Christian Movie Review
“Killing Jesus,” the highly anticipated TV movie from National Geographic Channel starring Haaz Sleiman, John Rhys-Davies, Kelsey Grammar, and many other talented Hollywood veterans, airs this coming Sunday, March 29 at 8/7 C.
After viewing the film, I have to say: “Killing Jesus” stuck a little closer to the four Gospels in the Bible than I had expected. It is a Scott Free production (Ridley Scott’s production company), which — as I learned with “Exodus: Gods and Kings” (which Scott directed) — might mean a more liberal departure from the text and the intent of the Bible. To be sure, this version of Jesus’ story does have sort of a diminishing of the supernatural. Miracles are downplayed or vaguely portrayed as successful. Everything seems a little smaller in scale compared to what really happened around Jesus (i.e. the huge crowds, the many disciples He had) and what Jesus did in the Gospels (i.e. the many miracles and the incredible authority and supernatural power He conveyed even in the way He spoke and carried Himself). Even His Resurrection has some odd ambiguity to it. So, in a certain sense, there are hints of Ridley Scott’s anti-supernatural approach to the story — though, whether he had any direct influence I have no idea. He was only an executive producer.
“Killing Jesus” — adapted from the popular novel of the same name by political commentator Bill O’ Reilly and Martin Dugard — I’d say follows a generally faithful retelling of the Gospel accounts (with several significant caveats besides the things mentioned above, which might be too much for some viewers, but I’ll explain those in details below the Parent Guidance section). It does have a well-researched thrill ride of mostly factual, extra-Biblical political drama that existed in Israel during Jesus’ lifetime.
The film certainly swings and misses on a few significant theological points, and this might be enough to kill the film’s entertainment value for many Christians. But it also does some things well — enough good things that I found certain scenes to be enjoyable and interesting.
From the film’s press materials:
More than 2.2 billion people around the globe follow the teachings and principles of Jesus of Nazareth, but the political, historical and social collusions that led to his brutal demise bring new context to the familiar story. KILLING JESUS dives deep inside the historical story of a man whose message and preachings led to his persecution and execution by a group of conspirators who saw him as a threat to their power.
Parental Guidance Issues at a Glance…
Sexual Content/Nudity/Themes of Sexuality/Romance: Salome, as depicted in the Bible, dances seductively for Antipas to trick him into executing John the Baptist. She also talks with her mother candidly about his sexual lusts, which highlights the incestuous situation — though, again, this is all depicted in the Bible. The movie just fleshes it out with more detail.
Violence/Gore: The bloody severed head of John the Baptist is shown in graphic detail. When a boy is possessed, foam and other unspecified body fluids stream from his mouth. Jesus’ crucifixion is fairly graphic — though perhaps not as graphic as “The Passion of the Christ.” We see all of the graphic things done to him: the beating, the scourging (graphic but not even close to the extreme bloodiness of “The Passion of the Christ”), the crown of thorns, the nails hammered, the hanging on the Cross, and the spear that is shoved into Jesus’ side.
Alcohol/Drug/Smoking Content: Various kings and leaders drink, presumably, wine in some scenes.
Frightening/Intense Content: The scene with the beheading, the demon possession, and the crucifixion are all fairly frightening and intense.
(Review continues below)
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“Despite the cautious ambiguity in the ending — and although I didn’t like how the supernatural, divine aspect of Jesus was downplayed in the script — the strength of this film is its portrayal of the political intrigue that surrounded Jesus’ crucifixion. It paints a powerfully vivid portrait of the lethal hornet’s nest into which Jesus willingly jumped head-first to accomplish His divine mission from the Father.” -Kevin Ott
Entertainment Value and Film Craft
The richly detailed setting — shot on-location in Morocco — conveys an atmospheric authenticity, and the cast brings world-class performances.
Haaz Sleiman did a great job of presenting Jesus’ humanity. We don’t get the detached, humanoid-like depiction — which is often the result of actors trying to convey the divinity of Jesus while neglecting His humanity.
All of the imposing authority figures involved in the conspiracy plot — Pontius Pilate (Stephen Moyer), Caiaphas (Rufus Sewell), John-Rhys Davies (Annas), Antipas (Eoin Macken), King Herod (Kelsey Grammar) — were exceptional. There were never any eye-rolling scenes of over-acting or unintentional Monty Python-esque moments. The villains were calm, collected, imposing but powerful and dramatic at all the right moments.
The rest of the cast — from the disciples to the women involved in the intrigue — added even more depth to an already stellar cast.
And the film works as a political thriller. That’s how the screenwriters designed it, and that’s exactly how it was executed. Even though I’ve known the Gospel accounts for decades, the film kept me on the edge of my seat as if I were learning about it all for the first time.
Worldview/Themes of Redemption/Biblical Accuracy
A few things it got right (and notably so):
1. It highlighted the utter contradiction that Jesus intentionally set out to make: the people wanted a political Messiah to deliver them from Rome; but Jesus’ mission was to be a spiritual Messiah to deliver them from the slavery of sin and separation from God. When one of His followers tells Jesus, “I’m told that’s your purpose [to free Israel from Rome].” Jesus replied, “Don’t be so certain.”
