Son of God, released this spring in theatres and now available for rental at Red Box locations throughout the metro-Jackson area, re-tells the gospel story, with the apostle John serving as the narrator (though the stories related are taken from all the gospels, not just John’s). The film is reminiscent in some ways of The Passion of the Christ, released ten years ago, with its use of epic background music and slow motion. Rated PG-13, the film graphically depicts Christ’s crucifixion, but not as graphically as Mel Gibson’s film, which earned an R-rating.
1. What the film got right
The film, produced by Christians, makes an effort to present the gospel narrative in a manner that is faithful to the Biblical text. Christ, portrayed by Diogo Morgado, is presented reverently and compassionately. Son of God communicated the central truth that Jesus of Nazareth is, in fact, God’s Son and the Savior of the world. Anything peripheral that the film got wrong is excusable to an extent given that it got the most important thing straight.
Jesus’ miracles are presented as being part of his earthly ministries; there’s no attempt to present a de-supernaturalized re-telling of the gospel story. Jesus’ death and resurrection is faithfully depicted as it is recorded in Scripture.
Simon of Cyrene, the man who was required to assist Jesus in carrying his cross, is portrayed as a black man. This is good, given the fact that commentators generally assume that Simon, if he came from the region of Cyrene, would’ve been black. Unfortunately, for all of its going to great lengths to be authentic and historically faithful, The Passion of the Christ didn’t portray Simon as being a black man.
2. Where the film differs from the Biblical narrative
Extra Biblical details are added. For instance, the story of the tax collector and the Pharisee, in the movie, is depicted as taking place at the moment when Jesus called Matthew the tax collector to be his disciple. This works for dramatic effect, but it’s not necessarily the way the story played out in actual history according the gospel account. Another instance is when, after the resurrection, the disciples are shown as celebrating a primitive form of Holy Communion. It is during this that Jesus first appears to the Twelve. This could theoretically have been the case (the Bible says they were “breaking bread” together), but it’s unlikely that they would have understood the significance of celebrating the Lord’s Supper until after Jesus explained it to them more fully prior to his ascension.
After the Sanhedrin condemns Jesus, the film portrays the high priest’s servant coming to the crowd gathered the next morning to announce that Jesus has been condemned and is about to be handed over to Pilate. This is an odd thing to include, given that as far as we know no such pronouncement was made. To the contrary, the Sanhedrin wanted to keep their actions as secretive as possible, and an announcement like that would’ve defeated the whole point of them having the trial secretly in the middle of the night to begin with.
During the Passion scene, Pilate tells his soldiers to give Jesus forty lashes, but historians believe for many reasons that Jesus in all likelihood was flogged with far more lashes than that. For instance, the man wrapped in the Shroud of Turin, whom many believe was Jesus himself, was whipped with well over twice that many lashes. The Jewish standard of flogging set the limit at no more than forty lashes; the Roman standard set no limit. Crucifixion victims could be whipped however many times the soldiers pleased, so long as the victim wasn’t killed.
When Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb Sunday morning, she is shown walking up empty handed, although Scripture says she was coming to anoint the body of Jesus with spices. Scripture says that Mary stood outside Jesus’ tomb weeping before she first encountered him, but the film portrays her as standing inside the tomb, puzzled, but not crying, when she sees Jesus standing outside. Typically, Hollywood portrayals of the Bible change certain elements to add drama to a given scene, but this change actually decreases the drama.
Instead of calling, “Lazarus, come forth!”, Jesus is shown inside Jesus’ tomb, breathing on him, and that is what resurrects him. Also, Lazarus is not wrapped up in cloths. It’s hard to account for why both of these Biblical details would’ve been modified.
3. Random criticisms
The chronology of Jesus’ life story, as presented in the film, seems scrambled. Jesus’ reading from Isaiah at the synagogue—“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me”—is portrayed in Luke as one of the first things he did during his earthly ministry, but in the film this is shown taking place near the end, after the resurrection of Lazarus. The out of sync chronology gives the film a bit of a disjointed feel at times.
