Watching actors portray Jesus on film is a little like Goldilocks trying out chairs at the three bears’ house. This Jesus is too small (“Jesus Christ Superstar”). This one is too passive (“Son of God”). Or just too weird (“Godspell”).
Even when Jesus resembles the one you met in Sunday school, like in the 1965 epic “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” you still find yourself looking for the inconsistencies that prove this Jesus isn’t as satisfying as the one in the Bible.
And when his suffering is gut-wrenchingly authentic (“The Passion of the Christ”), you want to see this Jesus during the rest of his life, and not just the last few hours.
Movies can’t capture him, and they’re not the best way to connect with him. But there’s still a reason to watch. Jesus on film may be undersized compared to the real-life version, but the other humans in the movies are caught in brilliant living color.
Judas, Nicodemus, Barabbas and the others are fully life-sized, and watching them interact with the film version of Jesus is downright convicting.
See the shades of jealousy you’ve never noticed in the “Greatest Story” Judas, and his belief that he was actually doing what was right for his people. Or listen to him wail in “Superstar,” narrating the whole story in what he believes is the voice of reason.
Watch Nicodemus in “Son of God” draw close and then pull away, again and again, as he’s torn between this new gospel and what he’s always known.
Simon of Cyrene comes to life in “The Passion,” starting off skeptical and reluctant to help Jesus carry his cross, but defending him at the end of their long march. In the same movie, Mary Magdalene can’t turn away from the gruesome crucifixion scene, her current reality mixing with memories of how Jesus rescued her from the Pharisees.
Even in “Godspell,” the loopy 1975 musical, we watch the disciples have their world turned upside down as Jesus teaches them things that are the opposite of the status quo.
The filmmakers created some of the dialogue to fill in places Scripture doesn’t describe in detail, so we don’t know exactly what was said or felt. But Judas’ jealousy and Mary’s neediness and Nicodemus’ doubts are relatable all the same because we’ve been in their shoes.
There’s a young church in San Diego called Barabbas Road. The founding pastor picked the name because all redeemed Christians have walked Barabbas’ path, he said. In fact, one of their early promotional videos featured different church members each proclaiming, “I am Barabbas.”
These Jesus movies elicit the same reaction: I am Barabbas. I am Nicodemus. You are Peter. You are Simon of Cyrene. Watching Jesus interact with vividly human people like us is the most moving thing about all these motion pictures.
And as a bonus feature, these abridged versions of Jesus will drive many viewers back to Scripture for the full story.
Meredith Flynn is managing editor of the Illinois Baptist.