Jesus — The Mini-Series

CBS, May 14 and 17, 2000

Review by W. Barnes Tatum

From The Fourth R
Volume 13-4
July-August 2000

Jesus at the MoviesSomething about the Easter season brings Jesus out of the vaults and projects him onto television screens. One recent viewing opportunity occurred in mid-May with the debut of the four-hour mini-series on CBS straightforwardly named Jesus.*

This film stands in the cinematic tradition of Jesus of Nazareth that first aired in this country on the NBC network, on Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday evenings, April 3 and 10, in 1977. Both the current film and its six-hour predecessor presuppose original screenplays that harmonize the diverse presentations of Jesus found in all four canonical gospels. Both films were shot in Morocco, at least in part. Both represent initiatives by Italian production companies, which then collaborated with international partners. Both turned to the Anglo-American world for actors to play the title roles. American actor Jeremy Sisto played Jesus; and British actor Robert Powell, Jesus of Nazareth.

Like all previous Jesus-films, Jesus confronts the viewer with what I have described as the problem of the cinematic Jesus. This problem can be expressed as a question: To what extent is this film about Jesus not only cinematically interesting, but literarily sensitive to the gospel sources, historically probable, and theologically satisfying?

Cinematic Dimension

Viewers turning on their television sets and expecting to see a recognizable Jesus story have their expectations immediately challenged. Even before the title frame, three brief sequences depict cruelty wrought over the centuries “in the name of Jesus Christ:” mounted crusaders charging with drawn swords; the burning of a heretic; modern trench warfare. The viewer soon discovers that these images occur in Jesus’ mind as he dreams about what will subsequently result from, or in spite of, his appearing in the first century. This flash-forward technique is later used in two imaginative encounters between Jesus and Satan, with Satan alternatively depicted as a smarmy guy in a designer suit or a beautiful woman in red.

The attention-getting opening continues through a tightly edited-series of sequences that establish the social setting for the Jesus story as well as the family context for Jesus’ life. Rome rules. Jews are a subject people. Pontius Pilate arrives as Tiberius’ representative in Judea. Both Herod Antipas and Caiaphas serve at the pleasure of Rome. The arbitrariness and guile of Roman rule become evident; and the issues of taxation and expropriation of property emerge as points of ongoing conflict.

Jesus himself comes from a tightly knit family threesome that includes his mother Mary and his adoptive father Joseph, but no siblings. Their extended family includes as blood relatives Lazarus, his sisters Mary and Martha, and John the Baptizer. The flash-back technique is used to communicate information about the stupendous events related to Jesus’ birth and childhood.

Thus, in this Jesus story, Jesus and his immediate family have been aware of his divine origin and his supernatural powers for as long as they can remember. Based on this premise, the story that unfolds has coherence — and a few surprises in the power brokerage among Pilate, Caiaphas, and Herod. The dramatic conflict centers around Jesus’ non-violent mission as God’s Son and Messiah who has appeared on the world stage, in an age of messiahs and violence, to die for humankind. By contrast, Barabbas embodies the zealot option of armed resistance to Rome; and zealot sympathies appear on the lips of many, including Judas. But, ironically, it is the peace-loving Jesus who suffers death through the machinations of the official peacekeepers.

In the telling of this Jesus story, the filmmakers have created the character of Livio, Roman citizen and political insider, whose comment and presence facilitate the action throughout the film. They also highlight the relationship between Mary the mother of Jesus and Mary Magdalene in ways that reflect the later church’s contrast between the blessed virgin and the penitent prostitute. But in the film itself, Jesus verbally affirms Mary Magdalene to be a “disciple,” an affirmation consistent with recent scholarship.

The difficulty of creating dialogue for a Jesus film out of the scraps recorded in the gospels has long been noted. This film resolves the difficulty by imaginatively creating the give-and-take among the characters, including Jesus, even for those episodes that have some recognizable basis in the gospel texts. The film simply ignores the words of Jesus in the gospels; and when identifiable words do appear, they are woven into the fabric of the conversation.

