Killing Jesus is a TV-movie adaptation of Bill O’Reilly’s work of the same name. The purpose of this movie seems to be to build a more historical portrait of Jesus, rather than the influx of spiritually focused TV films. The setting is very convincing as most actors actually look Middle Eastern and the filming was done in the desert of Morocco. The architectural detail is also convincing, especially during scenes of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem. One has to wonder if they are not re-experiencing life in the Jewish religious tradition of the first century.
Killing Jesus stars Haaz Sleiman (a young Muslim actor famous for his voice work in the Assassin’s Creed video games) as an uncertain and soft spoken Jesus of Nazareth. The cast also is not shy to other famous names: Rufus Sewell, John Rhys-Davies, and Kelsey Grammer. This miniseries does not suffer from the same casting mistakes as Exodus: Gods and Kings.
Jesus, at times, is as surprised about his own miracles as others. Jesus learns who he is from Peter in an awkward scene when he asks his disciples who they think he is. Throughout the miniseries, Jesus’ primary message is one of ethics. There is always a slight hesitance and uncertainty in everything Jesus says. It is as if Jesus says something, not knowing if it is true or not, and then evaluates and accepts the claim. This tends to be slightly comical at times.
The scenes are generally well acted and believable. Jesus is born in Bethlehem. Herod pretends to want to see the new King but instead sends troops to kill young children. The events are brutal and compelling, as Herod’s soldiers rip children away from mothers and cut down resisters.
John the Baptist is beheaded in a similarly shocking and compelling scene. The Biblical account was modified to having Herodias and Salome fabricate the plan in advance due to their mutual hatred of John’s ministry. They plot to seduce Antipas into killing John the Baptist through an exotic dance. Herod Antipas poses the terms before the dance and is not reluctant when the request to behead John is revealed during the dance. In an odd twist, Salome is said to have bad dreams of John’s head from that point forward. I am not sure what that adds to the plot.
One negative about this series is that it both focuses on spiritualizing historical Christianity with bias towards modern theology. For example, in one scene the wife of Pontius Pilate wonders when she will meet the Jewish God. Pontius Pilate responds that the Jews believe God is omnipresent and invisible. Why is this scene included in the miniseries? What is agenda is being pressed?
Rural Jews in Israel could be hardly said to accept omnipresence. There was a strong tradition of God inhabiting the temple sporadically through Israel’s life. Two historical Jews that seem to have accepted omnipresence are Josephus and Philo (Philo in a more philosophical and Platonic sense), but there is little evidence that the Jews in general believed this. In the gospels, Jesus reinforced the claim that the temple is God’s house during the cleansing of the temple:
Mat 21:13 He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you make it a den of robbers.”
Another inaccuracy from the same scene is that any Gentile expected to meet any god, especially in upper class Roman society. Most Greeks, except for laymen, had long ago abandoned the gods of Homer. Mystery Cultism was vogue, as well as Platonism, Stoicism, and Epicureans. It was definitely a scene that could have been cut.
Probably the worst part is the depiction of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus’ ministry is changed from one of a coming Kingdom of God (filled with imagery of angels slaughtering the wicked), to a half-hearted and vague teaching of ethics. The Kingdom of God is spiritualized. The disciples are shown to hold the belief and are left wondering why God’s army of angels does not materialize. There is a scene in which James and John ask to sit on the right and left of Jesus in the Kingdom of God. In the show, Jesus becomes astonished and claims that the question fundamentally misunderstands his ministry. The writer is making it seem as if an Earthly kingdom with thrones was not part of Jesus’ eschatology. The actual exchange suggests the exact opposite. In Jesus’ Kingdom, there would be those on his left and right although he had no right to choose those individuals:
Mar 10:35 And James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came up to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”
Mar 10:36 And he said to them, “What do you want me to do for you?”
Mar 10:37 And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”
Mar 10:38 Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?”
Mar 10:39 And they said to him, “We are able.” And Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized,
Mar 10:40 but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”
The Biblical narrative suggests Jesus believes that the Kingdom of God will have a right and left hand to his throne. Throne imagery is consistent in early Kingdom preaching, and does not seem figurative. The Kingdom of God was to be a real place. O’Reilly does not seem to want to add the very historical understanding of the Kingdom of God in his historical narrative of Jesus. And one very strange thing he skips is the resurrection of Jesus, which is depicted as a kind of spiritual resurrection.
Other complaints are minor. Jesus lacks enthusiasm when overturning the temple tables. He picks up the money and starts handing it out. Jesus is baptized fully clothed (which probably is a good historical anachronism), the Sanhedrin is shown as having general power to execute people. There are other nitpicky items, but they are minor.
There are a lot of small details that I enjoyed seeing. Jesus is a toddler when the wise men reach him. The film makes much of the Pharisees and Sadducees attempting to trick Jesus, such as a trap with a coin of Caesar. The film makes clear the various roles of Herod, Pontius Pilate, Antipas, Herodias, Ciaspas, Caiaphas and Annas. It is a good overview of Jesus’ life.
In all, the miniseries is very good. It gives a more realistic portrayal of ancient life than any competing film. The characters are not wooden. It towers about other TV movies, which portray Jesus as if he was psychotically happy or immovably stoic. In Killing Jesus, Jesus is given a personality and acts like a person. The disciples are given individual motivations (as well as Jesus’ enemies). If a hybrid movie were to be made with Killing Jesus spliced with Mel Gibson’s The Passion, it would probably be the best Jesus film in existence.