The Envelope, Please: Best (and Worst) Portrayals of Jesus in Movies

by | Mar 5, 2014 | Blogs, Fire in My Bones

Hollywood doesn’t always treat religion with respect, but Jesus still does pretty well at the box office when He’s the star. The new film Son of God raked in $26.5 million on opening weekend despite bad reviews. Some critics complained that the guy who played Jesus was too good-looking!

All the concern over actor Diogo Morgado’s hotness prompted two questions: Do we have any clue what Jesus really looked like, and has He ever been portrayed accurately on film? Those who insist that Jesus was not attractive usually quote the prophet Isaiah, who said of the Messiah, “He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him” (Is. 53:2, NIV). But theologians argue that this was not saying Jesus was ugly—it simply means He was not a rich or powerful leader that people would naturally follow.

All we really know about Jesus’ appearance is that He was born of a Jewish mother and that He seemed to fit in well in Nazareth for most of His life. While Jews living in Israel tend to have olive-colored skin and darker hair, some Jews have lighter skin. And since Jesus didn’t take any selfies in the first century, it is left to our imagination whether He had a beard and long hair or if He had an athletic build because He was a carpenter’s son.

Filmmakers have tried to fill in these blanks for us, and the results have ranged from tasteful to laughable. Here are 10 of the most well-known portrayals of Jesus on film. If you don’t agree with my ranking, from best to worst, feel free to share your opinions.

1. Ben-Hur (1959). There was a time when Hollywood had so much respect for Christianity that it didn’t want to show Jesus’ face. That less-is-more approach worked in this blockbuster, which won the Oscar for best picture. I still get chills during the scene when Jesus gives Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) a drink of water. You only see Jesus from the back, and He never says a word, but Ben-Hur’s life is marked forever by the two-minute encounter.

You can watch the scene here.

2. The Robe (1953). The same subtlety was used in this epic, which was nominated for best picture. Jesus is shown from a distance in two scenes; then during His crucifixion, we only see His legs and feet. The fictional plot tells what happened to a Roman military tribune (Richard Burton) who gambles for Jesus’ robe at the foot of the cross and then suffers from a guilty conscience until he becomes a Christian himself. The movie is way too melodramatic for today’s standards, but it still offers one of the best portrayals of Jesus.

3. Jesus (1979). Critics called this movie “dull” and “monotonous” because it attempted to faithfully recount the Gospel of Luke. But today it is the most-watched movie of all time. Campus Crusade for Christ, which funded its production, says 200 million people have come to faith after seeing it, and it is available in more than 1,000 languages. Remarkably, the guy who played Jesus, Brian Deacon, a Shakespearean actor from England, is a lapsed Catholic who does not describe himself as a Christian.

4. The Visual Bible: Matthew (1993). Few people saw American actor Bruce Marchiano play Jesus in this word-for-word version of the Gospel. The son of a Syrian mother and an Italian father, Marchiano was one of the most believable Messiahs—and his laughter and smiles made Jesus both human and approachable. He was featured on Charisma’s cover because of his talent.

5. The Passion of the Christ (2004). Producer Mel Gibson got in hot water for injecting anti-Semitism into his bloody retelling of Jesus’ crucifixion. Gibson reportedly warned the actor who played Jesus, Jim Caviezel, that taking on the role of Christ might hurt his movie career. But Caviezel’s portrayal remains one of the most memorable, as long as you don’t hide your eyes during the graphic whipping scene.

6. Son of God (2014). The star of this year’s film, Portuguese actor Diogo Morgado, was likely chosen because of his darker features. But mainstream critics have complained that he is way too attractive for the role. One columnist for The Daily Beast said Morgado “put the carnal in incarnate.” But to his credit, Morgado gives warmth and nice-guy accessibility to Jesus. He even seems friendly when He’s denouncing the Pharisees or overturning the merchants’ tables in the temple.

7. Jesus of Nazareth (1977). The actor who played Jesus in this classic six-hour TV miniseries chose a more stoic, somber approach. British actor Robert Powell reportedly ate only cheese for 12 days prior to the filming of the crucifixion scene so he would look gaunt. It is said that Powell tried not to blink whenever he was on screen—which gave Jesus an odd, otherworldly look.

8. The Nativity Story (2006). Jesus only appears in this film as an infant (played by a 29-day-old Italian baby) but I mention it because all the actors actually look like they are from Israel. Jesus’ father, Joseph, was played by Guatemalan actor Oscar Isaac, who starred in last year’s film Inside Llewyn Davis. The next time someone decides to cast Jesus, I hope they will consider Isaac—or at least someone with his coloring.

