General Description of the Course

General Description of the Course

RELIGION 840:120

Jesus at the Movies

General Description of the Course

In this course, we will study representations of Jesus of Nazareth in 20th-century film. We will begin by investigating some of the earliest representations of Jesus as found in the Christian New Testament Scriptures which are foundational for later portrayals of Jesus in literature and film. We will then view five films and discuss the ways in which they re-present Jesus, the context of these re-presentations, and important scholarly approaches to understanding them.

This course meets the following SAS core curriculum requirements:

HST Historical Analysis

k. Explain the development of some aspect of a society or culture over time, including the history of ideas.

l. Employ historical reasoning to study human endeavors

AH Arts and Humanities

p. Analyze arts and literatures in themselves and in relation to specific histories, values, languages, culture, and technologies.

WC Writing and Communication

s-1 Communicate complex ideas effectively, in standard written English, to a general audience.

s-2 [WCr] Respond effectively to editorial feedback from peers, instructors, and/or supervisors through successive drafts and revisions.

t. [WCd] Communicate effectively in modes appropriate to a discipline or area of inquiry.

Course Goals and Assessment:

The goalsof this course are as follows:

  1. Content: Students will learn the basic narratives of the New Testament gospels and will be able to identify the significant differences among them.
  2. Content: Students will learn some of the ways that modern cinema has re-presented the gospel narratives.
  3. Approach 1: Students will become familiar with the ways that secular scholars of religion approach questions of theology and religious evolution; they will learn some of the terminology scholars use to describe religious movements and the religious convictions of individuals.
  4. Approach 2: Students will learn to view a film carefully and critically and to approach its re-presentation of Jesus as secular scholars of religion approach any such re-presentation. They will learn some approaches to cinema as well as critical aspects of the scholarly study of religious “texts”.
  5. Skill: Students will improve their writing through short papers, revisions of those papers, peer editing, response to professor’s comments, and individual meetings with instructors. To this end, students will keep a portfolio of their writing assignments (in a computer or on paper) to consult as they write each paper after the first. Considerable credit will be given for responding to comments on earlier papers in later ones.

Assessment of students’ progress towards the core curriculum requirements will be based on core rubrics applied to the take-home final examination. Writing will be assessed additionally by assessing the writing portfolio for the semester in terms of the common rubrics for Core Curriculum goals s-1, s-2, and t.

Required Books (available at the RU Bookstore, online, and lots of other places…; try – a clearinghouse for online booksellers):

  • The HarperCollins Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version, with Apocrypha/deuterocanonical Books. ISBN 0-06-065580-1 [You may already have a Bible, and you may use it if you wish. Nevertheless, this particular Bible is especially valuable. It contains all of the apocryphal/deuterocanonical books, extra commentary, maps, and a canon table. If at all possible, you should buy and use it.]
  • Lloyd Baugh, Imaging the Divine: Jesus and Christ-Figures in Films (Kansas City: Sheed and Ward, 1997)
  • Richard Walsh, Reading the Gospels in the Dark, Trinity Press International, 2003.


3 short papers of 2000-2500 words on topics assigned in class: 10% each; 30% total.

The first 2 papers revised to respond to the instructor’s comments: 10% each; 20% total.

A take-home final paper, also approximately 2000-2500 words: 25%

Participation in class discussion: 25%

The due dates for papers and revisions are listed on the “Assignments” calendar below.



We will often discuss the assigned readings in class. The standards by which I grade participation are attached to the bottom of this syllabus. Please familiarize yourself with these standards. Participation is an active and rewarding process which requires more than mere attendance.

Weeks 1-4: Presentation and Re-presentation of Jesus in the Christian Scriptures

Week 1: Introduction to the course. Students will receive an email before the first class informing them that they should do the following reading before the first class.

Reading: READ THE SYLLABUS and bring any questions you have to class.

The Gospel According to Mark

Week 2: Discuss the differences between the Gospel of Mark and the Gospel of John

Reading: The Gospel According to John

Week 3: Two more gospels: Matthew and Luke

Reading: The Gospel According to Matthew

The Gospel According to Luke

Week 4: Finish comparison of the 4 canonical gospels. Discuss various theories about their possible relationships to one another and to diverse groups of early Christians.

Paper #1 due

Weeks 5-6: Theoretical and methodological problems in the study of film and popular culture

Week 5: Introduction to the study of film

Reading: John Storey, "Cultural Studies and the Study of Popular Culture: An Introduction,"and "Film," in his Cultural Studies and the Study of Popular Culture: Theories andMethods (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1996) 1-8; 54-74. On sakai.

