Thank You for Bringing Jesus Back to the Big Screen: A Review of “Son of God”

Jesus has been missing from the big screen for too long. It has been 10 years since Mel Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ,” and it focused only on the end of the Passion Week. But for a Bible-based full life of Christ it has been 35 years since the “Jesus” movie (1979) and 49 years since “The Greatest Story Ever Told” (1965).

Roma Downey (star of the television series “Touched by an Angel”) and her husband, Mark Burnett (producer of “Survivor,” “The Voice,” “The Apprentice,” and “Shark Tank”), said the idea for the “Son of God” movie came while filming “The Bible” television miniseries. The cast and crew watched weekly cuts of the film, and they decided to add some footage and make the feature-length film “Son of God.” One hundred million people watched the television series across the world, and one hopes even more people will watch “Son of God.” It is a positive movie about Jesus, and the world needs to hear and understand its message.

Surpassing the Miniseries

Although largely lifted out of “The Bible” miniseries, the “Son of God” movie has notable improvements. Rather than using the Sam Waterston-type of all-knowing-but-impersonal narrator of the miniseries, the narrator is now the Apostle John. The film opens with him exiled on Patmos. He is lonely, sitting in a cave by a fire. The movie is John’s fond reminiscing about his time with Jesus. So, his narration is personal, passionate, and poignant. Jesus has forever changed his life since they met more than 60 years ago. Of course, this narrator choice is fitting because John was likely one of the first Apostles (John 1:35-40), he wrote the Gospel of John, and he outlived all of the other Apostles, writing Revelation while on Patmos (Rev 1:9).

The gospel message is very clear in the movie, and this is its greatest strength.

The gospel message is very clear in the movie, and this is its greatest strength. The first words spoken are John saying the theologically packed words of John 1:1. Jesus says the concise gospel message in John 3:16 to Nicodemus. He says John 14:6 to the Apostles. He clearly states that He is the Son of God to Caiaphas and the chief priests and says His kingdom is not of this world to Pilate. Fittingly, this conversation is one of the longest extended conversations straight from the Scriptures (John 18:33-38). Later in the movie these evangelistic conversations are recalled as flashbacks—effectively emphasizing their importance. Nicodemus is a key figure in “Son of God,” as he converts from being a willing collaborator with Caiaphas to an unwilling cog in the wheel of the Sanhedrin’s kangaroo court condemnation of Jesus to finally being a follower of Christ who sings a prayer while Mary anoints Jesus’ body for burial. Matthew goes from being a hated tax collector to an Apostle. Clearly the movie shows why and how one must become a follower of Jesus.

The musical score is beautiful, and this is not surprising since this collaborative team also worked on the movie “Gladiator.” The special effects are excellent, such as the hole in Jesus’ hands (even though the hole is in the wrong place). Other improvements over “The Bible” miniseries are more panoramic scenes and large group shots. Too many scenes in the “The Bible” miniseries appeared claustrophobic—close-ups likely to accommodate a small cast—but “Son of God” has a larger feel to it.

Two video montages in the movie are quite moving. One thought-provoking scene of contrasts involves Jesus praying His agonizing prayer at Gethsemane, Caiaphas reciting his prayer in the Temple, and Claudia praying to her ancestors by an idol of a Roman god while her husband Pontius Pilate stood beside her. This is a powerful scene as it shifts back and forth between three people fervently praying. But as the movie depicts and the Bible makes clear, sincerity and ritual are not enough. Caiaphas attempts to pray to God while rejecting God’s Son, and that simply cannot work. If one rejects the Son, one rejects the Father (Matt 10:32-33; John 15:23-24). Claudia prays to ancestors who cannot hear and to a god who does not exist. Only Jesus, the Son of God, was truly communicating with the one true God.

In another moving montage, Jesus is being whipped—accurately portrayed as He is chained to a low wooden post. The camera cuts back and forth between the soldiers brutally whipping Jesus, a man counting each lash by moving rocks on a board, His mother Mary and some disciples painfully watching through a gate, Pilate and Claudia observing from a distance, and Judas hanging himself. This scene is quite effective and also not as gruesome as the one in Mel Gibson’s movie.

Interestingly, some key cuts from “The Bible” miniseries made “Son of God” a stronger presentation of Jesus and His message. They omitted all scenes of Herod the Great. Even though he was accurately portrayed in the television series as fat, sweaty, gross, murderous, and maniacal, omitting him from this film allowed more footage of Jesus’ ministry. They cut out Gabriel in human form, and that is good since those scenes came off as slightly cheesy. However the cheesiest and most controversial omitted scenes—and also the inappropriately funny scenes—were those of the Satan figure who was inadvertently a President Obama doppelganger. Those scenes detracted from the message of “The Bible” miniseries, so omitting them was a smart and effective move.

