Note: So I'm not going to get my "One Door Closes" review done tonight since this is the busiest week of the year for my profession. I'm working on it, and I'm pretty sure I'll be able to get it done tomorrow morning, so I'll try to get it published before noon tomorrow (no guarantees). Given that Sunday is Easter, I'm not going to be able to write any more articles this weekend, so all I'm doing for this weekend is the review. Next week I will get back to my regular schedule (though I will probably be flip-flopping the Daredevil and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. articles).
In the meantime, here is a review that I wrote earlier this week. This has nothing to do with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., the MCU, or even comics; this is a review of the Killing Jesus event that was on National Geographic Channel this past Sunday night. If you watched it and had questions about it, feel free to ask them in the comments.
Killing the Son of God: A Review of the Killing Jesus Miniseries
By Rev. Chris Vossler
Pastor, Trinity Lutheran Church, McFarland, KS
Killing Jesus is based on the book by Bill O’Reilly and tells the story of Jesus’ life, death, and ministry, from the Magi’s visitation until the immediate aftermath of His death. The focus of the book (and subsequently of the miniseries/event) is on the outside forces which conspired together to execute Him on a cross like a criminal. While it accurately portrays the outside Roman and Jewish forces and their reasons for desiring Jesus’ death, there are some very serious flaws in this miniseries.
Since this miniseries gives an overview of Jesus’ life and ministry drawn from Scripture, allow me to preface my review with a quick discussion of the Doctrine of Inspiration. First and foremost, we believe that the Bible is the inspired Word of God in all its parts—every verse of Scripture is “breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). This means that when you are quoting Scripture, it is still the Word of God, and still does what God intends it to do. However, the medium in which you quote Scripture is not itself inspired by God, and this holds true whether it is a book which upholds the Christian faith or one which denies it, and whether it is a movie which is extremely faithful to the source material (such as The Passion of the Christ) or one which is not (The Last Temptation of Jesus). In other words, the rest of the book or movie is not God’s Word, even though it quotes the Bible. Regardless of how “good” the movie or book is, it is not inspired by God. We need to keep this in mind whenever we are talking about something like Killing Jesus.
Having said that, in my opinion Killing Jesus provides an accurate representation of the human forces at work behind Jesus’ crucifixion. The Roman Governor, Pontius Pilate, is primarily interested in keeping order within Judea. If someone is speaking against Rome and gathering followers, then he will take an interest. If that person begins to cause riots, then he will have him arrested, tried, and—if convicted—executed. For his part, Herod Antipas was also interested in keeping order in his territory, but even more so in expanding his territory and gaining favor with Rome in hopes of being made “King of the Jews” as his father (Herod the Great) had been. If he could demonstrate his ability to rule and support Rome by executing a prophet, then he would. If he could prove to the people that he is a real king by not executing a false king, then he would not. The Sanhedrin’s primary concerns were with maintaining themselves, their temple, and their position, and anyone (especially an itinerant preacher) who threatened the status quo was a threat to them. However, they also had to think about their people, who would be hurt by a rebel leader bringing the fury of Rome down on them. Even Judas Iscariot’s motivations are accurately depicted in Killing Jesus: he is equal parts afraid of being killed and greedy.
