Craig Detweiler Reviews Paul Verhoeven’s “Jesus of Nazareth”

{Paul Verhoeven. Jesus of Nazareth. Seven Stories Press 2010. 304 pages. $23.95}

Reviewed by Craig Detweiler

Imagine this movie trailer:  from the director of ”Showgirls” and “Basic Instinct” comes his most revealing project yet—“RoboJesus.”   One might expect such a seemingly absurd tagline from provocative Danish filmmaker, Paul Verhoeven.    Instead, Verhoeven has written a smart, rigorous and accessible book about Jesus of Nazareth.   While rooted in scientific skepticism, Verhoeven also adds a storyteller’s appreciation for Jesus’ subversive parables.

In 1986, Paul Verhoeven joined the Biblical scholars gathered for the Jesus Seminar with the idea of making a movie.  He was surprised that during the process, “I had become more interested in Jesus himself than making a movie about him.”   While Verhoeven occasionally indulges in the rhetoric equivalent of his Starship Troopers (like following a discussion of how Nazis viewed Hitler as a god, with a discussion of how we’ve inflated the legend around Jesus), his investigation of Jesus of Nazareth is utterly sincere.   On MTV, Verhoeven even claimed his violent RoboCop is actually “about a guy that gets crucified after 50 minutes, then is resurrected in the next 50 minutes and then is like the super-cop of the world, but is also a Jesus figure as he walks over water at the end.”   While marketers may pitch Jesus of Nazareth as controversial, it is a remarkably respectful and even admiring exploration of the historicity of Jesus.    Instead of “RoboChrist,” we get “Jesus the Man,” separated from the supernatural.

This rigorous work draws upon the work of Bible scholars like Edward Schillebeeckx, Robert W. Funk, Jane Schabert and D. Adolf Julicher.   It includes sixty pages of footnotes and a ten-page bibliography.   Clearly, Verhoeven has done his homework.    As a trained mathematician, he applies a scientific and cinematic test to the Gospel accounts, “If I think the scene could only be shot by manipulating the images or using special effects—I don’t believe it happened.”   Like the Jesus Seminar, Verhoeven wants to separate Jesus from layers of spin added by early church fathers.    Much of Verhoeven’s skepticism towards the Gospels comes from their dramatic throughline.   As a filmmaker, he understands how to sequence a story for maximum emotional impact.   He sees Matthew, Mark, Luke and John adopting cinematic plot devices and storytelling tricks.

Jesus of Nazareth begins with personal confessions.   As a teenager in The Hague, Verhoeven was fascinated with black magic, UFO, and the Bible.  He saw each as a form of occultism.   At age 27, Verhoeven’s girlfriend (and later wife), Martine, got pregnant.   He feared the unplanned pregnancy would jeopardize a budding film career.   Amidst this emotional crisis, Verhoeven was invited to a Pentecostal church that featured ecstatic worship and speaking in tongues.   While the worshippers were praying, Verhoeven felt the Holy Spirit descend upon him.  He recalls, “It was an intense, physical sensation as if a laser beam was boring into my head.   My heart also seemed to be on fire….Jesus was in that room.  I could feel his presence.”    Only in retrospect did Verhoeven decide his tears were triggered by manipulative music.   Martine eventually aborted the baby.   Verhoeven concludes, “I would like to believe in a divine Jesus, but my rational mind won’t let me.”

Yet, Verhoeven also departs from the Jesus Seminar in significant ways.   He affirms church leaders’ exclusion of the Gnostic Gospels of Mary Magdalene or Judas from the canon.    He doesn’t think Jesus ever had a sexual relationship with Mary Magdalene.   Rather than seeing Jesus as a Cynic, Verhoeven views him as genuinely anticipating the arrival of the kingdom of God.   Jesus turned the wrathful message of John the Baptist into a hopeful anticipation of God’s inclusive kingdom.   As a director, he admires Jesus’ attention to behavior in parables like the Good Samaritan.   He considers Jesus a model storyteller, better even than the Gospel writers’ suggest.    Verhoeven’s experience with credit grabbing producers in Hollywood adds another layer of insight to Jesus’ parable of the dishonest manager in Luke 16:1-15.