Accurate Story with Many Accurate Details

Before listing the inaccuracies in the movie, it is important to note the movie got the story right. It clearly and effectively shows Jesus’ teaching, such as His emphasis on love and forgiveness, His miracles, and His message that resulted in His crucifixion. He is the Messiah (the Christ) and the Son of God. Also, it got most of the details right. Here are some examples:

  1. The costuming is very good, and the building architecture is accurate.
  2. The size and type of Galilean boat Jesus and the Apostles use is correct, based on the discovery of the Galilee Boat in 1986.
  3. Peter uses a circular net that is weighted around the perimeter—a common single-person fishing net for that day.
  4. The Jewish phylactery on the male Jewish foreheads is correctly depicted.
  5. Jesus uses His favorite term for Himself: “Son of Man” (see Matt 8:20; 9:6; 10:23; 11:19; 12:8, 32, 40, for just a few examples).
  6. Caiaphas correctly calls Pontius Pilate a “prefect.” Prefects ruled Judea from AD 6-41, and the higher-ranking procurators ruled after Agrippa I’s death in AD 44.
  7. It correctly shows the Jewish hatred of Jewish tax collectors as collaborators who helped the despised Roman oppressors.
  8. Refreshingly, here is a movie that shows that Mary Magdalene was not the woman caught in adultery (John 7:53-8:11) nor the woman who anointed Jesus in Luke 7:36-50! Also, it does not depict that entrapped woman as a prostitute, but just as a common woman.
  9. It depicts Pontius Pilate as a ruthless, strong Roman ruler that got backed into a corner with what to do about Jesus. He could not let Tiberius hear that he let an accused insurrectionist free.
  10. It records all seven sayings of Jesus from the cross in the correct order (Luke 23:34; 23:43; John 19:26-27; Matt 27:46; Mark 15:34; John 19:28; 19:30; Luke 23:46).
  11. Spoiler alert: it shows that Jesus bodily resurrected and appeared to followers over a period of 40 days (Acts 1:3), and then He went to heaven (Acts 1:9-11).

Variations from the Bible

“The Bible” miniseries opened each episode with a helpful disclaimer: “This program is an adaptation of Bible stories that changed our world. It endeavors to stay true to the spirit of the book.” Although this reviewer was somewhat irritated by adaptations that seemed unnecessary, the miniseries remained true to this claim. One wishes this same disclaimer were placed somewhere in “Son of God.” It did not have to be in the opening credits. It could have been placed in the closing credits, but is does not appear.

The inaccuracies in the Son of God movie were in specific details, chronological changes, conflations of events, or additions to what is recorded in the four Gospels. Although these inaccuracies are mostly minor, it is helpful to note them for clarity about what the Gospels actually say.