When the disciples ask him to teach them to pray, he begins the Lord’s Prayer, but the movie cuts to another scene before he finishes. When he tells his disciples, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life”, it cuts to another scene before he finishes the sentence, “No one comes to the Father except through me.” Because of such splices, it’s hard to really understand some of Jesus’ statements in context.
Whenever skeptical or doubtful comments are made by the disciples during Jesus’ earthly ministry, they usually trace back to Thomas. Thomas is not portrayed as being absent during Jesus’ first appearance to the disciples (as John’s gospel states), but rather when Jesus enters the room the first time, Thomas refuses to believe until Jesus shows his hands to him. Nothing in Scripture implies, though, that Thomas was doubtful by nature Yes, he didn’t believe in the resurrection until he had seen it for himself, but let us not forget that this was true of all of Jesus’ disciples, not just Thomas.
Whenever statements are made that question Jesus’ authenticity, they are usually traced to Judas Iscariot. Nothing in Scripture implies that Judas, before the night of Jesus’ betrayal, was regularly making comments that revealed him to not be fully on board with Jesus’ mission. If he’d already given himself away like that, his falling away wouldn’t have shocked his fellow disciples as it did.
Like practically all films about the Christ before it, Son of God shows the crucifixion resulting in nails going through Jesus’ palm. It is far more likely that it was Jesus’ wrists, not his palms that were nailed. This is, again, the case of the man wrapped in the Shroud of Turin. It is unfortunate that this detail, though perhaps insignificant, was allowed to remain unhistorical.
For many Reformed Christians, some sort of defense will need to be made for portraying Christ on film in the first place. In the 16th century Reformation, one thing that came to distinguish the Reformed branch of Christianity from the Lutheran was the Reformed opposition to any and all portrayals Christ in art. Presbyterians historically have seen artistic portrayals of Christ as violating the second commandment—“You shall have no graven images.” Question 109 in the Westminster Larger Catechism spells out what is forbidden by the commandment:
“The making any representation of God, of all or of any of the three persons, either inwardly in our mind, or outwardly in any kind of image or likeness of any creature whatsoever; all worshiping of it, or God in it or by it.”
Obviously, if even mental images of Christ are a violation of the 2nd commandment, actually portraying him on a canvas or a film is off limits. Certainly, the Westminster divines who composed the catechism worded their explanation the way they did due to a sincere desire to see God alone honored, and to see him worshipped Biblically. However, most of Christendom would look at the Westminster interpretation as an overstatement.
For example, in discussing the 2nd commandment St. Philaret’s catechism, authoritative in the Russian Orthodox Church, addresses the question, “Are we not hereby forbidden to have any sacred representations whatever?” The response is:
“By no means. This very plainly appears from hence, that the same Moses through whom God gave the commandment against graven images, received at the same time from God an order to place in the tabernacle, or movable temple of the Israelites, sacred representations of Cherubim in gold, and to place them, too, in that inner part of the temple to which the people turned for the worship of God… The use of holy icons would then, and then only, [be disagreeable] to the second commandment if any one were to make gods of them; but it is not in the least contrary to this commandment to honor icons as sacred representations, and to use them for the religious remembrance of God's works and of his saints; for when thus used icons are books, written with the forms of persons and things instead of letters.”
If watching artistic portrayals violates a person’s conscience, he or she should certainly refrain from participating. Reformed Christians though should make an effort to not assume the worst about people who do approve and make use of artwork that portrays Christ. Reformed objectors to films about Jesus object, not because they are just a bunch of prigs, but rather because they sincerely desire to see God glorified. Those who watch such films and approve paintings and icons of Jesus also love God. Let us not be too quick to accuse each other of idolatry or of being priggish. As C.S. Lewis said, “A sincere desire to believe all the good we can of other people will solve most of our problems.”