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Jesus’ Passion in the Movies

So, once my students have done a comparative study of the accounts of Jesus’ trial, death, and resurrection in the four Gospels, we then watch several clips of movies to see what directors do about the problems. How does a director handle the fact that each Gospel tells its own story, that the stories are different in many ways, and that in some instances there are discrepancies between the accounts (as laid out in yesterday’s post)?

The short answer is that sometimes directors follow one account instead of the others; and sometimes they create their *own* account out of the four by smashing them together (overlooking their differences) as if they are all saying the same thing.

For this exercise I do *not* have my students watch Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ, for two reasons: (1) I am showing them only clips of Jesus movies – those portions that present the Passion narratives – whereas Gibson’s movie is *entirely* about the passion; and I have only an hour to show what I do show, not several hours and (2) well, I don’t much like the film (I’ll explain why in tomorrow’s post).

The film clips on the passion that I show are

  • The 1925 silent Ben Hur
  • The 1959 Ben Hur (Charleston Heston)
  • The 1965 Greatest Story Ever Told
  • The 1977 Zephirelli made-for-TV mini-series Jesus of Nazareth.


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The Gospel according to Mel
My Jesus Class and … Destroying Christianity?



  1. Avatar
    Sblake1  October 17, 2013

    Speaking of movie stars doing cameos – or even major parts – one of the things I love the best about “Jesus of Nazareth” is that it is a who’s who of great movie stars: Anne Bancroft, Ernest Borgnine, Stacy Keach, James Earl Jones (shortly before voicing Darth Vader) as Balthazar, Laurence Olivier, Christopher Plummer, Anthony Quinn, Ralph Richardson, Michael York and my favorites: Peter Ustinov as Herod the Great explaining to the Romans about the Messiah craze, the testy Pilate of Rod Steiger and then way before he was Bilbo Baggins – Ian Holm as the scribe Zerah, who is not a Biblical character but who is used to hold the Passion Narrative together – brilliantly I think – all that and he is sort of the bad guy (I think he deserved an Oscar for that performance).

  2. Avatar
    nichael  October 17, 2013

    One other candidate for the best off-the-wall cameo in a Jesus movie: Ernest Borgnine in the 1977 mini-series “Jesus of Nazareth” (Dr Ehrman, how many of your students remember “McHale’s Navy”?)

    In any case Borgnine plays “The Centurion” with great line “…I tell that one ‘Go’ and he goes; and I tell this one ‘Come’ and he comes.”

    (But to give Borgnine his due, I have to say that never quite “got” that line until I heard his rendition of it.)

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    toddfrederick  October 17, 2013

    I need to catch up on your last two blogs but have a question about this one, and then, in the context of “Killing Jesus” … about books for popular reading.

    1. I think I asked this before but want to do so again since I don’t have an answer. There is considerable detailed material in all the Gospels concerning what Jesus said and what he did. Who was there, in each instance, to take notes and to retell accurately what he said and what happened? This is particularly significant regarding the trial and death of Jesus: he was arrested, he was taken to Jewish leaders, he was taken to Pilate, he was flogged, he was presented to the Jewish crowds, he was taken to the place of death and was executed. That is perhaps all we can say, if that. He may not have even been questioned by Pilate to the extent it is told in the Gospels.

    At his arrest he was with his disciples and they fled. As far as I know from reading the Gospels, no one from his group was with him when he was questioned by the Jewish authorities or when he was questioned by Pilate. There was no one there to record the events of his carrying the cross or his execution, except perhaps the women of his group.

    Who was there even to remember all that was said and done, and there was a lot that was said during the Passion event? That question has never been answered to my satisfaction. I’m not sure it ever will and I do not have an answer except: it was made up, perhaps from bits and pieces of “oral tradition” and nothing more, if that. It could have just come from the liturgical life of the early church based on hearsay.

    What do you think? ***Where did the Gospel writers get their hard data?**** (especially regarding the Passion).

    2. I like to read books that have solid historical and linguistic information about a non-fiction subject. I read “Zealot” and liked what I read (I thought it was a well presented point of view) but I won’t read “Killing Jesus” for the same reasons you gave….a waste of time and money.

    However, I’m a sucker for “coffee table” Picture Books, even if the text is rather dismal (by this I mean that I like books with good photography or well presented reproductions of historical art regardless of the text)

    I recently ordered, on trial, a new National Geographic book titled “In the Footsteps of Jesus.” The photographs and art reproductions are outstanding but I feared the worst regarding the text. I have skim-read much of the text and I am surprisingly pleased. The author, Jean-Pierre Isbouts (Whom I don’t know), does a good job presenting the story of Jesus objectively, the context within which he lived, the textual sources and contradictions quite well. He does not paint one picture of Jesus (blending the Gospels) but relates what all the authors say and presents them in a generalized “scholarly” way. If there is an issue regarding thorny subjects he will present the problem and will say that “This is an issue that biblical scholars debate.” In the “For Further Reading” he includes two of your books: “Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet…” and Lost Christianities….” 😀

    I just hope the average churchgoer who buys this book will read it. You might want to look at it if you have a chance. At least the photography is good !!

    I very recently

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 18, 2013

      Nope, no one was taking notes. These are *stories* invented in the process of telling and retelling.

  4. Avatar
    haoleboy26  October 17, 2013

    I hope that you will similarly share your thoughts with us about the other films you discuss. I was 9 when Jesus Christ Superstar was released as a movie, and it deeply affected me. In many respects, Ted Neely is to me Jesus (saw him perform the role three times in the last 25 years); way better than Sebastian Bach.

