Jesus in Film: Hollywood Perspectives on the Jewishness of Jesus

  • Author(s): Adele Reinhartz
  • When: 1998-10
  • Where: Journal of Religion & Film
  • Jesus of Nazareth is arguably the most ubiquitous figure in western culture. From the first century to the present, he appears in thousands of literary, visual, and aural representations. As new media were developed, these too became vehicles through which to consider and reconsider the story, the characteristics, and the impact of this central figure. In our own era, it is the film medium which has made the most visible and popular contribution to the body of media representations of Jesus. Jesus movies are popular in two senses. First, they are directed primarily towards the general population, and hence tell the story in a way that is designed to appeal to and be comprehended by any viewers no matter what their background and education. Second, they receive broad circulation, in movie theaters, on television and on video.
    The cinematic portraits of Jesus differ considerably from one another, just as Jesus portraits have done from the very beginning of the Christian movement. The New Testament itself, which in one way or another is a source for these cinematic portraits, contains a large variety of such depictions, from the detailed narratives of four different gospels through the portraits implied by the epistles of Paul and his successors, and the book of Revelation. The variety of film depictions reflects a number of factors, including the individual proclivities of directors and producers, the specific purpose of each movie, broader social trends, and, to some degree, scholarly developments as well. One feature that these movies have in common is the assertion, either direct or indirect, of Jesus' Jewishness. That Jesus was a Jew might seem so obvious as to warrant little discussion. The New Testament sources are unanimous on this point; New Testament scholars are similarly convinced.2 But this unanimity is deceptive. The claim that Jesus was a Jew has a different content and significance within each of the Jesus portraits.
    The purpose of this article is to survey a number of Jesus movies with respect to the portrayal of Jesus' Jewishness. As a New Testament scholar, I am curious to see how these celluloid representations of Jesus compare to academic depictions. For this reason, I begin by presenting briefly three trends in current historical Jesus research that construct Jesus' Jewishness in different ways. As a Jewish New Testament scholar, however, my interest in this question is fuelled by a conviction that the cinematic representations of Jesus both reflect and also affect cultural perceptions of both Jesus and Judaism. My survey of the films will therefore also consider issues of reception, and specifically, the image of Jesus and Judaism that emerges from each.

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