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History and Pseudo-History in the Jesus Film Genre

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image of Biblical Interpretation

Movies in the Jesus film genre often claim to be not only faithful renditions of their texts—the New Testament Gospels—but also accurate representations of the person, words and deeds of the historical Jesus himself. More fundamentally, they also presume a tight connection between historicity and faith. A viewer who learns about the historical Jesus through these films, they suggest, will have his or her faith forever strengthened. The irony is that whereas the Gospels have inspired profound ideas and beliefs that have shaped Christian spiritually through the two millennia since Jesus' lifetime, their transformation on the silver screen almost always results in a superficial, shallow, simplistic representation of Jesus, his life and his significance for humankind. While almost every Jesus movie has its moments of grace and artistry, most of them plod through the story even as they claim to bring to life both the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith.

This paper explores two films—Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and Denys Arcand's Jesus of Montreal (1989)—that break out of this pattern, and in doing so mount a fundamental and explicit challenge to the links between scripture, history and faith. Paradoxically, this challenge allows them a more profound and nuanced exploration of Christian faith than can be found in most other films of this genre.


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