2. It did a superb job of capturing the compromised partnership that the Jewish authorities had to maintain with Rome to avoid complete obliteration. As one priest says, “The enemies of disorder are the enemies of us all.” And, as the Gospels clearly depict, the priests who conspired against Jesus were very scared of how Jesus might threaten order and provoke the wrath of Caesar.
3. The film is careful to avoid depicting Jesus as some mild-mannered peacemaker who was trying to get everything to get along and sing a song around the campfire together. Jesus was very confrontational, He demanded — as the Messiah, the King of Kings, and God-in-the-flesh — a very high level of commitment and loyalty from His followers during His ministry, and He knew He would bring much division. He did not shy away from these things. The film portrays this side of Jesus in a couple scenes, including one in which He shouts, “Bring a sword!” when referring symbolically to how He would cause division.
Below are a few things that were inconsistent with the Biblical text:
1. When Jesus speaks with John the Baptist before Jesus is baptized, there is an element of surprise in Jesus’ response to John as if Jesus was caught off guard by John’s declarations about Jesus. However, in the Gospels, as evidenced by Jesus’ masterful command of the Old Testament Scriptures and Messianic prophecies — and His perfect relationship with God the Father — Jesus already had a very thorough understanding that He was the Son of God and the Messiah.
2. The way Jesus acquires his 12 disciples in the film is very different than Scripture. In one scene, one of the 12 (Judas Iscariot) approaches Jesus and asks if he can be one of Jesus’ disciples. And, very informally, Jesus says, “Bless you!” and hugs the new disciple. The script writes it with almost a “more the merrier” attitude in Jesus. In truth, Jesus hand-picked all 12 of His disciples. In fact, He spent an entire night in prayer consulting the Father before He began picking His 12 disciples.
3. After the crucifixion, the women go to anoint Jesus’ body, but they find the tomb empty. They are shocked and overjoyed. But this is where the film creates some ambiguity. The physical presence of the risen Jesus on earth is never shown. All the film shows is an empty tomb.
In the next scene, Peter, who has gone back to fishing, sees the miracle of the fish being duplicated, just as Jesus did in the beginning of the ministry — but instead of looking to the shore and seeing the risen Jesus, Peter looks into the sky with a renewed expression and declares a vow to become a follower of Jesus again and spread Jesus’ message.
Because the risen Jesus is never shown on-screen, nor is there any character shown interacting with the risen Jesus in bodily form, it leaves an odd sense of ambiguity, as if the filmmakers were being careful to avoid any outright depiction of something so supernatural. For example, the narrator says, near the end, “And the body of Jesus has never been found.” He doesn’t say, “The body has never been found because Jesus rose from the dead.” The film leaves it open to interpretation.
(And, for the record, this article here presents a thorough explanation as to why I, and millions of others — including world-class scholars — believe the Resurrection was an historical event.)
This subtle treatment of the post-Crucifixion events might puzzle Christian viewers or it might be seen as artful understatement, but the final narration confirms what I believe is the real reason: National Geographic was being careful to maintain a position of neutrality, with perhaps a bias against viewing the Resurrection as an historical event.
Though the tomb is seen as empty, the soft ambiguity in the final scenes transitions into a narration after the film that strikes a decidedly neutral tone, acknowledging both the doubters who don’t believe that Jesus was divine or risen from the dead and the believers who obviously do.
The spirit of it all might be summarized this way: no matter what you believe about Jesus — and National Geographic (or perhaps Scott Free) clearly wants room for those who disbelieve — the influence of Jesus on the world is undeniable and overwhelmingly huge, and this film warmly honors that huge, undeniable influence of Jesus while being careful to avoid taking sides or committing to any sense of real belief.
This is not shocking. National Geographic is not a faith-based organization, and this is not a faith-based movie — and they’re not trying to be. Frankly, I was more surprised by how closely they stuck to the Gospel accounts. They were very careful to add fascinating contextual historical facts to the Gospel accounts without compromising a straight-forward telling of the Gospels.
Despite the cautious ambiguity in the ending — and although I didn’t like how the supernatural, divine aspect of Jesus was downplayed in the script — the strength of this film is its portrayal of the political intrigue that surrounded Jesus’ crucifixion. It paints a powerfully vivid portrait of the lethal hornet’s nest into which Jesus willingly jumped head-first to accomplish His divine mission from the Father.
Although National Geographic doesn’t end the film with the kind of stirring Resurrection-as-a-clear-fact finale — the kind we’d see in faith-based films or in movies in which the filmmaker strongly believed in the Resurrection as history — I think the film got many things right. It got enough things right that I found the experience, overall, to be edifying, encouraging, and very engaging.
And I thought Haaz Sleiman’s portrayal of Jesus was effective — especially in bringing out Jesus’ humanity. You can read my interview with Haaz here. (It was a fascinating conversation. Though he and I have different backgrounds — he has a Muslim background — we found some meaningful common ground as we discussed Jesus’ command to love your enemies).