So what draws Verhoeven to study the scriptures in such detail?   He demonstrates a profound commitment to getting the narrative right.  As a filmmaker, Verhoeven wants to understand the motivation behind Jesus’ moves—when and why did he travel to a new town?   He tries to reconstruct timelines, suggesting that Jesus’ triumphal, palm-laden entry to Jerusalem makes more sense at Sukkot, the Jewish festival of palm-covered tabernacles rather than Passover.      For his movie, Verhoeven would crosscut Jesus’ entry to coincide with Pilate’s; a dramatic contrast and political commentary.

In Jesus of Nazareth, Verhoeven uncovers a seditious rebel whose edges were softened by subsequent church leaders.   He reads the rather favorable Gospel portrait of Pontius Pilate as an effort to soften Roman religious persecution of Christians.   Verhoeven sees “Render unto Caesar” as a rejection of Roman authority rather than a call to pay your taxes.   Verhoeven even compares Jesus’ retreats to the wilderness to Che Guevara’s flights to the jungle.

For all his skepticism, Verhoeven still believes that, “Jesus actually did cure people of blindness, deafness, certain symptoms of paralysis, and even psoriasis.”  But as a rebel leader on the run, Jesus followed such healings with directions to keep it a secret.   On screen, he would portray Jesus as frothing at the mouth in his violent wrestling with demons.   Verhoeven also notes how Jesus follows powerful exorcisms by retreating to prayer.   He concludes that Jesus must have been surprised and drained by his dramatic breakthroughs.   Verhoeven does not see healings as brought about by “the finger of God,” but rather “the charismatic power of Jesus’ belief in the imminence of God’s kingdom.”

He suggests the Gospel writers’ masked politically dangerous truths by over-painting them with miracles.   The feeding of the 5000 was just a memorable food giveaway by the fishing Apostles.  The Garden of Gethsemane was not a moment of Christ-like resolve, but a moment of defeat rooted in divine silence.  Jesus asks God for protection and gets arrested instead.  Verhoeven sees Jesus’ naïve faith in the kingdom as a tragic flaw.

Verhoeven reconstructs Passion Week according to his own logic.   He finds the accounts of Jesus’ arrest unreliable, concluding that the disciples were not there—they were not eyewitnesses.   Verhoeven suggests that Jesus was crucified beside his fellow captured rebels.   And the resurrection?   In two scant pages, he concludes that the post-resurrection voice of Jesus, “Peace be with you,” bears almost no resemblance to the fiery rebel leader who died on a cross.   Verhoeven’s Jesus of Nazareth concludes with a whimper rather than a bang.

Paul Verhoeven comes across as an active seeker, hungry for harmony amongst the Gospels.   His devotion to studying the Bible challenges and humbles dedicated Christians.   Verhoeven marvels that Jesus’ mistaken understanding of the imminent kingdom of God could inspire “the most significant ethical revival of the past two thousand years.”   I encourage Verhoeven to try and solve that riddle.   That’s a film I’d like to see.

RELATED:

Interview with Paul Verhoeven about “Jesus of Nazareth”

Filmmaker Craig Detweiler directs the Center for Entertainment, Media and Culture at Pepperdine University.   His latest book is Halos and Avatars:  Playing Video Games with God.

About David Charles

David Charles joined Patheos in September 2008. Since then, he has helped shape the structure and content of the site and has led partnership development with a wide range of academic and religious organizations.

David was educated in Switzerland, England, and the United States. He holds advanced degrees in religious studies from Oxford and Harvard Universities. His academic training spans a number of disciplines and fields of study, including anthropology, literature, and history. He is the recipient of a teaching award from Harvard.


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