Inaccuracies in specific details

  1. The movie depicts three magi arriving to see the baby Jesus the night of His birth. However, Matthew mentions three gifts but does not say how many magi came. Also, they came later when the family was living in a house (Matt 2:11). It was up to two years later because Herod the Great killed baby boys two years of age and younger in a futile attempt to kill this baby king (Matt 2:16).
  2. It depicts crucifixion nails going through the palms of Jewish revolutionaries early in the movie and then the palms of Jesus later in the movie. However, medical doctors say the spikes must go through the wrist in order to hold a person to the cross.[ref]William D. Edwards, Wesley J. Gabel, and Floyd E. Hosmer, “On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ,” JAMA (3-21-1986):1459.[/ref] The Greek word cheiras (“hands,” Luke 24:39; John 20:20, 27) can refer to the palm, the hand, or the wrist, as indicated in Matt 22:13; Acts 21:11; and 12:17 when referring to binding chains on one’s “hands”—actually the wrists.
  3. When Jesus calls Peter in the fishing scene, He asks Peter to go to deeper water and fish. Yet, Luke records that Jesus first taught the multitudes from Peter’s boat, and then told Peter to go fish in deeper water. The movie has Peter with three baskets and a net full of fish. However, there were actually so many fish that Peter had to call his partners in another boat to come help—and the fish filled two boatloads so full that they began to sink (Luke 5:1-7).
  4. It has Mary Magdalene asking Jesus to feed the 5,000 and Peter bringing the five loaves and two fish to Jesus. However, it was the Apostles who asked about feeding the crowd, and Andrew brought Him the fish and bread (Luke 9:12; John 6:8-9).
  5. It shows Jesus kneeling and praying to God the Father prior to feeding the 5,000. However, He prayed while “looking up toward heaven” at this event (Matt 14:19; Mark 6:41; Luke 9:16). The typical Jewish prayer position was standing and looking up toward heaven.
  6. When Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, Lazarus’ dead body just has a simple tunic and no head cloth. This makes a dramatic scene as Jesus prays over the body in the tomb and Lazarus then opens his eyes. However, John says Jesus called out in a loud voice to Lazarus and certainly seemed to be outside of the tomb (John 11:43). Then John says Jesus told the people to unwrap Lazarus because his body and face were wrapped with cloths (v. 44). This affirms the typical Jewish method of burial: the body was wrapped with cloths and spices. The head was tied with a cloth napkin to hold the jaw shut.
  7. When Jesus says to render to Caesar what is his and to God what is His, the coin depicted is bronze and much too large. Yet, the coin was a Roman denarius (Mark 12:15; Luke 20:24) that was used for the “poll-tax” (Matt 22:19)—a small silver coin that varied in size between a US dime and penny.
  8. Jesus and the Apostles are seated upright at the Seder meal and Last Supper. However, for special meals like this, Jews reclined around a low table (Matt 26:20; Mark 14:18; Luke 22:14; John 13:23), leaning on their left arm and eating with their right hand.
  9. It depicts Judas Iscariot present during the Last Supper, but the Last Supper was the meal after the Passover Seder meal. Judas Iscariot was present for the Seder meal, then he left to betray Jesus, after which Jesus and the eleven Apostles had the Last Supper (Matt 26:21-29; Mark 14:17-25; Luke 22:14-23; John 13:21-30—although Luke does not give the chronological order here). Also, it has Judas Iscariot seated at Jesus’ right side and John seated across from Jesus; however, the only mention of where an Apostle sat in relation to Jesus at this meal was John, who sat at Jesus’ right side (John 13:23-25).
  10. It shows Jesus giving the bread morsel to Judas Iscariot, and then all of the Apostles realize that Judas will be the betrayer. However, John clearly shows only John knew what Jesus did at this moment. When Judas left, the Apostles thought he was leaving to buy more food (John 13:23-30).
  11. It depicts Golgotha as being far from the Temple and on a large hill. Although it was a hill, tradition says it was just outside of the city walls and likely not as high as depicted in this movie. Also, historians say the crucifixions would have taken place at the base of Golgotha rather than on Golgotha itself.
  12. The movie includes Jesus’ crown of thorns, but it does not show His scarlet robe nor His reed (Matt 27:28-29).
  13. It depicts the crucifixion earthquake and darkness (although the darkness is not fully rendered in the movie), but it just shows a multi-sectioned Temple veil sort of billowing about. However, the one-piece veil was clearly torn from top to bottom (Matt 27:51).
  14. It shows the soldiers putting a sponge of sour wine on the end of a spear to give Jesus a drink after He says, “I thirst.” However, John notes the sponge was on “hyssop” (so, a branch of hyssop, John 19:29). This is an important detail because at the first Passover the Jews used hyssop to apply the blood of the lamb on their lintel and doorposts (Ex 12:22), and Jesus was the final Passover Lamb (John 1:29, 36).
  15. When Jesus departs to heaven after 40 days of post-resurrection appearances, He appears to just fade away. However, Acts 1:9 says “He was lifted up while they were looking on, and a cloud received Him out of their sight.”

