Bible Battles from DeMille to Bart Ehrman and beyond

THIS WEEK, you’ll enjoy our spirited look at the way we’ve pushed and pulled the Bible through the centuries to aid us in times of crisis—and to discern the truth of the biblical message. Stay tuned all week, because you’ll find Bart Ehrman’s new book a great discussion starter in small groups. And we’ve got a few surprises in store before this series ends! Today, here’s Part 1 …


Mostly, DeMille’s epic with its big-haired Moses played by Anglo-American Charlton Heston has become the butt of jokes, right? If that’s your impression of this cultural milestone—you’re wrong! Certainly, there are plenty of jokes about Heston personally and about DeMille’s Hollywood-sized take on the Bible. But, to this day, the movie still has a loyal following! Check out the current ratings of this blockbuster on Amazon, where 393 out of 441 reviews of the film give it 4 or 5 stars. That’s a collective rave.

In our series of stories this week, we’ll go back and look at controversies in Bible scholarship centuries ago—and we’ll look at the future of Bible scholarship with best-selling author Bart Ehrman. Along the way, you’ll be surprised! And here’s the first surprise: Back at the height of the Cold War in the mid 1950s, when DeMille announced that he was producing this enormous project, even the venerable New York Times reported that Charlton Heston was the perfect choice for the starring role. Why? Because, the New York Times reported, Heston had a remarkable “physical resemblance to artists’ portraits and sketches” of Moses. The Times didn’t so much as suggest there might be a debate over Moses’ appearance.

Cecil B. DeMille, Charlton Heston, Civil Rights, the Cold War
and a battle “that continues through the world today”

It’s almost impossible to forget all we know about Charlton Heston’s controversial political stances, today, and it’s hard to remember all the campaigns that made up the civil rights movement and the Cold War. But let’s start with Heston himself. The actor who now is lampooned by Michael Moore and spent the final years of his life serving as a lightening rod for gun ownership—actually spent the 1950s as a firebrand for civil rights. Heston campaigned for both Adlai Stephenson and John F. Kennedy. He walked picket lines. He marched with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Washington D.C. in the early 1960s and was an early opponent of the Vietnam War. Sure, later on, he became an entrenched supporter of conservative causes. But his involvement with DeMille’s 1956 blockbuster, “The Ten Commandments,” was in keeping with his own passion for promoting diversity—a passion he shared with DeMille.

The film truly was an interfaith landmark, emphasizing how much Jews and Christians share in a common tradition. Of course, this was the height of the Cold War, so DeMille also was trying to contrast the lively diversity of religion in the West with the official atheism of the Soviet Union. But DeMille wasn’t merely tossing around slogans. His own research for this project showed him that Muslims also share in this religious heritage—and DeMille publicly talked about three faiths with common roots. That was striking in an era when the rest of America thought it was daring to talk about our “Judeo-Christian” connections.

In July 1955, the New York Times reported on DeMille’s attention to scholarship—and religious diversity—in developing the production. Here’s the opening of that story, from the Times’ archives, quoting DeMille himself: “There is no place for the usual fiction in a picture that deals with the interpretations and circumstances from which not one—but three!—of the world’s great religions have sprung,” said Cecil B. DeMille to his writers … “You may dramatize the scenes any way you wish, but whatever episodes you employ must be justified to me in terms of recognized authorities. You are to invent nothing out of your own talented imaginations.” He smiled and gestured in a Pharoah’s dismissal: “So let it be written, gentlemen! So let it be done!”

The movie opens in an unusual format: more than 10 minutes of overture, credits and a personal introduction from DeMille, who walks out onto a stage, stands in front of a curtain and directly addresses viewers. He tells us: Ladies and gentlemen, young and old, this may seem an unusual procedure speaking to you before the picture begins but we have an unusual subject: the story of the birth of freedom, the story of Moses. As many of you know, the holy Bible omits some 30 years of Moses’ life from the time he was a three-month-old baby and was found in the bullrushes by Bithiah the daughter of Pharoah and adopted into the court of Egypt, until he learned that he was Hebrew and killed the Egyptian. To fill in those missing years, we turn to ancient historians such as Philo and Josephus. Philo wrote at the time that Jesus of Nazareth walked the earth. And, Josephus wrote some 50 years later and watched the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans. These historians had access to documents long since destroyed or perhaps lost like the Dead Sea Scrolls. The theme of this picture is whether man ought to be ruled by God’s law or whether we are to be ruled by a dictator like Ramses. Are men the property of the State or are they free souls under God? This same battle continues throughout the world today. Our intention was not to create a story but to be worthy of the divinely inspired story created 3,000 years ago—the five books of Moses. The story takes 3 hours and 39 minutes to unfold. There will be an intermission. Thank you for your attention.

As DeMille leaves the stage, more titles roll that tell us this movie is “in accordance with Philo, Josephus, Eusebeus, the Midrash and the Holy Scriptures.” Along with the cast and crew, the opening titles cite a long list of scholars from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the Egyptian Department of Antiquities in Luxor, Egypt, the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago, and the Jewish Library in Los Angeles headed by Rabbi Rudolph Lupo. The credits close with this promise—long before Bruce Feiler’s best-selling series of books and videos on retracing the biblical patriarchs: “Those who see this motion picture produced and directed by Cecil B. DeMille will make a pilgrimage over the very ground that Moses trod more than 3,000 years ago.”

Quickly after the movie’s release, critics began throwing darts at the DeMille melodrama that forms the backbone of this epic, including careful attention to scantily clad dancing girls in Egypt and lots of tear-jerking romance in several sub-plots DeMille’s writers developed.

But, by 1957, the Times’ own esteemed critic Bosley Crowther published a report on the landmark that this movie represented—“despite its so-called corny qualities.” Crowther pointed out that an unprecedented level of interfaith support was helping to make the movie a runaway success, including field trips from Catholic and Jewish schools taking thousands of children to see the movie. Crowther concluded that what DeMille used in this film was a technique that—half a century later—you’ll find in any booming megachurch across America: DeMille retold the Bible story “through relationships and conflicts that almost anyone can grasp and understand.” This was a startling idea in 1955, worth pointing out in the Times analysis. To support this conclusion, Crowther said he especially liked the Exodus scenes that involved thousands of actors and non-actors who “humanize the drama” with their “herds of sheep, flocks of geese, the ubiquitous dogs, a mother having a baby in a wagon, an old person, a lost and weeping child.” Overall, Crowther told readers, this achievement by DeMille was a unique phenomenon “worth close study by those who are interested in mass appeals.”

NOTE: You can order the new boxed set of The Ten Commandments (Limited Edition Gift Set) (DVD/Blu-ray Combo) from Amazon. There are other new versions of the film on DVD and Blu-ray, but this link takes you to the boxed set with the clever parting-of-the-Red-Sea hinge that opens to reveal the disks enclosed in plastic 10 Commandment tablets (shown in the photo at right).

COME BACK TOMORROW for Part 2 in our week-long series on battles over the Bible in popular culture and scholarship.

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Originally published at, an online journal covering religion and cultural diversity.

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