9. King of Kings (1961). This MGM epic was a hit when it came out, but critics threw eggs—partly because they thought the American actor who played Jesus, Jeffrey Hunter, looked too young. The movie was laughingly dubbed “I Was a Teenage Jesus” for that reason. His blue eyes and reddish hair should make me question who was responsible for casting this movie. (Trivia: Hunter also appeared in the original TV pilot episode of Star Trek.)

10. The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965). This was perhaps one of the oddest choices ever made in casting Jesus Christ. Actor Max von Sydow, who would later play the priest in The Exorcist, was from Sweden—giving us the most blue-eyed Jesus ever filmed. (The cast also included John Wayne as the Roman centurian!) I put this movie at the bottom of my list because even though we don’t know for sure what Jesus looked like, I’m positive He was not a Swedish blond.

So actors from Sweden, England, Portugal and the United States have played Jesus. Next time, when it is time for the casting call, I vote for an Israeli.

J. Lee Grady is the former editor of Charisma. You can follow him on Twitter at @leegrady. His favorite movie of all time is To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), for which Gregory Peck won the Oscar for best actor. Lee’s favorite movie of 2013 was the Jackie Robinson biopic, 42.

CHARISMA NEWSLETTERS

Stay up-to-date with current issues, Christian teachings, entertainment news, videos & more.

The latest breaking Christian news you need to know about as soon as it happens.

Prophetic messages from respected leaders & news of how God is moving throughout the world. 


MORE FROM CHARISMA

Have We Departed From the  Simplicity of Christ?

Have We Departed From the Simplicity of Christ?

Recently I heard a pastor say the following: "When I was pastoring and saw little fruit, I began to call those with potential to reach others for Christ to our home and to mentor them one on one. That's where massive growth happened in the people." Local pastors and...

Take the Fight to the Enemy, Before He Strikes at You

Take the Fight to the Enemy, Before He Strikes at You

Read Time: 3 Minutes 7 Seconds “When the Philistines heard that they had anointed David king over Israel, all the Philistines went up to seek out David; and when David heard of it, he went down to the stronghold,” (2 Sam. 5:17). When David heard that he was under...

Joyce Meyer: Becoming a Prisoner of Hope

Joyce Meyer: Becoming a Prisoner of Hope

Read Time: 3 Minutes 56 Seconds God is good. And He has a good plan for each of our lives. No matter what may be going on right now, God’s plan is unfolding. In the meantime, Romans 12:12 tells us to “be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer,”...

Victimized By Gaslighting? 5 Steps to Finding Freedom

Victimized By Gaslighting? 5 Steps to Finding Freedom

Read Time: 2 minutes 26 seconds The term "gaslighting" has gone viral across social media this year and Merriam-Webster chose it as their word-of-the-year, saying searches for the word spiked 1,740% in 2022 alone. We're breaking down what the Bible has to say about...

RECENT ARTICLES

WATCH: Vlad Savchuck: Life, Health and the Bible

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oZdzLoS3wCM During a recent visit to @HungryGeneration, Pastor Vlad Savchuk asked Bill Wiese to comment on his personal experience applying the Word of God to his own...
Miraculous Divine Intervention Birthed by Thanksgiving and Praise

Miraculous Divine Intervention Birthed by Thanksgiving and Praise

Read Time: 4 Minutes 2 Seconds When I first became a believer in 1970, my mother was one of my first “converts," giving her heart to Jesus as soon as I shared with her the beauty, the power and the opportunity of making Jesus the Lord of her life. However, my father...

I’m Going Defcon G on the Enemy

I’m Going Defcon G on the Enemy

Read Time: 1 Minute 32 Seconds The last six years have been the best of times and the worst of times. I’ve seen more death, destruction, disease and devastation than I care to remember. I’ve also seen the hand of God move in extraordinary ways. Indeed, sometimes I...

Prophetic Vision: ‘Now is the Time of Your Healing’

Prophetic Vision: ‘Now is the Time of Your Healing’

Read Time: 3 Minutes 41 Seconds I was remembering a time when my husband and I were praying over friends who had been in a situation for many years that had caused deep trauma to their souls. As we were praying for them, I became aware of an angel standing over them...

5 Ways to Improve Your Emotional and Spiritual Health

5 Ways to Improve Your Emotional and Spiritual Health

Read Time: 4 Minutes 50 Seconds Do you believe the Lord is concerned about your emotional and spiritual health? He is. He wants you to know how to improve your emotional and spiritual health to be resilient in turbulent times. One of the most powerful things you can...

Pin It on Pinterest