Hollywood’s Top 10 Jesus Movies of All Time

Part 3 of Top 10 Jesus Movies—3 final picks to surprise you!

Part 1: Our first 3 in Top 10 Jesus Movies—some surprising choices.
Part 2: Picks 4-7 in Top 10 Jesus Movies add show biz and a Canadian take on Jesus.

Number 8: JESUS (CBS-produced miniseries)

Not Rated. Available on DVD from Amazon.
Sometimes referred to as “Jesus: the Miniseries,” this two-part film introduces as much fictional material into the life of Christ as does The Greatest Story Ever Told or King of Kings. The additions aren’t for lavish spectacle, but for exploration of ideas. I often call this the Peacemaker’s Jesus, because of a dramatic scene in which Jesus argues with Barabbas while the latter holds a dagger at the throat of a captured Roman soldier. Jesus pleads with the rebel that violence is not the answer to the Roman occupation, while the latter cynically disparages any idea of loving an enemy. The film captures the humor and playfulness of Jesus at times, and also moves Mary and Mary Magdalene more to center stage than in the written gospels. After the Resurrected Christ leaves, it is Mary who gathers the disciples in a football-like huddle urging them to carry on. Another extraordinary touch is the depiction of Satan, attired like a Mafia don, twice attempting Jesus to turn away from the cross by showing him how through the coming centuries his name will be used by his followers to support their slaughter of one another.


Rated R. Now available in a Criterion Collection DVD, including a commentary by Scorsese.
Of all the films on this Top 10 list, Martin Scorsese’s film set a record for the most passionate attacks by fundamentalists. The film is based on a novel by Nikos Kazantzakis who also wrote Zorba the Greek, which was turned into a beloved Hollywood film. The Last Temptation is set in ancient Palestine, but is really a Jesus-transfigured film, not purely a “life of Jesus.” The author states this in his novel—and the film also includes the note—explaining that this is not the gospels’ story, but one emphasizing Jesus’ humanity by suggesting the question, “What might happen had Jesus refused to accept his divine calling and had given in to the ‘last temptation,’ to avoid the cross?” Thus Jesus is depicted as a Jewish carpenter, engaged to Mary Magdalene, who struggles against God’s call, in one scene falling to the ground in agony and screaming to God to leave him alone. Only at the end of the film do we learn that Jesus’ climbing down from the cross and going off to marry and raise a family was actually a dream. Where else, in Christian art or film, have we ever seen a Jesus smiling as he dies? It is a smile of relief. He has remained faithful to the call of God after all.


Rated R. Available in DVD from Amazon. And, available in Blu-ray as well.
When the final film in my Top 10 debuted in theaters, roles reversed! This time, evangelicals embraced Mel Gibson’s film so strongly that it became a box office phenomenon. Those opposed objected to the extreme violence that made several scenes almost unwatchable, especially the scourging of Christ. Foes of the film also raised the question of anti-Semitism with initial criticism coming from major groups such as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Anti-Defamation League. Still another objection was that, by focusing on events in the last few hours of Jesus’ life, Gibson did not provide the context of Jesus’ years of ministry—so audiences weren’t shown why Jesus’ enemies hated him so much. I have studied the film carefully and place it in the centuries-long tradition of fine arts emphasizing Jesus’ physical suffering, including the Grünewald late-medieval Crucifixions and the Spanish tradition of focusing upon the blood of Christ. I think the anti-Semitism charge is largely refuted by the long scourging scene: It is the Romans who whip Jesus, almost gleefully, whereas it is the priests who are sickened and turn away. The violence is no doubt overdone; Gibson cut about six minutes of the scourging scene in the film’s re-release. Also, in careful viewing, I counted 13 flashback scenes, even though many were quite short, reaching back to show us Jesus’ life and ministry. Although this admittedly is a controversial choice, I end my Top 10 with Gibson’s film. There’s no question that, if you want to spark spirited responses in your class or small group, take a look at films 9 and 10 on this list—and you’ll have no shortage of discussion!

EDWARD McNULTY, whose doctor of ministry degree was a study of how Jesus has been portrayed by artists through the ages (“From the Catacombs to the Silver Screen: the Changing Images of Jesus”), is a Presbyterian minister who reviews films at visualparables.net.

Care to read more from Edward McNulty?
Consider these books,
collecting dozens of his reflections on movies that you can read for fun and inspiration—or use to spark spirited small-group discussion.

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(Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online journal covering religion and cultural diversity.)

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