However, Killing Jesus absolutely does NOT offer an accurate representation of the Jesus of Nazareth whom we know from the Gospels. In Killing Jesus, he is presented as a very human character: He denies his divinity to John the Baptist at the Jordan—provoking a vehement affirmation from John. After John’s arrest he decides that he “feels” that God is no longer calling him to “bring peace, but a sword.” When the temple guards come to arrest him in the temple, he appears to stop and leave not because it is not yet his time, but rather because he is afraid of the guards’ spears. It is not until he is at the Last Supper that Jesus finally comes out and says that he must be killed. Ultimately, though this miniseries does an excellent job of demonstrating Jesus’ humanity, it downplays his divinity to the point of virtually denying it. Consider some examples:
In the miniseries, there are only three miracles that we see: the miraculous catch of fish on the Sea of Galilee (in which Jesus and Peter sit quietly and pray until fish start showing up), the “casting out” of a demon from a boy (in which Jesus simply hugs the boy and tells him to stop struggling—nothing to indicate an actual exorcism taking place), and a second miraculous catch of fish—but more on that one later. Compare each of these depictions to the Biblical accounts (Luke 5:1-10, Matthew 17:15-18; John 21:1-11 respectively) and you will see the liberties taken, liberties which diminish the impact of the miracle to the point of denying its efficacy. The miniseries also alludes to other miracles which Jesus had performed—healing people, feeding crowds, and so on—but none of them are shown and they are always presented as hearsay. Now, the miniseries largely follows John’s Gospel, which is rather light on miracles, but John presents far more miracles, and more powerful miracles than the miniseries. In fact, the second-most-powerful miracle Jesus performed in John’s Gospel was completely absent: the raising of Lazarus. Lazarus himself receives a brief cameo, and Jesus even says his famous line (“I am the resurrection and the life”) at Lazarus’ house, but it loses its force because Lazarus is still alive. We don’t get to see the miracle which confirmed Jesus’ power over life and death.
At the Jordan River, Jesus is presented as having come because he heard from Aunt Elizabeth that John was there: Jesus was curious. John sees him and calls him the “Lamb of God,” a statement which catches Jesus off-guard. He and John talk further, and Jesus suddenly asks John to baptize him. When Jesus meets with Nicodemus, he says many of the same words we read in John 3 (the Biblical account of that event). However, he does not say the key words from that meeting: “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:14-16). Jesus has no concept of his all-atoning sacrifice! Later on, after John’s death, Jesus asks the disciples who people say that he is, and then who they think he is. When Peter stands up and says “You are the Anointed One, the Son of the Living God,” Jesus is taken aback and rendered speechless. When he finally speaks, he “feels” that it was revealed to Peter from on high. This is far different from the Jesus in Scripture, who knew from an early age—before he began his ministry—what he must do. Compare the baptism account from the miniseries to Matthew 3:13-17. In the Bible, Jesus knew exactly what he was doing at the River; his purpose was already clear before John started talking to him about visions in the wilderness. When he met with Nicodemus early in his ministry, it was clear to him—and he in turn made it clear to Nicodemus as well as all the disciples—that he must be “lifted up” to give eternal life to all who believe. When Peter announced Jesus to be the Christ, he wasn’t telling Jesus anything he didn’t already know; Jesus knew very well who he was and what he was sent to do—and even that Peter would make that confession! He didn’t bumble his way into a ministry.
It is not until the Last Supper that Jesus finally says anything about his impending death. The closest thing to a reference earlier in the series is his statement at the temple, “Destroy this temple, and I will rebuild it in three days. Destroy this marketplace!” In the Bible, that is a prophecy of his death and resurrection three days later; in the miniseries, it is a rallying cry as he is railing against the injustice and greed associated with the Jerusalem temple. This is far different from the Jesus in the Bible who knows what is coming and tells it to his disciples on at least a dozen different occasions. By contrast, the Jesus in this miniseries was caught off-guard until a couple weeks before it happened.
In looking at all the teachings of Jesus in the miniseries, a couple of things become clear. First, his teaching changes a couple of times: first he is teaching platitudes about love (damningly for the miniseries, when asked if he plans to live up to the ideal of “turn the other cheek,” this Jesus answers with “I will try… with every breath of every day.” The Biblical Jesus doesn’t need to “try” anything because he is the perfect Son of God!). Then after John’s arrest, Jesus decides that God doesn’t want him to preach love for a while, so he starts railing against the temple, calling for John’s release, and inciting a riot. Finally, after John’s death he decides he’s had enough with preaching violence and goes back to preaching about love. Reading through Jesus’ teachings in Scripture, however, you can see that while he teaches both love and repentance, he does both simultaneously, and he does not play the one against the other. Additionally, the Biblical teachings are much deeper and more profound than “turn the other cheek” and “destroy this marketplace.” The Biblical Jesus teaches that we must repent with our whole heart and keep the law perfectly; otherwise we cannot be saved. And then he turns around and promises that he will take on himself the penalty for our sins and give us his righteousness. This teaching is far more profound than anything any other teacher has ever taught. And without this at the heart of Jesus’ message, what is left is nothing but meaningless platitudes.