Chronological Inaccuracies

  1. It has Claudia’s dream about Jesus early in the movie. However, Matthew mentioned it happened on Thursday night of the Passion Week. Also, the movie depicts Pontius Pilate discussing the matter with Claudia in between Jesus’ trials, but Matthew mentions she just sent him a note (27:19).
  2. It shows Jesus’ evangelistic conversation with Nicodemus late in the Passion Week, but John places it in the early Judean ministry of Jesus (John 3:1-16). Nicodemus is a key figure in the movie as he comes to faith in Jesus late in the story, but it may be that he came to faith early in Jesus’ ministry, when the John 3 conversation occurred.
  3. It places the scene during the Passion Week in which Caiaphas said they must get rid of Jesus in order to save Israel. Yet, John records this unwitting prophecy by Caiaphas after Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead—likely some three to six months or so prior to the Passion Week (John 11:46-54).
  4. The movie shows Jesus clearly telling His Apostles during the Last Supper that He will be betrayed, crucified, and resurrected. However, the Gospels do not record Him saying this during the Last Supper. He did give these prophecies three times prior to the Passion Week (Matt 16:21; 17:22-23; 20:17-19—all three have parallels in Mark and Luke).
  5. It depicts Peter’s three-time betrayal of Jesus on Friday morning after the full Sanhedrin passed sentence on Jesus, but Mark, Luke, and John say it was Thursday night while there was a warming fire and while Peter was “in the firelight” (Luke 22:56).
  6. It shows Peter giving his first two denials to a soldier or official, but all four Gospels depict Peter’s denials to servants (Matt 26:69-75; Mark 14:66-72; Luke 22:55-65; John 18:25-27). The minor differences in the Gospel accounts are easily explained in that each time someone questioned Peter, others nearby echoed the same question.
  7. The movie has Pilate ordering Jesus’ scourging prior to the release of Barabbas, but all four Gospels say Jesus was scourged after Barabbas was released (Matt 27:15-26; Mark 15:6-15; Luke 23:13-25; John 18:39-19:1).
  8. It has Pilate washing his hands after pronouncing judgment on Jesus, but Matthew and Mark seem to place this event prior to Pilate’s final pronouncement (Matt 27:24-26; Mark 15:15).
  9. It shows Caiaphas objecting to the three-language title for Jesus’ cross prior to it being written. However, John records the objection by the chief priests was clearly after the title was written and affixed to Jesus’ cross (John 19:19-22).

Conflations of events

  1. In the movie Jesus gives the parable of the praying Pharisee and Publican when He calls Matthew to be an Apostle (Matt 9:9-13). But Luke placed this parable much later in Jesus’ ministry: during Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem (Luke 18:9-14).
  2. The movie depicts Mary Magdalene asking Jesus to tell them how to pray during Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, and He responds by giving the Lord’s Prayer. However, Luke 11:1-4 clearly records that at a different location (Judea), and much later in Jesus’ ministry, a disciple asked this question and Jesus responded.
  3. It records Jesus giving some of His teachings on seeking God’s Kingdom from the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 6) during His feeding of the 5,000 (Matt 14:15-21; Mark 6:35-44; Luke 9:12-17; John 6:4-13). Of course, there were certainly times that Jesus repeated His teachings, and He could have given this same teaching to this large crowd that He fed, but of what is known about Jesus, this is a conflating of events.
  4. It has Peter give his great confession of who Jesus is around a campfire near the shores of the Sea of Galilee right after Jesus feeds the 5,000. However, this confession happened later and up north—at Caesarea Philippi (Matt 16:13-20; Mark 8:27-30; Luke 9:18-21).
  5. It has Jesus at the Temple during Passion Week saying it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter heaven. However, He gave this teaching to His disciples after talking with the rich young ruler earlier, during His Perean ministry (Matt 19:23-24; Mark 10:23-26; Luke 18:24-26).

 Additions to the biblical text

  1. The Scriptures do not mention Judas Iscariot coughing up the bread morsel that Jesus gave him, but that is a fitting scene in the movie.
  2. Another moving scene not from the Bible is the encounter of Jesus with Barabbas a few days prior to Jesus’ arrest. Barabbas insolently and somewhat sarcastically challenges Jesus to lead a rebellion against Rome, but Jesus declines and then calmly silences Barabbas.
  3. It shows the traditional three falls of Jesus while carrying His cross. However, the Gospels do not record Jesus falling even one time. He may have fallen, but the Gospels do not record it (Matt 27:31-33; Mark 15:20-22; Luke 23:26-33; John 19:17-18).
  4. It has the traditional scene of Jesus’ mother, Mary, running up to Him after His first fall and a woman wiping Jesus’ face after the third fall. The Gospels do not mention these events. An extra-biblical legend names the woman Veronica and says that Jesus’ image miraculously appeared on her cloth. The name “Veronica” comes from the Latin words vera icon (“true icon”). It is not wise to add non-biblical legends to the biblical account of Jesus.
  5. As did Gibson’s movie, this movie adds the touching pietà scene Michelangelo masterfully carved into marble. This beautiful statue of Mary cradling the dead body of her son is in St. Peter’s cathedral today.

Conclusion

The movie’s inaccuracies, however, are mostly in minor details and do not detract from the overall positive story and message. The “Son of God” is an excellent, well-acted, spiritually moving, evangelistic movie about the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus that Christians across all denominations should support. A positive response at the box office can send a strong message to Hollywood that Christians want to see this kind of uplifting, positive, and biblical film. Also, “Son of God” can be an effective evangelistic tool to get the non-Christian viewer to read the book (the Bible), and more importantly: to follow Jesus as Savior and Lord. He truly is the Son of God.