What drives the appeal of ‘Passion of the Christ’ and other films on the life of Jesus

Church isn’t the only place people go to learn about Jesus.

At the beginning of Lent, 15 years ago, devout evangelical Christians did not go to church to have ashes marked on their foreheads. Rather, they thronged to theaters to watch a decidedly Catholic film to begin the Lenten season.

That film was Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” which would go on to gross over US$600 million globally. It brought to screen a vivid portrayal of the last few hours of the life of Jesus and even today many can readily recall the brutality of those depictions. The film also stirred up a number of cultural clashes and raised questions about Christian anti-Semitism and what seemed to be a glorification of violence.

This wasn’t the only film to bring Jesus to cinema in such a powerful way. There have, in fact, been hundreds of films about Jesus produced around the world for over 100 years.

These films have prompted devotion and missionary outreach, just as they have challenged viewers’ assumptions of who the figure of Jesus really was.

From still images to moving images

For the last two decades, I have researched the portrayal of religious figures on screen. I have also looked at the ways in which audiences make their own spiritual meanings through the images of film.

Images of Jesus, or the Virgin Mary, have long been part of the Christian tradition. From amulets to icons, paintings to sculptures, Christianity incorporates a rich visual history, so perhaps it is not surprising that cinema has become a vital medium to display the life of Jesus.

Inventors of cinematic technologies, such as Thomas Edison and the Lumière brothers, were among the first to bring Jesus’s life to the big screen at the end of the 19th century. Hollywood continued to cash in on Christian audiences all through the 20th century.

In 1912, Sidney Olcott’s “From the Manger to the Cross” became the first feature length film to offer a full account of the life of Christ.

Fifteen years later, crowds flocked to see Cecil B. DeMille’s “The King of Kings”, demonstrating the power of a big budget and a well-known director. Writing about DeMille’s film some years later, film historian Charles Musser commented how the film evoked “Christ’s charisma” through “a mesmerizing repertoire of special effects, lighting and editing.”

In Hollywood’s portrayal, Jesus was a white, European man. In Nicholas Ray’s 1961 film, “King of Kings” Jeffrey Hunter made a deep impression on his audience in the role of Jesus with his piercing blue eyes. Four years later, George Stevens’s “The Greatest Story Ever Told”, cast the white Swedish actor Max von Sydow in the lead role.

Jesus, portrayed by Swedish actor Max von Sydow, moves through a mass of people in this scene filmed on May 1, 1963, at Pyramid Lake, Nevada, for AP Photo
In all these films, evidence of Jesus’s Jewish identity was toned down. Social or political messages found in the gospels – such as the political charge of a “kingdom of God” – were smoothed over. Jesus was portrayed as a spiritual savior figure while avoiding many of the socio-political controversies.

This was, as Biblical studies scholar Adele Reinhartz put it, not Jesus of Nazareth, but the creation of a “Jesus of Hollywood.”

Global moral instruction

Many of these films were useful for Christian missionary work.