David Bordwell, "Making Films Mean," in Making Meaning: Inference and Rhetoric in the Interpretation of Cinema (Harvard University Press, 1989), 1-18. On sakai.

Week 6: Representations of religion and religious figures in film

Reading: Baugh (see “required books”), "General Introduction" and "Introduction", vii x, 3-6.

Walsh (see “required books”), “Preface,” Chapter 1, “Telling Sacred Stories in Cathedral Cinemas”, and Chapter 2, “Films without Heroes.”

Joel W. Martin and Conrad E. Ostwald, Jr., “Introduction. Seeing the Sacred On Screen,” in Screening the Sacred: Religion, Myth and Ideology in Popular American Film (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1995).On Sakai.

Weeks 7-15: Let’s watch some movies

Week 7: King of Kings

Movie screening (outside of class): Ray, King of Kings, 1961. 168 minutes (in class)

Reading: Walsh (see required books), Chapter 6, “The Alien and Alienating Past: King of Kings and Luke.”

Revision of paper #1 due

Week 8: King of Kings

Reading: Stephenson Humphries-Brooks, Cinematic Saviour: Hollywood's Making of the American Christ, Westport,CT: Praeger, 2006. Chapter 2, “I was a teenage Jesus in Cold War America.” On sakai.

Week 9: Pasolini, The Gospel According to Matthew

Screening (outside of class):Pasolini, The Gospel According to Matthew (Il Vangelo secondo Matteo, 1964, 137 minutes

Reading: Tatum, Jesus at the Movies, 105-118;"Sopraluoghi in Palestina, and the Gospel According to St.Matthew," from Pasolini on Pasolini: Interviews with Oswald Stack(Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1970), 73-98.

Paper #2 due.

Week 10: Pasolini, The Gospel According to Matthew

Reading: Walsh, Chapter 5, “Il Vangelo secondo Matteo and Matthew.”


Week 11: Jesus Christ Superstar

Screening (outside of class) of Jewison, Jesus Christ Superstar, 1973, 108 minutes.

Reading: Humphries-Brooks, Chapter 4, “Jesus Christ Superstar. The Savior as Alienated Hero;”Mark Goodacre, "Do You Think You're What They Say You Are? Reflections on Jesus Christ Superstar," Journal of Religion and Film , 3:2 (Oct 1999).

Week 12: Jesus of Montreal

Screening of Arcand, Jesus of Montreal, 1989, 118 minutes

Reading: Walsh, chapter 3.

Revision of Paper #2 due

Week 13:Jesus of Montreal

Reading: Mary Alemany-Galway, "Jesus of Montreal," in A Postmodern Cinema: The Voice of the Other in Canadian Film (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2002), 141-65.

Paper #3 due

Week 14: Last Temptation of Christ

The Last Temptation of Christ 1988 (164 mins)

Reading: Humphries-Brooks, 83-100 (“The Psychological Problem of God in a Body”); Graham Holderness, “’Half God, Half Man’: Kazantzakis, Scorsese, and the LastTemptation,” Harvard Theological Review 100:1 (2007), 65-96.

Week 15: Monty Python’s Life of Brian

Screening of Monty Python’s Life of Brian, 1979, 93 minutes

Reading: Tatum, 149-64; Philip R. Davies,” Life of Brian Research,” in J. Cheryl Exum and

Stephen D. Moore, eds., Biblical Studies/Cultural Studies, 400-14.

Last day of class: professor will hand out take-home final paper assignment.

Date of the scheduled final exam: take-home final is due.

Standards for Grading Student Participation in

Seminar Courses and Class Discussions


A student who receives aA for participation in discussion typically comes to every class with questions about the readings in mind. An A discussant engages others about ideas, respects the opinions of others, and consistently elevates the level of discussion.


A student who receives a B for participation in discussion typically does not always come to class with questions about the readings in mind. A B discussant waits passively for others to raise interesting issues. Some discussants in this category, while courteous and articulate, do not adequately listen to other participants or relate their comments to the direction of the conversation.


A student who receives a C for participation attends regularly but typically is an infrequent or unwilling participant, or an obstreperous one.


A student who fails to attend regularly and prepare adequately for discussion risks the grade of D

Or even F

[These standards are adapted only slightly from those officially adopted by the Princeton University Department of History in 1998. They were authored primarily by Andrew Isenberg (thanks, Drew).]