The second area in which this miniseries fell short is in the depiction of Biblical events, specifically God’s active involvement in Jesus’ life and ministry. Visions and dreams in which God speaks to a character are ignored or downplayed—in fact the only dreams shown are by Herod, who was never recorded as having dreams, let alone dreams of Isaiah coming to terrify him. In contrast, Mary and Joseph’s separate visitations by the angel were ignored entirely. The angel’s warning to Joseph to flee is not explained as such; instead, Joseph is simply afraid of Herod. The angel never tells Joseph it is safe to return to Israel; that information instead comes from a Judean traveler. At the Jordan River, there is no mention of the vision of a dove descending from heaven and coming to rest on Jesus. While in the wilderness, Jesus does not have any sort of encounter with Satan. The Transfiguration is ignored completely (which could just admittedly have been a run-time decision).
Other “supernatural” elements are removed, as well. Jesus’ virgin birth is not mentioned (or even suggested). We are simply given to assume that he was the natural son of Mary and Joseph. At Jesus’ death on the cross, they do not show the curtain of the temple being torn in two or the sky being darkened as if at night. The curtain of the temple in particular would have been fitting in this miniseries, given its emphasis on the role of the high priests and the temple worship in Jesus’ crucifixion.
The worst flaw with this miniseries, however, is with the Resurrection. There is absolutely nothing miraculous about it. Nothing suggests that Jesus was actually raised from the dead. He does not appear again after his death. The “witnesses” do not react to discovering the empty tomb in an accurate manner: Instead of being scared and confused and assuming that someone had stolen his body, they simply look at each other and smile. How is that anyone’s reaction to finding an empty tomb which should have a body in it? There isn’t even an angel there to tell them that “He is risen, just as he said,” so they do not have any basis for joy at discovering an empty tomb with a disheveled shroud left on the table. Likewise, Peter at the Sea of Galilee has his nets in the water and is waiting for something to happen when he decides to pray. As he is praying the net fills with fish, and after pulling them in he starts shouting at the heavens, and that’s all the appearance by Jesus that he gets. Neither of these depictions even remotely follows the Biblical account in John 20-21.
In John 20, Mary goes to the tomb, sees that it is open, assumes the body has been moved, and goes to find Peter and John, who see that it is empty. They leave her at the tomb crying. She looks inside and sees and angel, who tells her that Jesus has risen from the dead. She doesn’t understand, and Jesus himself comes and talks to her, at which point she finally understands that he rose from the dead. Then she goes to the disciples (who are in Jerusalem) and they do not believe her until several others see him. Finally he appears to them all in the upper rom. Afterward, seven of the disciples went to Galilee to go fishing (John 21). When they did not catch anything, Jesus called to them from the shore and told them to cast their nets on the other side of the boat, at which point they haul in a huge catch. Peter swims to shore to meet Jesus. The two key themes in all the Biblical accounts of the resurrection are that the disciples did not understand at first (apart from John, cf. John 20:8), and that Jesus appeared to them physically to prove that he had risen from the dead. Without a living, resurrected Jesus, there is no point; all you’re left with are the deluded ravings of madmen, as in the miniseries.
Ultimately, the ethnically-accurate casting, decent special effects, and accurate portrayal of the main players behind Jesus’ crucifixion (Pilate, Antipas, and Caiaphas) are vastly outweighed by the terrible portrayal of Jesus, glaring theological errors, and poor use of the Biblical source material. If Christopher Menaul (director) and Ridley Scott (producer) really wanted to adapt Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard’s Killing Jesus properly for TV, they should have gone the same route as Ben Hur: make Jesus an extra who is only shown on-screen a couple of times, instead focusing all their attention on their three main players of Pilate, Antipas, and Caiaphas. Every scene of this version that worked did not have Jesus in it; every scene that did not work had Jesus in it. This is not a criticism of the actor (Haaz Sleiman), but rather of the miniseries as a whole.
If you want to see a Biblically-accurate film depiction of Jesus’ death, I recommend ditching Ridley Scott in favor of Mel Gibson and The Passion of the Christ.