  5. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  October 18, 2013

    You are right, I have never heard of “Jesus of Montreal.” I look forward to your comments about “Passion of the Christ.”

  6. Avatar
    JoeWallack  October 18, 2013

    “As we watch the films I comment on them”

    Ahh, Gospel Mysteries Theater. Of course the biggest discrepancy in the Resurrection narratives is between “Mark” and “Mark”. “Mark” has 16:9-20 which is a High Light reel of the other Gospels and Acts while “Mark” goes black after 16:8 just like The Sopranos ending.

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    maxhirez  October 18, 2013

    Ever considered throwing in “Godspell?” For my money it’s a more imaginative (if lower production value) execution of the material than the Weber musical. Also the music is so quintessentially hippie. I almost hate myself for loving it.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 18, 2013

      Yeah, I did it one year. But I simply don’t like it that well. Some period pieces — like Superstar — maintain their high quality over time; others, like Godspell, don’t (for me)….

  8. Avatar
    Scott F  October 18, 2013

    How much can we take the approaches that movie directors take in dealing with multiple sources (or just one as Mark Goodacre points out was done in the movie entitled “The Gospel According to St. Matthew”) as a clue to to what the evangelists might have done?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 18, 2013

      Yup, everyone who writes his/her own Gospel does something kinda like that — even the oldest Gospel writers.

  9. Avatar
    donmax  October 18, 2013

    Sorry for the interruption, but….I’ve been rereading your Self-Scrutiny posting this morning and would like to add my two-cents worth to the discussion. From what I can tell, member input has been very good, in some cases Five Star material. No doubt many of the suggestions will prove useful in winning your war against attrition.

    So here’s what I think:

    The operative word is WE. Jesus could not do it alone and neither can you.

    If, as you say, membership goes up with broad interest-controversial postings, then give the customers what they want. Don’t just ask people to spread the word, make it worth their while. Give them discounts for making referrals and give the referred discounts, too. And by all means, give renewals *discounts.* In other words, create multi-level memberships, with options! Platinum Level comes to mind (from Dennis), Diamond Level, too, with perks. Even some advertising. (There’s all sorts of ways to accomplish this, by length of time at initial sign up, by family plans and other group packaging, by access to special features, or what have you.)

    No need to worry about a lack of substance. You exude scholarly substance, so go with glitter.

    Review and take advantage of the best of what’s available on line. Use/borrow from other blogs. I happen to like the Taborblog, ASOR, and Disquis, but there’s lots more to choose from, including things from Twitter and Facebook.

    As I noted before, make your blog *our blog* by adding horizontal connections to the vertical.

    You definitely need navigational tools to make the site more user friendly, with some sort of “indexing reservoir” for benign browsing and for topical focus – a smorgasbord of appetizing categories. To spice things up you might include an issues-orientated section with headings and questions for the more opinionated proselytizers among us.

    Last of all, for now, I would suggest that you reread and carefully digest the input received from everyone who has taken the trouble to express what they like and don’t like. From what I can tell, these folks mean well and know whereof they speak. So give them your undivided attention and your feedback. It could pay dividends! 

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    FrankJay71  October 18, 2013

    I hate to get off topic, but since you mentioned Jesus of Montreal I had to Wikipedia it. In their article they mention the notion of Jesus being the illegitimate offspring of a Roman soldier, and implied that it’s backed by legitimate “academics” and “research.” I’ve always assumed the story of the soldier Panderas fathering Jesus was just an anti Christian rumor. Is there any validity to this theory? Obviously you don’t believe in the virgin birth, but I don’t recall from any of your books, that I read, who you believe fathered Jesus.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 18, 2013

      Nope, it’s just a later attack on Jesus’ parentage. I may say something about it in a post.

  11. Avatar
    dennis  October 18, 2013

    Bart , an idea that keeps surfacing in my aged brain as I read these posts is the discrepancies in the New Testament were simply not regarded as a problem during the 12 years of Catholic education my sainted parents paid for in my youth . Mathew and Luke’s Christmas narratives were both read at Christmas and Christmas Eve Mass and nobody batted an eye that they did not perfectly match . My Religion class instructors would sometimes say something like ” now Mathew reports this differently … ” and nobody ran screaming from the room . Maybe it”s the Sola Scriptorum insistence in some Protestant denominations that the Bible is , and ought to be , the only source of spiritual authority that leads to the brittleness of ” faith ” that I have witnessed over the years . If a parent’s 12 child is dying slowly from Cystic Fibrosis ( not a made up example ) and he decides this God stuff is all bullshit , that’s one thing ; I ( and I’m sure God ) can well understand , but to undergo a spiritual crisis because two Gospel authors can’t agree on where Jesus was taken after his birth ? Aw Com’on !

  12. Avatar
    Alfred  October 19, 2013

    Bart have you thought of adding ‘Jesus Christ: Superstar’ to your list?

  13. Robertus
    Robertus  October 23, 2013

    Maybe in a few hundred thousand years, when we’ve colonized Mars and Io, Jesus Christ Superstar will be added to the canon.

  14. Avatar
    luigi  March 2, 2018

    What about the recent “Risen”? Seems very realistic, except for the occasional slip. As a botanist I find the floristic anachronisms (eg recently introduced plants) particularly annoying.

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