But whatever its limitations, Jesus generally succeeds cinematically. The use of lighting for the indoor and nighttime scenes is particularly striking. The musical score supports the action unobtrusively.

Literary Dimension

Viewers of Jesus familiar with the Jesus story would have readily recognized scenes taken from the four gospels, although those viewers looking for exact replication of the gospel accounts will find abundant reasons to object. Among the episodes recreated the first evening are: the infancy (through flashbacks); the baptism by John and the testing by Satan; the changing of water into wine; the initial attraction of disciples (Andrew and John, then Peter and James); the healing of a cripple (through the manipulation of his leg); a visit to the house of Levi, the tax collector (also called Matthew); the dance of Salome and the execution of John; the woman taken in adultery (not Mary Magdalene); and the so-called cleansing of the temple.

On the latter occasion, Jesus utters his words about taxes, God, and Caesar, in the presence of Caiaphas and Livio. The second evening’s screening begins with a wonderfully innovative scene in which Livio, before Pilate, uses theatrical masks to act out the incident of Jesus in the temple.
The subsequent episodes include: the sermon on the mount (with good-humored hecklers); the selection of twelve apostles (like choosing sides for tag football followed by a huddle); walking on raging waters; the exorcism of the Canaanite woman’s daughter (off-camera); the raising of Lazarus from the dead; the entry into Jerusalem (with comment about Jesus’ making asses of Herod and Pilate); the last supper (da Vinci-style); withdrawal to the garden (where Satan reappears); the betrayal by Judas; the arrest without a skirmish; and a series of quasi-legal proceedings (before Caiaphas, Pontius Pilate, Herod Antipas, and back to Pilate); and the release of Barabbas (and Pilate’s obligatory hand-washing). The film moves toward its conclusion with the crucifixion (with three of Jesus’ seven last words); the deposition and burial (to the moving sounds of Sarah Brightman’s Pie Jesu); the discovery of the empty tomb (first by Mary Magdalene, then by Peter and John); and finally, the appearances (first to Mary Magdalene, then to others, including Thomas).

Lesser known texts also provide bases for scenes along the way. The Infancy Gospel of Thomas, not to be confused with the Sayings Gospel of Thomas, reports an occasion when Jesus at age five makes clay pigeons that he brings to life. Josephus, the first century Jewish historian, reports an incident when Pilate created controversy by bringing his Roman standards into Jerusalem. Contrary to the general tendency in the gospel passion accounts to portray Pontius Pilate as a man of keen conscience, the Gospel of Luke reports a saying by Jesus that refers to a moment when Pilate slaughtered Galilean pilgrims in the temple (Luke 13:1-5). So far as I am aware, this incident finds its way onto the screen for the first time, with the obvious intention of showing Pilate to be a man capable of brutal complicity.

Historical Dimension

Those viewers familiar with, and sympathetic to, the scholarly quest for the historical Jesus may well be disappointed in this particular cinematic portrayal. Much debate in recent life-of-Jesus research has revolved around two main options for understanding Jesus as a historical figure.
On the one hand, Jesus has been viewed as the eschatological prophet whose deeds and words anticipate God’s imminent restoration of Israel. Accordingly, this Jesus moves within the thought-world of Jewish apocalyptic expectation. E. P. Sanders, among others, has long been associated with this position.

On the other hand, Jesus has been viewed as a subversive sage whose words and deeds challenge the various social, economic, and religious boundaries that divide God’s people among themselves. Accordingly, this Jesus creatively adapts the Jewish wisdom tradition and expresses his distinctive voice through parables and aphorisms. The Jesus Seminar collectively, and many of its members individually, have been associated with this position.

However, in Jesus, the title character appears neither as the eschatological prophet nor as a subversive sage. He does not proclaim God’s coming “kingdom” when Israel will be restored nor does he teach God’s present “kingdom” through parables and aphorisms. In fact, in the film, there is very little use of Jesus’ sayings from the Synoptic Gospels. The expression “kingdom of God,” or “kingdom of heaven,” only occasionally finds its way onto Jesus’ lips. The sole parable told by Jesus, the parable of the treasure buried in the field (Matt 13:44), is interrupted by a commotion related to the woman caught in adultery.

