humanist.

You can find more from him on his personal blog, www.TheHumanGadfly.com and connect via Twitter and Facebook.

  • meunger88@gmail.com

    It’s not a “fictional story” and u choose not to believe. of course you view the movie this way. So why review it at all..

    • Deanjay1962

      So, what’s the evidence for a manhunt? It certainly isn’t mentioned in the Bible.

      • David Thomas

        Exactly!

    • David Thomas

      Your comment demonstrates the need to review this movie; there is a fiction going around that this movie is not fiction, that it is a way to “watch the manhunt that changed human history”. You are right that I choose not to believe; I choose not to believe in the bodily resurrection of a crucified man because there is no evidence for such an event. If someone produced evidence I would gladly reconsider my position, but until then, the default position is to disbelieve. This is, I can only assume, your position on the death and resurrection of other supposed deities such as Osiris and Zalmoxis?

    • Ken

      Jesus was buried in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathaea Mary’s uncle who was a tin trader I believe from England. There are songs sung about Jesus being a boy of 12 or 13 years old helping to build the first church in Glasdonburry England. And did those feet in ancient time,

      Walk upon England’s mountains green?

      • Matt Young

        Of course he was. Now we just need the evidence!

  • https://www.facebook.com/app_scoped_user_id/1024054152/ Ron Ventola

    When I read the account of Superman’s parents in Krypton packing off their precious little bundle and sending him off into space, I was glad for the tyke. It is clear that he landed in a field and was raised by foster parents. His foster parents were there to tell us all about it. I was confused, however, when I realized that the accounts of the planet Krypton, of Superbaby’s parents, etc.,must have been made up because how could the baby know all that? Only THEN did I realize that the whole story was probably baloney. I’m more careful now.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/secularvoices Kevin Davis

      The difference here is that, 1, the movie studio for Superman didn’t make suggestions that the story was based on reality, and 2, the target audience of Superman wasn’t elevating it like it were a documentary.

  • http://Facebook Barbara Crowe

    David Thomas?You have a right to your opinion and to state it in print. We could debate ev e ry point you make but the old adage “a man convinced against his will, is of the same opinion still”,is a t work here. I am sorry you have lost your faith but to continue to Hide this fact on a Christian campus is a sign of cowardice. Your atheism has no honor. T h at alone disqualifies your opinions for me.

  • Eric C. Sanders

    Ossa on Pelion…

    • David Thomas

      Care to elaborate?