These omissions become understandable with the recognition that the Gospel of John provides the narrative framework for this Jesus story as well as Jesus’ clear understanding of himself as the Son of God. After John baptizes Jesus, John publicly identifies Jesus as “the lamb of God” (chap. 1), a designation with which Jesus later identifies himself. Jesus’ first public act after his baptism involves the changing of water into wine (chap. 2); and his last public act before his final entry into Jerusalem involves the raising of Lazarus and the self-identification, “I am the resurrection and the life” (chap. 11). Jesus’ final interrogation before Pontius Pilate and the events related to the empty tomb and his post-resurrection appearances rely heavily on the Johannine account (chaps. 18-20). Since the Gospel of John has come to be viewed by scholars primarily as theology in narrative form, this reliance of Jesus upon the Gospel of John clearly points the viewer in the direction of the film’s theological import.

Theological Dimension

Perhaps the viewers who will have the greatest appreciation of Jesus are those who embrace “love” as the central theological and ethical category of the Christian story and who want to see within that story a fully human Jesus. This possibility leads us back to the portrayal of Jesus in the Gospel of John which opens with the claim that the divine Word has become flesh (1:1, 14).

Among the four canonical gospels, it is this fourth gospel that explicitly develops the theme of God’s condescending love: God so loved the world that he gave his Son (3:16). Jesus as God’s Son loved his own in the world until the end (13:1). Jesus gave to his disciples the “new commandment” that they love one another even as he loved them; and, by their love for one another, others will know them to be his disciples (13:34-35). Jesus goes on to point out that there is no greater love than dying for one’s friends (15:12-13). Also, in this gospel, we are told that Jesus loved Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha (11:3, 5); and there appear the enigmatic references to the so-called “beloved disciple” (13:23; 19:26; 20:2; 21:7, 20).

I consider this Johannine theme of love to be the subtext that often comes to the surface in the film on the lips of Jesus himself. But the second encounter between Jesus and Satan, in the garden on the night before his death, constitutes the theological center of the film that must be experienced, not just read about. Here the viewer is again confronted by flash-forwards of human inhumanity and overhears the dialogue between Satan and Jesus. Satan urges Jesus not to die in vain, since “killing for Christ will be big business through the centuries.” Jesus declares: “Through me, God will reveal his love for all mankind.” Later he affirms: ” I’m in the hearts of men. I will die for the everlasting kindness of the human heart created by the Father, so that man will make His image shine once again. And those who want to will find in me the strength to love until the end.”

Certainly, more than all its cinematic predecessors, this film goes out of its way to humanize Jesus. Not only does Jesus find himself attracted to Mary of Bethany, but he assists Joseph with carpentry work. He also loudly laments when Joseph dies, dances with verve, cries over the body of a slain Roman soldier, playfully swings children in the air, and engages his disciples in a water fight at a village well. And then there is the smile, although Jeremy Sisto’s smiling face as Jesus can become as predictable as those solemn faces that have preceded him in the role, including the face of Robert Powell as Jesus of Nazareth. But in Jesus, the words between Satan and Jesus in the garden abide even beyond the end.

*Other Jesus-films shown this spring on network and cable television — at least in the Greensboro, NC, market where I live — included The Miracle Maker (1999), with its animated life of Jesus on ABC, and Mary and Jesus (1999), with its more limited focus on the mother of Jesus on NBC. These films were joined by such standbys as The Robe (1953), Ben-Hur (both 1925 and 1959 versions), King of Kings (1961), Barabbas (1962), and The Last Temptation of Christ (1988).

W. Barnes Tatum is Professor of Religion and Philosophy at Greensboro College, Greensboro, NC. A long time Fellow of the Jesus Seminar, he is the author of Jesus at the Movies: A Guide to the First Hundred Years (Polebridge Press).

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